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!

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Ninja Fingers

Just a quick update to the previous post: added bronzey-brown to the greens – it worked! Now, instead of looking as if I have an unfortunate case of fingernail fungus, I have Stealth Fingers (patent pending)… nobody will see them coming! World domination next week, provided I can remember how to get the top off the bottle…

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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.

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.

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: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YzXl9xDT4kc

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:

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

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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.

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

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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.

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'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:

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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!