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So…You Want to Be a Highland Games Athlete?
Maybe you’ve heard about us. In some circles we are known as “heavies,” in some others as “throwers;” and to still others, we are simply known as Highland Games athletes. Regardless of the name, we are some of the strongest and most agile men in the world.
A Highland games athlete is a blend of strongman, track athlete and weight lifter. We must be able to throw large, heavy objects a long ways – and be crazy enough to try. The timid, weak and frail need not apply.
The Highland games date back hundreds of years to Scotland. The clans had battled enough and realized that they were losing all the best warriors to settle their arguments; so they came up with a sporting way to decide a victor without death. Today, the games have evolved into 7 heavy events, and combine a mixture of movement, strength, power, and coordination to determine the overall best athlete. We no longer compete to settle arguments, but for prizes, money and honor.
Most of the athletes in my sport are very large, powerful men. There are exceptions to every rule, but not many in this sport. You have to be big to move big things fast and far. While I am about 6’4″, 290 pounds, in this sport there are even larger: my buddy Jumbo is 6’7 and a “lean” 340 pounds. And although I have broken the Alabama and Florida records in the deadlift, going over 700 pounds, that merely qualifies you to play in this crowd. Five hundred-fifty pound front squats, 400 inclines – while being able to dunk a basketball – are the norm. So if you’re planning on stepping on the field of honor and tossing something, you have to be more than strong: you have to be fast, explosive strong.
Perhaps you have seen the world’s strongest men competitions on TV; well, we are their cousins, the world’s most agile strongmen. Some of the athletes try to cross over, but it is just a daunting task to be proficient in 7 events at one time. I’d like to tell you about them, and what I do to prepare for each one.
The first event in the games is the stone throw. One legend has it that at a game in Scotland, the athletes could not find a stone of the proper size, so they threw a cannon ball. This event has since evolved into the modern shot put that is now an Olympic event. But in the Highland Games, there was no such evolution; we still use a stone that is at least 16 pounds, although many times they are much heavier.
When training for this event, I like to have a big incline bench press. I’m not confident unless I am blasting up over 350 pounds, but I have done well over 400. I then have to harness that strength and use it to launch that stone. Yes, I have already had my rotator cuff reattached and my labrum sewn back into one piece – I am on a first name basis with my orthopedist. This is a big boy sport.
Fifty-Six Pounds – Distance
After the stone throw, we get the 56-pound weight for distance. This is simply a block of steel with a ring attached to it for a handle. Nobody is ever ready to pick up this imposing beast and try to dance with it. The athlete will spin like he has a discus and toss the implement. The best can manage over 45 feet; the average person, less than 10. Most intelligent people pick it up and set it down, muttering as they walk away.
Big is the order of the day here; you just don’t play with something this big without some serious hind end. There is nothing in the world like this event, and nothing in your workout can prepare you for it.
A word to the wise: keep your health insurance paid up if you think you’re ready to rumble with the 56. This bad boy cost me a year with a torn quadriceps.
Twenty-Eight Pounds – Distance
The third event is a 28-pound weight throw-very similar to the 56 toss, but half the weight. The goal is to see who is still strong, as well as fast. Distances over 90 feet are seen here by the big guns. After you dance with the 56, a measly 28 feels like a walk in the park. This is where all my footwork drills pay off. I have to have fast feet and get speed in order to make the weight fly. A big guy who lumbers around just won’t cut it.
The final event of the morning is the Scottish hammer, which is a 22-pound weight attached to the end of a 50-inch stick. The feet remain stationary, making this event a test of the athlete’s core and upper body strength.
With his back to the field, the athlete grips the implement with two hands. He winds it around and around his body to gain momentum, and then hoists it up and over his left shoulder using just his abdominals, shoulders and arms.
Try to imagine it: while holding this 22-pound weight-on-a-stick, you must stay relaxed enough to let your arms hang long and loose. Gaining speed with each wind, you explode with power to drive it over a hundred feet. That’s right, we’re going to make 22 pounds fly over a hundred feet, all while keeping our feet firmly planted on the ground.
This event is truly the core workout from hell: I tore my hamstring so badly that it bruised all the way into my shoe.
Recharge…for the Caber Toss
After the morning’s events, the boys get to sit down to have lunch and rest. We are provided drinks and some light fare, but this is no time to sit and eat big and get lethargic. The crowds are now really gathering, as they know that after lunch, it is caber time-that big telephone pole-looking implement that is the signature event of the games.
The big men warm back up again and prepare to perform an athletic feat with a tree which, until recently, was in someone’s yard. Usually a cedar, the big guys will use a caber that is about 20 feet long; it has the small end smoothed out for the athletes’ hands. With the limbs and bark shaved off, it can weigh up to 150 pounds.
Do you remember all those times they told you to lift with your legs, not your back? Well, this is where we break that rule. Athletes lift the caber from the bottom, balance it on end, and then run and toss it forward into the air, end-over-end, for accuracy. This is not a distance or height event; instead, we are trying to make the caber go straight up and over when we turn it. If the stick falls to one side or the other, it is less than perfection, and judged accordingly.
Expect to pay the price, as your chiropractor will be soon be a familiar face to you. A lower back operation and 12 epidurals are proof that this one wore on me a little. Nothing could prepare me for trying to run with a tree, but loving to deadlift helped. It is an amazing thing to have pulled over 700 pounds in the dead and still feel like you don’t have enough power.
Completing the day are the two height events. Both are contested on what looks like football goalposts, except that the cross bar is adjustable.
We toss the sheaf first – an event evolved from the days when we filled the barn with hay. This sheaf is a 16-pound burlap bag filled with twine. The athlete first sticks that bag with a 3-tine pitchfork, then uses his lower back and torso to toss it up and over the bar. Our technique takes years to perfect, and requires a relationship with the fork (I love my fork, and it loves me back by making that bag go up and over the bar).
I have really come to relish this event, holding the world record in every age group as a Master. To train, I use some Olympic lifting-snatches earn you the quick, explosive power needed here. But be warned: many a bicep tendon has left for the day in the sheaf. I have suffered several partial tears myself, turning my entire arm purple.
Fifty-Six Pounds – Height
The last event of the day is the 56 for height. That same block of steel from this morning is now going to be contested to see how high we can throw it. By the time I get to this event, I have been on the field for hours. I am running on fumes and have to go up against gravity with the brute again. The weight never changes, it is always the same, brutal 56 pounds.
This is a pure display of lower back mojo and power. With one hand, athletes let the implement swing down between their legs. Then, using their lower back and shoulders, they launch it up and over the bar.
Squatting 700+ pounds took me up well over 16 feet in this event. You’d better be big and you’d better be nasty strong, because bold talk and bravado are not going to make this thing fly high. Poseurs can stay safely to the side. You can imagine the lower back and hamstring maladies that come with this fun: the posterior chain will be taxed for every ounce of power in the tank.
With the day now complete, the points are added up and the places, announced. The winner gets a weapon of death: a sword worthy of Conan is awarded in honor of this day to one lucky and hard-working contestant.
Not many men in this world win a Highland Games day (let alone one event), but I can tell you this: I don’t care what is happening anywhere in the world; for that moment, you’re a king. It is rare air, and to be celebrated and digested.
As the spectators fade away, the evening creeps in. I begin to decompress and unwind from the day. There was so much living done in those eight hours, it takes a long time to go over it all. I love that time.
I start to relax and the pain of each event begins to set in like rigor mortis. Bags of ice are strapped to my body as I quietly revel in the glory and honor of a day well-fought. I am feeling great and terrible at the same time. Alone with just my thoughts and hurt, I ask myself, “So you wanted to be a Highland Games athlete?”