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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Powerlifting nurse practitioner who can bench 270 says her cancer patients inspire her

Powerlifter Marie Brenden, 59, poses for a photo with her medals and trophy from the IPF International Powerlifting World Classic on Friday in Spokane.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)

Spokane nurse practitioner Marie Brenden can lift heavy loads.

In April, doctors implanted a pacemaker, and a month later the 59-year-old grandmother did what few other people can do: She bench pressed 264 pounds on her way to two gold medals in an International Powerlifting Federation contest in Texas.

While training recently at a north Spokane gym, she could only laugh about the comments she hears.

“I was working out the other day and heard some high school kids say, ‘Dude, that old lady is lifting more than we are,’ so I usually get comments like that,” said Brenden, who sees patients at a downtown MultiCare cancer center.

Competitive powerlifting challenges who can lift the most weight three ways: squat, deadlift and bench press.

Brenden’s best “raw” stats are lifting 253.5 pounds for squat, a 303.1 deadlift and 209 bench press. Her records in the equipped category – which is when powerlifters wear approved high-tensile fabric clothing – are a 302.5 squat, 340 deadlift and 270 bench press in Powerlifting America Nationals.

“You have to win at nationals to go to worlds,” added Brenden, who only did the raw and equipped bench press in Texas, and got two overall trophies with a contest formula for all female weight classes in her age group.

“I got one trophy for overall first-place lifter for raw, and a third overall best lifter for equipped; some skinny chick beat me,” Brenden said. “No one ever describes me as skinny.”

She is a compact 5-foot-6 and “about” 180 pounds, competing in the Masters 3, 84-kilogram weight class.

“I have both American records – national bench press records – for women in my age group. But I have, like, 60 state records for Washington, because if you lift more than someone younger than you, but they’re in the same weight class, you get to have their record, too.

“Neener-neener, you just got beat by a grandma.”

But Brenden gets serious when she talks about the health benefits of strength training, not necessarily powerlifting. Some competitors are in their 80s or 90s.

“The competition kind of falls off the older you get. That’s where it helps to age a little bit,” she said.

Brenden has worked in oncology 30 years, 24 of those as a nurse practitioner. She was drawn to helping cancer patients and to the science in treatments. She said those have changed dramatically, from old chemotherapy drugs to modern immunotherapy and other complicated treatments, such as genetically engineered drugs and targeted therapy.

Today, she sees patients to manage doctor-ordered treatments, follow their progress and help with pain management. She draws inspiration from them.

“It’s just lifting weights, but for me, it’s my stress management, because working in a cancer center, it can be sad,” she said. “This is really trivial compared with what my patients go through on a daily basis. They’re inspirational. They have a good sense of humor. It teaches me to appreciate being healthy and to take advantage of it, because you don’t know what’s coming tomorrow.”

She had a health scare in April doing regular activities, when her heart briefly stopped. Dr. Patrick Henley installed an internal pacemaker inside the left ventricle for arrhythmia, she said.

“My report said it only kicks in 0.3% of the time,” Brenden said. “It’s probably an important 0.3%.

“Dr. Henley said it may be the thing that kept me alive, the fact that I’m in shape, because my heart paused. But literally, he put the pacemaker in and said, ‘It is safe for you to go back to the gym tomorrow, just no squats or deadlifts for a week,’ so I benched.”

Raised in Sydney, Montana, Brenden first dabbled in powerlifting in her 20s with friends.

Then she fell out of shape during her first marriage after having two children. Brenden and her ex-husband were in Texas, where she had three spine surgeries, two of which didn’t go well, after a car accident and lifting patients incorrectly early on.

She wanted to get strong again by 2010, with a move to Spokane alone to work in MultiCare’s cancer center.

When first trying bench press again, she could only lift the 45-pound bar with no weights.

She started training with local powerlifting coach Isabelle Iliev, a 20-time world champion.

“I just hit 209 raw, and the best I ever did in my 20s was 140 pounds, so that just tells you don’t have to get weaker as you get older; you can get stronger,” Brenden added.

“I want to have adventures as I get older, not end up in a wheelchair. When I moved here from Texas, I wrote on my fridge, ‘Some day, I’m going to bench 150.’ It’s been scratched off multiple times now, so the next one is 225.”

At the gym, Brenden has hit an unofficial 280 pounds for bench press with the equipped shirt, and 215 raw. She trains four to five times a week.

These days, her full-time coach is husband Craig Brenden, a retired Spokane Police Department detective. They’ve been married 10 years.

“He gets up at 4 in the morning with me and doesn’t complain.”

Iliev still helps her prior to big events, at another gym called A Personal Fit.

There, Brenden also belongs to a women’s powerlifting group called Iron Maidens.

To maintain weight class, she eats proteins and healthy foods, but nothing too drastic.

“The cleaner we eat with less processed foods, the better we are, but I’m sorry, I had a piece of chocolate cake after that last competition. Everybody in the sport is really great. Believe it or not, they’re not egotistical. They’re always happy to help everybody. We like food, and sometimes beer.”

Bench press is her favorite. She said at competitions, there’s a pause until a judge calls the athlete to press.

“You have to come to a complete stop before you press it,” she said. “It can’t be like the guys at the gym who go like, wham. You have to come down, wait for them to say press and then you go. If you don’t touch to your chest, you won’t get it, either.”

She and her husband also frequently hike and kayak. It’s good to stay active, and people often overlook upper-body strength, Brenden said. Strength training should begin slowly and low with professional guidance, she added.

“There is clear research to support that strength training is what we need as we age. Now, I don’t mean powerlifting, but everybody needs to keep moving and exercising.

“Everybody can get stronger, even if you have limitations. Start slow.”

She’d tell any cancer patient the same.

“I’d say never give up hope. Research shows that eating clean and exercise is perfectly safe to do when you’re on cancer therapy. It will help you recover if you do.”