Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Climbing, Performance

After a long absence due to various injuries, I finally got out climbing on Sunday. We wanted to keep it simple, so we hiked from my house up Cougar Creek to the mixed area there. That's one of the things I feel I've done right in life (lots wrong too)--to live someplace where I can walk to winter and summer climbing. It's not "stellar," but it is climbing, and there's something satisfying about putting my boots on in my house and then walking to climbing. No big deal maybe, but I feel pretty lucky about that.

Anyhow, it was just nice to be out crunching through the snow with an armed pack on my back. SS and I have climbed together for years, and generally have if not fun at least some sort of rewarding experience when we go out. Actually, I can't think of one outing that wasn't fun. At the crag it was surprisingly cold--we were all excited about the supposed above-freezing temps, but it was windy and definitely tip-of-nose cold at the crag. The last time I'd climbed at this crag I'd been in really good shape; now I'm in decent all-around shape but not very good climbing shape. Scot led; I wanted to see how my collarbone and other injuries would do under load on a top-rope. He had a bit of a battle due to the cold. I definitely think we adapt to the cold; we were both laughing about how cold it felt and how "numb" we were. By the 10th trip or so of the winter I can deal with cold temps easily, but those first couple of trips are rough, and this was my first time out in the cold since Ouray, which wasn't cold...

I followed the pitch and was so awkward at first, moving like a dog on a skating rink. Then it started to flow a bit as I relaxed. I have a hard time rolling my shoulder from extended to locked off, but other than that it wasn't too bad. I got pumped stupid on a route I'd hiked on the on-sight last time, but the layers of cotton wool in my mind were almost gone by the top of the pitch, and I started to forget the nerves and just move (except when my shoulder creaked, that little bone is still moving around a bit). I was still cold and awkward, but there was a glimmer of climbing and not just scrabbling.

The sun finally came out, and suddenly we were moving more fluidly, warm, comfortable and just enjoying the day. That's what's so cool about climbing--it can go from absolutely brutal to sheer fun in moments, as well as the other way. We didn't climb all that much, but it sure was fun to be outside swinging and hooking tools, feeling the mountains, and doing what I really love to do. Yeah! May everyone get outside!

I've been thinking a lot about what performance means, and come to the conclusion that a "good performance" in most outdoor sports means two things: First, a feeling you are doing the sport well for you. To put it another way, the act of doing the sport feels relatively inhibition free. You just do it. When you start and finish a section or an entire route and then suddenly remember that there's something else in life than what you're doing at the moment. This is internal. Second, there's the external measuring stick of time, grades, distance, what I call the "numeric" side of performance. When these two things are both "successful" then you're operating at a high performance level for you. If you do your local run in the evening and it feels really smooth and like you haven't had to try that hard but your time is two minutes faster then you've nailed it. If you go for a run and fight for every hill and your time is two minutes slower then you've had a low-performance day.

The final part of performance for me is then measuring my "numeric" performance with others. This is where it gets weird. If you're climbing 5.10 and then hike a 5.11 that's been giving you grief then you're a rock star in your own athletic world, and you've had a great performance. Drink a beer! But compared to Sonnie Trotter, well, you suck. Or do you? I suspect that if Sonnie were to have a battle on a 13a he would feel like he hadn't performed that well (or he'd laugh about it then send a 14a, he's Sonnie). Or maybe if a climber of Sonnie's caliber battled on an "easy" 14a redpoint he would be performing at a level that was incredibly high for most of the world, but might not be satisfying from a sheer performance perspective for him. But if he sends the hardest crack in the world his feelings about his performance might not be all that different from buddy who sent the 11a... There have been a few times where I've done something at the edge of the numeric envelope at the time. I had to try really hard, but when I did it I felt like it wasn't so hard. I had a good performance.

I think that we all mostly know when we've had a great performance, and when we haven't. I saw a great performance in Ouray when Will Mayo dropped one tool in the comp and then kept climbing for move after move. The crowd knew that it was a great performance. Same with Rich Marshall (I think Rich performed about the best of anyone in the comp--he doesn't have the power of the Euros, but he was performing very well). We've all been in the gym when some young kid or old punter does something that's clearly very cool--you can feel the psyche of a great performance, even if it's a V4 used as an easy warm up by the bad-asses.

It's something to think about--I often hear climbers (including me) bitch themselves out when they can't do a "lowly plastic V4! Damn, I suck!" No, they don't have the skills, or they aren't performing well at all. The more useful mental trick is to think, "Yep, my performance sucked. Why?" I've also seen climbers have magnificent performances and then deride the fact it took them so long or whatever. This strikes me as self-defeating and just wrong. They are letting an exterior numeric system define their performance, instead of looking at their own performance honestly. I think that, for me, the goal is to perform the best I can at whatever I'm doing. On good days when I'm well-trained that may be pretty high against the sport's numeric standards. But I actually performed pretty well in Cougar Creek by redpointing an m8 I'd onsighted easily... I'm not arguing for accepting lower standards, but for a realism in accepting and analyzing personal performance. If you're a world-class athlete like Sonnie, then focusing on your best personal performance may mean a new numeric standard. If you're a 5.9 climber who sends a multi-pitch 5.10 with no falls then that's every bit as cool as Sonnie's efforts, right on. If you're a 5.9 climber who falls off a 5.8 'cause you forgot to look at your feet then your performance sucked... Bottom line, if you want to get better or something then you've got to set higher performance standards and go after them. But I feel like I need to focus on the quality of my performance first, and the improvements will come as I get better at performing... There's the psychological idea of "dissonance," where your view of how the world should be doesn't meet what you're actually experiencing. If you really analyze and honestly figure out where your own performance is and was then there's less dissonance, and perhaps more chance to actually perform well in the long run. No one has a "right" to perform at a certain level, we get to a high level by developing our performances incrementally and with honest introspection. Starting to write like a new-age wanker so enough of that, we all need to shut up and perform. And recognize when we do, and do more of whatever led to that performance state...


PS--and sorry to use Sonnie as an example, for some reason he just came into my mind as I writing this. I like his attitude, he is almost always psyched on climbing, both his and others. Hope you're performing well and having fun Sonnie!