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.

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I Kilt It!

The Highland Games Heavy Events have one particular, immutable rule: ALL participants must appear and compete in Highland dress. That includes me.

Ohh, yes. Time to consider the kilt, my friends.

First, despite the slightly unfortunate coincidence of it being termed “Highland dress“, vastly the most important thing to grasp if you don’t wish to appear a complete moron: A KILT IS NOT A SKIRT. DON’T, JUST DON’T CALL IT A SKIRT. Not if you value your assets, anyway. It may seem like a funny thing to say (heck, even I, having a puerile sense of humour, am tempted to find it funny occasionally), but most kilt-wearers (unlike me) are male, have heard the joke a bazillion times from lips less charming than yours, and will not feel inclined to chortle along with you. Not even a bit.

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Secondly, every kilt wearer you will ever encounter has also heard the question about what he wears UNDER his kilt a bazillion times and finds it, if possible, even less funny than the ‘skirt’ remarks. Some may go on the offensive and offer to show you if you promise to kiss whatever you find under there; the smart ones just wink and say, “Shoes, of course!”

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Speaking personally, anybody who tries to investigate what I’m wearing beneath the kilt this summer is going to find themselves in a new world of pain. But hey. What’s a girl to do?

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Yes, the Alternate Universe Princess Fiona in “Shrek Forever After” really rocks the kilt! Also the battle-axe and the kick-arse boots. My heroine!

As soon as I had definitely decided to do the Games, I bought myself a secondhand kilt off eBay. Why not new, you ask? Because a decent new kilt would have cost me upwards of £300, that’s why! That’s also why I’m not wearing a clan tartan: if I ordered a kilt from a proper kiltmaker, I could specify a particular clan tartan, even a particular weaver, and get everything exactly how I wanted it. I could stride confidently into their showroom and say, “I’d like an 8-yard kilt in the Ancient Graham of Menteith woven by Lochcarron, with a 16″ drop and black leather straps and buckles, with a fringe end, pretty please.”

Alas for financial reality! My Aunty Doreen (our family’s one and only Scots connection for aeons in any direction) just had to go and marry a bloke whose tartan is scarcer than hens’ teeth. So, reluctantly, because I love the teal-blues of the Graham tartan, I abandoned my shaky claim to Scottish ancestry and settled for a secondhand kilt in a rather nice ‘generic’ tartan called “Heritage of Scotland” (or in my case, “No Heritage of Scotland”). I hung my acquisition carefully in the wardrobe, and forgot about it.

You will have seen my training efforts below. It suddenly occurred to me that, if I was going to wear the kilt with conviction (and without embarrassing wardrobe malfunctions) when the season started, I had better get it out and get used to wearing it now. So when my buddy Robyn called to ask if I wanted to go out for a drink the other night, I said, “Yeah, OK, but I’m wearing my kilt!”

The first thing that dawned when putting it on was that this was nothing – and I do mean NOTHING – like wearing a skirt. It’s more like strapping on armour for battle. Honest. In kilted circles, an 8-yard traditional kilt is known as a ‘tank’, because believe me, it’s built like one. Trust me on this. It feels very secure, and rather bracing. And when you move, it swishes. I think it’s something to do with the six yards of fabric folded into knife-edge pleats behind you! Wowza, does it move! Swing your hips, and you could take out a small child or an elderly aunt without even realising.

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Kilts: weapons of mass destruction? Stand well clear until the pleats have come to a halt, ladies and gentlemen.

Robyn captured the event for posterity (yeah, sorry about that, posterity…). Excuse the specs and slightly crazy hair. I had done battle with fibre putty hair-product earlier that day and the outcome still wasn’t decided, so I rammed the lot up in a bun and went forth as is.

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Schoolma’am-meets-Kilted-Warrior-Woman. I think.

Or there’s always what I’m calling Attitude: Kilted.

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I’ll be keeping this kilt as my reserve/pubbing/ceilidhing kilt, as it’s a tad long for athletical endeavours. I’m ordering one in the same tartan from an eBay shop, it’ll be 8 yards, like this one… just a fair few inches shorter – a girly throwing kilt, inspired by my friends on X Marks the Scot.

As I’m sure I heard someone say on the forums one day, “Swish happens!”

And when it does, I’m going to be wearing bullet-proof Lycra leggings under my kilt. ‘Cos, seriously, nobody’s been quite bad enough to deserve the sight of my nekkid thighs on a summer’s afternoon.

“ATHLETE”. YOU HEAR THAT? I’M AN ATHLETE!

Looky here, people! It’s official: I am an Athlete.

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So, that’s the difficult part over with, right? Guys?

Guys?

Oh, nuts. 

On the positive side, I’m hitting the gym pretty consistently. Abandoned the warm-up on the yebany rower (non-aquatic version of swimming laps, I nearly die of boredom in the first 3 minutes) for a cross-trainer and feel, inexplicably, much happier. Maybe moving my arms and legs at the same time keeps my brain guessing, who knows?

I’m also getting used to moving the peg on the weight-stack on most of the machines to the end of the scale marked “WIMP” without feeling as if the eyes of the entire place are fixed on me in dubious pity. Well, most of the time.