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Behind the scenes: What it takes to be reigning TugFest champs

HILLSDALE, Ill. - It's almost time to pick a side -- Illinois or Iowa?

The 32nd annual TugFest takes place Saturday afternoon. 

It's a tug-of-war between Port Byron, Illinois and LeClaire, Iowa. 

Teams on each side of the river pull a rope that spans the mighty Mississippi River.

That's 1,600 feet from bank to bank and about 1,500 pounds of pressure on the rope before anyone even pulls on it. 

It started as a lighthearted game in the 1980s. 

"It was kind of the old tavern league where you rounded up a bunch of people the day of," says Alan Black, Illinois Tugmaster.  

But that changed about 15 years ago. 

"We were tired of losing," he says.  

That's when Black became Tugmaster and TugFest became a fierce cross-river rivalry. 

Now, Black trains dozens of tuggers weeks ahead of the trophy event. 

"We got construction workers, we've got desk workers, serious athletes, we've got high school football players," Black says.  

He starts by focusing on grip. 

"The big thing about tugging is your hands have to be in shape. A lot of these kids are very strong but when we start with them they can't hang on to the rope. You can be really strong but if you can't hang onto the rope, it's not going to work," says Black.  

Then, comes technique. 

Black says the biggest key to winning is synchronization. 

"If you can get 20 people to do the same thing at the same time, you're almost unstoppable," says Black.  

"This is intense all the time," says Kelli Brannen, who began tugging eight years ago to help fill a shortage. 

"That year we were tied going into the final pull, which was the women's pull," recounts Brannen.

"The crowd was nuts. We were walking out to the line and I was like, 'Oh my god, what did I get myself into?'" 

Now, she pulls for the women's team as well as two or three co-ed teams. 

"My favorite thing is when a guy with big huge biceps gets out here and he's trying to muscle the rope and my favorite line is, 'That barrel weighs 1200 pounds, do you really think you're going to curl it? 'Oh, no,' I said, 'Then let me show you how to hold the rope,'" Brannen laughs. 

And after weeks of pulling a barrel full of cement weighing more than 1,400 pounds, llinois tuggers say they are ready. 

"Good luck to Iowa, because we're coming for them," Black says. 

The current score is Illinois - 20 and Iowa- 11. 

You can find the TugFest schedule by clicking here


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