Money For Nothing? Not quite…

Aside

Why am I subjecting myself to the rigours of retraining my protesting middle-aged body to compete in the Highland Games? Partly ‘cos it’s just an irresistible challenge. Partly because I want to do some good out there. The charity I’m supporting is called Sanctuary For Kids (S4K), a not-for-profit foundation set up by actress Amanda Tapping (of ‘Stargate’ and ‘Sanctuary’ fame) and producer Damian Kindler, to provide sanctuary for kids worldwide who do not live with the right to safety in their lives.

Please head over to the Sanctuary For Kids website. Be generous if you can! If you’re strapped for cash, don’t fail to give just because you think a small donation wouldn’t do any good. One of S4K’s mottos is ‘little ripples make big waves’. If every person who looked in on this blog donated just one unit of their currency – $1, £1, €1, whatever – that could mount up to a huge total!

So donate, people – donate, donate, donate! (Hint: click the orange word) And when you do, please mention this blog so S4K can track where the donation came from. Thanks a million! I may be doing the heavy lifting, but your donations will be doing the real work!

It Ain’t Over Till The Fat Lady Sings! (Or Should That Be ‘Slings’-?)

It is 7am on the morning of Peebles Highland Games, my final Games of the 2012 season. I am padding around the bedroom in leggings and a Care Bears t-shirt with the words ‘Who Cares?’ blazoned across the front, assembling my Games gear.

The air coming in through the open window is cool, with a snappy autumnal edge to it that wasn’t there a week ago. In the garden, yellow is creeping into the leaves of trees and shrubs, and beyond the hedge arch, the town is a blank of pale morning mist, only vague shapes of trees and roof-lines showing here and there. I think it’s going to be a good day: we live in the bottom of a river valley here, and in the autumn and winter it often fills with creamy mist, looking like a vast bowl of milk from the hills above. The mist usually burns off as the sun gets higher, and sure enough, today the mist is turning pale gold towards the east: sunshine, or the promise of sunshine later. Good enough for me!

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Pretty, isn’t it?

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And at this time in the morning, with sound muffled by the fog, it’s easy to believe that the fog on the Tyne is all mine, all mine. ;p

Getting back to my purpose in posting today, though – partly due to circumstances beyond my control, and partly due to my own congenital lack of focus and terrible, terrible time management, I haven’t been to the gym in months – I think I last darkened their doorway sometime in June. Since then, my state of fitness has been coasting along, and my weight has gone up a couple of pounds, which is irritating but inevitable. Confession: yes, I do know that ‘coasting along’ isn’t really something fitness does. If you don’t use your muscles, they dwindle away. And in addition to not making it to the gym, I’ve done barely any proper throwing practice over the summer either. So I’m guessing that when all the scores are in, I will have managed the dubious achievement of ending the 2012 throwing season less fit than when I started!

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Yeah, really not there yet.

OK, confessional over. One of the many things I really love about Highland Games is that you don’t have to look like a trim, toned, tanned gym rat to take part.

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Ack. No thanks!

Actually, I believe the official national skin colour in Scotland is greenish off-white, so I don’t feel too bad about my lack of perma-tan. And I have been greatly heartened throughout the summer by the basic shape of many of the Highland athletes I met, which is to say… chunky. Muscular, but definitely not skinny minnies. And that was just the ladies!

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The guys are even more impressive. You can’t call most of these boys weedy.

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The mighty Jason Young and Sebastian Wenta: hardly weedy at all.

So when walking on to a Highland Games field, I don’t feel inadequate any more because of my body shape. This is a major departure for me, because organised sport has always, since childhood, tended to create a panicky dread in my stomach – remember the tiny gym skirts we were all forced to wear at school, no matter what size or shape we were?

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Not a problem any more, funnily enough.

Remember the sniggers of the skinny, tanned kids during PE?

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Yeah, that’s not a problem any more either.

My own body image has actually changed this summer. Yes, I’m fat. Not morbidly obese, but I am overweight. I carry  a bit of a bouncy buddha belly that I wish wasn’t there. If I’d kept up the gym work and training, it probably wouldn’t be there, or at least it’d be a lot smaller, but you know what? I refuse to beat myself up about it. I screwed up, and yes, I wasted time that could have been better spent. But that time has gone and the future will not be ornamented or otherwise enhanced by me moaning and groaning about what a bad person I must be to fail. The only way the future will be enhanced is if I make some attempt to learn from this failure and move on. I am actually feeling serenely confident this morning that I will lose that Michelin-woman spare tyre and improve my fitness overall as I settle in to autumn and then winter training. I have the good fortune to be loved by a man who, while occasionally teasing me about them, doesn’t revile or belittle my extra curves but simply states calmly that they’re already smaller than they were at the beginning of the summer. Which is true. The fact that he usually follows this up with an impersonation of Rik Mayall as Captain Flashheart from ‘Blackadder’…

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“Gives me something to hang on to! WOOF!

…well, er… that’s neither here nor there. (Draws veil of modesty over the proceedings… too late.)

Ahem.

The point is that the wonderful world of Highland Athletics isn’t sizeist. Or fattist. Or any other -ist, generally. So long as you’re willing to get out there in a kilt and throw stuff, they’re happy.

And that makes me very, very happy. See you at Peebles!

This Season’s Must-Have Accessory!

Having now competed at NINE Highland Games as a Heavy Athlete (and oh, how I do love my competitor’s tee-shirt from the last one, with “North Berwick Highland Games Heavies 2012″ emblazoned in big letters across my chest), I am beginning to know what’s what. I can tell the difference between a weight set up for throwing over a bar, and a weight set up for throwing for distance (one has a longer chain than the other, since you ask); I know what hammer tacky is (it’s pine sap, hideously sticky, smeared on the palms of the hands to help you retain your grip on the Scottish hammer while you whirl it round your head, and on your knuckles to help your cupped hands stay together while tossing the caber) and how to remove it from the skin (usually people use WD40, but those a little more cautious of the future state of their skin use Swarfega and suchlike. I’m a sucker for the smell of WD40, so I now have my own mini-can of the stuff); I now know from personal experience why it’s a really BAD idea to have tacky on your palms and fingers while tossing the caber – you try throwing a telegraph pole that’s stuck to your hands. Yeah. Epic fail, as my kids would no doubt say.

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Uh-oh. Stuck.

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Time for WD40, I think…

So, Highland athletes carry quite a bit of stuff. I have a smallish rucksack full of odd items like wrist wraps, knee supports, back supports, sticky elastic strapping, nail scissors, dressmakers’ shears (for the ritual mutilation of the Games tee-shirts), bunches of bananas, a pot of peanut butter, sesame snaps, WD40, spare shackles for my weights, a ring handle that I can swap out for the ‘D’ handle if I feel like it, my asthma inhalers, painkillers, Ibuprofen gel for slapping on any sprains, a plastic water bottle, and a black golf towel that clips to the outside so I can wipe hands, weights, and anything else that needs wiping.

My rucksack/gear bag is fine – it holds just about everything I need apart from my weights – but there is an item I yearn for, first spotted at my very first Games, Blackford, back in May, when several of the Heavies strolled on to the field pulling these things behind them, for all the world like a clutch of really big, hairy, kilted trolley dollies for Caledonian Airlines pulling their little wheeled suitcases behind them.

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Kinda like this. Only… not.

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All flight attendants must wear sensible shoes.

Caledonian might well offer these boys a job in the winter – nobody would argue about smoking or want to change their seats, that’s for sure.

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Ladies and gentlemen, I would like to thank you on behalf of Caledonian Airlines for not smoking on board the aircraft… or else.

But I digress.

Here is the object in question:

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Yep, it’s a tool-chest with wheels and a slide-out handle. If I had one of these babies, I too could stroll on to the field wheeling my gear behind me, and I’d be able to have my weights in the thing too – essential for a lady not wanting to have to throw guys’ equipment, but on average 62.5lbs of dead weight that I have to womanhandle in shopping bags and the like.

And the very best thing about it? You can sit on it. Standing around for hours on end is the most tiring thing about Highland Games, seriously.

A Stanley Pro-Mobile Wheeled Tool Chest would just be the bee’s rollerskates, I’m telling you.

WANT. ONE.

Show Me The Money!

See this, people?

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It may not look like much, but THAT is my very first prize-money envelope from a Highland Games.

Wah hoo and thank you Lesmahagow! (Pronounced Lez-muh-HAY-go, it’s a village a little to the south of Glasgow)

 

Before anybody gets too congratulatory, it was the fruits of coming second in a class of two – once again, I lost to Louise Blades, Scotland’s Strongest Woman, who was the only other woman competing! But it was just oddly nice to actually get included for the first time in the prize-giving ceremony, however spurious the actual achievement. The £25 will be going into the Sanctuary For Kids pot along with everything else, of course. And big thanks to Wullie and Louise, David Byers, and Ernie Weir, heavy athletes who all put their names on the S4K sponsor form on the day! Big hearts are more important than big muscles, and these guys have both!

Chucked For The Very First Time

Question: What do you call it when someone takes a 90-degree turn from their normal life at the age of 47, and takes up an unlikely and possibly mirth-inducing sporting pastime?

Yes, bang on and damn skippy, you call it a mid-life crisis!

But, you know what? I have thought about this a lot vis-a-vis my current preoccupation with all things athletical and Highland Games-y, and I have come to the conclusion that I cannot express adequately quite how much I really, really, really don’t care any more what people call it.

I am not a Games Virgin any more! I have been Blooded. Or, possibly, Weighted (in the non-concrete-overcoat sense of the word).

I have Been There, and Done That. Twice.

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The T-shirt.

Did I feel awkward as a newbie stepping out on to the Games field for the first time? Of course; who wouldn’t?
Did I, as the only woman on the field, feel as conspicuous as a flamingo in a colony of elephant seals? Oh, yeah.
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But I’m going to carry on Being There, and Doing That, because it’s just fantastic. And if it’s not ‘done’, it’s not ‘traditional’ for women to compete in the Heavy Events, well, it’s about time it became ‘done’! So some of the athletes didn’t speak to me. Big deal. I also got to meet some pretty awesome guys who were polite and helpful and welcoming in an understated, athlete-y kind of way, and lent me obscure items like hammer tacky when they realised I didn’t have any.

But I’m getting ahead of myself: Games Report!

I managed to arrange my first Games weekend for the hottest days of the year so far, which was nice in some ways – after the last month slogging up and down muddy, sodden fields in the rain, slinging muddy, sodden equipment, I was just about barking for a bit of sunshine, in the way that only those who live in a temperate climate can appreciate.

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The average Brit, happy to show off a really silly-looking sunburn because it shows he’s been somewhere the sun actually shines.

I had a horror of arriving at the Games to find I was supposed to change on the field or in a tiny Portaloo or something, so to be on the safe side I changed into my kilt at a motorway services somewhere near Glasgow, emerging from the baby-changing room in full rig. Heads turned all the way back to the car, which made me feel very bad-ass until I realised that some of them were probably wondering what I’d done with my baby.

First stop: Blackford Highland Games

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Distractingly gorgeous view from the Games field.

We rolled up in plenty of time, just before lunch when the Local Heavies were still going on, and had a wee wander round the country-show staples of burger vans, hot-dog vans, stalls selling sweeties, home-made jewellery, home-made cakes, walking-sticks, a meet-the-birds-of-prey stand that I could happily have stood in front of for the rest of the day, and some awesomely shiny and well-cared-for vintage motorcycles.

Found a good coffee stand with seats in the shade, and drank my breakfast coffee, then girded my loins and went to the judges’ hut to inquire about entering the Open Heavies. After a little confusion over the fact that I was already registered with the SHGA as an athlete, I was waved off towards the distant figures at the top end of the field.

It was a blazing hot day, and the Games Committee had provided a shelter for the athletes in the middle of the field – an army tent with the sides rolled up, under which they clustered with their big wheeled tool-boxes that doubled up as manly kit-bag and something to sit on. The Local Heavy Events were just finishing, so I ducked under the arena wire and strode across with a swing of my kilt-pleats and as much chutzpah as I could muster to drop my backpack in a shady corner, more than half expecting some ginormous brute to turn round and ask me what the hell I thought I was doing.

Thankfully, nobody did, though frankly, at this point, hundreds of miles from home and at the business end of a steep learning curve, I wasn’t backing out – or down. I left the daughter nervously guarding my backpack, and approached a couple of guys to find out who I needed to speak to. An elderly guy perched on a shooting-stick turned out to be David McLeod, secretary of the Games Committee, who I had spoken to on the phone, and he pointed me to another elderly guy, this time in a squashy hat: the judge, Duncan Shand, who was apparently the man with the power.
Thankfully, he was also the man with a sense of humour allied with good manners, because he said that of course I could enter – provided I was happy to throw the same weights as the men. I said I’d brought my own weights, and would it be possible to throw those instead? Duncan thought for a minute, then suggested that if I was OK with waiving any claim to prize money, I could throw what I liked. I accepted like a shot, and trotted off to the car park to fetch my new weights, which were still sitting in the car boot, all pristine and shiny and freshly-painted. I had only had them a few days at that point, after paying a local steel fabricator to make them, and had painted them up myself with spray car paint in metallic purple shading to metallic teal blue. I was so pleased with the effect that I did my nails to match. I can all but see the serious athletes among you rolling their eyes at this point, but hey. Those of you who’ve been paying attention know that the nails matter to me!

I think the first event was shot put. I’d lugged up my 8lb river stone – the one shaped roughly like a house-brick – and elected to throw that when my turn came. I discovered the possibly unwritten but certainly adhered-to rule that when an event starts, you find out where your turn is on the list (confusingly, this changes from event to event, or maybe as the scores change), then you all troop off down the field and stand in a kind of ragged, semi-circular queue. When the distant figure at the trig has done their worst with whatever lump of flying metal is involved, if it’s your turn you retrieve the thing from wherever it lands and trudge off to the trig to take your turn. Key point here: don’t pick it up before the field officials have measured the previous guy’s throw! I didn’t… quite. I dutifully schlepped the 16lb cannonball back down the field and abandoned it in favour of my own Flying Housebrick.

It was also at this point that I discovered the mirth-making, side-splitting gap between my strength and ability and that of the guys I was ‘throwing against’. I threw my 8lb rock 22 feet and 3 inches – not too shabby for a standing throw, and I was reasonably happy. The officials duly measured it and placed a little flag in the ground. The only thing was, it was a lonely little flag. All the other little flags were about half a mile away at the far end of the field in a loose cluster of braw, manly achivement.

I know, I know – women aren’t supposed to throw as far as men. I get that, I do. It would just be far more comforting, believe me,  if there had been more than one woman actually throwing. I’m hoping next year, there will be. Even better, I hope someone will have got the idea because I was there at Blackford, throwing my pretty weights and having a great time.

So, mid-life crisis? I’m fitter, and thinner (relatively speaking) than I’ve been in decades; I have a license to wear a mini-kilt and kick-arse biker boots, walk with a bad-ass swagger, throw heavy weights about AND GET APPLAUSE FOR IT! How do you think I feel?

Bloody fantastic, that’s how.

FEEL THE FEAR AND DO IT ANY WAY I DAMN WELL LIKE

Well, this was going to be a light-hearted little number about how I scare the living Bejeezus out of tourists visiting our happy little town by driving round the place blasting unexpected genres of music and singing along with exaggerated mouth movements.

It’s quite true – I was doing it only this morning, bopping along the main street happily trilling along to ‘Go Home’ by Eliza Doolittle and causing seismic tremors in the pacemakers of several out-of-towners in the Market Square with my impassioned, not to say vehement, rendition of the finale: “I just wanna go home in my dancin’ shoes/Put my dancin’ shoes on/Gonna cha-cha-cha, I’ll cha-cha-cha my way home/I won’t stop till I’m/Goin’ through my front doo-ooo-OOORR!” …and so on. They seemed to be in fear of their lives for some reason.

And so it is by this wacky and roundabout route that we come to today’s real theme: fear. After almost a year of planning and daydreaming, the Highland Games become a really real reality of the real kind this coming Saturday. And I have to say, I am pretty scared.

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I just project apprehension, don’t I? But honestly, all kinds of stupid little fears are jumping at me like yappy toy dogs going for my ankles: what if I can’t even lift the stupid weights when it comes to it? I’m 47, for goodness’ sake, and I spend most of every day sitting on my arse in front of a computer screen – what if I’m kidding myself and I really am too old and saggy and wobbly to make a credible athlete? Is my throwing kilt too short? Are my kick-arse motorbike boots too extreme? Am I actually a self-deluded idiot that everyone will be glad to see the back of at the end of the season? Will I ever be able to turn a caber? I have hearing problems – what if I can’t understand what’s being said over the tannoy (seriously, can ANYBODY understand those things?) and miss my throw, how pathetic would that be? And so on… and on.

Fear eats you alive if you let it. Sometimes it does it in dramatic, bone-crunching fashion, but more usually it hollows out your resolve and character from the inside, saps your motivation and drive, paralyses you, a cancer in your spirit. You try to avoid it, flinch away from it, and it warps your path. Choice by tiny choice, you end up in a place you don’t even recognise, let alone want to be. Something I’ve learned: those toy dogs grow into Dobermans if you feed them.

In the pilot episode of ‘Lost’, the hero, Jack Shepherd, is talking to the heroine, Kate, about fear. He says he coped with it by making the decision to let the fear in, let it do its thing – but only for five seconds. That was all he’d give it. And he started to count: one. Two. Three. Four. Five. And the fear was gone. It’s a great scene, a great TV moment. It also happens to be true. This post is my five seconds, if you like – my way of dragging my fears into the light and letting them do their worst, showing them to myself for the yappy toy dogs they really are.

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Take that, yappy toy dogs!

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And that.

Counted to five. Committed my spirit to the Almighty. And oh, look.

No more fear.

Thank you and goodnight, all you Dobermans.

Shocking News

I know this doesn’t gel with the general tone of my blog, but that really doesn’t matter. I am sad. Not just feeling a bit meh about life – deep-down, heavy-hearted sad. I got news yesterday that Steve Aitken is dead.

A couple of days ago, he was discovered with life-threatening head injuries at the auction mart where he worked as head auctioneer, after an ‘incident with a bolt gun’. He died a few hours later. He was 45 years old.

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My head just doesn’t know what to do with this piece of information. I think of Steve just about every time I throw – particularly when I throw the weight for distance, when I can hear him laughing about my ‘little dance’ in the middle of the turn, and doing his Jedi Master spiel about ‘letting the weight go where it wants to’. I guess a lot of people all over the world will be thinking in similar terms – he told me that he went on coaching tours abroad quite often – so there must be quite a tribe of Little Dancers out there who are going to be feeling the shock today.

I didn’t know Steve well at all. I spoke to him briefly on the phone a few times, and met him only the once, as detailed in my post below titled ‘Jedi Mind Tricks and Big, Honkin’ Metal Weights’ (just scroll sedately down the page, and you’ll find it towards the bottom, posted on the 11th April). We seemed to hit it off well, he was really encouraging and kind, very down-to-earth. He spent quite a lot of the time we had figuring out what ‘learning style’ I favour (turns out I learn by being shown something, then talking myself through the process… sounds about right!). He showed me a lot in the two hours we had, and I was really looking forward to doing more training with him when he had the time.

And now we’re out of time. Steve, for whatever reason, is gone. I’ll continue to think of him every time I throw. I’ll continue to hear his voice in my head when I’m in the middle of the turn, telling me to commit to the spin, forget about the trig, focus on letting the weight go where it wants to go. I teased him about all that stuff, called him ‘Yoda’ and ‘the Jedi Master’, but even in the one session we had, he taught me stuff I wouldn’t have known otherwise, and I’m so grateful for that.

So today, yes, I’m sad. Just writing all this down has brought me to tears. But I’m going to keep on training, and I’m going to do my level best to make that weight fly this summer. It knows where it wants to go; the Jedi Master told me so.

Supergirl and the Killer Flamingos!

For all of you who have been jonesing for photographic proof that actual Highland Gamesiness is going on up here – your day has come. Well, kind of…

Remember ‘The Little Dance’? Here it is:

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Oh yeah, shake it baby!

For the record, I now have several new and interesting moves to add to my repertoire.

The first is something akin to Morris Dancing, but without bells.

And with a bigger stick.

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The obligatory “duck-face pose” avec caber. All the guys are doing it this year.

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Did I mention it’s a very, VERY big stick?

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Actually, it’s MY very, very big stick. Caber envy, anybody?

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OK, got my stick, who wants to dance?

The second new move is a Highland tribute to Michael Jackson’s seminal music video from the 1980s. I’m just calling it ‘Killer':

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Then, of course, since we’re dealing in cheesiness, how could I possibly leave out ‘Supergirl’?

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Thematically linked by the concept of flight is the expressive ‘Aeroplanes':

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And moving seamlessly from powered flight to the animal kingdom, I give you the Highland Flamingo:

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My Bangles tribute, ‘Walk Like an Egyptian':

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And last but not least, to end on a classical note, here we see the Highland Ballet:

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Yes. It’s going to be an interesting summer!