The Shoulder Season

Training is a funny thing– when the desire to undertake it actually rises inside of us seems to have little relation to when it is most needed.  The desire to train comes, for me, most strongly at the beginning and at the end of a season.  In early spring, though the snow is still fantastic, I find myself dreaming of the heat of summer, and I can’t wait to pull on warm rock in the desert.  Then, come the end of the climbing season in fall, as it is now, there’s a second surge in desire.  The looming cold and poor weather holds the axe over projects that have languished in the luxury of summer hours.  Just one more good try! Just give me one more chance to make it happen, to cap the season in delicious success!  Living in the city, this means climbing in a rock gym during some of the most beautiful days of the year, and begging, hoping and waiting for weather and partners to line up for a weekend trip.

But devotion, too, is powerful, and it can make us train an entire season in advance, knowing that we are banking strength and confidence that will pay great dividends, all while we suffer the joke that is a hangboard in the depths of winter.  The floorboards are cold, and the powder beckons, but the projects that eluded us when the rains came are still there, waiting to judge our constitution come spring.

So, we train.  There is one element that seems consistent in all hard training: pain.  Pain in the body and in the mind are the price that has to be paid to become strong.  Training is either a test of determination, of pain tolerance, or commonly of both.  When the pain of training starts to mount, the insidious voice that calls itself Reason pens essays of impeccable clarity about why the training ought to stop.  “You’ve done enough.  You don’t deserve this.  You’re doing it for the wrong reasons.  Why do you want to punish yourself?  All for a rock? Really?  If you put all of this effort into those things that you’ve always been told mattered, you wouldn’t be living in such a dump.  You might even have a girlfriend.  Is the climbing really more important to you than that? Fine, train hard, live the loneliness and see if I care.”

As we train, the body also tells stories.  The memory of pain may live in the mind, but the story of how we have lived is deeply imprinted in every fiber of our body, for better or for worse.  Ability, that drug of a feeling, is stored in our muscles, banked in the patterns that we’ve woven in our training.  Weakness, persistent as gravity, lives in our muscles, but also lives sewn into our tendons, our ligaments, and our bones.  The fall two years ago that tore my shoulder from its socket, the deep scar from years before where a metal grate scooped at my knee like a tub of ice cream, and the pain in my neck, from upending my mountain bike just last week, these all speak as I train, and ask their own indulgences and accommodations.   It’s an unavoidable physical karma, and without great amounts of time or the miracles of surgery, it’s additive.

But there is a voice within us that can drive this all aside, and that is, I think, the true goal of training– to make a space to cultivate this voice.  It says to the body’s stories, ‘take what you need, but nothing more’, and to the mind it says, well, ‘fuck you’.  This voice, at its best, can cut like a knife through the bullshit that normally we pull tightly around ourselves like a blanket, insulating ourselves against the demanding measures of our ambitions.  This careful preparation of ourselves with the the reducing knife of training hones us so that when we have to call on our strengths to survive in the mountains, or even to be strong for a friend, we are no more than we need to be.  Unobstructed by the unnecessary, our energy can take us far.

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