climbing is life

Interview with Dutch climbing magazine

In December on my way from USA to Asia I spent 1 day in Eindhoven. Besides packing I had 2 appointments: interview with Bart van Raaij from the Dutch climbing magazine Block  and photoshoot with Bram Berkien. Photos from the photoshoot were printed together with interview.

Rustam Gelmanov, Рустам Гельманов

• What makes you happy?

Eating ice-cream every now and then! You must not force yourself to do anything. If you do, it will go wrong. Every day I try, where possible, 'to live in the moment '. If I’m completely in the 'now', and I’m not thinking about the past or the future, then at that moment there are no problems. And I derive a great deal of strength from that feeling. It’s also important that you see that the way to a result is what matters and that the result itself is far less important. In the end there’s very little difference between winning and losing.

This interview was published in Dutch, you can read the English translation is below. Hope you will enjoy it.


Bart van Raaij:

How I got the idea I do not know, but I thought the winner of the World Cup boulder 2012, the Russian Rustam Gelmanov, lived somewhere deep in the middle of Russia. And that he had come into contact with bouldering by chance through a television program or an article in a newspaper or magazine. After which he had begun training on his own, without contact with other climbers. After all, who goes climbing in a remote village in Russia? His training regime must have been brutal, because within a few years he was one of the best competitive boulderers in the world, and could plank on two little fingers...

The preparation for this interview did not provide a great deal of information about Rustam. Except that my greatest preconception was debunked; Rustam grew up in the city of Moscow. But he was born in a remote location, in 1987; Tekeli (population: 27,000) in the south-west of the Republic of Kazakhstan, close to the border with China.

On his thirteenth birthday he moved to Moscow, where in 2003 he came into contact with climbing in a climbing hall. It quickly became clear he had talent, and he took part in (inter)national competitions in all disciplines: lead, speed and boulder. There are no cliffs near Moscow, the nearest are around a thousand kilometers away.

Nevertheless, in 2005 he climbed his first 8c+, Paralelnii Chertopoloh in the Red Stone area of Ukraine.

In 2008, after climbing for just five years, Rustam won his first World Cup in Moscow. That same year he became the first Russian to climb a grade nine route; the popular KinematiX 9a in the French Gorges du Loup.
In 2010 he climbed his most difficult boulder, New Base Line 8b+ in the Averstal in Switzerland.

At the beginning of 2012 he climbed his second nine, the classic Action Directe 11, in Germany’s Frankenjura.

Three years ago Rustam started his studies in Moscow (in aviation engineering). He is now studying movement science, but even these studies do not really interest him. He evidently does not have a deep longing to live close to cliffs, because for more than two years Rustam has been making frequent trips to the Netherlands! His girlfriend, Tatyana Naumenko, was studying in Eindhoven at the Technische Universiteit, and has had a job here since January 2012. Rustam trains in the Monk bouldergym and also wants to live in the Netherlands. But for the time being he has no residence permit, and has to leave the country every three months to apply for a new tourist visa.

That evening the ANWB is warning of freezing rain, and in mid-December I drive carefully across half the country to Eindhoven. In my mind I am in the interview: I see a surly, taciturn and toned male with an ugly rat’s tail in front of me. The conversation is awkward, Rustam’s English is poor and we do not go beyond superficial talk about endless weight-training sessions.

I reach Monk a little later than arranged. From a table a cheery little boy and a fragile blonde girl with Eastern European features wave to me. They wave as if they know me, where from I do not know. I would never have thought that this boy could be Rustam. He is short (168 cm) and light (51 kg), that much is true, but his face is radiant and he has no tail. He introduces me to Tatyana and explains that she will be our interpreter if we cannot get by in English.

Rustam Gelmanov, Рустам Гельманов

The number one on the IFSC’s world ranking list is much more open and professional that I had expected. And he is anything but surly. They are rather surprised about me, that I am not recording this interview, for example...

• I saw on Facebook that you’ve just returned from America!

That’s right. I spent a few weeks in America with Russian friends. It was there I climbed crevices for the first time. We started in Indian Creek, where I learned the technique from one of my friends who was already experienced in it. Then we went to work at the Nose in Yosemite, my first big wall. It took a while getting used to climbing there, even after Indian Creek, because the cliff in Yosemite has much less friction than that in Indian Creek. I’d like to free-climb the Nose, of the 31 routes on the Nose two are really difficult. On the Great Roof route I was able to make all the passes, but I didn’t understand Changing Corners at all. That’s a different way of climbing from the one I’m used to. In 2013 I want to go back again after the competition season to give it another try.
I’ve got four weeks’ rest now, so I’m not climbing or training at all. Tomorrow Tatyana and I are heading off to Singapore and Malaysia for a real holiday together.

• I’ve done some research into you, and it struck me that very little is known about your outdoor climbing achievements...

That’s true. But what is known is pretty well known. Although, I most recently bouldered From Shallow Waters to Riverbed 8b+ in the Averstal. I climb too, but not much on cliffs. Around Moscow there are no climbing areas and in Europe I don’t have a car. Occasionally I manage to get to Switzerland or the Frankenjura, for example.

For me, mental training is the most important thing, and I do it all day long

• The Frankenjura? To go bouldering or climb routes?

To climb routes. The Frankenjura is an ideal area for me with short, powerful routes. I don’t like endurance problems.

• You talk about climbing, but aren’t you a boulderer?

At competitions, yes, but outside I prefer climbing routes. I don’t even have a crashpad! Climbing routes is also much safer. With bouldering you can quickly fall and injure yourself. If I fall off a route, I’m hanging safely on the rope without hitting anything. I personally think that’s fine but it’s also practical in connection with my competition season.

• Have you ever been to Fontainebleau?

No, not yet. But I’d like to climb there at some point.

• Do you have many plans for the future?

No, I really don’t know how things will turn out. I’m currently studying movement science, but it doesn’t really excite me. When I choose something, I really want to go for it and do it well, like now with climbing. I’d love to leave my mark on climbing, do something really special. My most concrete plan for the future is that I’d like to live in the Netherlands. I’ll have to come up with something. At the moment I can only stay here for three months at a time and it’s a bit of a pain to keep having to apply for a new tourist visa.

• Is there a big difference between the climbing world in Moscow and in Eindhoven?

I wouldn’t actually know! But I think it’s pretty much the same. I’ve been training for some time in Monk now, but because I concentrate so much when I train, I have very little contact with others. I don’t really know who else comes here! Obviously I know a few people, but I don’t know if they’re representative of this hall or the Dutch climbing world.

• How do you train?

As I said, with total concentration. I don’t want to be distracted. I train every other day, two hours a day. My physical training consists of climbing, campusing, pull-up and block-off exercises. For the climbing part I come up with boulders myself with the holds in the wall. That part of my training largely consists of analysing how I move. I also find one-armed pull-ups very important. I practice that on as many different holds as possible, with different sizes and shapes and at different angles. If you can pull yourself up with one arm on any hold you can get out of any situation! The most powerful exercises I do are block-off exercises on the smallest possible holds. By statically blocking off you are concentrating as much as possible on maximum strength. I do this exercise with 67 kilos of extra weight [Rustam himself weighs just 51!]. Initially I can’t even hold such a grip for half a second. I try it until I can hold it for five seconds and then I switch to different holds.

Rustam Gelmanov, Рустам Гельманов

For me, mental training is the most important thing, and I do it all day long. I’m always busy making myself stronger mentally. Not just for climbing, also for other aspects of life. Last season there were five climbers who had the chance to win the World Cup. I think whoever is strongest mentally will win in the end. World champion Dmitry Sharafutdinov probably has the strongest body, someone else the nest technique, but I won. Before a competition, I don’t imagine that I’m going to win but that I’ve won. That’s a big difference. It only works if you set yourself realistic goals that you genuinely believe in. If you imagine it realistically, it will happen. It doesn’t matter if others do the same, if you’re most convinced at the right time, you’ll win.

• Is Monk a good place for you to train?

Everything here is good, but for next season I do need smaller edges!

• Last year, just before a major competition, you published a photo of yourself, hanging horizontally by two little fingers. Did you have to train much for that and did this photo have a special purpose?

When I tried that exercise for the first time, I almost managed it. The photo was taken when I was able to hang for three seconds in that position. Later I was able to last five seconds. I just thought it was a tough photo and I also published it to intimidate the others a bit. But for a trained climber it doesn’t make that much difference whether you perform an exercise on two hands or two fingers. I now want to see if I can plank on one arm and with just one or two fingers.

In competitions I’m a boulderer, but outdoors I much prefer climbing routes

• Training seems easy for you?

I was already strong in 2003. Also, these sorts of exercises are easier if you’re small, athletically built and thin. And I like training just as much as climbing! I like thinking about it and I change my training every year. There are many similarities between the structure of hanging for longer and longer on a small hold and the mental training that I do. I build up the confidence that I can do it slowly and become stronger and stronger until I’m convinced of it.

• Do you receive support?

Rustam Gelmanov, Рустам Гельманов

No, I do it all myself. I don’t receive any support from the Russian federation. I don’t actually know what it is they do. Also, the sports climbing division of the federation consists of alpinists. Perhaps it’s a good thing that I don’t receive any support from a federation without any expertise. Perhaps I’d then have to do things didn’t really want to do and that would only increase the pressure. Obviously I’d appreciate support from a good federation, with no pressure. Fortunately I’m supported in this way by my sponsors. I occasionally have to do something for it, but that’s no more than one week a year.

• In this issue we have an article on sleep and rest. How do you deal with it?

Sleep and rest are extremely important for your recovery. But too much sleep is not good. For me, between six and eight hours is ideal. Especially if you’ve been training hard, it’s good to sleep a little longer. I’ve not eaten meat for a long time, and for two years I’ve not eaten any animal products at all. I feel better for it, and now need less sleep.

• Does eating play a major role in your life?

I’m very serious about eating. Your body consists of what you eat. But because I pay so much attention to it, there is also room for exceptions. It’s also important to be happy.

• What makes you happy?

Eating ice-cream every now and then! You must not force yourself to do anything. If you do, it will go wrong. Every day I try, where possible, 'to live in the moment '. If I’m completely in the 'now', and I’m not thinking about the past or the future, then at that moment there are no problems. And I derive a great deal of strength from that feeling. It’s also important that you see that the way to a result is what matters and that the result itself is far less important. In the end there’s very little difference between winning and losing. At the time there is, obviously. But if I win, I realise it wasn’t especially difficult, but also that I was close to losing. If I lose, I analyse what I need to improve. It was not very difficult for me to finish high on the World Cup circuit. If I can get to win every competition I want to win, then I’ve really achieved something, then I’m incredibly strong mentally. Not just with climbing, also in the rest of my life. That would make me happy.

• Is there something you would still like to learn?

I bottle my emotions up, apparently it’s how I was raised. I’d like to learn how to express myself more. Since I’ve known Tatyana, I’ve been much better at it!

• Have I forgotten to ask anything?

Yes! I can see RRG on your letter! When I was in America, I didn’t just go to Yosemite. I also wanted to go sport-climbing in Red River Gorge. My friends had gone back there, I didn’t have a car and I’d lost my credit card. But with a great deal of effort I made it to the RRG campsite. I’d agreed to meet an American there, but he didn’t show up. I didn’t know what to do. As an experiment – I’d already read about it somewhere – I then didn’t eat anything for two weeks, just fluids. That was quite a learning experience. During that time I was very clear, and only needed three hours’ sleep a day. Because physical effort at such a time is senseless, I read a lot. Books on mental and physical training, but also novels, and I never read novels! I learned a lot from it, and it became very clear to me what I wanted to work on in the future. I occasionally still miss the clarity I experienced. Perhaps one day I’ll try not eating for a whole month. Or not talk for two months, I think I’d learn a lot from that too...

Rustam Gelmanov, Рустам Гельманов

Tatyana frowns, and looks at Rustam with shock and surprise. Throughout the conversation they sat close together and there was constant bodily contact. Rustam arrived back from America this morning. Today they are seeing each other for the first time in weeks. Tomorrow evening they are flying to Singapore together. Tatyana says she’d rather not be there if he isn’t talking for two months. But her hand remains on Rustam's knee, and his hand on hers.

To be so strong mentally that I achieve the goals I want to achieve, that would make me really happy.

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