Nothing Is Unpossible

Kristin after her run

The first time I talked my wife Kristin into going for a run with me, it was around the 1/4-mile high school track by our house in Boulder, Colorado. After the first lap, she had to take a break, partly due to the altitude (she’d just moved out from Philadelphia), and partly because she hadn’t done much in the way of physical activity in her 25 years of life. I don’t think we made it to a mile that day.

Despite at first hating that oh-so-special feeling of heart, lung, and leg exhaustion you get from running, Kristin didn’t give up. She felt it was important to get active and live a healthy life. Plus, we were in Boulder — it just felt natural to do as the Boulderites did.

Over the years, we had an on-again, off-again relationship with running, and Kristin eventually got fit enough to run three or four miles without keeling over. Then, about four months ago, unprompted, she declared she wanted to run 10 miles, whatever it might take. We Googled up a basic training program and started running four days a week, with increasingly longer runs on Sunday. We’d rise at 5:45am to beat the summer heat, pull on our shorts and lace up our shoes, and hit the road. The runs didn’t always feel great while we were doing them, but we always felt refreshed afterward and into the workday. Kristin got hooked on that feeling, the way most people do if they stick with running for long enough.

Just over a month ago, we made it to eight miles, but then Kristin tweaked her foot. She finished her run that day but could barely walk the final block back to our house. She was despondent, afraid she’d never get to her goal. “Maybe my body isn’t made to run 10 miles,” she moped.

We started up running again last week. We ticked off one three-miler and then, on Sunday, halfway into a planned four miles, we decided to just go for it. Nearly two hours later, we finished the elusive Mile 10.

We certainly didn’t break any speed records that day, but we finished, and pretty much off the couch, too. I know: people run 100 miles across Death Valley in the summer, so in the scheme of things, our 10 miles was not what you’d call a “big deal,” but what’s important is that Kristin set a goal for herself, a goal that at the time seemed distant, and she worked until she met it. Sunday’s run was, for her, one big step towards learning to ignore the niggling gremlins of self-doubt that plague us all. Genuine confidence (and, dare I say, happiness) is built on a foundation of moments when you did what you set out to do — when you did more than you thought you could.

Sure, I’m happy — I haven’t run 10 miles in many a year — but I am most proud of Kristin. She is now 10 miles closer to understanding that, with hard work, confidence, and a willingness to just fucking try, all things are possible; nothing is unpossible.

The only question now is, which half-marathon should we do?

Climbing Is (Not) The Best

Everyone is first

When Banzan was walking through a market he overheard a conversation between a butcher and his customer.

“Give me the best piece of meat you have,” said the customer.

“Everything in my shop is the best,” replied the butcher. “You cannot find here any piece of meat that is not the best.”

At these words Banzan became enlightened.*

Many moons ago, a friend of mine with a hankering for a good, chewy argument asserted that climbing is the best sport. (I’ll use “sport” here, even though we all know that climbing is a “lifestyle,” or a “way of life,” or even a “metaphysical journey” — it’s just easier this way.)

“That’s a ridiculous thing to say,” I said. “Climbing is only the best sport for those who love it. What about all those people who prefer surfing, or football, or golf? To them, those are the best sports.”

“Those people are wrong,” he said.

“You can’t be wrong about something that’s totally subjective!” I cried.

“Climbing is, objectively, the best sport.” He stated, and then proceeded to tell me why: Climbing is not a competition with others or with a clock; it is a battle against one’s own limits and fears. Climbing combines intense physical and intellectual challenges into one activity. Climbing is inherently dangerous, requiring fortitude and focus in the face of ultimate consequences. Climbing often requires an understanding of physics and weather. Many forms of climbing embody the ideals of exploration, adventure, and self-reliance. As descendants of primates, we have climbing in our DNA. Climbing is a form of communion with the natural world. And so on…

I couldn’t argue with one thing he said. I could only explain that none of that changed that fact that many people – most people – don’t care about much about climbing. You could easily build similar arguments to elevate a thousand other pursuits.

“Whatever. You know I’m right.” He said.

But I didn’t know he was right. I only knew I loved to climb. Over the past 20 years, it has played a role in my social life, my identity, my job… Still, I just couldn’t believe in the intrinsic superiority of one pursuit over another. After all, even within the climbing microcosm we can’t agree: Mountaineering is just glorified hiking. Climbing on plastic isn’t real climbing… come to think of it, neither is aid climbing. The only pure climbing is done naked, free solo, and without shoes or chalk. Bouldering is just practice for full-sized climbs. Friends don’t let friends climb crack. Sport climbing is neither… . If climbing is the best, as my friend suggested, which kind in particular? The farther one follows such an argument, the larger the logical holes become, until there’s nothing left but opinion and empty space.

At the root of this disagreement was something we seem sadly unable to escape in this world: the idea of mutual exclusivity — for one thing to be right, the other must be wrong. If climbing is the best, well, then, something else can’t be the best, too, now can it? Our society, with its irrational fear of relativism and its “unhealthy obsession with winning” does little to dispel this troubling belief.

Here’s a common example a very powerful and subjective feeling against which no one would argue: My wife thinks I’m the greatest guy in the world (or at least, I hope she does!). Obviously, I am not the greatest guy in the world to those billions of women who have never met me, nor to the handful of fine ladies who have dated and dumped me. These differing opinions, luckily, have not the slightest bearing on my wife’s feelings for me or mine for her. We each hold the other to be the best for us.

Most of us are pretty good at accepting the subjective nature of love and relationships. But sometimes – too much of the time – we have a hard time recognizing the subjective in our tastes. Religion plays on this very human weakness – there can be only one truth, say the holy texts of nearly every belief: Our Truth. This is without doubt religion’s most dangerous aspect. Invested in such misconceptions, people of one religion have oppressed and killed people of other religions for millennia. Likewise, belief in the supremacy of one race or nationality over another has spurred genocide. Luckily, in the case of climbing debates, things rarely turn violent… although I have heard tales of punches being thrown and threats being made over issues as objectively piddling as bolting, red-tagging, and chipping.

Looking back, I’m sure my friend was playing the role of devil’s advocate, deadpan as he may have been. Even if some part of him believed that climbing was truly the best of human pursuits, he accepted the fact that not everyone agreed. Just like my wife’s love for me, he knew his admiration for climbing wasn’t mutually exclusive with other people’s equally fervent love for other things.

And in a way, my friend and I were both right. Climbing is the best… but so is mountain biking, ice skating, and sure, why not, cup stacking. As long as there are people to love them, there is no sport that is not the best, thus rendering moot the very idea of “best.”

This type of open thinking underlies Alex Lowe’s ever-popular (and much-debated) quote, “The best climber is the one having the most fun.” If we all spent less time worrying about who or what was best, and more time doing what we love best, well, I believe we’d all be a happier and more fulfilled lot.

I’m also willing to admit you might not see it that way.


*This story, called “Everything is Best,” and many others like it can be found in the exceptional Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, by Paul Reps and Nyogen Senzaki. 



Attention Climbers: $500,000 Up For Grabs (Sort Of)

Brian Arnold swinging through one of many climber-friendly obstacles on “American Ninja Warrior.” Bill Matlock/G4.

Want to know how to use your climbing skills to earn a cool half-mil? Ok, here goes…

Step 1: Climb pretty hard (at least V8). Step 2: Find a parkour training facility and make sure you’re reasonably fit and nimble. Step 3: Submit your audition video for “American Ninja Warrior,” the American version of a Japanese obstacle-based game show called “Sasuke.” Step 4: Get accepted to compete in “American Ninja Warrior.” Step 5: Make your way through the regional qualifier and semi-final competitions… Step 6: …and the four-stage national competition. Step 7: Collect $500,000.

This was Brian Arnold’s approach, anyway, and with it, he got pretty damned close to the jackpot.

Of course, this is all much, much easier said than done, but for all the hype “American Ninja Warrior” has received lately, it might be worth considering that climbers are among the few athletes who are uniquely suited to competing on the show’s obstacle courses, many of which involve gripping ropes, bars, wooden edges, and even standard-issue plastic climbing holds to maneuver across stretches of water.

Arnold, a 34-year-old rock climber with problems as hard as V12 under his belt, completed roughly 90% of the seven-step process outlined above on his first try at the show. An athletically gifted maintenance director at a nursing home, Arnold currently lives out of his van in Boulder, Colorado. He first caught wind of “American Ninja Warrior” the same way millions of other Americans did: the TV.

“I was watching an [“American Ninja Warrior”] marathon with Brian Capps. One of the contestants, Paul Kasemir, was on the show, and he’s from Longmont, near where I live. We were watching and were like, ‘Any climber could do this stuff.’”

Arnold happened to know Kasemir, as the two climb at the same bouldering gym, The Spot, so he made contact to learn more about the show. Tryouts were coming in February, Kasemir told him, and encouraged Arnold to make an audition video. Arnold took his advice.

Arnold’s audition video shows him doing an apparently casual dead hang from a mono pocket, bouldering on a steep wall, pulling two-finger moves up a campus board, and even one-arming a pinky-finger pull-up. The autobiographic talking portions take place in front of an oversized Bruce Lee poster.

But Arnold didn’t submit the video right away. First, he needed to build up some confidence. He entered a competition via APEX, a local parkour gym that holds regular Ninja Warrior-themed events. (Parkour is “about efficient movement,” said Kasemir, who also trains at APEX, in this interview with CBS Denver. “Finding a way over an obstacle, over a fence, over a box, jumping from rail to rail, balancing … basically getting from one place to another as fast as you can.”) Arnold won the local competition and got bumped to a “pro” division, where more experienced competitors face off. He took second place there.

In a region that has already produced several strong “American Ninja Warrior” contestants, Arnold was among the top athletes. That seemed like reason enough to send in that audition video.

The folks at the show recognized Arnold’s talent and invited him, along with 100 other hopefuls, to Dallas, for a regional competition. He placed a respectable 15th and moved on to the semi-finals with 30 competitors. In semis, he placed 3rd, his ticket to Las Vegas for the finals.

“As a climber, you have a huge advantage,” explains Arnold. “Most of the other guys who were in Vegas were pro parkour instructors and stuntmen. It suits the parkour guys, because the earlier stages are a lot of running and jumping, but the farther you go, it starts to suit climbers.”

Brent Steffenson, the highest-placing “American Ninja Warrior” competitor in Season 4, on the “Hang Climb,” which he did not complete. Photo from the Tempest Freerunning website. Steffenson is on the Tempest team.

In Vegas, Arnold passed the first stage, but fell off a tricky rolling-cylinder passage in the second. After that, only one competitor passed the second stage, Brent Steffensen, a freerunner hailing from Salt Lake City. Stephenson was eliminated in the third stage, on an obstacle called the “Hang Climb” (a very steep 15-foot section of climbing on juggy holds that Arnold likely would have completed with ease), thus, no one claimed the show’s $500,000 prize.

Only three competitors, out of more than 2,700, have completed the final course in the history of the American and Japanese versions of the show (the courses are identical in the two versions), and not one American. Still, with the intense popularity of the competition and scores of motivated, athletic people anxious to throw their hats in the ring, it seems like it’s only a matter of time before someone from the States pulls the sword from the stone.

For his part, Arnold is confident that his climbing skills give him a real shot at the big prize. “Physically, you’re swinging on ropes – it’s all grip strength,” he says. “A lot of parkour guys fell on the ropes – their hands just opened up. The globes, in semi-finals, they were jugs. For climbers, it was easy, but if you don’t climb regularly, you just don’t have the endurance.” He made it through the first stage of the finals this time around, and that was with a torn calf muscle, injured during a practice run at home – next time, if everything goes well, he could go all the way.

In the meantime, how does Arnold plan to prepare for the next season of “American Ninja Warrior”? “I’m going to build an obstacle course and practice,” he says. And don’t be surprised if you run into him bouldering and sport climbing in areas across the Western US, of which, Utah’s cobble-choked Maple Canyon is one of his favorites. “I love that place,” he says, “the climbing is just so weird!”

50 Shades of Plaid: The Unofficial Uniform of Outdoor Retailer

The Outdoor Retailer Summer Market (ORSM) is, according to the website, “the world’s largest outdoor sports industry gathering.” For this much-lauded trade show, thousands of brands, athletes, non-profits, retail store buyers, media outfits, and so forth gather at the sprawling Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City every summer to do business of one sort or another.

Whatever the reason a person attends the OR Show, almost everyone – every male, at least – will at some point don the “OR uniform”: a plaid shirt, probably short-sleeved, with khakis or jeans, and either approach shoes or flip-flops.

After years of administering lighthearted ribbings to my friends and co-workers for their unconscious adherence to the OR dress code, I decided to pick up my camera and document just a few of the tartan-clad attendees walking the red-carpeted walkways of the Salt Palace, which, one busy year, an event goer referred to as looking “like a table cloth.”

If you look carefully, you’ll find 50 different plaid (or near-plaid) shirts pictured in the gallery below. These I photographed with a modest effort – maybe 15 minutes over the course of Sunday, the final and slowest day.

With this, I hope to draw attention to a curious fashion phenomenon for which I can conjure no reasonable explanation. I have also included an image of myself, pre-show, in a plaid shirt — proof that an awareness of the plaid plague offers no immunity.