Sarah’s Speed Climbing Quest
The Fastest Vertical Woman In The World – This’ll be in my instagram bio one day.
Speed is one of three disciplines of climbing, next to lead and bouldering. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea. Many climbers argue it is scarcely “climbing”. A lot of professional lead climbers and boulderers openly express their dislike towards it. Some of you may even read this article already with some amount of disapproval towards speed. So, I challenge you! Read this with an open view, as I shed some light on my experience in training this wildly different corner of climbing.
I have been a member of the NZL Open World Cup team since 2018 and love all aspects of climbing. I have competed in World Cups for lead, speed and bouldering, and have a fair amount of international competition experience.
So, why speed? I’ve really enjoyed speed since I began training it in 2017. It seemed I had a knack for it when I became the 2017 Oceania U18 Champion with a time of 15.85s, after having only trained on the wall for 3 days prior to the event. Since that unexpected beginning, I have managed to whittle my pb down to 11.31s over the years, and am currently the female national record holder. I find speed is a great training tool; the transferable power, coordination and confidence lends itself well to my bouldering and lead climbing.
In 2020, all the Open national climbing competitions were cancelled, and I was left with no goals, no aspirations and no motivation. It was therefore the perfect opportunity to focus purely on speed.
About the Wall
The Speed Wall stands at an impressive 15 metres high, with a 5degree consistent overhang. The route has remained unchanged around the world since 2005, and statically climbs at about grade 21 (though it is easier to climb if you do it faster!). The current female world record is 6.96s, held by Iullia Kaplina, and the male world record is 5.48s, held by Reza Alipour. I’d recommend looking this up on Youtube right now if you can’t fathom these times! Speed Climbing itself will feature at the Tokyo 2021 Olympics within the Combined format, and has been confirmed as its own standalone medal event at the Paris 2024 Olympics.
The Speed Wall in Mt Maunganui is currently the only certified wall in Australasia. It took us a year and a half to finally get the Speed Wall standing in Blake Park by October 2019. The wall build was actually only completed one day before the 2019 NZL National Combined Championship was held in the Mount. But that’s another story in itself…
With no comps and nothing to lose, I set one big radical goal: go under 10 seconds by December 20th, the day I would have been competing at the Oceania Olympic qualifying event in Sydney. Simple. In my mind, going under 10s would mean that I’d “made it” as a speed climber. Surely it couldn’t be that difficult…
It was difficult.
Starting way back in November, we wanted to do this thing right. Rob (my coach) started researching how to train speed, and then I didn’t hear from him for a whole week. Rob is all about perfect technique, slow and controlled movement, and being clever on the wall, whereas speed is just boom boom blam drive power power! When I approached him about a training programme and if he’d finally written me one, he turned to me exasperated and said, “I really don’t know how to train speed.” We were fully out of our depth.
We got in touch with Kerry Hill, the speed coach at the Adams Centre where I normally train to get buff. He was overly excited to create a speed program for a sport he knew next to nothing about, and which was vastly different from sprinting, his specialty area. We also got in contact with Ola Miroslaw, the current Speed World Champion. If we were going to appoint help, we may as well ask the best in the world.
For the next 10 weeks, the training was as such per week:
3x at the Adams Centre
2-5x on the speed wall
2x high intensity power sessions
3x fun climbing
In amongst this I was also working 30hours as a barista at a vegan cafe, coaching twice a week, and sleeping.
Kerry’s program at the gym was brutal. I had to do all sorts of explosive exercises with strange alterations; hurdles, one legged hurdles, hurdles with delays, sprinting on the spot, sprinting with bands, just sprinting, box jumps, one-legged box jumps, hip thrusts with tempo, bench press with tempo, muscles ups, to name a few. Needless to say I was awful at all of these to begin with. I just couldn’t make myself move fast or coordinate my elbows and knees to be less awkward and clunky. After each exercise I was very out of breath, and my heart was racing like crazy. It’s not everyday you train for a brand new sport at the age of 20. I was not conditioned for this kind of stuff one bit.
And then within a couple weeks, things started clicking. I was recovering better between exercises and was feeling overall less exhausted. I felt a bit quicker, my floppy legs grew stronger and I started to feel like maybe I could give up climbing to become a sprinter one day.
Central Nervous System
Being completely honest, I didn’t really understand what exactly the CNS does. Turns out it is somewhat vital for speed. The most important thing I learned was that mental stress had the exact same effect on the CNS as physical stress does. The CNS needs time to recover from this stress, just like any muscle in the body. Bizarre! Some days I would turn up to training feeling mentally destroyed from making coffee for 8 hours straight with 7 different milks and 13 different milk jugs (yes, really), but physically felt fine. In training, this would lead to my muscles firing on the more spasmodic end of the spectrum. It was important for me to cut myself some slack in these terrible sessions.
Every journey has its bumps in the road, yet there seemed to be boulders on mine. In the second week I developed shin splints pretty rapidly. I was gutted. Some exercises I just could not complete as they were too painful, and Kerry would tell me to avoid others to prevent further aggravation. I was hopeful it would clear up in a few weeks, but as it turned out they would be an issue all the way through to December. Kerry suggested I buy a rolling pin from the opshop to help massage the scar tissue in my shins. This seemed to help a bit.
On December 2nd I went to Nick the hand specialist to check out my pinky finger. I’d been having some unusually sharp pain down my forearm when bouldering and this freaked me out! He recommended that I take a week off to make sure my pinky would be okay, and then lightly load it again in the week after. I think I took maybe 4 days off then went hard. Sorry Nick. Luckily it was nothing serious otherwise I probably would’ve done more damage. Always listen to the specialist!
And the weather! Which dingus decided to build the speed wall outside?! November turned out to be a ridiculously windy month. Excess wind meant the auto belays wouldn’t retract properly and might not stop you from hitting the ground or a fence. Less than ideal. Rain was also not great for friction. Once I turned up to the wall and the groundskeepers had accidentally let the sprinklers wet the bottom half of the wall!
The Beta Break
The sequence you take up the wall is extremely important. The main idea is to cut the most straight line from the bottom of the wall to the top to maximise efficiency and maintain momentum throughout the run. I have been practicing the same inefficient sequence for the past 3 years, so initially I had to spend weeks drilling the new beta Ola gave me, in order to cement it in my muscle memory. This led to many self discoveries around slight body position changes, particularly around the “dyno” in the middle of the route. Each time I had a new realisation, I wrote it down in my training diary as an “epiphany”- I thought this sounded funny. Over the 10 weeks I had 13 epiphanies. Talk about feeling enlightened.
Ola gave me new beta in particular around the dyno move, and I decided I would drill this 100 times just to make it work. After 100, it still didn’t even begin to feel like enough repetition.
Okay, so this is what we are all here for!! The success at the end of the story, the resilience in the face of adversity, the conquering of an impossible goal.
So I didn’t achieve my goal. In fact, I didn’t really come close at all.
Instead, I experienced 10 weeks of a complete and utter emotional rollercoaster of frustration, millisecond triumph, and staunch resilience in the face of many many adversities.
The entire time I only managed to get a single pb of 11.13s on Nov 2, and I didn’t even realise it at the time.
Instead I learned that speed is freaking hard and brutal. It is hard to train, hard to mentally prepare for, hard to understand as it is so different to natural climbing. But, wow is it exhilarating! It is so exciting to train an aspect of climbing that has a quantifiable way of measuring your improvement. And when you put together that one perfect run after a hundred crap runs, it really is an indescribable feeling.
The Saga Continues
Speed Nationals are coming up on March 13. I’m excited to continue training this difficult discipline. It feels as though I’m on the edge of things coming together. Who knows what the next couple months will bring.