Bouldering is a sport that is as much about analyzing your next move as it is about strength and endurance.
Climbers find handholds and footholds on a wall in a gym or on a rock face outdoors, without being attached to a rope to keep them from falling or climbing to the heights that roped climbers do. They negotiate "problems," or routes up the wall or rock, with a pad below on the ground to break a fall.
"I think of climbing as problem-solving," said Kristoffer Schmarr, co-founder of Urbana Boulders, a bouldering gym that opened last fall. "It's a physical and mental challenge, and you have to use your body to figure out the puzzle."
"It became addicting very quickly," she said of both types of climbing. "They change the routes and it's kind of like a puzzle, trying to figure it out."
Climbing without being roped "gives you some freedom to try things out and practice different things, to be able to climb as high as you want or do some traversing along the wall. It's fun," Sweet said.
Bouldering allows climbers to move more quickly through a route, rest and then try another route. Climbers can practice their technique on a variety of problems.
Sweet said roped climbing takes endurance to make it to the top of a wall, but bouldering challenges her in a different way because it takes more strength and power. She compared the two types of climbing to distance running versus speedwork.
Schmarr said no special skills are needed to boulder, not even the ability to do a pullup. As climbers practice, their forearm and grip strength improve, as do their balance, endurance and ability to move around on the wall.
But, Schmarr said, bouldering is not about how hard a climber can hold on or pull up.
He also suggested studying the route before starting to climb.
"Try to visualize the sequence up it with your hands. As you get better, look at where your feet are going to go," Schmarr said.
Knowing how to fall is also important. Schmarr said the easier problems at the gym are designed so a climber doesn't have to swing off the walls. They are all vertically oriented so a climber who falls will do so feet-first. A climber who does fall should bend the knees and not twist or try to break the fall with straight arms, he said.
Sweet likes the social aspect of bouldering as well. She often climbs with a group of people who take turns on a route.
"If you're working on a route, you watch how someone else does it and then maybe you'll add something to it," she said. "That's a really neat environment."
Jodi Heckel, a writer for the University of Illinois News Bureau, is a runner, swimmer and triathlete. You can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow her at twitter.com/jodiheckel. Her blog is at news-gazette.com/blogs/starting-line.
Photos: Julie Sweet of Savoy negotiates problems on the bouldering wall. Photos courtesy of Julie Sweet.