This article was published in the summer edition of Gym Climber, available free at your local gym.
Ever heard of Jim Bridwell, John Long, and Billy Westbay, a.k.a., the Stonemasters? They were the first climbers to ascend the Nose on El Capitan in Yosemite in a single day, in 1975. Their record prompted a battle, one that is ongoing—for who had the guts and the stamina to do the Nose the fastest. While these Stonemasters are perhaps the best known example of early speed record chasers, climbers have long been racing the clock.
The official speed route that will be used in the 2020 Tokyo Games is a far cry from the Nose. It’s shorter, for one, and it hasn’t been around as long. While the record for the Nose sits just under two hours, set by Alex Honnold and Tommy Caldwell, it’s nearing sub-five seconds for today’s wall.
Unlike those for setting the Nose record, the rules governing the speed discipline in Tokyo get granular. Whoever reaches the top the fastest wins (hopefully that’s obvious). But here’s what you need to know to really follow along.
The speed-climbing route is standardized, meaning climbers around the world train and compete on exactly the same route. The wall is 45 feet tall, consists of 20 handholds and 11 footholds, is five degrees overhung, and the route is set according to an official map in the IFSC Rulebook.
Before the competition begins, climbers get two practice runs on the wall. Even though the route is standardized, each wall may feel slightly different due to weather or the condition of the climbing holds and wall (climbers usually train on speed walls that have been well-used, while everything at competitions is generally brand-new). This is the competitors’ chance to complete their warm-up and get a feel for climbing on the competition wall.
The qualifying round is next, where athletes get two chances to climb the route and log times. They are then ranked based on their fastest runs, and the top 16 competitors move on to the next round.
The next rounds of competition are head-to-head races, which are structured with March Madness-style knockout brackets. The 16th-fastest climber goes against the athlete ranked first. Climber 15 goes against climber two, 14 against three, and so on. The winner of each bracket moves on to the next round, where number eight faces off against one, seven against two … You get the idea. Competitors have only one chance to climb in each race. When a climber loses a race, the person is eliminated from the competition immediately and ranked according to time among those who have lost that round. When only four competitors are left, those who lost in the penultimate round subsequently race each other for the bronze medal.
Even though the speed route is internationally standardized, you’ll see varying sequences used by different climbers. Each climber chooses a sequence based on height, strength, and personal climbing style.
For example, you’ll see many climbers skip the left-most holds at the very beginning of the route, and dyno straight up to the holds directly above the starting holds, in a move known as the Tomoa Skip (pioneered by Tomoa Narasaki of Japan). This sequence is more direct than the zig-zag pattern created by climbing all the way to the left-most holds, and then immediately climbing towards the right to continue upward. However, this move involves performing a very close hand-foot match on the first hold, and therefore; may not be the best option for a taller climber. It’s also a powerful move and may not suit climbers who can’t quickly initiate the movement or carry the momentum. Taller climbers or those with less power may opt for different variations that better suit their body types and abilities.
Speed specialists at the Olympics
- Rishat Khaibullin (KAZ)
- Ludovico Fossali (ITA)
- Bassa Mawem (FRA)
- Aleksandra Miroslaw (POL)
- Anouck Jaubert (FRA)
- Iuliia Kaplina (RUS)
- YiLing Song (CHN)
Notable Speed Teams
Slipping in a speed competition can be devastating, and often means the end of a competition for a climber. A slip in qualifiers is not as detrimental as one in the knockout round, because competitors have two chances to climb the route cleanly. The knockout format that follows, which provides climbers only one chance to climb the route per round, makes the margin for error extremely small. Slips can happen at virtually any time, on any part of the route.
Slips can happen at virtually any time, on any part of the route.
A false start is the worst thing that can happen to a speed competitor. A climber who false starts is ranked last in the relevant round. So, a false start in qualifiers would result in a last-place finish, even if the climber recorded a valid time on the first run. A false start in the 1/8 final would lead to an eighth-place finish.
Occasionally, a competitor may commit a technical false start for reacting too quickly after the starting signal. It is theoretically impossible to have a reaction time of less than 0.1 seconds, so a start within this window would be considered a technical false start.
False-start rules exist because in the past, climbers would sometimes false start on purpose in an attempt to throw off their opponents during the knockout rounds. To stop this from happening, false starts were banned completely.
Tactics: Slow Runs From Fast Climbers
Because the cost of slipping is high, competitors often slow down on purpose to maximize consistency during a competition. This strategy is used when a climber knows that he or she is significantly faster than an opponent and does not need to climb near potential in order to win a race. Climbers also do this in qualifiers, so they have at least one “safe” time that will advance them to the knockout rounds.
This is a strategy that we are very likely to see from speed specialists at the Olympics, who are more proficient at the discipline than the lead and boulder counterparts.
In lead and bouldering competitions, competitors are ranked in each round with no influence from previous rounds (apart from countbacks in the event of a tie). However, because of the knockout format in Speed climbing, your results in qualifiers directly affect who you will race in the knockout rounds. Therefore, it’s always more beneficial to qualify in a competitive spot, so that theoretically, you’re racing slower climbers in the knockout rounds.
John Brosler has been climbing for 13 years. He’s a six-time Open National Champion and national record holder.