Back To Experience

Bootcamp: Sam Elias

Wednesday, September 7, 2016
Black Diamond Ambassador Sam Elias had hit a plateau in his climbing. So along with athletes Joe Kinder and Dan Mirsky, he committed to a training program that would, hopefully, help him overcome. This is his story.

The longer that you practice something, the more difficult it becomes to improve. If you do anything with dedication and passion for long enough, you will feel a plateau in performance, or even a slight regression—a slump. Fully investing yourself into something also makes it easier to lose perspective, perhaps taking things for granted, and even getting burned out. This is where training must enter.

I like to think of this process in terms of cycles: Climb/perform → Plateau → Train → Adapt → climb/perform

The latter performance is always hopefully better than the former, but that is directly related to how smart and hard the training and adaptation are, and there are never any guarantees. For me, training is a sacrifice made that allows you to get better and stronger by doing work—hard work. It is a time away from the exact thing you love to do and places you love to be. But it’s also a time for reflection and consideration of intentions. It’s a time to build psyche and motivation. Training is not just for the body. It is for the mind and spirit as well.

I have trained plenty in the past, but BD Bootcamp was the longest and most comprehensive program. It was also the first time I have consistently trained with others that were similarly experienced and focused. Dan, Joe and I are all sport climbers. We have known and climbed around each other for years. We are all 30-something years old and have been climbing full-time for a decade or more. We’ve all climbed 5.14+. Training as a group with these similarities among us along with our different strengths and weaknesses, we all had the opportunity to advance and learn much more than if we trained alone. Each of us blocked out the whole summer from our schedule to train for the fall season.


Photo: Jon Glassberg

In June, the three of us met at a rustic house in the mountains of Conifer, Colorado, where we lived together while we trained with Justen Sjong and Kris Peters at the Earth Treks gym in Golden. The program was three separate three-week cycles, with two weeks between each cycle for “rest,” or easy to moderate outside climbing. The first and third work cycles were done all together in Colorado where we lived together—we shopped, made meals, commuted and spent rest days all together. We were mostly apart for the middle seven weeks—each training in our home gyms following an online program from Justen and Kris. However, in the middle week of the middle cycle, Joe and Kris both came to Salt Lake City to train with Dan and I at Momentum for what we now call Hell Week, which was two-a-day workouts for four days of the week. In the first and third cycles, we trained three days each week, and in the second cycle we trained four. We always tried to climb outside on Saturday. The first cycle was adaptation and volume to lay a foundation. The second cycle was strength-oriented, and the third cycle was power-oriented.

In an effort to make the very most of the whole three-month program, we tried to address everything—sleep, nutrition, recovery and the mental/emotional components of climbing. We worked with Neely Quinn, a certified nutrition therapist and the founder of Training Beta, for our individual diets. She helped us clean up our daily eating and advised on good foods to eat and when to eat them. While we were all in Salt Lake City during the second cycle, we worked with Dr. Esther Smith, a massage and physical therapist, to help manage fatigue, tweaks and the imbalances that we have each accumulated from years of climbing. In the third cycle, sports psychologist Dr. Christina Heilman lived and worked with us for three days. She observed our training sessions in the climbing gym, and then we had both group and individual sessions with her. She helped us to understand our individual patterns of behavior and tried to give us ways to build confidence and composure through visualization and breathing exercises.


Photo: Jon Glassberg

By the middle of the second cycle, we were seeing gains and progress. Our numbers were going up, and there were new PRs (personal records) almost every week from there to the end of the program. It was addicting and exciting, and in the end we emerged not only stronger, but wiser and healthier. The simple fact that we can claim these things, as well as the fact that we grew closer as friends and climbing partners, made the program a success. It would be nice if training guaranteed the next level, but climbing isn’t like that. There are variables and logistics that are anywhere from difficult to impossible to control. All we can try to do is stack the odds in our favor. We worked our asses off, but at a certain point you have to let go. No one wants to train forever. Throw the dice and see where they land, and just be happy with the process.

Though there were no guarantees regarding the payout of our training, mine were significant. In September and October, I spent time climbing at local crags. I climbed at Rifle, as well as American Fork and Logan Canyon. I did all of the routes I wanted to do, some of which were multi-year projects. The routes ranged from Lung Fish, 5.14b, to Shanghai, 5.13c, which I was able to flash.

For November and December, I went to Spain to climb at Oliana with Jonathan Siegrist. I went there to climb a single route called Joe Blau, 5.14c. I had a rough history with this one, because I had spent two previous trips trying and failing on it. It took me just two weeks of my eight-week trip to send. It was such a relief, and in the remaining time of my trip, I tried to be relaxed and just enjoy, but I ended up doing quite a lot more and vastly exceeding my hopes.

In short, this was the most successful season of my entire climbing life, but more importantly, I felt well and stable and confident. I felt a balance that seemed to exist through my deliberate and consistent action. I felt wiser in my approach to my climbing, as well as my daily life. A lot of what I learned in BD Bootcamp, I continue to use on a daily basis. And that is why I train. It’s the opportunity to gain perspective through sacrifice. It’s the chance to see myself—or my climbing, or my relationships, or my surroundings—differently, and then to choose a way forward with that broader vision.

—Sam Elias


Photo: Louis Arevalo

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