Every time I start to think I’m getting into pretty good shape, something comes along to remind me that I’m not nearly as strong or as fit as I think I am.
Climbing, I thought, would be easy for a guy like me. While there are plenty of folks who can lift, run and jump rings around me at CrossFit WV, I hold my own a lot of the time. I’m pretty strong.
I don’t usually finish at the top in any given class, but often finish in the middle somewhere, which is pretty good given my long relationship with baked goods and television binge-watching.
Regardless, I am in far better shape than I was just a few years ago when I could barely run a quarter mile without feeling like I was about to take a long, slow dirt nap. Back when I first started getting into shape, I could only manage a few push-ups. Pull-ups were mostly out of the question.
But by the time I got to the Spartan Race two years ago, I’d changed a lot. I was lighter, healthier, and stronger.
Most of the climbing challenges on the course at Summit Bechtel Reserve in Fayette County hadn’t been too much trouble for me. I’d only failed two. The first involved a jump far too high for me to make (I still can’t jump very high). The second had been a hand-over-hand monkey bars climb near the end of the race, when my hands were so raw from handling ropes they throbbed.
It would be a couple of days before holding anything heavier than a spoon felt comfortable.
But based on what I remembered from the Spartan course, I thought I’d be like some kind of spider-monkey.
It didn’t work that way.
Climbing was hard. After my first visit out to eNeRGy Rock Gym, my shoulders hurt. My abdominal muscles were sore and my hands, particularly my fingers, ached.
David Statler, owner of eNeRGy Rock Gym, warned me that I might experience some soreness, but only the pain in my fingers made much sense to me.
Many of the grips on the wall inside the gym were shallow, mimicking outdoor cracks and rock shapes, I supposed. I couldn’t get my fingers in very deep and hanging off the side of the wall stressed them.
I became very conscious about my weight.
I looked at David, the veteran climber and the owner of the gym. He was sinewy and lean. I just didn’t see myself.
To be on the safe side, I weighed myself to make sure I hadn’t put on any weight from my summer of everything-but-the-kitchen-sink hamburgers, loaded cheese fries and pulled pork smothered chili dogs, but no, I wasn’t heavier than before I hit the road in June.
And I wasn’t any weaker. But my regular regimen of push-ups, sit-ups and yes, even pull-ups, hadn’t protected me from being sore — and worse, just a couple of minutes hanging on the side of the wall wore me out.
The whole thing was humbling. I had to take stock of what I wanted to do.
As part of my month learning about rock climbing, I hoped to visit a couple of indoor climbing gyms and sort of feel my way around rock climbing, but I also wanted to actually go climb a rock in the wild somewhere — man vs. nature, or sort of.
If I couldn’t hold on to the side of a rock for more than a minute, I didn’t think I had much of a chance of making progress, so I decided to focus a little harder on my diet. I’d been meaning to for a while, anyway.
A few less pounds might make it easier to climb, I thought.
And I started putting in a little extra time at the gym — more push-ups, more pull-ups, crunches, and sit-ups.
I figured it couldn’t hurt.
To strengthen my hands, I started squeezing a lacrosse ball around the house. A tennis ball would have been better, but I didn’t have a tennis ball. With enough time, maybe it would give me a Kung Fu grip, but for now, it just makes my hands tired.
For practice, I considered climbing trees in my yard, but I was still picking up branches from the last couple of storms to blow through our area. Climbing my trees seemed risky. A back brace in September is never a good look.
My next visit to the eNeRGy went somewhat better. I handily scaled the climbing problems that I did well with on my first trip to the gym and made a little progress on the two “easy” climbs.
At least, I didn’t end up on my back on a climbing pad more than once, though I still had trouble figuring out which hand went where and when to move my foot.
What I liked about climbing was that it forced me to think in ways I didn’t normally ever have to. There was a mental challenge to it that I enjoyed, like putting together pieces of a jigsaw puzzle with the picture just being the end of the climb.
At the climbing gym, a lot of the worry about working on those kinds of problems was gone. I wasn’t really all that concerned about falling. Between the springiness of the soft floor and the pillowy mattress-like climbing pads, it felt like you’d really have to work at it to get hurt.
But I also wasn’t going too far up the wall. I barely went higher than six or seven feet, which seemed pretty safe and did nothing to help me confront my needling anxiety about heights.
I go up higher on a ladder to clear the gutters around my house.
So, I reached out to Gritstone Climbing and Fitness, which I’d been told was the largest (and possibly the tallest) climbing gym in the state.
David spoke highly of it and a photographer friend raved about it.
The managers of the gym invited me to come up for a visit.
I also contacted a couple of outdoor adventure companies, who seemed interested in showing me around and maybe trying me out on climbing with ropes.
Meanwhile, I just needed to keep training, keep trying and avoid the seasonal cravings that can help you add weight.
Some of us have a harder time resisting baked goods, pumpkin spice and bags of Halloween candy.
At least, I do.