Friday, June 13, 2014

Running and Rock Climbing

I love running. I love getting out on the road early in the morning, with nothing but my shorts and my shoes. There are days when the sun’s just coming up over the hills, and the air is brisk, and the unending road stretches out in front of me. I glide across the miles. Effortless motion. Next, I’m back at home, basking in the endorphin rush from my 6-mile morning run. I bust into the house, just as my wife is packing to go climbing. We head out to Rumney, our local crag, and after a warm-up, I hop on my current project. My legs feel dead. My core displays the characteristics of an overcooked noodle. I slip off a relatively easy move. I quietly curse under my breath. What was I thinking, going for a run before a climbing day? I hate running.

Despite my background as a competitive track and cross-country athlete, there was a time when I swore off running. I removed from my life anything that didn’t directly correspond to my climbing.  This included, but was not limited to: running, weight lifting, gainful employment, personal hygiene. If it didn’t directly help me get to the chains on my most recent project, out the window it went. My singular devotion produced some memorable successes, and equally memorable failures. But, eventually, I decided that I needed another pursuit in my life to balance my climbing. That’s it, I told myself, I need balance in my life. Never mind that tendons in my 30+ year old body had begun to panic with increasing frequency every time I grabbed a crimper. Maybe it wasn’t balance that I began to seek. Maybe I needed an outlet.

Yet, everything is connected. You can’t have a yin without a yang. You can’t have a day without a night, or a Biggie without a Tupac. I have running and climbing, for better or for worse. Could it be, though, that running actually helps my climbing? Despite my failure on my project after my long run, could there be some long-term gain that I’m missing? I contacted Will Gadd, mixed and alpine climber extraordinaire, to ask him if running has helped his climbing. “Running likely hurts my absolute technical performance because it takes time away from climbing,” he said. However, Gadd made clear to me that he still loves to run: “I like running and I enjoy climbing too. I’ll do some of both. I don’t need to justify the utility of one helping the other at all.”

I forged ahead anyway, searching for someone to validate my suspicion that by running, I was becoming a better climber. I don’t need a lot of validation in my life; I just need someone, anyone, to tell me that what I’m doing is correct. OK, maybe I do need validation. If anyone would espouse the benefits of running as training for climbing, I figured it would be Jon Sinclair. Sinclair is a former U.S. National record holder in the 5K and current U.S. record holder in the 12K. He told me “Running and climbing have been a part of my life since the early 1980’s.” When I asked him his thoughts about how running might help climbing, he said, “How running can be used to achieve climbing goals is going to be as varied as the wide array of climbers reading your article.” He has a point. How am I to write an article about how running helps climbing, when climbing is such a diverse and specialized sport? What’s good for the alpine climber might not be good for the boulderer.

Sinclair went on to say, “The better your aerobic system, the better you are as a human machine and the more effective you will be at ANY activity.” That’s right. I am a machine. That’s all the validation I needed. At Rumney the other day, I announced that running makes me a better machine. Eyes rolled. Then, I proceeded to fall off my project. I can’t tell for sure, but I think I heard the faint words, “rusty machine” float up to me from the crowd of onlookers.  But, Sinclair’s mention of aerobic system really made sense to me. Distance running, especially long, slow distance, increases one’s aerobic fitness.

“Within cardio training, it’s important to understand the difference between aerobic and anaerobic,” says Matt McCormick. McCormick is a former high school physical education teacher, climbing coach, and the most bad-ass all around climber I actually know. As long as the intensity of the physical activity is relatively low, the aerobic system fuels the muscles using both carbohydrates and fat. This fuel keeps ahead of whatever lactic acid is produced as waste. When the intensity of activity increases, so does lactic acid output, so much so that the aerobic system cannot keep fueling the muscles. At this point, the anaerobic system takes over, and increased lactic acid output is the most obvious bi-product. According to McCormick, “each athlete has different thresholds at which their muscles become too impaired by lactic acid to perform.”

Most targeted training plans for climbing focus on the anaerobic threshold of the muscles in the forearms. Anyone who has experienced the lactic acid burn in his forearms can attest to the importance of training the anaerobic system. But this isn’t the whole story. According to McCormick, “climbing is unique in that when pushing yourself, you are rarely climbing in only an aerobic state or an anaerobic state.” The start of a climb might hold a difficult boulder problem. As you employ a burst of effort to crush the rad moves and impress your friends, you are engaging your anaerobic system.  Once you get to the midpoint rest, as you begin chanting sweet-nothings to yourself, your body slowly returns to the aerobic state as the lactic acid is flushed from your forearms. The dreadful power-endurance upper section of your project might require you to switch between the anaerobic and aerobic systems several times as you bust sick move after sick move.

Mike Anderson, author of the popular The Making of a Rockprodigy training program, believes that “general aerobic exercise of many forms can be helpful for maintaining an athletic physique, which has tremendous benefits for hard rock climbing.” However, he goes on to say that despite the training benefits of greater cardiovascular endurance, “these systems are almost never pushed anywhere near their limit in rock climbing, so the direct benefits to rock climbing are limited.” He has a good point. Excluding those dirtbags who are living on the road and climbing full time (And to those dirtbags: I don’t really care what you do, because my jealousy overpowers my concern for your climbing), we all have a finite amount of time to train. Why not use our precious time to undertake targeted, specific training for climbing?

McCormick believes that sport-specific training is important, but that there is often too much specialization in sports: “Without proper general conditioning, athletes may not respond as well to sport-specific training and often will get injured due to imbalances.” Strengthening non-climbing muscles in the legs and the core might provide the climber more durability and general well being. McCormick says, “Personally, I’ve come to believe that the stronger overall the athlete is, the better he will perform and the less he will get injured.”

So, where does that leave us? Can running help my climbing? Will Gadd states, “I think you’d be leading people down the wrong path to say that running actually helped compared to doing more climbing.” Maybe “help” can be quantified in a different way.  Stronger legs attained through running certainly help on the approach, though I have to admit, I often use my running as an excuse to get my wife to carry the rope. But Kayte, my legs are too tired from yesterday’s run. When I’ve been running a lot, I feel more in tuned with my breathing, and I can call on my breathing to calm me down on a difficult climb or a heady stretch of rock. Plus, after running, I just feel more active, more fit, more like a machine. Mike Anderson believes that, “an ancillary benefit of running is the mental toughness it fosters.” I can tell you one thing: don’t mess with me after a run.

But these benefits are anecdotal. It’s a hard sell to explain to a climber that a regimented running schedule will help his climbing. It just doesn’t pass the common sense test. Yet, ask around at the crags, and you’re bound to find a running devotee. Tim Deroehn believes that running contributed directly to his increased climbing ability. “Running changed climbing for me. Once I started running, I went from struggling on 5.12 to climbing solidly on 5.13. My weight went down and my ability to recover mid-route went way up.” Years ago, Jim Shimberg sent his first 5.12c after training explicitly for a 15K race. “The very next week, I crushed the route. Did frikin’ laps on it. I think my track workouts and intervals to run a fast 15K did it for me.”

For Sinclair, running is central to his life. He feels that “Running wakes me up and I always feel better during the day if I do something aerobic.” However, he stresses that he’s careful to balance his climbing needs and running needs. “If I’m going to try to send a hard gym problem, I go out for a short jog in the morning. If I’m not climbing for a day or two, I can get away with doing a longer run, but I’m always careful to manage my energy needs around my climbing.” Good advice. I learned firsthand the perils of doing a long run and then hoping for a sendathon in the afternoon.

Can running make you a better climber? Not directly, no. Yet running can add something else to your life. Call it balance. Call it perspective. Or, don’t call it anything, and run just because you want to, just because you love it. Maybe I don’t need others to tell me that running helps my climbing. I climb better when I’m happy, and running makes me happy. Could that be enough reason? While he was getting ready to belay me at Rumney, I asked Tom Armstrong why he runs. His response? “Because it justifies the beer.”

Friday, March 28, 2014

Pause for a Whisper


It’s funny how memories come back. One minute you’re strolling out to the compost bin with a full bucket in your hand, and the next minute, you’re somewhere else entirely. As I walked across the lawn, with my poodle Topher following dutifully behind me, I looked up at our house. The light in the office window was on, because my wife was working at her computer. Otherwise, the house was dark, and the fading light outside made the house look somehow small, insignificant, against the darkening sky.

I was walking to the compost bin, and in my head, I heard the words “Pause for a Whisper.” Pause for a Whisper. I hadn’t thought about those words in at least ten years. The story of those four words, like the reality of those four words, had long since receded in the distance, like train cars following the engine past the vanishing point of the two parallel tracks. That train had long left, and the stories following the train had left as well. As I walked across the lawn in fading twilight, though, those words came back. Pause for a Whisper.

What was I, eighteen? I must have been. I was young enough to be filled with a strange cocktail of angst and optimism, of recklessness and hopefulness. James and I were ice climbing in Orient Bay. We had done the classic, fat, safe climb called Tempest, and we were lingering at the base. James was smoking a cigarette. We had climbed Tempest easily, and we were looking for more challenge. I spotted a line to the left, and after paging through the guidebook, we determined that the line was called Pause for a Whisper. The ice looked thick at the bottom, but it got thinner at the top. Or did it? There was enough snow on the ledges that the whole face looked white and nondescript. James suggested we climb it and he started racking up. “Why don’t we leave the ropes here?” I asked. From James’s wry smile, I could see that he agreed.

James and I had driven up to Orient Bay while we were on break from college. It must have been winter break. James had just broken up with his long-term girlfriend, and she had given the ring back. I enjoyed reminding him that he had gotten disengaged. James laughed halfheartedly at the first few times I worked it into the conversation. By the time we crossed into Canada, he wasn’t laughing anymore. He seemed only to stare at the photo of his ex-girlfriend that he had taped to the dashboard.

I didn’t happen to be experiencing any relationship upheaval, at least not any that I remember. I do remember that I was just starting to get good at climbing. I had spent a lot of time toiling on the lesser climbs, but I sensed a renewed power in my climbing. I began to see new horizons, and those vistas led to the realm of 5.13 and 5.14. But I wasn’t there yet, and looking back now, my belief in myself vastly outweighed my actual ability. I climbed on credit, realizing that if I didn’t have the strength at the base, I would eventually repay myself by the time I reached the top. I was filled with bravado, which I took to be confidence, but which I now see as youthful, na├»ve, insufferable hubris.

James and I approached the climb, leaving the ropes behind. I set up first, and my swings were just a bit harder, my kicks a bit more pronounced. I moved with rhythm up the ice, but the music started playing faster and faster, like a blue grass band reaching a crescendo. But, the ice was thick, the sky was blue, and I was young. So, so young, and I had no compost, or poodle, or wife. I had Pause for a Whisper, and James following below.

My pick hit rock. Doink. I swung again. The pick sliced through the snow like it was air. It hit rock again. Doink. I tried a different spot. Doink. Doink. Doink. Shit.

“It’s really thin up here,” I yelled back to James. James said nothing, but stared at me with a look of concern.

“I’m going to brush as much snow off as possible.” Still no reply from below. With my crampons at the top of the thick ice, and my gloved hand resting on a ledge, with the ice tool dangling impotently from my wrist, I searched with my other tool for a ledge or something, anything to support my weight. I looked down, and saw the 200 feet of the climb below me, and I saw James, moving a bit to the left, away from me.

I don’t remember the rest of it. I really don’t. I remember hooking my right arm around a spruce tree at the top of the climb, so that I could lean over and look at James. I don’t remember the solution to the problem into which my hubris had led me. But is it hubris if you don’t fail?

It was James’s turn now. I leaned over to try to encourage him. To cheer him on. He could do it. I was sure he could do it. He had to do it. There was no option. His tools searched the rock just as mine had done. He found the edges that I must have found, and he got to a stance just below the safety of my cedar tree. Just out of my reach. He just had a few more swings left and he was at the top.

His tool shook. I do remember that. His right tool was securely into the ice now, but I saw his tool shaking. Then his wrist began shaking, and the shaking moved up his arm. Next his whole arm was shaking. He looked at me. He said nothing. I said nothing. I just looked at his right ice tool, shaking, and wedged a half inch into the ice. He looked up, and said “I can’t swing Jay.”

I remember what James said as clear as I remember the name of the climb. I said nothing in response. I just looked at him. What could I say? You have to? Your whole being depends on your swinging your left tool into the ice? You can never experience heartbreak again, or sadness, or happiness, or anything if you don’t swing that damn tool into the ice. You have to my friend. I can’t be 18, and dumb, and bold, and full of shit if you don’t. Please swing James. Please.

And he did. He swung his tool, it landed into the thick ice above the rock section, and he topped out at my cedar. We met up with friends who had just climbed Tempest, and we rappelled together. “What the hell happened to you guys?” Hearing this, we embarked on the story we would tell with decreasing frequency to friends. “I can’t swing Jay” always provided a pleasing climax to the story.

Walking out to the compost bin, I can’t recall the details. Only the high points, the trite slogans we remember not from the event, but from the retelling of the event. As I walk back from the compost bin, I pause, and take in my life, now almost twenty years later. How much things change. How I’ve changed. I pause, for a whisper, and I walk into my house, and turn on the lights.