Me, Myself and Rock-Climbing

I’ve mentioned I’m an avid rock-climber in previous articles. It is not only a sport I hold dear but it defines me as a person.

What is rock-climbing?

There are multiple types. There is indoor climbing where people climb to the top of a vertical wall using plastic holds. There is indoor sport climbing where people also bring the rope up with them and place it in clips along the way. These types are also done outdoors. There are a few others but we won’t bother with them today.

My first experience with rock-climbing was actually pretty disastrous. I was at summer camp and we were climbing outdoors. The first part of the climb was too tall for me and I never left the ground. I walked away thinking “that’s not something I’ll ever do again.”

Little did I know that there was a program at my school completely dedicated to rock-climbing, the same rock-climbing I swore I would never try. But, I didn’t like any other sports so I gave it a go. That one decision changed my life.

When I’m on the wall, it’s just me.

Sure, there is a belayer holding the rope on the ground but after a while I can’t hear them and I certainly cannot have a conversation with them. I engage my brain, I move quickly and effectively (to conserve energy) and I have to think long-term (these all sound like great resume builders, don’t they?).

I also learn a lot about myself. What I am capable of, how strong I am, mentally and physically and it centers me. When I’m on the wall I cannot think about anything else than what’s right in front of me. If my mind wanders, I miss a hold, lose my grip or mess up a sequence. When I am having a bad day, I make sure to get to the gym to clear my mind.

I spent years climbing and my senior year of high school I learned my true ability. Something clicked and good climbing came naturally. I retained that mentality until I was diagnosed with Rheumatoid Arthritis.

In a matter of months, I lost my muscle tone, I lost my strength and I lost my love of the sport. I stopped for a while because every time I climbed I just got mad at myself. Mad that I couldn’t push through the pain, mad that I couldn’t hold on and mad that I now had a disability that defined me because it destroyed what used to define me.

It took a long time to get over this.

Rock-climbing was part of my life and as much as I hated myself for not being able to continue the sport, I was lost without it. It was the only sure thing left in my life and I couldn’t give it up.

I mentioned this to my best friend one day and he said “well, yeah, we competed so it was always about winning but now, neither of us has to try as hard. We can just climb to enjoy the sport.”

It took me a long time to come to terms with this.

Months turned into years and I eventually learned to enjoy the sport not as a competition but as a pastime. I no longer had to be the strongest, the most flexible, always trying be better. As with any sport, trying to be the best is physically strenuous and I no longer had that privilege. If I was ever going to enjoy rock-climbing again I had to manipulate it to my new “specifications”. And, you know what I learned? Even on easier climbs I could still love the puzzle of it all and keep my symptoms at bay.

Why is rock-climbing good for people with RA?

  • Climbing is actually quite easy on the joints. Once you learn to balance and focus your energy on your abdomen, you don’t strain your hands, fingers and arms as much.
  • Climbing doesn’t traumatize your body. Unlike contact sports, climbing is a very fluid, slow sport. You don’t have to worry about getting hit by other people, or pelted with balls!
  • Climbing engages the entire body. You don’t overwork any one muscle, tendon or ligament. Everything works together to reduce strain.
  • Climbing is very instinctual. I always tell new climbers “follow your abdomen. If it wants to go left, go left.” On easier climbs you don’t fight against your body, which in turn causes pain or injury; you flow with it.

All these things combined keep my joints well oiled and my muscles alive without much strain.

Do you still play sports? What do you like to do to stay active?

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