Discovering life beyond the barbell / by Dana McMahan

I’m in love

You know how when you’re a teenager and you break up with your boyfriend or girlfriend and you think that’s the end? You’ll never love anyone like this — he was your whole world. Well, 20 years later you can’t even remember his name, right? And you did move on.

No way would I find anything I loved as much as powerlifting. I wanted to try new sports to distract myself, pretending that I might find something I loved. And what do you know? Three months in and I’m in love! Head over heels, can’t wait to do it again, it’s all I can think about love. With rock climbing.

It’s all the things I loved about powerlifting, and then some, oh definitely, then some!

Facing a challenge that looks insurmountable and making it, leading to exuberance, check.

Conquering the challenge on your own, with just a spotter (in this case a belayer on the ground), check.

Fighting to summon up reserves of strength you don’t think can possibly be there, but finding just enough to get UP, check.

Finding you can face fear and forge ahead, check.

“Boilerplate” at Crossroads, Red River Gorge. (5.8)

How lucky am I that all the months of lifting heavy weights, doing chin-ups and farmer carries and hanging leg raises gave me the strength I need in my legs, core, arms and even hands to pull, haul, heave, hoist and otherwise truck myself up a rock wall!? And just as importantly it gave me the confidence to face a new challenge like this.

On my final climb — we hit six routes (two Saturday and four Sunday) and I had successfully ascended the first five — I was beyond exhausted. This was the highest route yet, I’d climbed and hiked all day and had very little left when I harnessed up. The climb went on and on, and I talked myself through every step (and sang a little, even, to soothe myself when I got especially frightened.). I fell once, and took that as a nice little rest before forcing my shredded fingers to grip the wall once more.

I at last got to what I, for some reason, thought was the top anchor, using my last reserves of strength, and clutched a ledge, ready to come down. Then our guide, who was belaying me, and my husband called up (way up) that I wasn’t done. I so wanted to be done. “I’m so tired!” I called back down. “I know,” said the guide. That was it. Nobody needed to give me permission to quit or keep going.  The hardest part lay ahead where the rock jutted out at an angle. My left leg started to shake uncontrollably. My brain wanted to respond to this physical cue and get my body off this rock NOW. But I was so close. I just wanted to find out if I could do it.

One step at a time – find a hold, pull, drive up, yelling UP to myself (it worked in weightlifting, why not climbing?), and clutch the next hold. Take a breath, find the next hold till only one move remained. My body had never been so exhausted. I felt like a piece of spaghetti draped against the rock, balanced precariously and wanting nothing more than to get back on the ground. Nothing except reach the top. “You’re strong, you can do this,” I told myself, part of the ongoing conversation on the way up. One last hold, drive up off one leg (thank you pistol squats!) and clutch the uppermost hold — I was there! Quivering, out of breath, not wanting to look dowwwwwwn at the ground, but there, at the top of a wall that I’d looked at and thought ‘no way. ‘

And that’s where I find the love. At that point when I have fought gravity, shaky muscles and fear, and conquered a challenge I didn’t think I could beat.

In powerlifting we only got to try for a one rep max fairly infrequently. I thrived on those incredibly intense moments and wished for more of them. In climbing every new route is a new challenge – every move on that route a new fear to conquer. And there are more routes than anyone could ever take on in a lifetime — all over the world!

Yep, I am definitely in love.

(Also, if I thought I had to eat a lot to lift, I am in heaven climbing!)


If you’re interested in learning to climb, I highly recommend Red River Outdoors and the guide Dan Beck. He was incredibly patient with us as beginners and his calm and confident demeanor made it easy to trust him as I dangled 60+ feet above the ground.

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10 responses

  1. I’m so happy for you! That in-love feeling from really challenging exercise is hard to beat. I’m so glad you found it again.

    June 25, 2012 at 3:04 pm

  2. You look like spider-woman on those rocks! Glad you found something you love :)

    June 25, 2012 at 5:04 pm

  3. Are you eating pizza at Miguels?

    June 26, 2012 at 8:11 am

    • Yes, that too hot to pick up with shredded climbers’ fingers but so good I do it anyway pizza

      June 26, 2012 at 8:30 am

  4. Gwynn

    I used to climb and it _does_ remind me of powerlifting. Sounds like you really found your new home. :-)

    June 27, 2012 at 6:28 pm

    • There really are a lot of similarities, aren’t there!?

      June 27, 2012 at 7:35 pm

  5. Aw, I love this post! I’m glad you’ve found that giddy, happy-go-lucky, in-love feeling again! And score for the eating. That’s my favorite part of lifting… so I definitely need to try rock climbing. hah! :)

    June 27, 2012 at 7:20 pm

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