Thursday, May 30, 2013

5:00, 175, 12b, Pfalz Point

In high school, and early on in college, I weighed around 175 pounds. Climbing wasn't something I took seriously yet. I was a competitive runner and cyclist. I had very little upper body muscle, never carried a big backpack and hadn't developed overly large calf and quadricep muscles quite yet. I was running fast (not exceptional but fast nonetheless) times for most middle distance running events - :53 for the 400, 1:59 for the 800 (half mile), 4:10 for the 1500 (4:26 mile), 9:10 for the 3000 (9:47 for two miles), around 16:40 for the 5k (5:20/mile) and 27:30 for the 8k (5:30/mile).

After high school I fell out of the running habit and delved deeply into all types of climbing. In college, while lifting and cycling a lot, climbing, and frequently partying, I edged over 200lbs. Running became something I did only for fitness. Compared to the average non-runner, I maintained great running fitness. However, anyone who's trained significantly for any sport knows that there is an immense difference between unfit and fit for competition. Yes, I was way more fit than someone who just jumped off the couch, but I wasn't fit for any sort of highly aerobic pursuit.

I gained comfort as a climber. My weight dropped down from 202 to 190. Tons of mileage over rock, road trips, and winters devoted entirely to ice climbing helped solidify my skills. I developed a huge climbing fitness base that has allowed me to gain fitness quickly now, or focus on projects even though I haven't been climbing a ton.

Three winters ago, while approaching Cannon Cliff with my friend Michael Wejchert for what was to become an unsuccessful attempt at Omega, I noticed that I had developed greater aerobic fitness than in past winters. Toting gear all over the Catskills to establish hard new mixed lines had helped increase my cardiovascular fitness. I decided to piggyback off of that fitness - I began running again.

My training was on-and-off that year. I ran a few local X-C races and attended a few track workouts, but didn't train consistently enough to get fit for competitive running. I wasn't getting out enough to develop a base. Consequently, hard efforts made me sore and very tired. This inhibited my training progress.

Two winters ago, I was bouted by Hydropower (an M9- mixed route in the Catskills) during my onsight attempt. At the same height as ice, and four feet away from a restful stem, I let go. The effort left me sore for more than a week. I vowed to return, smarter and fitter the next season.

Last year I ran more. I shaved time off my local 5K pr (personal record) and attended a few more track workouts. I climbed less, but became more pointed about my efforts. As a result and despite a real lack of climbing fitness, I managed to have a few very good days (redpointing a few 12a's and many 5.11's), always after climbing road trips that left me feeling less nervous about falling.

This past winter I was really deliberate about my efforts. I really didn't have any easy recreational climbing days. My guiding days were easy, and my recreational days were always focused on a project, or on improving my fitness. As a result I ticked off a few projects (Hydropower went after 3 tries) pretty easily, even though I didn't put in that many days.

This spring I've started to take running much more seriously. I'm training and running multiple days per week. I'm attending track workouts weekly, and racing when I can. I'm careful not to overdo things though. As a teenager and twenty-something I never listened to my body. Now I know and feel when I need a rest, and I heed the signs. I'm not afraid to take a few days off. During my second X-C race this season, I knocked 25 seconds off last year's p.r. During 400's and 800's on the track I'm training at around 5:20/mile pace, nearly 30 seconds faster than last year's mile pace.

By the end of this year I'm hoping to run a 5:00 mile, something I haven't done since high school. My partner told me she'll catch my whippers if I weigh 175. I'm 183 right now; off to work I go. I've continued to climb a few days a week, and despite feeling out of shape, I still manage to climb decently. If I focus my efforts, I'll likely be able to send a few of my 5.12 projects at Farley before the season is over. I just registered for the 10-mile Pfalz Point Trail Challenge on the Mohonk Preserve in September and over the next week I'm going to work backwards and figure out a training plan that will have me in good shape for that race.

Now for the long-winded point of this post. The successful pursuit of activities that require top-level fitness isn't a given. Even the best natural athletes benefit from training. Training requires a concerted effort and almost immeasurable, devastatingly hard work, over long periods of time. There will be hiccups along the way, and injuries are a real possibility, especially if we're not careful about training as we age. However, I've noticed that other things in my life tend to fall in line when I have a training regimen. I have more energy for daily tasks, sleep well at night, and feel good about myself. So, the next time things feel really hard, remember that the goals are helpful and the rewards are worth the effort.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Saturday Night Live: Free Climber Skills Clinics in the Gunks

Joe Vitti's Saturday Night Live clinic series is starting up again this season. All clinics will begin around 5pm in the Uberfall at the Trapps. These clinics are geared towards intermediate level recreational climbers, but anyone who attends will probably learn something new or make a few connections with other climbers.

I'll be giving one of these clinics on June 8th. My clinic will cover knots for climbing, and how to choose the appropriate knot for specific applications. Most clinics run about 1 hour. Come by if you're in the Gunks on June 8th!

Foot Pain Caused by Climbing and Running Footwear

My size 15 feet have limited footwear options. Additionally, like most climbers, I wear much of my footwear tighter than the average individual. Most of the time this is fine, and I've become accustomed to a bit of mild discomfort in certain shoes by the end of a long day.

However, I've rarely had severe foot pain. By the end of this past winter I was experiencing significant foot pain near my metatarsal heads (balls of one's feet). It felt like I had a pebble stuck under the balls of both feet all the time.

I soaked my feet and shaved off the calluses, hoping this would provide some relief. Despite my efforts, my metatarsal heads continued to hurt. My Nepal Extreme boots, which have the padded orange Superfeet insole in them, really bothered my feet, and wearing crampons while walking made things worse. My training shoes weren't any better. My feet hurt me at home walking around my house. I couldn't walk down my bare wooden basement steps without pain.

I began to worry. What if this continues to get worse? How will I work if my feet continue to hurt like this? I can't imagine working and playing outdoors every day with this sort of discomfort. Things didn't feel right.

 About a month and a half ago I made some changes. I stopped wearing mountain boots several days a week (winter ended). I began wearing my Birkenstock sandals more. I've also been wearing my size 15 FiveTen Camp 4's more than my size 48 Sportiva Boulder X's, and I replaced both pairs of training shoes.

My feet are feeling better. I can walk around barefoot again, and running has  become easier. It's amazing actually - I'm getting more fit and I haven't worn training shoes this comfortable in years.

In many ways, it was a good reminder that the decisions we make about our personal gear can really affect how we feel and how we perform. Subtle differences in fit, which may seem inconsequential, can have big impacts in our performance and comfort. Pain is never a good thing, and climbing footwear doesn't automatically need to be associated with tight footwear and discomfort.

Some of the footwear that have helped my foot pain issues - Scarpa Crux
Nike Pegasus

Here's the detailed list of what I changed and how it helped improve my foot comfort:

  • My Birkenstocks are comfortable and loose yet supportive. I'm wearing them a lot more than I used to. They allow my feet to relax. My toes can spread out.
  • The Five-Ten Camp Four is size 15. I've had a pair for several years now, but I've only worn them casually. I began wearing them as approach and hiking shoes. They have much more cushioning, are wider, and longer than my Sportiva Boulder X (size 48), but don't climb nearly as well. I now wear rock shoes to guide even moderate pitches.
  • I bought new Superfeet for several of my shoes
  • I've begun wearing a good pair of trail running shoes to the crag more frequently. They're really comfortable and cushioned for walking but don't handle rocks and off camber slopes as well.
  • I bought a pair of Scarpa Crux shoes in size 48. They are similar to the Boulder X, but they are wider in the toe and softer in the forefoot. For me they have been more comfortable to wear than the Boulder X, but definitely don't climb as well.
  • I replaced all of my regular training shoes. I just bought two pairs of Nike Pegasus 29's. They're my first Nike running shoes in 17 years and they're working really well so far. They're good for training and still have plenty of cushioning, but are light enough to race in.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Cross Training Inspirations

I love to climb, and I love to run. For several years I stopped running seriously. I would run here and there, maybe running 3-4 times/month. During this time I climbed a lot. My movement skills as a climber improved. A few years ago I began training as a "runner" again. I missed having the benefits that come with exceptional cardiovascular fitness - walking up hills is easier and you get far less winded during approaches and descents.

One of my more regular clients trains a lot, and enjoys cycling, running and climbing. He's never been a specialist at any of them though. On many days I've had discussions with him about training for two sports at once. The reality is that it's very hard to perform well in more than one sport at a time. As an adult I probably won't ever run as fast as I did in college and high school. In high school I wasn't climbing 5.12, WI6 and M9 though. Being able to climb well and run well (even be competitive at a local level) is a dream of mine though.

I thought is was likely impossible, but now I'm not so sure. My sister, Sage Stefiuk Norton, began adding weight training to her running workout regiment recently. As a result she's gained significant muscle mass as well as strength. Looking a bit like a climber, she thought the extra muscle might hurt her running times, as gaining mass tends to do for many people. On the contrary, she's running faster than ever. During the last month she's run a couple of outstanding races, with extra lean muscle mass in tow. In a spur of the moment decision she entered the Gettysburg Marathon, where she was the first female finisher (2:57). During a half marathon the following week in Frederick, MD she won the women's division there too, in 1:22 (that's 6:20/mile if you're wondering).

Good job Sage. You're an inspiration for many of us, and you keep me hoping that I'll be able to climb well and run well in the months and years ahead.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Dirtbaggers Data Plan

Wow. It's been some time since I've published anything. Writing is something I enjoy but it gets left by the wayside when life is busy. A new house, a new business, spring cleaning, and warm weather for training have meant that I've neglected the blog.

Most people that have read past posts know I'm a tech nerd. I geek out on Android phones and tablets, and love to play around with website development. I'm not that good at it yet, but it's something I do enjoy.

Like most others, I love my smartphone. I have two well-loved Android phones, an old, retired HTC Evo 4G, and a newer Galaxy S3. Until recently I was a member of a Sprint family plan with 5 phones. My bill every month was approximately $55, which is not unreasonable for a plan with unlimited data. With unlimited data I used my phone everywhere. I streamed music in the car, used Google Maps all the time, and checked my email at any time. Despite the convenience, this reliance on my phone was annoying. It became a crutch at times. I didn't need unlimited data, and I wanted to be less attached to my phone. At the same time I still wanted to have a smartphone. They're indispensable for business as a climbing guide, and having one device that can email, navigate in the backcountry, make emergency calls and take great photos is pretty awesome.

As someone who's a tech nerd and a budget conscious climber, Ting caught my attention last year. Ting is a mobile service provider that uses the Sprint network. They've worked out an agreement with Sprint, and customers who have Sprint smartphones can transfer their service to Ting.

So what's so great about Ting you might ask? Ting's goal is to provide reasonably priced mobile phone plans, offer great customer service and be as transparent as possible at all times. I was immediately curious and also skeptical. Cell phone providers seem slimy. Like cable companies and airlines, cell phone providers feel like they're running a legal racket.

Choosing your plan is easy

For two months I tracked my minutes and data. After observing my usage for that amount of time I determined I could have a no contract plan with Ting for $23/month plus taxes and fees. I already have a Sprint Android phone, so I would be able to bring that phone with me to Ting, which would save me even more money. Over two years I would be saving approximately $500 and dealing with customer service that was both pleasant and spoke a form of English that I could understand.

Last December I canceled my Sprint service and switched to Ting. For the past six months I've been paying $32/month for service. I've had to deal with customer service three times over that period and each interaction has been unimaginably easy. In a world where customer service is generally horrible Ting has been a breath of fresh air.

The very easy to use Dashboard.
The very easy to use Dashboard

Over the course of 6 months I've been able to determine what's good and what's bad about my service with Ting. So, here's what's good:
  • Transparency - there are no hidden fees, no contracts, and no fine print with Ting. They are clear about their goal and very happy to have new customers.
  • Adjustable plans - You choose your minutes, texts and data. If you go over any of them during the month, they'll bill you at the next level for that month only. There are no contractual obligations and you'll never be billed for more than you use.
  • Customer Service - You will get someone on the phone at Ting after one ring. They speak English you can understand and they will walk you through anything you need help with. Email support is just as good, and most things get resolved in a single day.
  • Tethering - Sprint allowed unlimited data, but also stated in the contract that you can't tether your phone to other devices. Ting, on the other hand, feels that if you are paying for a set amount of data you should use it however you like. I've been able to turn my phone into an internet access point for my other devices (Nexus 7 and my laptop) while traveling.
  • The Dashboard - The user interface with Ting is easy to use. They've developed the dashboard for usability, so that you need to contact customer service as little as possible. You see how many minutes, texts and megabytes you've used each month. You can also set alerts (to turn off minutes or data if you don't want to pay extra) that will email or text you when you get near a specified limit. You can even turn off data to particular devices but not the entire account. Amazingly, you can also cancel your account with a single click from the dashboard. Yes, there is a button right in front of your face that allows you to terminate service. How many times have you wanted to cancel your services with a bank, phone company, or cable company and not done so because you don't want to make an awful, hour long phone call where you get tossed around?
Nothing seems like it's ever all good. Here's the bad:
  • Data Roaming - Ting does not have roaming agreements with Verizon or US Cellular or any other CDMA provider. You only have a data connection on Sprint's network. This means the roaming service is not as good in many parts of northern New England. In the southeastern US this doesn't seem to be a problem because Sprint has a larger presence. This means there is no data connection and you can only send phone calls and texts.
  • Phones - You have to buy a smartphone at nearly full price. There are no contracts, and therefore the phone is not subsidized. You'll have to pay the full cost. For a good smartphone that's about $450. However, if you are a heavy smartphone user you will likely still save money moving to Ting. If you're a lightweight user there's no doubt, you will save money.
One of the things I began doing last year, as I became a homeowner, was looking at the total cost of ownership. How much you'll spend over the life of a product or service paints a more accurate picture than what you'll pay from month to month. So, even if you have to pay for a full-priced smartphone you're still going to save money with Ting. Just do the calculations to see for yourself.

If, after hearing this, you're interested in Ting, head over to and check them out. If you want to sign up, here's a referral code that will get you $25 credit ($25 credit for me too!) towards a new account:

Monday, May 6, 2013

Answering the Question "Why?"

If you're reading this there's a good chance you're a climber. For nearly all of us, as climbers, in the beginning there's just "climbing". Somebody offers you a toprope, you take a gym class or a guided trip, you go with some friends to boulders and scramble around or you just see cliffs and become intrigued.

If we take a step back it's easy to see how simple climbing is at first. You build an anchor that will hold the rope at the top of the cliff. You tie in with a figure eight knot and climb. Your partner belays. You switch roles. The movement is really enjoyable and the thrill of it all is amazing.

At some point though, climbing also becomes anchor building, knot tying, protection placing, route finding, stance management, being a good and thoughtful communicator and many more things. However, there are numerous different ways to build anchors, so many different knots we can tie, multiple different types of protection we can place, route finding is really difficult at times, anchor stances get really messy , and we burn through climbing partners if we're not thoughtful and considerate climbers. How do we make the right decisions though? We do this using logic and reasoning, based upon our past experiences and knowledge that we currently have about the gear we're using or the route we're climbing.

Before I was a guide, I was a climber and I did all of the things other climbers did and still do. I built anchors, climbed, belayed and rappelled. I navigated the murky waters of climbing "self-sufficiency" unharmed. I remember toproping off of anchors built entirely of runners chained together, and I clearly remember belaying off my waist at the top of the cliff many times. I didn't know that there were different, better ways of doing things.

In 2003, after climbing a lot on my own for 5 years, I took an AMGA Rock Instructor Course in North Conway, New Hampshire. This 10-day course changed my life. Among other things, the RIC helped me make decisions about which knot to tie, which friction hitch to use, how to protect traverses, and how to make sure I was always able to communicate with my climbing partner. While the course is focused on new guides/instructors it is also one of the best courses any multi-pitch climber looking for additional skills can take. 

Gone are the days when I would have to use prusik hitches to ascend the rope past an overhang I couldn't climb. I no longer yell my head off trying to communicate with partners I can't see. I don't rappel off some crappy little tree because I know there's usually a good anchor somewhere nearby and I definitely don't junk up existing anchors with additional material. Now I choose the right belay device for the task at hand, build anchors carefully and pick the right knots for specific situations.

Josh Cantor at a good stance where he can communicate
with his partner while lowering using a Grigri. The brake
strand is redirected for optimal control.
Back in 2003 I would have told you that the Rock Instructor Course showed me new, better techniques to use while climbing and guiding. Now, I know that the RIC actually helped teach me how to think critically about every situation I encounter as a climber. This ability to think critically about everything we do is the most important thing we do as climbers

Since 2003 I've worked with more budding instructors and climbers looking for skills than I can count. Like a 3-year old, I'm constantly asking each person I work with "Why?". Why are you belaying here? Why are we tying two ropes together with a flat overhand vs. a  flemish bend vs. a grapevine knot? Why should we be careful using sewn runners for personal anchoring? There are so many "why's" we need to answer - and a reason for everything we do as climbers.
Chris Bowen anchored to 2 equalized bolts during a day
of multipitch climbing and descent transitions.
This year I've already worked approximately twenty days with people looking for answers to the question "Why?". I'm glad so many people want to know as much as possible about the really dangerous pastime they love. However, I'm also concerned. The climbing population has exploded, and for every person that comes to me looking for skills and help with their climbing "logic" there are tens of others coming straight from a climbing gym with scant knowledge about climbing and very little awareness of the risks associated with hitting hard, rocky ground from a long way up.

As climbers we should leave as little to chance as possible. Mistakes in the climbing world frequently result in serious injury or death. There can be no haphazard decisions; everything we do should be deliberate. So, if you're not thinking wisely about every single decision you make as a climber maybe you should reconsider how "safe" you actually are out there. It's never too late to learn new things, and self assessment and debriefing is critical if we're going to make the best decisions at all times.