It’s a long way down…

20368725_10155580963304136_3073688323523980831_o“The next time someone says to me ‘oh, it’s not hard, it’s just sustained’, I think I’m going to punch them in the teeth” – Steve, 3rd belay point.

Well, we did it! It took longer than we were expecting, and it wasn’t pretty. There were a few belay change overs that… let’s just say, nobody should ever see that footage.

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Although we were careful to make sure everything was safe, and backed up – it certainly got messy in places.

“Hang on, you need to be round this side of me before you can start climbing…”
“Can I come round behind you?”
“Er, no, that sling isn’t long enough”
“What about if I go under the rope”
“Hold on… the rope’s twisted round your sling there and my up rope is on the wrong side of my anchor…”
“Aargh, my feet are slipping; I wish there was a bit more space here…”

I took a bit of a fall on the third pitch – I fumbled a foot switch, and my foot slipped off the hold. I tried to readjust, but a second later lost my grip on the handhold. The clip was a few metres below me, so I probably only fell about 6 metres before the rope caught me – but it felt further. I had to take a couple of minutes for my legs to stop shaking after that, but in fact it was probably a good thing that it happened.

With this kind of climbing, falling off isn’t the biggest problem – it’s the fear of falling that messes you up. Being afraid to go for the next move because you might fall off if you don’t stick it is paralysing. If you hesitate too long, you wear yourself out just holding on. The crucial thing is knowing that it’s ok to fall off, to make mistakes – knowing that you can trust your partner, and the equipment, and your set up. A fall onto the rope gives you confidence that when you do make a mistake, you won’t die. And getting to the top without dying was the object of the exercise here.

We took a few videos while we were up there – this one is from close to the top. (There’s a few more on my Facebook page, and there may be some action shots from our GoPro cameras as well once we go through it all.)

We had a few anxious moments around that point. By the time we got here, we’d been on the wall for over four hours. Only some of that was the actual climbing; much of it was sorting out the gear, and making sure we had everything in the right place, but the stress is cumulative. We’d become tense and irritable and paranoid about dropping things; shoes especially. Climbing shoes are really tight (by design), and become painful if you keep them on for too long. It made sense to take them off while we weren’t climbing to give our feet a rest – but if we dropped them we’d be up…. well, a bloody big wall without a climbing shoe.

The top of third pitch is the point of no return; past that point, you can’t abseil down safely (at least, not without a longer rope, which we didn’t have). That means the only way off the wall is to climb it. Which we eventually did…

Hopping over the railing at the top, and being greeted casually in German by an elderly Swiss couple taking a stroll was a slightly surreal moment! We stopped for a coffee in the restaurant at the top, and then took our time wandering back down the valley to the car.20170727_103846

Back at the bottom of the dam, we lay in the grass in the sunshine, looked up at it and promised ourselves “never again”. (Less than a week later, we’re already talking about the next trip…).

And then, for the perfect, unexpected, finish to a memorable day… Steve asked me if I’d marry him. Perhaps it was all the adrenaline, or maybe I’d got some chalk in my eyes, but I might have got just a teeny bit weepy.

I think we make a good team – and I’m looking forward to a lifetime of adventures together.

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(For those who have asked – yes, there’s still time to sponsor us in aid of the mental health charity Mind. In my last blog post, I wrote about why this something that’s important to me – any contributions to our Just Giving page are very much appreciated.)

Dam(n)!

20170726_194116After flying in to Milan airport this morning and then driving up to Luzzone, we got our first look at the dam this evening. This is what we intend to climb tomorrow (although if the weather isn’t good, or anything doesn’t go to plan, we’ve left Friday as our backup).

I’ve been meaning to write a bit about why, out of all the charities I could have chosen, I wanted to raise money for Mind. I’ve been putting this off I suppose, because it’s not an easy blog to write – but this seems as good a time as any. It’s late, and we’ve got a big day tomorrow, so I’ll be brief.

I don’t talk about it often, but depression is something I’ve struggled with on and off over the years, since being a teenager. Back then, I didn’t understand what was going on, and didn’t have the words to explain it to anyone else, or even to know how to ask for help. Because it’s invisible and there’s no obvious physical injury, and because it often just seems to make no sense, it can be hard for others to empathise, and harder still to know how to help. I still have a few scars from some early, desperate, clumsy attempts to communicate the un-sayable; and I know it’s not been easy for the people around me. Being depressed, from the inside, can seem a bit like playing Japanese binocular football (if you’ve never heard of this – check it out. I promise it’s worth it). It makes it really difficult to do even simple things right, but people watching from outside can’t understand why you’re having trouble; to a casual observer you just look like an idiot.

I used to joke that “normal, well adjusted people don’t become professional mixed martial arts fighters”. While there may be an element of truth in that, I was definitely speaking more for myself than anyone else. MMA was one of the ways I found to deal with things; in hindsight I think it hurt and helped in roughly equal measure. While it taught me some valuable psychological skills – it was also a way of hiding. A fight is a great way to take your mind off things closer to home; but it doesn’t make them go away, it just kicks them a bit further down the road.

Over time20170727_001806, though, my demons and I have gradually come to an understanding. They’re not tamed, exactly – they still get out of their box now and then and chew the furniture – but they’re generally under control. I’m fortunate to have an amazing partner who understands, and a good support network around me. I’ve figured out the things that work for me, and how to manage the occasional relapses. I have far more good days than bad days. Life is good.

It hasn’t always been that way though; and I know that many people out there are not so fortunate. Mind does some fantastic work when it comes to supporting people with mental health issues and their loved ones, providing education and raising awareness.

I wanted to do something big to celebrate my 40th birthday this year. It feels like a good milestone on the journey, and an opportunity to raise money for a cause that’s important to me. Climbing Luzzone Dam seemed like an apt metaphor, somehow – it captured our imagination. If you’re able to make a donation, it would mean a lot.

https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/rosi-sexton1

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Nearly time…

Just a few days left before we fly out to Switzerland for the assault on the dam…. so here’s a little of what we’ve been up to over the last few weeks.

20170702_142529Aside from our regular sessions at the local climbing wall, where we’ve been climbing lots of laps for endurance, we’ve also made a few trips outdoors to work on our skills and “head game”. As competent, but not particularly experienced, climbers one of the biggest challenges with this climb is that – well, it’s just so bloody big. At least, compared to anything we’ve climbed before. Addressing the fitness needed for that is one thing – but trying to prepare ourselves for how it’ll feel 100 metres up is a whole other thing entirely.

At the beginning of July, we headed up to Roktface, the UK’s tallest climbing wall. We wanted to get a feel for what a 36 metre pitch felt like (hint: it’s not the same as 12 metres three times!). A side effect of having done that is now, every climbing wall we go to looks small by comparison. I think this is a good sign.IMG_20170701_1759388

Then on 15/16th we headed up to Horseshoe Quarry for another weekend of climbing. Last time I was here, I was quite new to climbing outdoors and took a big fall I wasn’t expecting – no damage done (the rope did its job), but it shook my confidence pretty badly. So it was nice to find that after a couple of years’ more experience the place was less intimidating than I remembered it.

Our main goal for the weekend was to practise some multi-pitch routes. One of the skills we need to have nailed down for this week’s big event is the process of tying into an anchor point and setting up a belay station so the other person can then climb up safely. It isn’t something you want to be trying to figure out from scratch 35 metres off the ground! We’d run through the process a lot of times in the living room, but that’s not quite the same as doing it live – so Saturday was all about drilling it on some real rock.

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We’re still at the stage of having to triple check everything really carefully to make sure we’re doing all the steps in the right order, so this process involved a little bit of actual climbing and a lot of time spent getting the bits of gear in the right place and the knots round the right way – or standing around while the other person did the same thing halfway up the cliff above, while desperately hoping that they’re not making a horrible mistake. Trust is a big thing in this game!

20170716_092619Sunday 16th was my birthday. There’s nothing like waking up on your 40th in the back of a van, with a couple of sheep trying to headbutt their way in to make you re-evaluate your life choices. Having done so, I think I’m rather pleased with mine.

Back to Horseshoe quarry to have a bit of fun on a few harder routes. Got some good climbs, and fell off a few times; one of the joys of real rock compared to artificial climbing walls is the knowledge that the bit of the cliff you want to hold onto may just come away in your hand. Climbing partners always love it when you throw rocks at them from 20 metres up – it makes the otherwise fairly dull job of holding the rope far more exciting.

20170722_161349Finally, last weekend we headed down to Portland with some friends. This was more of a fun outing for the kids – this close to the trip we only climbed a handful of routes and didn’t do a lot of serious training ourselves; but despite the patchy weather, a lot of fun was had.

So… that’s it, folks. We’re off on Wednesday! We’re hoping that the climb itself will be either Thursday or Friday, depending on the weather. I’ll be posting a bit more over the week, including some shots of the dam when we get our first look at it, and a bit more about why Mind is a charity close to our hearts. For those of you who are in a position to sponsor us, any contributions are very much appreciated; you can follow more about our progress on our Just Giving page.

Training update – Luzzone Dam trip!

With the end of July approaching fast, things haven’t gone quite as smoothly as I’d have liked. Business has been hectic these last few weeks (I’m not complaining – please don’t stop booking in to see me!), but it’s meant a slow start to the training plan.

I got up to Awesome Walls in Stockport a couple of weeks ago, and caught up with a friend there for a few routes. The back wall there is 23m – a full 10 metres short of each pitch on the Luzzone Dam, but still a fair distance. A couple of climbs in, I was already struggling to feel my fingers. It turns out that climbing 33 metres is really not the same as climbing 11 metres three times – a fact I seem determined to keep forgetting. My endurance is definitely going to need some work.

Last week, we were down at Redpoint Worcester for another evening session. I can’t remember exactly how many routes we climbed, but it must have been a few, because I managed to take several chunks of skin off my hands.  Just as well I don’t need those for work or anything… (oh, wait…). Some days, I swear I’m held together mostly by stubbornness and sticky tape.

Then at the weekend, we managed to get outdoors with a few friends down in the Wye Valley. We had the kids with us too, so it wasn’t an opportunity for lots of serious climbing, but everyone had fun.

We’re definitely looking to up the pace over the next few weeks, though, both with the training and our fundraising efforts. To support us, visit our Just Giving page here, or help by spreading the word.

The tallest climbing wall in the world

Diga_LuzzoneI know things have been a bit quiet round here. I’ve been meaning to reboot this personal blog for a while, but now I have a good reason to. I’m mostly keeping a record so that in a few months time, when I’m inevitably wondering “why on earth did I let myself get talked into this?” I’ll have a reminder.

It started with a conversation with Steve about my birthday.

“We should do something for your 40th this summer.”
“Uh, ok…. what do you reckon? We could go climbing? We do that all the time though.”
“What about a really big climb?”

Luzzone Dam features the tallest artificial climbing wall in the world. Someone has bolted climbing holds to the face, making a route that’s 165 metres high in total – that’s just a bit taller than Blackpool tower, one and three quarters Statues of Liberty, or 11/20ths of an Eiffel Tower.

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“We’re going to need some more gear…”

Well, it’s one way to celebrate a birthday! We started putting together a plan. We’re going to do it to raise money for Mind UK, the mental health charity. It’s a cause that means a lot to me – for reasons that I’ll explain in a future blog. (If you’d like to support us, then please visit our Just Giving page – all contributions greatly appreciated.)

Before committing to it, though, we decided to have a go at covering the distance to see how it felt, and to figure out just how much training we’re going to have to do before the end of July. So on bank holiday Monday we headed down to the local climbing wall to try a “mock up” of the climb. The Luzzone dam route goes from a slight incline, through to vertical, and then becomes overhanging at the top, so we picked ourselves some routes of a similar difficulty level to mimic this. 15 laps of the wall later and, forearms burning, it starts to dawn on me that this is not going to be any kind of walk in the park. In three months time, we’re going to have to be climbing harder routes, with less rest, carrying more gear. Not to mention the psychological factor – however many times I tell myself that being higher up actually makes you safer (less chance of hitting the ground if something goes wrong), it never quite feels like that when you’re 100 metres up on an overhang. Still, it’s a project. I like projects…

Tuesday night, we were still pretty tired when we got to our regular bouldering session. Steve and I managed some easy-ish circuits for endurance; meanwhile Monkey-Boy (who’s not coming with us on this trip, although he’d like to) was busy showing off on an eye-wateringly hard problem that was exhausting just to watch.

I’m planning to post some updates over the next few months about how training is going and the trip itself (which is planned for the end of July; the exact date will depend on weather conditions). We’re hoping to be able to video the climb for our supporters (we know the rules – video, or it didn’t happen!), and perhaps even provide a live stream if we can get the technical details sorted. Any help on that front would be appreciated!

The ultimate guide to preventing and treating MMA injuries

20160825_171514When I was offered a review copy of this book by Jonathan Gelber, M.D., I was skeptical; I’ve seen popular books on sports medicine done very badly in the past. I was keen to see how Gelber had approached it, though, so I agreed to take a look.

The book covers a wide range of topics, ranging from concussion and head injury, joint problems, skin infections, cuts and lacerations, and training advice for prolonging a fighter’s career. It’s aimed at those without a medical background and includes numerous quotes from fighters, stories and examples of scenarios drawn from MMA history that show that the author has certainly done his homework. Gelber’s experience within MMA is evident, and the advice he gives mostly consists of sensible best practice guidelines for numerous different issues, along with some rehabilitation and injury prevention exercises.
No book is a substitute for individual medical advice from a professional, of course; and while there’s plenty of useful information, it’s important not to apply it without a proper diagnosis, and to be aware that in places it only scratches the surface in many places (the sections on weight cutting and PEDs, for example, explain some of the dangers, but are a little thin on practical advice that a fighter can implement). This is inevitable in a book of this nature that’s aimed at the non-specialist reader, though. If you already know a fair bit about sports medicine you’ll find it a little basic, but the stories and anecdotes add plenty of interesting context that make it a worthwhile read.
On balance, I liked it. This is an excellent book for fighters and especially coaches looking to educate themselves about the medical aspects of MMA. It’s succinct, easily readable and gives a good starting point for a reader who wants to look further into any of these topics.

Life after fighting

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Two years ago, I retired from MMA competition. My last fight was on Cage Warriors against now UFC champion Joanna Jędrzejczyk. I knew at the time that it was probably going to be my last outing; after 12 years in the sport, it was time to move on and do other things.

2016 has seen both the return of Cage Warriors to the UK, and TUF23 pitting Jedrzejczyk against Claudia Gadelha as the first pair of coaches from the women’s 115 lbs division. Three English women competed – Kate Jackson, Lanchana Green and Helen Harper. It’s a good time for European and women’s MMA, and it seems a good time to reflect on life after fighting.

As far as the MMA world is concerned, retirement is the end of the book. What happens after a fighter hangs up their gloves is something that we don’t generally give a lot thought to – often including the fighters themselves. An MMA career is a story in its own right, with its highs and lows, and we may forget that it’s just a chapter in something larger. Perhaps this is one of the reasons athletes find retirement so difficult; it’s seductive to keep chasing after that Hollywood ending (the one where we make another comeback, win a world title, and go out on a high) long after it makes any sense, because that’s how we want the story to finish.

In reality, though, the book doesn’t end there. Every fighter however famous or successful will, sooner or later, experience the point in their life when the cameras stop rolling, and the fans move on – but life continues regardless. There are still blank pages to be filled, whether we’ve thought about it or not.

“Do you miss fighting?”

I’m asked this question often, and yes, I do – all the time. There’s certainly plenty I don’t miss about the fight world. I don’t miss the politics of MMA, or trying to balance fighting and making a living, or sacrificing time with friends and family, missing out on celebrations and holidays. I don’t miss feeling constantly sore and exhausted from training, worrying about injuries, or having to train through pain when my body’s telling me to rest. But despite all that, there’s something about competing in MMA that nothing will ever quite replace for me.

I miss being in the gym with my team mates every day, being part of that team effort, and the sense of family that goes along with that. I miss the excitement of having a big fight coming up, the drive to train harder, being pushed to the limits of what I can do, and realising that I’m capable of more than I imagined. I miss the intensity of competition, the feeling just before a fight when everything is sharp and bright and I’m truly alive.

We find pieces of that in other places. Many former fighters coach, which brings its own unique rewards as well as being a substitute for what we miss. I still train jiu-jitsu, and have plans to start doing some grappling competitions again; it’s not all-consuming for me in the same way that MMA was, but it’s easier to balance with a career and family. Leaving the world of professional fighting behind has meant re-evaluating my relationship with the sport that consumed so much of my life, and looking again at what I love about it now that I’m away from the distraction of the big shows and fans and the media. I’m training for the sake of training, and not because I’ve got a fight coming up. This involves a whole different mindset that still seems alien at times.

The last couple of years have given me the opportunity to focus on some other things. Life is all about trade-offs. We have only a limited time on this planet, and there’s a lot to see and do in that time. Doing one thing to a high level means making sacrifices and giving up opportunities elsewhere. There’s a time for that, certainly, and I’m glad that I did; but I’m taking the chance now to explore other sports and learn some new skills. I’ve started climbing: there’s something about getting to the top of a hard route that I’ve been working on or being out on the rock, halfway up a cliff face, that pushes some of those same buttons that fighting once did. It’s not the same, of course, but it’s opened my eyes to a whole new set of challenges.

As a fighter, it’s easy to put off things that are important in the long term, but not as immediately attention grabbing as that fight coming up. Finances, long term plans, investing in the future – the boring stuff. Fighters are really good at delaying gratification, as long as it’s on an eight week schedule. Anything happening after fight day was on “the other side”; it might as well have been the distant future. Over the last few years of my fight career, I became aware of a growing list of things that I was avoiding dealing with: some practical, some personal. Perhaps, in a sense, being a professional fighter had become a way of running away. You can only postpone the future for so long, though, before it catches up with you.

Fighting is inherently a selfish pursuit – it has to be. It means focusing on what you need to do, putting your training and preparation first at times when you’d rather not. The sacrifices we make inevitably affect the people around us, and put a strain on families, relationships and friendships. It feels good, now, to be able to skip training sometimes and spend time with my partner instead, or to go and watch my son play football. I’m enjoying spending weekends with my family, or outdoors falling off a bit of rock instead of in a gym, sports hall or arena.

The relative stability since I stopped competing has been good for me, but even after two years I’m still adjusting to it. Fighting is about negotiating a series of crises; and to quote Chekhov “any fool can handle a crisis, it’s the day to day living that wears you out”. Fighting can be stressful, but that kind of stress is balanced by the simplicity of having a single minded focus. Get up, eat, go training; day to day decisions comes down to “will this help me win the fight?”. Everything centers around that one goal, and other stresses fade into the background. It’s tough, but simple; the sort of stress that comes in a definite form, with a straightforward plan of action: train until you’re too tired to worry about it, sleep, then train some more. Getting things done without the pressure of a fight to concentrate my mind is a skill I’m now having to work at; it turns out that after a decade of lurching from one adrenaline spike to the next, adapting to a more comfortable and sustainable routine doesn’t always come naturally.

I knew when I retired from MMA competition that I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life looking backwards. It was a chapter of my life; one that I’m proud of, and that I learned a great deal from – but  I’m keen not to define myself by what I’ve done in the past. Part of the challenge of building a career away from the sport has been letting go, not clinging too tightly to what was or what might have been, but looking to what lies ahead. I’m fortunate to have a job that I love, that allows me to continue working with fighters and athletes as well as the general public. I’ve got a great relationship and family, I’m in the process of building a business and I’ve got plans that I’m excited about for the future. Life is good.

I know that this makes me one of the lucky ones. Being a professional MMA fighter is taking a gamble; however talented you are and however hard you work, there are no guarantees. For every fighter who is successful and walks away on their own terms, there are many, many more who sacrifice careers, relationships and physical health to the sport only to be left with little more than memories to show for it. Few MMA fighters get into the sport primarily for the money (there are certainly easier ways to earn it). We’re caught up in the adventure; young enough to feel that we’re indestructible and have all the time in the world – and it’s all too easy not to notice the other opportunities slipping by until it’s too late.

I think it’s helpful to look at a professional MMA career for what it is – a short segment of our lives, not all of who we are. If I were to offer any advice to someone starting out in the sport, it would be to put your heart and soul into it, for sure – more so, because you have a limited time to do it – but give some thought to what comes afterwards. Don’t neglect life outside fighting, because one day you’ll need it.

“To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven.” – Ecclesiastes