Q&A With Brian Suntay: 5.14 crusher and weekday engineer
I first found out about Brian Suntay when his tag line on the TrainingBeta blog caught my eye–“Ohio-based engineer crushing 5.14 at the Red River Gorge and Rifle”. As an Ohio Native (and a fellow engineer) I was very psyched to find a kindred spirit in the climbing community who is climbing at such a high level.
Brian is a very accomplished climber and has an extremely impressive resume. He has completed routes up through 5.14 in the Red and many 5.13+ routes in Rifle. He started climbing in college and predominantly trains out of his basement to cut down on the commute to the gym. If you haven’t read his post on Trainingbeta, I would recommend it–it will be especially helpful to read in the context of this interview.
I had the pleasure of picking Brian’s brain on some topics I had been wondering about and I got to discuss my project at the Red with him as well. Brian has some awesome insights and I hope you all get a lot out of this. I know I did.
S: Can you take me through a brief history of your climbing and training? How long did it take you to progress through the grades? When did you start training?
B: I’ve been climbing for about 12 years so it’s hard for me to remember how long it took to break through the grades. I started when I was in college and I didn’t really train for it the first few years other than climbing in the gym and climbing outside. Fortunately for me, climbing came pretty naturally. I pretty much worked my way up the grades up to 5.13a by climbing outside, I think. I remember training for a route in the Madness cave that I really wanted to do, so I think that’s when I really started training. I followed a typical periodized training plan for quite a while. I didn’t really know any better and it worked for the most part. Probably over the last few years I switched it up a bit based on new knowledge I gained from kettlebell training and because I wanted to train a little less due to the amount of free time I had and to allow for other activities. And, since I’ve been training for a little while now, I kinda know what works and doesn’t work for me. So now I pretty much just make my own training programs.
Brian’s Thoughts on Deadlifting for Climbing
S: Do you think deadlifting has helped your climbing? Is that why it’s still in your program? I recently started doing it and I think it’s weirdly super fun, but I don’t know how to “feel out” if it’s helping my climbing or not.
B: Absolutely. It works and I keep doing it because I think it is fun. I interchange them with heavy kettlebell swings because if done correctly they both target the posterior chain, which is useful for shorties to keep their feet on when doing reachy moves and helps with steep climbing. If you’re doing it right, you should feel it the most in your glutes and hamstrings. If you feel it in your lower back, then your form might need a little tweaking. Definitely consult a strength or power lifting coach if you feel like you need someone to check on your form.
Resting and Training when Tired
S: One of the things I’m struggling with is figuring out what to do on training days when I am tired. If I feel to drained to do power endurance(PE). I’ll do a ton of moderate routes on autobelays in about 40 minutes and call it a day—do you think this is a good substitute if you’re pooped or would you still stick to your power endurance plan for the day, but scale back the difficulty?
B: If you are following the logical progression protocol, I’d prefer not to skip days. I’d like to stick to the plan as much as possible just because you are training one pathway (strength/PE/etc) only once a week. If you are feeling tired though you can add a rest day, so for example, train strength Monday, rest Tues/Wed, train PE Thursday, rest Friday, train endurance Saturday, rest Sunday, repeat. Or you can have two rest days between training days. Or you can do your easy enduro day or maybe instead practice climbing technique and push your PE training to the following day. The nice thing about logical progression is that it is very flexible. If you are tired or life happens, you can push everything back a day and carry on.
On most training days, definitely don’t overdo it and save some fuel in the tank. You will feel less wrecked, recover quicker, and your next training day will feel pretty good. 80% is a good number. If I’m cross training or lifting I usually go 80% in terms of weight and number of reps. For example let’s say my max deadlift is 325lbs. My training weight will be around 260lbs and if I’m doing sets of 5 reps I should be able to pull 6 reps each time no problem, but I stop at 5 reps. Does that make sense? Another good example more related to climbing would be 4x4s. If I picked the problems correctly, I should maybe be falling on the last problem on the last set. I think it is better to complete all problems on all sets and readjust to make it harder than to pick too hard of problems and hit failure earlier.
Projecting on a Time Budget
S: I only have three days to take down my project at the Red (life, ugh). It’s Super Best Friends, 12b in Muir Valley—what advice do you have for limited time on-location projecting? For Rifle, how did you approach your projects? Did you try to onsight and then start working sections, or did you immediately start “chunking” the route? If you could go through an example route that you took down in 1-3 days that would be very helpful!
B: Ugh. Life. I know how that feels. Limited time projecting is a tough one. Just for reference, my hard, multiple weekend, maybe multiple season projecting grade is 14a/b. I can usually knock out 13a/b in 1-3 tries. Honestly, when I was in Rifle I really wanted to project a 14. However, due to the heat and a longer learning curve than I anticipated, I had to bump my grades down a few notches. So instead of maybe projecting one 14 throughout my whole stay there, I decided to try and knock out several Rifle classics instead. Due to the cryptic nature of Rifle, I definitely did not try to onsight anything. I broke all the routes down, usually going bolt-to-bolt, trying to figure out the best sequences and just trying to become comfortable with the rock, the moves, and the clips. I’d probably go through each section a couple of times to make sure I can get through it efficiently. I want to make sure I know my hands and feet so that I’m not searching for them while redpointing. The more comfortable I am, the better and faster I move, and the less I squeeze, saving my energy for when I really need it. Once I figure out my beta I knew I had the endurance so other than that, it was just trying really effing hard to hold on and not fall.
With Super Best Friends you will be breaking into a new grade. It will be tough but very doable. The route breaks down pretty well too from what I can remember. You have a move down low before a good ledge rest, then several bolts in the steep section, followed by a hard pull over the lip to easier, but pumpy climbing. You have three days, right?
S: Yes. To give a little more detail, I goton it almost as a joke because everything else I wanted at Solarium was taken. My first attempt I made it to bolt 3, fell had to try the move a couple of times. Then I got to the nice ledge to rest. Clipped, rested a while, (long while, the ledge is so nice) then I cranked through and fell trying to clip the 2nd to last bolt before the headwall. I think like bolt 8 or 9. I planned to put in more work the next day, but then the rest of the trip got rained out. And here we are!
After clarifying a little more about the upcoming 3 day project, Brian gave me some extremely strategies to take this thing down.
If I were you (after warming up of course) hop on the route and just break it down. Figure out the bottom section to ledge rest. Then break down the steep part. Figure out your most efficient way through the steep part. Go bolt-to-bolt, repeating sections before moving on the next bolt as necessary to make sure you know what to do. Make sure you rest a lot too while figuring it out. Figure out your best option to pull over the lip (I think some bumping might be involved, but I can’t remember). Then figure out the top. After clipping the anchors, feel free to lower down to the lip and repeat that section on top-rope while pretend clipping on your way up. Rest well, eat up, then get on it once more if you aren’t feeling too tired. Sometimes you might need two beta burns to figure out all the beta and that’s okay. If you put a second beta burn, do the same as the first and call it a day afterwards. Save yourself some energy.
Have a goal of climbing the route in so many # of sections (ex. 1) to the ledge 2) steepness 3) pulling lip and to the top) but feel free to turn it into fewer sections depending on how you feel. Climb to the ledge and milk the rest. Then try your best to link the steep section. If you start redlining before the lip, then take and rest. If you were pretty close to the lip you can try linking through the lip and then to the top. Like with training, don’t redline on the route unless you know and have the confidence to take it to the top. If you are redlining at the beginning of the steep section, then take and rest. If you are redlining at the lip, then go for it and don’t let go because you know you can shake it out all the way to the top. Does that make sense?
The main idea is to break it down as if it were kind of like a “timed rest” 4×4 where you would do a problem, rest 1 min, then do another prob, rest 1 min, etc. As you progress, you can do the same problems but decrease rest time until you can do all problems back to back. If you want to train in the gym for your route then you can try to do something similar on your PE days. You can set up your 4×4 so that it is similar to the route. For problem 1 pick something bouldery. For problems 2 and 3, something steep and pumpy. And problem 4, something pumpy but easier than problems 2 and 3. Go through each problem resting 1.5 to 2 min between each problem. Rest 5-10 min between each set and repeat 4 times total. If you complete everything without falling, decrease your between problem rest time by 15 seconds.
What advice do you have for the average weekend warrior that wants to improve their climbing?
B: If you are motivated you can do a lot. Have a goal, find a plan to get you to that goal, and stick to it and follow it through before making any changes. If you train in the gym, stay focused. It’s easy to start socializing. I feel bad when I’m at the gym because I don’t really socialize. I’m sure many folks who see me at the gym might think I’m not very friendly (I’m quite the opposite though!), but for me, gym time is training time and I’m in there so that I can send my outside projects, so I tend to shut out everything else. I feel bad, but there just isn’t enough time to socialize and train. Also, keep things simple. The simplest training plans are usually the most effective. Climb a lot. Since you are breaking into the 12’s the most beneficial thing for you is to just climb. Maybe 80% of training should be climbing and the other 20% can be hangboarding or cross training. Lastly, find a partner or group of friends who are just as motivated to train and get out on the weekends. A large part of my success is due to the fact that I had an equally motivated training and climbing partner, my wife, for 12 years. It’s really nice to have someone you can rely on regularly for motivation and who is also willing and wanting to get outside