I bang on pretty frequently about climbing and running and how the yin of one becomes the yang of the other. The long weekend recently presented me with an opportunity to camp out at Moonarie, the jewel in the crown of climbing in the Flinders Ranges, while getting in some running training. This is a perfect representation of how even though I’m down the running rabbit hole at the moment in life, I still see the value of climbing and want to keep that engaged in a positive extra-marital affair kind of way. Without phone reception at the Moon AND no trusty ABC (my radio inconveniently shat itself) I had a lot of time on my hand to consider the debate of whether it’s better to live in the running world and dabble in climbing or do the opposite, or do no dabbling at all. I’m not saying this is some great ideological debate of West v East, Left v Right, but rather an internal conference about topics that I enjoy and appreciating the differences in mindset, behaviours, ability to perform and outlook that the general run of the mill participants of each sport usually have. Instead of tossing and turning it over in my head here’s how I saw it play out, at times advocating for climbing, or for running or for both and never yielding to neither. The adjudicator’s report at the end summarises it for those without fifteen minutes up their sleeves.
Item 1: The Pursuit of Time or a Grade.
To kick off this Parley (Pirate speak for a conference between two opposing sides of a dispute) let’s consider the running world and it’s fastidious fascination with times. The time you run a race in often qualifies the experience of the event. If you run a PB or a notable time (eg. sub 20 minutes for 5km) you’ll strut your stuff. Conversely, run a good race but in shit conditions and you’ll be less impressed with yourself. A quick look on any runner’s Instagram will have a collection of race photos and the associated time from the event. A shit race and shit time will yield some sort of caption such as ‘Not my day’ and a frowny face. Well bloody hell, letting a number define your emotional response to your favourite activity is a sure fire way to continually be disappointed in the outcome. Sure, there’s a time and a place for acknowledging your progress but the thing that counts when running is that you actually went running and gave it a good crack! End of story. If it’s a good time, great. If it’s a shit time, maybe you stuffed yourself up along the way and can be disappointed at whatever you did that caused that poor performance (poor nutrition, poor taper etc.) but that’s your own bloody fault. Too many runners get caught up in aiming for a target and if I know anything about good economic policy it’s that Goodhart’s law tells us:
When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.Charles Goodhart.
So if it isn’t obvious yet, applying this to the running world, when someone runs specifically to break a time goal of XX:XX, the time goal actually fails to be a good measure of their performance in the end.
Switching over to the climbing world, the route or the rock qualifies the experience more way more than the grade of difficulty. The rock is Number 1 and we are just grateful to touch it and climb it so the story goes. The grading of the climb is only there to ensure you don’t end up somewhere you shouldn’t. To display this point further, when climber’s get together and ask how their day was the conversation starter is usually ‘What did you climb?’, not ‘What grade did you climb?’, just ‘What did you climb?’. Route first, grade second. That’s how climbs are listed in the guidebook too.
But what about climbers looking to push their grade band, isn’t that similar to qualifying the experience with a time? In some aspects yes. Some climbers enjoy the validation of ticking a higher graded climb to know they are progressing in the sport. But some climbers also push their physical and mental limits trying to tick higher grades because they have their eyes on the prize of a long-term dream route. A route that they can’t do yet but is so aesthetic or revered in history or has a wonderful sequence of moves that it drives them to train, push their grade band and get sending. Does this transfer back over to running? I haven’t heard anyone who runs a 3:10 marathon speak of the way they dream about covering the same course 11 minutes quicker (and tick a sub 3 hr marathon) so they can feel their body move like lightning around the course. No, it’s always aiming for a sub 3hr or a sub 2:30 or some other time related goal. And whenever you tick this goal the feeling of satisfaction is present for a few days but then it’s on to the next time related goal. Where’s the joy in responding to the increased running ability and resultant better movement? Sitting off to the side somewhere. And that’s why the majority of runners follow the below process with running:
1. Someone or something inspires them to enter a race.
2. They start training or even skip this step.
3. They do the race. If they have a bad day they end their running experience here. If they have a fun time, they say ‘I think I’ll do one of these again’.
4. They start training again and pick a goal of either beating their PB or cracking some arbitrary time goal. (If they don’t they are most likely motivated to enter the race again because they actually enjoyed all the peripheral parts of the race, the music, the medal, the bib number etc. and couldn’t care about running because if they did they would realise it’s a lot cheaper to just run for fun without entering a race).
5. They enter another race. If they don’t beat their time goal or PB they go back to Step 4.
6a. If they do beat their PB and time goal they celebrate and ‘have a break’ from running and slowly get unfit again before some life event spurs them back to Step 1. Common phrases heard here are ‘That’s enough for me’.
An alternative ending in my view that is akin to that of a climbers view is:
6.b The runner realises they accomplished their goal and acknowledges their increased fitness. This has benefited their daily life and they now enjoy having a Ferrari of a body. They continue to run for pleasure and to maintain their fitness.
You see, climbers naturally appreciate Step 6b because once they make the next grade in climbing, they suddenly have a bunch more cool climbs to try. The better you get at the sport, the more there is on offer! It’s like a cookbook that reveals more recipes as you learn the difference between frying and sauteing. Sadly though it’s not as simple in the running world (except for in the 100km 100 mile ultra scene where some races require a qualifying race to be completed) hence why more runners fall down the trap of Step 6a and park their new Ferrari of a body in the garage for a while and let it get a flat battery and flat tires.
So what is the solution to the time-based mindset problem I have identified in runners? It’s not like we’re going to stop timing races. Can we simply pretend we are ‘climbing’ the race? Maybe, it’s worked for me in the past. Probably the easiest way is for runners to get around their running mates and celebrate their new status of fitness, health and the fact they are covering the ground well as opposed to the arbitrary time goal. I’m not saying get rid of the time goal, those goals are great to motivate you to get better, but just a greater emphasis needs to be put on the fact that if you aimed for a sub 3:30 marathon and came in it at 3:31 you have earned the same physical benefits as a 3:30 marathoner and should be just as happy.
If I was to keep score throughout this debate, which I am, I would hand this round to the Climbing community for holding a greater appreciation of the intrinsic motivators to participate in their sport. Climbers 1, Runners 0.
Item 2: The Dirtbag Climber meets the Clarke Kent runner
Listening to a podcast last night, I heard the oft-repeated story of how a climber quit their job, moved into a van and pursued climbing as a dirtbag. The dirtbag way of life was immortalised in the movie Valley Uprising where some of the best climbers in the world were living on cat food in Yosemite Valley whilst putting up some of the hardest routes in the world. Many generations of climbers have followed this path for maybe not their whole lives but for most, at least a month or two road trip. The end less summer of surfing but just in a climbing sense. And not just in summer. For these dirtbag climbers no-one begrudges the shirking of their social responsibility, the fact they don’t have a job and sponge off the goodwill of tax paying citizens in the community (while I was running on the weekend I witnessed a dirtbag’s car, my noisy campground neighbour, break down on the weekend and be given a lift by two elderly people). No, instead they are seen as spirited humans living their best life in the climbing community for they have sacrificed all else in their life, all materialistic possessions and any security by committing fully to climbing. For which, they reap the rewards immensely.
So that’s the dirtbag climber. Substitute the climber part for skier, snowboarder, surfer, mountain biker and you’ve now had your eyes opened to a whole new class of society. In all my podcast listening, blog reading and actual living, I’ve never even heard of the idea of a dirtbag runner though. No, the equivalent of the dirtbag runner is we celebrate our Clarke Kent, blue-collar type operators who somehow run at least 150 km’s a week and hold down a full time job and contribute to their family. The male and female representatives at the Commonwealth Games for the marathon all work either full-time or are part-time and help raise a family. And yet here they are trying to make it as a professional athletes as the best damn marathoners we can produce! Why aren’t we on their backs telling them to quit their jobs and go full time dirtbag?! Think of what it could do to their performance!
One reason I think it doesn’t happen in the running world, or for any other mainstream sport is that those outdoor dirtbaggers (climbers, skiers, snowboarders etc) are all familiar with being on the fringe of society. They already participate in sports most people in the local supermarket have only dreamed of doing so they’re used to being a little different. They’re happy trying to live as cheaply as possible. Runners on the other hand are mostly just ‘normal’ people who are happy in the hamster wheel of life. If a runner was to break out of this mould of a job, partner, stable living arrangements, they would have 95% of their mates advising them to do the complete opposite.
The other contributing factor is that top-end runners can get by on 2 hours of training each day during the week with a bigger session in the weekend and can do their training anywhere. Climbers need rock or a gym to train, which takes time to travel to before they can start training. Then on weekends, climbers will spend their whole weekend at the crag whereas runners can mix in other normal aspects of life. So, what this means in a practical sense is that a reason runners don’t go out and become dirtbags is because they can fit running in around their lives and also because of the peer pressure of staying involved with societal expectations. But just because you can do something doesn’t mean it’s the greatest way of doing it though…
Climbers keep their lead and add a point with the point raised in Item 2. Climbers 2, Runners 0.
Item 3: The Try Hard factor
If you’re at the cutting edge of any sport you know what trying hard is all about. Hard work, sacrifice, giving it your all… they’re all cliches that any championship winning athlete drops as if they are the greatest hard worker that’s ever lived. I don’t think it’s so simple as that and trying hard has many different forms.
In running, trying hard means absolutely fanging it at a certain speed until either your legs give way, your body fills up with lactic acid or your brain takes over and says ‘that’ll do Donkey’. You’ll be 80% through an interval with your breathing going nuts, sweat dripping off you and think you’re absolutely working hard. Some days you push on for that other 20% of the interval and it’s job well done, other days you still try hard right to the end but if you’re honest you could’ve tried harder. For some runners they don’t really know the difference and will always congratulate themselves on having tried hard as there’s no obvious metric to discern the difference.
How about in climbing? There are similar examples of people trying hard on long endurance routes or missions that are similar to runners version of trying hard. The example I want to focus on though is of the boulderer or climber at the limit of their technical and physical ability. The climber who is trying HARD as they hang on to the rock. If they don’t try hard, they fall off, game over. The metric for telling the difference between trying hard and trying really fucking hard is that if they adopt the latter they stay in the game. A quick scroll through YouTube will show many videos of all types of climbers screaming their brains out as they look to stay on the route. Groovetrain by Ben Cossey is the number one example.
These climbers, like Ben, want the route so bad they recruit every fibre of their body. I’m yet to see a runner in any major championship go ‘to the death’ in a race like a Spanish sport climber would on a regular Sunday at the crag.
If you’re not a climber though how can runners access this mentality of trying hard like their lives depend on it? Well, either recruit Tyler Durdin of Fight Club fame to come to your workplace, take you out the back and, with a gun pointed at your head, ask you what you want your best running result to be and why you haven’t done it yet. Or my other personal favourite is the Al Pacino speech in Any Given Sunday asking you to claw with your fingernails for that inch. Orrr find a reason to run like your life depends on it and crack that out in times of races of serious training sessions. Then you’ll really know how to try HARD.
Things are looking good for the Climbers after another win in Item 3. They’re trying hard to make this a shutout. It’s almost halfway and currently Climbers now have 3 points and Runners have 0.
Item 4: Technique
Climbers have to learn climbing technique like they’re learning a new language. Laybacks, underclings, crimps, Gaston’s, houdinis, drop knees, what do those all mean?! Then there’s the technical differences between all the subsets of climbing and the necessary ropework. Throw in the ‘technique’ of approaching a new crag, camping and there’s a lot to teach a person new to climbing about before they can start to excel in the sport. All of this technical knowledge can keep a climber happily engaged with the sport as the more they learn, the more they realise there is to it and after a few years of climbing you feel like you like you’re worthy of a Cert IV at least. A lifetime’s worth of climbing knowledge will cost more than most Master’s Degrees.
Running on the other hand we are led to believe is quite a simple technique free sport and thus isn’t as mentally engaging. Get out the door and just go left, right, left right and that’s all there is to it? Wrong. Just because you were never taught how to run doesn’t mean there is a more technically correct way to run. How many people complain that running hurts their knees, shins, hips or back? Chances are they either have poor technique or poor equipment. So if we appreciate that there is some technique in running we start to get one back at the climbers. Think about all the other running related technicalities like race tactics, choosing the right distance for your strengths and weaknesses and all the things like nutrition, recovery and travel to a race that cross over from climbing. It’s not such a one-sided affair after all.
Climbing will always be more technically engaging though and depending on who you are as a person this may or may not suit you. If you’re an absolute wizard on the rock you may love the fact that every climb is a puzzle of technique waiting to be solved. Your strength may limit you but your technique won’t. If you are not Harry or Hermione though, your inability to nail down the correct technique for a climb will have you banging your head against a literal rock as you frustratingly fail to apply your magnificent strength to the particular climb. Such situations as this make for very sad times.
Jump over to the running brethren and sisters and they have no such problem as this. Spend a few weeks or months sorting out your biomechanics and from then on your performance is related to how well you train, recover and execute on race day. Unless you’re an Olympic athlete it’s unlikely your poor decision in race tactics is the thing stopping you from progressing or winning. The only exception to this is in the ultra scene where a poor refuelling strategy will mean you’re cooked and don’t actually get to demonstrate your fitness potential. Overall, there is a sufficient amount of technique to engage your brain in with both sports and depending on who you are or maybe your mood at the time, one sports lack of or more of technique influence will appeal to you.
Split the results here I say. Climbing 3.5, Running 0.5.
Item 5: Travel
Traveling as an athlete is inevitable. Even online gamers travel to compete in tournaments so there is plenty of hype and atmosphere at an event. As a climber, hopefully you live near some form of climbing and have a local crag that acts like the local mainstream sporting club. A place for you to hone your skills, practice new techniques and get plenty of training. The local crag though is just one cuisine on the menu and to really experience climbing at its best you have to travel. Different rock, different styles, different climates, different grades, different cultures. All these factors not only make you a better climber but keep you interested in the sport because variety is the spice of life! Unfortunately though, travelling as a climber can be difficult. Each different crag has a new approach to learn, maybe you’ll need a special vehicle to access it, camping or accommodation might be difficult to organise, you have to convince your climbing partners a trip is worth it and to really get the best out of climbing travel you need to commit to a minimum 2-3 days, a week at best, for a trip to be worth it. These are all major red flags and inhibiting factors. Pull off a successful climbing trip though with a ‘mega proj’ in the bag and you’ll be feeling like the cat’s pyjamas.
Or maybe a successful climbing trip just has you gallivanting around at the same crag as your climbing idols. One of the great things about climbing is that the worlds hardest climbs or lines that draw the most famous climbers are all easily accessible to any general punter. Travelling as a climber can be a pain in the ass to organise but if you get it right, you can travel to the equivalent of the MCG, Madison Square Gardens or the Colosseum and not just take pretty pictures but actually get to play on these equivalent idolised routes. If you go to America, you might be lucky to see Tommy Caldwell at Yosemite or if you’re in Australia maybe Malcolm Matheson strolls by you… which has happened to me! So it’s not all bad as a climber but the good takes some effort.
What about the effort required to travel as a runner? Well, frankly, runners have it a lot better than climbers. Unless you’re in prison, or surrounded by Army barracks, you can run anywhere and hence have access to as much training terrain as you want. There are better places to live in most major cities so that the terrain at your doorstep isn’t hustle and bustle crazy or super steep, but even if it is you can still run there or get on a treadmill at the local gym. When it comes to traveling it’s easy to keep your running routine going and is a great way to explore a new place. When it comes to travelling for competitions thats where things get a little tricky, but not as tricky as it is for climbers. Road and track races are held in major cities where the James Bond, fly in, one night stand, fly out, type mission is achievable but unfortunately pricey (another reason why runners tend to be more Clark Kent than Dirtbag). Trail running races can be held further away from airports so might necessitate a hire car and a caravan park stay but it’s all relatively simple given your equipment you’ll be travelling with fits in a small backpack. Runners also get equal privileges to climbers with their ability to access the same courses for all the major marathons as the elites. They also don’t have to go to too much effort to grab an autograph at a World Champs or other high level track race and if you’re an Australian track fan who watches local athletes, without putting it rudely, you’d be able to bring your whole family and claim a whole section of the stand very easily at some of our biggest meets.
Getting to the pointy end of the debate now and I can smell a comeback coming! After these travel considerations I’d say the runners are getting a point back due to the superior ease of being a runner when it comes to travelling. Climbers 3.5, Runners 1.5.
Item 6 Conditions:
Things are starting to tip back into the runners favour. This one puts it their way in a big way. Conditions, or the weather, can make a runner have a good race or a bad race but they can still race or train. Conditions for climbing are much more important. Too wet, no climbing. Too hot and sunny, no climbing. Too windy, no climbing. Too humid no climbing. Whoever wrote Goldilocks and The Three Bears was probably a climber on their day off because they would’ve known the importance of everything needing to be just right for climbing to actually happen. Some climbers approach the tactics against negating the influence of conditions by stacking bouldering pads in front of the climb so the sun does not warm up the holds too much. Others bring portable fans to ensure they cool their finger tips down sufficiently.
It can be pouring cats and dogs and runners will mostly shrug their shoulders and get out anyway. Conditions like that can be arguably better too for runners, less dog walkers and pedestrians to contend with. A final example to illustrate why runners win the conditions battle is you can spend months of effort training for a particular climb, several different days learning the climb, get some mates organised for a trip to go and tick the climb, time your taper so you’ll be fresher on a select few days on the trip, head all the way interstate to go on this dream trip of yours only for you to turn up and be rained on the whole time denying you access to the climb. Console yourself with the fact that the climb will always be there yes but you won’t and back home you crawl to go and cry while your running friend posts pictures of Instagram of the latest race they have completed.
Safe to say I’d much rather be a runner than suffer at the fickle hands of Mother Nature as a climber. Climbers 3.5, Runners 2.5.
Item 7 Competition:
Final topic. Hang in there readers if you’re still here. Way back in Item 1 I addressed the issue of runners qualifying their experience of their primo activity with a time and not just using their feel of the actual performance to give them their satisfaction like climbers. The climbers held the moral high ground on doing it more for the love of the movement and the journey as opposed to the destination and won that round. Well, from being on that moral high ground for too long I actually think the climbing community can begin to suffer. Climbers can contend themselves that they’re having a good time, enjoying the sport for what it is rah rah rah, but what they’re really saying is their too chicken shit to give a competition or something out of their league a red hot crack. Floating through at half rat-power might be all sunshine and rainbows but it only holds you back from accessing a greater level of connection with your sport. Climbers don’t have weekly competitions or anything similar that pushes them to get out of their comfort zone. You can call yourself a climber even if all you’re really doing is fiddling at the edges of the sport and not actually getting out there and sticking your neck out on something that is really hard for you.
Compare this almost benevolent approach of just going climbing to feel the warm fuzzy’s to a runner entering the finishing chute of any number of weekly held races and it’s clear that it pays to be a runner. The weekly competition schedule, or however frequently you wish to enter races, creates an environment that runners feed off to push themselves to greater performances. Runners like me who train alone and then come together on race day to throw down together are like the little kid singing in the shower who suddenly joins a Gospel choir in ‘Merica and feels like Aretha Franklin. This competitive atmosphere is created by the music at the start line, the bib number and all the other things I mentioned in the Process under Item 1. The drive to beat other people must stem from our ancestral days where if you were the bigger, stronger, faster person you probably got the most food and the choice of lifestyle you were after. While it’s not as clear cut these days or rewarding to beat Joe Blow in your average weekly race, the brain still relishes on the fact that beating the person next to you is a better option than losing to them. Not every runner though approaches races like this or even does races. But unlike climbing where everyone calls themselves a climber no matter what you actually do, in the running world these people come under the banner of joggers… Final point of the debate goes to the running community. Which means it’s a tie!! Would you believe it! Climbers 3.5, Runners 3.5!
Adjudicator’s comments/How to Interpret a Split Result:
After exploring 7 topics from a running and climbing viewpoint my potentially biased opinion, which is a result from my experiences with both activities, is that it is favourable to be a runner who approaches the sport with the mindset of a climber. If Joe Blow from the Planet Zorg dropped into Earth and wanted to get the most out of their running I’d tell them:
– Run because you enjoy feeling fast and fit. Your results will speak for themselves.
– Buy yourself a car big enough to sleep in and drive it out to the best running terrain and then live there. Sell part of your liver to fund this step. It will grow back.
– Find a pack of wild dogs to chase you each time you train so you learn how to try like your life depends on it.
– Do not neglect the 1%’ers of the sport and spend every minute you’re not running in the library learning about the history and science of running.
– Appreciate that you can run anywhere anytime. Further to this, if that anywhere anytime is a race, then enjoy the next however long it goes for and try and beat as many people as you can.
But if Joe Blow was actually interested in climbing and couldn’t care about running my advice would be to:
– Climb as much as possible and you’ll work out quickly enough where you choose to refine your performance. Then do more of that climbing.
– Buy yourself a car big enough to sleep in and drive it out to the best climbing terrain and then live there. Sell part of your liver to fund this step. It will grow back.
– Watch as many videos of screaming climbers trying their little hearts out to keep your psych high. Then imitate them.
– While watching those videos, also start learning the language of climbing. Multiple screens and choices of different media (podcasts, internet) will speed this process up.
– Apply Occam’s Razor to your travelling lifestyle and learn how to read the weather. Make the most of your trips away for they can be as fleeting as a good sunset.
– Test yourself repeatedly in places that challenge you. Be it without stronger climbers, harsh environments or indoor competitions, these places are the like the School of Hard Knocks that will force you to adapt and get better. Or crush your soul and self-esteem. Try not to let that happen.
Well that was a fun little Parley between the worlds of running and climbing and makes me think of what other sports there are to learn from. It was also a great way to keep myself occupied at Moonarie while I rested before my next run and looked busy in the campground. Holding this personal note a bit longer, after my long weekend spent deliberating on these matters I see myself currently as more of a runner who appreciates the contributions to life climbing experiences have given me. This was reflected in the training I fit in on the weekend with most of it being running and only a couple of forays up to the cliff to keep an eye on things. Speaking of training, I’m pretty happy with how the post SSSFFF training block is going. My fitness has improved, the weather is warmer and my mind is fresher. Things are coming up Millhouse. Thanks for reading.