Ready for Anything
I watched with unexpected anxiety as Tammy, my wife, wielded the pitchfork. She thrust it confidently into the burlap sack stuffed with straw and lifted. The two gently curved tines of the fork pierced the material of the bag and held its weight against the relentless pull of gravity as it rose slightly off of the ground.
I counted silently--one, two, three – as she rocked the bag back and forth and then held my breath as she heaved. Clang! It crashed into the metal bar at 4.5 meters, still on it's way up, before falling back onto the grass without going over. Her previous toss had barely cleared 4 meters, tying her with two other women for the top spot in the "Sheaf Toss" event, with roughly half the field having already 'tossed'. If she could manage 4.5 meters she'd have the position all to herself.
Along with the 'Sheaf Toss', three other events made up the Te Anau Tartan Festival's Highland Heavyweight games. There was the Caber Toss where participants held a big log (the caber) vertically and then flipped it so that it landed on its upright end, trying to get it to ultimately fall parallel to the direction of throw (points were scored on landing orientation, not height or number of flips). In the Rock carry, competitors shuttled 14 big stones between two markers about 10 meters apart--essentially a shuttle run with miniature boulders. Rounding out the quadrathon was the Farmer Walk, which required carrying two full water jugs (20 or 15 liters each, for men and women respectively) around the edges of a 100 meter square. In this event you were scored first on distance, and then, if you managed to complete all five, lap time.
It wasn't Tammy's idea to enter the games. It wasn't really an idea at all--it just kind of happened. We'd seen the signs all over town ever since moving back to Te Anau from North Dakota a few months ago. Our two boys (6 and 9) had just started a two week school holiday and so a free Saturday 'festival' seemed a good way to kill a couple of hours and stave off the inevitable declaration of 'I'm bored--what should we do now?" that seemed to be a daily occurrence after the jam packed school days when their never seemed to be enough time. And so while Tammy taught her morning yoga class, we headed down the hill into the small tourist community to the primary school grounds (our home turf) to see it transformed into a small tent village full of booths, dancing and piping pavilions (it was a Tartan Festival, after all), and athletic fields.
At the information booth we learned about the heavyweight games as well as the 'all comers' piping and dancing competitions. Since I didn't bring my pipes in the move (probably because I didn't own any) and have always been a bit of a wallflower, I took a bit more interest in the games. Keegan (my 9 year old) thought the Caber Toss sounded fun so I told him we would sign up together...and so it began.
Personally, I love competition, so the thought of getting to bust ass for a few minutes throughout the day and measure myself against some of the local 'southern men' seemed like a perfect way to enjoy time with the family and get a couple bouts of high intensity training in to boot. But I'm all bravado and vanity--I wear my ego on my sleeve. Tammy, on the other hand, is a bit of a closet competitor. Lately she spends more time meditating and in down dog than she does running or lifting, and comes off quite uninterested in seeing how she ranks in athletics. Sure enough, she quickly rebuffed my initial suggestion that she sign up too 'just for fun', declaring it a ridiculous idea. But when she came up after watching me drop the jugs just 20 meters from the end of the fifth lap on the Farmer Walk she said with an edge of intrigue in her voice, "I wonder how far I could get?" I knew I had her.
I was disheartened by the failure of my forearms--I'd been on pace to beat the current leader's time by over a minute. But I rallied and posted the best yet time on the Rock Carry. Tammy mirrored my performances by grabbing the women's lead in the Rock Carry (barefoot and in Jeans) and also failing just tens of meters shy of the top spot in the Farmers walk. I started to have visions of the two of us being brought up to one of the stages during the awards and lauded as this new super fit immigrant couple.
Next up was the Caber Toss. Keegan had made it look easy (he had a pretty small caber) and I imagined maybe we had some Scottish blood that would make the next two events instinctual (Magness is a Scottish name, right?). If that failed, there was always beginners luck. Tammy went first and somehow interpreted my instructions (gleaned from watching the locals) in such a way that her form looked pretty good. Two of her three tosses were near perfect and the third scored half for a total of 37 points (out of 45) – only one point behind the day's female leaders. The podium was all but ours.
It was my turn. Despite only weighing 15 pounds more than my wife I had to use a bigger Caber. Unfortunately, those 15 pounds are apparently not all muscle as I could barely heave my pole to get it to land on its end but it had no forward momentum to encourage it to land in the right direction. My first throw flopped nearly straight sideways--as did my second and third. 20 points. Ouch. The visions began to fade.
You were allowed three attempts at each height in the Sheaf Toss, so Tammy still had two more chances. I almost couldn't watch. My own sheaf tossing had been an embarrassment – I cleared 3.5 meters easily but couldn't manage 4. During my attempts the announcer, who had been doing blow-by-blow highlights for the roaming crowd while some bigger blokes vied to clear 5.5 and 6 meters, had wandered away in disinterest. But he was back now, watching my wife along with a sizeable crowd of spectators, including last year's female champion who had just matched the day's best toss at 4 meters.
Again the thrust of the fork. Again the rocking. Again the silent, breathless 'one, two, three...' This time the bag soared up and cleared the bar... by centimeters. The crowd erupted into cheers. Tammy's record toss stood for the remainder of the day, as did her Rock Carry time-to-beat (mine did not). She'd won two out of the four events outright and, as it turned out, the overall Senior Women's Highland Heavyweight Challenge title.
Eventually, she was called up to the awards tent without me for the third time to claim this final, massive trophy. A purple victory sash (almost as massive) was pinned around her shoulders and the MC turned to her and commented "Well you've done pretty well for yourself today. You must be pretty fit! What sort of training do you do?"
"I'm an adventure racer", she said. " So I'm ready for anything!"