INTERVIEW: Leah Crane - Back on the Podium?by Duncan Campbell, Jack Geldard & Holly Bean Jun/2014
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Leah Crane is one of Britain's top competition climbers. She won the British Bouldering Championships in 2009 and 2010 and before this year's World Cup Season began she was ranked 13th in the world, with a best result of 7th place (just missing out on the finals) in the World Cup at Millau, France in 2013.
Leah started climbing aged three with her brother on a family camp with Scouts at Brassington Rock in Derbyshire, then at just five years old she joined the kids' club at Nottingham Climbing Centre. Aged seven Leah hit the competition scene (the BRYCCS), which she won the first two years she competed.
But it's not all plastic pulling: On the real boulders Leah has climbed in the high 7s in both the UK and Spain, highlights include Ben's Roof, 7C+ at Raven Tor and a new problem in Albarracin called A muerte, A muerte, which she graded 8A. On the crags Leah's hardest sport redpoint is 8a+ with an ascent of one of the steep bouldery limestone sport routes at Murla in Spain's Costa Blanca.
So you are currently in the UK, from what I understand this is pretty novel for you this year! Tell us about where 2014 has taken you so far?
Leah: 2014 started off pretty busy for me. Straight after Christmas I flew to Catalunya, after climbing there for two weeks, I flew home, had one day to repack before I flew out of Heathrow, destination; Vietnam! This was a week’s DWS trip with Neil Gresham and if any of you reading this know me...
I'm not the biggest fan of the creatures in the sea! This trip was definitely a test of bravery! From there I had one more day to repack and it was time to fly out to Germany for the annual ISPO trade show at which I was present on the Marmot stand as part of their athlete team and also technical rep. So in January I had a total of three nights at home!
Have you climbed much in Catalunya before? Are there particular areas that you prefer?
Leah: My trip to Catalunya this year was my first and I can't believe it has taken me this long to get there! I was in love straight away. The pockets in Margalef are brutal on your skin but make for moves that really suit my gymnastic style. Down in the valley there is a sector called ‘El Laboratori’, this is my haven. The steepest, most bouldery routes you can imagine. Safe to say I have a project here, and one I'm going back for next month!
Tell us a bit more about Vietnam, quite a change from Catalunya. How did you find the DWS?
Leah: Vietnam... I probably won't be going back there in a hurry. It's a beautiful place to go and very surreal; sailing by all the floating fishing villages out at sea (this is where we bought fish and got all our supplies), fishing for squid at night and waking up to a sunrise in perfectly flat water. Vietnam was a massive head game for me and quite stressful, the climber in me wanting to push on but my comfort pulling me back. The highlight of the trip was doing one of Neil's 7c's in the Ho Chi Min cave. An absolutely stunning line that climbs out of a cave and traces the lip to the top. Jumping off was NOT the fun part!
So, how would you describe yourself as a climber?
Leah: At the moment I feel that my time is precious, and I am still working out how to use it most effectively. My work for Marmot as a technical rep is great because it really flexible except for certain times when new ranges are being launched and I have to do stints of work. I also end up travelling around Europe a lot which is great because it brings up other opportunities to climb. But to actually invest a decent amount of time into one particular route or area I find difficult to do, and my climbing time often feels disjointed. I find it frustrating that I can't focus on a route or problem, I try it but then I have to leave it and come back, I don't feel like I am achieving what I want to sometimes.
This is why competitions work well for me, it's there for one day and it won't be there the next day. So now I've had this job for a year, I'm learning how to harness time given to me but also deal with the sometimes disjointed nature of that time.
From an early age you have been successful in competitions, was it just the winning that attracted you to competitions or other elements?
Leah: The whole process of competition in anything, like gymnastics, trampolining, swimming, climbing was just another thing that I did and I am naturally very competitive. Even if we went to the park to play rounders with my friends - I wanted to win!
It was the whole process of competition and having to perform on that particular day, if you have a headache then thats tough, they aren't going to stop the competition for you. The success just added to that - I like winning!
You began being coached by Neil Gresham when you were ten, how did that come about?
Leah: One of Neil's ex-girlfriends went to Nottingham Uni, and one day he was having a session at the wall and he saw me trying and trying to do this problem that I just couldn't do. I was doing the full splits trying to reach this hold that was way out of reach for me. I don't remember this, but Neil says that he had never seen someone so determined to do a problem that they were so far off, I really couldn't reach this next hold.
So Neil went and had a word with my parents and said that he'd be in Nottingham next week and asked if he could coach me for a session then. It just developed from there, he would give me training plans , we'd go out climbing in the Peak, I learnt to trad climb with him and he took me on my first sport climbing holiday to Arco, Italy.
Fast-forwarding to when you made the Semi-Finals in Millau, what was that experience like?
Leah: Well it was my first world cup for quite a few years, I had no expectations I just wanted to see how I did. I expected to come last to be honest, but I got through to the Semi-Finals, I thought it might have been a fluke, and so I didn't put any pressure on myself, I just went out to see what the blocs were like, to see if I could do them. It was also frustrating though, I missed out on the final by not being able to get one hold!
Can you remember exactly how it felt walking out of isolation?
Leah: In terms of senses, some are really heightened and some are really dulled. So all I can see is the man I give my scorecard to and the holds on the problem, and I don't really hear anything. People often say "I was screaming for you!", but I never notice anything like that!
So on some of your hardest sends outside, how is the sensory thing different?
Leah: I personally find it really different, just because I don't feel like I'm on an egg-timer. In a competition, every second you spend chalking up or walking around looking at holds, you've lost on actual climbing time. I get really annoyed when I turn to a brusher to ask them to brush the problem and they aren't paying attention because they are using my time! You just don't get that same pressure outside, there is self-imposed pressure once you are climbing, but there is no pressure when you aren't climbing, you can come back whenever to try again.
Come on then, which do you prefer?
Leah: The two are incomparable, just because of the headspace I am in in each. They definitely sit side by side as totally different things, I really like redpoint climbing outside and onsight climbing in competitions. Strangely, I am bad at them the other way round - onsighting outdoors and redpointing indoors!
Do you get the chance to train in a structured way?
Leah: I try and train indoors whenever I can. Recently, I have stopped going to Kendal wall so much and have been going to Eden Rock in Carlisle which is great because it has a massive circuit board, Dan Varian's problems are some of the best I have ever climbed indoors and they have a really good specific training room. So for training pure bouldering strength and power, that is where I go despite it being a 40 minute drive away.
And then Leo Houlding has a small private wall in Stavely which is an endurance venue but with a 40 degree woody with some really hard problems, so you can get really pumped then jump straight on the woody and try a hard boulder problem.
So how much do you climb indoors compared to outside? What's the ratio?
Leah: It depends what is coming up really, this year the World Cup season isn't really happening for me for funding reasons, as last year I was supported by the RAF in return for coaching their climbing team, but they can't do that this year so I haven't done any World Cups, though will be going to the World Championships. I am going to look for a personal sponsor for next season, who would be able to give me some financial support in return for a service I can offer like coaching for example.
If I have a comp coming up like the BBC's, which I want to win this year, I train heavily inside for that. But if I haven't got a competition coming up then I'll try and get outside as much as possible.
Good luck in the BBCs then! And do you have any other goals or projects for 2014?
Leah: My life is very much live in the moment. I'm trying to learn to plan the short term future but I just don't think I'm built that way. It's working for me so I guess why change it! I'm really enjoying life at the minute. I have a good job, a good house which I'm renting with house mate Stu and other half Liam. We go climbing when we can and I get to travel a lot with work. Climbing is obviously very important to me but so is enjoying life. I don't let myself get too bogged down in the next grade or how heavy I am that day.
If someone said to me you are never allowed to climb again I would be upset but I'd also be happy with the time I've had to climb, twenty years is a long time (and I hope it's many more) but being happy is what's important to me. I think climbing and life can be a very fine line sometimes and both seem to have huge impacts on each other. I think it takes a while to be able to separate them. Some people may not need to/want to but I feel it's important to me.
You can watch a great video of Leah climbing at a favourite venue of hers, St. Bees, below: