At the Highlander Games, the strong men wear kilts
At this Scottish-themed contest, competitors toss around 400-pound objects for fun as the bagpipes wail.
The New Hampshire Highland Games, the celebration of all things Scottish that attracted thousands to the Loon Mountain ski resort last weekend, is about many things: The gathering of dozens of clans, musical concerts and competitions, traditional food, and of course plenty of bagpipes and plaid.
While a casual attendee could have been encouraged to, say, don a kilt and give haggis a try at the various tents in the resort's parking lot, a very different and much more exclusive slice of Scottish culture was on display in a grassy field next to the mountain's quad chairlift. These were the Highlander Games, and only the truly huge were invited. But for those who made the cut – including 10 of the word's best, plus a number of amateur and masters competitors – lifting and throwing thousands of pounds of stone, metal, and wood over two days was the ideal way to spend the weekend.
"It's fun, as much as not being able to breathe with a 400-pound slab of steel on your chest is fun," says Gerard Benderoth, a police officer from Haverstraw, N.Y., after setting a personal record in the Husafell Stone event, in which competitors bear-hug a gravestone-shaped slab and try to carry it as far as possible.
"I love being a showman. It's a lot of fun, being big and strong," says the 5-ft. 11 in., 350-pound Mr. Benderoth, who competed despite breaking his elbow while making an arrest less than three weeks previously. "You can almost feel like you're somebody, you feel important, which is nice."
The term Highland Games typically applies to both athletic contests practiced for hundreds of years in Scotland, and festivals of Scottish culture as a whole. Dozens are held across the US each year. But the Highlander Games at Loon is a hybrid of sorts. Like the World's Strongest Man contests on the cable network ESPN, these games rely more on brute strength.
A few of the competitors are equally at home in both disciplines, but most concentrate on either one or the other, like Dave Barron, a discus thrower and shot putter in college. Mr. Barron entered his first Highland Games on a lark – and finished last, he says, in every event. Now a professional Highland Games athlete, the 6 ft., 3 in., 275-pound Barron says he feels a distinct disadvantage in the strongman events.
"Powerlifting is a lot more taxing. Throwing isn't that draining," says the lawyer and married father of one who lives in New York City. "It's not all about strength, it's also technique and timing, and power and practice, so the smaller, faster guys like me have a chance against the bigger, stronger guys."
While athletes in other sports are often known for protecting their secrets of training and technique, just the opposite is true at Loon, where the athletes coach one another through less-familiar events, especially complex ones such as tossing the caber – for many the highlight of the Highland Games.
In this event, competitors hoist a telephone-pole-sized log vertically off the ground, run forward, and then flip it end over end, with the goal of having it point straight away from them when it comes to rest, with the degree of accuracy judged by Magnús ver Magnússon, four-time World's Strongest Man champion. The complexities of footwork and physics involved might be trade secrets in another sport, but not this one, where all the competitors are friends.
"What we do is a fairly tight fraternity of guys. Honestly, we love the competing, but it almost feels like a family reunion," says Jim Glassman, a onetime offensive lineman at Ohio State University, who says there's a big difference between the atmosphere in college football, where the players are at least theoretically on the same side.
"There's people who I played football with in college ... I don't like 'em. I'm never gonna like 'em," says Mr. Glassman, who divides his time between Texas and California in his role as vice president of technology for a consulting firm. Strongmen and Highland Games athletes, he says, are "honestly the nicest group of people I've ever met. These guys would give you the shirt off their back, the shoes off their feet."
Not that they don't engage in some good-natured ribbing and clowning around. Glassman, a married father of one, spends a good portion of his down time sabotaging the attempts of a bachelor competitor's efforts to chat with female fans. And during the competition, the crowd cheers at the triumphant, bearlike roars of eventual winner, Wout Zijlstra, of the Netherlands and the sight of the baby-faced Benedikt Magnússon of Iceland (no relation to Magnús) making short work of 300-pound-plus stones.
While there's a certain amount of fame to be had from Highlander and strongmen competitions, the prize money is scarce – just a few thousand dollars, plus hotel and airfare, which doesn't really even cover the cost of acquiring what strongmen refer to as the "toys" that they lift, carry, and throw.
In the end, the big question – why do this? – is answered the same way by all. While Gregor Edmunds, the current Highland Games world champion, may joke that he took up the sport because he wanted to "thrash" his father, a Highland Games legend, and Benderoth, the police officer, claims that he competes because he can't sing and dance; it's really all about having fun and hearing the roar of the crowd. Or, in the case of Wout Zijlstra, roaring at the crowd and having them roar back.
"That roar, I compete 22 years, it makes myself stronger. ROAR! It gives me power," says Mr. Zijlstra, as he enjoys a surprisingly small postgames snack of mashed potatoes and gravy. The Games at Loon, he says, are the only competition in the US that he still travels to, simply because he likes the people so much. Will he be back next near? Apparently, there's a force that's even greater than the strongest of the strongmen.
"I have to ask my wife," says Zijlstra. "Maybe."