Why I Shouldn't Have Competed at the IFSC World Championships

My training for the IFSC World Championships was among the most mentally challenging times in my life.

Women's Boulder Qualifications at the 2023 IFSC World Championships by Jan Virt/IFSC
Women's Boulder Qualifications at the 2023 IFSC World Championships. Photo by Jan Virt/IFSC

I want to share my arduous experience training for last month's International Federation of Sport Climbing (IFSC) World Championships.

Mentally, it was undoubtedly one of the most challenging times I've ever battled through. I had to deal with unprecedented problems, and the pressure to perform at the World Championships was overwhelming. I learned a lot about myself and my capabilities that month, but I've never come so close to throwing in the towel and admitting I couldn't handle it.

Let me take you through my journey from the beginning.

June 14 was the last IFSC Boulder World Cup this season. I travelled non-stop across three continents for nine weeks to compete in six events. I achieved a career-best result, made two semi-finals, and came devilishly close to making another two.

It was a good season. I trained all year for it and walked away successful, tired, and motivated for the next season.

Madison Richardson walking onto the mats for finals at the 2023 Studio Bloc Masters Bouldering Competition
Madison at Studio Bloc Masters 2023 Photo by Bastian Bayer

One small thing, though - the season wasn't quite over. There was still the small matter of the World Championships (WCH), which took place in Bern, Switzerland, on August 3.

The plan was to take two full weeks off after the World Cup season and start training for the WCH at the beginning of July.

During those two weeks off, I decided to go on vacation. Living in Europe, it's hard to resist hopping on a train and visiting some of the most famous cities in the world. It was a reward for completing the longest and most successful season of my career.

Little did I know, this was where the trouble started.

Don't get me wrong; I had a great time in those two weeks. It was a celebration, after all. It was a celebration, and I leaned into it hard. Namely:

I ate out, I ate poorly, and I ate a lot.

Truthfully, it felt like the season was over, and in a large way, it was. A few days in, I realized I couldn't keep up this vacation diet if I wanted to do well at the World Championships. With over a week left and the hubs of pancakes, waffles, and chocolate still ahead of me, my willpower was weak, and my motivation to crawl out of a hole and train for the WCH was rapidly fading.

I desperately wanted to let go and call time of death on the season, but I couldn't. I already confirmed with Climbing Canada that I would compete, and my family booked flights to watch me. This was happening.

So I stayed the course. I wasn't disciplined enough to reign myself in while on vacation, so I vowed to do another cut as soon as I got home. Everything would be okay as long as I cut again.

That never happened.

For once in my life, the motivation wasn't there.

After the off-season cut, I never entirely stopped. When I started gaining weight during the season, I threw in some sporadic cutting to better maintain my weight. Cutting is mentally exhausting, and I looked forward to a break from it during the competition season. However, when I noticed an upward trend, I realized I had to course-correct or forfeit the work I put in all year.

But my mid-season cutting was reactionary, not consistent. I'd compensate for a one-off cheat day with a day or two of cutting, and that would be enough. On my vacation, I didn't adjust after big days; I let it build up.

But let's be honest; even this vacation weight wasn't a big deal in the grand scheme of my climbing ability. I've competed at this weight before with great success. Some of my competitors are heavier and still do well. Being heavier wasn't the issue. It was that, more simply, I felt heavier.

I wasn't at the weight I started my season with, so my performance was objectively worse, even by the tiniest margin. It was an alarming reality, and the only path forward to salvage the event in my mind was to try to cut the weight. Again.

When I got back home to train, I started dieting. It went well for a week, but then, for the first time in my climbing career, I didn't have the motivation to keep at it - I was completely tapped out. The diet would go well in the mornings, but I'd consistently give up by dinner.

I'm done with this. I've been doing this all year. I can't do it anymore.

So, with my weight staying put, I needed to come to terms with it, which felt impossible with the WCH breathing down my neck. Every day, I begged myself to ignore it. I scrutinized myself in the mirror, and I was ruthless. I wore black to hide it. I tried to comfort myself every single day, "The weight isn't a big deal. I'm still strong. I can still do this."

Because if you say something enough, you start to forget it was a lie, right?

I would have loved not to care so much about it all. I wish I wasn't so invested despite being checked out after the World Cup season. But it's a curse and a blessing. I couldn't just let go and decide not to care about my weight or result at the WCH because I did. I always do.

And so, it haunted me. I blamed my weight for every crappy session, and I blamed myself for not doing anything about it. I hated training. I hated the stress. I hated the weight, however insignificant it actually was.

My sessions would invariably bring me to tears in the thick of it. When the training wasn't going well, or I underperformed according to the standard I set all season, I'd run into the bathroom and sob in a stall. Sometimes, that'd end my session; other times, I'd pull myself together and get back on the wall.

About two weeks in, I couldn't handle it anymore. Every day was either disappointing, emotional, stressful, or a combination of those three. I decided to step back from training and take some unplanned rest days in the middle of a cycle. I've done this sort of thing when my skin is too thin, or my body is beaten up, but never for mental health reasons. Never because I just needed some air.

And it did the trick. By this point, the initial shock of my weight gain was starting to wear off, and I was well into acceptance. After taking my mind off it for so long, it was exhausting to think about caring about it all again as I returned to training. It's hard work to stress about your performance non-stop. It's draining to only see shortcomings.

When I returned to training, I had just over a week until the event. The time off didn't extinguish the toxicity, but it was at least subdued. I could work with subdued.

I made a better effort to stay positive during my training sessions. I did my max weighted pull-ups with less weight than I'm used to, but my time to acceptance was much shorter.

I was also finally buying into my refrain of self-assurance that the weight didn't matter and that I could still do this. I think, at this point, I honestly believed it.

At my worst, I was too deep into the training. I was too concerned about my performance. I cared too much about my weight, something that I've proven time and again isn't as important as I make it out to be. I was bothered by a downward trend, something I'd never experienced mid-season before. In fact, I'd never been mid-season like this before. I needed to step back and focus my time and energy on what was really important - the climbing.

EDIT: When I did that - just let go, relax, and refocus my attention, a huge weight fell off my shoulders, so to speak. I identified that I needed some space and got exactly what I was looking for.

I also want to note how unpleasant this whole experience was. My goal going forward is to never end up in this space again. I have a lot to learn about the proper way to maintain weight, and I need to double my efforts to separate emotion from this process. I prioritize performance above all else, and while my head didn't fail at this event, I'm not going to keep repeating this cycle until it does. I want out, and like everything else in my athletic career, I'm going to work hard at it.

The World Championships weren't a complete disaster. My result fits in with the others I'd achieved throughout the season. It wasn't a standout performance, but the thing to underscore is that I showed up. This event frequented the chopping block this past month, but I pushed through and showed up anyway.

If I could do it again, I wouldn't.

I shouldn't have taken the two weeks off, to begin with. Looking back, that was detrimental to my headstate and diet. I didn't realize how toxic weight was in my life until I had to come back from the break. The problem certainly wasn't that went on vacation; I just didn't anticipate the mental fallout and how important maintaining weight was for me, and I had no tools to fall back on.

I was tired. I was drained. I broke every day.

But now I know. How debilitating it is to obsess over it. I know that my performance isn't as negatively affected by weight as I feared. I know how to stay ahead of it.