Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The Highland Games

28 lb Highland Games throwing weight.
Last summer, I became intrigued by the idea of learning how to throw heavy things.  As a weightlifting coach with unfortunate limb ratios for competitive weightlifting and a few friends who compete in Highland Games (and blather on incessantly about how awesome it is), I was excited to see if throwing might be a good outlet for my training.  I'm relatively strong, can produce a good amount of power, and have long limbs.  However, I am also relatively small compared to most throwers and therefore do not have a mass advantage.  That leaves me with mostly strength and technique as my assets.  Not yet knowing how to throw and not having a coach other than you-tube was going to make the technique part a bit of a challenge.

I didn't really intend to compete in the Highland Games, just use the throws to keep my training fun and set some backyard PRs, but then a friend of mine in Texas decided to host a Highlander.  A Highlander is a hybrid Highland Games and Strongman competition and so I decided to take the throwing more seriously and go compete.  I wrote about my experience here back in October.  In a nutshell, it was a lot of fun and I came home with the idea that I was going to train for and compete in a full Highland Games.

Sometimes, they will run out of things to throw
and resort to kegs, small children, and ponies.
Just so you know what I was getting myself into, check out the list of the Highland Games events and a range of their prescribed weights on the MASA website.  Women's weights are typically half to two-thirds of the men's weights.  For example, the men typically throw 56 lbs for height whereas the women throw 28 lbs.  The events are stone (throwing rocks), weight for distance (throwing huge chunks of metal attached to a chain), hammer (throwing huge chunks of metal attached to a long handle), weight over bar (throwing a huge chunk of metal as high as you can), sheaf (throwing a weighted bag with a pitchfork as high as you can), and caber (trying to throw a tree such that it turns over and lands in line with its flight path).  

So, the first step I needed to make was to actually sign up.  I was a little frustrated at first in that there were no Highland Games with women's classes that I could readily find in North Carolina.  However, I grew up in Southern Maryland and I knew they had a Celtic Festival and Highland Games every year.  When I checked the schedule I was very happy to see that they had a women's class.  A women's class and competing in my home town. I couldn't really ask for a better first Games.  So, I signed up and began to train.

Kettlebells + chains = throwing implements
Training for this event meant watching a lot of youtube videos, taking the advice of friends, and throwing homemade implements in the backyard.  Most of these consisted of kettlebells on chains and rocks.  By the way, if you throw in the rain, you'll make really big holes in the lawn so be prepared to make some repairs or make up a story about a horse or maybe a herd of cattle running through the yard.  I didn't really know where to begin with sheaf so I decided to ignore it.  I also decided to ignore the caber although I have to admit to abusing one of my 44 lb barbells one day by taking it out and tossing it a few times.  It was not tall enough by far, but helped me figure out whether or not I was going to smack myself in the face with the butt of the caber.  For hammer, I taped together a bunch of weights and stuck them on the end of some PVC pipe and my weights for height and distance were simply kettlebells on chains.  I was hoping that the ridiculously awful ergonomics of these creations would somehow pay off for me on game day, ie if I can throw these monstrosities, I can certainly do better with something more aerodynamic.

Me attempting an 18 foot throw.
So, enough of my own blathering, lets get down to the actual game day.  I have to admit, I was a bit intimidated.  I was there with my friends Mike McKenna and Gabriel O'Keefe who were competing in the B class, but I didn't know any of the other three women competing.  Turns out, there was nothing to be worried about.  Heather McKenzie, the gal who won this competition last year, introduced herself and offered to help me on anything I was unfamiliar with.  Which was good, cause sheaf was the first event.  I didn't know you were supposed to bring your own sheaf fork and she let me use hers.

There were four of us women competing and so we were folded right into the B class in which my friends were competing.  We ended up doing nine events in total which took the better part of seven hours.  Beginning with sheaf, I surprised myself by coming in second with a sixteen foot throw with a twelve pound sheaf.  Likewise, I took second in weight over bar with a ten foot throw which is not terribly impressive, but I wasn't sure if I was going to get more than nine so I was very happy.  I just missed eleven feet, but the best part of this was hearing my kids cheering me on which you can hear in this video.  The prescribed weight for this event is twenty-eight pounds for women and fifty-six for men.


Gabriel's Braemar throw.  
After weight over bar, we moved on to throwing stones.  This is awkward at best.  The smaller stones, which we threw in the open stone event, are easier to handle, but the larger stones which we throw in the Braemar event are not usually perfectly round.  Far from it actually.  In open stone, the women threw a nine pound stone and you can literally throw it however you like, put it, spin it, stand still and chuck it.  I took third in this event.  The Braemar throw is from a standing power position, in other words, you simply throw from where you are.  The women threw a thirteen lb stone in this even and I came in second.  All in all, I like throwing the stones, but with my skinny arms, it takes a lot of effort for me to hold the stone up to my neck.  I should probably work on that.

First, you have to pick it up.
And then it was time for the caber, gaelic for "tree".  Caber is all about tree tossing; an event centered around picking up and tossing a tree.  The Scots were an ambitious group of folks to say the least.  The goal of this event is not to throw the caber for distance, but to turn it.  You want it to land and turn away from you, ideally landing in line with its flight path.  If it falls back or to the side, you get a lower score than if it falls forward.  Landing in a straight line from where you threw it is a perfect score.

The women's caber was not too heavy, but it was the most awkward thing I think I've ever done.  Lucky for me, I had already reassured myself that smacking myself in the chin was unlikely so I was ready for a fight.  Picking it up is the first challenge.  Moving forward without it falling off your shoulder is the second challenge.  If you actually get into a position to toss it, well, I consider that a great success.  I was able to pick up the caber all three times but was only able to throw it once.  I came in third in this event.

A little intensity and a bit of yelling will make
your hammer go a lot farther.  
From here, we went on to do heavy weight for distance which is typically thrown from a spinning movement similar to a discus.  The weight for women is twenty-eight pounds and the weight for men is fifty-six.  Light weight for distance follows, fourteen pounds for women and twenty-eight pounds for men.  These were followed by heavy and light hammer.  Heavy hammer for women is sixteen pounds and the men throw twenty-two pounds.  For light hammer the weights are twelve and sixteen pounds respectively.  I have to admit, I think hammer throw might be my favorite.  You just stand still with your back to the field.  You swing the hammer around your head to build up speed before releasing it over your shoulder.  Its easy to get a little carried away with this one.

Amanda placed above me in the heavy
weight for distance.
Twenty-eight pounds is a lot of weight to swing around your body so it takes not only core strength, but a good bit of mass to counter-balance it.  Therefore, the heavy weight for distance tends to throw me about like a rag doll.  So, I came in third in this event.  I took second on light weight for distance and both hammers.  I ended up taking second place overall and therefore met my goal of not coming in dead last.

This competition was a lot of fun.  It helped that the pub tent was next to the athletic field and so there were a lot of great Irish bands playing pretty much the whole day.  Likewise, since this was part of a larger Celtic festival, there were a good number of spectators.  The athletes themselves as well as the officials were clearly there to have a good time and it showed.  They were all very encouraging and supportive of one another and the officials had obviously put in a lot of effort to have a fun and relaxed competition day.  Both of my friends and I had a great time and we were all glad we decided to do this.  Now I just have to get another one on the calendar . . .
Me, Gabriel, and Mike, before the competition.  

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