For the first two weeks of August, I was in Scotland and England on what was far and away the most amazing trip of my whole life. I went with my girlfriend, mom, and sister, and we did and saw so much that was amazing and unique and incredible that I immediately wanted to go back as soon as I got home. Scotland was even better than I had hoped it would be based on books, movies, and accounts of friends who had been there.
While I was there I had the opportunity to compete in my first Highland games in Aberlour. I am still new to almost all of the various throws, but I had trained them all at least a few times. While I had no expectations of winning, how many times in my life will I get the chance to compete in Highland games where they originated in the Scotland Highlands? There was no way I was not going to do this. The good news was that the day of the games was the only day that we were in the highlands that it was not supposed to rain. For those who may not be aware, it rains a lot in Scotland, and by a lot I mean it’s probably going to rain at least a little on any given day.
So, of course, since it was scheduled to be clear and sunny, it promptly clouded over while we were warming up and proceeded to rain on and off throughout the day. I would have had almost no idea what was going on since there was not really a rules meeting or explanation of how the events would proceed, but thankfully there was another American/Icelander competing, Thor Gylfason, who helped me out a ton with figuring out how things run and offering some helpful advice to fix some of the many technical problems I have. He was over there for three weeks and was planning on doing something like 12 to 15 Highland games during that time frame, which sounds ridiculously awesome. Here is how my day went at the 74th Aberlour Strathspey Highland Games.
Light Hammer (16 Pounds)
I was glad to start with hammers since I was worried that either of the stone throws (shot puts) or either of the weight for distance throws would send my low back to funky town again like it had been while I was out in California a week before this trip and for a few days after I got home. One downside was that I was the only athlete not using blades, which is a big disadvantage. Blades are used for the two hammer throws and are literally metal blades that you bolt to the bottom of your boots to help keep your feet dug in the ground and get more body lean on the release.
Warmups felt pretty good — in fact it felt like I was moving much better than I had during the handful of times I had trained hammers. When it came time to throw, though, it felt like everything went right back to how it usually was with me standing too tall and short-arming it on my release, taking a ton of distance off of my throws. I also was having trouble keeping the bottom of the hammer arc off to my right, despite knowing better and knowing how to correct for this. I’ll chalk it up to nerves and being in a totally new competitive environment. In spite of all this, I still managed to hit a 10-foot PR at 81 feet, 11 inches; good for last place.
Heavy Hammer (22 Pounds)
This is exactly the same as the light hammer, except that it is 22 pounds, while the light hammer is 16 pounds. Thor pointed out that I was slow to get the hammer around my head and get my shoulders in position for the push. Trying to correct for this definitely helped me get it around my head faster, but I was still having all the same problems I mentioned with the light hammer. The reality, though, is that I have only trained hammers about five or six times, so this is still brand new to me. I threw the heavy hammer 57 feet, six inches, just barely short of my best throw to date; good for another last place.
Open Stone (14-Pound Shot)
Stone throwing is something that I should be better at but am not — yet. I went into this trying to use more of a shot put style of throw (especially since we were using shots instead of stones for the stone events), but it turns out that the technique is different enough that part of what I was doing was actually holding me back on distance. Specifically, I need to get my feet a lot wider. After I did this (again on advice from Thor) I tacked on a couple extra feet to my throw immediately. I did try to do a glide on one of the throws, but it didn’t really seem to help so I went back to a standing throw for my final attempt. Not surprisingly, I got last place.
Braemar Stone (22-Pound Shot)
We used a 22-pound shot put for this event and it turns out that in Scotland you can glide or spin if you want to on the Braemar Stone (unless you are actually competing at the Braemar games and one or two other locations). I threw this just a few inches shy of what I had been throwing my 20-pound shot at home, so I can’t say I did poorly here based on my training. Last place again.
Light Weight for Distance (28 Pounds)
My low back and hip had managed to hold up this far, but the WFD throws were the ones I was most concerned about since that was what had really caused my psoas to lock up while I was out in California. I have only trained the WFD throws a handful of times, so my technique is fairly terrible, but I am happy to say I at least managed not to fall down (it was a close call a couple of times, though). The ground was pretty wet and muddy from the rain that had been falling intermittently off and on, and the judges had actually moved the box forward after the hammer throws due to the giant mud pit created from everyone digging their blades into the ground. I felt like I was moving okay, but every time I went to release the weight I was slipping and sliding off to the right side of the box due to the mud. This was new for me, as usually if I am off balance it is from traveling too far off to the left during the turns leading up to the throw. I didn’t fall, but I did take last place again here.
Heavy Weight for Distance (56 Pounds)
This weight was rough. The shape was tall and oblong instead of compact like the 28-pound weight and the chain was two big links of anchor chain, which added up to make the length of the weight noticeably different than I was used to feeling on what is already one of the most awful events I have ever done in strength sports. I actually had to stop after the first turn and wait for the weight to catch up before going into the second turn, and since wearing a glove is not allowed in Scotland, my whole hand was taped up to prevent ripping the skin off of my palm and fingers (which thankfully worked). I somehow managed to hit a four-foot PR in this event with 25 feet, five inches; good for seventh place instead of last place. This was my best event of the day, as compared to the rest of the field.
Weight Over Bar (56 Pounds)
This was the one event I felt like I would be able to do okay on going in since I have been training it on and off for about eight months and the last couple times I trained it I felt solid. The fine Scottish weather we were having, however, threw a wrench in my plans. I actually have trained weight over bar (WOB) in the rain once before, but I seemed to be able to still hit most of my throws over the bar. This time, the rain making the handle slick caused it to slip out of my hand early, so while my throws were plenty high, they were not far enough back for the majority of them. I only managed to clear 11 feet, which was pretty disappointing for me since I have been able to clear at least 12 feet for several months in training. I also managed to explode my thumb on the throw where I got the weight over the 11-foot bar from all the hook gripping I had been doing all day, which did not help matters any. There were a number of other athletes who seemed to be having trouble due to the rain as well, but I still ended up in last place again.
The final event of the day was the caber. The judges had kept them under tents to keep them dry, but as soon as we brought them out they were wet and slick since it continued to rain on us. I was worried I would not even be able to pick the caber since I had not trained it at all, but everyone who had done the Aberlour games before said they were not too heavy, which was good since it was raining. I managed a decent pick, which I was surprised about, but then I gave it barely any run up before the caber was falling away from me and I had to try to turn it. I launched it straight ahead into the air, and the end dug in the ground and didn’t quite make a full turn. No score on my first attempt. I had okay picks on both of my second two attempts as well and better run-ups, but neither of those throws was as close to turning over as my first one, so I blanked the event to finish the day.
Despite being last on all but one event, I had an amazing time competing in my first Highland games. Obviously being in Scotland played a big part in that, but I was also pretty happy with my performance overall, except on the light shot and the weight over bar. I managed to hit a couple of significant PRs and reached my initial goal distance on the light hammer, so it’s time to set a new goal. I learned a ton from all the athletes, especially Thor, and I will definitely be doing more Highland games in the future, along with strongman.
As I am about to head into my third and final year of PT school, though, I sadly do not know for sure when the next time I will definitely be able to compete in anything will be, since my schedule fluctuates so much and I don’t know where I will be living when I am out on my clinical affiliations. But I will continue to train and take advantage of the competitive opportunities that I am able to.
I have to thank my mom and sister for helping put this trip together and my amazing girlfriend for supporting me and being there with me in Scotland for what was the best trip I have ever been on in my life. Thanks also to Dave Tate, Matt Goodwin, Ronda Blankenship, Sheena Leedham, and everyone at elitefts for sponsoring me and for being the best damn company on the planet when it comes to getting strong(er) than I was yesterday. Thanks again to Thor Gylfason for all the help in minimizing how much of a dumbass I was and to Mike Landrich for making solid equipment and answering some of my stupid questions about how to use it. Thanks to Dave and Lisa for having the best gym on the Eastern Shore and a field where I can throw heavy things all I want any time of day. Thanks to Nick O’Brien for being one of the best training partners of all time (even though we are currently on opposite sides of the country) and for being someone who I can bounce ideas off and who provides expert insight into just how and why I suck so much. Thanks also to Chad Clark for helping spark my interest in Highland games and to Stella and Brute Strength Gym for the same. Finally, thanks to The Macallan Highland Single Malt Scotch Whiskey and Walkers Shortbread Cookies for being the main sponsors of the Aberlour Highland Games. Scotland is doing it right and I will definitely be back to compete again.