by Ken Turley
Picture the following, like one of those single frame cartoons in the New Yorker. Two boys, one a couple years older, are arguing at a climbing wall.
"I was climbing 5.12 before you could walk!" says the older one.
"Oh yeah!" says the younger. "Well I was climbing 5.12 before I was even born!"
If your name is Torrin Rennie, now two years old, you'll be free to make that claim. And it won't be stretching the truth one bit. That's because your mom is Molly Kohler Rennie.
In February of 2014, when she was 7 months pregnant, Molly, then 29, wore a full body harness and, belayed on toprope by her husband and fellow strong climber Brandon Rennie, cranked training burns on the BRIK, Kootenai canyon, Montana's bouldery 5.12 testpiece. A month later, shortly before Torrin's birth, Molly was still making toprope ascents of the Tempest, the 35m 11c endurance-fest also located south of Missoula in Kootenai.
Molly's ability to climb such stout routes so far into her pregnancy was a testament to her drive and passion for climbing as well as the fitness base she'd built over the years. Primarily a boulderer, she was well established at the V7 level, with several V8s and two V9s to her credit. She'd also climbed 5.13 sport. Even so, it would have been reasonable to assume the full-harness toprope sessions were about to mark the end of Molly's serious climbing. Not only was the arrival of their first child imminent, but she and Brandon were starting down the final stretch of Brandon's academic journey to earn a PHD in Psychology. Indeed, the couple was poised on the verge of major life changes: Torrin was born in April, 2014; Brandon accepted an internship in Omaha, Nebraska that summer where he would complete his dissertation; in June the family left Missoula; November Molly turned 30; mid-year 2015 Brandon earned his PHD and the couple moved again, to Albuquerque, New Mexico where Brandon accepted a post doctoral position, and Molly began a full time job as an elementary librarian.
Most people would be well satisfied with the major accomplishments a two-year stretch like that represents: first child born, PHD earned, two major household moves to new cities--moves that included the relocation of Molly's 17.1 hand grand prix level eventing horse, Caper; and new jobs, careers and friendships begun. But for Molly, those events were only part of the story. During that same time, she regained and then surpassed her pre-pregnancy fitness level. She competed in and reached semi-finals in both the 2014 and 2015 American Bouldering Series (ABS) Nationals. She appeared in the Kansas City qualifiers of the 2015 American Ninja Warrior television show. And on March 27th of this year, she attained the level of an elite boulderer by sending her first V11 (F8a). By anyone's account, that's one impressive run.
Montana limestone Erik Pallister
A week after her V11 send, Molly gave up a portion of her Sunday afternoon to talk with me by phone about her accomplishments, training, time management and goals. In the course of our conversation, I was reminded of what a thoughtful, kind and genuinely gracious person Molly is, and how much we in Montana miss having her and Brandon in our local climbing community. Here's what Molly had to say about the past two years since leaving Missoula, and what lies ahead.
"Omaha was a really good program for Brandon to do his internship," Molly says. But no one moves to Nebraska expecting good rock climbing. So the couple formed a gameplan to make the most of the year they expected to be there. First on the list was regaining the climbing fitness lost during the pregnancy and the move. "We immediately built a woody in our garage. We set it up on hinges so you could change the angle, and equipped it very much like a systems board." Along with the home wall, they installed a hangboard, campus board and a set of SICgrips (sicgrips.com).
"There was also a gym at the university that's very similar to the University of Montana's gym. But it was expensive so we only committed to going there once a week. Other than that we were in our garage. We had a set schedule and we stuck to it really well. We'd train usually after putting the baby to bed. We'd take a monitor out with us and do a lot of training.
"We also printed out a plan from Training Beta (www.trainingbeta.com). We chose the 'get back into shape' plan that included a lot of general fitness."
Molly also followed the T25 Video Workout for "five weeks of fitness that worked out really well with Torrin. They were 25 minutes and I could do them in my living room. I was pretty good about doing those every day. I think that and the Training Beta plan were definitely good to start with because I could have seen myself getting back [to climbing] too fast from the pregnancy and hurting myself."
During their year in Nebraska, they made a couple of climbing trips to Arkansas and one trip to a nearby crag in Minnesota. But Brandon's free time was very limited. "He was doing this really intense internship and working on his dissertation. He was working, and then he'd sleep," Molly says. "And he was training in between."
"It was really stressful," she adds. "Earning a PHD is so much harder than sending hard boulder problems."
While Brandon progressed toward his objective, Molly established her own. "I decided my goal that year was to go to ABS Nationals in February of 2015, so we set up our training program to peak then." With the general fitness phase behind her, she began following a periodized plan she and Brandon had developed on their own over the years. It included phases of strength, power, and power-endurance in that order.
Competing at 2015 ABS Nationals Molly Kohler Rennie Instagram
In the fall of that year, 2014, Torrin turned 6 months old. In November Molly turned 30. She stuck to the training and on February 6th, 2015, she was in Madison, WI at Nationals where she made it through the qualifying round, entering semi-finals in 17th place. This put her in company with many of the country's top women climbers, including Angie Payne, Alex Puccio and Megan Mascarenas. She finished the competition in 20th place overall.
"The thing I realized when I got to Nationals was that I was really powerful on single moves, but I didn't have any power-endurance. If I didn't send a problem first try, I couldn't recover enough to do it again. But I had definitely added power."
AMERICAN NINJA WARRIOR
ANW Kansas City 2015 Molly Kohler Rennie Facebook
"I loved watching American Gladiator," Molly says. "I always wanted to be on that show, but of course it ended. I thought, American Ninja Warrior is pretty cool, and I decided I wanted to apply for it." Molly started the online application process, getting most of the way through, which included listing her rock climbing experience and providing pictures. But she hadn't yet submitted the final piece, a 3 minute video, and after having some second thoughts, left her application incomplete. Not long after, the show's producers contacted her and encouraged her to complete the application. Molly did, and was accepted into the 2015 season. She competed in April of 2015 in the Kansas City regional qualifiers.
Prior to that, Molly had no experience with Ninja course obstacles. Nor did she know any other Ninja athletes. "I had no idea what I was going to be getting myself into," she says. She and Brandon were still living in Omaha, and the closest training facility was three hours away in Kansas City. She travelled a few times to Kansas City to practice on the course. She and Brandon also built a home salmon ladder, one of the more notorious obstacles.
"I'm not a dynamic climber," Molly says. "If I was I would have been more successful my first time on the show. But that's where I was uncomfortable with the Ninja stuff." She fell on the second obstacle, which involved swinging from a monkey bar and flying through the air to catch a cargo net.
But simply being accepted to compete in the American Ninja Warrior is a huge accomplishment in its own right. During the televised 2015 season, the announcers spoke of the forty thousand applications the show received. At least one strong male athlete was shown camped out and waiting in a walk-on line for days just to have the chance to participate.
"Being a woman, though, is definitely low-hanging fruit," Molly says. "Being a man you have to have some story that's going to catch their attention. American Ninja Warrior really is a reality show, more than I realized it was." The show directs athletes in how to act. Molly was encouraged to blow a kiss to Torrin at the start of her run. Had she progressed through the stages, she was to be known as the "Ninja Mom."
"I kind of was bothered by that side of it. But as far as being on stage, there really aren't that many people spectating. I feel I've had way more people watching me climb before."
Ninja Training (Video Still) Molly Kohler Rennie Instagram
Whether Molly competes in the 2016 American Ninja Warrior season is up to the show's producers. She hopes she gets the call, but it doesn't really matter that much to her. As someone who has included the hashtag "#climbing_is_my_passion" in her social media posts, for Molly it's still all about climbing rocks, and the Ninja experience has benefited her considerably. Since the 2015 Kansas City qualifiers, she has continued her Ninja training, and found the obstacles have made her a better dynamic climber as well as added to her big-muscle strength, shoulders and biceps.
She also participates in a new national Ninja league, the Ultimate Ninja Athlete Association. "They're having competitions all over the country. There's nothing showy about it. The big goal for the league is it's all about the athlete." Molly has found the same sense of community among the Ninja league athletes. "You start to see the same people, like with climbing. People travel for the events."
"But," she adds, "it will never trump climbing. I consider it wonderful cross-training."
Rubberband Fingers V8, Socorro, New Mexico Molly Kohler Rennie Instagram
In July of 2015, Molly, Brandon and Torrin left Omaha and relocated to Albuquerque, New Mexico, where Brandon accepted a postdoc position in a university-affiliated autism clinic. New Mexico has produced a number of professional climbers over the years, including Timmy Fairfield, Cody Roth and Jon Cardwell. Within 45 minutes of their new home, Molly found boulder fields of quality problems put up by these and other strong climbers.
At this time, it had been a little over a year since she'd started serious post-pregnancy training and she was once again climbing at a high level. But even with the steady progress, she was sensing she might be approaching a plateau. Like many climbers with roots in Montana, Molly had taken note of Bozeman's Inge Perkins and the 5.14 sends she was accumulating. Inge often credited Kris Hampton and his Power Company training program (www.powercompanyclimbing.com) for much of her own progress. Inspired by this, Molly purchased one of the Power Company's training plans, but found it was very similar to the periodized plan she and Brandon had been using on their own.
"I needed a change," Molly says. "I needed to do something different with my training, something more specifically for what my weaknesses are."
So, in September of 2015, she contacted Hampton directly. "I emailed him really late at night and he emailed me back immediately! He was in the middle of doing the 24 hours of Horseshoe Hell. I thought, Wow, this guy is amazing!" Molly corresponded with Hampton to discuss a training program. "He was so good about answering questions, going back and forth on email. I sent him some videos and my goals. He was really excited to help me. I felt like he loves what he does. He thought about my training beyond just our conversations."
Hampton created a custom plan for Molly. The plan was comprehensive, covering seven days a week. Molly makes detailed, daily logs using a Power Co. app on her phone. Hampton reviews the entries and they adjust the schedule as needed, taking into account Molly's short-term goals, as well as any injuries that might be surfacing, rest-day activities, and other personal priorities like climbing outside on the weekend.
At the same time, Molly had started a fulltime job as an elementary librarian, working 7:30am to 2:30pm. The 2016 ABS Nationals were fast approaching in late January. And there was, of course, the high time and energy demand of parenting an 18-month-old. Time management became an essential part of the equation.
"Kris was really good about helping me make cuts to the plan. Some of the workouts were too long in the beginning, like three hours. I didn't have enough time to do those." But Molly also found benefits of having a very busy life that demanded a highly structured approach to her training.
"I think that having a kid was a really good way to get through a plateau for me because I don't slack any more, ever, when I train. When Brandon and I train we have so much time before we have to go home to get Torrin to bed. We hit it hard. We don't socialize. Our friends at the gym know this about us. I get after it every time I train or climb. My joke is, if you hit a plateau, get pregnant!"
Kris Hampton, when contacted for his impressions of Molly, identified Molly's drive and focus as major strengths.
"If I limited my relationship with my clients to watching their workout stats," Hampton says, "I may never have known that Molly is a mom who has limited time. She just doesn't allow things to get in the way. There's one common thread that links the people I work with who end up being successful, and that is that they make no excuses. When life gets tough, they get more focused. That doesn't mean they don't handle their responsibilities. Instead, in Molly's case, she's got Torrin in there with her, teaching him what it's like to stay on the path, and to have fun doing it."
Competing at 2016 ABS Nationals Molly Kohler Rennie Instagram
At the end of January, Molly reached the 2016 ABS Nationals semi-finals in 10th place, 7 positions better than the year before. She finished in 14th place overall, 6 better than 2015. Once again, Molly had shown she is among the strongest women climbers in the nation.
With Nationals over, Hampton scheduled a two-month break from intense, structured training for Molly, encouraging her to focus on outdoor bouldering as she entered the performance phase of her training cycle. And that's when she really started to crush.
The Argument V11, Ponderosa, New Mexico Molly Kohler Rennie Instagram
The weekend of March 26, 2016 was a good one for Molly. On Saturday, she won the women's division of the Ultimate Ninja Athlete Association New Mexico area qualifiers. And on Sunday, she went out and sent her first V11 boulder problem.
The climb is called the Argument, and is located less than an hour from her house in the Ponderosa Bouldering area. The area sits at 6500 ft elevation and is described on Mountain Project as "the best bouldering in New Mexico."
"There's a traverse that has a bunch of cool problems on it," Molly says. The Argument is on the other side of that boulder. "I walked around the corner one day and thought it looked pretty cool. Then I was out there later with some friends and someone said we should all see if we can do the first move. I did pretty well that day. About a month later I tried it again and almost got it, but the topout got me."
The problem is 5 powerful, crimpy moves to a scary mantle topout composed of brittle holds. The first ascensionist is listed on Mountain Project as "Timmy?" [Fairfield]. Molly thinks it might have been Jon Cardwell and that the initial grade was V12. To her knowledge, the consensus settled in at V11. But a key hold has since broken in the main part of the problem and it hasn't gotten any easier.
"It's not a very aesthetic line," Molly says, "but the style totally suited me. It has a really, really high foot, scrunched up under where your right hand is. It suits someone who is flexible, with long arms and strong fingers. That's me!"
The Argument was Molly's first V-double-digit. "I didn't have any V10s, but I have lots of V9s this season. I feel ready for that first V10 but I just haven't found one. The 9s have been going down pretty quick."
On April 9, a week after our conversation, Molly climbed her first V10, Fei Gai at Temple. -KT
Fei Gai V10, Temple, New Mexico Molly Kohler Rennie Instagram
It can be difficult to appreciate how hard V11 is when every week it seems a new V15 goes up somewhere in the world, pro climbers like Jimmy Webb and Daniel Woods flash V14, and teenagers like Ashima Shiraishi put down some of the hardest boulder problems on the planet.
So how do we put V11 (F8a) in context?
- The highest accepted bouldering grade is V15 with a couple of V16s proposed in the world.
- Austrian competition bouldering superstar Anna Stohr just made news by repeating a Klem Loskot V13, Wrestling with an Alligator.
- Lynn Hill made news in 2008 by sending Chablanke (V11/12) in Heuco Tanks at the age of 47.
Route climbers can look at these comparisons:
- Paige Claassen describes Smith Rock's To Bolt or Not to Be, the country's first 5.14a, as "a hundred and five V6 moves." (YouTube)
- Teenage crusher Drew Ruana calls Smith's 14b/c Just Do It a "series of V9 boulder problems separated by okay rests." (YouTube)
- Mike Doyle, in discussing his long-fought redpoint of the 14c benchmark route Necessary Evil, stated, "I had to make V11 and V10 feel easy." (Mike Doyle blog)
Working Chablanke V11/12, Hueco Molly Kohler Rennie Instagram
In other words, V11 is damn hard. It represents a solid 5.14 route level. And it means Molly is nipping at the heels of bouldering grades that often make world climbing news.
Molly's first V11 send may feel even better to her. The latest New Mexico guidebook lists the Argument as V12. -KT
The two month training break following ABS Nationals will come to an end in April. Both Molly and Brandon will then begin a new Power Co. plan designed by Hampton. Molly looks forward to Brandon now having the opportunity to spend more time on his own climbing. "We are equally obsessed," she says. With more typical work schedules, as well as convenient access to a climbing gym, and a Ninja obstacle gym where Molly continues honing those skills, they no longer use a home wall as in Omaha.
"I normally work seven-thirty to two-thirty," Molly says. "I'll pick up Torrin from preschool at three. I'll go to the Ninja gym until four-thirty. Then I'll meet Brandon at the climbing gym at five. We'll then leave there and go home at seven. That's not every day, but it's a fairly regular routine." They also get outside on the weekends to boulder as much as possible.
Brandon and Torrin. Behind every super woman... Molly Kohler Rennie Instagram
Next up on the horizon for Molly is the IFSC Bouldering World Cup in Vail in June. "I'm just really excited to put on a U.S. team shirt and climb. That's been an ultimate goal of mine." But she also emphasizes a large part of the appeal of the Vail World Cup is the weekend of festivities surrounding the Go Pro Mountain Games (formerly Teva Mountain Games), which it is a part of. In fact, she won't necessarily schedule her training to peak at the world cup, but instead, has her sights set on a week-long bouldering trip in early July to Leavenworth where she and Brandon hope to be joined by a number of Montana climbing friends. Traveling to climb is an important motivator for her. "I tried traveling to travel, but looking at old buildings all day just isn't my thing. But to go on a climbing trip I want to be able to climb stuff, and I don't want to be disappointed in my performance."
Following Leavenworth she would like to do some comps in the Fall, like the Portland Boulder Rally. And "I'd love to come back to the Bozeman comp." After that, she plans to do the ABS Nationals in 2017. "But I'm kind of thinking next year will be the last year I try."
"I'm clearly older than the other climbers," she laughs. "There are some older climbers. I shouldn't say everybody. But in semi-finals I was clearly the oldest. I kind of feel like my comp career is short, but almost over." Still, "I want to see what I can do."
This, as much as anything, seems to define Molly's approach to her athletic goals. She is without a doubt driven and has that essential innate ability shared by other top athletes to kick into a higher gear when the game is on - whether that's in a competition or reeling in the send of a hard boulder problem outside. But she is also pragmatic, a realist. She doesn't wish for things to happen, she works hard for them, at the same time recognizing there are constraints that come with choices made and the desire to live a full, well-rounded life.
This approach likely means we'll hear a lot more of Molly Kohler Rennie in the years to come.
"I haven't slowed down yet since I've been getting back into shape. It's just been a steady progression," she says. "Which is really cool because you don't expect that."
How hard can she climb? What can she achieve? Her coach, Kris Hampton, has some final thoughts on that.
"Molly has the one thing that can take her further than any training I throw at her," Hampton says. "She sincerely loves this. I fully expect that she'll continue to get better, and that V11 is in no way a cap on what she's capable of."
Molly, Brandon, Torrin Molly Kohler Rennie Facebook
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