Monday, September 28, 2015

Wicked Mud Run

This Saturday, I headed to Shrewsbury, Massachusetts and Ski Ward to represent the NE Spahtens at Wicked Mud Run. It was one of my first media gigs, and I was very excited. Judging by the Facebook event, the team was going to have a small turn-out, but I was planning for fun nonetheless. The sun was shining. It was cool and comfortable. It was the perfect day for a 5K obstacle course race!

I arrived at Ski Ward about an hour before the scheduled team heat. As per the email sent to race participants, parking was free. (Spectators too, which was nice because it looked like some people brought their kids.) Ski Ward is, in the words of the British, “wee.” It’s more of a bunny slope than a ski mountain. In keeping with that, there was a small dirt parking lot in front, and then a small lodge at the foot of the hill. The parking was steps away from the festival area. You could leave you bag in your car easily. They also provided a free bag check, which is what I did, having no place to leave my car keys otherwise. These nice little perks – free parking, free spectators, and free bag check – definitely provided a good impression.

After getting out of my car, I headed into the festival area to pick-up my bib. Here I hit a bit of a snag. The registration and bib pick-up line was long and slow moving. At one point, they even had to take people who were doing the 11:00 a.m. heat and have them cut to the front of the line so that they’d make it to the starting line on time. As it was, the first and second heats ended up starting a few minutes behind, though nothing serious. Spending a fairly long time at registration at a pretty small race is kind of a hassle and could have been avoided by having more volunteers at registration. (That being said the volunteers that were at registration were awesome! Sorry you guys were so overworked.) On the plus side, I got to spent my time in the registration line chatting with fellow Spahten Marc, who was volunteering, so I cannot say that I had anything other than a pleasant wait.

After receiving my bib, I decided to walk around the festival area. It was very small, but the booths that were there were interesting. There was a bag check that was giving out Honest Tea. Zoobells was there – these are seriously so cool, and I really want to get some; the koala is extra adorable. There was also a local obstacle course racing gym. The tables were limited, but it was a nice assortment of small and local businesses. The festival atmosphere was enhanced by a live band that was playing on the other side of the starting coral.

Soon, they called our wave. I stepped into the chute with a couple of other Spahtens. There were some brief remarks, music played, a horn sounded, and without much fanfare, we were off.

The race started with a short wall of around 4’ followed by a climb up the hill. There was a small backlog at the wall but nothing serious. I quickly rolled over the wall and begin jogging/hiking up the hill. Next up was a ladder wall. It was short – probably around seven or eight feet, but it was given some interest by having the rungs on the far side of the ladder wall be on a diagonal.

We then entered a stretch of wood with some trail running. The terrain was nice with some rolling hills with some rocks and logs mixed in. It served to keep things a little bit interesting. In the woods, we encountered an inverted wall with a net attached. I was running with fellow Spahten, Shaina, who is a regular at Elevated Training. She mentioned that normally the inverted wall and the net are two separate obstacles. Today, for Wicked Mud Run, they were conjoined to aid people with the wall and make things more beginner-friendly.

After the climbing the net and sliding down the inverted wall, we headed down the hill to a very short rope climb. The climb was maybe 8’. Max. I did the j-hook and two pulls up and I was to the top. I dropped down and was ready to slalom my way back up the hill.

From this point, I do not exactly recall the precise arrangement of the obstacles. I remember doing a slightly taller 7’ wall as well as some short hurdles. I fondly remember doing a set of monkey bars, which served as my favorite obstacle of that day! For this obstacle, there were two lanes. One was just widely spaced monkey bars – around a half dozen of them. The other, featured a horizontal bar, from which you had to transition and do around three or four monkey bars. I chose the latter and had a blast on this obstacle. I had to get a good swing going to make it from one wide monkey bar to the other. After the monkey bars, was a taller eight or nine foot wall. All of the walls featured kicks and were very manageable.

From there, we came upon the traverse wall. The race had two traverse walls. One was a standard short traverse wall. The second was a zig zag traverse wall. I chose the second one. The blocks on the wall were actually pretty far apart and getting around the corner was a challenge. I really liked this one!

Next up was the mud portion of Wicked Mud Run. We had to wade through a couple of muddy trenches that went up to my belly button. Then it was another pair of trenches of similar depth, this time with a pair of logs in each that you had to go over or under – I chose over. Following that was a sandbag carry. I usually dread carries, but this one was a short up and back, a not very steep section of hill. Plus, the sandbag was probably 15 or 20 pounds at the most. I was happy to be able to jog the down section of the hill.

From there, it was another set of watery-mud pits follow by a small angled wall with a rope. This wall and rope climb was short – probably around 7’ and fine even with wet shoes. Next, we headed a short ways back up the hill before descending to a slip-n-slide. I’ve been wary of slip-n-slides since 2013 and the Superhero Scramble’s disastrous slip-n-slide in Amesbury. However, the one at Wicked Mud Run was nothing to worry about. It was short and not that steep. A friendly volunteer with a hose, who was manning the obstacle, told me to run and dive. I apparently didn’t run and dive hard enough because I ended up like a beached whale about midway along the slide. I had to paddle my way forward, as another volunteer recommended soaping the entire obstacle. (Yes, this was entertaining.)

From there, it was a very short run to the finish line, which I crossed in between 50 minutes and an hour. I was handled a very neat medal. (Though no t-shirt – those cost extra.) 

Honestly, the biggest challenge of the day was finding some place to change out of my wet race gear and into clear clothing. With no changing tent and no rinse station, this proved a bit of a challenge. I ended up hiding out in some random ski boot rental location at Ski Ward to change my clothing and try to towel off. (I had a lunch date with a friend and had to look at least somewhat like a normal person!)

This race, appropriately, seemed to attract a lot of first time obstacle course racers. As I traveled through the course, this made sense. The course was, for lack of a better word, friendly. There were no serious climbs, though we went up and down the hill at Ski Ward around four times. The obstacles were small and simple. Only one or two provided any real challenge in my mind. (Note: To be clear, I race at Shale Hill. A lot. My sense of what is normal may be warped by this.) Ski Ward is home to Elevated Training. I would have loved to see Wicked Mud Run partner with them and use even more of the Elevated Training obstacles in the course. Fixed obstacles, like the rope traverse that Elevated Training has, were bypassed in the Wicked Mud Run course to provide a more beginner-friendly experience. Again, I speak of this as a “criticism” only as someone who has done a fair bit of obstacle course racing. For the person doing their first race, Wicked Mud Run is a good bet – it’s not too challenging, the course is well laid out, and everyone is very friendly and encouraging. I cannot think of many courses where I have been cheered on as much as I was at Wicked Mud Run. The volunteers were simply stellar about this.

Bottom line: This race was not for me. It’s for the newbie obstacle course racer trying their first race. I had an okay time. My enjoyment was enhanced by the cool people on the course. The obstacle, for me, were a bit simple and easy. Yes, I do a lot of obstacle course racing and prefer challenging course, so I am coming at it from that perspective. All that being said, I definitely think the registration snafu needs to be addressed if this race wants to attract a larger crowd. At around $30 to $40 per person, this race is a bargain and good for first-timers wanting a very beginner-friendly race. Would I travel out to Ski Ward for this race again? Probably not. But then again, it’s not for me, is it?

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Shale Hill Weekend Training Camp

The past two days, I spent five hours a day doing obstacle course training at Shale Hill's weekend training camp. (Note: I had been planning to do the week long training camps in mid-August, but that camp was cancelled due to under enrollment causing me to attend the weekend camp.) I had come up to Shale Hill for a training weekend with the NE Spahtens last summer -- it was actually my first time on the course. I found the experience invaluable and was excited to get more time on the course training and getting some suggestions for a couple of the obstacles that I have yet to really get down.

Prior to the camp, the half dozen participants received an email with information and asking one key question: What do you want to work on this weekend? Because I'm apparently impossible at replying to anything with brevity, my reply email (minus pleasantries and logistical information) read like this:

My overall goal with the weekend is to lay the groundwork for my off season training so that I can be in top shape for racing come next summer. One thing I am particularly interested in doing is racing the full 24 hour event at 24 Hours of Shale Hell next summer. I'd be interested in talking with Rob about a training plan for that race. I see the 24 hour race as a goal race that can highlight my increased OCR-related fitness next year. Also, I'm probably looking to do the open division instead of racing journeyman next year -- it's time. Here's a breakdown of the smaller goals that I see feeding into that bigger goal.

1. With the exception of the parallel bars, I have now made it through every obstacle at Shale Hill at least once. I would like to improve my consistency on a few obstacles: Tarzan ropes (which I've made during training but not on race day), tire swings, zigzag of awesomeness, and the 19' rope climb (which I'm getting better at, so that might come off the list). Any suggestions for technique or muscles to improve so as to get more consistent on these obstacles would be great. I'll work on doing more dips to get better at the parallel bars.
2. Carries. I struggled with the carries. In fact, my almost complete inability to make it through the log splitter is what's keeping me in the journeyman division (as I like the option of taking a slosh pipe). I need to get better at this and would like to hear how I can train to be more efficient and effective with my carries. 
3. Figure out a training plan for 24 Hours of Shale Hell!

I was ready to head up to Benson and begin the work necessary to set the stage for the 2016 race season.

The Shale Hill weekend training camp costs $350, housing included, or $250 if you want to train without housing. For the price, you get to train with Rob, the owner of Shale Hill and an extremely excellent obstacle course racer and trainer, from 9:00 a.m. - 2:00 p.m. daily. As the Shale Hill site says, the camp will cover:

  • Obstacle technique (efficiency and movement)
  • One on one time
  • Training techniques for home use
  • Running gate assessment and shoe fitment

All training will be custom - based off the attendees goals and abilities. Full access to the course and gym outside hours.

I arrived up at Shale Hill Friday night. The $350 included two nights (Friday and Saturday). Since I live around three hours away, it made sense to go up the night before. I would be sharing accommodations with the other camp attendees: Barbara, Louise, Wanda, Jim, and Marc.

The apartment at Shale Hill is outfitted with two rooms each containing two sets of bunk beds and two sleeper couches.There is also a full kitchen, so you can make all your food there. When the apartment is not in use for training camps and the like, it can be rented out for $150 a night.

After I arrived on Friday night at around 7:30 p.m., we decided to use some of the daylight left to us to go and look at one or two obstacles on the course. We started by heading over to the Zigzag of Awesomeness. It was Marc and Louise's first time up at Shale Hill. Barbara had been up a lot. Jim had been up once last fall (so the Zigzag was new to him). Wanda had been up a few times but didn't tend to race. All of us stood at the Zigzag when Louise gave it a try. I was impressed -- it was her first time seeing it, and she made it across.

We also decided to head over to the Tarzan Swing. I'm able to make it through this obstacles with increasing consistency. Rob had provided training tips when I was first up at Shale Hill last year, and after a year of practice, I found I was finally able to make it through most of the time. I shared some of the instruction I had received and did a small demo on the Tarzan Swing. We all took turns trying it out and practiced getting the feel of the movement through the air. 

After, we decided to head back for an early night and some rest. After all, we had five hours of training the next day, and we didn't want to tire our hands out already.

Saturday morning, I got up, went down to the Benson Village Store for some coffee and an egg bagel, and then headed back to Shale Hill to meet in the gym at 9:00 a.m. for day one of training. We were also joined by Sarah, who was coming to train for the morning in preparation for her first Spartan race next weekend.

We started by going around and talking a bit about our goals for the training weekend. The group contained people who were all fit but had varying levels of experience with obstacle course racing. I talked about how I was hoping to use the weekend to set the stage for my 2016 training, to get some take-away's for training on my own, and to get advice for training for next year's 24 Hours of Shale Hell race.

After getting a feel for our goals, Rob did a bit of talking about obstacle course racing in general and how to train in the gym so as to gain skills that would help you on the course. He began by detailing the ABCs for approaching obstacles (Accelerate towards the obstacle, use a Burst of energy to get through, and Complete the obstacle). Rob also gave us information about how to do training in the gym with ropes and recommended that we all get some rope to carry around the gym with us for all purposes. Having strong hands and good grip strength and endurance is key to success in obstacle course racing and making your hands used to having ropes in them is a good first step.

From there, we headed out on to the course to begin practicing rope climbing and going over walls. We all had a chance to try the s-hook and the j-hook for rope climbing. I use the s-hook for ascending ropes, as I prefer how stable it is; however, it's not ideal for coming down -- the j-hook is designed for repelling and is faster and less likely to give you rope burn. I did a bit of practice on transitioning from the s to the j-hook while we all did our rope climbing.  

Rob also showed us the most efficient way to go over a wall. He's a fan of running at and then up the wall, a technique I had seen before. He also likes to roll over the wall, putting his stomach over and then rolling the legs along the side, instead of sitting up on the wall. I do okay with running at the wall but definitely needed to practice getting over the top without sitting up. This was a good opportunity to do so.

Next up was the Rope Ramp. This gave us the opportunity to do a bit more practice with rope climbing, especially useful for the newer folks.

From there, we headed over to the jungle (the area at Shale Hill in the woods with lots of climbing obstacles). We took the chance to talk about trail running and downhill running. Rob talked about his strategy for training running: Look for flattest path around objects on the trail by sighting far ahead for level ground. While Rob emphasized keeping your torso upright and movement minimal when doing most running, when trail running he said it often made sense to stutter step and have arms out to side for balance. 

He also showed us the most efficient way to run downhill by planting the foot (not heel) and using your quads. Finally, we discussed the best way to seamlessly vault a log, planting your foot on the side on the log nearest you, instead of directly on top of the log and moving over the log in a crouch, trying to keep your head from bobbing up at down. All of these efforts conserve energy for later in the course.

Up next were the climbing obstacles, the Linkin' Logs and the Ladders. We more or less just practiced going up and down the Linkin' Logs, with Rob reminding us how to properly angle our feet in the cutouts and sight upwards, dragging our feet along the logs and feeling for the next grove instead of looking down. I enjoy the Linkin' Logs, and it was fun to get to play around a bit on them and see everyone else be successful at this obstacle.

At the Ladders, Rob demonstrated a few different approaches for speed and efficiency. There was the option to grab the rope right above the step, put a knee on the first rung and then climb normally. Alternatively, you could climb the side, which would make the ladder move less. I've used the sideways technique before with smaller, metal ladders, but I personally doing a more traditional climb to work better for me with the Shale Hill ladders. 

From the Ladders, we made our way to the Great Wall, a five paneled six part traverse wall. At Shale Hill, you start on the first traverse wall and don't touch the ground until you've made it across all five panels and the balance beams or overhead beams that connect the walls. In general, you start on one side and stay on that side, alternating between walls that have you holding blocks and standing on blocks and other easier walls that have you standing on a railing and using blocks for handholds. I've been pretty successful on the Great Wall lately, so while Rob introduced the wall to others, he told me to go ahead and complete it using the foot and hand blocks side all the way along.

I had to stop and shake my arms out a couple of times, but I made it. Rob then provided instruction about the fastest way to make it across the overhead beams that connect two sets of the traverse walls. He recommended leaning out as far as you could, swinging and almost jumping your hands to the end of the beam. I tried twice, and this is definitely going to take some practice, but you cannot beat this technique for speed. 

The Heinous Hoist was up next. I find hoists a bit challenging, and Rob's pointer on this was very helpful for me. He recommended grabbing the rope high and then dropping down in a frog squat using the entire weight of your body to move the object up. As you do this you almost jump back up and quickly go up the rope with your hands using momentum to help you move the object. This strategy works much more easily than what I had been doing (which was grabbing the rope high and then walking back in a squat to bring the weight up). Rob's technique uses a lot less energy and is much faster. I will be doing this at all future races.

Our final couple of obstacles before lunch were the Alcatraz Wall and the Balance Beams. We were all pretty successful here. 

We even practiced playing around on speeding through the beams at an (almost run). Plus, some people (though certainly not me) were doing them backwards!

From there, we headed back to the gym for lunch and a quick selfie and team photo with Sarah who had to head back home. 

During lunch, Rob took time to do more instruction about how to train at the gym for obstacle course racing success. Some of the exercises and tips he shared included:
  • Bicep curls where you roll the weight out to fingertips 
  • Alligator crawls
  • Farmers carry (for which he recommended using a weight with lip on one side and carrying weight plates almost to failure) 
  • Roll-outs
  • Rope walk downs, in which you stand and hold a rope then lean forward towards the rope and walk your planked body towards the floor
  • Tricep pull downs with a rope 
  • Putting a regular rope around a dumbbell and doing curls and the like that way
  • All ropes, all the time 
  • Do hundreds of reps instead of a small number to build muscular endurance instead of bulk

Rob also highlighted the importance of keeping your feet happy and showed us how to wrap vet tape around your ankle and the top of your shoes to keep out pebbles. 

After lunch, we headed back out onto the course to hit up the Zigzag of Awesomeness. I struggle on this obstacle a little bit and was glad to get some practice in. We reviewed doing the obstacle the traditional way, ascending the poles, and also did the obstacle in reverse. The purpose of doing the obstacle backwards was to give us a feel for the best way to pendulum our body left and right as we moved our hands along the pole. Rob also emphasized reaching far apart so as to move most quickly. 
I chatted with Rob a little bit about how I am not the best at this obstacle and he recommended working a bit on getting my hands stronger. I also think a piece of this is focus. The one time I completed this obstacle, I was super focused and also did not let any doubt creep into my mind. I need to maintain that mentality. 

Next up was the Tarzan Swing. I had done some demonstrating on this obstacle the night before, so Rob let me go first and show him what I had told the others. I made it all the way through. Others then took turns practicing as Rob gave pointers and showed the different methods you need to tackle the obstacle when you use the knotted versus unknotted ropes. 

We had taken a while with lunch and also spent a good amount of time on the Tarzan Swing, since it's a very challenging obstacle for people. It was time to head back.

After taking some time for some R&R, the training group decided to take advantage of our time at Shale Hill and access to the facilities there and head back out on the course. We hit up the Loom and the Tire Swings for about an hour and a half and played around. We went back to the apartment in time to all take showers and then get ready for the cookout over at Rob's house that evening. 

The cookout was a great way to wrap-up the day and enjoy some socializing and downtime. As always, Rob was an amazing host. We had plans to do a bonfire and roast some s'mores but ended up being tired and decided to head back to the apartment for a good night's sleep before our next training day on Sunday. 

Day two of training, I awoke to a second day of perfect weather. Rob had intimated that we'd be having some "celebrity" trainers coming. I had been excited to learn that it would be none other than Jason and Heather Moss, both members of Team Sinergy, experienced obstacle course racers, and all around fantastic trainers and athletes. I have done a bit of training with Rob at this point, so getting to train with Heather and Jason was a fabulous opportunity to get a different take on some of the obstacles and learn different techniques. Benefiting from the expertise of a variety of different athletic trainers proved to be likely my favorite part of the training weekend. 

Again, we met up in the gym at 9:00 a.m. Jason started us out with a boot camp inspired warm-up and then Heather led us through a stretch. It was very nice to see their two different coaching approaches, which worked to complement each other very well. Jason has a no nonsense "Just do it" approach, which I really enjoy. Heather offers a more encouraging take. The balance of the two is really effective. They are both great at showing you various approaches for tackling obstacles. Jason is tall and can take advantage of that on some of the obstacles. Heather is more around my height, and I found it extremely helpful to get advice from her as a result. Techniques that work for taller athletes like Rob and Jason are sometimes a bit more of a challenge for shorter athletes like me, and so Heather's versions of things proved very useful. 

We started our day on the course out at the wall and rope again and had a chance to practice our skills. Heather also modeled a different approach to getting over the wall -- instead of running at the wall, she stands next to it and jumps to reach the top before walking up and then rolling over. I had some success with the running method, but it's not 100%, so Heather's approach was great to see and will be what I do in future races.

Next up, we headed over to the Pond Traverse. Jason demonstrated the below the rope technique and Heather showed us how to do the traverse above the rope. I tend to favor both methods -- doing the top technique to the middle of the rope and then transitioning to below. I practiced both ways. I very rarely fail the rope traverse. (The only time I've failed in the last year was at Tri-Obstaclon.) I am definitely getting faster though. Honestly, going as fast as possible makes this obstacle easier. Limit your time on the rope was the key message.

After the Pond Traverse, we headed down to Gut Check. Of all the obstacles, I think this one gives me most pause. I always just climb up the sides, which is not the proper way to do this obstacle at all. One is supposed to jump from the lower log to the upper one, like you can see Heather doing in the picture below. Heather talked with me a bit about this one and how to really power off the bottom log. For the first time, I did both Gut Checks (that's right there are two of them) and made it over. I had to scramble a little bit to pull myself over the top log and scraped my arm a bit, but I now understand now key it is to jump hard off the bottom log. This will never be a favorite obstacle, and it will always make me kind of nervous with the potential for bruises and scrapes, but if I keep practicing technique, I should be able to do it properly soon. 

We headed over to the Rope Ramp where we did a bit more rope climbing and talked about running form some more. Jason talked about mid-foot striking and how proper running form will help with endurance. He also reiterated some pointers from earlier about hill climbing and downhill running. For climbing hills, you want to keep your torso upright and act as though you are climbing stairs. For running downhill, he mirrored what Rob said the day before about the importance of sighting ahead.

From there, we headed into the field where we got to do some work on the Double Ups and the Cliff Jumper. Everyone did really well on the Double Ups. Some people even modeled a fancy dismount with a flip.

I really like Cliff Jumper, so I was excited to get to look at this obstacle. I have no trouble getting up, but I am fairly inefficient coming down, since I use a rope on the back of the obstacle, do an s-hook and slowly lower myself. Jason showed me how to just lean off the top and climb down the wall on the other side without the rope. This looks surprisingly easier than what I was doing. Good tip!

We headed back to the barn for what was supposed to be a quick lunch but ended up being an hour of chatting about OCR World Championships in Ohio this October and the sport of Obstacle Course Racing. It was a good time to socialize and digest, but it took away time from training. I'm hoping that for next year, the Shale Hill camp considers doing training from 9:00 a.m. - noon, breaking an hour for lunch, and then training again from 1:00 - 3:00 p.m. As it was, with the 9:00 a.m. - 2:00 p.m. training window, we really only ended up training for four hours instead of five because of lunch. Splitting things up might allow for a less compacted afternoon of training and time for chatting during lunch. 

Once lunch was finished, we ran the approximately one mile out to the Loom. We had practiced some there the other day, and I am pretty efficient on the Loom, having spent a good amount of time on this obstacle at our NE Spahtens training weekend last year, so I could have skipped this one. However, it was a good opportunity for others. I ran through the Loom a couple of times because it's always good to repeat and train. 

It was almost 1:30 p.m., so we made a quick trip to the 11' wall and the 19' rope climb. There is no real trick to the 11' wall, according to Jason -- just walk up and over. We had done a lot of rope climbing at this point. I did a quick trip up and down. Some others did the same. A few people had kind of roughed up hands at this point and decided to save their strength for the next obstacle, the monkey bars. 

Since everyone in the group was able to make it across the horizontal rotating monkey bars, a lot of time was spent on the uphill monkey bars. I had never really devoted any time to them since they are not required for women running in the open division. However, it was great to see how people worked on this obstacle. The key seems to be doing them backwards so as to use the strength of your back to lift yourself up and along. The rungs are pretty widely spaced, so for someone with a shorter wingspan, you find your self almost doing a pull-up. Heather did an amazing demonstration and a number of people in our group made it impressively far on the uphill monkey bars. I decided to try, and was able to make it to the third rung. While this isn't an obstacle I think I'll ever have to do, it's always fun trying new challenges and getting the feel for new things. I might come and play around on this one more in the future. 

The day was winding down, so I asked if it would be possible to go over to the Log Splitter Carry. One of my goals for the weekend was to get some work in with the heavy carries. Jason said we could, so we headed over there. 

The Log Splitter is my nemesis and part of the reason why I have been running in the journeyman division. Since this had to change, I needed to figure out a solution for the Log Splitter. This was my chance to get some pointers for how to select a log, do the carry, and train for success. 

Heather gave me a great demonstration for the carry. She told me how to select the longer, thinner logs for a slightly lighter log but also emphasized the benefits of taking slightly shorter logs which I could holder underneath with my hands. (The thinner logs, while lighter are quite long and you cannot grasp them underneath.) She demonstrated how to stand the logs on the ground with the strap separating them and then how to squat down to pick up. To do this, you put your head under the strap and then stand with a flat back using the strength of your legs. The band between the logs should be positioned, as much as possible, on the meaty part of your upper shoulders and back instead of on your neck.

I tried with the thinner logs and then the thicker shorter logs, until I got the feel of it. Getting the logs on my back properly and efficiently made a big difference. The other two women in the group decided for their last activity of the day to go and do the Tarzan Swing again. Heather took them, while Jason and the other two men joined me for a loop of the Log Splitter Carry. This was my second time doing the carry, and I was much more successful than at Polar Bear. Not only did I not hurt myself, but I managed the weight well, kept good form, and kept moving at, what is for me, a descent pace. At the end of the carry, I thanks Jason for letting me practice. This was what I came to training camp for -- to get solutions to the obstacles I struggle with the most. 

So who should attend the Shale Hill training camp? The short answer: Anyone interested in obstacle course racing. The long answer: I would highly recommend the camp for anyone wanting to go to Shale Hill for the first time. I think it's very helpful to go to Shale Hill and do a couple of days of training where you can get a feel for the obstacles before doing a race there. Sure this is not a requirement by any means, but the obstacles at Shale Hill can be technical and having someone run you through them with detailed instruction is very helpful. The camp is also great for anyone new to the sport of obstacle course racing. Rob is an experienced, patient, and detail-oriented teacher. He will teach the proper technique that will allow you to be successful in the sport. Learning good skills early-on is key for building a good base.

For next year, I'd love to see Shale Hill offer "leveled" camps for beginner, intermediate, and advanced training. This would provide a great opportunity for athletes at similar places in their training to work together and learn from each other. It would also mean that people who are learning techniques for the first time would be grouped together and not feel rushed as they practice skills. Similarly, it would allow people who have already mastered the basics to spend more time working on more technical areas and improving skills in the margins to improve speed and efficiency. No matter your level of experience, Rob has something to teach you, and he is good at customizing training to the individual once he sees your level of experience. Having the training weekends (or weeks!) broken out by experience will allow athletes to have a more catered experience.

I got some good training tips from the Shale Hill camp -- the weekend in Vermont was a great investment -- I look forward to talking with Rob more about a training plan for next year and to begin training for a good 2016 season. I think the training weekend, plus the training I've done up at Shale Hill on my own this year, has resulted in some nice improvements. I plan to do some scaling back of my training this fall (to coincide with the start of my classes for my Master's) and then will begin training in earnest again in early winter with some base building and then more systematic training in the spring. I look forward to having a good plan to do that and think the training weekend has gotten me off to a good start.

(Note: Photos taken by me, Louise, and Marc. Thanks, team!)

Monday, August 17, 2015

Shale Hill Moss Anniversary / Benson Bear Race

2:44. That's my new PR for Shale Hill, a 6.5 mile obstacle course with 65 obstacles. This personal best came on a day when I failed only five of the obstacles and made it almost 2/3 of the way through the course with 100% obstacle completion. All this on August 16, 2015 at the Moss Anniversary / Benson Bear Race.

Race day ended up having fairly perfect weather. It was less hot than predicted and the humidity seemed low. It wasn't too sunny. The only minus was that it had rained intensely the day before leaving the course fairly slippery.

Around 100 people had turned up for the run. The Moss Anniversary / Benson Bear Race is actually the only traditional race on the Shale Hill calendar for the year. It's racer's sole chance to see how they can do on the course, one lap, as fast as they can. This much have good appeal because the attendance was second only to the Polar Bear 8 Hour,

The race has a great community feel, likely in part because it honors the anniversary of Jason and Heather Moss who had their wedding at Shale Hill in the summer of 2014. Shale Hill has a devoted fan group and those who frequent the course are treated like family by owners Rob and Jill and also come to be friendly faces at races. In addition to the absolutely stellar course, this sense of tight-knit community really sets Shale Hill apart.

After a quick racer's meeting, the event started at 9:00 a.m. with the elite wave going out first, followed by the 10K open and journeyman at 9:15 a.m. and then the 5K group at 9:30 a.m. Here's a map from last summer with the obstacles that existed at the time. (You can read a descriptive write-up on each on my first post about Shale Hill.) Rob, the race director at Shale Hill, has added quite a few obstacles since then, including: The Zigzag of Awesomeness (a set of hanging 2" pipes you must move across with your hands), the coffins (a 16' box you have to pull yourself up via your fingertips), the tire swings / hanging baseballs, and the warped wall.

I went into this race wanting to do my best. I had done quite a bit of training and racing up at Shale Hill during the year and was ready to see the best time I could put up on the course. I was focused, excited to race, and feeling ready to go.

The beginning of the race went very well. I made the pond traverse doing the rope with the heaven's gate obstacle (a large metal ring around the rope). I made it through all five panels of the giant traverse wall. I had even done what I thought I wouldn't do and made it across the Zigzag of Awesomeness, an obstacle with two long 2" metal pipes suspended over the ground on an upward angle, requiring you to creep up the poles using only your fingers. I'd never made this obstacle before but made it with ease. My obstacle completion was at 100%, and I was feel the sense of flow that is so prized in athletics and creative endeavors. It was my day. I wanted this.

Overall, I failed only five obstacles during the day on a course with 65 very challenging obstacles. They were the Alcatraz wall, tire swing, parallel bars, monkey bars, and Tarzan ropes. The Alcatraz wall is one that I have never failed and will likely never fail again. The Alcatraz wall comes at almost the 2/3 point of the course and directly after the muddiest part of the course, a barbed wire crawl. This obstacle requires you to climb an inclined wall of around 20 feet using a rope. Usually I grab the rope and climb right up, getting good traction with my Icebugs. On Sunday, the ropes were beyond slippery. The course was very wet from the rain we'd had the day before and the ropes were not just wet but also covered in mud from people going through the crawl. I tried all the ropes and could not get purchase with my hands. The wall was also slick with mud. I tried to grab the rope by pinching it with my legs, but I was completely unable to get up. I had gotten to this part of the course feeling great, especially with my success on the Zigzag of Awesomeness. The failure on the Alcatraz wall, an obstacle I had never even struggled on, brought me crashing down to Earth.

I was off my game mentally. This was so much the case that I did not give as much of a focused effort as I should have on the tire swings. This obstacle is deceptive. It's a set of eight tire swings on ropes of varying lengths. They are spaced far apart and you have to navigate from tire to tire with your feet without touching the ground. I made it across this new obstacle with a pretty intensive effort during training one day and was hopeful I'd make it during race day, but with my mind unfocused and my confidence a bit shaken from the Alcatraz wall, I was not concentrating like I needed to. I moved on, but I was disappointed in my uneven effort. Through the barbed wire crawl and the log carry, I took time to get my head back into the game. Yes, I was disappointed in my performance, but I had been having a great day, and I was going to reengage and continue to have a good day. I headed over to the loom and completely sailed through it. I nailed it. I was back on track. I hit the Hay Bales from Hell and made it through with much less effort than during the 24 Hour of Shale Hell race. I was cruising again.

I hit a few snags on the last few obstacles of the course. First was the parallel bars. I have yet to master these -- they are the one obstacle that eludes me. I also had a bit of a disappointing turn on the monkey bars when I made it to the second to last rung  and slipped off as the bar rotated underneath me. I knew I had given it a great effort through, unlike with the tire swings.

On Monday and Tuesday the week before the race, I had come up to Shale Hill and, for the first time, had made it across the 12 rope Tarzan swing. I had been looking forward to getting a change to tackle the Tarzan swing on race day. I made it to the obstacle but unfortunately made it only around 2/3 of the way before falling off. I tried again and made it half way. This was a disappointment, but I know I can do this obstacle. (I have the feel for it in my body, as it were.) The goal now is to increase consistency so I can nail it on race day.

I made it to the finish line running as hard as I could considering how tired my legs were and the fact that there's a small hill to finish. 2:44, my best time on the course to date. I was then and remain pleased with my performance during the day and how the race turned out. It wasn't perfect top to bottom, but, overall, the race was a huge success and did a lot to show the progress I've been making over the course of the summer.

This past year I have been running the non-competitive journeyman division. I believe the time has come to move to the open division and become a little more competitive with myself. I was the first person in journeyman to finish at the Benson Bear Race. Furthermore, I have only one obstacle on the course that I have not properly completed at least once, the parallel bars. I can make it across the parallel bars but not without having to stop at least once -- I want to make it all the way across in one go. I have work to do on consistency with around a half dozen of the obstacles -- the traverse wall, the monkey bars, the tire swing, the Tarzan ropes, the 19' rope climb, and the Zigzag of Awesomeness are not guaranteed "completes," and I continue to struggle with the heavy carries.

There is work to be done for the 2016 race season at Shale Hill (and my last races of 2015). I'm hoping to lay the groundwork for this training when I spend a weekend at the Shale Hill OCR adult camp next weekend. Hopefully, I'll come away with a training plan in place and a readiness to work hard and improve.

(Note: NE Spahtens picture courtesy of Vince Rhee. Other pictures from Photography by Benjamin Bloom. Thank you!)

Sunday, August 2, 2015

24 Hours of Shale Hell: 8 Hours

Friday after work, I made my way up north to Benson, Vermont to spend time at my favorite place in the world, Shale Hill. Saturday, starting at 9:00 a.m., Shale Hill was offering their second annual 24 Hour race, called 24 Hours of Shale Hell. I had gotten entry to this race with my season pass. Anyone who knows me also knows that I am not someone who as the intention of doing any single thing for 24 hours. I was a bit dubious about this race, but the season pass was a good deal, and I wanted to do the rest of the races and get some training passes. This race was a bonus.

Fortunately, a couple of months out, Rob and Jill of Shale Hill added an 8 hour and Relay Team options for the 24 Hours of Shale Hill race. I had enjoyed (Is "enjoyed" really the right word for that sort of suffering?) doing the Polar Bear 8 Hour race back in February; however, I had only managed one lap, which took me 5:26. In the summer months, I can usually do a lap in just around three hours, give or take ten minutes. I had always wondered what I would be able to do if Polar Bear had been in the summer. As a result, when the 8 hour option was offered, I jumped at it. This suited my interests much more than the 24 hour race, which, as this point, I did not have the training time (what with graduate school) or the inclination (24 hours still seems too long to do any one thing) to tackle at this point in my life. I was hoping to get through 2 laps of the 6.5 mile, 60 obstacle course during the 8 hours of 24 Hours of Shale Hell.

I had decided to camp out the night before the race. I am outdoorsy, but I am not a camper. I had a sleeping bag but had to borrow a tent from a coworker. Fortunately, I was able to get the 2-person Coleman tent assembled, though apparently not without looking desperate since the gentleman camped next to me, upon seeing my lack of skill, asked if I needed help (though in a way that implied a level of disappointment at having to share space with someone so lacking is basic tent-related aptitude). Fortunately, I managed and got the tent up.

It was fantastic. The 2-person tent was perfect for camping by myself. The inside was an entire little world. Super camping person that I am, I had brought an air mattress, which I inflated using the outlet in the barn at Shale Hill. Carrying a full twin-sized air mattress and then trying to stuff it through the door of your small 2-person tent is not recommended by the author if you ever plan on feeling anything less than profoundly uncool ever again. Still, I'll give myself props because I slept very comfortably, falling right asleep and sleeping straight through. There was even unexpected rainfall during the night, and I stayed completely dry. A camping success. I really enjoyed myself and plan to camp out again at Shale Hill the night before the Benson Bear race in two weeks.

I woke up at 6:45 a.m. to sun and some humidity. I had a couple of hours until the 8:30 a.m. racers' meeting and the 9:00 a.m. start of the 24 Hours of Shale Hill. I knew I had to get home right after the race, so I packed up my tent and supplies before heading to the country store a quarter mile down the street for a bagel with egg and cheese and a cup of coffee ($5 and the perfect pre-race blend of carbs, protein, and fats). I headed back to Shale Hill and checked in at registration where I got my bib number, 49. I inked my digits on my arm with a permanent blank marker, along with an 8 (for the 8 hour) and a J (for the non-competitive penalty free journeyman division), put on my Icebugs, and waited for the racers' meeting. I also took a quick trip over to the board where all the racers' names were listed. This was to be a racer-supported race. We were to record our laps, along with start and finish times, on a board in the barn. The list was divided over several boards for the approximately 55 racers doing the 24 hours, relay, and 8 hours. 

The racers' meeting took place in the barn. Rob quickly went over the logistic of the penalties, which would change each lap. (Note: For all the 8 hours laps, the penalties were 30 spiderman push-ups. For the 24 hours, it started with the spiderman push-ups and then went to other exercises like jumping jacks, mountain climbers, and singing your national anthem.) We then discussed how the race would be athlete-supported, how we should watch out for each other, and how we'd be recording our laps ourselves on the boards in the bar. From the racers' meeting, it was about ten minutes until the race start: time to use the restroom, coordinate my hydration pack, and make it to the starting line a few steps away.

I lined up towards the back as usual. I was hoping to do a couple of laps and targeting around three hours per lap, a doable average pace for me if I mostly jogged and did a little bit of walking. At 9:00 a.m. sharp, Rob grabbed his bullhorn and sounded the siren that meant we were off.

Lap one of the course ended up taking me 3:16 -- a little bit longer than expected. (Note: For a complete write-up about the course at Shale Hill, read my blog post containing the full course walk through. It's a good read if you've never been to Shale Hill.) I alternated between running with people and going off on my own. I did a bit more walking than I had hoped to do. To be entirely honest, I was not feeling it. My legs were a bit heavy and my technique was a little bit off.

We've all had amazing days where things feel effortless or where we exceed our expectations -- my performance on the obstacle course part of Tri-Obstaclon being a good example of a great day on the course where I exceeded my expectations. We're all had days were we felt lousy -- such as how I felt during the Spartan Vermont Beast. This lap, I felt somewhat in between. I didn't feel bad per say, but I was off my game. My legs were kind of heavy and not wanting to move; my technique on some of the obstacle was off.

Suffice it to say, I was not having as much fun as I normally do. I usually fly through the Loom, but that day it felt like work. The Hay Bales from Hell kicked my butt! There were new bales and they were tall and unforgiving. I had to run at one five times before making it over. The hay bales are without a doubt my least favorite obstacle on the course. (Yes, more than the Anaconda.) This time there were more of them, they were higher, and they were harder. I managed to scratch my legs and arms up significantly on the hay bales. They are my nemesis, and, because of that, I made sure to scale each one. Damn if it wasn't hard though. Also, my legs from the knees down now look like an army of cats uses them for scratching posts.

I did pretty well on some obstacles through. I made it through four out of five of the panels on the Great (Traverse) Wall. I made it to the transition from the first to second pipe on the Zig -zag of Awesomeness. I got to see Christine do the most persistent crossing of the pond traverse that has ever happened. I made it almost all of the way across the Monkey Bars (and I would have made it more of the way across if I had been more mentally focused -- minus points there).

I paced myself well through, and by the end of the lap, I knew that I could go out and give it at least one more try. As I mentioned before, I finished in 3:16. I needed time to regroup from my average effort though. I went back into the barn to record my time, change socks, and grab a Larabar to eat. I refocused. This was going to be my first time attempting two laps at Shale Hill. I remembered back to my first time there last July. When I had finished the 6.5 mile "10K" course I felt as if I couldn't take one more step. This time, I thought I could do more. I was definitely improving. After ten minutes of regroup time, I was ready to head back out on the course.

Lap two proved, surprisingly enough, much more fun than lap one. Interestingly enough, even though my hands and fingers were exhausted, I actually felt like I had more energy than on lap one. I also did this lap with a battle buddy, an Air Force member (and reader of one of my Shale Hill reviews, which convinced him to sign up), named Sean, I believe (race brain!), who I met on course. We raced from right before the Log Splitter to the end together.

It was great this time around to have company and motivation, even though I was feeling better overall. My hands were definitely the most tired now. The Coffins, which I had not considered a huge challenge on past laps were torture on my extremely tired fingers. I couldn't even get moving on the 19' rope climb on the 2" rope.

Other than that, I did about the same as I usually do on the obstacles, but my hands were red and sore. I felt excited though that I would have the opportunity to complete two laps at Shale Hill for the first time. That powered me through until the end. I finished the second lap in 3:22, only slightly slower than my first lap. My fingers were so tired that my penmanship logging my lap on the board was shaky.

I can truly not imagine how the people who did four or five laps in the 24 Hours version of this race did it. 13 miles and 60 obstacles in the two laps around the course in just under seven hours was enough for me. I really enjoyed the challenge, and I got to do the race that I wanted to do -- one in which I got to challenge my endurance for a period of time that my training and interest supported. 

The 8 Hours option of the 24 Hours of Shale Hell is like the Polar Bear 8 Hour of the summer. I'm definitely a warm weather person, and I love Shale Hill to death, so this was a great race for me. So far, this year at Shale Hill I've done Polar Bear, the Relay Race Challenge, Tri-Obstaclon, and now the 8 Hour 24 Hours of Shale Hell. If I was told I could only do one of those races in 2016, this race is the one that I would pick. I liked the long format, and I liked that for that entire time we were on the course at Shale Hill because, of all things, that is my favorite thing to do. For me, two laps in the summer was less grueling than riding a bike and doing a lap or doing one lap in the winter despite, in that case, doing double the distance and double the obstacles. I didn't have a stellar day, but this race played to my strengths and love of the summer weather.

In the afterglow of a race weekend, I even think, "Maybe I should do the 24 Hour some time?" That would require a lot of training, including some consultation with people about what training should look like, and a lot of time. I'm not sure I'm ready for that sort of challenge yet, but this race planted the seed. A year ago, I couldn't have imagined doing two laps at Shale Hill. What might the future hold?

(Note:Photos from MemorEvents.)