A few weeks ago, I found myself standing next to a horse barn at the fairgrounds in Odessa, Texas. My hands are chest-high, balancing a giant wooden log on its end. The pole is about 10 feet long and weighs around 28 pounds. Imagine that I’m the only support holding up a telephone pole- that’s what it’s like. I’m looking up the length of it reaching into the sky, and on the end that’s pointed into the clouds, I notice the log’s name has been painted on it. The log’s name is Toothpick. I think, that’s a sick joke. The object of me standing here is that I am going to pick up this massive wooden log and throw it through the air. At the time, the only thing going through my head is, are you freaking kidding me? I’m gonna kill myself with this thing.
How did I end up here? A friend invited me to accompany her on a road trip. She wanted to compete in the inaugural Scottish Highland Games at the Celtic Faire in Odessa, Texas. She’s been competing in these Games for a while, and I’m excited for the chance to see what she’s been up to. Any excuse is a good excuse for a road trip, so, despite my reservations about going back to Texas (a long story), I am excited to go. And then she asks the question: Are you gonna throw?
With her encouragement, I’ve attempted to learn a couple of the Highland Games events. Two of the events involve throwing a heavy stone. It’s pretty much like shot put in track & field. We’ve gone to the park and I’ve tossed around her 11-pound stone. She has also shown me how to throw her practice hammer. The practice hammer is a 12-pound stack of weight plates that’s glued onto the end of a PVC pipe. To throw hammer, you grab the end of the pipe, build up momentum by swinging it around your body, then you let go. I hadn’t thrown the hammer too many times, mostly because my friend keeps breaking her practice hammer. Launching a 12-pound weight through the air and into tree limbs tends to have a detrimental effect on the integrity of PVC. I have only flung the hammer, much like an angry guy would throw his golf club- I haven’t tried that spinny-around-your-head stuff.
What the Highland Games are really famous for, though, is the Caber Toss. I’ve seen videos of this. This event is done by really huge guys who are manly enough to wear kilts in public. Nobody makes fun of them for wearing skirts- you take one look at these guys and know they could kick your ass before they’ve had their morning coffee. The guys pick up enormous tree-trunk-poles and throw them- spinning them through the air until they land, far away. Caber toss is accompanied by a lot of grunting and yelling. I think it’s required. The idea of me trying to pick up a caber scares the hell out of me.
Are you gonna throw? I think it’s a bad idea. My personal trainer thinks it’s a bad idea. I have tried a lot of new things so far on this fitness journey, and what usually happens is that I find a new way to hurt myself. All signs point to no. But something keeps nagging at me: I imagine seeing myself at the games, watching my friend throw, while I sit on the sidelines. The basic question becomes clear: Are you gonna be a spectator or a participant in your life? So even though I don’t know what all the events are, and I’ve only practiced three of them, I sign up for the Highland Games.
The difference between a spectator and a participant is an entry blank, and in this case, a rent-a-kilt.
I spend all morning doing things I hadn’t done before. I throw a 21-pound weight clear over a bar 8 feet above my head. I toss a heavy weight 12 1/2 feet in front of me, and toss a light weight 16 1/2 feet. I throw a 17-pound stone 10 feet, and a 12-pound stone 12 feet. I start to tap into some emotions I’ve been neglecting lately. After a brief lesson on that spinny-around-the-head move, I throw a heavy hammer 15 feet. I let out some pent-up frustration on the light hammer, tossing that sucker 26 1/2 feet. That throw elicits spontaneous swearing.
Then came the Caber. Because there are people competing who had never thrown caber before, two cabers would be used. We would throw the caber called Toothpick to qualify, and qualifiers would throw a heavier caber named Wee One for competition. We get three attempts on each.
So there’s me, and there’s Toothpick. As I’m staring up at the length of this caber stretching into the sky, I’m thinking, are you freaking kidding me? I’m gonna kill myself with this thing. But then I say to myself, there’s nothing to do but do it. I take a deep breath and get down to business.
On my first attempt, I squat down and manage to pick Toothpick up off the ground. But cabers tend to get squirrley after the pick, and Toothpick is swaying around in the slightest breeze. I have to dump it.
On my second attempt, I get the pick, and am able to regain control of the caber after the swaying. I’m able to walk forward a few steps and make a toss.
But Toothpick just falls over- I haven’t tossed it with enough oomph to make the required flip in the air.
I realize that if I can pop my hip forward while I am lifting it for the toss, that’s what it’s going to take to flip the thing.
Third attempt: I pop my hip and flip the caber. I can hardly believe it myself- I flip it! I don’t know if it’s the adrenaline or the effort, but I am shaking… trembling like crazy. And somewhere from the depths of the frustrations of my life, swear words come pouring forth out of my mouth. F*%# Yeah! I f*%#ing turned a caber! Having qualified by turning Toothpick, I get three chances with Wee One. It’s a little longer a bit heavier. I try, but I don’t turn Wee One. It doesn’t even matter to me that I don’t turn Wee One. I turned a caber on my first day. My Facebook post from the field says it all, but with fewer swear words: “Holy crap… I posted a score in all 8 Scottish Highland Heavy Athletic events. This includes the Caber- THAT’S RIGHT I freaking turned a Caber!!!! F-yeah!” Okay, technically I didn’t post a score for caber. I qualified on Toothpick, but I didn’t turn the competition caber.
The next day, I am understandably sore. But I am not injured. My body likes Scottish Heavy Athletics. Who would have guessed that?? Not my trainer, and definitely not me. But we are rolling with it.
Since confronting the impossible, some things have changed. My personal trainer has changed my workouts to focus on strength and explosive power training. I bought my own kilt. I have learned more technique at heavy athletics practices. I am signed up to participate in two upcoming Highland Games events.
I don’t know how well I will do in the upcoming Games. But I do know this: I am not a spectator, I am a participant. And I will not go quietly.