Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Comp Season: Understanding the Importance of Failure

With ABS Nationals just having come to a close, I want to address a subject most people are keen to avoid: failure. Failure is something that we avoid at all costs in all aspects of life, let alone competition climbing. However, I believe there are many important lessons to be learned from failure, especially when it comes to dealing with high-pressure situations such as in climbing competitions.

This past month and a half, I have had the opportunity to compete in a major pro-level bouldering competition on east coast 6 weekends out of 7. So far, almost every one of these comps have been in a different state, (and sometimes country) and it has been a ton of fun to travel to these different locations to climb. Looking back on it, the process was mentally and physically taxing, but overall a great chance to test myself before competing at Nationals.

Dark Horse Finals!
Photo: Vince Schaefer
However, instead of doing well under pressure like I have been able to do in the past, I did extremely poorly at most of the events, placing near the bottom in finals for multiple comps in a row. This came as a combination of preparing poorly, screwing up sequences, and letting mistakes get to my head. I felt dejected, frustrated, and largely dissatisfied with my performances. I experienced what no athlete wants to experience: Failure.

Coming into the season, I’d just come off a successful trip to Hueco Tanks, so I felt physically strong and was psyched to start training for comps. I also started an engineering internship in Boston instead of taking classes, so rather than the regular college problem sets, midterms, and labs to prepare for, I found myself heading straight to the gym right after work, stress-free. I immediately jumped into a training program I devised for myself, five days per week with a comp every Saturday. It was great to focus primarily on fine-tuning my climbing and not have to worry about school for a change.

Sending Rumble in the Jungle (V12), Hueco Tanks
Photo: Colin Barnes
One of the best things about living on the east coast is that there are comps. A lot of them. ALL. THE. TIME. It got to a point where I had to decide which comp out of several to go to on the same weekend for multiple weekends in a row. The final schedule I decided upon was:

January 11th: Power Struggle (Connecticut)
January 18th: Winter Burn (Phildelphia)
January 25th: Tour de Bloc (Montreal, Canada)
February 1st: Dark Horse (Boston)
February 15th: Heart Burn (Philadelphia)
February 21st: ABS Nationals (Colorado Springs)

Competing at Tour de Bloc in Montreal
Photo: Guy Pomerleau
The season started off decently well with a second-place finish at Power Struggle, but Winter Burn and Tour de Bloc went extremely poorly. I decided to try to prepare differently for Dark Horse, and even though I felt I did better, it didn’t stop me from bombing the last climb in finals and placing last. After three disappointing results in a row, I decided to take a break for a weekend and came back with a solid fourth-place finish at Heart Burn. Now that I finally have the chance to reflect on the past month, I came to a couple different conclusions on what I learned. These were all pretty obvious once I thought of them, but it helped thinking each one through and attempting to understand how they affected my climbing.

1: Don’t base your success (or failure) on how other people do.

As hard as it may be, trying not to base your own performance on how other people do is absolutely key in order to succeed. If you lay down the absolute best performance of your life, but still do not come out on top, those people deserved to beat you that day. The results may not reflect your personal desire to do well, but it is important that you realize the true value of your efforts. Conversely, if you win a comp but you know didn't perform at your absolute best, you should still be openly happy with your performance, but reflect on what you could've done better for future events. I've found that the true victories are the ones that don't come easy. I experienced both sides of this scenario recently, as I felt I could have climbed better at Power Struggle, but I know that my absolute best effort at Dark Horse Round 3 still wasn't enough to see me through to the finals.

Qualifiers at Dark Horse Round 3
Photo: Garrick Kwan
2: Always give yourself every possible opportunity to succeed.

Competitions can be broken down into three parts: training, competing, and performing. The critical part of these three things is that you do everything within your power to physically and mentally prepare for each one. In training for climbing comps, it's crucial to train for any scenario (slabs, overhangs, pinches, dynos, crimps, dropdowns, etc). Avoiding one of these simply because you don't like it or believe you don't need to train it is a recipe for disaster in the heat of competition. The best climber is the most well-rounded climber. While competing, only focus on the aspects you can control: getting a good amount of sleep, warming up properly, making sure you have enough water, and so on. If you find yourself differing this process between competitions, create a routine and stick with it. Everything else, such as where you fall in the running order, the style of climbs, and how other people do on them is beyond your control and therefore you should try to put them out of your mind. As for the performing aspect, letting go of mistakes between climbs, rounds, or competitions is easily the hardest and most valuable thing you can do. At recent comps, I found myself criticizing myself for mistakes I had made on previous climbs, so I was unable to progress much further on the next one without doubting my abilities. Perceiving failure as but a dip in forward progression is essential for success in the long run.

Figuring out the beta at Winter Burn
Photo: Sean Aronow
The final and by far most important thing I learned was:

3: Have fun!

This one should totally be a no-brainer, but it's often difficult to focus on having fun when the heat of the competition is turned up. I realized at one of the earlier comps this season that I was so focused on doing well during the event that I legitimately forgot to have fun. This is the one true failure you can have as an athlete. If you don't love what you're doing, why do it? Luckily, I came to my senses and realized that even if I climb badly, I still am having fun by pursuing my true passion in life. And isn't that what life's all about?

Having fun while finishing last at Dark Horse.
Photo: Garrick Kwan
To conclude, I thought it would be appropriate to include a quote I found from one of the greatest basketball players in history, Michael Jordan. He sums up the point of overcoming failure much better than I ever could, and it has definitely helped me define my perception of failure and success.

"I've missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I've lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I've been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I've failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed."


Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Changing Seasons: Dark Horse & Livin' Astro

Fall is officially here in New England! Over the past couple months, I’ve transitioned from the summer life of competing and traveling back into my sophomore year classes here at Northeastern. As much as I love traveling and climbing during the summer, there’s something special about coming back to Boston for this time of year. You really can’t beat the crisp apples and amazing colors display from tree leaves, but most importantly, prime climbing temps and the beginning of a new season of the Dark Horse Bouldering Series.

Last year, I competed in Dark Horse for the first time. I’d watched videos of the events before, but competing in the competitions blew my expectations away. The energy is insane, pro athletes fly in from all over the country, and the finals problems are some of the most innovative and ridiculous climbs EVER. I guess you could say I had a good time.

Coming into the first event of the season, I really wanted to train as hard as possible in order to have the chance of winning the first event, since the winners of each of the first three competitions get an automatic bye into the Dark Horse Championships. To prepare, I really focused on doing a lot of power-endurance workouts and campus board drills to get my contact strength up as high as possible. It was hard scheduling enough time in the gym to train given my workload this semester, since I am currently taking 20 credits of mechanical engineering courses. However, having less free time really changed my perspective on training, as I was able to really focus on getting a lot done during the short period of time available to me.

The morning of the comp arrived quickly, and I couldn’t wait to get to Metrorock to begin climbing. Qualifiers went well, and I was able to complete most of the harder problems in relatively few attempts, securing me a 3rd-place spot in the finals after Vasya and Mike Foley. The top eight men were only separated by falls, so it was decided that everyone would advance rather than just the top six.

Photo: Garrick Kwan
After the “Young Guns” finals (kids 15 and under) were finished, myself and the other finalists headed into isolation to begin warming up and get a quick run-down of the rules for finals. As is Dark Horse tradition, the rules meeting wasn’t complete without several ambiguous hints about the problem, including the fact that problem 1 for the men would not have an actual finish hold, and that several footholds would be scored as well as handholds.

Expecting a balancy slab traverse, we each headed out of iso one at a time to tackle the finals problems. When I turned around to face problem 1, I was reminded why Dark Horse is as exciting as I remembered it by the overwhelming noise from the crowd, who was taking their cues from the announcer (dressed this time around as Wilfred). At first glance, problem 1 did appear to be a balance-intensive traverse on slopers at ground height, but after several botched attempts to work my way across, I realized that a running start was actually required. After I figured this out, I was able to complete it in only a couple more attempts. Problem 2 was a powerfest on lots of pinches and slopers with huge dynos in between, which fit my style of climbing excellently and I was able to complete it on my second try. Unfortunately, problem 3 shut everyone down at the same move, which was a huge throw to a dish, but it had a cool opening dyno that required a mandatory double clutch off of a sloper.

Problem 2
Photo: Garrick Kwan
Problem 2
Photo: Garrick Kwan
Problem 3
Photo: Garrick Kwan
Problem 3
Photo: Garrick Kwan
In the end, the comp came down to whether Vasya or I had less falls. Since I took less tries on problem 1 and only two tries on problem 2, I came out in first! There was some questionable scoring on problem 3 because Vasya controlled a hold that was further ahead than the dish with his left hand, but Charlie Schrieber and I both controlled it with our right hands so it didn’t matter too much in the end.

Psyched to have come out on top, I could now shift my focus entirely to outdoor climbing. As SENDtember transitioned into ROCKtober, the temperatures around the Northeast dropped, and conditions became ideal for some crushing.

One project that I’d been looking at from last season was China Beach (5.14b), in Rumney, New Hampshire. After sussing out the moves and trying to avoid a swarm of wasps and ladybugs on a particularly muggy day, my friend Kai Mu convinced me to try Livin’ Astro (5.14c), the line just to the right of China Beach. After a try or two on it, I was hooked. Livin’ Astro fit my style of climbing much better than China Beach and was clearly the most prominent and natural line on the cliff.

In addition to the style of climbing, the history behind Livin’ Astro was very appealing to me. It was first climbed by Dave Graham in early 2000, who established it as the hardest sport climb in New England at the time. After getting back to my dorm and watching footage of Dave making the first ascent in Dosage II, Livin’ Astro became the only thing on my mind.

Dave Graham making the first ascent of Livin' Astro (4:42)
Video: Big Up Productions

I made the trip up to Rumney every weekend from then on, recruiting rides up from friends all over the Boston area. As several weeks passed by, I found myself making significant progress and began linking sections together. However, I kept getting shut down by a single hard move at the top.

The climb can be broken down into three distinct cruxes: the bottom (sustained V8 up to a sloper rest), the middle (v9/10 core-intensive/shouldery boulder problem to a jug) and the top (four-move V10 for me, V9 if you’re just a little taller). I was able to individually figure out both the bottom and middle cruxes fairly quickly, but the top crux proved to be my nemesis. The entire sequence revolves around a single vertical slot which is the only hold between an undercling just above the rest and the arete. I must have tried the move going to the slot and the move out of the slot at least 50 times, each try seeming no closer than the next. Over time, I finally was able to figure out the perfect body positioning to stick the hold and move off of it, but it was still extremely low-percentage.

The crux hold! Dave Graham demonstrating proper technique.
Working Livin’ Astro was a unique process for me since I was able to come back every weekend to try the climb and train for individual moves in the gym in the weeks between. The majority of my hardest sport climbing in the past was done on summer trips, and the ability to really dial in a training regimen for a project like this was something I’d never experienced before. It also helped that my friend Andrew Palmer was working (and sent!) Jaws II, a 5.15 two lines to the left of Livin’ Astro, as we were able to motivate each other to try to get our projects done.

The weekend after Palmer sent Jaws, I headed up with my friends Alex Coda and Sean O’Donnell, accompanied by filmmaker Ian MacLellan. The temps were well into the 40’s that day, which made for a particularly uncomfortable warm-up, but it was crisp enough to compensate for the high humidity levels. When I felt ready, I laced my shoes and began up the headwall. After fighting through the first two cruxes, I found myself staring down the last boulder problem for the first time on a redpoint burn. I shook out for a long time, allowed my nerves and breathing to settle, and fired the final moves to the top! As I lowered down, I could barely believe I’d finally sent my first 5.14. To see one of my biggest goals in climbing finally realized meant more to me than words can describe.

By the time we all packed up our gear, it was still only around 2pm, so we decided to head over to the Blackout Boulder Brawl at Metrorock Newburyport afterwards. All of us had a great time, and I was able to flash all five finals problems to win the comp! All in all, that day was probably one of the best days of climbing I’ve ever had. However, Sean certainly took home some of his own personal glory by flashing two V5’s and a V6 and placing 11th in advanced! This was super impressive given he’s been climbing for barely a year. Solid, bro!

Now that everything’s mostly settled down now, I can finally get back to schoolwork and training for Dark Horse Round 2. I’m excited to see where the next couple months take me, and am looking forward to getting back out to Rumney in the spring. Jaws is up next!

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Dominion Riverrock and Team VXI Review

Last weekend, I competed at the 2013 Dominion Riverrock Boulder Bash. I’ve been watching videos of this competition for years, and man did it look cool. After experiencing the event firsthand now, I can say with absolute certainty that it is the sickest, raddest, most awesome bouldering competition I have ever competed in. EVER. I guess you could say I had a good time.

Dominion Riverrock has been going on for several years now as an outdoor sports and music festival located on the James River in Richmond, Virginia. Two years ago, the event organizers decided to add a bouldering component, which quickly turned into the most epic climbing competition in the history of mankind under the direction of local routesetter Brent Quesenberry.

Brent’s vision was that instead of boring ol’ climbing walls for competitors to test their skills on, competition routes would ascent giant multicolored volumes suspended in an overhanging steel cage. What evolved from there became legendary: the Dominion Riverrock Boulder Bash.

Footage from 2011. Does this get you psyched enough?

This year, I headed out to Virginia to see how well I could compete against some of the best boulderers in the country. I was lucky enough to be able to stay with one of my good friends from the area, Riley Varner, whose family hosted Dalan Faulkner and Kyra Condie along with myself.

The competition ran over the course of three days, with bouldering qualifiers, semifinals, and finals occurring on Friday and Saturday, and speed bouldering all day on Sunday. In between rounds, Kyra, Dalan, Riley, and Danyelle (Dalan’s sister) were able to walk around the event, taking in all of the other competitions being held (slacklining and the dog jump contest were personal favorites). It was really cool to see these events happening concurrently with the climbing comp; it gave the spectators something to do all day long and kept them from getting bored from watching a single event.

Photo: Dalan Faulkner
Photo: Tanner Rozum
Photo: Len Murtha
The competition itself ran smoothly given the weather constraints of the weekend, as the only disruption was that second qualification round was postponed for a couple hours due to a thunderstorm. The problems were extremely cool to climb on, as both the left and right walls had completely different styles: The right wall favored more sustained, pumpy moves, while the left wall’s moves on an enormous star feature were much more gymnastic and bouldery since the overall terrain was much shorter due to the angle not being quite as severe.

Photo: Dave Wetmore
After the qualification and semifinal rounds, I found myself sitting a very solid 5th place heading into the final. I knew I would have to bring everything in order to move up in the competition. When we went out to preview the final climb, I knew I would be beyond psyched even if I didn’t make it very far. The climb traversed the right wall and incorporated nearly every single volume, with lots of dynamic movements and toehooks the entire way. It looked awesome.

When I finally turned around to face the wall to climb, I realized the crowd was way bigger than I initially thought, which put me a little on edge, but also gave me more inspiration to try my hardest. I ended up getting farther than I expected, coming off in the middle of the last overhanging bulge with an extremely hard pinch sequence. The highpoint that I achieved was only beaten by Jimmy Webb, the eventual winner of the competition, but Vasya Vorotnikov and Rob D’Anastasio both matched my highpoint and had a better semifinal score, which put me in 4th place. I was stoked!

Video: Richard Levin

The next day, Kyra and I competed in the speed bouldering competition, which happened to be a new event at Dominion Riverrock this year. The competition was essentially a speed campusing event on the left wall, and was much more laid back than the bouldering event of the previous days. I figured not many people would show up to compete, but he number of competitors was increased dramatically by the added cash incentive of $500 for the overall combined best placement from both the bouldering and speed events.

The speed competition went smoothly as well, with the only minor glitch being that one of the photographers stepped on the timing system cable at one point, pausing the comp for 15 minutes while organizers reconnected the wires. Incidentally, the timing system that was used at this event was made by one of my friends from Colorado, Landon Cox. His laser timing devices (Twin Dolphin Timing) have been used at USA Climbing events for the past few years, and it was great to see his products at this event as well.

Kyra Condie placing 2nd in speed bouldering.
Photo: Backlight Photography
I ended up winning the speed competition ahead of Vasya and Jimmy, which meant Vasya and I tied for second overall with Jimmy coming ahead with the overall win. Below is some GoPro footage of the speed event, with the Twin Dolphin timers featured as the start mechanisms. I highly recommend them for any high-level event!

Myself (left) vs Vasya Vorotnikov (right) in the final round.
Photo: Mark Pownall
1st Place in speed!
Photo: Lizzy Keenan 
On a side note, this was my first time using the Five Ten VXI’s in competition, and they performed way beyond expectation. If you haven’t heard of them, they are an upgrade to the current Team 5.10 model, but are much more of a combination between the Teams and the old Projects, as the shoe is one of the softest climbing shoes I have climbed in. This gives them the ability to toe in on extremely overhanging terrain by allowing your toes to dig into any foothold and keep your core engaged through any sequence of moves.

The rubber used is a new hybrid variation called MI6, which was used by Tom Cruise in the new Mission Impossible movie as he ascends the Burj Khalifa. After testing my new VXI’s on my home window, I confirmed this theory. This rubber is literally sticky enough to stick to glass. The stickiness wears out after a couple of days of being subjected to chalk and dirt, but after a quick scrub with a washcloth they are back to their old stickiness, good as new.

The VXI’s also bend much more than their predecessors, which gives them an added advantage of being capable of toehooking virtually any surface. This was especially noticeable on the final climb, where a key double-toehook allowed both myself and Jimmy Webb to power through a move that stumped many other competitors. There’s no doubt about it: The VXI’s are revolutionary.

Five Ten Team VXI's! Get yours this fall!
Thanks for reading! I would also like to thank both of my sponsors, Five Ten and Metolius, as well as my parents for helping me continue to compete at amazing events like these. This weekend I will be heading back to Hadley, Massachusetts for the 2nd annual Ring of Fire competition. Stay tuned!

Good times :)