Michaela Tracy is a Scarpa UK athlete who competes on the World Cup bouldering circuit, in this article she describes the stresses competitive climbing can put onto your body, and the pain of getting a physio to piece it back together.
“If you could try to relax.”
I close my eyes and my back explodes in pain, it feels like she’s trying to force my spine through my chest and into the table, try to resist the urge to grit my teeth and tighten against the hands pushing my rusted vertebrae into motion. Remember, you need this to get better.
As the year grinds on, I feel more and more like the Tin Man. My joints creak and crack with every movement I make, the ache in my lower back follows me like an unwanted acquaintance, the kind you tolerated at first out of apathy or laziness, and that now won’t leave you alone. Training seems more like injury management, I spend longer warming up and down than I do climbing, if I can just keep myself together for another two weeks…
“As the year grinds on, I feel more and more like the Tin Man.”
I underestimated the toll that flying around the world to compete demands of your body and mind, you give everything you have, week in week out; little tears pile up, every time you step onto the mats and into the ring you rip them open again. Even when you get home, you can’t really relax because the season’s not over yet, and the demon that drives you whispers that everyone else is training – it’s not time to rest yet, one more set.
It could have been that last set which did it, or any number of the ones before, but at some point during the summer I stopped feeling like a machine and started feeling more like a car crash. I do everything I can: all the stretches, mobility, activation, hour-long warm-up, and still I am falling apart, it seems like everything I do only acts to shift the symptoms to a different part of my body.
“Now just stretch your arm out to the side for me.”
The bridge of my nose is pressing into the edge of the gap in the table, I try to subtly shift my neck position, diverting the stress to my forehead. I make this mistake every time I come here, end up leaving with a big red mark between my eyes. How long has it been now; two months, three?
I want an explanation, a simple equation; “x” is causing your pain, do “y” and it will go away, but it doesn’t seem to work like that. I want my body to listen to what I’m telling it to do, I want to be able to go to the World Championships without a fifty-fifty chance that I won’t be able to use my right arm. I just want this pain in my back to go away.
Part of me wants to throw in the towel. I’m not built for this, every time I feel like I’m going well my body tries to self-destruct. Last year was fun, trad-climbing by the sea side, sunshine and stress free – I know that wouldn’t be enough. Tomorrow I’ll be back at the wall with my foam roller and my tennis ball, and the rest of my ever growing pile of rehab kit, trying desperately to put myself together as quickly as I can tear myself apart.
“Trying desperately to put myself together as quickly as I can tear myself apart.”
“Ok, you can get up now.”
I can’t. I need a moment to work out where all the bones in my back have ended up first, I have to roll off the bed before I can work out how to use my core to bring myself upright again. It won’t be like this forever, just a few more weeks.
I’ll rest in October, when the season is over; spend a bit of time outdoors, hope for a better gritstone winter than last year’s washout. I’ll take a break from the wall, let all the parts of myself which have been stretched out of line relax into place again, then I’ll start getting ready for next year.
Words: Michaela Tracy