Can You Be A “Pro” in Two Sports: A Reality Check

This year, has been one of the hardest but also one of the most interesting of my last 10 years as a professional athlete. As many of you who are reading this piece right now, know me as a climber, you’re probably wondering why I put in the title that it’s about being a “pro” in two sports. Well, let me take you on a little journey of the last nine months!

At the end of last year (2018) I decided to pursue a long burning desire to go after a big rock climbing and ultrarunning/long distance challenge. I’d been thinking of the whole concept for a number of years, but honestly, I needed to let the thing really brew in my mind and become so engrained in my psyche that whenever I properly went for it, I’d go all in. And when I mean all in, I mean with every single bit of effort I could muster, all willingness to make the biggest sacrifices and also to put up with a lot of shit if I really needed to.

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My face + running = not always amused! (c) Talo Martin

So the challenge – in a nutshell it’s around 88 miles of off-road, trail mountain running (I guess including 30,000+ft of ascent and descent) and 15 multi-pitch routes all soloed – was to do all of this in a single effort enchainment in around the 24hr mark. In a way, I have the climbing covered as I’ve done plenty of that, but running and navigation are most definitely not my professions! If I looked at just the running element of it, I made an approximation that if I could get into perhaps the top 5% of UK fell running standards then maybe I had a chance. Being the optimistic person I am, I gave myself 6 months to go from “park runner” to “ultrarunner” in the mountains and try and do it well.

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My first official Ultra – was kind of surprising to win! But also reassuring…

So, what’s it like trying to be a professional climber (and hopefully still continue to be ok at that!) and then also go from almost zero to pretty “full on” in just half a year or so? Is it realistic? Does it impact other things? What’s the reality? I could probably break a lot of this down in thousands and thousands of words – which no doubt you’ll probably be subjected to reading at some point if you read my stuff this winter – but for the moment I’ll try and keep it in broad subject areas and keep it interesting and not too depressing.

Life in General

Right, here’s the nub of it. Running and training takes a lot of time. Climbing and training takes a lot of time. My life outside of these two apparently take quite a lot of time (I have a family and run a few different companies) and apparently the latter doesn’t always appreciate the former. Last year, in the very most approximate sense, I tried to keep my work to 40-60hr weeks and my climbing and training to 20hr weeks. If I was on a climbing trip, this would flip round to 40-60hrs climbing-type activities (cleaning, prepping, redpointing etc) and 20hrs of remote work. To me, this is a pretty enjoyable balance and whilst it’s quite engaging, I absolutely love it in either format. When I then added in 20+hrs of running (some weeks were well over 25hrs when doing 2 x 10hr run at weekend) then things really broke down. I was getting up at dawn to crank in extra training, going for runs at 2 and 3am in the morning and then trying to climb and work on top in the day. Sometimes my drives for weekend trainings that should have been 3hrs were taking 6+hrs as I was having to stop for so many naps. At home, I missed paying bills, I got a load of fines for various things and often I didn’t even make it to bed as I’d fall asleep in random places around the house. On more days that I’d like to admit, I’d experience waves of panic that would wash over me, when I’d think about how much I’d over-committed but I wasn’t prepared to back down. There was no way I could tell any of the people I see on a daily basis that I was going to go easy for a while or drop my sporting expectations just because I’d taken on a big challenge and was suffering. I remember saying to myself that I just needed to put one foot in front of the other and tomorrow would be a different day, no matter how awful I felt on that day. I’m not complaining about this, I’m just explaining what happens when you make these choices…. I don’t have anyone to blame but myself!

 

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Climbing

In the first few months, I found that I could climb fairly consistently at the standard I’ve been accustomed to over the last 5-10yrs and around 3-4 months into the ultra-distance training, I was happy to still be climbing and making first ascents on 8b+/8c cracks and my body just about felt normal. Initially, I thought that perhaps I could be superhuman and maybe everyone’s moaning when they say they can’t do everything… (I should have had a word with my future self right then!). As the summer came though, I started to really feel the weight of the cumulative training burden on my body. Each week that came and went, I found it harder and harder to muster up “quality” climbing training sessions and no matter how much I tried to convince myself that a hard fingerboard workout was hard, I knew in my heart that I was only putting a “90% show” on. It was the same when I’d go outside and work on a boulder or route – I’d select to do something that I knew was a touch under my limit. At first I didn’t notice, but once I did, I made the depressing realisation that I didn’t have the motivation to change it anyway. Crap!

By the middle of the summer, I started to feel like I’d lost my top end strength and power, which I had limited amounts of anyway. I’ve always been the type of athlete who can go all day and training endurance is easy, so the last season of consistent loss of strength was alarming. Each month that went by, I kept trying to talk myself into the higher quality sessions, but I just couldn’t suck it up. This was pretty depressing for me, because I feel like I never lack motivation or the ability to suffer, whatever happens. In the end, I chose to accept that my body and my mind were giving me dual message of “F-off Tom, we’re not sticking with you” and I went easy on myself. Man, even writing those words, sounds like I totally wimped out. Did I? Maybe, maybe not.

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At least the “rest” holds feel ok! (c) Talo Martin 

Running

When I first hit the parks, roads, hills and mountains in earnest in January I was a bit of a punter. I made so many mistakes, that I could keep most of my activities in the “comedy” bracket in my mind. I got lost trip after a trip (and yes I had a map and compass but was rubbish with it) and would run round some of the Lakeland moutains in giant 4hr loops just to realise I was back where I’d started. I tried to run up all the hills and would get burnt out in an hour and then walk and jog for the next six. I took no water or food with me because I thought eating and drinking were for people that don’t like being thirsty or hungry and so if I just dealt with the discomfort I’d save myself loads of weight carrying. Whilst I did find 15-20 miles off-road with loads of ascent did wipe me out in those initial months, I’d just get up the next day and do it again as I don’t mind digging in when necessary. As each week passed, I found I wasn’t really feeling that much fitter or stronger, but I could keep going at a steady pace for long days back to back. Around that same time, I totted up my miles in a week and I realised I’d hit 100, which surprised me.

By the summer and I was getting ready for dry rock and good conditions for attempting links on the main challenge, I started to notice that every time I took 1-2 days of full rest I was getting considerably faster the next time I’d go out. One trip to the Lakes gave me a 7.5hr personal best on a circuit across the fells that had taken 13hrs 2 months before. Another day out, I got 50 miles and around 20,000ft of ascent or so done in 13-ish hrs – the most interesting thing being that the next day I happily went out for a really long run again and didn’t feel too bad. What was so weird about this transition from punter to “pro” was that my lovely gains in running (and they were way better than I expected!) were equally matched by some fairly dismal losses in climbing. No matter how much I told myself that I should just try harder, or have less sleep or make more sacrifices, I couldn’t get my climbing to stay at the top. Even when I read around the subject matter, there was decent evidence to say that a lower limb sport could work in conjunction with an upper limb sport – what was wrong with me?!

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Just a few months have started to change my skin chicken legs into slightly more effective chicken legs! (c) Talo Martin

Can you be a pro in both?

I’m going to slightly contradict myself here – or at least on the surface appear to contradict myself. In my opinion, I think it is possible to be at a high “pro” level in two different sports (even in the same year) but realistically it’s insanely hard to be pushing the limits of both of them both at the same time. I just don’t think it’s possible given the physical and mental energy and focus that’s required. I’m absolutely certain that I can keep progressing in both, but they will need to be periodised carefully and if I spend another season of trying to do both at exactly the same time, I’m going to risk breaking or burnout. Loads of my clients ask about this mixture of two sports (normally climbing + running or climbing + MTB) and I stand by answer that if you want to push through your current limits you must pull back on one whilst you’re doing that. Maybe 0.001% can break that rule, but I try and play by the bigger numbers!

Where does it leave me?

Well, currently I’m sitting in a situation where the UK Lake District rained for almost the entire window that I set aside for my goals this summer. It did kindly stop raining for one week and presented a glorious weather window, but I was in Norway falling off some hard cracks, so that didn’t work out quite like I planned! As it stands, I’m in the cardiovascular shape of my life (I don’t think I’ve ever felt as generally energetic or such good health in the last 10 years) but dropped off the top 5% in my climbing. What should I do now? Drop the running and take back my 5%? Push the running even further and risk giving up another margin…. My gut sense tells me I like climbing way more than running so I’ll stick with that for the moment, but next year will bring the 24hr challenge back to my doorstep and at some stage I’m going to have to play a fine balancing act again. Hopefully my family, co-workers and friends will still be talking to me.

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Better pull my 5% finger out when I return….

Recovery Drink – Mental Games

Half way through our trip to Norway to redpoint Recovery Drink this month, Pete drops a bombshell on me.

“You know what, I’m actually feeling the pressure for the first time. I think knowing that other people expect us to do this, is making it harder.”

I think I can safely say that this is the first time I’ve ever heard Pete express concerns about outside pressure – the thoughts about what our friends, our “followers” and our sponsors would think. I know it probably sounds silly, but it really stood out to me. I’ve been climbing with Pete for something like 10 years now and we’ve done some pretty high pressure climbing (filming 24hr challenges at your margins with just one take isn’t exactly chilled out!) whether it’s down to time constraints, knowing we’d sacrificed a lot, accepting that brands had supported us to the max or just being aware that a cock up could lead to severe injury or death. Never before though, have I even heard the hint of Pete operating out of his mental zone. I’ve always been hugely inspired by his boldness, calm and collected thoughts in tight situations and occasionally genius fancy dress ideas!

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(c) Tristan Hobson

This got me thinking. Do we as professional climbers, feel the pressure? Do I feel the pressure? Do I even like it?

So firstly, it’s got to be blindingly obvious that professional (or “in the public light”) climbers feel the pressure. But maybe they deal with it in a special way – they have a manner in which they process that expectation to make it seem normal and non-threatening. Talking to other good climbers over the years, I’ve rarely heard anyone bring it up in conversation, but I have heard many non-pro climbers raise the point.

“Ah I really feel like I need to do this 8a before Christmas. I said I’d do it on my Facebook and now I’m not even enjoying it any more.”

Or

“This is horrible. I’ve only got 3 more days before I go home to the UK and I’ve got to send. I must send. I’m going to be so disappointed in myself otherwise”

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See…. he’s top of his game!! 🙂

These statements and variations of the above, I’ve heard many, many times whether it’s friends, coaching clients or people hanging out at the crag. I hear a distinct discomfort with pressure and not much positive outlook on why the pressure might be ok. I’m not saying everyone is like this, but I hear it a lot more in the non-professional community and I like to watch for patterns as there’s often something to be learnt from!

In comparison, those who do this for a full-time or part-time living, appear to be very quiet about the stress and pressure (there are exceptions of course!!). In my experience they’re very adept at internally processing it. I say this, because I still refuse to accept that they don’t feel it, they just to don’t express it to the outside world.

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(c) Tristan Hobson

This leads me to my second pondering on whether feel it. Do get brought down by the pressure and does it present a problem? I know that for sure, I’m conscious of it but I can’t say that I see it as a problem. Perhaps that’s the difference here. It’s all about how we process that thought and feeling. For me, I see it as “a thing” but I acknowledge it and move on. I think to myself on some days (for example)

“What am I going to say to my wife when I’ve just come on a trip for 3 weeks and not got up my major redpoint project for the year? Will she be disappointed? Is it fair that I’ve made my family have less time with me all for the rewards of nothing on paper? No hardcore tick. No news headline.”

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I get these kinds of thoughts frequently, but I try to just notice them, reflect that it’s an uncomfortable thing and immediately move onto thinking about my “process” and what’s going to happen that day. So no, I don’t have some kind of bulletproof brain that never feels the pressure, but I do have a mechanism that lets me acknowledge the issue, not obsess about it and quickly goes back to what I’ve got on my plate in the here and now. I’ve also used this same thought process to deal with normal life anxieties. For example, around 4-5 years ago I was having big issues with getting out to public places and I’d freak out about really random stuff that I couldn’t control. I found that if I actively acknowledged all of the “issues” that I saw in an uncontrollable environment I could stop the anxiety and stress so they became a background feature. I’d quickly make myself live in “the present” and with time I seemed to resolve the things that in reality have never disappeared. I still hate the same places (supermarkets) but I have a quality process.

Lastly, do I like it? Perhaps the ability to “see” or “feel” that pressure but not get bogged down by it, is because I don’t find it that unpleasant compared to others? In some ways this could potentially have some weight. I don’t see pressure as a bad thing. I just acknowledge it and how it makes me feel. Importantly, I also actively try to remind myself that there are elements of it that can improve our performance as individuals. That tight deadline can force us to get up and get on with things. The expectation of a friend can commit us more strongly to a goal and remind us that we did make a promise to ourselves. Even – dare I say it – a social media post can gather round us a tight circle of “supporters” who are also interested in our goal and they then become positive influencers in our motivation and will power.

So where does this leave us? Is Pete going to sack off his pro-climbing career? Am I going to double down and add even more pressure in 2019? No, I’d say that it was Pete making a rare externalization of his thought process and for me, I’m quite happy with current projects! Recovery Drink didn’t happen. It will happen and I’m perfectly content that I’ll just have to get back in that process again and keep plugging away.

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Keep it fun. Keep it mono (c) Paolo Sartori

 

Norwegian Trad Cracks!

The first time I visited Norway was for the Ballsack Festival (one of the most entertaining parties I’ve ever been to?!) with Pete. We’d been invited to present at the climber’s festival with the promise of a car and a map for a week so we could go to Jossingfjord. You’re probably thinking we’d just get lost immediately, but that problem was solved by a couple of local guys coming with us as escorts – our reputations must have preceded us!

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What are you pouring down there Pete?!

 

For most climbers, Jossingfjord is famous for Recovery Drink, an approximate 8c+ crack established by Nico Favresse. At the time he’d thought it was a step up from Cobra Crack and seeing me and Pete hadn’t long returned from doing that route, it seemed like a cool idea to go and try it. To cut a long story short (you can get a lot of the theme of misery from the video below) we had some truly British weather and attempts were more or less cut down to trying boulder problem sections interspersed by trying to revive hands and feet into a sense of feeling. The Recovery Drink was mega – there was no doubt about that – but what impressed us even more was the massive untapped potential of the valley. Perfect rock everywhere and barely any lines established. We’re not talking obscure lines either. There were perfect multipitch splitters, long corner systems and some very tasty looking slabs as well.

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This year when I had the opportunity to go and lecture at the Stavanger (Bratte Rogalands Venner – BRV), I knew I had to try and get a few days back at Jossingfjord. Recovery Drink seemed out of the realms of realism as I’ve been suffering from an increasingly annoying injury which has been hard to manage. I won’t moan too much, but basically 8c+ is definitely not happening at the moment. On the positive side, the Profile Wall in Jossingfjord is home to another slightly easier but stunning line – Ronny Medelsvensson – an 8b fingers and thin hands crack put up by Erik Massih and Crister Jansson. It’s a perfect line with thin splitter cracks that break the left side of the Profile Wall. When one section of crack peters out another immediately starts, which creates sustained jamming sequences followed by a little boulder problem to transfer to the next section of crack. In fact, now I think about it, that’s exactly what Recovery Drink does!

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(c) Ben Queensborough

I organized a few days climbing there last week with Louis Sæther and Ben Queensborough before going off to do a lecture in nearby Stavanger. Louis is one of Norway’s best boulderers but curiously he also loves the trad! I did a couple of ground up new routes with him last year and he never really complained when I made him do some offwidthing or loose choss block hurling. He was game for pretty much whatever, which is somewhat key when crack climbing (or climbing with me). I think it’s the style of the movement and the discomfort which requires people to be quite flexible in personality. One minute you’re cruising, the next minute you’ve ripped a massive flapper in the back of your hand – it doesn’t matter though because tomorrow you’ve got to redpoint and your partner has already torn his skin so he’s not listening to your moaning. It’s a bit of a “just get on with it” attitude that helps I guess…

 

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(c) Ben Queensborough

The first day up there was brilliant. We were joined by a London photographer Ben Queensborough who was still dressed in his best outfits from Shoreditch (yup, I’d have to continually take the mick out of his £200 leather shoes) and not yet that experienced on rope-based adventure photography. The thing was though, he got on with it. We’d totally chucked him in at the deep end and with some occasional cock ups (probably my fault) we got it all sorted. Louis and I dogged the route to work out the sequences and what the tricks were. The crack system is probably around 25-30 degreee overhanging so it’s pretty sustained and the climbing works with a mixture of finger locks, thin hands and the occasional hand jam. Even the first 20m were brilliant and this was before you got to the roof. From there, it actually eased off quite a bit despite how it looked from below and bomber hand jams allowed you make big moves on steep terrain without feeling too stressed.

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(c) Ben Queensborough

At the end of the first day I did the main section of the crack in a oner, so I thought I might as well strip the route and go for a lead the day after – at this point Pete would be saying something like “but Tom you’re totally unprepared. You don’t know the gear and you’re still freestyling quite a bit.”

Typically, Pete would have been right and my first attempt was me trying to remember how to place the gear and switching all the finger locks to pinkies down instead of thumbs down. What a plonker. I knew I was doing it even in the middle of the climbing, but I felt like I had so many things to think about that I couldn’t make decent decisions. I think this just goes to show that on really perfect ascents, it’s why your mind is so quiet. You don’t have many extra decision that aren’t accounted for and you don’t waste any mental energy – you just plough it 100% into trying really hard.

 

A couple of attempts later Louis was getting some good links on the main hard section and Ben was up on the fixed ropes complaining about losing feeling to his legs. “Yes, he’s getting the hang of this now…. Numb feet are exactly what you’re looking for when hunting out the best images….” I shouted encouragement upwards to let him know all the best in the business have lost all their toes by the time they’re in their mid 30s. Once I’d sorted out what I was doing with the friend placements (and a key nut to make things a bit faster) I had a good go without messing up. Like lots of the good cracks I’ve done, the climbing was so good that you forget about the pain a bit and enjoy the movement and the asthetics of the line. By the top easier section, my thumbs were so pumped that pulling the trigger bars had become difficult. Just ram them in is my method! Thank god I had some fairly new friends as my desert collection were still filled with sand and Mike Hutton’s chili sauce.

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After getting the route ticked we spent a couple more days doing other established climbs in the area. Louis made the first ascent of a bouldery 8a+ fist roof crack (right in the middle of a popular crag!) and I fell off a few other bits and pieces. As I left Norway, I was reminded that this country has so much potential it’s almost criminal that more people don’t know about it. There’s a dedicated harcore Norwegian contingent who develop much of the stuff here and it’s only occasionally when people like Alex Megos and Adam Ondra visit that it gets a quick bit of well deserve limelight. One thing is for sure… I’m definitely going back there more!

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 The “Ronny Tape Job” (c) Ben Queensborough

All photos supplied by Ben Queensborough – see his gallery at www.bqphotography.co.uk

Summer Endurance Challenges

The Staffordshire Nose – An Entirely British Day Out

I first came across the Staffordshire Nose Challenge in my early years of climbing together with Pete Whittaker. We’d recently broken the record for the most number of routes climbed in a day (550 soloed) and for some reason we wanted more ways in which to destroy ourselves on a day out. I think it was the experience of climbing with someone and jointly going through the same pains and exhaustion that was somehow bonding. You knew you were suffering, but there was also someone else who you depended on, just a few feet away, feeling exactly the same. After that day out, we spent some time researching other possible challenges and came across the – as yet uncompleted – Staffordshire Nose Challenge.

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The rules of this day out were easily defined. You must climb all of the Brown and Whillans Routes on the Roaches, Hencloud and Ramshaw in a day. Thirty two routes in all and most of them graded HVS. It sounded so simple, that we could hardly believe that a number of strong parties had already failed to complete this in a 24hr period. There were tales of partners being carried back down from the crag, E6 leaders flailing on routes many grades below their limit and of course, plenty of blood, sweat and tears. On the face of it, mine and Pete’s first attempt at the challenge in 2009 was surprisingly successful despite the conditions and our usual “disaster-style” professionalism. We’d started the challenge in pouring rain and finished it 9hrs and 56mins later surrounded by clouds of midges. I’m not sure if we lost more blood to the wildlife or to the cracks.

Over the following years there was one individual who continually expressed interest in trying to match (if not beat) mine and Pete’s day out. Andi Turner, the keeper of Western Grit, had enrolled various partners over the years to complete the big day out. Until last year he’d been very close to completion, but with the magic combination of Pete “The Dark Horse” Bridgewood, he convincingly beat our time in July 2012 to bring the time down to 8hrs 41mins. They had chosen to use a combination of solo and roped climbing and certainly upped the ante a little by combining risky strategy with speed. The moment Pete and I saw the news of our time being bettered, we were instantly motivated. This challenge was getting competitive!

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The arch rivals!

Over the past few months, we started to plan a come back. As Eastern Grit boys, we knew our regional pride was at stake and sacrifices would have to be made in order to rise to the challenge. I started doing regular runs in the park each evening and Pete cut down on his cake consumption in preparation for peak performance. We carefully analysed Andi T and Pete B’s speed strategy and realised a day of our own preparation was necessary. We learnt the approaches to the routes, the down climbs and what was the lightest rack that we could risk. Lunch was abandoned in favour of “breakfast bulking”, we wouldn’t build a single belay (just sitting braced behind a boulder was opted for) and we would also choose to solo a number of routes.

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Team Plonker

Arriving at the Roaches on the day of our big attempt we were already under pressure from outside factors. The forecast for the day was rather poor and we noticed that all of our routes were under “winter conditions” which I classify as grassy, damp or wet. To further complicate factors, my carbo-loading strategy had been a little excessive and I was dashing to the toilet rather frequently. Only Pete’s in depth knowledge and understanding of the rock conditions gave me hope that morning. He put my mind at ease quickly:

“It looks bloody damp, but it’ll be alright. We can put a rope on if it gets too serious.”

The first hour actually went pretty well, with routes like Rhoden, The Mincer, Matinee and The Bulger quickly passing. By Valkyrie Direct though, a weather situation was starting to develop. The crag had become enveloped in a cloud of clag and it started to lightly rain. Just a couple of routes after this Pete had probably one of his boldest leads of his career to consider. Dorothy’s Dilemma, E1 5b sits proudly alongside the other great lines of Brown and Whillans. What it lacks in protection and safety, it makes up for in greenness. As I watched Pete set off in wet shoes and no quickdraws (they were too heavy) I felt apprehensive. He’d climbed bold E9s on grit and flashed multiple E7s, but this looked the real deal. As much as I wanted to laugh that he was going to attempt an E1 at his very limit, I had to be silent as the situation was serious. On topping out with some very sketchy looking climbing he shouted down,

“That was harder and scarier than climbing Meshuga!”

After that experience, we were pleased to be in one piece still and started to realised that we’d really have to knuckle down if we were going to get to the end of the day with a successful result. Fortunately the worsening of conditions was equally matched by an improved resolve. We felt privileged to lead classics like Lightning Crack, Slippery Jim and The Sloth in the soaking wet and each time we topped out it’d had felt like an E5 experience. Each time one of us got to the top a route, the other was congratulating them like they’d onsighted one of their very hardest routes. The game had changed and HVS was very close our limit!

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(c) Mike Hutton Images

Hencloud was very similar to the Roaches. Perhaps a little greener, but at least it stopped raining for two of the routes. In the midst of soloing Main Crack I did stop and think about the situation. Here we were soloing on top of each other, with wet trousers, wet shoes, wet cracks and the repercussions of a fall ultra-serious, but we were having so much fun. Each top out brought out feelings of mutual understanding. We knew we were cold, hurting and tired, but to go through that with someone else, who’s outcome is 100% depending on your own fortitude is amazing. It makes you so much more positive and brings out the funniness in the misery.

Along the edges of Ramshaw we neared the end of the challenge and the funny side of the day came through stronger and stronger. We were shouting lines from famous Youtube clips about speed climbing at each other constantly. Becoming parodies of our own heroes, we mimicked their actions.

“Pete…..! I can show you 30 places on Ramshaw that you can die!

“Allez, allez, allez!”

“No gear. Don’t Fall!”

We ran across the final section of crag still roped up – our gear jangling on our harnesses – to face the last labour. The viscous Ramshaw Crack. Our time was just 5hrs 35mins to this point and we knew we had the potential to break the record by a fair margin. As I pulled into the wet void above me I felt cooked. I’d nearly fallen off soloing Great Zawn just 20 minutes beforehand and I knew that this route was probably beyond me. As I floundered my way up, the final insult was for my tape glove to split and fall off exposing open wounds on my hand. Ejected from the route, I lay on the ground at Pete’s feet a broken man. I curled up and whimpered.

“I’m so sorry Pete. I can’t do it. I’ve got nothing left.”

Like every great partner and friend, he dragged me to my feet, handed me a belay device and told me that he’d take care of business. Setting off on the crack above me, he gave it everything and threw the all important chicken wing to cross the threshold of success. I knew that once he’d done that move, all it required was for me to second the pitch under the careful guidance of Pete screaming at me and telling me I couldn’t give up. In one final nauseating effort, I jammed every part of my body (learning a chin-jam in the process) and crawled over the top of Ramshaw. We laughed and high-fived like Americans, but underneath it all, we’d had an entirely British day out at the crag. Our time of 5hrs and 53mins reflected complete and utter stubborness and sheer will to not give up in totally unacceptable conditions. I hope that even as I write this, Andi T and Pete B are already preparing to do battle with the Nose again next year.

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Why It Sucks to be a Route Climber

I’ve been a route climber – you know, doing long things on ropes and getting pumped – for almost all my climbing career. That’s about 18yrs to be precise and rather surprisingly, I’ve never tried being a boulderer. I know that probably sounds obvious, but it sums up my experience in climbing as at no time over the years, have I completely sacrificed my fitness in favour of going bouldering.

Last year, I took a step towards the dark side and spent a long time not tying into rope and not getting pumped. As some of you who know me (or read my blog) will know, it was because I started working with Ollie Torr to get a bit stronger. I realised if I was to make a change so significant after 17 years of a very set training pattern I’d probably need to accept the body might find it a shock to the system! Other than the fact that I did get some excellent results out of it, I learnt quite a few new things about what it’s like to live life as a boulderer.

Typical route climber. Weird.

Having spent so much time being a route climber and watching “from the other side” as boulderers went about their every day life I have to confess I was a bit clueless as to how different things would feel. Below I’ve listed a few of my observations from this 6 month transition and whilst some of them are serious (and hopefully useful) observations, some should be taken with a pinch of salt!

1. I stopped getting ill or feeling on the edge of it. For years I’ve had this feeling each morning when waking up that I’m on the verge of being sick, but a couple of hours later I feel fine and I just repeat the process the next day. I’ve always put it down to the heavy volume of training and very late nights trying to fit endurance training in around kids

Message: route climbing hits your immune system hard

2. I’ve got way more energy than I thought I did. When I converted to being a boulderer, I no longer had to go to bed every day totally toasted and most evenings I didn’t even have to fit a last block of training in. It was all easily fitting into each day! As a result I found myself absolutely buzzing. At first it was pretty strange and I had to go out for 2-4 mile quick runs to burn off the excess of jitters but with a bit of time I realised I could just plough that energy into things I’d abandoned previously due to not having enough time. Artwork, cooking and TV became a reality again!

Message: route climbing uses way more energy. This is obvious, but possibly not appreciated by many.

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Train hard, eat hard!

3. My house got way tidier. Most days previously would result in me dumping bags of ropes, kit, shoes and racks all over the place, but seeing as a crash pad doesn’t fit in my living space very well, it got neatly put away in the basement.

Message: I’m messy and lazy

4. My internet surfing went sky-high. Because I spent most of my time resting whilst training or resting whilst projecting, Too much resting for my liking. I had this terrible binge of web browsing. I started instagramming, actually following links on Facebook and thinking that articles on Buzzfeed were worth reading. They’re not.

Message: Instagram activity is proportional to number of moves not done.

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Garden projects got done

5. The younger cool kids started talking to me. I think they were tricked into thinking I’d abandoned my weird crack and trad fetish, and so started engaging me at the crag. I had to pick up on some of the lingo – send, can you spot me, campus it, hashtag throwback thursday – and soon enough I was wasn’t asked any more about why Pete wasn’t with me.

Message: Routes aren’t cool, trad climbing is seriously uncool and Pete is not cool despite having a sister on the cool list.

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Pete still being uncool, even though he’s on the Lattice Board

6. There’s just as many tricks on most boulder problems as the routes out there, but in general I think boulderers are much worse at spending the time to work this out, or persevering with making an alternative work. Sure there are exceptions to the rule, but as a whole, there was more brute force and less finesse. I think this is promising for many of the route climbers out there??!

Message: route climbers are weak and boulderers are strong.

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Tricking my way along a Font 7B with 7A cunning.

I’m back “normal” climbing again now. Six months was enough for me to have a little sample into how the other half lives and I’m pleased that I did it. I’m not pleased that I have to go back to feeling like death every morning and working out how to squeeze the adequate training volume into a fairly complicated life, but it feels freaking awesome totally annihilating myself on the lactate rush.  There’s not many things that come close to this for me and I’ll gladly stick with this for a while yet!

Return to the USA Cracks

When Pete and I spent an autumn down at The White Rim in the USA, trying to make the first ascent of Century Crack, we left with the feeling that we were only just scraping the surface. The sandstone faces and roofs of Utah must offer some of the most exciting and daunting crack projects in the world. Century Crack, Mason Earle’s Bartlett Wash Project (now climbed!) and Peewee’s Necronomicon give you an insight into some of the best hard routes in this style. What’s interesting for me, is that they’re still a away off the current sport climbing standards and I personally feel there is little excuse for this. It’s just a matter of motivation!

Century crack

Photo credit: Alex Ekins (c)

Since Pete returned from his epics in Yosemite, enduring the smell of Dan McManus’s socks in 9 day storm epics and Nico Favresse’s sandbag beta, he started to remind me of our plans to get involved with something really meaty again. An all-out unlikely mission where we’re currently way too crap and will involve some serious teamwork, training oblivion and thinking out of box. This led us to the conclusion that we might as well go after something that jointly motivates us. You can probably summarise it in a few words:

Crack. Hard. Long. Meaty.

So what’s the method? How are we going to get from the current standard to somewhat better? Firstly we did what we do for every joint mission – and I recommend that anyone out there that’s taking on a project do something quite similar.

  1. What’s your goal – what specifically does it require?
  2. How good are you now – are any of your performance factors crucial to the goal?
  3. Work like a robot at improving a few key (weak) factors. Don’t get distracted. Focus.
  4. Have process goals for almost all elements.
  5. Establish a base of conditioning with your mind focussed on a block of hard work somewhere 4-8 months in the future.
  6. Don’t make excuses, don’t be soft on yourself. Don’t worry when you feel like crap for days on end.
  7. Agree a plan of action that works for both people.
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If you work as a team – you need to think like a team!

For me and Pete, it’s going to be all about steep terrain and upper body conditioning. We’re not that good in wide positions, mega burly big moves and our core is a looooong way off what it was a few years back. Because we ultimately want to perform on quite a specialist terrain, we need our training to be a mixture of generalised and specific (the specific being a crack). With the application of normal training methods, it’s then fairly simple! Once you’ve got out of bed each morning…..

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We’ve already built a few new bits and pieces down in the cellar to work some new crack sizes (we’re not great at thin hands) and the Lattice Board is coming in pretty handy for doing a load of strength drills. Really systematic and easy to measure.

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We are about 1 month into it now and adaptations are starting to show though. At first I spent almost every day thinking the training was a complete disaster as I could barely get out of bed each morning, I hurt so much. But then just the other day…. yes just one day…. I had a mega day. Sometimes, it’s little rewards of one good day out of 30 bad ones that keep your faith!

 

Weak for the Grade

So it’s just over 2 months since I made some sort of vague pact to “get strong or die trying” all whilst maintaining the pretence that I can still get up the odd fitness route. Firstly, I’d taken the brave (no, it’s not that easy trusting your training with another person!) step of giving Ollie Torr my forearms to try and finally turn me from being chronically weak for the grade. Secondly, I turned my back on the usual pattern of a massive volume of climbing and went for quality. No more exhaustive days and more of that “stop when you feel strong” attitude.

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Would you trust your forearms with this man? You bet! (c) Pete Kneen

How’s it gone, you’re probably wondering? Have I turned my life around and have I stopped falling off pretty much everything above V8 that’s not a crack? The quick answer is it’s gone great and I’ve ticked more hard boulders than ever before in my life, but the longer answer is slightly more interesting in my opinion…..

  1. Dropping the volume. 

Oh my God. I know this probably sounds obvious to most people out there, but when you’ve lived a life of grinding yourself to a pulp most days of the week then you’re amazed at how much spare energy you have when you’re pulling less than a 1000 moves a day. It felt amazing! Filling the day with just a boulder session, fingerboard, rings and bar work meant I had so much energy. For the first few weeks of following Ollie’s plan, I was getting to 9pm each night and having to go out for long runs and do boring housework to try and burn my hyper-activity off. I was absolutely wired. Even though I was knackered in a specific way from the strength work, the overall body tiredness wasn’t there.

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More hangs, fewer moves! (c) Pete Kneen

Lesson: if you want to get some much needed energy back into your life of kids, work, family and climbing then drop the volume.

2. Fingerboarding & Rings

This part was really a revelation to me. I’ve been doing a combination of complimentary rings and fingerboard work that was designed to work on the issues I had in both the shoulders and forearms. I’ve fingerboarded for a number of years now, but never before have I had such quick gains. I very much owe this to the nature of the complimentary work – I think some parts of the chain were so weak that I was held back by them significantly. I further see this now that I can watch Ollie do a session on the rings (he’s a beast – but an ex-gymnast, so I can’t big him up too much) and tie this into his finger strength scores that originally impressed me so much.

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Ollie Torr. No messin’ (c) Pete Kneen

Lesson: if you’re very weak in one region, don’t just look for causation at that point.

3. Going to Raven Tor

For years I’ve hated The Tor. It’s exposed every weakness I had and still have. Until last year the hardest problem I’d done there was a V7. I’d tried all of the V8-10s and couldn’t get anywhere near them and in particular Ben’s Roof seemed miles away for me – its basic crimp move midway hit me right where it hurt…. in my spongy fingers. Going to this venue whilst following a new regime of training has been the most beneficial thing I’ve done to my “normal style” climbing (AKA not crack climbing) as I’ve been able to lay the improvements from training straight onto real rock. As I ticked my way through various problems this Autumn I thought it might be worth me going back to the nemesis 15 year project of The Sheep at Burbage, Yup, a lowly V5 that has kicked my ass for over a decade. With a mate Chris in tow (he seems to have been my lucky charm this year) I managed to break the trend and actually did the damn thing. Unbelievable! I’d managed to climb more than one V11 in the previous month but that V5 still felt harder (see video at bottom)

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Doing Steve’s V12/8A+ link (c) Chris Fox

Lesson: Go to Raven Tor as it’ll get you up your real projects.

So in summary, it’s gone pretty darn well. For the first year ever, I’ve had people moaning at me that I can’t claim to be weak any more (got to be a good thing?) and a number of route projects I’d written off as being too cruxy are now possible. Working with Ollie has been absolutely brilliant and made me realise that having been a coach for so long I’d forgotten how good it is to have someone who’s watching out for you and who you can moan at when it’s all going wrong. As (mostly) they’ll tell you it’s going to be alright and you will tick The Sheep one day…

Boulders climbed this Autumn below – for those that like to see the numbers. Admittedly I still snuck around doing quite a lot of long problems and link ups, but I couldn’t even do the sections last year as individual V7-9’s. I know it still doesn’t look great, but anyone who know’s me well will tell you it’s very different from the previous year where I did 2 x V8, whatever the length!

1 x V12

4 x V10/11

2 x V9/10

1 x V9

2 x V8