Progression

The intensity level of endurance sports is rising. It’s the natural progression of these sports that allows today’s athletes to achieve feats unthought of fifty years ago. In ultramarathons, people are now racing for 100 miles. That’s a big deal. But I think this phenomenon is even more obvious in climbing. The alpinists of today move lightning fast over terrain that once stymied the best climbers in the world. To do so, they give up certain elements of protection in favor of speed, meaning mistakes have more consequences. Among the best, this is a reasonable trade because the athletes are extraordinarily confident and capable. The problem is that the 99% who aren’t the best see these accomplishments and want to achieve similar feats themselves. They forget about the progression.

You’re interested because climbing and ultrarunning are not so different at heart. Ultrarunners race on big mountains, and climbers these days literally run the steepest peaks. I’m interested because, as I’ve mentioned before, I got into running because I wanted to climb but was discouraged by the gear and experience required to start. For me, climbing and running are near-equal interests, which leads me to do them both, often at the same time. This mostly means big running approaches to mountains of only minor technical difficulty, but I have spent enough time nervous on rock faces in running shoes to gain a little perspective on the evolution of the sport.

I ran up Mont Blanc last summer, 12,000 feet above the town of Les Houches to the summit. On the high glaciers I delighted in passing climbers fully decked out in ropes, packs and crampons while wearing nothing myself but running shoes and light running clothes. The first ascent of Mont Blanc was in 1786, and was by all accounts a horrifying affair. Fear of the unknown, snowblindness and an unplanned (bonus!) night high on the mountain all contributed to the climbers barely escaping with their lives. 225 years later and I run my first personal ascent in running shoes. Progression of the sport? Sure, but that by no means indicates I am a better climber. I have exceptionally better gear, support and knowledge of the route. Failure would be almost ridiculous in these conditions.

Maybe. Legendary climber Alfred Mummery famously said: “It has frequently been noticed that all mountains appear doomed to pass through the three stages: An inaccessible peak – The most difficult ascent in the Alps – An easy day for a lady.” This is progression of the sport. What worries me is that people will forget that this is a progression and not some static state, and leap immediately into the cutting-edge. Running up Mont Blanc was cool, but the climbers I passed had on all that gear for a good reason: mountain climbing is a dangerous sport. A freak storm, an avalanche, even high winds – anything at all could change the nature of the run from a cool day’s outing to an epic. To protect against this, climbers have traditionally carried lots of warm clothes and climbing gear. That speed climbers today eschew most of this gear in no way means it is useless. They trade one kind of protection for another – speed. But to safely do this requires an enormous amount of skill and ability. A good example of this is free soloing. Alex Honnold raised the bar on free soloing to a previously inconceivable level, prompting many to ask “what’s next?” Yet like any revolutionary achievement he also changed the public’s perception of soloing. Suddenly it’s not quite as unbelievable as it used to be; it’s possible; it’s within grasp. If Alex Honnold can free solo Half Dome, what can’t be done?

Right now, just about nobody can free solo like Alex Honnold. Along the same lines, few people can run in the mountains like Kilian Jornet or sprint up big faces of snow and ice like Ueli Steck. Athletes of this caliber are at the forefront of their sports, actively pushing the progression. We all want to be able to do the same, but the reason we often can’t is because we forget how much work those guys put into their personal athletic progression – the countless hours spent training in unacknowledged obscurity; the years when the dream had little basis in reality. Gradually, slowly, patiently they prepared themselves to do great things. On the other side – the side of the media – we see no-names blasting onto the scene with ferocious success, unknown athletes kicking ass all of a sudden, seemingly out of nowhere. And we think to ourselves, “I could do that right now.” That’s where the problems start.

Then again, maybe this is all just my perspective, the perspective of someone with a lot of ambition, a little success and the ability to give it a try. I love what I get to do, and the places I get to go, and I certainly desire to leave my mark on the sport, my own little tick mark of progression. But that comes slowly. Success comes from patience, which breeds safety. The mountains can be very fun because they are so challenging. But they deserve a lot of respect – climbers took over 200 years to reach the level they are at now, and runners took… well, all of human history, if we truly were born to run. Ultrarunning is just a progression of the sport. The next progression will be a combination of these sports and others, a transition from clearly delineated activities to blends of many different sports. This will happen because the athletes of each generation start on a little higher footing than the previous generation, thanks to the latter’s accomplishments. We just can’t forget about the process of progression, and the dangers that entails.

There are 29 comments

  1. Rob R.

    Great article. Progression must first and foremost give thanks to the "first man" (or woman) in each respective sport. Without that person, and his or her first step into the unknown, the world of ultrarunning and all other concentrations would have no sure foothold on this climb to a constantly, gradually growing summit of success. Thanks for bringing light and perspective to this subject, Dakota. Progression awaits…

  2. Drew

    It is good to see a younger climber understanding history. Many things younger people view as cutting edge are only small advances from the exploits of Messner or Peter Croft. For all the speedy running in the mountains these days, no one has taken down Matt Carpenters' Leadville record. Understanding progression and putting in the time to fully comprehend an undertaking is what leads to the leaps forward. Yours will come.

  3. Jeremy

    Climbing and mountain running are entirely intertwined. They scratch the same itch. Mastery and progression in any endeavor comes from learning and practicing ALL the rules, so that once your VISION reveals the next advance, the rules are eschewed and you move unencumbered at your potential.

    The thing to remember is that progression often does not feel like progression. The world class slog away on bad days like everyone else. It is the vision of progress that keeps enticing them to carry on. Most will never progress, not because of lack of genetics, fitness, work, family, blah, blah…but because only a select few can harness the vision of what the next step in the progression is…and go for it at the right moment.

    Best wishes taking your speed and talent to the big faces, Dakota. It is not a wise or safe pursuit, as you know. However, some of us have to be astronauts, alpinists, cage fighters and Presidents.

  4. Aaron Sorensen

    I look at what some of the greats can run up and I am humble.

    There may be no way I can do this but man how much would I love to.

    Impossible (to me anyway) yes, but they make the dreams a reality and keep the future to keep dreaming of what there realities will be some day.

    We can all take place in this progress. Just find something a little more difficult than your used to doing would like to do and very soon it will become easy. Apply that knowledge in the real world of ultrarunning and continue to train with the next step. Hours of practice, absolutely. Worth the reward, that's for you to decide, but the possibility is out there for everyone, just in small bites. This doesn't mean that you can't make a huge impact on your mountaineering and up/downhill running skills.

    The greats just eat full course meals with dessert every time they go out.

  5. Mic

    "The next progression will be a combination of these sports and others, a transition from clearly delineated activities to blends of many different sports."

    Nicely put together article, Dakota.

    This above quote stands out to me as Multisport aka Adventure racing has already merged the sports of Climbing and descending (ropes), Trail running, Orienteering, Mountain Biking, Whitewater rafting, Kayaking and even River Boards to cover hundreds of miles of distance. I thought I'd mention if if others wanted to read about it. The problem is that it's an expensive sport with lots of logistics to set up a race. The upside is that you can train year round, in any type of weather and within any of the disciplines.

    Team Nike was the dominant teams for a decade from racing in Borneo to local races here in the States. Team members: Mike Kloser, Micheal Tobin, Monique Merrill, Ian Adamson

    1. art

      " The problem is that it’s an expensive sport with lots of logistics to set up a race. "

      … or you could just do it yourself. car to car speed efforts have been going on in climbing for years, even decades. most of the time you never hear about them because its just pure adventure climbers doing their thing. run 10-20 miles to a mountain or climbing route, do the climb, run back. pretty simple … and satisfying.

  6. Jim Norton

    Totally agree: Well said and high-time it was said by someone with some "weight" in the community… I was expressing these exact same sentiments to a friend the other day…

  7. fredp

    There are many similarities between mountain running and climbing, and one HUGE difference. Climbing is much more dangerous than mountain running. Everytime Honnold free solos, he is right on the fine edge of death–one slip or one hold breaking and he plummets to a quick but gruesome death. On the other hand, Killian might (rarely) face plant or have a bad day, but he is not risking death. Nor enjoying the heady climbing cocktail of endogenous chemicals produced by fear and overcoming that fear.

  8. John

    Spot on man. Spot on. This can pretty much be applied to just about any sport, though I think it's more eye opening when one looks at the more extreme ones. Could you imagine if the first snowboarder just tried to whip out a 1080 on their first jump?

    I've developed a ridiculous appreciation for anybody who is capable of the phenomenal athletic feats that the pros hammer out year after year. It definitely inspires me to push a little bit out of my own comfort zone…but I feel the need to stress that little bit. If I went out right now and tried a solo unsupported run around Mt. Rainier I'd probably get eaten by a cougar. Though that being said…I don't know if being a Pro would necessarily help you much against a cougar…

  9. John

    My problem with the little adventure racing I've done is that the events themselves seem somewhat arbitrary. I tried one 24 hour race where the hiking/running part was great, the kayaking made sense…but the biking section was just stupid. Most of it was Hike a Bike. I could've run it faster but the race organizers basically decided that it was a bike section so you had to have a bike. I doubt all the races are like this though.

  10. Alex from New Haven

    One big difference, and one of the reasons I transitioned from Bouldering/Climbing to road/trail/ultra running is that I got frustrated with hitting a point where climbs were so difficult I just couldn't do them and so simply couldn't participate with and go to the places others were going. Running on the other hand is by and large a matter of "degree". If you're more talented and better trained, you go faster. I'm not any more talented or committed to running than I was to bouldering/climbing, but the fundamental structural difference, for me, makes a big difference in my enjoyment. [Also, a lot less fussing with gear]

    The exception might be Barkley's which is the 5.15 of the ultraworld :)

    Great article by the way. My point is off in left field, I know.

    1. Joel Aaron

      'If you're more talented and better trained, you go faster.'

      I don't see the difference. It's just a different kind of training. Getting better at climbing and running both involve a long, dedicated path of training technique and physicality. Climbing just puts a greater emphasis on the technique aspect, relative to running. They both still take enormous time and effort to do with style and speed.

      1. Myles Smythe

        Joel, I think I see what Alex is meaning to say. If I went climbing with a pro, I should just stay on the ground if the pro wanted to climb a route that matched their level of skill, even though I am a great climber. For ultrarunning, the pro and I could 'likely' complete the same course, just finishing at our own varied times. Such as I 'possibly' could run up Kilimanjaro, I would take 2-3 times as long as Kilian, no doubt. We can play on the same ballfield, just not at the same level. Climbing is different, I can't play on the same wall as the elites – unless I get to rappel down while they climb up, or they haul me up ;)

        Great article!

    2. Andy

      They do both take enormous effort to do well, but I agree with Alex that ultrarunning and mountain running (or hiking, for that matter) are different from climbing in that they are accessible to all. Some of us lack the skill (OK, or cajones) to climb, but can happily run as a mid-packer and, with sufficient training, slog through 50 or 100 miles. Unlike Alex, I probably am more talented at running than climbing since the type of "talent" demanded by running is much less nuanced. And once you enter the gray zone between trail running and back-country running/climbing/soloing the room for error and danger increases exponentially (read Anton's recent post about his post-sunset wanderings on a popular Wasatch peak).

      Alex from New Haven — see you at the next Traprock!

  11. Adam

    It seems one crucial difference between climbing and running, other than upper-body strength, is the importance of gear, which you allude to as a reason for your early frustration w/ mountineering. In terms of explaining "progression" in any athletic endeavor, it seems changes in technology and nutrition come first. To assume that better potential athletes are being born now than ever before is obviously irrational, and I think that's what you're saying here. So, I would expect a more rapid change in climbing records, b/c I strongly suspect the availability of cutting-edge gear makes a much bigger difference in climbing than in running. The great European alpinists of the '30s used hemp rope, leather shoes, steel crampons, and wool layers. The availability of lightweight plastic and carbon fiber gear has to make a huge difference in mountaineering. Another difference is in cartography and route planning, which must matter a lot more for mountaineering than for mountain running. Finally, when you get to the level of pure athleticism, it seems there would probably be little difference between the rates of change in the two sports. All athletes benefit from studying the Darwinian trial and error process that past athletes and past training programs have gone through. Also, it seems changes in the kind of nutrition that's available, both as a matter of daily life, and the specialized foods used during an race or ascent, would be equally important for both activities.

  12. Henri Chinasque

    "I ran up Mont Blanc last summer, 12,000 feet above the town of Les Houches to the summit. On the high glaciers I delighted in passing climbers fully decked out in ropes, packs and crampons while wearing nothing myself but running shoes and light running clothes."

    I bet you wouldn't have felt so delighted if you had fallen into a crevasse, or encountered ice on the way up/down. Bold effort.

  13. Karen Schwartz

    Mountain running and mountain climbing share the common ground of moving while in the mountains, but in my opinion, that's about it. I live at the base of the Eastern Sierra and participate in both sports. A skilled mountain runner can move 50 miles through the Sierra in a day, but doesn't need solid navigation skills or the ability to move quickly over talus. It's possible to be a mountain runner, and spend the entire outing on established trails. A mountain climber must have competent navigation skills along with some serious strength and agility, but might not have the endurance fitness to run 50 miles through the mountains. I think the sport that bridges the gap between mountain running and mountain climbing is fastpacking. When fastpacking, you use the lightweight techniques of the mountaineer, and can combine running trails with cross-country travel and ascend peaks. However, when ascending 3rd class peaks, it hardly qualifies as running (just my opinion). We spent some time on this subject. Check out http://www.sagetosummit.com/running_fastpacking.h

  14. Howie

    Great article indeed!

    I question if "progression" is really progress if you are looking solely at how people redefine what is possible. The great Alex Lowe always said, "the best climber in the world is the one having the most fun." Fun is a subjective experience. I have to question whether some of the most extreme feats in endurance and climbing are actually a regression in this regard. Very evident in ski mountaineering when you watch someone ski a 60+ degree slope. It looks radical and almost unbelievable, but talk to the skier afterwards and they might tell you they were actually s**tting themselves. Kudos to Alex Honnold, but I have to wonder if soloing Half Dome really adds that much fun to the experience over just sending it in a day with a rope like most good climbers. It didn't seem so fun for him on the Thank God Ledge part, but it was probably pretty fun for him a lot of the time, and it certainly got him a lot of attention which must also be fun.

    I guess my point is: what is progress? Remember that not very long ago the now legendary Honnold was a dumb kid, like we all were, doing bold & probably somewhat reckless things simply because we felt like it and didn't know any better. Luckily we survived that time and gained some wisdom. We learned the skills to balance speed and safety to manage our risk and create our personalized experiences in the mountains.

    Where I think mountain running and climbing intersect is in the thrill of adventure, and what Doug Robinson calls "the alchemy of action" – the biochemical effects on mind and body that come from the physical exertion and the uncertainty of the outcome. These 2 activities share essentially the same playground: the mountains. Whether running or climbing in them, you are starting at point A and finishing at point B and there is uncertainty about the effects on mind and body the terrain and weather will have on a given day. We create amazing journeys between the two for our own enlivenment.

    The progress that is undeniable and arguably more profound is the technological advancement in equipment and support infrastructure that make it easier than ever to enjoy mountains in new and ever-changing ways. The human experience of fun is constant, it is the expression of it that evolves and progresses with the times.

  15. Brank

    This article defines why I do super tough 10K-30K's in place of 50K's and longer. I recently had this same revelation. I was a 1/2 miler in my younger days. I may run an ultra eventually, but for now I'm sticking with what I'm better suited to do. Mainly, enjoy the trails. Great article!

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