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.

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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.

I even Have The T-shirt.Image

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.

Getting Into Gear

Behold the caber! Roped it to the car roof yesterday along with the fence rails I was transporting up to Robyn’s to re-fence the copse (that’s today’s delight). I now have a 12-foot caber, between 4 and 6 inches in diameter, nicely sanded and varnished at the business end. Not tapered, but hey. I’ll manage. I’m just pleased to HAVE a caber!

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I also followed Alan H’s instructions to make myself a practice Scottish Hammer, and was extremely pleased with the results, so I’m going to detail the process here: I picked up some weight plates in Tesco (my second home). They didn’t have enough 1kg plates, so I grabbed two 2kg plates and two 1kg plates and cable-tied ’em together in a neat stack like so:Image

I also bought myself a length of plastic electrical conduit, cut it to 50″ and reinforced one end slightly (thanks for the tip, Rob) by inserting a suitable piece of roundish wood (actually, the remains of last year’s radical hedge-trimming) about six inches long. Drilled holes either side of where the weight stack would go, then inserted bolts.

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Attached the weight stack and secured it in place with the second bolt:

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From this angle you can see the piece of wood inside the tube. Rob pointed out that if I were to just drill holes in the tubing, it would be a weak point, whereas if there was something reinforcing the head-end, it would not only be that much stronger, but the tube would flex along the handle rather than trying to flex from the end. How right he was.

Once I had the hammer assembled, I added some hockey tape reinforcement to the weight stack, before realising that gaffer tape (duct tape) really was going to be the order of the day. Now I look as if I have the world’s biggest silver lollipop, or possibly a kilo of cocaine on a stick:Image

Chupa Chup, anybody?

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One final modification was to wrap the handle to about halfway down with black hockey tape, then add rings of hockey tape at hand-width intervals so I could carry the thing without the tube sliding through my hand (thanks again for the idea, Rob):Image

Yes, that is a scythe leaning against my workbench! I borrowed it from Robyn’s garage in order to engage in a bit of slash-and-burn gardening the other day. My soi-disant “lawn” had become a kind of unlovely cross between a tyre dump, a piece of derelict waste ground and the sort of tussocky, waist-high weed-fest that you see on programmes like ‘Ground Force’. My poor abused lawnmower would probably have been swallowed whole by the jungle, so I brought in The Equaliser to whop everything off at ankle-height and give it a fighting chance.

I love using the scythe! It’s just incredibly therapeutic, and it feels stupidly cool to carry it tilted over your shoulder like Death’s more casually-dressed young cousin. It also gives you a hell of a workout for your core muscles – you grip it by the handles and do a big, powerful, dipping sweep from right to left, move a pace forwards and do it again, and again, and again. I had the waist-high wasteland chopped flat in about fifteen minutes, and that includes the time taken to wrench the blade free when I got it stuck in the wooden hen-run (yeah, sorry about that, ladies).

So, off fencing today (yippee skip). Hopefully I’ll have enough energy left later on to try out my new gear, which is waiting for me up at the farm!

 

[Update: One VERY long day’s fencing later, and no, I have no energy left for anything beyond crawling into my bed. On the plus side, I’ll really need the exercise tomorrow, otherwise I’m going to be stuck in a pretzel-shape, so I should get some good practice in with the WFD, Hammer and caber. I may even be able to persuade one of the daughters to take some photos.]

A Field Day

It has been noted that I am veering off topic on this blog – away from all that tedious training stuff, away from the struggle to become an athlete in a sport dominated by men, and towards blogging about the colour of my nail varnish and what I had for breakfast.

Busted!

In the absence of my lead photographers today, I’ll introduce you to the place I spend a lot of time in doing my throws training: The Field. It belongs to my friend Robyn, suitably enough, as she was the one who got me into this pickle in the first place. I keep my horse at her smallholding, so I’m up there a lot doing all the backbreaking slogwork that keeping a horse entails.

I only seem to have taken photos up there when it’s done something picturesque like snowing, so here is the view from my training-ground in one direction:

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And in the other direction:

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You’ll just have to imagine it without snow and with added mud and rain. Wind is a big feature of this place! It’s rare for the air to be still up there. I figure I’ll have to contend with all that at the different Games anyway, so bracing against the howling gale is probably good practice!

As with everything, my practice gear is makeshift, to say the least. Here’s my trig:

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Practically indistinguishable from the real thing, right? Guys?

OK, it’s an electric fence pole laid on the ground. Sheesh.

Here is my 8lb stone, for the putting thereof:

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Pretty, isn’t it? Yes, it’s a big smooth lump of stone a bit bigger and heavier than a large housebrick. It’s the closest I could find to an oval on the day I went down to the river. So sue me.

And, for the grand finale of gear-tat, may I present the Sue Rann 13lb Weight For Distance!

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Yes, it’s a 6kg kettle-bell attached to a heavy iron ring with a piece of sash-cord. What of it?

This, by the way, is the 20ft Thistle. That is, it’s not a thistle that’s 20ft high, but the thistle growing right about 20ft from the trig in the general direction I throw in. Very useful when measuring.

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I’d show you a picture of my revolting, slimy, worm-eaten practice caber, but I’m off to the builders’ merchants today to pick up a 4″x4″ post about 14ft long, which is going to be my NEW, non-revolting practice caber. I’ll see if I can sweet-talk the guys at the depot into taking the corners off for me, otherwise I’ll be doing some fancy footwork tomorrow morning with my electric saw, tapering the thing. Then I’ll go over it with a sander. Then I’ll take it up to the Field and throw it around.

Oh, the things a girl has to do!

The Morale of This Story Is…

The moral of this story, just to make it clear right from the start to anybody who thinks I didn’t do that on purpose, is that I cannot resist a pun. Ever. Ask anybody who’s ever talked/Tweeted/emailed me and they’ll tell you. It’s tragic but true. There should be a 12-step group for this (There probably is. And I bet it’s got a funny name).

Aaanyway… today’s contribution: talking about morale. Oomph. Mojo. Get-up-and-go. Yesterday, for some mysterious reason, mine got up and went. It was a day when everything I attempted got overrun by something else (and hello once more, Accident and Emergency, mon cher amour), and nothing I needed to do seemed to get done. I struggled through the day feeling as if I’d left my brain under a cushion somewhere. Everything was effort. Everything was slow. Even the supposedly-super-zippy internet kept dropping the connection. I knew how it felt. My servers were not responding to DNS lookup. I needed to reload http://www.thursday.co.uk and try again. Or perhaps I should try turning off my router and turning it on again.

Like everything else, the gym got delayed, reshuffled, and eventually abandoned yesterday. This made me despondent as I’d vowed never to allow that to happen, and I pulled my trainer socks up and decided I was going, no matter that it was 8pm. But yet another child emergency popped up just as I was about to get changed into my trackies. By the time I’d retrieved a distressed teen from Tesco, fed it industrial-strength painkillers, wheeled it round in the Tesco wheelchair and then made it home again, my energy needle was jammed against ’empty’. *Sigh*.

So this morning – reload! Stuff yesterday. If I look back clearly, I did several things that needed doing. Today is going to be better. Hell, it’s already better because I’ve written and sent several important emails, made needful phone calls, fed children and pets, and removed last week’s knackered nail varnish.

Nail varnish is crucial to this post. It’s my fallback morale-booster. The habit started when I began producing babies. Believe me, when you go into hospital to give birth, you may as well check your dignity at the door, because it’s the first casualty once all the grunting and swearing starts. I read somewhere that painting your toenails could make you feel better about having half a dozen medical professionals gazing entranced up your jacksie, so I dutifully painted them before my due date. Weirdly, it worked. Then and now, painted toenails just make me feel more dressed somehow.

The laissez-faire attitude I exhibited in the delivery room may well have had more to do with clutching the gas-and-air mask for several hours, but what the heck. Joint honours.

So today, a new colour, and a departure in style – I’m going camouflaged!

Blame Rimmel, they brought out a khaki-green varnish called ‘Camouflage Chic’ that I spotted last night and bought on the spot, inspired, then decided to team it with something called ‘Misty Jade’. Not entirely sure where this combo would render my nails invisible – a bathroom tile showroom, maybe – but hey. I may go wild and add some brown later.

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The nail varnish has done its job: I feel ready to take on anything. Strange, but true.