Photo Credit: Sarah Gmeiner

Walking mid-air on a highline requires not just incredible balance, but serious focus and a cool head – attributes that have seen 24-year-old highliner Sarah Rixham achieve a world first. Not long ago, she held the world record for the furthest distance ever walked by a woman on a highline – at the time an impressive 122m highline walk. Here, the Sheffield-born highliner gives us an insight into her training, 2017 goals and what it feels like to be balanced on an inch-wide piece of fabric hundreds of feet in the air.

Tell us about your sporting background. How did you get into highlining?
I played football when I was young until I got a knee injury just before starting university. Sport was really something that always gave me a lot of pleasure – and pain when I couldn’t do it through injury. I started climbing and slacklining when I was at Sixth Form and carried on through university, climbing more until I finally got into highlining. I got to properly try highlining when a friend went to California to study for a year and came back with the gear and knowledge to highline. Then we quickly became integrated into the small UK highline scene.

How long did it take you to graduate from slackline to highline?
I was slacklining for about 4 years before I started highlining. It was something I always wanted to do, but I didn’t know how to get into it. I had a couple of attempts at trying to set up highlines before I met people who really knew how. Now the sport has grown a bit it’s much easier to find people to learn about highlining from, which is much safer than going off and trying to work it out yourself – which is not encouraged!

Can you explain a bit about what highlining involves?
Highlining is slacklining (balancing on a piece of flat webbing) at a height where a fall would result in death or serious injury, and a harness and safety leash are used to prevent that. The principle of rigging a highline is that all elements of the system are redundant so in case of one component failing the whole setup won’t fail.

How do you get the line rigged up across huge gaps in the mountains?
It depends a lot on the location. If there’s the possibility to walk around the cliff or go below the gap and connect ropes to pull up, that works well, but if you’re talking about really big gaps then some people use drones to fly over a fishing line which can be used to pull a thicker cord and then the webbing over. My only experience of trying this ended in the drone pilot crashing the drone into the cliff he was standing on about 50 metres below!

Photo Credit: Tom Parker

You held the women’s record for the longest highline walk – at 122m – for a year. Can you talk us through your experience of breaking the record?
I was in Switzerland on a mountain called Moleson during an event called Highline Extreme where a group of highliners were meeting to try and walk some long lines. I wasn’t trying to break the record; it just happened that the line I walked was slightly longer than one a woman had recently completed. I didn’t feel like it was much progress on what she had done, so [I] didn’t have the barrier of disbelief to break. I also saw an amazing women almost just walk it before me so I knew it was possible. But I did break through a personal barrier in my mind [with that walk]; I didn’t have much confidence that I could walk long lines before that.

What physical attributes do you need as a highliner?
Some strength is needed in the legs, core and shoulders. Walking a highline can be a bit more strenuous than a normal line because of the weight, but walking a highline isn’t particularly strength dependent; good technique can mitigate too much energy use. However, strength is needed to move about on the line, catch the line when you fall and climb up the leash when you fall off. I’ve noticed a big increase in upper body strength from highlining – probably because I fall off a lot!

Balancing on a highline looks to be as much of a mental game as a physical one – is that right?
Yes, that is definitely true. There are several mental aspects including managing fear, visual perception and concentration. Fear is usually the first barrier many people meet – it can feel quite unnatural to be out in space with only one inch of webbing holding you up. This can be a real challenge for some people, but a great way to teach your body to deal with irrational fears. A good way to get over these fears is to understand about the equipment and how the highline is set up so you can fully trust in its safety before going out on the line.

Another difficulty for your brain is the actual balance when you lose some of the visual orientation that you’re used to on a line near the ground. With all the space around you, it’s harder to see where you are in relation to the line. There’s also the challenge of concentration, as with on a normal slackline you need to find the balance of focus where you’re relaxed and in control but not putting too much energy into what you’re doing.

When you first did a highline did you feel nervous?
I was too over-excited to be nervous, but I found just a very short line hard to even sit on; it moved a lot, which shows I had tension in my body and it didn’t feel natural or like something I was used to.

What goes through your mind when you’re balancing thousands of ft up on a highline?
Depending on the difficulty of the line I can sometimes stand around and appreciate the view and exposure. If I’m trying to walk a line without falling, I need to get into a flow-state but there can still be many things going through my mind. Sometime I use mantras to keep my mind focused; it’s best when my mind goes quiet and I focus on nothing. This state changes with every session.

Photo Credit: Tobias Rodenkirch

You were recently unsuccessful in your attempt to set a new world record for a 290m highline walk. Can you tell us about this attempt?
My personal goal for about a year has been to walk a 200m+ highline, as I really struggle with the concentration and endurance needed to walk these longer lines, yet I really love the state I can find walking them. I got invited to a project in Turkey sponsored by the municipality where they wanted some record attempts for publicity of the area. The women’s world record at the time was 223m walked by a Canadian girl, so trying to walk further than this fitted with what I was trying anyway. I really love having a goal to work towards as it pushes me that extra bit further in what I’m trying to do – to put in that extra bit of effort to organise trips and chances to train; to have that extra session and stay on the line a bit longer. I realised that the things you achieve along the way are as good as actually achieving the goal, and that’s helped me progress a lot as an athlete.

The time in Turkey was very challenging – trying to rig 3 different lines with difficult access and rigging that took a lot of our energy and countless logistical challenges. I really loved having the chance to try sending the line. I first started off working out how I could feel most comfortable on the line, and then it started to feel really good and I had a great attempt where I walked to about 40m from the end. I really thought I’d be able to make it, but slipped on the backup webbing. I tried in further attempts to remove the twists in the line before walking so that wouldn’t happen again, but it took up quite a bit of energy. On the last couple of days I really tried to work out what was limiting me on this line. I would have 5 or 6 attempts in one session but always struggled with endurance after two thirds of the line, and couldn’t push on without making a mistake and falling.

I feel like in the end it was mostly a head game, but also that I hadn’t had enough specific training on long lines. I was really trying to push myself hard and I was really happy with how I’ve improved. It’s still a challenge that I want to achieve.

What kind of training do you do for highlining?
I mostly just slackline and do a little bit of other balance training when I can’t go out slacklining. To make a line on the ground, I use weights on the line to make it heavy and create oscillations and I sometimes practise blind, but these things never quite give me the same challenge as a highline. I’d like to do more specific highline training but I’m usually quite limited with the time and lines I have to train on.

What does a typical week’s training look like?
I spend 2-3 nights a week slacklining in the park in the summer and in the gym in the winter. I’ll try to do yoga/pilates and strength and mobility a couple of times a week, and stretch most days. At the weekend I spend both days highlining if possible.

Where do you train?
In the park and in a gym at uni where we have indoor lines during winter.

What do you enjoy about highlining?
I like the struggle and that you can constantly challenge yourself. I like the pure calm and flow and also exhilaration that you can find. I particularly love the ability to go to beautiful places and experience them from an exposed place with space around me.

Photo Credit: Carwyn Davies

Do you climb as well as highline or do any other sports?
Yes, I climb but not as much as I used to. I tried to do both highlining and climbing but I broke my finger on a highline when I was just getting into it which stopped my climbing for a while. I could still keep highlining, so it pushed me more towards that.

What’s your favourite place in the world to highline?
So far, Switzerland. I just love the mountains and want to do much more there.

Have you ever had any scary moments on a highline?
If you mean rationally scary then you’re talking about sketchy moments and I haven’t really had any of those. I’ve had some irrationally scary ones though, for example when going on my first really long highline about 200m and feeling really insecure and exposed.

What are your favourite pieces of kit for highlining?
My favourite webbing for a highline is a thick, tubular nylon webbing that feels so soft and cushiony when I stand up on it – it makes me feel really comfortable when walking compared to when I can feel that the webbing is sharp below my feet. I always wear a buff or headband when on the line. This is a habit that helps me to feel comfortable for some reason.

Do you wear special shoes for highlining or is it barefoot?
I prefer barefoot as there’s more sensitivity and it feels more free, but in winter I wear rubber swimming shoes to stop my feet freezing!

Photo Credit: Tom Parker

Is there a secret to ending a slackline or highline wobble?
It depends on the type of wobble. Sometimes it might be coming from your own movements, so you need to relax and be calm and the line will be calm too. If it’s an oscillation created by the resonance of the line, keeping precise reduces the oscillations you make and you can do things such as absorb or deflect the oscillations. It’s really about learning how the lines move with lots of practise!

Have you got any tips for helping readers improve their balance?
It’s easy to make a homemade wobble board so you can practise balancing while you eat your dinner.  Cleaning your teeth standing on one leg with your eyes close is also a good one, and just try to balance on everything!

What are your top tips for beginner slackliners?
Don’t think that you need to have good balance to try it, and don’t be demoralised if it’s tough to start. Just persevere and you will get that feeling. Ask for advice if you want to get into something new – the community is amazing. Find groups in your area and talk to people you see slacklining in the park, as they’re always happy to have a chat. Try different types of lines; 1-inch/2-inch, tight/loose, stretchy/static – the variety will give you a broader range of skills.

Do you have any sponsors?
Yes, Slacktivity.

What’s next for you for 2017?
I don’t have particular plans yet. I’m currently making some life choices so I may be looking for some projects to do soon!

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