On June 3rd, 2017, Alex Honnold became the first climber to ever climb Yosemite’s El Capitan with no ropes or protection. He did the climb in 3 hours and 56 minutes. To put it in perspective:
- The route is in no way easy or short
- 3,300 feet, pretty much straight up
- Some of the best climbers have taken days (4 on average) to climb it, with protective equipment
- Most climbers rope up, even for easy climbs
- One mistake would likely have taken his life.
So how does one get comfortable with performing well with that level of challenge and risk? Practice, practice, practice.
By the time he performed this incredible feat (difficult movement that could be performed with no mistakes for four hours straight under the most stressful circumstances), he had climbed the route multiple times over years with protection. He described handholds as “old friends”. He knew that he had the physical skills and deliberate practice to climb the route, he just had to stay in control mentally. This is an interesting Rolling Stone article about an incredible accomplishment.
The following video interview is was conducted well before Alex did the climb but after he started contemplating it. It gives a good insight about his approach to taking on a daunting challenge. Interestingly, he doesn’t talk about additional physical preparation, it’s all mental. One could think of it as preparing until he was confident of success.
What could runners learn from this?
It’s unlikely that the level of practice Alex put in is warranted for a single running event. However, image a race or a challenge where you knew you had all the required elements in the bag. You’d run the distance before, maybe farther. You’d run in the heat or the cold enough to know you could tolerate it. You’d raced in crowds before and knew you could maintain your pacing. You’d even run the course or terrain before. Your non-conscious brain is going to feel confident and unthreatened by the challenge – been there done that. Now you just have to keep your conscious brain from getting in the way. Alex controls his thoughts very well – focus when he needs it, some mind wandering when he doesn’t; always positive and no what ifs. If you’ve prepared well, you have a much better chance of similarly controlling your thoughts.
It’s also interesting to hear what Alex had to say before and after. The task was unimaginable in 2009. Post climb, he described it as almost routine. In fact, he was going to get another workout in that day.