You are a Weeble

First impressions are all important. That first climb, first hike, first fell run… your first times outdoors make a lasting impression on your enjoyment, how far you’ll push, and how good you’ll ever get. You are a Weeble, centering on where you began, where you first wanted to go.

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A Weeble. He’s grounded and steadfast, but will always return to his roots. That’s reassuring, but it can put a limiter on ambition.

Dave MacLeod
Dave MacLeod is almost certainly the UK’s best all round climber. In fact, his CV would stand up against the very best in the world: Scottish XII, M13, WI 7, trad E11, 9a sport, 8C boulder, alpine ED++, etc etc.. He’s said that the first time he ever went rock climbing, by chance he watched the first ascent of what was then Scotland’s hardest traditional rock climb. He didn’t realise that what he was watching was exceptional, that it was far from typical. As he watched he thought ‘I’d like to try that one day’. For many people there thoughts would more likely be: 1) that looks too hard; 2) that looks scary; 3) hell no. So obviously his ambition and drive were there from the start.

But from that first day out his framework for climbing was built around ‘I want to climb the hardest route in Scotland’.

That he achieved that and far more besides is only half the deal, the other half is wanting to get there, and that first impression, that first day out, was crucial.

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Dave Macleod training hard in his garage. Training hard is what makes you the best, but those first impressions can prove vital in determining how good you want to be.

The environment you grow up in has arguably the greatest impact of all on how far you’ll go in life, which is either tragic or empowering depending on how you look at it. With fairly specialist facets of life (e.g. sport, music, needlecraft, painting, etc.) that effect is seen in microcosm, and the more I’ve thought about Dave’s story the more I’ve realised that it is typical of so many people in various different pursuits.

 

Me
I was lucky enough to be brought up by parents who are keen hillwalkers. As a result I’ve been out in the hills for as long as I can remember. Big walks in all sorts of terrain have come completely naturally to me. To me, to be a decent hill walker isn’t being capable of hiking a few miles and then going home. No, it’s big walks in rugged terrain and up plenty of peaks.

My parents are both musicians, and my dad a very good one. As a result, I see the basic standard of a musician to be much higher than what most people might consider. It might be an elitist view, maybe unrealistic, but basically unless you are Grade 8 standard on an instrument I see you as a beginner or relative beginner. For other people who had friends or parents who were less musically talented, to reach what I would regard as proficient would be seen as an almost unachievable goal, maybe an unnecessary waste of time.

Again, my early experiences defined how far I thought you had to get to be ‘proficient’, or skilled enough.

Me as a climber
I started rock climbing as a way to progress up more routes in the Alps and in Scottish winter. Along the way I started to enjoy it for its own sake, but those early impressions – this is training, I need to be just good enough – have stuck with me and influenced me greatly.

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Me on terrain I’m very at-home in – easy rock climbing on a big mountain. That’s climbing for me, and that’s because of where I started.

I don’t think I’ll ever be a great rock climber, primarily because I don’t want to be, but also because the standard I have always seen as being a decent rock climber is someone who can lead about VS, or about 5.7 in USA terms, or maybe 6a sport. That’s not very high in the grand scheme of things. A major factor in this reasoning is because most of my friends who I spent my early times out climbing with were in the same boat as me: hikers seeking to get better on harder scrambles.

As a result, grades like Very Difficult were interpreted literally, and Extreme grade climbs discussed only in revered and hushed tones.

I’ve since seen that Extreme grade routes aren’t necessarily all that hard, and some of the people I now climb with have plenty of E-points racked up.

But for me I still have an anchor in my head, a Weeble which pulls me back: these climbs are too hard for me.

If I were more driven, more like Dave MacLeod, this would be no obstacle, but that younger me, the hiker me, is still at my core. And those routes aren’t for a hiker.

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On a big rock route – didn’t ever think I’d be doing this. With the right people around you the Weeble effect can be reduced, even removed.

Me as a cyclist
Over the last few years I’ve done a fair bit of cycling. I’ve always enjoyed riding a bike, but over the last three or four years I’ve put a bit of effort in, going on regular social and training rides. In this, my mate Adam was instrumental, pushing me from someone who enjoyed riding a bike occassionally to someone who wanted to get better at it and do more challenging rides.

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Adam, in Spain on a recent training camp.

 

From my first times out with Adam I thought ‘I need to keep up with him’ and ‘I would like to be among the better riders in the cycle club’. I was lucky in that I’d picked a pretty good benchmark, someone extremely good at cycling. Adam and I have both improved as riders, but I still considered (and still consider) myself pretty mediocre as a rider, average at best. However, I did have a moment of clarity a few months ago when I realised that I’d got a lot better at riding my bike, and was now better than most other riders.

Because the people I ride with are strong, I assume that is a typical level to be at.

It’s only when you ride with a more widespread group of cyclists that you realise that’s not the case, and you’re a bit better than average. It’s the polar opposite of my climbing background: I thought to be average I had to keep up with riders like Adam and the mates I ride with on training camps, whereas in reality these people are the equivalent of those leading the big Extreme climbs.

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Me riding (almost) alongside Andy, one of the country’s best hill climbers. If you look hard you can tell that here, nearing the top of Fleet Moss, Andy is cruising while beneath those sunglasses I am on the limit…

First impressions
If I were to have my initial impressions as a climber again, would I change them? No, not in the slightest. They have kept me safe, grounded, and I enjoyed them immensely.

But one thing I now try to do is, when I am lucky enough to introduce someone new to a sport, I am careful not to define things as hard or easy, because those terms are meaningless.

Instead, I try to give a beginner the best supportive introduction I can, one which not put the brakes on them and will make that Weeble a little less grounded, allowing themselves to choose exactly where they want to go, how far to push it. Oh, and to tell them just how important hard work is if you want to get to be good.

 

I wrote a related post, more tongue-in-cheek, on the expertise of hikers and climbers a few years ago. Here it is.

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Make or Break book review

Dave MacLeod’s second book, Make or Break, has set out to do what few other books have done before: provide a comprehensive way to avoid, deal with, and manage climbing injuries. Dave MacLeod’s in an exceptional position to write the book, being one of the best climbers on the planet, an experienced climbing coach, and with academic qualifications in sports science and medicine. Every climber gets injured, and every climber spends hundreds of pounds on kit, but is it worth shelling out for a book just on injuries?

Upfront cost

I’ve seen a few people bemoaning the £29 price tag on this book. The book’s only got 216 pages, apart from the cover it’s all in black and white, and it’s on a very specific subject. However, what a lot of people don’t realise is that this is basically an academic book: it won’t sell many copies and the amount of work that has gone into it is absolutely vast. I’m finishing my PhD at the moment, and my four years of work (also the approximate time-span that Dave has put into the book) are, I think, worth more than £29 a pop. Specialist academic books often cost more than £100 (including the one I contributed to, which costs £153), so…

…I’m going to stick my neck out and say for the amount of research, writing, rewriting, and checking, that goes into this work, the book is a bargain.

One session with a private physio is £50+, so looking after your body can be expensive, but isn’t it also the whole point?

Ouch. A simple fall while running caused this, but mushed fingers are definitely not beneficial for climbing.

Ouch. A simple fall while running caused this, but mushed fingers are definitely not beneficial for climbing.

Layout

The book’s divided into two main parts: the first part is general advice on injuries and is relevant to almost anyone interested in keeping healthy, and the second part is much more climbing-specific and covers each part of the body in turn, from fingers to toes. Particular attention is given to areas that are susceptible to injury (shoulders, elbows, fingers, etc.). In each section, quotes from people as diverse as Gullich and Einstein are used to good effect, and very clear black-and-white diagrams and photographs describe many of the key points.

A fairly typical page in the book - plenty of text, and very clear black/white photos.

A fairly typical page in the book – plenty of text, and very clear black/white photos.

Content

I’ve a keen interest in sports science, biomechanics, and injury prevention, and Dave’s book sits on my bookcase alongside books like Kelly Starrett’s ‘Supple Leopard’ (exceptional in places and beautifully presented but too much waffle) and Kendall’s ‘Muscles’ (that’s from the library as there’s no way I can afford a copy; it’s long, detailed, academic, and exceptionally clear, but not an ‘introductory text’). Like the other two books, it distils a lot of stuff you’ve thought yourself, but weren’t sure about, and then sticks it in one place: things like the differences in expectations between a patient and a GP, that your body’s injury has an underlying cause, and a very good section on dealing with the mental difficulties of being injured.

If you don’t know how to deal with your injury, there’s a good chance that this book will cover it. With, for example, more than ten pages on shoulder-specific climbing injuries, including how to diagnose them and how to fix them, this book has more detail than any website or online forum and is far more accessible than journal articles.

However, the biggest thing this book does is that it gives you a sense of empowerment – it gives you a toolkit on how to manage your body and how to get the best out of it.

Negatives?

Firstly, this book is not for everyone. It’s not a coffee table book, it’s not full of cool pictures, and it’s not steady bed-time reading. Dave is unapologetic that some of the book reads like a textbook as this in unavoidable. However, more break-out boxes with anecdotes from the author would be useful in dividing up some of the text. Dave includes a section on his own injury woes towards the end of the book and I found this fascinating – more stories like these would be great. The second downside of the book was the number of small grammatical errors I found (‘remodelling’ and ‘remodeling’ on the same page, for example). Not one of them was major, and they did not affect comprehension, but another read through before publishing would have been beneficial. It’s very easy to criticise spelling and grammar mistakes, and I know from my own blog posts and my thesis that they often sneak through, especially when pushing for a deadline and reading with tired eyes, but one more check always finds an error or two.

I was injured for this trip but despite a very frustrating knee problem managed to get a lot done. That was cool.

I was not 100 % on this trip but despite a very frustrating knee problem managed to get a lot done. That was cool.

In summary

If you’re a climber interested in the way the body works or have frustrating injuries or niggles then you should buy this book. If you’re a climbing coach then this is required reading, and academic libraries should get a copy too. I’d love climbing walls to get a copy or two as well to make way for the fifteen-year-old magazines, but I’m not sure that will happen. Parts of it are not a riveting read but it is full of very good, well-researched, and up-to-date advice from an author who clearly cares passionately about the subject. What seals the deal for me though, is knowing that, having read the book, I am now better-positioned to avoid, diagnose, and treat injuries. No one likes being injured, and the book is a comforting friend that might just stop the niggles in their tracks.