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Climbing and motherhood: the practicalities

20 Oct 2014

In my experience, so far, I’ve decided that becoming a climbing parent (who wants to regain any kind of previous form) is like doing the most enormous jigsaw, which has way too much sky and no defining features in the landscape.

One of the problems with my jigsaw initially was that my picture was entirely unrealistic in my life in the timescales I had allocated (initially less than 6 months for that following winter training period).

Here was my jigsaw picture:  I would emerge the following Spring with a string of glorious climbing ascents, fingers and abs of steel and forearms which would allow me to cling to the rock forever.  I wanted my big shoulders back, which had always caused me so much embarrassment in the past.  And I wanted biceps like Alex Puccio.  And this would all fit smoothly and tightly into my time starved schedule, which would, of course run like clockwork. Stupidly I had based these timescales on comparisons with a select minority of mothers who have made comebacks quickly to climbing and other sports.

Rifle 2

Vanessa loving Rifle, USA.  I'm up climbing top right on a big 5:11d.  We took this trip the autumn after Vanessa turned 1.  I remember barely being able to concentrate with all that laughing and 'mummy' being called up at me!!  

And so, regardless of the blatant changes in our life, as far as I was concerned there were no excuses for winter number 2.  I signed up for a training plan and even Nic questioned whether I really had time and energy for all those pull ups and press ups.  “Of course I do” I replied with probably quite a shrill voice.  There was no way on earth a toddler was going to get in the way of my comeback.  At that point I saw the picture very simplistically and to me I didn’t need that many jigsaw pieces:

  1. Motivation
  2. Childcare
  3. Training
  4. Organisation

Looking back I really felt it was that simple especially as I’m already good at 1 and 4.  I’ve since learned that each of those pieces is more like a whole section and that actually it’s easy to lose pieces along the way and there are other sections to complete.  It was as if I was ignoring someone had spilt coffee over one corner but I wasn’t going to be put off.

Katherine St Leger

You can barely see me here, but I'm doing a 7c at St Leger, France. I had failed on this previously to having Vanessa because of an enormous move.  However following the training plan in winter number 2 I did this route. 

The main section I hadn’t thought about was the rest of my life!!  As obvious and as stupid as that seems now.  I hadn’t thought about my energy levels, my health, the impact of my increasing work or the fact that Vanessa might actually have increasing needs (like an opinion (!), requiring full attention etc etc – clearly these are fair enough but naively I hadn’t prepared for the impact of these changes).

And so the training and work increased and I began the process of wearing myself down to a thread.  My productivity became entirely reliant on Vanessa’s sleep times and I remember proudly updating my status on facebook from time to time.  Things like:

“Fingerboard session completed, article written all in Vanessa’s sleep time”

Well done me!  I had turned into one of those highly irritating mothers that feels the need to tell the world JUST HOW WELL I AM COPING.  I was badly suffering from super mum syndrome and nothing I did was enough – I wanted more.

Captain Haddock

Here is something else I have done since Vanessa:  Captain Haddock 7a+ Bowden Doors.  I have a handful of nemeses.  This was one of them!

I did achieve my climbing goals that following year of climbing an 8a route.  I didn’t meet the chains with euphoria though, instead I realised I had made a giant leap in my learning about myself and my climbing.

Despite completing the training plan and my form returning reasonably well I wasn’t seeing the results in the way I wanted on the crag.  My same old redpoint stress returned with a vengeance.  Despite making rapid progress on this particular 8a early on, the actual redpoint dragged on.  With a degree of frustration, after many days simply not doing the route, I asked some of the climbers at the crag about their mindset for redpointing.  Most of the answers weren’t that helpful, apart from one: just see what you can learn on each attempt.  I applied his advice and I did the route that go, that day.  Something clicked and I swore I would apply this new learning to future redpoints.

With one thing and another I would have to wait till the following Spring till I could try this out.  It worked almost 3 years after having Vanessa I had my most successful climbing period.  In 6 weeks I did 3 7c+s and 3 8as.  Whilst I have climbed these grades before, never so quickly and in such quick succession.  Things soon ground to a halt with a wet summer and a house move... but those few weeks of climbing lasted me all year.  So my picture was correct, I was just a year out with my timescales!

Powerplant

My form culminated with this classic Powerplant 8a in Cheedale

My point is here that I had realised that I was on a bigger journey than I had appreciated.  I suddenly wondered what would happen if I applied this thinking of ‘what can I learn’ to other areas of my life.

This mantra has proved very useful in a number of challenges that have swept our family over the last 2 years.  And in applying this thinking I’ve picked up a few new jigsaw pieces: 

  1. My disrupted sleep from the early days of having Vanessa and pushing myself too hard led to a horrendous period of insomnia, which took me to my knees.  I even went on a course to sort it out.  This jigsaw piece was a bugger.  I still use those techniques today.
  2. Childcare.  It took a long time to admit that I needed more time and we increased Vanessa’s nursery from 1.5 days, to 2 and then 3.  More pieces are slotting into place now that Vanessa has started school.  We could do with a few more pieces for this section – but it is getting easier.
  3. Poor health.  This has been a problem my little family has really struggled with, meaning I have had long periods of no climbing or training.  However this actually gave me a piece I wasn’t expecting.  It led to me giving up gluten, which has revolutionised my climbing.
  4. Injury.  Because of the stop start nature of my climbing I’ve picked up injuries.  This is leading me down the line of better body conditioning, which in turn should lead to better climbing performance.
  5. Training.  Through an insistence to work on my weaknesses my climbing has thrived.  I have learned a lot about training, which I’ve managed to apply to my clients.

Vanessa crazy golf

One of our biggest learnings is that family holidays with no climbing whatsoever are much easier and a lot more fun.  Here's Vanessa in Whitby this Summer.

Aside from finding all my jigsaw pieces I am learning so much about myself.  I hope this give me those awkward pieces where nothing else seems to fit.  I have learned to appreciate my body much more, perhaps the parts I previously perceived as less ‘feminine’ I realise are my most useful in climbing.  My motivation jigsaw piece or section is big – I am lucky I have this as others have to work harder for it – the key for me is appreciating I am doing a good job and my best.  No matter how much I have tried to fight it, being a climber and pushing myself is a vital part of who I am.  No matter how much I try other calmer hobbies like sewing and planning how to decorate my house, nothing else comes close.  I am not going to stop being who I am.  I need to climb.  I had also always believed that hard work gets results.  As a parent, I have learned that hard work often simply means treading water.  And while this is at times incredibly frustrating, I am learning that this is how it is and progress will be slow.  My hardest learning is to be patient with myself... still ongoing. 

If you are interested in reading about this kind of thing I strongly recommend reading professional climber Beth Rodden's blog. It's so refreshing to hear about others going through exactly the same thing.