Wednesday, 28 May 2008

Of Things That Weren’t

Oddly enough time has been rushing by of late and I’ve been meaning to post a few thoughts. I guess this one is an effort to get some of those thoughts across.

Red Queen Hypothesis

In an effort to reacquaint myself with things long lost, I dug out my old intro Bio textbook buried deep in a closet in Pennsylvania. I immediately opened to a page that had an interview with Stephen J. Gould. I used to love reading his science writings as I felt that he had the amazing dual facet of being equally brilliant at research and explaining it (the two seem to be much more commonly mutually exclusive and often inversely proportional). Anyway, in this particular interview he explained how a commonly held conception about evolution was that it was constantly improving things. In reality this is far from observations. I think that people, even I the ever pessimist included, like to think that things are getting better, when in fact they are just standing still. Professor Gould popularised the idea that the bulk of evolution is neutral and only very infrequently advantageous. There is a constant state of flux, but it is merely to keep what you already have – running to stand still.

A quote from the Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland:

"It takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place."

Although I despise the application of scientific concepts to popular culture, I feel that the parallels between training and evolution merit examination. We like to feel that we are getting stronger, despite going for long periods making little or no progress. It takes an enormous effort to stay where you are. I was going to post with this, but given that my injury brought on such a decrease in performance, there was only one way to go from there. Every session has seen some progress, but I do still remember a time when this was painfully true.

To Dream Again

This leads me to another thought… I’m no longer horribly injured, weak or just trying to survive the monsoon season. Eek – it’s time to climb again. It’s time to set goals and have dreams again. Having survived this long, I can easily say that this is much harder than not dreaming at all.

You have ideas of things in your head that you might accomplish. These goals usually stem from some form of self belief. You might be able to do it or you might not. I sometimes don’t know which is worse. Letting yourself dream again is leaving yourself open again – to disappointment, failure and so forth. ‘Tis better to have loved and lost, than to have never loved at all’, or so I keep telling myself. While the less poetic side of me is saying, ‘here we go again…’

Of all the things that weren’t… most importantly (even more so than bouldering, gasp!) I ought to be off doing a PhD, not another MSc. I actually gone through all of the motions of being upset an angry about this so many times that I actually got sick of myself. Now I think that it’s finally time to say, yes, I ought to be in a different place, but what I have isn’t that bad either.

I wish life was different. I wish I was hiking V7 and getting on better with running. I wish that I automatically woke well rested at 7:30 AM each day. I wish that my hair was shinier and I was more settled and not afraid to cross roadworks covers for fear of fracturing my foot again. I wish that I always sat up straight and chose whole grain bread. I wish that I was I more mature about tomatoes – everyone else seems to get on with them. I wish that I accomplished more, yet still was able to believe deeply in what I already had.

Or alternatively, I could agree that life is hard and doing something with it is even harder (Rock Warrior’s Way again, can’t be bothered to look up the exact quote).

Of all the things that weren’t… can’t be and should never stop what will be.

Wednesday, 21 May 2008

Projects and Pain

The painful shoulder in action on a V3/4

Another weekend, another trip to North Wales, another session falling off my project.

The good news is that I can do every move of my current V5/6 project, except the last one (grrr). This was a massive improvement over last week. Surely I didn’t get stronger in a week. No, I think it has a lot to do with pain or tolerance thereof.

I feel that a bit of background on my project is in order. I first spotted a picture of Fagin in the North Wales bouldering guidebook a few months ago. It consists of a line of pockets up a steeply overhanging prow. It sounded like it would play to my strengths so it rose to the top of my list. I’m sure you’re painfully aware of my shoulder injury and subsequent lay off by now, but anyway, my point is that through all of this I have lost quite a bit of strength. I know that I am currently way off my best, but I thought targeting a problem that was a decent enough grade and played to my strengths was a way to make up for lost time.

My first session on it was OKish. The damp conditions were completely against me and I was knackered from a full day out previously. I always find it difficult to justify spending a whole day working on one problem. I may not send it and end up going home empty handed. However if I do lots of easy mileage, I am usually quite spent for the next day. Having more often than not travelled a long way, I feel a need to accomplish something. It’s just what strategy do you go for, lots of easy stuff or time on a project. Actually the whole concept of a project is still relatively new to me. Every problem that I sent has had no more than two sessions. I realise this obviously isn’t the way forward with properly hard stuff and sometimes just getting to the next hold is progress enough.

Back to the problem… I always seem to pick particularly painful ones. This one did have pockets but they seemed to all contain razor sharp edges on the outside and I was moving to most of them dynamically. Owch. I would go so far as to say that more than strength or technique, what I really lost that whole ’zone’ or whatever that you have to go into when climbing problems at your limit. It eluded me for the entire first session.

The next time I decided beforehand that I wasn’t going to let pain get in the way. I ended up bloodied and bruised, but I felt like I gave it a much better go this time. All of the strength training indoors will never prepare you for what you are about to tackle mentally.

If the problem is truly that hard for you, pain doesn’t even cover it. It’s not just sharp holds either. It is the ability to clutch at non-existent crimps, to make massive strenuous moves and then hold them. Indoors, I would have given up a long time ago. It’s just not worth it. You really need to want to it in order to put your body under that much pressure. I think at times I’m not merely struggling with a problem, but fighting a very physical battle with the demons in my head. At the very least I can’t hear them for a few moments. Yet new ones seem to creep in, ‘am I good enough’ and then I fall. I like to think a part of my character is born from these struggles.

At the opposite end of the spectrum are the days when you just seem to float up anything you choose regardless of the moves being limit ones or not. I’ve even had both experiences on the same problem. Maybe if I get stronger I will have fewer epic battles. Then again, I suspect I will seek out even more difficult problems.

It will go next time.

Thursday, 15 May 2008

Cwm Dyli

As the April showers, which inevitably extended into May, temporarily subsided, we decided to head for North Wales and have a crack at a few of the projects we had amassed in the back of our minds over winter. Well that was the idea anyway…

We arrived late on the Friday night and subsequently had rather a restless night. On Saturday morning I felt the exact opposite of wanting to work at my limit. I wanted an easy, oh I mean ‘fun’, day. We decided upon Cwm Dyli as it was recommended by a couple of friends a while back and looked like it contained lots of easy problems in a secluded spot.

I had my eye on a particular V5, Moose’s Problem, but clearly it wasn’t in the cards for me that day. I did however manage to flash a lovely V3/4 called Gwion’s Flake. Video here:

All and all it turned out well. It was good to get some mileage in and I actually missed the crisp rhyolite flakes. Is it possible to be sentimental over a rock type? It wasn’t exactly a ‘setting the climbing world alight’ day but fun nevertheless.

Sunday was a proper project day. For this I had at the top of my list a V5/6 (why does the North Wales bouldering guidebook use so many of these split grades?) in a cave below Clogwyn y Bustach called Fagin, as it’s a line of pockets up a steep prow.

Conditions were against me, it started to thunder and pour just as we got there, but thankfully the overhang was steep enough to allow time to play on the lower section. It was greasy from the humidity, but I still managed to hit the crux pocket – holding it was another story. I reckon that with about a month of training (and slightly less humidity) it will go.

Monday morning was spent doing a reachy (and rather highball) V3 at the RAC boulders then followed by a trip to Cae Du, my favourite beach-side bouldering venue. Given the scorching heat we spent more time paddling rather than bouldering, which seemed like way to much work.

All and all I was genuinely happy to be out climbing again after my shoulder injury. It’s still bothering me and I remain worried that I might have a SLAP or rotator cuff tear. I have a seemingly enormous list of things that are quite bad at the moment. Each one doesn’t exactly spell doom. It is just the increasing size of the list that seems to weigh down rather heavily.

I have to keep reminding myself that I am happy…

To quote an Economist advert I saw on the Tube:

Friday, 9 May 2008

3-D Climbing

In an effort to work my weaknesses, I’ve been examining the disparity between my bouldering ability and my approach to low grade trad routes. I’ve done a few V5s but have yet to lead anything above Hard Severe. Not trying any could factor largely into this, but basically I’m rubbish with trad. Even if you remove the head issues, I just don’t get it on some lever or another.

A few weekends ago I went climbing in the Wye Valley. As luck would have it, my shoulder was bothering me a lot so leading wasn’t in the cards. Instead I spent the day seconding ‘easy’ trad routes. I got up them, but it was much more of a battle than it ought to have been. My partner, over a recent bottle Crozes-Hermitage, pointed out that I tend to climb in a straight line and hardly ever veer off course and that I need to look around for holds more. “Think in 3-D”, was uttered at some point. He is right. In bouldering there is often only one or two ways to climb a problem and after successive failed attempts, the moves usually illuminate themselves and then it's just down to being too weak. With easy trad however, there is usually an abundance of holds. The trick is picking the right ones to use. Also, I agree that for some reason (laziness, lack of spatial awareness, general ineptness) I tend to just go straight up, whereas trad lines often follow features that don’t (American cracks don’t count, just because I don’t like them and it is after all my blog).

My partner who is ‘Mr Average Sized Guy’ himself also said that if a move feels hard for the grade then it is a clue to look around for better holds. Easy for him to say. They're graded for him. If I can’t do a 4c move I think ‘what’s wrong with me, I can’t even climb 4c’ and attempt to pull harder on some minuscule crimp. I suppose you can read all sorts of things into my personality from that, but try to look at it from a short person’s perspective. It has always been hard for me. Yes, there are normally jugs on 4cs, but I often couldn’t reach them and had to do some funky moves to get to them. I am used to 4c regularly being nails. I am used to having to pull really, really hard on 4cs.

I guess the other factor is that I am much happier on crimps than bridging, jamming and all sorts of nonsense that you have to do on trad routes… something to think about though.

Thursday, 1 May 2008

Women and Muscle Bulk

I see this topic surfacing time and time again on climbing discussion forums. Women state they are afraid of ’bulking up’ or increasing their muscle tissue mass. Indeed some say they are even worried about being seen as ‘sporty’. I would go so far as to say that my experiences of the above statements in the UK seem to be much higher than in the US, but of course this is anecdotal.

Let’s look at some facts.

But obesity is dramatic and surely not seen as being the ideal. I guess for some people stick insect thin is the body shape held in high regard.

However the flip side of these two extremes, being ‘in shape’ or athletic, seems to hold just as many negative connotations particularly for women. Since this blog has mostly been about bouldering, I’ll use it as an example. In a review on UK Climbing of the UK’s top boulderers in 2007 there was no mention of any women. Since the article was published the UK has witnessed a few stellar female achievements in bouldering, but it is still far off from the numbers of notable male ascents. According to Momentum Video Magazine "to date 12 women have climbed routes rated 5.14b or harder". Has anybody even thought to count how many men have?

Maybe it’s time that we started to re-think our definition of ‘fit’. Why does the world look negatively on strong athletic women and label them as ‘man-ish’.

You don’t need to be as extreme as Arnold to reap the benefits, indeed it is very difficult for women to put on a lot of muscle mass due to lacking testosterone in large quantities, so why are many women still afraid of putting on a little muscle. I suspect this sad state has to do with people’s perceptions. Attitudes like ‘women should be girly and cute, not strong and powerful’ don’t exactly help the situation.

Well the two aren’t mutually exclusive.

I never thought I had an athletic bone in my body (some would argue that I still don’t). I played a few sports when I was young, but nothing seriously. I never thought I could be strong and so I never sought to be. A few years ago I started climbing. I climbed because I loved it. A by-product of this was putting on muscle. After years of going to the gym and seeing no results other than increased aerobic capacity, I never thought this was a possibility. But sure enough, shirts became tighter around the top of my arm and on my back, eventually my tendons grew thicker and even my ankles became unrecognisable from their spindly former self. But we’re talking millimetres here. Most people probably wouldn’t even notice. All this from a few boulder problems? Yes, I did find it a bit odd at first, but eventually I came to accept it as part of the game.

Gaining strength noticeably increased my climbing ability. Being short, I needed something up my sleeve and having a good strenght to weight ratio fit the bill. I wanted to climb as hard as I possibly could and accepted that this meant getting stronger and by default increasing my muscle mass.

I didn’t exactly lose myself in the process. I still spend an inordinate amount of time doing my hair and gasp; yes I have worn lip gloss while climbing. Why not? I maintain that I am just as girly as before I started climbing. My feet are a bit more mangled and I struggle to find sweaters that don’t make me look like an American Football player, but those issues aside, I never want to go back. I want to be as strong as I can for as long as I can and I won’t let a little bit of muscle get in the way.