I was never very sporty at school. Small and studious, it was clear from an early age that I was never going to make it to the Olympics. Although I did attend a Maths Olympiad in University College Dublin when I was 15. Not quite the same levels of excitement.
The first (and only) time I tried to throw a javelin, I clonked myself on the head with it. Funnily enough, they never let me try the shot putt. My memories of volleyball are of falling on my arse a lot. Being less than statuesque, basketball stardom also failed to beckon, although I do recall being praised for my passing. Sadly my quick-fire passes sprang more from a deep sense of ‘oh my god, get this thing away from me’ rather than from any technical skill or savvy game planning.
And so it was that I limped (mostly metaphorically, although I did once sprain my ankle in a tangle with a trampoline) through my Physical Education in school. My long-suffering P.E. teacher Miss Larkin never lost her enthusiasm, however. Which sometimes somehow just made it all seem worse. But sometimes her positivity was so powerful it even reached me.
Her advice to us all that having a sport that we played would serve us well in later life as a means of meeting people and making new friends, especially if we ever had to move somewhere new, really resonated with me. I guess I was always about the friends. You can keep your medals but I will work hard for a decent social life.
And so it ultimately proved to be. Despite failing to find my ‘thing’ all through school, in my early twenties I found climbing. Dragged unwillingly along to a climbing wall in north London by an enthusiastic boyfriend, to my great surprise I quickly found myself hooked.
Here was a sport that was social without being a team sport. (All that letting your teammates down and being last to be picked gets a bit tired.) Here was a sport where you could just compete against yourself. Getting to the top of routes that felt hard to me gave me real satisfaction, it didn’t matter that others around me were doing far harder stuff.
Best of all, here was a sport you got to practice in the most beautiful and fun of settings. Weekends away with friends started to be spent at the crags of the Peak and Lake Districts and on the sea-cliffs of Pembroke. Holidays were taken to relaxing sports climbing destinations like Mallorca and Kalymnos.
And slowly, without really noticing it, I started to get fitter and stronger and healthier. And, (dare I say it?), even somewhat sporty. Finally gaining confidence in one sport made me much more open and able to try others. Later I would also get hooked on surfing. Being motivated to perform well in climbing would make me turn to pilates and core-strengthening exercises as well as being more aware of my overall aerobic fitness.
Now, as an ex-pat in Spain I have really lived the truth of Miss Larkin’s words. The quickest and easiest friendships to form have been with other climbers. They are also the deepest. Climbers are the people we spend the most time with. The shared sporting passion unites where language and cultural barriers could divide.
The two photos that accompany this post neatly illustrate the impact of this sport in my life. We had travelled to Alicante in our new motorhome to spend the Christmas fortnight in sunny southern Spain. On 31/12/2010 we pulled up at the foot of Gandia crag at around 7pm. Packing a bottle of Cava and a seafood platter we were ready for an exciting New Year’s Eve spent in our camper with our 14 month old son.
Richie stepped out of the van to make a phone call, as reception was poor inside. At precisely this moment, some Galician climbers we had previously met in Fontainebleau happened to be descending from the crag after a day’s climbing. And that is how we ended up seeing in the New Year with them in their friend’s luxury villa outside Alicante.
Sport. It’s a wonderful thing.
This post is for the Olympics inspired ‘Sport’ theme on The Gallery. Click below to visit more Gallery posts.
Last Sunday (before our trip to Cabárceno) we visited Rozas, a recently discovered sandstone bouldering area in Burgos. Set within a beautiful forest the shade provided by the trees made climbing possible despite the high temperatures.
The high concentration of boulders and wide range of difficulty meant that despite the vastness of the area as a whole we were all content to spend the day in one relatively small sector.
We shall certainly be returning in the future to explore and climb some more.
Check out the slideshow below for a sequence of Bittorio climbing. He’s the guy who first discovered both this area and the nearby Santa Gadea. We have a lot to thank him for.
Asturias, for me, is a little slice of heaven on earth. To the Spanish it is known simply as ‘el paraíso natural’ – the natural paradise. Outside of Spain it is barely known at all.
Located on the rugged north coast of Spain at the base of the Bay of Biscay and bordered to the south by the mountains of the Cordillera Cantábrica, the Principality of Asturias is a dramatically beautiful region. Its coastline is spectacular and gloriously unspoilt by the ravages of mass tourism or uncontrolled development. Much of the mountainous interior is truly wild and it boasts a vast array of flora and fauna to prove it, with some of the last populations of brown bears and wolves in Europe, as well as plentiful wild boars, deer, birds, and many species of wild flowers that are in danger of extinction elsewhere.
Protected throughout history by her high mountain borders, Asturias has retained a fierce sense of place and self. This is a place where tradition and culture are highly valued and are evident at every turn. Top tip for the visitor: bring a phrasebook, English is NOT widely spoken.
Today Asturias is protected via a range of official designations – there are 5 Natural Parks, 1 National Park, 10 Nature Reserves, 11 Protected Landscapes and 40 Natural Monuments within her borders.
Another key factor in the continued preservation of this natural paradise is her mild, oceanic climate. Higher levels of precipitation prevent the desertification that is apparent throughout much of the rest of Spain, as well as preventing invasion by hordes of sun-seeking package holidaymakers. Top tip #2 for the visitor – always pack both suncream AND rain gear, whatever the time of year.
As well as shaping the climate and the culture here, the proximity of the mountains to the sea affords the active traveller many opportunities for adventure. In the winter you can ski and surf in the same day (providing you have the energy!) In the summer you might prefer a restful and cooling dip in the Atlantic after a long day’s hiking in the mountains or trekking the extensive coastal paths. In addition to traditional mountain, alpine and big wall climbs there are also over 40 excellent and easily accessible sports climbing crags in the region with routes of every grade. Kayaking, canyoning, horse-riding, quad-biking, bird-watching, river and sea fishing are all popular here and well catered for the tourist market.
Those in search of more sedate pursuits are also well served. Oviedo, the region’s capital, is a beautiful, immaculately kept city with a fascinating historic centre – a designated UNESCO world heritage site with a plethora of pre-romanic buildings (a feature throughout Asturias.) The other major city of the area is Gijon, a vibrant coastal city with good surfing beaches in the centre of town and a buzzing night life.
There are several worthwhile museums to visit in the area and some excellent cultural festivals. My pick would be the Laboral in Gijon, a fantastic modern art space plus theatre, often host to internationally renowned artists in festivals such as Palabra y Musica (spoken word and music); the Centro Niemeyer in Aviles – a stunning building, in itself worth a visit, and with an exciting and avant garde programme of events and theatre including many international co-productions such as the Sam Mendes directed Richard III starring Kevin Spacey which played there last September; Gijon International Film Festival every October, at venues throughout the city, the Teatros Campoamor and Filarmonica in Oviedo…. I could go on (and surely will in many another post!), but I think you probably get the picture by now. Asturias – it rocks!
Airports: Asturias, Santander (approx 2 hrs drivin), Bilbao (3 hrs), Madrid (5 hrs)
Easyjet fly daily from London Stansted to Asturias.
Ryanair fly into Santander from a variety of European destinations, including London Stansted and Dublin.
Long haul international flights via Bilbao, Madrid, Barcelona or London.
Ferries: Portsmouth/Plymouth to Santander and Bilbao, St Nazaire to Gijon
The Saturday before last dawned cold and bracing as Europe was hit by a Siberian cold snap. Not the weather for venturing into the great outdoors with a toddler who hates wearing hat, gloves and coat. Languishing in bed listening to BBC radio on the internet and drinking PG Tips (life abroad eh?) I had a brilliant idea. We could go to the little indoor climbing wall at Arriondas sports centre. Parenthood and the weather combined could not prevent us from climbing.
With its gentle slabby routes, lack of crowds (read: I’ve never seen another soul there), and vast gym hall for toddler romping, football and general shenanigans, it would be perfect for a chilled morning yet with a nominal ‘training’ label to make me feel virtuous. We even had a friend willing to accompany us and bring our team to the magic number 3 – one to climb, one to belay and one to
tame entertain toddler at all times. (Understanding climbing partners are vital when you’re a parent.)
So off we trotted, with me feeling terribly smug. What I hadn’t realized was that since the last time we were there about a year ago, the wall had hosted an event in the Spanish Championships, with some of the world’s best sports and competition climbers in attendance (Ramón Julián Puigblanque anyone?). So they’d had to up the difficulty somewhat on the wall.
When I saw the 5 metre roof that they’d slapped on the top of the routes I was
horrified somewhat taken aback. Roofs are not my thing. Roofs require power, strength and force of will. I’m more of a delicate, face-climbing, crimping (and sometimes, sadly, wimping) kind of gal. Now every single route had its finish at the outer end of the roof. I failed to complete a single one.
I guess sometimes life just puts a roof where you didn’t expect one. And sometimes you feel like as soon as you clear one roof, there’s another one lined up that you hadn’t seen before.
That’s kind of the start that 2012 got off to for me – with one illness followed by another and then the wintry weather kicking in to curtail all outdoor activity. I was beginning to feel sorry for myself, as well as desperately unfit.
But I’ve discovered a few things about overcoming roofs. One is that training sure helps (go figure). Another is that a positive mental attitude is vital – you’ve just got to keep flinging yourself at the damn thing and, above all, don’t stop and don’t let go!! Tenacity rules.
So, I’ve decided to make sure and train in some way every single day. To make it possible to do this I’ve had to be clear that training has to be often home-based, brief and snatched while Jack’s asleep. But that’s the great thing – simple small things can make all the difference, as long as you keep doing them regularly.
So, take yesterday. It was another freezing day so I decided to stay in with Jack rather than go out cragging en famille but, before Richie left, he looked after Jack while I walked the dog up the hill and then, nicely warmed up, did half an hour of pilates/core stablility work with a tiny bit of weights thrown in. Nothing drastic but enough to make me feel good about myself and to keep my core strength building.
The surprising truth is that since Jack was born I’ve become fitter and stronger and more motivated than ever. Before that I had the luxury of thinking that training was a dirty word. I had plenty of time to get the exercise I needed more organically through the activities I did. Not anymore.
And so I’ve discovered the unexpected joy of a little focussed training, alongside the joy of getting my body back after pregnancy and breastfeeding, the joy of having some time that is entirely devoted to me in the purest sense and the joy of actually getting better at something.