I arrived in Maryland with a sore ankle and a racing mind. I came for a pro training camp and I had hoped to arrive feeling fresh and clear-minded, ready to put everything into the valuable opportunity that had been presented to me. The idea of a camp like this where many of the comp climbers in the US can gather together in a structured setting to enjoy the benefits of mock competition rounds and group motivation has always been appealing to say the least.
This year it became a reality when my boyfriend, Chris Danielson organized a training camp with fellow routesetter, Tonde Katiyo, following a routesetting clinic they were instructing at Earth Treks in Rockville, Maryland. I knew that having two very experienced competition setters running a camp and putting up problems would be an incredible and invaluable resource. Plus, I was very excited at the prospect of climbing for two days with some of my fellow competitors and good friends, especially since the camp fell during the week leading up to the Dark Horse finals. When Chris first started planning the camp and told me about it, I was unsure if I would be able to attend due to some schedule conflicts. As the date drew closer and I was able to commit to attending, I decided that I wanted to be ready to put 100% of myself into the training. But sometimes life gets in the way, and ankles get busted and minds get full. And so I found myself dealing with some frustrating barriers I had not anticipated as the camp began.
I tried my best to push my fear and distraction aside, but it was hard to escape during the first day. My ankle was taped, but the floor was covered in the same pads that caused the injury a month ago, so I was not too enthused about falling. One of the first exercises we ran through was one that emphasized the importance of the first attempt on a boulder problem during a round of competition. Having only a single attempt on a round of boulders was stressful on its own, and the hesitation and fear I felt as I progressed higher above the pads only intensified the anxiety of the exercise. I quickly realized that I needed to break through this mental wall of fear before the Dark Horse finals. That process, however, is not one that is easily forced or rushed. Feeling that I wasn’t able to put my full effort into the climbing and the exercises was frustrating, and I had to fight to keep my attitude going in the right direction throughout the first day. It was very helpful to be surrounded by a motivated crew of strong friends and to have a great collection of high-quality boulder problems presented to us. I was able to get through the first day feeling like I definitely took a lot away from the rounds of mock competition and time with my peers and the setters. But still, I felt that I wasn’t operating at full capacity, and that was getting me down. These setters have volunteered their time, and this gym has volunteered its space, and all these strong people are gathered here NOW…and I am being a poop, I thought. I knew I would benefit more if I could overcome my self-doubt and fear, I just didn’t know how I was going to do that yet.
The second day offered more opportunity to face my weaknesses, both physical and mental. We practiced our first attempts again, which is something I definitely still need to improve on, but am slowly getting better at. We climbed on really fun, technical, volume-laden boulder problems that provided the opportunity for me to improve another weakness: dealing with volumes and the complicated body positions they force. We discussed the mental aspects of competition and the psychology of knowing that every try counts, and full effort is essential each time you pull on the wall. It was invaluable to have new boulder problems in front of us for every round, especially since many of them were of a style that I don’t encounter every day in the gym. I always feel like it is hard to train for this style, one that is often incredibly technical and involves negotiating one’s body around all sorts of different features and complicated volumes. It is a style that is more about pushing and balancing than it is about pulling. It requires a great deal of mental composure and problem solving. This camp presented tons of opportunities to improve on this style, and that was one of the many great aspects of the two days.
After a round of “first attempts,” we continued on to a traditional round of 5 minutes on, 5 minutes off. The difficulty of the boulders was supposed to mimic a semi-finals round. Everyone was pretty tired going into this exercise since it was now the second half of the second day. I was no exception. I felt beat…mentally and physically. As the round began, I was reminded of my exhaustion when I was unable to finish the first boulder. The second, however, boosted my confidence a bit when I was able to flash it. The third boulder brought back all the frustration I had been feeling when I wimped out on the last move and dropped off. I was getting angry. I can’t do this in the upcoming comp, I thought. I let the anger build, but didn’t channel it in the right way, and it affected me for the fourth boulder, which I basically gave up on, telling myself that my ankle was done, and I was too frustrated to try hard. In short, I was being an absolute sourpuss. The downward mental spiral began, and I was too tired to stop it.
Luckily, there was one more exercise, and it saved me.
We were split into 3 teams of 5. It was a competition, and each person was allowed 5 total attempts on any of the boulder problems we had climbed over the past two days (28 in total, I believe). Each boulder problem was assigned a point value between 1 and 6, and within each team, boulders could not be repeated. There was no time limit, but at the end the team with the most points would win. I was exhausted, as was everyone else, but there was an immediate resurgence of energy in the group as we were released to the boulders.
My team (Melissa Lacasse, Nick Picarella, Paul Robinson and Ian Dory) and I immediately began to strategize. After sorting out who would try what, it was time to start climbing. Over the course of the past two days, there had been a certain amount of pressure and anxiety brought about by the mock competition setting, but there was always that feeling that it wasn’t a “real” competition, and the only person you would let down by not trying 100% would be yourself. That all changed during this exercise. We were climbing on boulders we had done before, but we weren’t just climbing for ourselves anymore. There were 4 other people depending on each of us, and that was real pressure. I was seriously nervous. I overgripped and overthought the first two boulders I climbed, and it really felt like the pressure I feel in a big competition. I fell on two of my attempts and felt like I had let my team down. When someone would get ready to attempt a boulder, a small crowd would gather and we would cheer one another on. Paul summarized the anxiety it caused when he compared it to getting ready to put in an onsight attempt on some special 8B boulder. For me, at least, it was real pressure.
As the round progressed, my team realized that our score was very close to that of Carlo Traversi’s team. After a nail-biting thirty minutes of biding our attempts and time, we were 2 points behind, and I was the only one with an attempt remaining. I felt like I had to pull this off, because I had only completed two boulders so far, and had wasted a few attempts. I needed to redeem myself. I had to try a 2-point boulder that I had fallen on earlier in the round as well as in one of the earlier rounds of the camp. It was a boulder that started with a very tenuous dihedral press, and I was NERVOUS. As I got towards the top, to the move that had spit me off before, I got more nervous. It seriously felt like the final problem of a finals round. And at that moment I wasn’t thinking about my ankle, or my fear of falling or anything else that had been cluttering my mind. I was simply thinking about those 4 people on my team that were counting on me. I managed to finish the boulder, and so it was a tie. It felt really good to come through for my team, and I was proud of myself for rising to the challenge, and proud of everyone else for rising to the challenge in the moments throughout the round that lead up to the end. In the process of all of this, I had broken through that mental barrier I was banging my head against for the majority of the training camp. And, I had found that true feeling of pressure, the type that makes you hold on when you don’t want to and gets you to the top even when you are utterly exhausted. It brought out the true competitor in me, and that is something that can’t be forced or hurried.
Chris and Tonde had come into the camp with a great plan for us and tons of amazing boulders to test us on. They had come up with many exercises that proved to be very valuable, and I think everyone had already taken a lot of helpful things from the camp. But I don’t think they predicted exactly how useful this last exercise would end up being, at least for me. Who would have thought that after 2 hours of a team competition on 28 boulders that there would be an exact tie? It was beautiful. And so we needed a superfinal.
The plan was for each of the 2 teams to elect one person to have one final attempt on one boulder that the team had not yet climbed during the competition. We picked Paul, the other team picked Carlo. But who would go first? That would determine the strategy. Should Paul try a 1-point boulder, or would he have to go for the 6-point boulder that only Carlo had done? It came down to a coin toss. Carlo won the toss, but instead of electing that Paul go first, he put himself on the line and chose to climb. It was an awesome moment, as everyone gathered around and watched. And Carlo came through, climbing the boulder in perfect style. Everyone was psyched.
Our strategy had to change on the fly, since Paul felt that Ian had a better chance at climbing the 6-point boulder. And so Ian stepped up to the plate and put in 110% effort. He fought hard and put in a valiant attempt, but fell on the last crux. I’m telling you, for me it was one of the most fun competitions I’ve been to in a long time….and it wasn’t even a “real” competition. There was no crowd, save the participants of the training camp, and there was no prize. But those 2 hours absolutely ignited the competitor in me and brought together everything that the past 2 days had been about. And most importantly, that exercise created something that can’t be forced…a feeling of camaraderie. It is a missing piece that many of us have been looking for, I think. There is always a US Team, but over the years I have never felt so invested in my fellow climbers and as I did during those 2 hours. It really changed something for me, and I saw many people in a completely different light.
I had planned on attending the training camp, taking away a lot of valuable experiences, and writing a nice little blog post about how the whole idea is great and needs to be repeated over and over again. But this camp threw me a complete curve ball and culminated in one of those rare moments in climbing when I am absolutely head over heels in love with the sport. And so writing just another blog about the merits of team training doesn’t seem like enough. This was truly a unique experience. I know that sounds dramatic and sappy, but there was a little magic moment at the end of those two days, when it all just clicked for me. It reminded me why I love climbing, and that no matter what other roles I choose to fill in the future, part of me will always be a climber.
So, I need to send out a HUGE thanks to Earth Treks Climbing Centers and all of their setters, Chris Danielson, Tonde Katiyo, and all the camp participants who made it possible. I’m ready to do it again sometime…shall we????