Discovering life beyond the barbell / by Dana McMahan

Year of Sport experiment

Rock the CatBa

Since falling in love with climbing this summer I’ve thought and talked ceaselessly about climbing in Vietnam. The fairytale HaLong Bay, home to some 2,000 (or 3,000 depending who you ask) islands in the Gulf of Tonkin, is a neverland dream for climbers. Even newbies like me. Look at this place!

I started writing the folks at Asia Outdoors months ago, freakishly excited to get in on one of their climbing tours.  When the day finally came to get to Cat Ba Island, naturally everything that could go wrong did, but though a trip I thought would take an hour took seven, we got to their office just before they closed their doors to sign up for the next day’s trip. I was going climbing again! Even amidst the chaos and beauty and craziness that is Vietnam, and suffering from food poisoning, I was consumed with excitement to take on these mysterious rocks.

We boarded a little boat and set out from Cat Ba to cruise through a floating village on our way to a stop for lunch. I restlessly picked at rice while I enviously watched climbers on a nearby island. Could we CLIMB already? Though I was more than a little hesitant that the two guides had only one year of climbing experience between them, and put together were barely as old as me, I couldn’t wait to start.

At last we set out for Moody Beach, an impossibly perfect little island featuring some beautiful — and imposing — walls. Tom and Than, our trusty guides, set up the first climb and asked our little band of travelers who wanted to go first. You can probably guess who leaped up first.

The first route was an easy one they said, meant just to give us some confidence and serve as a refresher for those of us who hadn’t climbed in a while. Though in fact it wasn’t difficult, even an easy climb is still an adrenaline rush, and my heart was racing when I landed back on the beach after the first climb. Each of the next three were more exciting than the last — all 5.8s, the same grade I’d climbed in the Gorge this summer. A 5.9 remained as the light began to wane and the clock ticked toward time to leave. Tom turned to me with a grin. He knew what my background was. “Do you want to try the 5.9?” he asked. He needn’t have even asked.  “It’s not about finishing the route, it’s about making the moves,” he said. And it was a long climb – the tallest of any that day. Two independent climbers had failed to ascend.  But I wanted to get as far as I could.

I harnessed up, and went straight at it. THe difference I could immediately see in the easier climbs and this was that it was pretty much non-stop hard all the way up. Never mind the red ants and the rock that crumbles in your hand – the holds were few and far between and I’d hardly call any of them good. It was a long, long climb – the further I went, the further away the top anchor appeared. I was afraid I’d run out of time, but I didn’t want to rush. I talked to myself the entire way up — I like the pep talks — and just kept going. Shaky arms meant I had to take one rest up high, but I was pleased to not fall. It seemed to take ages, but I just kept climbing and climbing. “You’re going to get it!” called my husband when I got near the top. “I know,” I thought. “I never planned not to.” And I did, hitting the anchor with a grin that stayed on my face all the way down.

I wish I could have taken on a 5.10 but it was time to go. It’ll have to wait now till spring and the Gorge. But now I know I’m ready!


For fun I strapped the GoPro to my helmet on one of the climbs. For some heavy breathing and maybe a few swear words, check it out!


I went rogue and lived to tell the tale

I was scared to try white-water kayaking. Flat scared. I heard my Rogue River rafting/camping guide’s somber warning about evacuations and was chilled. If I got hurt, it would not be a quick hop in an ambulance to a hospital. We were talking hours – if not days – from civilization by foot, through the Northwest Pacific wilderness,

The guides’ descriptions of what happened if you caught your foot in between rocks while in a rapid haunted me. The current was so powerful it could knock me down while standing in ankle deep water. Those seething rapids could be death traps. Damn right I was scared. The truth is, I’m scared of a lot of things, especially since spinal surgery six months ago. I’ve wondered if my adventurous spirit survived the scalpel. It was one thing to go rock climbing, securely anchored to the walls and my belayer. This was wild. Anything could happen in the water.

But the drive to experience something new, tackle a new adventure, was too great for me to resist. On the second morning of the five-day trip, I took to the river in my own “duckie,” an inflatable single-person kayak. After seeking advice and counsel from more experienced kayakers, I headed out, heart pounding, telling myself to keep paddling, no matter what, as that seemed to be the common thread in all the advice.

I did not run this rapid, but it looks impressive doesn’t it?

Left, right, left, right, I paddled toward the quickly approaching rapid. Two new friends were headed for a steep drop over a rock ledge. “Help us!” one called. I barely knew how to steer, and bumped into their double kayak, accidentally (but luckily) pushing them into an eddy and safety. And immediately plunged over the waterfall myself, into the swirling frenzy of the rapid.

“Paddle, paddle, paddle!” I yelled to myself, digging in, pointing the tip of my kayak perpendicular to the waves. Water crashed and foamed, tilting my little boat crazily, but I paddled madly and sailed out into smooth current to find a bald eagle perched overhead, solemnly observing my escapade.

I’d pushed my limits, faced my fear, and couldn’t be happier (especially when a a seasoned guide told me later I looked like a pro river runner!).

This became a theme of the trip, as every day new challenges arose. I hiked fearsome trails, flung myself off high rocks into swirling water, and climbed a rope to contemplate, trembling, a daunting plummet down a natural water slide. I shot down the slide, splashing into the clear, dark pool, then popped up like an otter, laughing my head off.

But the scariest point of the trip wasn’t a rock jump, precipitous hike, waterslide, or even the hair-raising class 3 rapids I ran. Under a brilliant blue Oregon sky, as placid as the river is wild, I leapt out of the boat one morning into Devil’s Staircase to “ride the wave train.”

My trusty guide Jeremy told me the rapid was swimmable if I cared to jump in. Nobody else was doing it, but I cinched up my life jacket and double checked my helmet, then dropped into the roiling water in safety position on my back. The thundering waves swept me away, submerging and tossing me about like a bit of driftwood. I gasped and choked in the great swells, water rushing in nose and mouth. I hurtled down the river, desperate to be spit out at the foot of the staircase. I emerged from the wild ride into a calm current where I drifted along, finally catching my breath.

Another raft paddled by. “There’s someone in the water,” someone on board said. “That’s Dana,” replied our youngest camper, a seven-year old boy. “She’s adventurous.”

It turns out I still am.


I went white water rafting on assignment with OARS – if you want to try it yourself, check out their website.


A whole new world

I fell in love with travel a little over 10 years ago. It was quite by accident. A once-in-a-lifetime 25-day backpacking trip through Europe with my husband before we started acting like grownups had the opposite result. It lit the fire for a love and a life that revolves around planning the next (and next and next) trip. Ten years after that first trip I tattooed a map of the world on my back.

I fell in love with lifting and, I guess I’ll call it adventure athletics, by accident too — just trying to shed the few pounds that food writing had contributed to my frame. Things turned out funny, as they tend to do in life, and though I lost my beloved powerlifting, I’m finding new adventures and new sports, and I’m finding new ways to explore the world.

Muay Thai (kickboxing) lesson at Sor Vorapin Gym #1 in Bangkok

I took a Muay Thai (kickboxing) lesson at Sor Vorapin Gym #1 in Bangkok back when I’d only just begun to work out.

I’ve gotten to know the world through its foods for years. Now I’m adding sports to that. I would normally schedule a cooking class and/or a market tour on my first trip to a new country. But when my husband and I go to Vietnam this fall, while I’m sure we’ll dig in to stupendously good food, the Big Event will be rock climbing in Ha Long bay.

I’m headed to Paris in a few weeks with girlfriends, each of us into a different style of fitness, and we’re all going to try a variety of workouts while we’re there — maybe rollerblading, maybe yoga on the Seine. And today, two different people from two different countries separately wrote me to tell me about rock climbing outside of Paris. How’s that for a sign that I should go climbing there?

Our first choice for where to travel next year is Patagonia, for, you guessed it, climbing. And on the Great 40th Birthday Round the World Trip in 2014, I want to try out everything from horseback riding in Mongolia to surfing in Bali. I wouldn’t have chosen for things to happen the way they did. But because of the direction my life has taken I will see and experience things around the globe I’d never have dreamed of.


In which I talk about my mad love for travel

Dana McMahan – I travel, I eat, I write. And I lift things up and put them down. from t-mac on Vimeo.


Clear and present danger

I rushed my way through powerlifting, anxious always to add more weight. Nothing could throttle my unbridled enthusiasm, not even injury. That was before I knew I wasn’t invincible. I’ve been talking with sport psychologist Eddie O’Connor lately for some articles I’ve written, and feel better that I wasn’t alone in that naive belief.

I clearly remember the day I learned I wasn’t invincible; it was eye opening

he told me.

It was never that I thought I couldn’t get hurt. It was that I didn’t think I could get hurt. There’s a difference. Now I know very, and painfully well that I can be hurt. And that thought is with me all the time, whether in  my garage gym when I take weight off a bar (which kills my soul) or when I’m about to take a dive onto a slip-n-slide at a friend’s Fourth of July bash and I have to remember I can’t just fling myself onto the ground — I have a permanently jacked-up back (that still causes pain every day of my life) to consider.

Side note: am I bitter, as someone recently called me? Of course I am. Of course I am! I would love to have the kind of maturity and grace it would take to move on from such a devastating experience with complete equanimity. Maybe it takes time, maybe age. Maybe I never will. But the worse sin would be to wallow in bitterness and regret and not learn from it. I’m trying to learn.

I look serious because I’m taking his safety talk seriously!

Therefore I’m approaching what I really think will be my next sport – rock climbing – with a great deal of caution. It’s maybe no coincidence that I’m attracted to a sport with such a clear and present danger. One mistake can cost a climber her life. Certainly trying to climb  beyond one’s abilities could lead to serious injury, if not death.  The flipside to this danger is a certain element of safety. I’m protected from myself, from my tendency to try to do too much. The worst thing (I thought) that could happen to me in powerlifting was failing a lift and my spotter would take it, so I had no fear.

But fear is healthy for any being with a sense of self-preservation.  So I’ll practice in a gym, I’ll climb with a guide, I’ll continue watching videos (and even though the how-to DVD was painfully hokey I paid close attention), I’ll study, and I won’t move up to the next grade until I’m ready. And when it comes to lead climbing, which I hope to eventually do, I’ll proceed even more slowly and with even greater caution.

I’ll never be a champion climber; I’ve started decades too late. But it’s not about that. Each climb is about discovering and proving to myself what I’m made of. Yes, I’ll want to set goals and progress from a 5.8 to a 5.9 and maybe eventually to a 10, but the real point this time is not the numbers. And the ever-present danger will rein me in so that I don’t have to lose another sport.


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.


Redline your soul

Redline

Redlining

We watched The Sharp End to prepare for our rock climbing lessons at Red River Gorge this weekend.  And a line from one of the climbers sung to me.

You have to redline your soul

Yes!

That’s what this quest for a new sport is for me. It’s not because I like exercise. It’s not because I need a hobby. I want to redline my soul.

I want surging adrenaline in the midst of it and a frisson at the mere thought of my sport. I had that with powerlifting.  And one of my talismans — chalking my hands, which meant shit was about to get real — carries over into rock climbing. My superstitious side lights up at that. Maybe that’s a sign that this will be my sport.

Another climber in the film put to words a feeling I had about powerlifting.

It’s where fear and confidence collide.

Yes to that, too! Like getting under a really heavy weight, it seems like climbing demands you to face a primal fear, muster all your confidence, and fight to conquer it. When you come out on the other side it’s exultation.

I am dumbfounded by the fearless approach of the climbers I saw in the film. Even when they were visibly shaking, they kept going, an inch at a time if need be, until they scaled their challenge.  I hope I can rummage up even a fraction of their guts when I take my first lessons.  I’ll have to, if I want to redline my soul.


No peeking

Archery gets harder every week instead of easier. It’s because each time my instructor gives me something new to work on in addition to what I learned the week before.

Yesterday we addressed my urge to peek. As soon as I release the arrow, completely without my knowledge my head pops out to the side to see if my arrow made it. And that motion sends the arrow askew. Yep, my desire to see how well I did actually makes me do worse.

Archery is a sport of focus and concentration. It does not reward impatience or hurry. It rewards careful attention and precision. And as frustrating as it is to miss the golden ring of the bullseye time after time, when I hear that satisfying thunk of the arrow burying its head in the inner ring, I could shoot all day. (Unfortunately I don’t send the arrow sailing true and straight very often.)

The downfall to this learn-a-new-sport-every-month project is that I’m continually a beginner. I won’t excel at any of my trial sports. After rocking powerlifting off the charts, this is humbling indeed. I have to keep my overall goal in mind — to find my next sports passion. I can’t peek ahead to the end of the year to see which one I loved best. All I can do is throw myself into each one, and give myself a break on my expectations.

And enjoy my little victories where I can. Like this couple of beautiful shots:


Watch out – I’m wielding bow and arrow

My dreams of shooting bow and arrow like Jennifer Lawrence, aka Katniss, in The Hunger Games quickly disappeared when my first arrow nearly impaled my friend. What are the odds that it  would hit the wooden frame around the target board and fly back? Not once, but TWICE? I almost gave up at that point — I don’t want to hurt anyone, and clearly I have aim issues.

Dennis, the instructor working with my friends Amanda and Sharon and me, gave me a couple more attempts that overshot the target before switching me to a left-handed bow.  It seems I have a cross-dominance handicap: I’m right handed, but left-eye dominant, and my right eye has somewhat poor vision. So I have to shoot left-handed, right eye closed. So much for one beautiful motion swinging while I draw, aim and shoot. I fumble awkwardly to load the arrow left-handed, squint my right eye, and try to remember everything I need to do before letting my weapon fly.

It’s hard being a beginner. I’m confident in the gym, where I know I’m strong. Archery quickly reminded me that I’m not a natural athlete, that my hand-eye coordination is terrible, and that watching a physical movement and replicating it is difficult for me. But the few times I managed to get everything right and the arrow sailed clean and true into the target I felt a little thrill, and with it, the desire to do it again.

I suspect this will be the case with all the sports I try in the next year, but I quickly found that archery is not as easy as it appears. A million shades of movement and thought, along with razor-sharp precision, go into a true shot.

Jennifer Lawrence had only 16 lessons before filming her movie, Dennis told me, and I’m training with a 20lb recurve bow like she learned with. I don’t expect I’ll be hitting game dead between the eyes when my archery experiment is over, but I’ll be pleased if I can show a little of her grace in that swing, draw and shoot. I’ve got my string bow to practice with between lessons, so at least I think all involved will be safe for now.

Homework with the string bow


Your lethal weapon vs my explosive squat – I win!

It turns out the thousands (and thousands) of reps I did with squats have the potential to save my life. If an attacker ever tries to gut me with a knife, that is. Obviously I hope I never have to put this into action, but when I learned this maneuver at Krav Maga this morning I stayed after to practice it more with the instructor.

Here’s how it works: Dude comes at me with a knife, sweeping it up to gut me. I jump back, grabbing his wrist with my hands, then rush him like a linebacker, still clamped onto the wrist. I pivot to get my back to him, throw his knife arm over my head so it’s lying on my left shoulder, and still ,locked onto it, squat as low as I can (which thanks to USAPL rules, is ass-to-grass). Then I explode up (something I worked a LOT on in powerlifting), which drives his knife arm down straight toward, you guessed it — his own gut. And I’ve impaled him!

I’m not allowed to squat with weight on my back anymore and it’s the single exercise I miss more than anything — I still dream about it. It’s also what hurt me. So if it ever came down to it, it’s only fair that my squat skillz might save my life.


Knocked down doesn’t mean stay down

Krav Maga teaches you to face the scariest scenarios you can imagine and how to respond to them. Of course it’s all staged, and none of us students are putting anywhere near all our force into our sparring, attacks or defense, but we’re learning the movements. And while I hope I never, ever have to use anything I’m learning for real, I really like that I’m learning how to defend myself, even in scenarios where it seems like you’d be down for the count.

Last night, besides some drills that blasted our abs (lie on your back, head and upper back raised like in a semi-crunch, and cross, cross, cross, punching away at your trainer who’s crouched above you) we worked on what to do when you get kicked down, or sucker punched, and hit the ground. So I’m on the ground, and waiting  for my attacker to kick me while I’m down (I think we’ve all been there, even if only figuratively.) As she cocks her leg and aims to kick my stomach, I use a ‘push/pull’ technique by slamming my closer arm into her upper shin and pulling with my other arm behind, at her calf. And voila! The bigger they are, the harder they fall. (granted, my “attacker” was another woman no bigger than me, but still. It’s like a magic trick to see how easily you can take someone off balance.)

The instant she’s down I scramble up her body, “posting,” – using the weight of my body to force her limbs down, until I’m now the attacker, able to punch and elbow in the neck and in general wreak havoc until it’s safe to get up and run.

I said this the first day I took a lesson, and I think I’m going to find it every time. It’s incredibly empowering to learn that getting knocked down isn’t the end. If you know what you’re doing you can get up again, and take down your attacker while you’re at it. As a small woman I never felt powerful until I started lifting heavy weights. Even then I was only powerful for my size. Sure it’s impressive when a hundred pound woman squats 200 pounds, but for plenty of men that’s part of their warm-up. With the techniques I’m learning now, it doesn’t matter how much bigger or stronger an opponent may be — even if they knock me down I’ll have the power to get back up.


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