The harder you try, the harder things become. The closer you are, the further they can get. Dave had spent most of that summer on his project, and now with links linked, overlapped and lengthened, and redpoint success seemingly a micro-jib away, he had hit a wall. A stubborn failure zone had appeared at the last move and was spreading its reach steadily down the climb.
A relatable arc: early excitement trying the moves; the fun and the work of putting it all together; then game on. The process had lately turned to bitter frustration as Dave’s falls became predictable and other climbers in the dale out of compassion chose not to watch. One breezy Thursday he dropped by the seventh bolt, as usual, lowered down to the dirt, untied, threw each shoe in turn into the river, put his coat on and set off toward the car telling Dan, his belayer and also his passenger, that he could …
“Get your own fucking way back home tonight.”
Two days later he phoned to apologize. Dan fumbled around the topic of climbing together that week but Dave announced that he was focusing on training.
“I’m going to do a cycle on the rungs and weights,” he declared. “I’ve got to get stronger than that route.”
Dan told Dave to give him a buzz when he was finished, but there was relief in his voice.
In the next weeks Dave made good use of his annual membership at the gym, but more and more he would retire to his own small cellar facility. He had put together an 8-by-4 systems board and an old mattress, TRX kit, a range of iron, a set of wooden edges, a stopwatch shelf, and a 60-watt bulb. The dim and dusty cell became evermore his haunt—he was surprised one evening at 11:15 to find himself deadhanging a one-incher while carrying 10 kg (22 pounds) dressed in his work shirt and tie and underpants.
On the few times his girlfriend saw him he was short and snappy with her. If she asked how it was going, he’d reply, “I’m up to eight sets on the 45 degrees.” Louise had grown to accept his need for “every Wednesday night and one day at the weekend,” but this phase was something new. One Friday, when she learned she had gotten an 84 in her Russian oral exam and wanted to go celebrate, he turned and barked …
“You can keep your empty calories!”
Dave trawled the sites, read the stats, interrogated the data until he had a training plan. He would execute that plan until it was complete, then go and do the route. He amped up his training schedule, fed the results back, and plotted.
“Go hard on the back-two,” she ordered. Dave found it easy to submit to the voice. It was simple, unambiguous. It gave compliments and encouraged him.
For a time things went O.K. Maximals were creeping up, and his AnCap was trending. But he needed the edge. He tried weighted anklets and wrist elastics and creatine but still he needed more.
One Tuesday the delivery guy knocked, and Dave signed for a cardboard box. At last! He took the box to the kitchen table, used a sharp knife to slit it open, and carefully lifted out a piece of pale wood the size of a violin case. It had slots the size of wallets, holes the size of coins. It had black matte pads on the sides and made an electronic tone as he lifted it off the table.
“The Brutemaker 5000,” Dave intoned.
In the cellar he mounted it into a rough wooden beam, adjusted its angles, and as per instructions, inserted the fingertips of his right hand into the deep central slot.
A red pulse emanated from the slot, and a calm female voice instructed Dave to remove his hand. He did.
“I’m Lucille, your new Brutemaker 5000. Please press ‘Sync training diary’ on your Brutemaker app to upload data.”
When the Brutemaker 5000 spoke, a phalanx of crimson LEDs pulsed around the slots in time with the words. It focused Dave’s mind.
“Shall we start, David?”
A chip embedded in the 5000 analyzed Dave’s data, and immediately a yellow light came on in a two-finger pocket, and a seven-second countdown emitted, then the pocket turned green. Then yellow, then red; back to green and yellow, and over the next hour he got the bruting of his life.
“You did well there, David,” the Brutemaker said at the end.
“Thank you, Brutemaker,” Dave said.
“Call me Lucille.”
That Wednesday after work, Louise asked, “Who were you talking to last night?”
“In the cellar, on the phone. A girl.”
“That? That wasn’t the phone. That’s the new Brutemaker 5000. It syncs with IOS and is interactive voice-activated. It was a training session—”
Louise stopped listening. She got bored once she realized there was no girl on the phone. She went back to Instagram.
With Lucille working the program, Dave’s training became ever more focused and determined. Gains accelerated, and the numbers grew. Lucille’s subject-learning algorithms honed in on Dave’s strengths and weaknesses.
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“More speed, less control, David,” she would suggest.
“Go hard on the back-two,” she ordered.
Dave found it easy to submit to the voice. It was simple, unambiguous. It gave compliments and encouraged him.
“Wow! Brute!” it said once after an epic repeater session. Dave blushed.
Once, when it said to use middle-two fingers on minimals, Dave instead used his front two. He guffawed in mild embarrassment at his gaffe, and Lucille joined in. Together the two of them erupted and were lost in laughter for almost a micro-cycle.
When Louise left for three days on Olga’s hen weekend, Dave blocked out all activities, as he had a periodic AnCap recalibration session planned, and he wanted to focus totally on his results.
On Friday he bruted himself, caned some protein shakes and crashed. Saturday was a double session: morning on anverse core and waist management, evening lats, pecs and biceps. Dave was feeling the burn. It felt fantastic. The app was on fire.
“You were magnificent, David,” it bleeped.
“You weren’t so bad yourself, Lucille.”
Dave wiped his sweat-beaded forehead with an engorged, bare, muscular arm. He reached for, and cracked open, a can of protein-cola. A jet of fizz gurgled from the can and down Dave’s clenched fist. His head swam. Lucille glowed red. He tried to speak.
Dave woke slowly. Bright room, familiar pillow. He rolled left to where Louise normally was. But not today. The Brutemaker 5000 lay reclining, mostly covered by a sheet up to its 45 sloper, its right-hand jug propped on a pillow. It looked straight toward the ceiling.
“Oh, god,” Dave tried to say.
What had happened? Why? How was the Brutemaker here, and not on the beam in the cellar? Guiltily, Dave mounted it on the beam, promising himself it would never happen again.
Yet throughout the next dreamlike mini-period, he couldn’t wait to get to the cellar each day after work. Punishing session followed punishing session, and Dave felt his muscles and tendons grow stronger and stronger.
“Would you and your training aid like to come to my mother’s this weekend?” Louise asked on Monday. “It’s her 60th.”
“We can’t, I’m close to peaking, sorry.”
They argued. In the cellar Lucille soothed him, told him she thought he was better than ever. He trained. Then one day Dave asked whether Lucille thought he was ready for his route yet. She reacted angrily and ended the session early, before he peaked. The following day they disputed whether a rest day would be a benefit.
“I’m feeling stale, it’s reflected in my graphs,” Dave said.
“It’s always about you, isn’t it,” Lucille flashed back.
Dave went to bed.
Dan phoned. He suggested an afternoon soloing at Stanage that weekend. Early September sunshine warmed Dave’s body, and an autumn breeze cooled his fingers. That evening, though, he was back to training.
“What’s that smell on you?” the Brutemaker buzzed as soon as Dave slotted in.
“I was out on Stanage with Dan.”
“On rock? That’s not in the schedule!”
“What’s the problem?”
The lights pulsed, yet the Brutemaker said nothing.
“Back two, maximals, in three.”
“But I haven’t warmed … ”
“Two … One …”
Dave stabbed his fingers in and clenched.
“Weak,” Lucille outputted at the end of the session.
Dan called once more to get out on grit. It meant missing a session for the first time. Dave said yes. When they were out, Dan told Dave that the dale was seeping. The routes were wet for the winter. That was it for the year. Dave said that was O.K., and they went for a pint on the way home.
The following evening in the cellar Lucille was livid. She spat out printouts, her red lights flashing.
“YOU’LL NEVER DO IT,” she shouted.
The green light came on in the deep central slot.
“Three … two … one … ” it bleeped.
Dave instinctively slotted his fingers in. The opening angrily closed on him.
“Aaargh!” He pulled his fingers out and stared at blood coming from numerous bite marks.
“Oh, god,” Dave said.
He ran upstairs and out the back door, and stood on his patio breathing heavily. The pain awoke him. What the hell? From outside in the dark he looked through his window to see Louise alone on the sofa, watching “Can’t Cook, Won’t Cook” and half-checking her phone. What was he doing? He had hardly spoken to her for weeks, and they hadn’t gone out anywhere together since August.
He got his phone out and deleted his training-diary app. He walked into the house, apologized, and meant it.
“Want to go out for some dinner?” he asked.
“No,” Louise replied. Dave looked down.
“But,” she added, “you can cook me a curry.”
“And that slotty wood is going in the fireplace tomorrow, O.K.?”
Dave looked toward the still-open cellar door. Lucille? In the fire?
He looked from the door back to Louise. As he did a pulse of red flashed around her eyes.
Dave turned to the kitchen and muttered, “O.K., Lucille. Time for you to feel the burn.”
Niall Grimes lives in Sheffield, UK. He is dedicated to training and recently started paying someone to walk around behind him at the wall and tell him how shit he is. It’s called coaching.
This article first appeared in Rock and Ice, August 2017.