Absolute Beginners: When I Fall In Love

As soon as I got down from my second climb and untied myself from the rope, during my second visit to Brooklyn Boulders, I texted my fiancé, Michael. “I really need to join this gym,” I told him. “I like this so much, it’s the same feeling as when I started lifting.”

Generally, I don’t believe in “love at first sight” —  I don’t think it applies well to human beings, anyhow. That being said, I have a sort of meet-cute story I tell people about lifting, which is that I spent a lot of time researching proper form and nutrition and how I should go about lifting, and then, once I finally joined a gym, stepped into a squat rack, and put a barbell on my back, I thought, “Oh yeah, this is for me.” It just felt right. I’ve quit most sports I’ve ever tried, and I know that my idea of “fun” must be abnormal if I find basketball and soccer tortuous and yet I find squatting a loaded barbell thrilling. But man, the feeling of lining the barbell over the arches of your feet, getting your hands and shoulders perfectly even on the bar, lowering your body and the bar and raising them in a smooth, steady motion – it’s just so fucking zen. It’s the only time I’ve been able to truly feel my skeleton and my muscles and the way they align. And all of that is well beyond the feeling I get from progress. Loading five more pounds on the bar is affirmation: Yes, I’m stronger. Yes, I’m stronger again. Yes, I’m even stronger than before. Yes, I can continue to improve. Yes, I can continue to align. Yes, I can continue to focus. Yes, I can tolerate more.

So, you might imagine, as someone who has historically hated sports, I didn’t think I’d ever get that feeling from another activity again. To be fair, the “Learn the Ropes” beginners’ course at Brooklyn Boulders wasn’t the first time I’d ever climbed, either indoors or out — I climbed at an indoor gym in Madison once many years ago and had an OK time, but wasn’t particularly strong; and last year I climbed French’s Dome in Mount Hood National Forest at the invitation of some much more experienced climbers whose couch I was sleeping on for a few days. But I never really learned how to climb, as in how to tie myself in, how to properly belay, the mechanics of the ropes, how I should communicate with a belayer or a climber, and, with the memory of being at the top of French’s Dome, 80 feet in the air, with a clear sky and a clear view of Mount Hood, and total silence except for the sound of the wind, I decided that I really, really wanted to not just climb rocks, but to learn how to, properly.

The course consisted of an extraordinarily hip Brooklyn Boulders employee named Ryan showing us which rope was which, where they should be, how to tie a figure-8 knot and a fisherman’s knot, how to set your belay device properly and lock it in, where your hands should be when you belay, how to tighten the rope, how to give slack, how to catch an unexpected fall, what a climber and belayer should check for before anyone does anything, how to communicate that one person is ready to belay, and how to communicate that the other person is about to climb.

And that’s pretty much what you get to learn, because unlike with lifting, there’s not much you can do to prepare yourself to climb before you actually do it. There aren’t many specific techniques — at least, not that beginners need to know — other than “try to keep yourself flat to the wall” and “use your legs, mostly, not your arms,” although there are plenty of exceptions to both of those broad guidelines (the only one that I think is really solid all-around advice: “Don’t look down”). Once you get up on the wall, or the rock face, the way you succeed depends largely on what you know about your own body, and what you can predict about what’s coming next on the wall. Even then, you could do the same route twice and find yourself taking a completely different approach. It’s a puzzle with almost endless possible solutions.

But what I think I fell in love with, last week, was the immediacy of climbing. Here’s the thing about lifting: Once you’re down in a squat, you have to find a way to keep your balance, activate the right muscles, keep the bar tight on your shoulders, and stand back up — that, or you can recognize that it’s not going to be possible to stand up under that particular weight, take a knee, and let it roll off your back onto the arms of the rack. Likewise, with climbing, once you’re on the wall, you don’t have much of a choice but to examine the wall, find the next hold, figure out how you’re going to secure your hand or foot on it, and then push and pull yourself up. That, or you can take a fall, which, thanks to belay systems, is more thrilling than dangerous. That sort of meditative, clear-minded presence in the moment works for me with fitness. It’s what makes me happy, and it’s what motivates me to do more with my body.

This is the great thing about trying new things with fitness. A lot of the time, it’s a frustrating process that involves a lot of failure and a lot of potential for embarrassment. And although most of the time you’ll walk away from new fitness activities thinking, “Eh, it wasn’t bad, but I could live without it,” sometimes it can be distinctly not-fun. But sometimes you stumble on something that opens up your understanding of who you are and what you want from your life, what makes you happy, what motivates you to reach for goals you originally thought were impossible. I’ve learned through lifting, running, and climbing that I push myself when I have an immediate series of obstacles to overcome or problems to solve. The question, then, is how I can apply that to other parts of my life.

Of course, you never know what fitness activities are going to teach you something about yourself unless you start trying new things. My hunch is that everyone can find at least one form of exercise they really, truly, and sort of immediately know works for them. You’ll kiss a lot of fitness frogs on the way, but it’s worth it in the end for your healthily-ever-after.

Thanks a ton to Britt, Ryan, Paul, and Avi at Brooklyn Boulders, as well as my belay buddies, Paul and Andrew.

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