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Where were you, before climbing?

Sara Lingafelter
Sara Lingafelter
5 min read

Yesterday evening, I had a decision to make. Do my dishes, or go play frisbee with some friends on a beautiful, warm, sunny spring evening. I think you can probably guess what I chose.

I’d never played Ultimate before, but I’m surrounded by Ultimate-ies, so really, it was only a matter of time. When I got to the field (late), a handful of folks were throwing a frisbee around. It didn’t look too bad, despite the unpleasant memories that seeing a junior high athletic field brought back. Throwing a frisbee turned into a fun game of Ultimate, and I learned fast and had great fun. When the game was over, and I headed for home, I started to think about how far I’ve come over the years, and about a conversation I had with my friend John awhile back about how I didn’t start out “TheClimberGirl.”

Let’s just say, I haven’t always been athletic.

And really, that may be the understatement of the year.

When I was a kid, I got sick a lot. I rode horses, but other than that, was pretty sedentary. In junior high, I tried track (and liked it, despite not being terribly good) and basketball (and hated it, because I was not terribly good). I played a little volleyball (liked it, despite not being terribly good). I cheered for a year. Like yes, cheerleading. It didn’t stick.

I experienced a lot of chronic pain during my pre-teen and teen years. My family has a history of Rheumatoid Arthritis, so that was a worry for me. After many, many doctor visits, I was diagnosed with Fibromyalgia and was treated with pharmaceuticals for years.

Somewhere along the lines, I realized that I had more fun with the Knowledge Bowl and Theater crowds than sitting on a bench during basketball practice, and my short-lived youth athletics career was over. During high school I went from small for my age and pretty scrawny to… somewhere on the heavy side of average.

In college I took some ballet classes, but otherwise was still pretty sedentary. I got sick of the side effects of the traditional Fibromyalgia treatments, and decided that I would just mind over matter the thing. I figured, if I lived a happy life, ate well, slept well, took care of myself the best I could, and lived within the limits my body set for me, that gave me the best shot at living a happy and healthy life.

In my early 20s I took up road cycling with a group of friends, but my knees gave out after a long summer of long training rides and an attempt at the Trek Tri Island. During that training, I was diagnosed with exercise induced asthma, which I had to treat with three different types of medications in order for me to bicycle. After that, I took another hiatus from exercise.

That hiatus ended when I took up climbing, during my late 20s. When I first touched the wall at the local climbing gym, I knew I’d be hooked despite the many fears that climbing triggered for me. It was like dancing, only better. And, each time I went back, I could feel myself getting stronger, and more confident, and that just made me want to climb more. Unfortunately, I found myself very prone to injury, spending large chunks of my first year of climbing sidelined with tendon over-use injuries. At some point, I realized I would need some professional help if I was going to stick with this climbing thing, and turned to my beloved friend and doctor, Judy Rayl, who referred me to a wonderful rheumatologist, Jennifer Gorman, in Seattle.

Dr. Gorman was an investigator. In my two or three visits to her office, she spent more time with me than any specialist ever had, in years of doctor visits. She took blood, she took family history, she ran tests… and when every single test came back with the same result: “you’re healthy as a horse,” she got really creative. Rather than just re-christen me a Fibromyalgia patient, she kept testing. During my second or third visit, she had me do some range of motion tests, and after the first one, she got really excited. She’d solved the puzzle. Those tests showed that my joints are hypermobile compared to normal, which makes me prone to repetitive stress injuries. She prescribed physical therapy for the injury I was dealing with at that time, and ever since, I’ve been able to manage my joints and tendons by careful training, ice and rest, and understanding my body mechanics and not putting my foot on a hold up by my ear just because I could. Where most climbers have to work on their flexibility, I have to work on not being as flexible, in order to reduce my risk of injury.

After a couple years of climbing pretty casually, and slowly building up my fitness and strength, I wanted to climb even more and really got serious about training for climbing so that I could hopefully climb more, with less risk of injury. It’s not about climbing superstar sick hard for me; it’s about being conditioned enough that I can climb days back to back (if I’m careful), at a moderate level, and keep building my skills with hopefully little downtime for injuries and rehab. For a little over a year, I’ve been “really training” as in, climbing as much as I can, eating really well, resting as well as I can, and doing climbing-specific strength training and developing my opposing muscles to keep my body in balance. A side effect of all the training is that my metabolism seems amped; I’ve gotten leaner and more muscly and now have to put effort into keeping weight on during the climbing season instead of the opposite.

Even though I feel fit, strong and healthy, the biggest benefits are that I haven’t had an asthma attack or a pharmaceutical for pain in years. The thought of going out and running around a freshly-cut grass field for an hour straight would have been unthinkable ten years ago, even with five different medications. That tonight, off the sofa, I could go run around and have fun and be able to breathe the entire time is a very, very cool thing.

It’s a pretty exciting moment when you find that thing that gets you off the sofa. Most of my climbing partners have been athletes their entire lives, but there are a few of us who didn’t start out that way, and I’m in good company. The conversation that actually triggered this blog post was with my friend John, one of the folks behind Team Never Stop Climbing. Between May and November of 2008, John lost 80 pounds — starting by walking 15 minutes a day, every day. John has climbed more stairs than any other human being I’ve ever talked to, and is getting ready for ascents of three Colorado 14-ers in four days this month. I just climb rocks, and here’s John, getting ready to summit mountains after managing to fit a truly amazing amount of training and effort into a very busy life.

I enjoy talking to all sorts of climbers, in all sorts of disciplines, and from all sorts of starting places… but it’s really fun to hear stories from folks whose lives and health are so dramatically improved because they’ve found that “thing” to get them moving. Now it’s your turn. Where were you, before climbing?

This post is eliciting some fun responses from friends who’ve blogged about their own “athleticism” in the past, and, some new posts as well. My trackbacks have never worked the way I think they should (eh, blogger) so here are a few links from friends:

Send me your links, if I’ve missed any… Thanks!

Sara Lingafelter

Sara (Grace) Lingafelter takes steps forward and backward toward a right-sized life on a daily basis.