One of the biggest changes to my climbing this year has been that I've really slowed down, and learned to recover on the rock.
I guess I'd begun the process last year, Nic always seems to have time on the rock, and I was trying to emulate that. In El Chorro last November I took a slow approach and sent Annack Sunamun, my first 7b. But then, over winter in the gym, I speeded up again. The problem is that routes in the gym don't tend to reward slower climbing, especially if you tend to hang around the competition wall - they're often set with a sustained level of difficulty from bottom to top, that you don't tend to see in real life. So in order to "achieve" at the climbing center, you speed up. So you get fit, but you're not practicing the way you need to climb outdoors.
I came out of the winter in the gym strong, but my first few trips in the UK this year saw me climb nothing of any real note - a bunch of high 6s and a solitary 7a+. Then I started climbing with Ramon, and I looked at the way, even in the gym, he was climbing so slowly - stopping every few moves and taking rests where I didn't think it was possible to recover, never mind neccessary. At first, I thought this was a mistake - he was going too far. I'd forgotten how much effort I'd put in to slowing down myself the year before, and I thought he was bringing across the pace of his ice climbing to a discipline where it wouldn't be helpful. But then I watched him blitzing everything in his path at the crag, and I started to realise it was *my* mistake - I'd been using the wall to get good at wall climbing again, not to practice for the real thing. The more I thought about it, the more I realised that the good indoor climbers are not necessarily the good outdoor climbers. This was something Nic had talked about a lot in the past, but although I could see that was the case, I hadn't really understood why.
So I began to copy Ramon - slowing down indoors. At first it was a bit difficult to keep my discipline, after all we're driven by the numbers game. To climb slow, I had to ignore the fact that there was a tick to be had - I tick that I knew I could get, and a tick that I was watching others collect. But I had realised these ticks would not help me in the real world, and a tick on rock is worth a thousand on plastic, so I persevered. And quite quickly I started to notice an improvement - I could climb slowly on plastic after all! I have a reasonable aerobic fitness base, developed mainly from cycling, so just like it takes a few weeks to adapt that fitness to the swimming pool, or to running, the same applied to bringing it to my climbing.
And then I went off to Margalef for easter and blew my mind with my first 7c, and my first 7b+, in that order! Suddenly the patient approach was vindicated, and it's no longer so hard to keep my discipline in the wall.
Ignoring the numbers game at the wall also taught me a valuable lesson - by taking the pressure to perform away, I performed better. So I've taken that outdoors - every route is part of the learning process, and I don't care who else is sending it, or whether or not I send a particular route that I think is within "my grade". I'm still playing the numbers game, but I've changed the rules - numbers in the gym do not apply, and nobody else's numbers count. I want to climb an 8b one day, so the only rule is that when I look back over my climbing log, my numbers must show I'm still progressing towards that goal.
It's interesting now though, that when I try to explain what an improvement this change has made to other climbers at the wall, people don't seem to think it will apply to them. One response I get quite often, from pretty experienced climbers, is "yeah, but you're really fit so you can climb like that. I'm not fit, so I have to get up there quickly before I tire out". Surely it's the other way round - the less fit you are, the more important it becomes to climb conservatively. Anyone with time on their hands can walk 26 miles, but you have to be pretty fit to run a marathon. Attacking the wall like an enthusiastic puppy leads to in-efficient moves, which raises the heart rate, pushing you into the anaerobic zone. Your anaerobic fuel tank is pretty small, and using it up quickly leads to the brain shutting down. When we're getting spanked by a route, that panicky feeling where we suddenly don't know what to do next, technique goes out the window, and all we can come up with is some crazy do or die lunge is not down to mental weakness, it's a physiological reaction. Not only that, but if your anaerobic fitness is good, but your aerobic fitness is shit, which one do you reckon you'll get the most benefit from training at the gym?
So anyway, big thanks go to Nic and Ramon, for helping me grow out of my enthusiastic puppy phase!