James Lucas: Upping His Bouldering the Old Fashioned Way
Date: August 23rd, 2019
About James Lucas
James Lucas is the Associate Editor at Climbing Magazine and an obsessed climber. While he currently has a desk job, before he was hired at Climbing he lived on the road dirtbagging for about 13 years. He now lives in Boulder, Colorado and gets outside as often as humanly possible, as he’ll discuss in this interview. The reason I interviewed James is that a few episodes ago I asked for boulderers who weren’t “super strong” to volunteer for an interview if they’d had good success with overcoming a bouldering plateau through training. I wanted to talk to people in the V5-V8 range, and James was one of the people who contacted me with his story.
James’ story isn’t exactly what I thought it would be (plateau at V5-V7 for years, train hard on some program, get stronger, send gnar), but it is a story of good old-fashioned tenacity and self-reflection. James had a goal of sending Midnight Lightning (V8) in Yosemite, a boulder he couldn’t do in previous years. So he tried Eva Lopez’s training program, but it didn’t help his climbing at all. So he decided that his game plan to reach his goal would be to climb outside a LOT over the summer of 2018 and see if that alone could prepare him for Midnight Lightning.
His goal was to do 10 V8’s before Yosemite in the fall, and after 50 days in the alpine over one summer he did 6 V8’s, 3 V7/8’s, and 10 V7’s. Leading up to that summer, he’d only sent 3 or 4 V8’s and 10 V7’s in his entire bouldering career, so it was a big improvement for him.
In this interview, he talks about his process, how he made time for all of this bouldering outside even with a full-time job, his success that summer, and ultimately his send of Midnight Lightning. It seems like common sense: “Just go outside and climb – what could I learn from this interview?” But I actually got a ton of inspiration from James’ commitment to this process, and I learned about efficiently projecting boulders so you can send them quickly. I think you’ll like this one, no matter what level of climber you are, or whether you’re a boulderer or a route climber. The lesson is the same: Practice, reflect, practice, succeed.
James Lucas Interview Details
- Why quitting his dirtbag life in Yosemite made him stronger
- Why he decided to just climb and not “train”
- Why that worked for him
- What he learned about efficiently projecting boulders
- What Nina Williams taught him about projecting boulders
- How he did 50 days in the alpine with a full-time job
- What he eats on big alpine bouldering days
James Lucas Links
Training Programs for You
Do you want a well-laid-out, easy-to-follow training program that will get you stronger quickly? Here’s what we have to offer on TrainingBeta…
- Personal Training Online: www.trainingbeta.com/matt
- For Boulderers: Bouldering Training Program for boulderers of all abilities
- For Route Climbers: Route Climbing Training Program for route climbers of all abilities
- Finger Strength : www.trainingbeta.com/fingers
- All of our training programs: Training Programs Page
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Photo by Dean Fidelman @pitcures_of_fidelman of James on Midnight Lightning
Neely Quinn: Welcome to the TrainingBeta podcast where I talk with climbers and trainers about how we can get a little better at our favorite sport. I’m your host, Neely Quinn, and I want to remind you that the TrainingBeta podcast is an offshoot of a site that I created called trainingbeta.com. It’s all about training for climbing and over there we have regular blog posts, we have climbing training programs for all different levels and all types of climbing, we have nutrition coaching with myself – I’m a nutritionist – and we also have online personal training with Matt Pincus.
You can go to trainingbeta.com and find out more about all of those services and hopefully one or more of them will make you a better climber.
Thanks for joining me for episode 131 of the podcast. Before I get into the interview I just have a couple announcements. One is that in October, 4-6, I’ll be in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. I have never been there and I’m pretty excited to see what it’s all about. I will be doing another one of the Performance Climbing Coach seminars with Steve Bechtel and company. We’ll be teaching a group of about 40 coaches and climbers all about climbing training. Everything from program design to testing people using strain gauges to nutrition and sports psychology, movement, mindset, all of the things. It’s really cool. I love every single one of these seminars and it seems like people get a lot out of them.
If you’re interested in joining us you can go to performanceclimbingcoach.com and I would love to see you there.
Second announcement is that Tyler Nelson wrote an article for us on the blog which you can check out now. It’s called ‘The Simplest Finger Training Program’ and it’s all using just a hangboard, no weights, no pulleys, and he talks about how to use isometrics. Basically, just pulling as hard as you possibly can on the hangboard and training that way for different durations and different reps and sets and all that. He’ll go over that in that article and also tell you about physically and anatomically what happens in your body, in your tendons and in your fingers, when we’re doing certain kinds of training for our fingers. I thought that was super interesting. I’ve never heard anybody explain it before.
You can find that at trainingbeta.com and just go to the blog and search ‘Tyler Nelson’ or just ‘The Simplest Finger Training Program.’
Enough announcements. Today I have for you James Lucas. James is a friend and he’s also pretty well-known in the climbing community. He’s the associate editor at Climbing Magazine and he writes a lot there and on Peaches Preaches. His nickname is Peaches. He’s got a bunch of articles there. His Instagram is @james_lucas but he’s funny, he’s quirky, and he’s also obsessed with climbing.
A few episodes ago I asked for you guys to write to me and volunteer yourself to be on the show if you were not a super strong boulderer – and I don’t mean that in a negative way at all. I just like talking to more normal people these days. I wanted to hear from boulderers who were in the V5-V8 range who had overcome a plateau.
James wrote me and told me he had gone from basically having sent three V8s in his whole life to last summer he got out to the alpine and bouldered 50 days during the summer after work, which is amazing. He’d be out there until 11:00 PM and during that time he sent almost 10 V8 or V7/V8 climbs and then a bunch of other stuff. He did that because he wanted to send Midnight Lightning, this V8 in Yosemite, which he couldn’t even touch before. He went out and did it.
The interesting part about this story is he didn’t even train inside in a normal way. He went out the old fashioned way and just went climbing a lot and worked his weaknesses on actual rock and learned a ton and all these things. In this interview he’s going to tell you what he learned out there, why this worked for him, how he made this work even with a full-time job, and what it was like tasting the send of Midnight Lightning.
I hope that you enjoy this. Here’s James Lucas and I’ll talk to you on the other side.
Neely Quinn: Welcome to the show, James. Thanks very much for talking to me today.
James Lucas: Yeah, thanks a lot of having me, Neely.
Neely Quinn: Yeah. For anybody who doesn’t know who you are can you tell me a little bit about yourself?
James Lucas: Yeah, my name is James Lucas. I’m 37? Yeah, I’m pretty sure I’m a 37-year old rock climber. Right now I’m living in Boulder, Colorado. I’ve been here for three years. Before that I spent around 15 years living in California, mostly out of my car. I had a Saturn station wagon, going to school at UC Santa Cruz, then climbing a lot in Yosemite and on the west coast.
Neely Quinn: That’s quite a history. You’re obviously really devoted to climbing.
James Lucas: Yeah, I really like climbing. I’m really into it.
Neely Quinn: You moved here and took yourself away from Yosemite even though it seems like you really, really love it.
James Lucas: Yeah, well what I realized is I was starting to stagnate in terms of my climbing ability. The longer I stayed the more I was like, ‘Oh. I’m not getting any better staying in Yosemite and I want to get better to climb harder stuff in Yosemite so I need to leave and then come back and do some of my objectives.’
I moved to Yosemite when I was 19 and I worked there for a year and a half and I went in and out for a little bit. I went to school in Santa Cruz and then kind of stayed in Yosemite for a few years. I’ve been there every year for the past 18 years, I guess. I’m not sure about the math. I just realized that if I wanted to improve at climbing I had to change what I was doing.
Neely Quinn: And that’s what brings you to the podcast, actually, because last episode I asked for people who had improved their bouldering by training and people who weren’t in the double digits yet because I think most of the listeners are somewhere in the V2-V8 range, I’m assuming. I asked for some people to contact me to be on the podcast and you were one of those people and I really appreciate that. One of your recent successes was in Yosemite so it seems you did achieve this goal of leaving Yosemite, getting stronger, and then going back and doing some of those objectives.
James Lucas: Yeah. I think a big part of my getting better was leaving and learning how to boulder harder, which turns out is really hard. [laughs]
Neely Quinn: [laughs] Yeah, you think?
James Lucas: I was like, ‘Oh, I’ve been climbing a long time. There’s all these kids who climb double digits all the time and they just sit around and don’t do anything.’ I thought that it would be easy, seeing the kids do it, but then when I actually started to try I was like, ‘Oh no. This is hard.’
Neely Quinn: It was much harder than what you had been doing?
James Lucas: Yeah. I was mostly climbing routes, sport climbing. Climbing a lot of long routes and that kind of stuff just takes work where you just have to put one foot in front of the other. It’s not that hard whereas something like bouldering requires an intensity. It’s harder to just ramp up the intensity immediately, or at least it is for me.
Neely Quinn: These changes that you made were in the past year or two. Give me an idea of where you were at with your bouldering then, like a couple years ago.
James Lucas: Okay. In 2016 or so that’s when I first moved to Boulder. I started dating a girl who was really into bouldering.
Neely Quinn: You can say her name if you want.
James Lucas: Nina Williams. She’s a really good boulderer.
Neely Quinn: Yes, she is.
James Lucas: She’s climbed a few V13s and done a lot of highball boulder problems. She was like, ‘Oh! I want to learn how to trad climb.’ I was like, ‘Great! I want to learn how to boulder,’ so I started bouldering a lot and she started trad climbing some.
Neely Quinn: That’s pretty cool.
James Lucas: Yeah, it was cool. My first year in Rocky Mountain National Park I did Tommy’s Arete, which is the classic V7 up there. I did five or six V6s and some V4s and V5s. I wasn’t in very good shape coming to Boulder because I was getting a new job and didn’t know the area very well. Prior to that I’d climbed I think three or four V8s and a few, more than that, V7s and V6s.
Neely Quinn: In your life?
James Lucas: In my life. From 2002 to 2016 I climbed three or four V8s, maybe 10 V7s, and probably like 20 V6s over a 14 or 15 year period.
Neely Quinn: What were your goals?
James Lucas: When I came, I’d always wanted to do Midnight Lightning because it’s a benchmark boulder problem in Yosemite and it seemed really cool. I was like, ‘Okay, I’m going to try that.’ I started bouldering more and I think the next year I did Skipper D, this V8 in Upper Chaos, then I did a few more V7s. I went to Yosemite and tried Midnight Lightning in the fall over a week-long vacation.
Neely Quinn: Sorry, this was the fall of 2016?
James Lucas: It was actually the following year, so 2017. I was like, ‘Okay, I’m going to try this,’ so I started bouldering more and then I went out there and tried it and I didn’t get close at all. Midnight Lightning has kind of two cruxes. There’s a jump move in the middle to a single pad edge and getting that move is hard and then there’s a V4 or V5 mantle at the end.
I went and I tried the jump move from the ground and I could tap the hold a little bit but there was no way I was sticking it. I was like, ‘Well, I should check out the mantle,’ so I walked around to the top and I rapped in and felt all the holds and tried to do the mantle. There was no way I was doing the mantle. I was like, ‘Okay, well I want to do this boulder problem,’ so I committed to a training program to get me there.
Nina is really into – we have different ideas for how to train for stuff. Nina is very gym-oriented and that winter we did an Eva Lopez hangboard program where we were doing max weighted dead hangs. It was pretty much as much weight as you could hold for 7 seconds. You’d want to feel like you could hold it for 10 but you’d only hang for 7 seconds. It’d be on a fairly good edge. Then you would rest for 3 minutes and then you’d do it again, rest 3 minutes, do it again. I think we did that for five weeks.
Neely Quinn: How many days a week?
James Lucas: Probably only once or twice.
Neely Quinn: How many sets would you do?
James Lucas: I think we were doing 3 of those hangs.
Neely Quinn: Oh, just 3?
James Lucas: It wasn’t very much. It was just that trying really hard. Then after the max dead hang we were doing a minimal edge hang where, after our weighted hangs – we’d do 3 of those – we’d do 3 where you grab the smallest hold you can and hang that for 7 seconds with no weight. We did that and we did some dead lifting during the winter and I think that was about it.
I felt like my fingers got stronger but it didn’t really translate to climbing very well for me so what I thought would be a better goal for me was I wanted to do 10 V8s before I went to Yosemite. I wanted to have them in a bunch of different styles and different lengths and I wanted to be able to do them as fast as possible. I figured if I was going to Yosemite with this one objective of climbing Midnight Lightning then I could take my whole two-week vacation and go, so 14 days. I was like, ‘I’ll have a 14 day trip there. Three or four of the days I’m not going to be able to climb because of poor weather.’ I was just trying to be realistic.
Neely Quinn: [laughs] No it’s great. It’s awesome.
James Lucas: Then I was like, ‘Okay, I’ve got 10 days to climb. I’m not going to be able to climb everyday and I probably want to take a few rest days so I’ve got five climbing days that I need to do this boulder problem in. Okay, I need to practice getting good at climbing V8 in five days or less.’ Like, spending five days on each boulder.
I started climbing in Upper Chaos Canyon a lot.
Neely Quinn: Give me the timeline here. This started in the fall of 2017 where you were like, ‘I need to get stronger.’ Then you did the Eva Lopez workout for five weeks over that winter and deadlifts. Then you realized that it wasn’t really translating into your climbing so then was this the summer of 2018?
James Lucas: Yep, spring and summer. In the spring we did some trips. I started climbing around Flagstaff, which is the local bouldering area in Boulder. We went to Roy, New Mexico. I think those were the only two places. Oh, and I went to Joe’s Valley as well for five days.
Neely Quinn: And how did that go? Is that where you realized that the training hadn’t done what you wanted it to? Or were you doing well?
James Lucas: I was doing okay. I don’t think the training really translated as well as I wanted it to. I realized that even at Flagstaff. Pretty much after we finished it I gave it a couple of weeks and I was like, ‘Yeah, my fingers are a bit stronger but it’s not making me an entirely better rock climber.’
I guess what I’ve noticed in my time climbing is I get better when I’m climbing more and climbing outside more. I think it’s just because climbing is so skill-based. I just pick up better skills that way.
Neely Quinn: So from your history you were like, ‘Well, maybe I can fingerboard but I actually need to just be doing this outside.’
James Lucas: Yep, so I started when I would go outside I’d have this objective of doing 10 V8s before November, my planned trip to Yosemite. I was like, ‘If I’m going to do 10 V8s I need to do a lot of V7s, too, and a lot of V6s.’ Luckily, in Boulder, Colorado there’s not a lot of really good climbing around here but there’s a lot of climbing. [laughs] There’s all these areas I could go to where I hadn’t tried the problems before and I could try them, like just go out and try a V6 that day and hopefully get close on the V6 and maybe try a V7 or a V8. The next day I went back there I’d go and do the V6, get closer on the V7 or V8 and keep doing that.
Neely Quinn: Just to stop you for a second, you have a full-time job.
James Lucas: Yeah, I work full-time as a senior associate editor at Climbing Magazine.
Neely Quinn: Right, so you have to be in the office most of the time. When did you get to go climbing? These are lofty goals. Many of these things in one summer before you wanted to go to Midnight Lightning that fall, right?
James Lucas: Yeah, that’s correct.
Neely Quinn: So when did you do it?
James Lucas: I would wake up early, go to the office at 8:00, and I would leave at 4:00 and drive to wherever bouldering area. There’s a lot of local stuff, like Flagstaff is only 30 minutes from Boulder. From my office to a boulder takes about 30 minutes. During the summertime when it got hotter I would go to Rocky Mountain National Park which is an hour and a half drive and then an hour and a half hike so it ends up being about six hours of commuting time. Then I’d climb for two or three hours and then come home.
I saw all these boulderers and they had photographer lights so I got some of those and started doing night sessions by myself in Rocky Mountain National Park.
Neely Quinn: So you would just go after work?
James Lucas: Yeah, I would go after work.
Neely Quinn: And these lights were just set up?
James Lucas: You have to carry them with you. I got two and they weigh about 2-3 pounds so I’d carry a couple of tripods up with me and then turn on the lights and it was pretty much always bright enough to see. I could climb the boulder without a headlamp if I wanted.
Neely Quinn: That’s crazy. Who did you get to go up there with you?
James Lucas: Sometimes Nina would come but she usually wasn’t that psyched because she could do all the things I was working on and then be sitting around like, ‘Uh, it’s cold out.’ We were up in this talus field at 11:00 at night so I was going a lot by myself.
Neely Quinn: That is dedication, James.
James Lucas: Yeah, I was pretty psyched.
Neely Quinn: So then what happened? Did you start sending stuff?
James Lucas: Yeah. I mean, it was a slow process. I started going to Upper Upper Chaos and I did two boulder problems up there and I did Potato Chip Sit in Lower Chaos, then I did some more stuff in Upper Chaos.
Neely Quinn: What are these things rated? Like, how were you progressing?
James Lucas: They were pretty much all V7 or 8. Occasionally I’d try something harder but not very often. I was doing maybe one or two a month and doing some easier stuff as well. My progression wasn’t super fast, considering I was going to these boulders two or three times a week.
Neely Quinn: Is that what it was?
James Lucas: Yeah. I mean, my other goal for the summer was to do 30 days of alpine bouldering. I set myself up with a few goals. I wanted to do Midnight Lightning so I would do 10 V8s. Another goal that would help me get there is if I fail on the V8s I could always just try and do 10 days of alpine bouldering. That’s easier because I just have to show up. For me, sometimes that’s the hardest part, just getting there. Once I’m there I’m like, ‘Oh, I’m here. I’ll try my project since I’m here or I’ll do something else because I’m here,’ and that helps my climbing.
Neely Quinn: It’s interesting because your first goal was lofty and the second one was just about motivating yourself. Either way you were setting yourself up for success. Even if you failed on the first goal you could still attain the second.
James Lucas: Right. Exactly. Each goal would get smaller and smaller and that really helped me. I feel like that was the biggest part of my training program was like, ‘Okay, it’s 4:00, I’m done with work, I guess I need to go climbing.’ Then it would be like, ‘I should go to the Park.’ I’d drive up there and do the hike and at the very least I’m hiking. Then it’s like, ‘Well okay, I’m at the boulder. I might as well climb.’
I had this initial goal of doing 10 alpine days and I did that pretty quick so then I was like, ‘Oh, 30.’ Then at the end of the season I ended up doing 50 days of bouldering in just Rocky.
Neely Quinn: That’s a lot of days.
James Lucas: Yeah, it was a lot. I got kind of burnt out at the end.
Neely Quinn: In those 50 days what did you accomplish?
James Lucas: I think I did six V8s, I did three or four V7/V8, and I climbed around 10 or 11 V7s. I built a pretty wide pyramid.
Neely Quinn: I just want to reflect. In the 14 or 15 years up to that point you had done 3-4 V8s, 10 V7s, and 20 V6s. In this one summer you did six V8s, three V7/8s, and 10 V7s.
James Lucas: Yeah, that sounds about right.
Neely Quinn: That’s pretty huge and it seems like maybe, and I’ll ask you: is it just because you put the time in?
James Lucas: Yeah, I would say that’s the biggest part of it. Through my climbing I’ve noticed, not only in myself but in other people, the people who put the time in and put the work in get better at whatever they’re doing. The more you commit to it the more you’re going to improve.
Neely Quinn: The 10,000 hour rule. You put approximately 10,000 hours just into hiking. [laughs]
James Lucas: [laughs] Yeah, possibly. I definitely wore through my approach shoes. Even if you’re doing the wrong training program or something that doesn’t work, the fact that you’re out there doing it is going to make you better. To some degree there’s this placebo effect where if you think you’re putting energy towards improving at your project or improving at your goal, you will.
Neely Quinn: So it’s both a placebo effect and just the practice on the wall?
James Lucas: Yeah, just the practice and getting better at those skills. Because I had a short time frame to do Midnight Lightning, I got better at sending stuff quickly, which is hard.
Neely Quinn: That’s what I was going to ask you: what did you learn up there?
James Lucas: I kind of learned how to project a boulder problem. It’s easy to think about a route project, like where the clips are and stuff, but on a boulder problem project it’s like: where is the crux move? How can I do this one move? What’s the most efficient way to do this one move and doing the move before it to get into it? Linking sections and then figuring out what the best conditions are to climb stuff in.
Neely Quinn: Like the time or the evening?
James Lucas: Right. That was another big reason why I started to climb at night. Conditions in the summer are way better at night. Another valuable lesson I learned was when to stop projecting boulder problems. I feel like it’s a lot easier to see long term improvement on a route because you can get so much more efficient at a route whereas on a boulder problem, it’s hard to do a dyno more efficiently. If you want to be able to do a few hard moves into this hard dyno, you ultimately just have to be stronger sometimes.
Neely Quinn: So what did that make you realize about projecting boulders? That you just needed to be miraculously stronger? Or what?
James Lucas: Maybe not miraculously stronger but putting in the time and knowing how close you are to being able to do something.
Neely Quinn: Oh, right, then if you aren’t really that close then you have to move onto something, get stronger on those things and come back to it.
James Lucas: Then come back to it, right. Like in my case on Midnight Lightning, that first year I realized it was easy for me to see I was not that close to doing it but sometimes you can be a few inches away from hitting this hold and be like, ‘Oh, I’m almost there. I can do it,’ but then you spend two weeks on it and you’re not close at all.
I tried this boulder problem called Turning Point.
Neely Quinn: What’s that?
James Lucas: It’s a short kind of arete problem at the Satellite Boulder. Have you done that one?
Neely Quinn: No, I’ve been on it this year, though. How hard is that?
James Lucas: I think it’s V8. You do a few V4 or V5 moves to this arete change and then it’s another short V4 or V5. I spent six days in the spring of 2018 on the boulder. It was close to my work and I brought a video camera up there with me. I started taping all my efforts on it. I could climb up to the crux move which, for me, was this big move out left and I could usually climb up there and tap the hold or kind of hit it. A couple times I hit the hold and I fell getting my foot on.
The process repeated for a few weeks and then it started to get hot and I asked a few people, like Carlo Traversi, how many days he usually put into a boulder problem project before he gave up. He was like, ‘Usually after five days I just go climb on something else and come back and get stronger.’
Neely Quinn: Well that’s a really definitive answer.
James Lucas: I kind of noticed in Nina’s climbing that she usually did really hard stuff fast. I went out a little while ago with Daniel Woods to Box Therapy, which is this V16 way out in the middle of nowhere in Rocky Mountain National Park, and he did it in three or four days. I just started to notice that all these strong boulderers did stuff really fast and I put six days of effort into Turning Point and I realized I was getting to the same point or worse. I just needed to get stronger and come back.
Neely Quinn: What did you take from that lesson?
James Lucas: I took from that how important it is to be realistic about your abilities and how difficult something is. After I did all the climbing in Rocky I came back to Turning Point and did it quickly. It only took me two more days in the fall. After I had done all these other problems and gotten stronger, then I could go back to my project and do it quickly.
Neely Quinn: So it seems like they’re not wasting their time on things – well, it seems like you just get to know your ability level better.
James Lucas: Yeah, you understand your ability level better. You understand what moves you can and can’t do quickly. You also don’t waste energy on futile projects, I guess. You’ve got to be more efficient with your energy and every single try that you make.
Neely Quinn: Right, especially when you’re driving an hour and a half, walking an hour and a half, walking an hour and a half back. You’re putting so much effort into getting there but it seems like it took you a long time to get to know that part of you. Nina and Daniel, they’re professional climbers and they climb a lot outside so they’ve had a lot of time to know what they can and can’t do. I think what you’re saying is extremely valuable about just getting out there.
James Lucas: Yeah, there’s so much value in that and I think sometimes that’s hard to learn just dead hanging or fingerboarding in the gym because when you’re outside sometimes you’re like, ‘Am I able to climb V5 after a long hike?’ which is hard, knowing your climbing style and what you’re good at.
Neely Quinn: That was something you were working on, too. You said before you went and tried Midnight Lightning again you wanted to do all of these problems that were in very different styles. Did you feel like you did that?
James Lucas: Yeah, I did. I climbed a lot in the Park. One of the big reasons I climbed in Rocky is because it’s pretty crimpy. There’s other areas around Boulder where there’s more granite climbing, which is more similar climbing to Yosemite. Mount Evans Area A is more similar to the bouldering in Yosemite but I kind of needed my fingers to be stronger and so I climbed a lot in the Park.
Before I went to Yosemite I took a short work trip to Horse Pens 40 and Stone Fort. It was just a few days but I knew the South was notorious for mantles and that was the other hard thing on Midnight Lightning that I needed to be able to do, mantle really well. The Park doesn’t have very many mantles so I went through and tried as many mantles as I could while I was in the South. Usually they were just V3 or V4 but some of them felt so hard.
Neely Quinn: Once again, you’re making yourself do something that’s uncomfortable just like you did when you were like, ‘I’m done with work, I’m tired, but I’m going to go do this epic journey to the Park.’ This is something I hear a lot from the people that I interview: ‘I got better because I made myself do things that I was bad at or I was uncomfortable doing.’
James Lucas: Yeah, the things you don’t want to do will usually make you a lot better at rock climbing. Finding that motivation to do them can be hard. I find it’s helpful to have a few goals, like a long term goal and then shorter ones where you can feel good about yourself just for doing it.
Neely Quinn: Did you do something like that on your trip to Horse Pens?
James Lucas: At Horse Pens I wanted to climb a V7 while I was there but I also wanted to just go around and sample a lot of stuff because I’d never climbed in the South before. I was worried about weather, like it was going to rain everyday, so I ended up just climbing as much as I could. I did one V7 and then I climbed four V6s and I did quite a few V4 and 5s and V3s.
Neely Quinn: That seems much better than what you had done previously, and faster.
James Lucas: Yeah, I was climbing a lot better and faster.
Neely Quinn: Did you get better at mantling, do you think?
James Lucas: Yeah, I did. The South definitely helped me get better at mantling. I’d always been okay at it because I’d climbed in Yosemite for so long and there’s a lot of mantles there but doing that trip to the South definitely helped. It reminded me how to press out and press up on stuff.
Neely Quinn: It seems like at that point you probably went to Yosemite very soon after your Horse Pens trip?
James Lucas: Yeah. I think I went to Horse Pens at the end of October and in the middle of November I went to Yosemite. I was pretty nervous about trying Midnight Lightning right away. I was like, ‘Maybe I should climb on some other stuff and get warmed up then I can try Midnight Lightning.’ The first day I was there I had told a bunch of friends, “Oh yeah, this is why I’m here.”
Neely Quinn: No pressure. [laughs]
James Lucas: [laughs] I wanted some accountability for myself, to force myself to do it. A bunch of my friends were out there trying it and so I went and got on it my first day and did pretty well. I worked on the moves.
Neely Quinn: And this time you could do the moves?
James Lucas: Yeah, I could do more of the moves. I could hit the lightning bolt hold and hold it for a second. That’s kind of all I was trying. The next day I saw one of my British friends out there climbing with a few of his mates and he brought a ladder out with him. They had this ladder and they were trying Midnight Lightning like that. They would climb up the ladder and grab onto the lightning bolt hold then they’d try to do the mantle from there. I worked the moves off a ladder because I was like, ‘I think I can get through the lightning bolt hold but I don’t want to constantly fall on the mantle from the ground a bunch.’
I tried the mantle off the ladder like eight times, finally figured it out, and then I rested a day and my third day on that trip I tried Midnight Lightning and I did it.
Neely Quinn: What?
James Lucas: I was pretty stoked. It felt really easy which is what I wanted. I wanted to go on this trip and wanted it to feel like an achievable goal that I could do in a short amount of time because of weather. Who knows? Maybe I could have gotten a flapper or something like that and needed to heal it. I over prepared for this goal and achieved it.
Neely Quinn: Congratulations. That’s a fantastic story.
James Lucas: I was pretty psyched.
Neely Quinn: I would be, too. It was like so many things culminated in that moment, it seems like. You knew how to project better and you had your friend there who had a ladder, which it sounds like we should all just bring ladders to the boulders.
James Lucas: Yeah, that’s one of the things I learned from bouldering with a lot of kids. ‘Oh, you bring lights to the crag. A ladder could be a good idea. Have you thought about buying a Makita fan?’ [laughs] There’s all these, ‘Oh, are you using liquid chalk? What kind of chalk are you using? You should fold the pads and feel the holds.’ There’s all these tricks to getting better at bouldering that don’t always involve hangboarding.
Neely Quinn: And it kind of makes sense. When people first started route climbing it was: you fall and then you lower, then people were like, ‘Or, we could stay up there and work things out a little and we could also make this stick clip so we can get up to things.’ This seems like a natural progression for bouldering. There should be tricks so that we can work moves like that. It’s cool.
James Lucas: Exactly. The thing about it is it’s pretty hard to work boulder problems sometimes because they’re so steep so going in on a top rope can be too hard because you’re trying to pull onto a really steep wall. Things like ladders or power spotting are really helpful for that.
Neely Quinn: Now you know. You went and you did Midnight Lightning and that was the winter/fall of 2018. Then you were like, ‘Alright, I’m done. I retire.’
James Lucas: [laughs] I guess one of my other long term climbing goals is to try to climb V10 so I’ve been working on that this past year. I was like, ‘I want to climb V10 but I don’t want to climb just one V10 because it could be a fluke. Who knows? Maybe it fit my style? Maybe it was soft?’ My goal for 2019 is to try to climb three V10s.
Neely Quinn: Three V10s?
James Lucas: Three V10s.
Neely Quinn: It’s July 31st. How’s that going?
James Lucas: Well, I failed on one.
Neely Quinn: Failed like you’re giving up on it?
James Lucas: I didn’t do it this spring. I spent maybe eight or nine days on the Undercling Traverse into Bob’s Bulge but it was, again, something like Turning Point where I kept trying it and trying it and I didn’t realize that I wasn’t that close. Eventually I was like, ‘Oh, I’m not going to do this. I’ve got to stop pounding my head into it.’
This summer I’ve been trying this climb called Bierstadt at Mount Evans Area A. I think I can do that one. I’ve probably put eight days into it so far this summer, or more.
Neely Quinn: Eight days? That’s past the five-day Carlo Traversi limit.
James Lucas: I know. This is why Carlo is such a better climber than me. [laughs] I did this boulder problem called Tomahawk a week ago. I did it in three days and I think it might be V10.
Neely Quinn: Oh. You feel like it was your style?
James Lucas: Yeah, it was my style. It was kind of this hard compression problem at the bottom and then it was really long. I’ve got pretty good endurance.
Neely Quinn: So was it a fluke, James?
James Lucas: It may have been a fluke. I still need to do two more.
Neely Quinn: That’s pretty legit. It’s a really good rule.
James Lucas: Yeah, because then if you do three of a grade there’s probably one that’s the grade.
Neely Quinn: [laughs] Yeah, that’s a pretty good rule.
James Lucas: Even Jonathan Siegrist will be like, ‘One of those is probably the grade.’ [laughs]
Neely Quinn: So we’ve talked a lot about how you’ve used climbing outside and just getting out there as your training but there are a couple other things I want to talk about. In addition, have you been doing anything supplemental in the gym?
James Lucas: As soon as the alpine season started I stopped climbing in the gym and just started climbing outside.
Neely Quinn: Had you been training all winter in the gym?
James Lucas: I was climbing a lot in the gym. I didn’t do too much specific training. I didn’t do any hangboarding this winter.
Neely Quinn: You were just over it? Like that didn’t work?
James Lucas: I guess I just haven’t been disciplined enough. After I did Midnight Lightning I kind of got fat and out of shape for a little while and so I was like, ‘I just want to climb.’ I did that and Nina got really serious about a training program in the gym but I wasn’t psyched enough. I didn’t have enough drive to do that so I just kind of puttered about in the gym, just kind of rock climbing to rock climb.
Neely Quinn: When you’re in the gym are you projecting all the time?
James Lucas: No, I usually go into the gym and on the way in Nina has some program where she’s like, ‘I’m doing this, this, and this,’ which makes me think, ‘God. I should be doing that.’
Neely Quinn: [laughs] You’re like, ‘What have I done with my life?’ [laughs]
James Lucas: Usually I’m like, ‘Maybe I should try to climb five of each grade,’ so I do a lot of volume in the gym. Sometimes I try to go in and try something harder. I would also do these sessions with my friend, Cedar Wright. It’s like our Bush League Climbing Competition. Cedar and I both boulder about the same level so we both try and do a problem and hopefully somebody does it, then the other guy does it, and at the end of the night after five or six problems it’s like whoever did the boulders faster, wins.
Neely Quinn: I think that every city should adopt a Bush League Bouldering Team.
James Lucas: Yeah, it’s pretty fun. The only problem is that Cedar always changes the rules and picks the boulder problems so he wins.
Neely Quinn: [laughs] Freakin’ Cedar.
James Lucas: There was actually one day earlier this summer where we randomly met up in the gym. He’s been doing a lot of paragliding and hasn’t been climbing as much and I’d been going to the alpine a lot again. At the end of the session he was like, ‘You definitively beat me tonight.’
Neely Quinn: You were like, ‘Yes!’
James Lucas: It felt probably as good or maybe better than sending Midnight Lightning. [laughs]
Neely Quinn: Nice. The other thing I wanted to ask you about is that you had mentioned that you got fat and out of shape. We need to be careful with the F-word.
James Lucas: Oh, okay.
Neely Quinn: No, I’m just kidding but the last time I saw you, you actually look like you’ve lost weight. I don’t know when the last time was I saw you before then but you do look really lean. Is that something that you’ve purposely changed? Or did that just happen from all of the epic hiking and stuff?
James Lucas: It happened because of the hiking but I also became conscious of changing my body mass. I noticed that in trad climbing you can be pretty big and still climb pretty well. In 2016 and 2017 I weighed 170 pounds and I did some of my hardest trad climbing. Now I weigh 150 pounds.
Neely Quinn: That’s quite a difference.
James Lucas: Yeah, it’s made quite a difference in my climbing.
Neely Quinn: Did you just change your diet up?
James Lucas: Yeah, I changed my diet up. I started eating a little bit less, just being more conscious of what I was eating and how it made me feel. I started drinking less alcohol and that helped a lot. I started eating less bread and wheat products because they made me feel bloated a little bit and I started eating less dairy as well.
Neely Quinn: Because it made you feel not good?
James Lucas: Yeah, it also made me feel gassy or bloated. Because when you’re bouldering you’re sitting around a lot, I had a lot more time to think about that. Being like, ‘What am I eating? Oh. How did that food make me feel? Did that protein or did that steak make me feel good? Did that salad make me feel good? What about that slice of pizza?’ When I was trad climbing it was like I just needed calories and eating whatever. When I started bouldering it was like I was eating and now I’ve got 15 hours before I’m climbing, which is a lot more time to sit around and obsess.
Neely Quinn: [laughs] Is it obsessive?
James Lucas: I mean, when you’re climbing a lot it can be kind of obsessive.
Neely Quinn: I guess I’m hearing you say that you’ve been paying attention to your body and that you’re learning what it likes and what it doesn’t and what helps you feel good and perform well and that’s amazing. I want everybody to hear what you just said because what I try to do with all my nutrition clients is just to get them in tune with their own bodies. I feel like with climbers and with any athlete or a lot of people it can go – I don’t know what is too far but do you feel like you’ve encountered too far where you’re like, ‘Woah, woah, woah. I need to have some ice cream,’ or something like that?
James Lucas: Last summer when I was doing all those days my weight dropped down. I started weighing myself pretty regularly because I was like, ‘How much does my weight relate to climbing performance?’ It seems like there’s a direct correlation but what I noticed is with my weight, as long as I was in a general range, my performance didn’t change. If I went too light or too heavy then it would change my performance. When I was too light I was just not very happy.
Neely Quinn: And probably your energy was lower.
James Lucas: Yeah, my energy was lower. It was like, ‘My life is miserable.’
Neely Quinn: Can I ask how large that range was? How many pounds?
James Lucas: For me it was probably 4-5 pounds.
Neely Quinn: Sometimes that’s what people gain and lose in one day so it wasn’t that big of a difference.
James Lucas: My weight generally doesn’t fluctuate dramatically. I try to keep things on a steady path with whatever I’m doing.
Neely Quinn: It seems like you’ve figured out how to pretty much keep yourself at that weight.
James Lucas: Yeah, and at my lightest during Rocky that year I was at 147 and then when I did Midnight Lightning I weighed myself the next day or so and I was at 151. Now I have this idea of, ‘Okay, this is about how much I should weigh.’ I can still feel good and I won’t be stressed about having three extra pieces of cake this week or drinking a beer or anything like that.
Neely Quinn: Just for reference, how tall are you?
James Lucas: I’m 5’7”. I’m not particularly tall and because I work at Climbing Magazine I get to spend a lot of time reading and writing about climbing and I looked into people’s BMI and how it relates to performance.
Neely Quinn: Like what Tom Randall and Ollie did? That research?
James Lucas: Yeah. I listened to the TrainingBeta podcast that you had with Tom and Ollie and I think he said below 21 or so BMI, there’s no performance gains. It’s maybe even a down slope in performance. He had this general range where people were pretty good.
I also asked a lot of other climbers, a lot of professional climbers, “Oh, when your weight is this, how did you feel? How well did you do on this style of climbing as opposed to when your weight was this?” People generally said they could crimp better when they were lighter but usually their power was a little down. Then, for bigger compression moves their weight mattered a little less.
Neely Quinn: The crimping part is what I’ve heard, too, from all the people I’ve interviewed about that on the podcast and that power just starts to go down when you’re really light.
James Lucas: If you’re bouldering that’s a big issue.
Neely Quinn: Cool. It seems like now you just maintain by eating certain foods, not eating other foods, and you know probably exactly what you need to bring up to the bouldering area with you. I want that to be my last question because so many people are confused about what to eat when they go outside climbing. On your days when you go up at night – are you doing that anymore?
James Lucas: Yeah, I was up at Guanella Pass until 11:00 Monday night.
Neely Quinn: Nice. What did you bring to eat up there?
James Lucas: Usually, because when I’m climbing I want to eat stuff that’s easy to digest and that I can get some immediate fuel out of I really like these protein cookies. I bring an apple and almond butter. I try and bring as many snacks as I can. Afterwards I try and eat something with a lot of protein in it.
Neely Quinn: So you do have some protein up there, some fat, some carbs, and I’m assuming you’ve eaten a big snack before you start walking up or a little meal or something?
James Lucas: Yeah.
Neely Quinn: That’s good. Cool. Well thank you. This has been awesome and now I have to go to a baseball game, of all things, even though it’s 95°. It’s been really cool talking to you and I feel like this conversation is different than what I normally talk about. I think a lot of people will appreciate it.
James Lucas: Yeah, cool.
Neely Quinn: Anything you want to add?
James Lucas: I guess if you don’t have talent you should try to have as much tenacity as you can. That will get you up the rocks.
Neely Quinn: [laughs] Nice, James.
James Lucas: It’s worked for me.
Neely Quinn: I appreciate it. Where can people find you on social media?
James Lucas: I’m on Facebook and I think my Instagram is @james_lucas.
Neely Quinn: Keep entertaining us, James. Thanks very much.
James Lucas: Yeah, thanks a lot, Neely.
Neely Quinn: Alright, I hope you enjoyed that interview with James Lucas. Like he said, you can find him on Instagram and on Facebook but also if you go to climbing.com and search for James’s stuff or do ‘Peaches Preaches’ you’ll find a bunch of stuff that he’s written. He’s a good writer. I asked him to write an article about this podcast episode, like his story, and so that should be up on TrainingBeta soon. Thank you, James. I really enjoyed talking to you.
Coming up on the podcast I interviewed Charlie Manganiello and Alex Bridgewater of ClimbStrong and Elemental Fitness in Lander. They work for Steve Bechtel. We talked about a bunch of the mistakes that climbers make in their training so hopefully that will help you avoid some really common pitfalls that people fall into. That should be coming up in a couple weeks so stay tuned for that.
I think that’s all I’ve got for you today. Thanks so much for listening all the way to the end. You can follow us @trainingbeta on Instagram and Facebook and you can join our Facebook group all about climbing training. You can find that at trainingbeta.com/community. Remember that we always have training programs for you and those are at trainingbeta.com/programs.
Thanks again and I’ll talk to you in a couple weeks.