Every sport, artistic endeavor, or daring enterprise offers days when you feel unstoppable. You are on fire. Invisible assistance from the universe or your deepest unconscious propels you onward. You act intuitively and with perfection. We associate such days with flow but for all of our scientific probing, nobody really knows when, how, or why the magic comes. All we can do is joyfully accept the gift when it arrives.
Then there are the Bad Days. Days that feel exactly the opposite.
A few weeks ago, I wrote about lead climbing Misty, my hardest and most intimidating outdoor climb to date. I fought and struggled and fell multiple times along the way, but I made it to the top and went home glowing with satisfaction. I have been determined to go back and “send” Misty ever since (climber parlance for leading the entire route without falling).
I hoped Sunday would be the day, but I awoke groggy despite eight hours of sleep, never a good sign. Misty gets packed on weekends, so when I arrived at the crag, I went straight to the route to get in line, depriving both myself and my partner of a proper warmup. I convinced myself that some pullups and stretching would suffice.
I psyched myself up for a strong, confident lead. When I started up the rock, I moved smoothly and gracefully through the first crux (the hardest moves). So far, so good.
Then things went wrong. Almost immediately, my arms pumped out; they burned painfully while my finger strength dropped to zero, due to a flood of lactic acid. Far from sending the route, I fell early. Stupidly, I grabbed the rope as I fell—a habit I thought I had broken—and burned a finger.
Determined to make the most of the climb, I continued up to the second crux. Last time I fell repeatedly at this spot, but I knew the key move now and resolved to climb through on my first attempt. I made the key move but then pumped out again, a good six feet above and to the side of the last bolt. In a split second, I realized that I was about to fall nearly fifteen feet, and I would do so in a totally uncontrolled way. I also realized that I had committed a cardinal sin: my leg was behind the rope, which meant I would flip upside down.
Thankfully, I freed my leg just as my fingers gave out. I peeled off the wall, whooshing down for what felt like forever. The rope caught and I spun sideways and slammed my back against the wall so hard that I saw stars. Fortunately I hit a smooth section and wasn’t hurt.
This was my first fall that really rattled me. I couldn’t imagine attempting the crux again in this condition. Humiliated, I lowered to the ground. My headspace was shattered. I felt groggy. I was climbing weak. My forearms and fingers felt wasted. I was not in a mindset to try hard new climbs or confront new fears. I just wanted to slink off and climb something easy so I could feel a hollow sense of achievement.
Abstractly, I knew I was having a Bad Day—a day that does not merely involve a bad performance, but that actually feels malevolent. I was in the opposite of flow. I was stuck in a headspace of internally-generated resistance.
Dealing with Bad Days
I had enough sense to recognize that my dilemma represented a learning opportunity. My biggest challenge of the day was not to climb a particular rock, but to learn how to deal with a Bad Day.
I wish I could report that I arrived at some dazzling revelation, but I didn’t.
While my two partners belayed each other, I closed my eyes and tried to mindfully process the malaise that had crept into me. I wondered if it was possible to somehow dissipate its force, to clear my mind, to become an empty vessel again into which flow might magically reappear. Despite my best efforts, I couldn’t get there.
I gradually realized that all I could do was keep climbing. Someday, I knew, I would be stuck high up on some multipitch route, exhausted beyond measure, rattled by a near-miss, wanting nothing more than to quit—and I would need to keep climbing in order to get home again.
Today was training for that moment. It’s not the kind of training I enjoy, but it’s vitally important.
I kept climbing. I tried another hard route, on top rope this time. When I couldn’t solve the crux, I hoisted myself up on the rope (another humiliation) so I could try the rest of the route. When my partner suggested a trad route, involving a more perilous form of climbing that is still new to me, I wanted to say no; I didn’t want to lead trad in this headspace. Instead, I nodded wearily, racked up my trad gear, and made the climb. It didn’t feel good, but I climbed safely. We wrapped up the day with a new sport climb. I did it on top rope, but it was my tallest climb yet and physically exhausting. I struggled up it anyway, despite an embarrassing number of falls and rests.
When the day was done, I had done very little that I was proud of—except keep climbing.
Other than practicing raw perseverance, the only other technique that I’ve worked out for handling Bad Days is to take stock afterwards. We can reframe nearly anything in life as an opportunity.
Before I collapsed into bed, I pulled out a pen and notebook and tried to translate the day’s badness into a series of lessons. I needed to develop a good warmup routine and honor it every climbing day. I needed to research flash pumps, which is apparently what I experienced by jumping right onto a hard route. I needed to practice falling and re-train myself not to grab the rope. Something about my at-home training regime was not developing finger strength in the way that I expected; I needed to do research and modify my training plan. Lastly, I needed to develop a mental framework for recognizing and responding to Bad Days—of which this post is an early result.
When I got home, Wendy asked me if I had fun. The honest answer was “no.” But I was glad I went.
I collapsed into bed, relieved to reach the end of this particular Bad Day.
In the morning, I awoke to a new start.
Image courtesy of Derek Christensen, who shares his own falling story.