Jedi Mind Tricks and Big, Honkin’ Metal Weights

I am traumatised.

First, I was thrilled. Then (and I mean this in its most literal form, guys) disillusioned. Then thoroughly (and also literally) traumatised. My lower back still snarls at me whenever I twist round too quickly, but hey – at least I can turn my head now without the sort of cracking sound usually only heard inside a chiropractor’s office.

Yes, ladies and gentlemen – I have had my first session of Real Highland Athletics Training, from a Real Highland Athlete, the awesome, capable and incredibly tolerant Stephen Aitken.

I was working my way down a very long list of phone numbers, talking to Secretaries and Convenors of so many different Highland Games that my brain is still mildly poached from the experience, when one gentleman said, “Oh, do you know Stephen Aitken? He’s down in your area.”

Now, my ears pricked right up at this point, let me tell you. Because if you’re (a) English, (b) female and ( c) not an existing feature of the athletic scene, it’s pretty damn hard to find other Highland athletes if you don’t live in Scotland. Scratch that – if you live in England (I have been truly amazed to find out how many, many Games and hordes of dedicated throwers there are in the US and Canada). Even I, with my Jedi mastery of websearching, had failed to locate a single person within a hundred mile radius. And this really matters, let me tell you, because when you’re entering a sport that has such a lot of unique equipment and techniques, you are in a big steaming pile of doo-doo if you cannot find someone to coach you before you walk out on that field!

As I worked my way down my giant list and confirmed participation in more and more Games, I didn’t quite give up hope, but I began to feel the ghostly squelch beneath my feet. I needed very badly not to suck at this, but if no coach was forthcoming, that was almost certainly what I was going to do.

Hence my excitement at the mention of a real, live Highland Games champion living a mere hour and a half’s drive away from me. I called Steve, and he was polite and very, very helpful to the crazy woman on the end of the phone. Our conversation ended with an arrangement for me to drive down to an industrial estate on the outskirts of Middlesbrough last Monday evening.

And THAT, finally, made an audible connection in my brain. A little while back, I saw this video on YouTube:

I checked the names, then double-checked: yes. Yes, indeed. These ARE the men with whom I will be training. And yes, that really IS the Teesside Industrial Estate, complete with shaggy gypsy pony staked out in the middle distance.

I made a bad start by turning up late – in the rush to get out, I’d clean forgotten the first immutable law of driving around Newcastle: you can’t. Or not at tea-time, which was when I absent-mindedly tootled up the A69 and joined the joyous rain-drenched car-park that is the A1 in rush-hour.

So, instead of rolling up at 6pm, we rolled up nearer 7, slightly panicked at the thought that Steve might have got fed up and left, and very embarrassed at being so late.

Bless him, Steve was fantastic about it. We got straight down to a quick warm-up jog across the car park and back, during which I trilled, “I suppose this would be a bad moment to mention I have asthma?”

Steve just laughed and said, “So have I.”

Oh, nuts. My #1 excuse fried and we’re barely out of the traps. Thankfully we moved on pretty quickly to some throwing, as the light was starting to go.

The low light is one reason that the accompanying photos are so terrible – my middle daughter, who had come along specifically to take photos for this blog, didn’t want to distract us by using flash, so the encroaching dusk coupled with the lowering rain-clouds mean that… well, as you can see, they’re not exactly pin-sharp action shots. They’re also all taken from behind us, as MD was worried about getting hit by chunks of flying steel, so as you will also see, it’s a breathtaking gallery of butt shots of two people wearing saggy trackies. Better next time, I promise.

The shaggy gypsy pony was unmoved by our antics:


I demonstrated my existing, severely limited shot-put skills for Steve:


Yeah, I know – you’re only supposed to use one hand! This where the disillusionment started to really set in – the illusion being that I HAD any technique to begin with!

On the positive side, Steve was far too gentlemanly to fall about laughing at my pathetic technique and puny-ass throwing, and immediately changed my shot technique from standing shot into spin. I’ve never spun before – ever! – so that took a little getting used to.


Steve then unleashed the 28lb WFD on me, the first time I’d ever thrown one.


Holy cow! And this, people is the ‘light’ weight for distance!

We spent about an hour working on that, with Steve demonstrating these powerful balletic double spins and launching the thing towards the horizon, then me hanging on to it for dear life while I tried to spin, hoicking the weight up at the last moment and throwing a truly pathetic distance!

Even when I’d kind of got the feel of the spin, I kept slowing down in the middle and doing what Steve called ‘the little dance’ (I think I was nervous of tripping over the concrete trig if I spun too far, so was unconsciously trying to tailor my steps to avoid this), thus losing the power and momentum of the throw. Other oopsies: forgetting to keep my left arm up, forgetting to let go of the weight (my fave due to the comedic possibilities), and most of all, kind of ‘falling backwards’ out of the throw when I did remember to release the weight. Apparently this was because I was still yanking the weight with my arm rather than letting it go where it wanted to.


'The Little Dance'. Woo, git down.

Silly me, and there I was thinking IT was yanking ME. I swear my right arm was a few inches longer than the left by this time.

Steve repeated several times that “you need to let the weight go where it wants to go. You just let go at the right moment. Stop trying to throw it and just let it go where it want to go!”

This smelt like Jedi Mind Tricks to me. Believe me, a 28lb WFD is a bloody great heavy lump of metal. It doesn’t want to go anywhere. It does not dream of flying. What it wants is to sit on the ground in a decidedly inert manner and stay there indefinitely. If you want to persuade it to fly, you’ve got to get it really moving! However, after an hour of getting my metaphorical arse kicked by big pieces of metal, I was ready to listen, and FINALLY, just before we lost the light completely, I began to get it and really commit to the spin. The lump of metal obliged by flying a bit further than before. Even the Jedi Master was impressed. Here he is, looking dumbfounded:


Though that may just have been relief that I wasn’t quite as klutzy as he originally feared. He cheered me up by telling me the story of a guy who was even worse than me (imagine, that, boys and girls!), who got the hang of things after a few weeks and ended up doing OK.

An educational evening! Steve didn’t commit hara-kiri or sneak off in his car without leaving a forwarding address, and seems to think I’ll do fine in the Games if I can keep up the practice and gym work. He reckons the guys who train in Teesside are all completely obsessed. Happy days!

So I’m stoked for more of the same next week, and really looking forward to having a go with the Scottish Hammer (Steve is going to try to find a light ‘Light Hammer’ for me). There should be more guys there next time, David Dowson for one, who apparently will coach my shot-put into the middle of the next solar system by the end of May. Or thereabouts.

The aftermath of this fun and games wasn’t pretty! For most of the week, my right side felt as if someone had given me a good kicking. My shoulders weren’t speaking to me except in the Language of Pain.

Easter gave me some much-needed respite, but I’m upping the stuff I do in the gym and out on the hills this week in hopes that the after-effects of next Monday’s training session won’t prove quite so traumatic!