Monday, June 6, 2011

Forerunning, Part I: Guidelines & Basics

One topic crucial to routesetting that hasn't been very well covered in this blog is forerunning. Forerunning is a hard job. Competitors are prepared, well-rested and psyched, dealing with one problem at a time. Forerunners are often tired, stressed, working on multiple problems or routes near their limit at once. Taking the physical and emotional stresses of comp organization into account, it's easy to see why forerunning can easily devolve into egoism and arguments. Last week I touched briefly on understanding movement difficulty and how it can be used to aid effective communication during forerunning, but I thought we might revisit some of the basics before moving into movement critique.

Super quick - what is forerunning? It's simple - running the route beforehand, to help a setter mold the route to perfection. Forerunners are not always required. Basic gym routes that go up every day at most gyms probably get a few test runs at most; world cup problems might get hours of forerunning, tweaking individual moves over and over. However, even for the simplest 5.7, a forerunner can smooth the edges off a decent route and help shape it into something great.

In my experience, the majority of routesetters could benefit from one main skill: Listen. Whether the person climbing your route is a brand new gumby or an experienced routesetter, listening to their feedback and using it to make adjustments is the biggest tool in your arsenal. If you're the only person running your routes, it's easy to get stuck in a cycle of self-back-patting. If others are running it and you simply refuse to value their input, why bother having them run it at all? Drop the ego and listen to what the climbers have to say.

Quick basics

Communicate clearly. Offer descriptions about which moves feel harder and why, and be specific. Don't cloud the topic - be concise, brief and effective.

Movement is the best language. Sometimes it's better to simply let the setter watch you do the moves, and similarly, sometimes it's better to have the setter try the move to see what the forerunner means. It's a movement oriented sport, and even the most eloquent climber can't explain movement. This has another added side benefit: Movement is universal - on the world stage, your forerunners and setters might not always speak the same spoken language.

Leave your ego at the door. Rampant sandbagging, arguing, or going behind someone's back will only detract from the end result quality of the competition.

Don't offer unsolicited advice. In a hectic comp environment, "poaching" someone's route and then offering criticism can be a great way to piss someone off. Let the setters ask for help, or at least be sure that the route is complete and they want your opinion before you open your mouth.

Know your audience. If the route is for Youth D, climb it for Youth D. Even if you're 6'2". Cut your feet when a Youth D climber would. Don't campus moves that female or youth climbers wouldn't campus. If your gym population struggle with a certain style, take that into account when discussing grade and fairness.

Read, run, review. In that order. Don't run the route without reading it, unless the format specifies it. If you aren't sure, run it again. Don't offer feedback before you try (and preferably complete) the route.

Especially for competitions, routesetting is iterative. A route starts rough, and it is never finished. If you're completely 100% satisfied with a route when it's go time, you a) invested too much time in that route compared to others, b) you are missing something or c) you did an incredibly good job with time and resource management. (Or d) you are missing something. After a while, being completely satisfied with a route just tells me someone is going to skip a move or find a new rest..)

Don't offer problems.

This sounds like (and is) a business cliche, but good communication is good communication. A setter working on problem #4 of 15 for the day doesn't need more work. Instead, try to offer solutions:

"That gaston is way too hard" should be "The fifth move would be more consistent with the rest of the route if you turned that hold clockwise a little more."

"The last move is too reachy" should be "Consider adding another foothold for the last move to make it fairer for shorter competitors."

This method avoids confrontation, speeds up the process and makes your opinion more valuable. "Well, I was able to rest a lot and the move at the fifth clip was super hard" is the critique I would expect from any climber in my gym. I have higher expectations of a forerunner - they're an expert, and I want to hear expertise. If you can't think of a solution to an issue with a move, then it's still better to bring it up constructively. Never avoid an issue with a move, just try to have a solution ready before you spray.

Feedback methods

The main two ways I see frequently used in forerunning are to either go in knowing everything, or knowing nothing. I think personally it's important the forerunner know the category of the climb (men's or women's, youth or open, etc) because it should affect the way they choose to climb the route. However, some setters prefer the forerunner to not know the grade or beta, and let them offer their opinion on grade after climbing the route. Others prefer the forerunner to know the intended grade, and provide feedback on its accuracy. Both methods can be used with success.

Work with the format

A forerunner's job is to experience the route from the competitor's perspective beforehand, and offer that opinion to the setter. The format will have some effect on this - for instance, for a flash format, where competitors are given beta, the forerunner simply needs to be someone strong enough to execute the moves as instructed. Redpoint format forerunning may require more time to allow the forerunner to adjust and learn moves the way they would in a competition. If the route is just for general gym climbing, forerunning is still worthwhile! Equitability and consistency can be just as important to your gym population as they are to competitors.

If you're the forerunner, know the format and how it will affect the way a competitor reads the route. For onsight format, remember that the climbers only have a set amount of time to preview the route, and do not have the benefit of being able to ask the setter about beta. Forerunners have to compromise when working redpoint routes, because they have limited energy to run a lot of routes, some of which are expected to require the best climbers to work for a long time. Obviously a climber who only has to work on the 5 hardest open problems is going to have a lot more energy at their disposal than a forerunner who goes into the hardest problem having already climbed 59 others. Work the moves individually and try to get as clear a picture as possible.

If you're the setter, view the forerunner's performance through the lens of the format. How did they do on their first attempt? The first 5 minutes? Did they struggle several times on a single move? Don't expect your climber to work moves in onsight - it's no fun for the crowd to watch a climber not even get close to a move, and even less fun to see a climber give up with 2 minutes left on the clock. Similarly, remember that the climbers will sometimes be stronger, weaker, or have different strengths than the forerunner. Take everything with a grain of salt.

Respect the forerunner's time and energy

As a setter, it's easy to have someone climb your route, then dismiss their efforts with an excuse. "I doubt the climbers will do it that way", "That's not how I intended it", etc. It can be frustrating to put time into a route, then have someone reveal a flaw in your plan. However, try to remain constructive and work with the forerunner to find a solution. Being unbiased about your own routes is a huge challenge, especially during the stresses of competition setting. Just remember that the forerunner isn't trying to fight you - they're trying to help you create a good experience for the climber.

Respect the setter's vision

As the forerunner, your job is similar to that of a translator. Take the climber's intended movement, and help them communicate that to the climber. This is done by offering a physical example, then following up with constructive advice and specific physiological reasoning.

When running skeletons or the base of routes, take moves with a grain of salt, and simply try to understand the moves the setter plans on forcing. The early stages of a route would often be unrecognizable next to the finished product. Expediting that transition is your job as a forerunner. Later on, as the route is more polished, it becomes more important not to compromise the style of the route or alter the fundamental movement. As a route approaches completion, try to maintain the integrity of the setter's route, while making subtle tweaks in directionality and placement to make things more fair and consistent (if possible.)

Respect the climber

Most importantly, setter and forerunner must work together to create an end product that is fair and fun for the climber. Without teamwork and effective communication, this becomes vastly more difficult. The forerunner's performance and communication catalyze this process, and I'll revisit this topic to go into more detail. For now, happy setting!

One other quick note - if you haven't been watching the live streams of the World Cup at, you've been missing out on a ton of great routesetting! The WC guys obviously bust their ass and I've seen all kinds of exciting movement being set. Climbing might not be ready for the global stage, but we as routesetters are the ones who create the spectacle that gets the crowd involved. Tune in and learn something. The next broadcast is June 17/18, from Eindhoven.


  1. I've been reading these posts with tenacity and, though I've never been a route-setter, I absolutely love climbing and I am wondering how you recommend breaking into the industry? I just graduated college and I have decided that I want to be in the climbing industry - I am completely obsessed with climbing, but don't have many connections.

    Any advice in breaking into the industry and achieving my goal of becoming a route-setter?

  2. Hi Will,

    I've been relentlessly busy with 'real work' for a while now, so I apologize for not being quick to reply.

    I do have more posts in the works, and one of them was talking about the complexities of our little industry. However, I'm hardly the expert on the subject, having only been involved for a few years. This question might be better directed at the big guns.

    My quick two cents would be to just get involved in any way you can. Make connections, meet people who climb, and be friendly and outgoing to everyone. Networking is a huge part of any business, and climbing is no exception. Go in to it with an attitude of friendliness and mind-expansion. Not all (in fact, very few) tech reps or industry heavy hitters are going to be climbing V10 at your local gym. Most of them might swing by for fun, if anything.

    That may have sounded a lot like "get lucky," and in some ways, it was. Opportunity is a necessary part of success.

    You might try checking your local climbing gym, outdoor store, any local climbing companies (Bend has Metolius, for instance) and just dropping in and creating a presence for yourself. Getting experience is hard, but it's much harder if you hang out at home.

    An internship would be awesome - paid if possible. Starting out, it's very difficult to get a routesetting gig that is paid, as gyms tend to view it as manual labor rather than skilled labor. Which, when you start out, is rather true. You may have to strip and scrub walls for a month to get a chance to spin a wrench.

    This is rapidly becoming the size of a normal post, so I'll stop. Best of luck, and thanks a ton for reading.

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