With the Olympics on the horizon, and climbing making its long-awaited debut at the 2020 games, one word seems to be on the tip of everyone’s tongue:
Wait, let’s rephrase that. It’s more like:
Image: Katy Dannenberg
The premise of this outburst, of course, stems from the Olympic Combined Format, which in short lumps the three disciplines of lead, bouldering and speed together for a combined result. You can read more about that format in our last article here.
But in general, the hang-up for most climbers, in regards to the format, seems to be that five-letter word … SPEED.
Even BD Athlete Adam Ondra has weighed in, as documented in our latest film, Adam Ondra: Road to Tokyo. During a segment in which Ondra trains speed, he shares his thoughts on the discipline:
“I have to accept the decision that speed will be part of the Olympics and I have to train it at least a little bit,” says Ondra. “For me, the biggest personal challenge is that for the first time in my life, I will have to train something that I hate.”
The viewers sympathized with Ondra, though those who commented on YouTube were considerably less eloquent as Mr. Ondra.
“Speed climbing sucks,” wrote one commenter. “It has no sense in the climbing world.”
“Watch [sic] Ondra doing speed just gave me cancer…”
A third simply wrote, “speed is lame.”
Yet, despite the negative backlash that speed climbing has received since its inclusion in the Olympic Format, it has become apparent that—as with many things in life—amid the negativity lies … curiosity.
On that note, we decided to explore speed climbing, from the basics to the tactics, in hopes of shedding light on a part of our sport that is surely gaining momentum.
Oddly enough, the current speed route was set by … a boulderer. Well, not just any boulderer. It was established by none other than the famous Frenchman and Fontainebleau pioneer Jacky Godoffe.
Image: Katy Dannenberg
The year was 2005, and Jacky was part of the Official Commission to represent setters for the IFSC (International Federation of Sport Climbing). During an analysis of the current year, Jacky proposed the new standard speed route “as a joke.” To be clear, speed competitions were already taking place, but a different route was set for each World Cup event.
“I proposed to build a [speed] route on the theme of a unique hold,” said Jacky in a recent interview with BD. “They thought at the moment I was crazy, but a few weeks later they asked me to try to make it work.”
Though Jacky was known for his bouldering prowess, both indoors and out, he was no slouch when it came to speed climbing.
“I was at this time competing and even if I was a boulderer, I was very fast in speed and I won 80% of the famous speed comps in Arco,” remembers Jacky. “I never understand why, because I never trained for it, but I was able to climb very fast and I loved this moment when you fly more than you climb.”
Ever the artist, Jacky spent six months designing the holds for the speed route—perfecting a shape he likens to a “flying bird.”
Jacky’s route, which is 15 meters (49 feet) and gently overhanging, has since remained the competition standard for speed climbing.
The grade, however, depends on who you ask.
Jacky maintains that the route “was 6c (5.11b) without footholds, but the faster you run the easier it is.”
When we asked BD Athlete Claire Buhrfeind, who is the current U.S. National Speed Champion for women, how hard she thought the speed route is, she figured it was somewhere around 5.10.
“But it’s WAY harder if you go slow,” laughs Claire.
Claire does mention that she thinks the route has changed ever so slightly over the years.
She started competing in speed on her youth team—Team Texas—in 2008 when she was just 10 years old, and since her early days, she’s noticed little differences in the holds.
“It’s changed over the years,” says Claire. “I remember it used to be crimps—like the big part of the hold used to be way smaller, and now it’s an incut jug.”
But she adds:
“It’s not too hard if you know how to position your body right.”
Which brings us to our next point of interest.
Same route. Same holds. Same beta, right? Wrong.
Though there is generalized beta on the route, the fine-tuning is where the magic happens.
“Everybody has different body types, so you need to sort out which beta will suit you the best,” says Claire. “It’s very personal, and even though it looks all the same, there are subtleties.”
As for figuring out that beta, Claire says that “video review” really helps to isolate weak spots in your beta.
“Especially if you have someone experienced review with you.”
For her, jumping correctly off the third foothold, which is furthest left on the route, can make or break her run.
“If I don’t jump really hard off of that foot, then I sway side to side,” she says. Which in turn causes her to lose upward momentum. “With speed, if you watch the best, it looks like they’re climbing in a straight line,” explains Claire.
But that’s just micro-beta, you might argue. They’re still all using the same holds, right? Wrong again. And this is where it starts to get interesting.
During a recent interview with Adam Ondra, we asked if the times on the speed wall would get any faster. To provide context to this question, the current world record (for men) is 5.48 seconds and held by Iranian speed demon Reza Alipour. The women’s world record is 7.32 by Iuliia Kaplina of Russia. That’s climbing roughly 50 feet in less than 8 seconds.
It couldn’t possibly get any faster, could it?
Well, according to Ondra, there’s been a recent discovery of new beta that may indeed speed up the competition.
“Tomoa Narasaki found a new sequence,” says Ondra, “now skipping the fourth hold on the left side, by putting your left foot next to your hands.”
Ondra prefaced this with the simple fact that this new sequence is “properly hard.”
“It fits more in line with the boulderers,” he explains. Which Narasaki is, of the highest order. Hailing from Japan, Narasaki is arguably the best competition boulderer in the world at the moment.
“I think it’s like a 7A or 7B [V7/8] boulder problem by itself,” laughs Ondra.
Is it faster?
“It is faster,” Ondra says. “But it might not be the best for the speed specialists.”
At the recent IFSC World Championships in Innsbruck, Austria, Narasaki and others opted not to use this new beta, because they still find it too low percentage.
Will we see this new beta, and subsequent speed records at the Olympics? Time will tell.
Image: Katy Dannenberg
THE RUN DOWN
Let’s briefly discuss how a speed comp works. The basics are pretty … basic. Two climbers go head-to-head on the speed wall, which consists of two identical “standard” routes set side-by-side. At the buzzer, which counts down audibly from three, the climbers leap onto the route, racing to the top, and just as they reach the final jug they spring for the circular light-sensor centered above on the wall, which they tag with their hand—officially ending their run.
Image: Jon Glassberg
In the past, the IFSC required each competitor to be belayed by two people. That’s right, TWO people, since one person literally can’t pull rope fast enough through a belay device to keep up with a speeding human climbing up a wall in less than 7 seconds. Now, at World Cup comps, auto-belays are the standard.
“They’re way safer for speed, actually” explains Claire. “For example, this year, at our nationals in Reno, John [Brosler] was going up and the rope was pooling down, and one of the belayers fumbles the rope, and trips over himself, and so the rope [not being pulled through the belay device] is just piling up.”
Meanwhile, Brosler is racing up the wall in 6 seconds while this is happening, and about to tag the top buzzer and fly off the wall … with a ton of slack in the system. Luckily in this case, a bystander was able to run onto the stage and pull the rope taught while another quickly fed it through the belay device.
“There’s just no room for anything like that to happen when you’re going so quickly,” says Claire. “So, I trust auto-belays more than I trust people in speed.”
As for the climber’s gear, Claire prefers a pair of soft shoes, saying she usually competes in a pair of “blown-out sport shoes.” Harnesses are generally as light and sleek as you can go—both Ondra and Claire use the BD Zone. And since you’re definitely not chalking up in 9 seconds or less, that’s about it. Oh, unless you rock an amazing “speed” suit like Ondra! OK, the truth is that his coach made him wear it … but check it out!!!
The times of each competitor are measured down to the 100th of a second and are recorded by a combination of that light sensor at the top, and an electronic mat, which the climber places in their preferred position pre-race, keeping one foot on it until the buzzer sounds.
That mat also records false starts—perhaps the least enjoyable part of watching a speed comp. Since competitors stand poised with one foot on the electro-mat, one foot in position on the wall, and both hands gripped on the starting hold while they wait for the start buzzer, false starts abound. Climbers leap from the mat 100th of a second too soon … literally. When this happens, both climbers, who by now are a 3rd of the way up the route, are called down and the false-starter loses their turn while the other climber goes for a solo run. Not the most exciting thing to watch.
When it all goes right, however, speed climbing is arguably the most exciting discipline to spectate, with two climbers dueling to the 100th of a second, running up a wall side-by-side as the crowd roars.
But Ondra suggests that the show is just a little too short.
“In general, I think competitions should be interesting for the audience,” says Ondra. “For me, as a spectator, I think the show of speed is just way too short. Not even a 100-meter sprint is as short as 5.5 seconds.”
So, what does Ondra think is a solution?
“Either make the route longer or much harder,” he says.
SPEEDING INTO THE FUTURE
Since its inclusion into the Olympics, competition speed climbing—which has historically been an outlier in the world of climbing—has been thrust into the spotlight.
But will indoor speed climbing earn the respect of climbers worldwide, Olympics aside?
As we mentioned, Ondra believes the one major drawback of the current format is that the route never changes.
Roughly 13 years ago, before the “standard” route was established by Jacky Godoffe, a speed route was set for each world cup, explains Ondra.
“I think this was much more interesting,” says Ondra. “Because it’s also about how quickly you learn the route.”
In the qualifiers, for example, climbers would onsight the route, yet with much slower times. In semi-finals, things would start to heat up, and by finals … the climbers were cooking.
Jacky—the creator of the standard route—also believes the route should change.
“I have asked many times for some changes, especially because of the evolution and the duration of this route,” says Jacky. “But it is hard to change something that is tried everywhere in the world. I personally think that with these years of experience, a new route should be built after Tokyo.”
However, for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, the format, and standard route, will remain the same. So, in the next two years, will speed climbing grow?
“Speed climbing is not nearly as respected in our community as bouldering or lead climbing,” says Claire, who (side-note) is also the U.S. National Lead Champion as well. “But I think with the Olympics, we’ll end up with a lot more participation and people will be pushing for faster and faster times.”
Claire understands that speed isn’t well-loved, especially in the States. Yet, she thinks the tides will change.
“I think everyone can agree that we want each discipline to have its own medal,” she says. “So, there’s some resentment for sure surrounding speed climbing. People don’t see it as comparable to the other disciplines, which I can totally understand. But at the end of the day, from my perspective, I just love competing, and speed is just a very pure form of competition. It’s fun, challenging, and new, and I hope that more people come around.”
As for all those smack talkers, she adds:
“People love to talk shit about speed climbing—I even love to talk shit about speed climbing—but right now, it is what it is, and I think people should just embrace it, and respect it as its own thing. Which we’re seeing already.”
And she’s right. Superstars like Miho Nonaka—the Japanese Female Bouldering Champion—is already running 9 second times in preparation for Tokyo, Claire points out. Jakob Schubert—the Combined Finals World Champion—is running 7 second times.
It seems the times, they are a changing.
“The top athletes that are serious about combined,” says Claire, “they’re getting serious about speed.”