Interview: Naomi Cokell
#WCS17 speaker Naomi Cokell has had an amazing start to 2018 sending the uber-classics of Megalithe and Brad Pit (both f7C+), all with three small children in tow. In this interview she takes us through her top tips for climbing after childbirth, managing children at the crag, having fun as a family and still finding the opportunity to push her limits.
Before you had your first child, what concerns did you have on how it might affect your climbing?
At the time we didn’t have any close climbing friends with children and so I really had no idea how easy it would be to get back climbing. Obviously the impact of pregnancy and childbirth on my body was a concern, as was looking after a child at the crag - particularly winter bouldering in the Peak. I was really worried about having a caesarean as I feared this would be a real physical hurdle to getting back climbing. Given how important climbing together is to our relationship, Gareth and I were both worried about how we’d find the time to go climbing, with no family close to help out now and then.
Which of these were borne out and which turned out to be fine?
I was lucky that I had a reasonably straightforward pregnancy and so was able to continue climbing until 30 weeks gestation. I then stopped on the advice of my consultant but continued to swim twice a week. The birth was also straightforward (no c-section!). I was, however, surprised at the lack of physio support post birth - on the advice of a friend I arranged a private physio session, with a physio specializing in women’s health, when Eleanor was a week old. I was prescribed a handful of exercises that I did thrice daily for about 3 months, which I feel were invaluable to my recovery.
I started climbing again 3 weeks after the birth and although I struggled to climb much more than a Font 3 initially, it didn’t take long to see improvements. We went sports climbing to the Costa Blanca 3 months after the birth and this gave a goal to work towards and helped encourage us to the climbing wall, even when feeling tired. It was a pleasant surprise to redpoint a slightly overhanging 7b+ sports route in Spain and that really gave me the confidence that I could continue to climb well. Prior to having Eleanor, the hardest I’d bouldered was 7B+ but, when Eleanor was 18 months, I climbed my first 7C. That was the point that I realised that having children needn’t have a long-term impact on your climbing ambitions.
It was a bit of trial and error when going out to the crag initially with Eleanor - Gareth spent at least one session shivering as she snoozed contentedly in his down jacket - but we slowly worked out the best way to keep her (and us) warm. We also found, much to our delight, that babies sleep better outside in the cold, if they are wrapped up warm, than in a stuffy house - she would often sleep solidly for several hours, giving us plenty of time to climb together. One concession that we did have to make was to stop route climbing so much as this is only really practical with a baby if you climb as a three.
We found that we were able to get out bouldering reasonably easily together once we worked out the logistics, so we’ve not had to stop climbing together at all really. We tend to boulder most weekends, if the weather allows, and it’s lovely to see the children growing up in the outdoor environment and enjoying themselves.
What have the differences been following the birth of your twins?
I didn’t climb throughout the whole pregnancy as it was a higher risk and more tiring pregnancy than the first (notwithstanding the fact that I was frankly huge from quite early on). I unexpectedly went into labour at 33 weeks, which was a big shock, and to top it all I had to have a c-section. Because they were born so prematurely, the twins weren’t discharged until almost a month old so everything was very different to my first pregnancy and obviously quite stressful until we got them safety home.
We didn’t climb outside at all for the first few months, but after 4 months we all went to Font for a few weeks, figuring that Font was as good a place as anywhere to be sleep deprived. In the event, we’d managed to forget quite how well babies sleep in the forest and so coped rather better than we dared hope - on one rest day the twins wouldn’t nap until I loaded them into the pushchair and wheeled them out into the garden!
Since then we’ve been bouldering most weekends as a family, usually somewhere local on the eastern edges, but also some day trips to the Churnet and a few weekends at the grandparents in North Wales. We carry more stuff to the crag and get less climbing done in a session than we used to, but it’s lovely to see how much the children enjoy being outside.
What have been the differences for you in recovery and your subsequent climbing between first and second pregnancies??
With the second pregnancy, I had more confidence about returning to hard climbing, but assumed it would take longer, given the 8 months off followed by a c-section. I again visited a physio shortly after the birth and did the exercises pretty religiously for the next 3 months. This time I held off climbing for 6 weeks from fear of re-opening the cesarean scar. My joints felt a bit more tweaky overall for the first few months with my wrists for some reason feeling very weak for around 6 months, although this was manageable by taping when climbing. However in terms of overall climbing strength, I actually recovered in about the same time frame.
How long after having the twins did you feel that you started to make progress and could start climbing hard again? Are there any things you did to get back to strength again?
I was pleased to climb a few font 7as 4 months after having the twins and that for me was encouraging as it was about the same timescale as my recovery after the first pregnancy. However I didn’t start feeling strong again until about a year after having the twins. This also coincided with Gareth taking over dealing with the twins at night (we had been operating a shift pattern until this point) and so I was able to get an uninterrupted night’s sleep again. I also started climbing on a moon board several times a week around that time and that has really improved my core strength and made a big difference. I’ve never climbing on a board before so it was a bit of a shock how hard I found it initially, but it’s definitely made a big improvement to my strength.
Your husband climbs too, how do you organise/manage climbing sessions with your kids at the crag?
We generally warm up together when we arrive at the crag, taking turns on warm up problems whilst the other one looks after the children. After that, one of us will tend to focus on climbing for a couple of hours whilst the other does the child care, before swapping over. We’re very flexible though and don’t watch the clock (!!) so if I’m getting close to sending, Gareth would tends to encourage me to finish it and we won’t move on until I’m done one way or the other, and vice versa. Sometimes we’ll climb together on the same problem, or different problems on the same boulder - then we continue as for the warm ups and just take turns.We do tend to think about where we’re going and what problems we’re likely to get on, and how that will work in terms of logistics such as getting the kids up to the crag (pushchair or slings), where they can nap and what toys might be best (balls and slopes can go either way).Gareth also climbed his hardest ever bouldering problem in Font (an 8a+) this Spring so it’s satisfying to feel that we operate well as a team and help each other to improve.
What advice would you give to climbing mothers to be and new mums?
For me, the physio exercises were invaluable and I think starting them so soon after the birth was really beneficial - I found they really helped to get my stomach muscles knitted back together.
Don’t be afraid to just go climbing even though you feel shattered. You actually will feel better for doing some exercise and getting out of the house.
You’ll have less time to climb but you’ll find you are more focused and actually have better overall climbing session as a result. I started using a book called ‘Gimme Kraft’ which is a very accessible book for training exercises.
Managing at the crag or down the wall
We found a ‘Phil and Teds cocoon’ (a super lightweight insulated carrycot) or something similar for the baby to sleep in at the crag was invaluable for all 3 children.
Babies seem to sleep far better outside than in - ours always slept for longer at the crag than they ever did in the house.
Decent clothing will ensure they keep warm, even when it’s freezing out. We found the best combo to be an all in one down suit topped with a waterproof oversuit (both by ‘Spotty Otter’) - fantastic for keeping our kids warm all day in cold conditions, not to mention earning them envious glances from boulderers shivering in jeans.
Fontainebleau. Amazing bouldering in a giant sandpit with short, pushchair-friendly, walk-ins - I’m not sure that you could design a more family-friendly bouldering destination.
What were your goals going out to font on this trip?
I was hoping to climb a 7C but was unsure as to how realistic that was. I’d done a few 7Cs previously and so was hoping to get back to my previous level, but never imagined that I’d exceed it.
What attracted you to try Megalithe?
I’d seen Paige Claassen climb it when we were there a couple of years ago and it looked impressive but also a little intimidating as it is quite high. I didn’t go to the crag with it as an objective, but it was definitely lurking at the back of my mind - perhaps I’d try it but only to see what it was like for future reference. I did at least know that it was crimpy and so should suit me but I genuinely believed that it would be one to come back to in a couple of years' time.
Tell us a bit about the process of getting it done whist wrestling two babies and a toddler?
The first session I had on it was only a quick 20 minutes or so where I got up to the crux. It was at the end of the day when the children were starting to get a bit tired, so I was a bit distracted and ended up bruising my heel on a tree root for want of setting up the pads properly. I was, however, surprised to have made such quick progress.
We returned about a week later and it took me a while to work out the crux, which is quite a strange press move off a poor sidepull. Once I’d figured out the crux, I practiced the top-out on a rope as there’s a bolt at the top and I was too nervous to try it ground up. For the send goes, Gareth settled the twins in their pushchair with a snack, whilst our eldest is old enough to stay out of the way when asked and so was happily playing with her toys.
In all honesty even after I’d done all the moves I wasn’t really expecting to send it. Gareth however was very encouraging and really helped me, especially when I got through the crux on the third send go and got completely gripped - sewing machine leg and all. Fortunately I was on a reasonable jug and managed to calm down before topping out, very grateful to have dropped a rope down it earlier!
And Brad Pit?
I’d been on it several years ago and got close, so after Font I had it in mind as a potential project. Checking out the weather that weekend I noticed that it looked like quite good conditions, so figured it was worth a session. Again I didn’t actually expect to send it, but conditions were great and there was no one else on the problem. It took a while to warm into the first move but once I found the sweet spot for the heel placement I started making steady progress on it. There was a comedy moment when I latched the jug only to spin around ever so slowly until I ended up palming off the rock behind and facing a very bemused family. Fortunately I was able to redeem myself by sending it next go!
What's next for you? what are your climbing goals for the next 12 months?
I guess I’ve got to admit to myself that there’s no reason why I shouldn’t be aiming to climb an 8A. I should probably think about some sort of structured training plan but I’ve never really got in to training. However, having tried a few exercises from the ‘Gimme Kraft’ book, I realise I could definitely improve more if I did, so perhaps that should be an aim.
Naomi has climbed since going to Bath University, and moved to Sheffield so she could climb more. She is a chartered accountant with her own practice and has three small children.