The date of the Donaldson five-mile race in Arlington was listed incorrectly in yesterday's Weekend section. The race is Monday at 7 p.m. at Madison Elementary School.
SOME COME for the camaraderie and competition, some for the chance to perform before large crowds and win prize money, and others are lured by the bagpipes and kilts.
This weekend at Episcopal High School in Alexandria, the clans will meet once again for the 12th annual Virginia Scottish games to test their mettle and athletic skills in seven events that would appear more at home in the highlands than suburban Virginia.
The events are arcane to say the least, but that's part of the mystique. Where else can you flip end-over-end a 20-foot, 140-pound pole (and be judged for technique, no less) as in the caber toss? The other events are no less physically demanding: a 56-pound weight toss for height; 56-pound and 28-pound throws for distance; a 22-pound blacksmith's hammer throw; a 17-pound stone put; and a sheaf toss (where the competitor uses a pitchfork to toss bags of straw over raised bars).
An outgrowth of Highland martial and farming skills, the games began in this country in Boston in 1853, but their Scottish roots date back to 1314, according to Ann Donaldson, author of "Scottish Highland Games in the U.S." More than 80 games a year are held throughout the country, and between 500 and 1,000 compete nationwide each summer. The men-only games in Alexandria generally draw about 40 competitors. Top prize is $1,000 towards a trip to Scotland to compete in games there.
The typical Scottish games athlete is usually a former discus, shot put or hammer throw specialist, although he may never have participated in an American track event. Strength is a requisite, but not the overriding determinant. Technique, speed and coordination help average-size competitors cut the big boys down to size.
Ed McComas, a Baltimore fuel company executive, is one of a coterie of enthusiasts who compete professionally. At 50, he's not as strong as he was when he competed as a discus thrower for the Baltimore Olympic Club two decades ago, but he still finishes in the money in Scottish games, sometimes defeating men 20 years his junior.
"There used to be weekly track meets in Baltimore and Washington in the '40s and '50s, but they died out, and I just wanted to continue competing in something, so I tried Scottish games and fell in love with them," says McComas. "That was back around 1970 when this sport began to take off on the East Coast. It was difficult learning the various events, but I found it a lot more fun practicing for seven events instead of just throwing the discus. And unlike most track meets, Scottish games attract big, enthusiastic crowds.
"I had to chop a tree myself to make my own caber that first year. You'd be surprised how many trees looked nice and straight until I cut them down and found twists and gnarls that made them unbalanced."
As for the "simple" sheaf toss, it took him almost seven years to master, McComas says, adding that the events aren't nearly as easy as they look: "You couldn't run a marathon without proper training, and it takes a similar commitment to practice to do well in the Scottish games."
The games are divided into professional and amateur competitions. Entries are closed for this year's Alexandria games, but if anyone's inspired by this year's competition, there's always next year.
Learning the events is informal and almost always requires establishing a mentor relationship with a veteran competitor. McComas, for example, has tutored Michael Reid, a Monckton, Md., cabinetmaker, for several years.
Reid is "a perfect example that nearly anyone who wants to compete in Scottish games can," says McComas. "He's only 5f10i and 170 pounds, but he regularly beats much bigger guys because of his tremendous coordination and speed. That and his commitment to practice prove that size is no obstacle success in these events."
Suitable practice sites are difficult to find and keep, however. McComas practices regularly at Towson State University now, but recalls years of being chased off other fields because of concerns over the safety of lead balls, large poles and heavy stones being thrown around in close proximity to joggers and other track athletes.
"And when people weren't concerned about me hitting them on the head with one of the heavy weights, they were upset about the divots," McComas says. "You can imagine how big some of the divots I left were."
Practice materials are still handmade by many participants, but newcomers are sometimes lent materials by older members of this tartan-clad fraternity.
There is one strict rule, however. Everyone must wear kilts when competing.
12TH ANNUAL VIRGINIA SCOTTISH GAMES -- Saturday and Sunday at Episcopal High School, 3901 West Braddock Road, Alexandria. Professional competition begins at 10 a.m on Saturday through 5 and resumes at 11 a.m. on Sunday till midafternoon. The amateur competition begins Saturday at 9 a.m. Tickets are $10 for both days, or $6 for one day. Children 15 and under are admitted free if accompanied by an adult.
For further information on learning how to play the Scottish games or compete in them, see Rhona Flenhinger at the athletic tent or write the Virginia Scottish Games, P.O. Box 1388, Alexandria, VA 22313.
Mike Fanning, a Washington writer, specializes in sports coverage.
SCOTS WHA HAE
Along with all the hurling, there'll be bagpipes skirling and Highland dancers swirling at the Scottish Games. The dancing starts off with a fling Saturday at 9. At 12:30, the games officially get underway to the stirring sound and spectacle of 20 massed pipe bands.
Throughout the weekend, music abounds, from amateur pipe band competitions to professional Piobaireachd (classical bagpipe), from Scottish harp to Scottish fiddling.
And for dog fanciers, there are sheepdog demonstrations (with real sheep) on Saturday at 11 and 4:15 and a Scottish breeds dog show and parade on Sunday. Car fanciers can admire a show of 50 or so British classic cars on Sunday from 11 to 3.
Throughout the games, you can visit about 40 clan tents and trace your Scottish roots. And this year there's an encampment of a re- created 18th-century Fraser Highlanders regiment. Also under canvas are Scottish specialty merchants selling everything a Celt could ask for, from sporrans to clan key chains.
And this is your chance to taste some authentic Scottish fare: Forfar bridies (ground meat wrapped up in pastry), Scottish meat pies and sausage rolls and butttery shortbread. You can also bring along your own picnic. And don't forget the drinks cooler -- you'll need more than just a "wee deoch-an'dorris" under the blazing Virginia sun. For detailed information, call 549-SCOT.