I Was 48 and Had Tried Everything. Here’s What Helped Me (Finally) Send

This article originally appeared on Climbing

Editor's Note:

You'll notice three things upon first meeting Wendy. She's jacked as shit (seriously, look at those biceps!), she wears headphones when she climbs, and she tries hard. No, really hard. Get a little closer and you'll know: Wendy just might be the coolest lady at the crag. She is unapologetic girl power, the kind that slays demons in a leopard-printed tank top. The kind that shows up to the crag when it's raining or won't skip a training day even after a long day of teaching. When I heard that she had sent her long-term project in Rifle Mountain Park, I was sad I wasn't there to see it happen. I asked her to write her story, including what she learned and what the process was like. Read on, and you'll understand why Wendy is so damn cool. --Delaney Miller, digital editor

***

I first tried Magnetar in the late summer of 2019. At 5.13d in Rifle Mountain Park, the route was a little above my paygrade. It's a brilliant line by Steve Hong that sits in the formidable "Wicked Cave." It has a bit of everything: an awkward crack, hard boulder problems and power endurance sections, all culminating in a techy finish.

I've been climbing, rather obsessively, in Rifle since 2003. I worked my way up through the grades; throwing myself at any route that struck my fancy and, most of all, seemed doable for me, which meant some very specific things in my mind. At 5′ 2’', zero positive ape index and no shoulder flexibility to speak of.... let's just say that I did better on routes that didn't have too many big moves. I think I climbed clunkily in those years. I probably still do. I muscled through sequences and locked off like my life depended on it. I liked routes that I could find "Wendy beta" on; climbs that offered intermediates and alternate body sequences. I was a real fan of high feet: one foot up, both arms bent at 90 degrees, locked-off and mini-deadpointing to the next hold--this was my happy place. Really, it's a wonder I didn't blow-out both my elbows on a regular basis. But my habits worked well enough, so, I would turn up the tunes, yell like a banshee, and give it hell until, eventually, I sent.

Enter Magnetar. I really don't know why I thought Magnetar was doable for me. Maybe it was because that first season working on it, I had some initial success. I could do all the moves, I even figured out some Wendy beta. But, I couldn't fathom the idea of linking enough of those moves to get to the top. It sort of felt like a back-handed compliment, like when someone tells you, "Those jeans make you look skinny." Wait. Are you saying I'm skinny or are you saying the jeans make me look skinny and I'm really not? Huh? Anyway, that first taste of optimism made me think, I can do this. I just needed to get stronger. Or taller. Or grow younger tendons.

For the next two seasons, I found myself going back to Magnetar like a codependent relationship. On any given weekend you could find me, or definitely hear me, trying like hell on Magnetar. It got to be mildly embarrassing, really. Other people had more casual relationships with Magnetar and their romances often ended with quick sends. I worked on other routes. I sent some mini-projects. Still, I kept throwing myself back at Magnetar's proverbial feet. My beta became dialed, my climbing fitness improved and yet I wasn't getting any stronger on the route.

OK, if you are still feeling young and spry: congratulations. At age 47 and with a demanding job as an elementary Montessori teacher, I was not the epitome of youth. But, I am persistent. Plus, my willingness to work hard for a goal was borderline unhealthy. I did everything my years of sport climbing had taught me to do to send Magnetar. Climbing days consisted of running repeater sections on the route. Training days were spent Moonboarding and Kiltering. Recovery days involved push-ups, shoulder exercises, so on and so forth, blah and blah. I figured, as long as I wasn't getting injured, then I was doing something right. Like a dog chasing its own tail, however, all of my attempts at getting stronger just weren't working. Getting old can be a real mind warp: you train just as hard, you rest more, you clean up your diet. And nevertheless, you get weaker. What's a girl, who really wants to send her project, to do?

By the end of the 2021 season, at age 48, I knew something had to give. My hopes that sheer persistence would lead to a miraculous send were starting to seem like a pipedream. The real mental battle for me was this: Despite repeated failure on the route, I knew down to my bones that I was capable of the route. What was I missing? Hadn't I fully devoted myself to the Magnetar relationship? Instead of giving up, I double-downed. I will do this route. I can do this route. And I will do it before I turn 50. Now...how?

Being vulnerable is not my strong suit. I've spent a lot of my life being tough, physically and emotionally. That said, I spent some real come-to-Jesus time analyzing my shortcomings and not-so healthy habits. There were some obvious challenges I had no control over: age, height, a job. Yet, there were some obstacles I could take on. Here goes:

  1. I had to stop hyper fixating on getting stronger and start thinking about how to get better. I needed to climb like Tomoa Narasaki: springy, floaty. (Not familiar with Tomoa? Look him up, you'll see.)

  2. Truth be told, I wasn't sleeping well. The snap had snapped long ago. My energy was low and I was feeling the effects of depleted hormone levels. (Thanks, early menopause)

  3. I needed time--quality climbing time in the fall when conditions in Rifle are ideal, time to actually recover from the demands I had placed on myself.

  4. I needed to stop drinking so much damn wine.

The time part actually turned out to be the easier hurdle to jump. For the first time in my 20-year teaching career, I asked my principal for a couple of months off. Fall is the teachers' busy season and I felt guilty even asking. But, if I was going to go all out on this Magnetar business, I needed close to perfect conditions. I didn't get the fall off, but I did get Wednesdays. So, three days off a week? Heck, I might even have time for a rest day. This time, in my mind, basically doubled my chances of sending the route. (Thanks, Sonya!)

Next, in July of 2022, I started working with a functional medicine doctor named Amy Denicke to help me with my main complaints: sleep, energy and that elusive snap. After completing a bunch of tests, I was actually relieved to learn that my hormone levels were in the toilet: at least I wasn't crazy. I had known something was "off" for a while. Dr. Amy provided me with a map of sorts to help me navigate everything from gut health to mental well-being. I started following the protocol religiously. I was becoming a person who took supplements and meditated. The whole process is like giving myself permission to truly take care of myself. Additionally, it turns out that "cleaning up your diet" doesn't just mean lowering your carbs. I doubled my protein intake. I focused on getting the right kinds of proteins at the right times. Whey smoothie for dessert anyone? I have a lot more work to do but, with Dr.Amy's guidance, I am feeling better than I have in years.

Wendy Williams on her way to sending Magnetar (5.13d), in Rifle Mountain Park in October 2022. (Photo: James Lucas)
Wendy Williams on her way to sending Magnetar (5.13d), in Rifle Mountain Park in October 2022. (Photo: James Lucas)

Now... the drinking. If you know me, you know I like my wine. A glass of wine at the end of the day (or two, or let's be honest--three) is how I had always decompressed. A hard day of work, a strenuous day climbing, or just a Tuesday, always ended with wine. I finally took my sister's advice and read a book called Quit Like a Woman by Holly Whitaker. It's not a new book. I just never had any interest in ditching the wine before. The book was a game changer for me. I began to see the booze as just a bad habit and a crutch. Plus, why would I put all this blood, sweat and tears (all three, literally) into my climbing only to sabotage myself with poison on a nightly basis? I threw the Bota box out and I haven't looked back.

The last, and arguably the most profound, change is harder to put into words. Maybe it was the improved sleep, maybe it was losing the wine, but by mid-September of 2022, I started to genuinely feel different. My body started moving differently on the rock. My limbs were open and extending to each hold as my core moved out and then back into the rock naturally. My previous habit of aggressive movement gave way to a more effortless and relaxed dance of breath and precision: cheesy, but true. Thing is, I had always heard that it's more beneficial to be a better climber, not just a stronger climber. Honestly, I never really believed it. And I certainly hadn't felt it. "Be more open, more springy; think of your spine like a coil retracting and expanding with each move." Ok. How? For me at least, learning new movement patterns is 100% a kinesthetic experience. My body had to tell my brain how to move well, not the other way around. My mind was finally able to connect to the messages my body was giving it. I began to feel myself flowing into the big moves on Magnetar, rather than powering to them. I was unlearning habits I had spent close to 20 years years cultivating. Guess I'm a slow learner. Or obstinate.

Kicking some well established habits and unlocking some new ones was the break-through I had been searching for. And then, just like that, one gorgeous day in early October, at age 49, I sent the rig and ended my romance with Magnetar. The moment was surreal. I was strangely relaxed and confident. Afterwards, everyone in the canyon, it seemed, came rushing over to congratulate me: hugs, tears: the works. I still get a little high with giddiness just thinking about that day. The send itself is not significant to the climbing world. And yet, the experience was transformative for me, both on and off the rock. I guess you can teach an old dog new tricks.

Now what? Well, I still don't climb like Tomoa. Nevertheless, I am more open in my movement patterns and I hope to hell I can maintain it. But, new habits must be practiced. These days, I am consciously trying to connect to the sensation of ease and flow every time I climb. But, you still might catch me in a lock-off every once in a while. And I will definitely turn up the tunes and keep screaming like a banshee.

 

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