The Post-Quarantine Pump

The COVID pump hits different.

Dru Mack, June 13th 2020, Miller Fork Recreational Preserve

When the lockdowns were enforced, I often day dreamed about what the first day back outside would be like. I thought about the Red River Gorge – pining to be there instead of cooped up in my apartment fake climbing on my flash board.

On June 13th, 2020 I finally got to return to my favorite place in the world. With Kentucky humidity in full force, my other half and I headed down to the Red River Gorge.

Famous the for its pumpy style, I cannot think of anywhere more hilarious to return to after being unable to climb for three months.

I remember hanging around one of the crags at the Red a few years back, overhearing some crusty Yosemite guy complaining. “You don’t need to have any technique here, you just need fitness.” He spat this out after getting bucked off a 5.10a. Though I generally disagree with his statement, there is a kernel of truth in here. It helps to have some fit forearms down in Kentucky.

So where could be better to your ass handed to you after a forced hiatus from rock climbing than the Red River Gorge?

Enjoying the pump at the Infirmary. Photo by Sam Laslie.

Expectations vs. Reality

Though I had no delusions that my first venture back to the Red would be a wild success, I did think I might be able to perform reasonably well. This assumption was based on another recent excursion. In May I took a sneaky trip to New Hampshire. I onsighted up to the final bolt of an 11c, then ended up doing it in three tries. Going into this weekend in the Red, I thought I might be able to try something like that again. For reference, my hardest onsight to date is 5.11b.

new hampshire sport climbing
My first climb outside post-COVID. May 2020. My one day of climbing between March 15 and June 1.

Fast forward to the first route of the day, a 5.10b at the Infirmary in Miller Fork. I found myself pumped stupid hanging on the third draw. Three months off climbing seemed like a long time, but I had not conceived that I might suck this bad. Onsighting 5.10 at the Red was a given – or it used to be anyway.

I even knew going into this weekend that if I got really pumped that I might start thinking crazy things – like that I had somehow trained hard and regressed. Or that the whole year was a wash because of Coronavirus. I was so aware of these mental pitfalls that I wrote a blog post about it last month.

But there I was, hanging around the third bolt of a 5.10 with bricks for forearms, in my feelings more than a Drake song. But I had still had some mental tricks up my sleeve.

Label It and Move On

There is a meditation technique called “noting”. While meditating, if a thought or a feeling comes up, you are advised to label it like “thinking” or “feeling”, acknowledge it, then move on. You then resume trying to think about nothing until another train of thought arrives at the station.

Despite the strong emotions about my weary forearms, part of my mind recognized that these were simply feelings and did not need to become my whole reality.

Understanding that I was having a predictable emotional reaction allowed me to push through and keep climbing. My goal was to get on as many routes as I could stand that day. I wanted to fight, commit, and re-learn how to do what I had done before.

This was uncomfortable, but it helped me keep going even though I was disappointed in how hard everything seemed to be. “My endurance is gone,” was the crag anthem. The crew at the crag gave each other a hall pass for bitching, unified in how flamed out we were.

We’re Learning

As the weekend passed, I insisted to myself that everything was great because we were learning. Every fall was a victory – a badge of commitment for pressing on while pumped as shit. Every route was a chance to get used to the sandstone, to read a crux, to power through something that seemed “a little run out”.

Back when I was sitting in my apartment, all I wanted was to be stupid pumped on sandstone again. It was a blessing to even be there.

Not as Bad as I thought

Day one turned out to be pretty rough. I did not send a single thing. I accidentally skipped a clip while placing draws, resulting in a rather gigantic fall. It was Weekend Whipper worthy. Then, I proceeded to give up on a 5.10d. I didn’t pack enough water. A textbook junk show.

Then after a campfire, some sleep, and some time to let the emotions simmer, I was ready take on day two. I scrubbed away the expectations and told myself the goal was simply to fight my hardest and really commit. I also told myself that I was certainly capable of sending something.

Guess Who’s Back

By the end of day two, I finally got some points on the board, flashing an 70 foot 5.11a. I committed when I was pumped, remembered how to let the friction do the work, I read sequences better, and did more doing than fearing.

“Shady’s back, tell a friend!” I yawped on the repel down from the anchors.

That first day out as I sat at the third bolt of a 10b, I despaired. “Yeah, there’s no way I’ll surpass where I was last year. I need to bring down my expectations.” But a day later, I can quickly see how silly that was.

It’s going to take time to get back into the swing of things. I will be present, accepting, and prepared to relearn. Do not let yourself give up, 2020 is not over yet.

How was your first day back post COVID? Drop a comment below, I’d love to hear about your experience.

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