Really not sure where to begin with this. At 'the beginning' would make obvious sense of course, but I sort of feel the need for some disclaimers before I spill my beans. 1. This will be a dull old read. Narcoleptic's & insomniacs read on. 2. It might make you think I am very sad and dull. You'd be right in that assumption. I'm single: cause or effect- who knows? 3. Throughout the last 6-9 months I have frequently questioned my own motivations, dedication and at times sanity, so don't expect any concrete coherent thoughts in this post. 4. I'm going to talk in jargon as we enter the murky world of obsessive compulsive disorder and fanatical dedication to a niche activity. I'll do my best to explain as we go along...
So I fell in love with mountains ten years ago now, in 2003 (yes, it's a long story, yes, I feel it's relevant for you to know this, yes, I need to explain that I am not actually mad, bear with me). After this epiphany I started 'scrambling' up all the mountains I could find. Later, local friends (I live in Devon, renowned Mountain Epicentre of the world "Kathmandu, Chamonix, Exeter") started to suggest I could get my fix by clambering around on local outcrops like the Dartmoor Tors and the south west’s spectacular sea cliffs. They were wrong. Mountains are mountains. But climbing locally was better than nothing, and I gradually accrued some climbing experience and a semblance of competence. I stress this: my passion for mountains and climbing is very high. I unashamedly admit that I love it. But my ability does not match my passion. I almost feel cheated. How can I love it so much, be blessed with such a passion and yet not be one of these seemingly innately gifted 'naturals' that excel at their sport because of pure natural talent? We'll come back to this thought later. Anyway, I got into 'climbing' as distinct from 'mountains', and plodded away, very modestly grade-wise. We probably do need to mention grades. Damn. Climbing is ostensibly an objective sport. Grades are relevant for all disciplines (Trad’, sport, bouldering, etc) to give you a guide or an idea of difficulty. I generally do try to avoid talking about grades, but it's a necessary evil for me to discuss grades at times in this post.
Where was I? Okay, yes, my ability; you need to sort of understand where I am in the grand scheme of things I think. For non-climbers, let's say I'm average, intermediate (it’s all relative of course; my Mum probably thinks I’m brilliant). For climbers, I'm probably leading Trad at around E1/E2 okay nowadays, still with occasional melt-downs and fear-sobs on easier grades than that. I'm a timid climber as anyone who climbs with me will tell you. I've only done a little outdoor sport climbing, getting a few local F7a classics done. Bouldering-wise my hardest ticks outside have been Dartmoor V5’s, and I've done a bunch of local 'highball' or 'micro routes' in a bouldering style, mostly between grades E2 & E4. So we're not setting the world alight here. Boringly average. But trying hard, and despite my near constant moaning, frequent threats to sell my rack and promises to the big guy upstairs that if he can just get me off this cliff I will NEVER do it again, I do enjoy it. Very much. There's a moth to a flame thing going on for sure. Literally spend all my waking hours thinking about climbing. Then spend big chunks of my climbing time wondering what the heck I'm doing. Frequently terrified, but I can't stop.
So, a couple of years ago, having just returned from an expensive flop (bad weather) of a holiday to the Alps, Exeter had a brand new climbing wall open. The Alps debacle had given me the urge to get climbing more, and the new wall had given me the opportunity- even when it was dark and wet. I threw myself at it, full monthly membership, climbing 5 times a week on average, frequently more often than that. Rocket Science outcome - climbing loads meant I got a little bit better. My grades improved accordingly. I liked it. I started to climb with a friend who was equally obsessed, but who was climbing a lot harder than me. I was still able to offer him little bits of advice and training tips from my background in Exercise Science so we kind of helped each other improve.
After a few months we started using a dedicated training plan. Rather than going to the wall and climbing until we were exhausted, we started to do things more scientifically; targeting areas to improve through identifying goals, having specific stamina and power endurance sessions, doing 4 x 4’s, structured sessions to improve our onsight climbing and address our (my) mental weaknesses such as fall training, we were using a thorough ~40minute warm up, lots of stretching, and also supplementing our training with good nutrition and rest periods, swapping articles and videos and frequently looking at blogs and posts and generally obsessing about training.
At first people in the wall would openly point and laugh when we got the skipping rope out, or when we were doing press ups and sit ups and other conditioning exercises. "Taking it a bit seriously aren't you lads?" I suppose we had to admit that we were. It’s a bit uncool to try hard really isn’t it? But we really wanted to try hard, we wanted to get better. Then, as we kept improving, gradually some of the people who'd initially laughed at us, started to ask for tips, or even if they could join in, the wall owner even asked if we’d run a Training Night because people had been enquiring about joining in, and gradually our idiosyncrasies became common place. I loved it; I was getting better almost week by week. The standard warm up we'd adopted (stolen, along with the weekly routine, from a GB Team climber's blog), which had initially left us sweating and exhausted on its own, slowly became so straightforward that we had to increase its challenge, because it was hardly even warming us up.
After about 6-9 months of this, we went to a competition, the BBC's (British Bouldering Championships). Spectacularly stupid of me to enter this; in my defence I only really entered because I didn't want to stand around watching Adam and Paul climb, and looking like a total lemon. I was way out of my depth. For a start I'd been training almost exclusively stamina (for Trad’ goals), and never really bouldered. Bouldering is much more about strength, of which, I was lacking. I expected to do badly, and I was right. I was a time wasting amateur who should not have been there, coming 48th out of 52, and I think a few of the guys lower than me got injured. I couldn't climb anything.
Oddly though, the humbling this gave me led to a real urge to work a weakness. Even though I was easily lapping F6c in the wall, I was appalling at bouldering, and I wanted to get better. Getting up F7a/+ was becoming regular, but I’d fail on F7b and above because I just couldn’t pull the smaller holds, I wasn’t getting pumped, I just didn’t have any strength. Bouldering had to be embraced. Adam mentioned climbing at an even harder competition called CWIF (Climbing Works International Festival), in Sheffield. At first I thought I could just go and watch, as a part of the ShAFF weekend - it looked like an exciting event. Gradually though, the idea of taking part was discussed, but I was super keen to avoid the humiliating 'punter' feeling from the BBC's. If we were going to go, and I was going to climb, I wanted to at least climb with a modicum of respect for myself. If I trained hard, and stayed dedicated - for 7-8 months - I might, just might, be 'okay', by the time the competition came around?
The standard at CWIF is exceptionally high, some of the world’s best compete, and the top 20-50 places are essentially the preserve of sponsored professionals and celebrity climbers. I knew I'd be way, way down the field, possibly even last again, but it might be a good goal and motivator to train towards it, just to see if I could eek some improvement out of myself. I suppose I'd always wondered what I might be capable of if I really dedicated myself to it? Have you ever thought that? ‘I wonder how good I could be if I really tried?’ It's pretty easy to make excuses for the high level achieved by pro's - they have time to train every day, they're "talented" or "gifted", they started when they were kids etc. I'd always sort of bemoaned my lack of talent, and the weirdo in me did want to explore exactly what it was like to train like a devoted Olympian. Eat right, sleep right, train right. Would I get better? I probably think too much. What does 'better' even mean? An arbitrary score or position in a competition? Pushing my grade higher? Without even really knowing my deeper motivation for trying, I started to be interested in pursuing the goal of climbing at The CWIF.
Now: for any of you expecting a fairy tale ending, where the average climber ends up on the podium- a quick reality check: This is an international competition, the world bouldering champion is competing, along with the cream of British and European climbers, getting into the Top 50 is all but impossible (it is hypothetically possible that 120 people could all simultaneously get flu or food poisoning and withdraw). Do not read on expecting miracles, you won't find them, you'll find teeny tiny, incremental - some might say insignificant - gains.
I started training with renewed vigour and direction. I put the harness and rope away and started bouldering, absolutely no need for stamina where I'm going, this is all about power and strength, and I'm bobbins at it. Amongst the myriad of climbing skills, this is my Achilles heel. I am just fundamentally weaker than most. I’m not just saying that to be falsely modest, I base that judgement on the level of me against my peers. I have found over the years that I seem to need to try hard to just get to the base-level of most of my friends - who aren't trying hard. Seemingly.
We kept the structure we already had, warm ups, conditioning, attention to diet, rest days, all of that was a given now, but we started doing a lot more bouldering and pure strength work such as finger boarding and training on the 40 degree systems board. I did a little yoga to help my flexibility, and one or two runs a week for general cardio fitness (mostly to keep my weight down though, because power to weight ratio now meant everything. My friends and family thought I’d developed an eating disorder when I’d forgo ceratin foods at mealtimes and reluctantly explain I wanted to drop another kilo or so), but mostly, by and large, we bouldered. We used the steep 40 degree overhanging circuit board at the wall almost exclusively, session after session, and made up a series of differing length and varying difficulty problems on that board. Targeting individual moves on different holds: Crimps, slopers, high stepping, lock offs. I used that board 3-4 nights a week, and used a home fingerboard twice a week. Gains came slowly. Too slowly. I found the '40 board' hard, and for weeks and weeks I just couldn't graduate from 'jugs' onto smaller holds. I just couldn't hold anything smaller than a mini-jug. As a result, I think my fingers weren't being engaged properly, because I was always holding with a fist. I took a holiday in Yosemite. Climbing mostly huge multipitch trad (gaining grey hairs and having panic attacks when seconding!) and struggling on the classic big Valley boulders in between routes.
When I got back I upgraded my fingerboard, buying a beastmaker 2000 series. This is the training tool of choice of the top boulderer's. Initially I almost wasn't strong enough to hold the biggest easiest holds on it, but I wanted to force myself to take the next step. In addition, rather than downloading pdf's and other training programmes, I purchased the beastmaker training app for my iPhone. With only 4-5 months to go until CWIF, this was a major turning point. I started using the board and app in tandem twice a week religiously, and at first even the easiest workout was desperate. The easiest workout grade is "Font 6Cish". There are 18 sets of 'repeaters', where you'll use a given hold, hold it with specific fingers (jargon warning) - given names such as Front 2, Middle 3, Back 2. Then hang the hold for 7 seconds, rest 3 seconds, then repeat six or seven times giving about a minute’s exertion on each hold/finger orientation. To begin with I was humiliated. It was desperate. I was only completing 2 or 3 attempts out of 7. Only 3 or 4 full sets out of the 18. Worse: I needed to 'cheat' by sneaking my thumbs into adjacent holds, or using an extra fingertip on one hand etc. But... crucially, over the next few weeks, giving 100% (and trying hard means hard, what I lacked in initial strength I did not lack in effort), I gradually got stronger and stronger.
A month later, I had completed the Font 6C workout. I was ridiculously elated for such a small achievement. But I was also acutely aware of the level of teeth clenched eyes-screwed-shut grunting-groaning-screaming (what the heck did my neighbours think? I had developed a sort of ‘Climbing Tourettes’) effort I was putting in merely to improve by fractions. Was I mad?
By now, I was eating an almost exclusively Paleo based diet. Keeping my protein intake high, I felt leaner and more energised, and I was making sure I was taking on board protein at the end of my workouts so that I would repair and recover from the all-out efforts and be able to train again sooner and at a higher quality. It’s hard to explain this feeling well enough, or to emphasise it sufficiently, but it was the story of my life for several months: Hanging from the first 2 joints of my ring and little fingers (Back 2) initially felt like they were going to actually snap off, but gradually, very gradually with a lot of effort, I got better, and stronger. I'd be hanging, groaning with effort, wondering how 7 seconds could take so long, staring bemused at my knuckle joints, slightly misshapen and discoloured from the effort - all the time wondering why I wanted it so badly? Most of my mates have families, are at the pub, watching films at the cinema, eating pizza - being 'normal'. Why am I in my stupid little flat hanging from a stupid wooden board screaming my lungs out to complete a stupid full set of Back 2 Repeaters? Why am I so delighted to progress from the 35's to successfully hanging the 45’s?! What does that even mean in the grand scheme of things? Am I clinically mental? What is the actual difference to anyone (99% of my friends don't even know what "the 45's" are), to me even, whether I can complete the 7A workout or the 7B workout? Have I lost the plot? Probably.
Either way, in another month I did complete the 7A workout on the app, and progressed to the 7B workout. I got even more excited. If I carried on like this, I could just, JUST, see a day when I would be strong enough to try the 7C workout, and after that- was 8A a possibility? It was at least on the horizon. Albeit a distant horizon, but I could envisage it. The 7B workout was still desperate. I was still failing like I had on my first attempts at 6C. But I was also still improving, session by intimidating session. Tiny marginal gains, but gains all the same.
I kept trying hard. I also tried not to get too distracted by my success on the beastmaker. Climbing isn’t just about hanging from a beastmaker of course, it’s about actually climbing. Hanging 7C workouts on a beastmaker means nothing if you can’t actually climb. So I kept using the 40 board at the wall and incredibly, almost overnight, I made the transition from needing to use the mini-jugs, to being able to pull on small crimps and slopers, and not just hang them either, but actually pull and move on them. My friends started to remark to me that I’d got stronger. They were right. I was closing the gap and it felt really good. But as excited as I was, I was still acutely aware that I was training like Rocky, what I considered to be Olympian dedication, and I was still climbing at a relatively normal level. I’m not an international standard climber, so the fact that I was training, eating and sleeping like one, undermined my pride at my improvement a little bit. It made me feel a little bit sad. What the heck are you doing Mark? A grade? Six months of this commitment for a bloody grade or two? I wasn’t sure if this was the saddest thing or the most heroic thing I’d ever done. With a month to go until CWIF though, I was the strongest I’d ever been. I was in great shape. But I was still nervous of going; I really didn’t want to be the time- wasting bumbler that I’d been at the BBC’s. I knew I’d be placing in the bottom echelons of all the competitors, and I had to remind myself almost constantly that the goal for me was not a grade, nor a position; my goal had to be about the holistic approach to improving my overall climbing ability and enjoyment. The goal had to be the journey. I was very sad, very dull, eating only fruit, veg, eggs, fish and meat and living like a monk, and I had to [perversely] enjoy that. I was the best I had ever been- but was it worth it? Was I proud of myself? Yes, I suppose quietly I was.
I didn’t like admitting to people how dedicated I’d been – I was genuinely a bit embarrassed, and a lot of people couldn’t grasp that it didn’t matter to me if/when I came last. They’d wish me well and I’d tell them I’d come last. They’d try to sound encouraging, but without really understanding. The goal, the thing that meant that I had already achieved a ‘Mission Accomplished’ status in my little project was my own personal journey and improvement. I loved climbing enough to put myself through that routine, and I still kept doing it, and I liked the results – in fact, I liked the demanding routine. I was still light years behind the top guys, still several grades below Adam (although I had closed the gap a bit). I got a whole new level of respect for the top climbers. They’ve been doing this for years, quietly going about their business, eating right, training hard, really hard, for years – not for 6 months – years. They’re at that level not because they’re lucky, or genetically gifted, or blessed, or fortunate to have financial sponsorship to support their full time training – they achieved that level through sheer bloody hard work allied to passion and ability. My respect for them grew, and my willingness to make excuses for their achievements, or excuses for my own lack of ability – diminished entirely.
To the comp then. CWIF came around in the calendar like all events do. Time ticked away and I bemoaned not starting my training earlier. Wished I’d had my beastmaker for 4 years and not for 4 months. We booked accommodation and drove up to Sheffield.
I was still unsure about how I’d feel. Had to keep reminding myself how far I’d come. In all likelihood the route setters would set a tough set of problems, with high grades meaning I’d score low. But whatever the grade spread, it would be the same for everyone, so a high or low score was completely arbitrary. I kept reminding myself that the training was towards a personal peak. On the day I wanted to climb the best I ever had for me and for no one else, and any score or position wouldn’t tell me that, I’d only know it intrinsically. I’d trained hard and prepared well, and on the day I had to focus on enjoying it, taking part, but also trying to stay focussed and to finish the 30 qualifying problems with no regrets. Not get demoralised by the tough problems and make sure to give each one 100% of my attention and effort. To my delight I did achieve that. I coped okay with trying problems in front of a bunch of other competitors. I didn’t feel too inferior or out of place. There were a couple of problems I didn’t get up that on another day I might have done, but likewise, there were a couple that I got up by the skin of my teeth, that on another day I might have greased off. I ended with the relatively low score of 84 points, placing me 124th out of 250 competing men/male juniors (some of the juniors are absolutely incredible, one finger one pad one arm chin ups from 15 year olds!). But ultimately, I’d kind of held my own by my own set of incoherent guidelines. I left with a happy, satisfied feeling. We stayed around the Climbing Works all weekend. The afternoon qualifying session had an even stronger feel to it, with international wads and legends around every turn. We let our hair down in the evening with a curry and a few (non-Paleo!) beers, and we came back the next day to watch the semi-finals and the finals. These climbers are on another planet. All but unknown outside of this small community, some of them are equivalent of our Olympic heroes in my eyes.
My short 6-8 month experiment has given me so much respect for top level climbers. It was a real privilege to climb alongside them in the same competition, like the climbing equivalent of playing football with Messi and Ronaldo, but without any airs or graces or diamond earrings. Just incredibly nice, supportive, positive people. It’s impossible not to be inspired by how hard they work and what they have accomplished.
There are many conclusions to draw from this. In hindsight I must say that I have completely enjoyed dedicating myself to training, and making what some would consider to be extreme sacrifices for a recreational activity. Success takes much more than talent, that is obvious. It is all relative too, as I managed to dig out an extra 10-20% from my own starting level in just a few months. I wonder what is possible with years of focus? Post CWIF I don't want the momentum I have to stop. I've completed 7B & 7C workouts now, currently on 7C+ and I'm still excited to continue training, just with new goals, like outdoor projects. So I think for me, my ultimate conclusion, is a realisation that I will stop making excuses.