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“I Have Good Grace For Myself”: Matt Fultz on Injuries, Training, and his Two-V16 Season

“One of my strengths, I think, is that I have good grace for myself. When I regress, or if I’m not climbing how I feel like I should be, I’m able to step back and look at it a little more objectively.”


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Between September 2020 and August 2021, Matt Fultz had one of the most productive 12 months of bouldering an American has ever experienced, sending his first four V16s, numerous V15s, and cementing his place in the U.S. bouldering pantheon. But then, in August, while gunning for the second ascent of Drew Ruana’s Insomniac (V16), he heard that telltale ping! that every boulderer fears.

When I last spoke with him, in November of 2021, Fultz was rehabbing his finger in Idaho and planning to spend the winter training before heading down to Vegas to try Daniel Woods’ Return of the Sleepwalker (V17). But recovering from the injury took longer than anticipated. And Return to the Sleepwalker didn’t go quite according to plan (in our interview below he says he was hobbled by a “mental injury” accrued during his long recovery season). Yet he managed to turn the year around in June by making the FA of Brace for the Cure, a V16 on the Green 45 boulder in Rocky Mountain National Park. Then, in October, he made the second ascent of Moonlight Sonata (V16), Taylor McNeil’s technical masterpiece in Joe’s Valley.

For those keeping score, that brings his V16 count up to six.

Earlier this month, Fultz and I caught up to chat about his season—and also about grades, about how to structure board sessions, about in-season strength training, and—of course—about how Fultz measures progress and stays confident when spending 20+ days on a single boulder.

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Being a “Productive” Athlete

Climbing: Last time we talked you were recovering from a finger injury. I know you’ve had a bunch of these over your career, and I was wondering: Have they been different?

Fultz: I mean, they’re always in a different spot, but the warning signs are always there, and I just choose to ignore them. I’m trying to learn from that. It always starts out with a tweak; then there are like two or three weeks of it feeling okay on some days and bad some other days; and that there’s a pop. This one was tough to come back from. I hurt it in August 2021, and it was only really by the end of this last spring [2022] that I started climbing well again.

Climbing: The current medical recommendations are that you continue moving a tweaked finger, that you keep climbing on it, but I personally never know how not to overdo it.

Fultz:  Yeah, that’s what’s happened to me. I try to decrease my volume when I have a tweak, but eventually, as it starts feeling more comfortable, I start to push it, and sometimes that works out and sometimes it doesn’t. That’s what happened last year. I had just taken a couple rest days, and I was like, “I feel pretty good today. The weather’s good. I think I’ll go for it.” And it didn’t work out. It’s actually embarrassing since I coach climbers, and sometimes I have to coach them through tweaks, which means I give advice that I can’t always heed myself. It’s easier said than done for sure.

Climbing: I guess that’s the advantage of having that coach, right? The people you coach benefit from having a second voice in their head.

Fultz: Yeah, exactly. I mean, I have my voice in my head, but…

 

Climbing: On the Struggle Climbing Podcast you recently said something super interesting about how, when you get injured, you feel the classic despair that all climbers feel, but you also feel like you’re letting down the companies who support you. I think it’s pretty easy for non-pros to overlook that element of the professional climbing life.

Fultz: I take production pretty seriously, so this year has been tough. After coming back from my injury, I went straight to trying very limit—or even beyond limit—boulders: Return to the Sleepwalker and then Moonlight Sonata. And that was pretty tough mentally, because not only was I coming back from an injury, but because I was not coming back and what I felt was a productive way. If I could do it over again, I would have gotten some sub-limit problems under my belt. It was tough mentally to have so much failure—or what felt to me like failure—in the first half of the year. It was mostly disappointing for myself, but there is that extra layer of like “Man, I’ve got these companies who’re relying on me.” I take that obligation seriously: I want to be producing and giving them the content that they want. And at the same time I just personally want to be a productive athlete.

Climbing: You want to be good at your job.

Fultz: [Laughs]. Yes. Absolutely.

Climbing: What was your reason for going straight to Return to the Sleepwalker?

Fultz: I was mostly just excited to go climb on the problem. I wasn’t expecting to just smash it. I was expecting to go and have fun and try really hard, and that is what I did. So it was a healthy mindset in one sense. I had had a pretty good round of training [before it], and physically I felt good and strong and healthy, but I think I also had a mental injury. My confidence was pretty shot. I wasn’t climbing aggressively. So I should have relearned that aspect of things before trying boulders that were that hard for me.

Climbing: What does having low confidence feel like for you?

Fultz: I think I forget about the top. I’m just going out and enjoying myself, working moves, but I forget that I want to send boulders instead of just holding positions, so I don’t really ever enter a flow state. I was on a road trip two months straight this spring, and I don’t think I even once sat below a start hold, breathing, getting ready for a send go. Not once. I think it was all just like, “Let’s try and do this section today.”

Climbing: So if you could do another cycle on Return to the Sleepwalker again, you would have done a bunch of prep boulders first?

Fultz: That’s the exact word I would use: “cycle.” I think that the cycle is important. You spend a period of time projecting, and when you see some diminishing returns there, it’s time to regroup, refocus, and get some sends in. That volume is good for the confidence, but it’s also good for the body. For me, personally, those cycles are mentally important. I want to log boulders. I want to get in there and log some stuff. Because that always feels good.

Climbing: What’s the most time you’ve spent on a problem?

Fultz: Definitely over 20 days. I know I spent 20+ days on Warpath, which was my first V14. I may have put 20 days on Hypnotized Minds. But I have no problem spending more time than that, which is good to know. It’s nice to be able to go to a problem and not be able to complete any moves on the first day but still have the confidence to go back. But I’ve been in that position before, where I’ve gone and I gotten my ass kicked, so I know that if I keep coming back and keep learning, then eventually something happens. Something clicks.

Climbing: I think most people imagine that long-term projecting is just dealing with constant failure. How do you view it? 

Fultz: Yeah, well, it’s kind of fun when you’re projecting. Sometimes making a new link is more satisfying than sending yet another sub-max problem. I can get super psyched when I link four moves in a row that I’ve never linked before—it’s almost like I’ve sent something. Also, unlocking those little pieces, finally realizing that I can actually frickin’ do the problem—that flip of the switch is one of the best feelings in bouldering for me.

Matt Fultz on Sleepwalker (V16) in Red Rocks
Matt Fultz on Sleepwalker (V16) in Red Rocks (Photo: Hailey Franklin Fultz)
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Moonlight Sonata

Climbing: How did Moonlight Sonata feel? I know you had a strange experience on it.

Fultz:  Yeah, I did. I first tried it last spring, maybe seven or eight sessions over two and a half weeks, but on my first day I did all the moves quickly. In fact, I flashed most of the moves. And on a problem that hard, I never do that. So I was super psyched. I was like “I’m going to do this thing. And maybe I’ll do it today.” But it regressed from there. I found that the crux was actually the hand moves; it was the foot moves and the transitions, which isn’t often the case. You’re climbing the left side of a 90-degree corner, but there are holds a couple feet back on the right side—and they’re totally blind. Most tries I would do the first two or three moves, then my foot would just be searching, and eventually I’d either slip off or step off because I couldn’t find the foot. I tried all sorts of things. Hailey and I worked on directional commands, but it wasn’t working super well. And things like reference points weren’t working either. I tried tick marks. I tried putting a tick mark on the wall and another one on my shin with the idea that if the tick on my shin lined up against the tick on the wall my foot should be exactly on the foothold—and that worked okay, but not great, and I ended up abandoning that tactic. In the end it was muscle memory. Just teaching my foot to know where the holds were.

Climbing: So you didn’t do it during that first trip.

Fultz: No. I came home, trained a bit, and then we went to Colorado, which is when I did Brace for the Cure. Then I went back to Joe’s at the end of October. It was a really short trip, just to see if it was worth putting more time into. And it felt good. I had three sessions, and I got really close on the third session, like heartbreakingly close, but then I had to come home. So I planned a trip back, giving myself a week. Luckily I did it third try on the first day. Which was nice. I got to have a free week in Joe’s. Log some more boulders.

Matt Fultz on Taylor McNeil’s Moonlight Sonata (V16). “I think that it totally deserves the grade,” he says.

Climbing: I know Taylor [McNeil] had a lot of trouble doing that campus move from the ground. Was crux for you?

Fultz: It was a crux for me but not the crux. I stuck the campus my fifth time getting there from the ground, and I didn’t fall after I stuck it. 99% of the time I came off on the foot transition in the middle. It was super frustrating. I remember once saying to Hailey, “It’d be nice to actually fall off this boulder,” because so often I was just stuck hanging in position unable to find where I needed to be.

Climbing: When you’re climbing something like Grand Illusion you’re falling off because you’re pumped or because the moves are hard. How does Moonlight Sonata feel, difficulty wise? Did it end up feeling hard or just finicky and weird?

Fultz: I think that it totally deserves the grade. It’s about how difficult the problem is to do. And for me, for my skills and my body, it was more difficult to do than Sleepwalker.

Climbing: How do you deal with regression, where you’re having to change your imagination of how your future relates to the boulder?

Fultz: One of my strengths, I think, is that I have good grace for myself. When I regress, or if I’m not climbing how I feel like I should be, I’m able to step back and look at it a little more objectively—or at least I’d like to think I do. So it’s one of those things where if I have a few sessions of regression, I’ll be like “Well, maybe I need to finish my chapter on this problem for now. I’ll go home and train or I’ll focus on a different problem.” For now. But those problems are always dog-eared. I never give up on problems.

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Brace for the Cure

Climbing: Tell me about Brace for the Cure? I’ve got to say, it’s sort of mind boggling to me that that problem exists. I was a beginner climber when those early videos of Daniel Woods and Ty Landman and Paul Robinson came out. And back then Jade was considered the hardest problem in the country, or one of them. So it’s amazing to think that it’s now just a piece of a longer link. What was your process like?

Fultz: It was actually pretty long. In 2019 I was up there trying Blade Runner, a V15 on the other end of the face, and one day I looked over and was like, “Man, that would be insane to do the Jade move and then link it over into the V10 in the middle of the wall.” It looked like a heinous toss-and-cross move. So I decided to mess around on it. I don’t think I did the moves, but they actually felt possible, so I got really psyched, and when I sent Blade Runner the next year, I dove all-in on the Jade link. I had a really close go in 2020, where I fell on the last move, which might be the repoint crux. But then it snowed and shut down Upper Chaos for the year.

The next year [2021] we went back up there, but on my first day I didn’t climb well on it. The Jade move took me several tries on its own, and I wasn’t doing the cross consistently, and even the stand felt hard. And it was disappointing because I felt strong at the time. But we were planning to be in Colorado for like two months, so I decided to train for a week and a half, deload a little bit on other problems, and then come back. But then, when I was training on a board, that’s when my finger started feeling weird. Then I went outside, and it was feeling worse and worse, and then I got injured on Insomniac. So last year I only got one day on Brace for the Cure.

This past summer it took me three more sessions. But everything felt much better. The holds felt bigger. I felt stronger. I was doing the Jade move pretty consistently on the first day. And I was happy it came together when it did; I actually sent it the day before the giant rock slide shut down Upper Chaos and the Green 45. I assume the boulder is OK, but it was closed the rest of the year. I was very happy to sneak that one out, unknowingly, on my last try of that day.

 

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Climbing: What do you think the difference was between the two years? Last year you were on a roll when you showed up to that boulder, and yet you didn’t feel great, but this year, coming back, you hadn’t seen much success but felt good. Was it a difference in preparation or were you a little less tired?

Fultz: Dude, I don’t freaking know.

Climbing: [Laughs]

Fultz: I think a big part of it was that last year I had been climbing so much and I was tired. That was my rationale for taking a chill week, training a bit, and then coming back to it. But then I hurt my finger. This year I had been climbing a little less, but I trained all through May on my home wall, so I was in great board climbing shape when I went to the problem in June. And Brace for the Cure is very much a board problem. So I think those factors were helpful. I was more rested. I was more prepared for board climbing.

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Training

Climbing:  How steep is your board?

Fultz: It’s a 45. I think that’s a good angle. It’s 8’ by 12, so just three panels. I probably have 200 holds on there, and a hundred boulders set right now.

Climbing: Do you keep track of the boulders with an app? 

Fultz: I use Boulder Book. I think it’s German. But I probably would have gone with Stokt if I had thought of it.

Climbing: How do you structure your sessions?

Fultz: On the home wall I alternate between project days and volume days. I’ve got my volume circuit, and sometimes I’ll add in some V10s to up my workload for the day. But then I have a list of eight or 10 projects—I try to keep it at 10—that are very doable but will take two or three days to send. And whenever I send one, I set one. So I always have that project list, but I’ve got my volume list too. It’s nice to alternate.

Matt Fultz working on “The Big Z,” an unrepeated V16 in Tahoe established by Shawn Raboutou. (Photo: Hailey Franklin Fultz)

Climbing: You’re on the bigger side for top end boulders, and yet you’ve done some of the crimpiest climbs out there, like Brace for the Cure and Hypnotized Minds. Have fingery climbs always been a forte? Or is that something that you’ve had to consciously develop?

Fultz: I’m not really sure. I know that growing up I always admired climbers who were good crimpers. To me that’s what climbing is: grabbing really small holds and doing powerful moves on them. People like Daniel Woods, Dave Graham, they’re incredible crimpers, and I grew up emulating them. What really got me psyched was powerful moves on small crimps. It’s not that I hate slopers and pinches, I like those too, but there’s nothing purer than just grabbing something small and climbing powerfully off of it.

Climbing:  How is Off the Ground Strength going?

Fultz: It’s been great. We’re having a lot of fun with our clients. We’re seasonal. We always get a big boost like in January, when things start shutting down and a lot of the country is getting too cold. Then we get a big boost in June, when things are getting too warm and people are psyched to get into the gym and train hard. Fall is usually more of an off period for us, which is understandable. Climbers are out there taking advantage of the weather; they don’t want to spend their time training; and all I can say is “Good, that’s what you should be doing. We’ve been training all summer and now you should be getting out and climbing hard.” 

But I have put together in-season training programs. The idea there is to extend your performance through the season. Personally, I find that if I’m just climbing outside and not doing my cross training, I can last like three weeks, maybe a month, before I start feeling my fitness diminish. So I’ve found that it’s helpful to cross train throughout the performance season. Obviously, it looks different than a full-on training cycle. Your duration, frequency, and intensity decrease. But you can find a good balance, and I think a lot of clients have been enjoying that.

Climbing:  How many clients do you work with these days?

Fultz: We have 75 slots. Typically, in the dead of winter and summer, we have a waiting list. But right now, we have some openings, no wait list.

Check out OTG Strength here.

Climbing: What does your in-season cross-training look like?

Fultz: I like weight training for mobility work. I do things like overhead press, deadlifts, squats, and bench press before climbing. And then I’ll also add in some hangs and no hangs, simple repeaters. I’m not trying to get too fatigued, but it’s nice to make sure that your fingers are staying healthy and durable. If you have a day in the gym, then it’s usually low intensity because we’re reserving our project days for outdoor days. You’re climbing on the commercial set, or on easier board problems, focusing more on movement. So, yeah, those are my main principles for in-season cross-training.

Climbing:  Do you do double sessions where you’ll climb outside in the morning and then do a gym session in the evening?

Fultz: I don’t. It works for some people, but it doesn’t work well for me. The closest I get, and I do this pretty much every session, is I’ll do my lifting as part of my off-the-wall warm-up. So I’ll do my dynamic warm up, and then I’ll do my lighter performance season lifting, and I’ll do some hangs, and then I’ll go climbing.

Climbing: I loved that recent Tension video about you revisiting your old climbs in Swan Falls, Idaho. Can you just describe the climbing there and your history with it?

Fultz: Yeah, Hailey and I recently moved back to Boise and bought a home here. Our families live here, but there’s also great local bouldering. Swan Falls is pretty unique because there’s so much rock and it’s all good quality. The issue is the height; a lot of them are pretty small—that’s the only thing keeping it from being a Hueco. There are FA’s everywhere; so it’s a nice creative outlet. And it’s cool to be able to check back in on old problems. I did Power Man, my first V8, when I was 12, and now I’m 31. I’ve done it like 10 times since then, but every time it’s a fun new experience; and every time it feels a little easier. And now that I’m getting older, it’s an area that I can’t wait to share with my future kids. I hope more people will come and visit and explore and have the kinds of experiences that I’ve gotten to have there.