Saturday, July 14, 2018

Savage Race Boston 2018

Fun! My goal for Savage Race 2018 was to have a good time and chill with my NE Spahten friends. Check and check. I already have plans to register for 2019.

Savage Race came up to New England for the first time in 2017. I had been eager to check it out and, if you read my blog post from that race, it didn't disappoint. Savage Race prides itself on having the best obstacles and being the perfect distance. Well, this is somewhat true. Savage has some great obstacles and does an amazing job of blending challenging obstacles that will make the pro's work hard with obstacles that are downright just for hahas. Think crazy inclined monkey bars juxtaposed against a mammoth water slide, and you have some of an idea of the variety here. All of Savage's courses are 5 - 7 miles in length. Both of the times I've run, we've topped out at just over seven miles, so a little on the longer end. It's enough to be an adventure while still being attainable and not too much of a beat-down for your average athlete.

Saturday morning of Savage Race dawned cool with clouds and temperatures in the mid-60s. Not bad considering that the race venue, Carter & Stevens Farm in Barre, Massachusetts, is wide open fields. I was happy. I hopped in the car and drove the 40 minute drive to Barre. Official Savage parking was $10 with a shuttle bus to the venue. The parking + bus combo is a real "no" for me. Fortunately, Barre has tons of local parking from $5 to $20, all within walking distance to the venue. I opted for the cheapest $5 parking, which was about a quarter mile away from the farm and totally walkable. I was pumped to avoid a motion-sickness-inducing bus ride.

At Carter & Stevens, the Savage team had everything organized. I quickly checked my bib number on a sign adjacent to registration, signed my waver, and got in line to get my timing chip and bib. The wait couldn't have been more than a minute or two. From there, it was a quick walk over to the NE Spahtens tent, right next to the finish line in the heart of the festival area.

Savage Race does the festival area right. Heavy on food options, light on the overbearing music. (Seriously, I really dislike it when the festival areas have earsplitting music. Thank you to all the races that do not do this. It's very nice to be able to actually talk with our friends at the races and hear one another and not be overwhelmed with sound.) Savage had a merch tent, which you had to pass through to get from registration to the festival area. Sponsors, such as Rxbar, were in evidence. There were three or four food trucks, including a pizza oven. Carter & Stevens own Stone Cow Brewery was providing the post-race beers. There were changing tents, hoses, and ample portable bathroom, including a sink with water right outside.

Last year, Savage Race, was an unofficial reunion for my Ragnar Cape Cod and Ragnar Trail Team, the NES Ninjas. I was pleased when a few days before this year's race, many members of the team indicated they'd be at the 2018 Savage Race. A trip over to the NES tent to coordinate my gear pre-race didn't disappoint. All of the best people were there! (Almost...we were missing a couple.) I was excited to join forces with fellow Ninjas Jess (our captain!), Bobby, and Shaina, plus a couple of brave significant others.

After the elite wave went off at 9:00 a.m., the NE Spahtens team wave was next. We headed off to the start line. There, we experienced the normal OCR-style pre-race announcer fanfare before heading onto the course.

Carter & Stevens has the benefit of being a fairly flat venue, which is something I enjoy. That being said, the terrain is pretty uneven, with areas that are not unlike Swiss cheese. Ankles beware! The course was mercifully dry this year, which made it much easier to navigate, unlike the marsh that was last year's course. Similar to last year, my group adopted a strategy where we ran most of the flats and downhills, if the course wasn't too uneven. (We called this "green light.") We walked really technical sections or anything even close to being considered uphill. (We called this "red light.") This "strategy" ensured maximum fun and allowed us to finish in around 2:41, aka. by noon / lunch time.

Many of the obstacles from last year were back for 2018. Savage Race did some permanent build at Carter & Stevens in 2017, meaning that the larger obstacles were similarly placed. It's a huge testament to Savage that the course nonetheless felt totally fresh. The order of the other obstacles was varied and the trails were adjusted a good deal. Nothing felt stale.


Of course, the main focus in OCR is the obstacles. Here's a rundown of the course.

1. Low Crawl: Like it sounds, a crawl under barbed wire. Unlike some races where crawls are no longer under barbed wire, Savage retains the spiky stuff, so be careful!

2. Squeeze Play: For this obstacle, we had to squeeze our way under three sets of swiveling barrels that were set close to the grounds. Being smaller was definitely a benefit here. 

3. Barn Doors: Ladder wall.

4. Backscrather: Alternating five foot walls and short crawls. I seem to recall three walls and two sets of crawls. 

5. Blazed: Fire jump. The flames were not too high, so it was just a matter of being mindful and taking a good leap. Naturally, this is a premo photo op, so we paired off to make the most of it. I'm pretty sure that Jess and I will be looking down at our feet in our picture just to make sure we aren't burning our toes.

6. Shriveled Richard: Ug! This obstacle had participants jump into a container of ice water, submerge below a divider and then edit out the other side. Over the last couple of years, I've feel emotionally done with obstacles like this for the time. (I skipped this obstacle last year and Arctic Enema at Tough Mudder the last two years.) Shriveled Richard was the only obstacle that I skipped.

7. Big Cargo: 20 foot A-frame cargo net climb.

8. Slippery Incline: Your classic angled slip wall with a rope. This one was probably around 12' high. 

9. Lumberjack Lane: Log carry with a piece of lumber. This was the only carry of the race -- yay! -- and was a totally manageable weight, even for someone as small as me. Really kudos to Savage Race for having their obstacles be real obstacles instead of just lugging lots of heavy things around.

10. Mad Ladders: This obstacle featured a common rope ladder, followed by a rope with rungs, a cargo net, and then another set of rope with rungs and rope ladder. I recalled that last year, this was actually a bit more tricky than I thought it would be, especially with how the second rope rotated a ton. I did better this year by staying up high and not spending much time on the rope with rungs.

11. Mud N Guts: Muddy barbed wire crawl.

12. Wheel World: This obstacle was awesome! It consisted of four horizontal wheels that you had to grab and spin from one to the next. Grip strength required. This obstacle was pretty high up -- a complaint of mine from last year, when I needed a boost to get onto the first wheel. I managed to climb up the scaffolding to get onto the wheel this time. Last year, a lot of people slipped back into the water on the dismount, so this this time they had added a rope. This was great, and I was able to make it the entire way through. Also, no back-ups at this obstacle this year (compared to a 10 minute wait last year) -- well done, Savage Race, for making this adjustment.

13. Davy Jones' Locker: 15 foot jump from a platform into the water below. I'm not afraid of heights, so this proved no problem, but I definitely can see how this might give people pause. I will say, that if I were to hover looking over the edge it would be harder. I climbed up and went for it -- fun times.

14. Great Wall: Eight foot large wall. I was able to grab the slide and use it to stabilize and jump for the top, where I could pull myself over.

15. Twirly Bird: Twirly Bird was the only obstacle I failed at my first Savage Race, and it bested me again this year. It was a rig where you have to "swing from your standard ring grips to a mop-like cluster of rope strands without touching the ground." The rope strands were extremely hard to manage. I tried twice before realizing that I'd need some coaching around technique to get this. 

16. Big Cheese: A neat twist on a common theme. This is not your standard wall. Instead, it's a quarter circle with little cheese-sized wedges cut out for you to climb.

17. Me So Thorny: Another crawl. This one had enforced lanes with barbed wire on both the top and the sides! The volunteer at this obstacle was hilarious and made my day. He kept saying, "Eight obstacles to go. Unless you just arrived -- then it's nine. Or 8.5 if you're in the middle of this one." Hehe.

18. Battering Ram: This obstacle was new this year, and to be honest, I'm a bit "meh" about it. The obstacle featured a hand grip hanging around a pole. You have to kip to move the grip along and then transition to a second grip where you do the same thing over again. Below is an image from Savage to illustrate. I found it hard to get the ram to move at all but perhaps more time would have perfected my technique. As it was, I got about a quarter of the way across before abandoning ship. I tried again, and found the one on the new lane pretty jammed. I'll try again next year.


19. Block Party: Pull a cinder block on a rope up a short incline and then carry it down again. Bonus: Half of the cinder block was filled with concrete. The block was heavy without being impossible, and I was able to move it without too much difficulty.

20. Savage Rig: This rig was awesome! I love a good rig, and the Savage Rig was an especially good one. The rig started with a couple of rings, a rope, and a low ring to step in. You then transitioned over a horizontal bar. From there, next up was another rope, followed by a ring. I opted to grab the rope from my seat on top of the horizontal bar and swing for all I was worth, smashing the bell. Nailed it!

21. Colossus: This two part obstacle starts with a 16 foot quarter pipe. You then have to climb a ladder before descending from the 24 foot structure via an almost vertical water slide. This entire obstacle is kind of insane! I loved the quarter pipe (which has ropes at the top, so it was no problem to pull myself up). I don't adore slides, but I manage. Kudos to my teammates Jess and, especially, Shaina who are afraid of the slides but both did awesome. The slide was well constructed and so fast that I hardly remember going down it. I recall sitting at the top and then smashing into the water. Crazy.

22. Holy Sheet: This is another new obstacle for Savage. Here, you are hanging from a sheet that you move along using only your hands, before transitioning to a set of small ball grips to swing to the end. Yikes. This was a tough one. I made it along the sheet and went to transition to the small ball and completely missed and ended up hanging just from a danging piece of sheet. Not good. Nothing to do but call this on a miss.

23. Nuttsmasher: This obstacle is a set of kind of wobbly balance beams over water. We legit saw a racer almost seriously smash his nuts when his foot slipped near the end. (For those who are worried; he was okay -- he hit his knee.) Yeesh.

24. Sawtooth: Monkey bars with a twist! Sawtooth is one of Savage Race's signature obstacles and one I loved last year and was excited to do again. The 35 foot span starts with uphill monkey bars and transition to a "tooth" where you have to kip up to a higher bar. From there you transition to downhill monkey bars. This obstacle, according to Savage Race, has a 40% completion rate. I enjoyed completing it on my first try again this year. (Bonus: The bars started down low enough that I could reach on my own!)

25. Pedal for the Medal: I am going to give this sponsor-themed obstacle a bit of a meh, definitely a meh considering it was the final obstacle. Racers had to lay on their backs and pedal their feet on a giant wheel to pull in a tire. It was interminable and a bit of a let down for the final obstacle considering the other epic offerings!

We crossed the finish line, clocking in just over seven miles and 25 obstacles in around 2:41. What a fun event!


I availed myself of a free post-race beer from Stone Cow and some Mediterranean food from a truck. (Though I totally missed the Baby Berk food truck from last year with their tatter tot poutine!)

Once again, Savage Race will go down as one of my favorite events of the year. Why? Because it's so darn enjoyable! Good friends, engaging obstacles, a challenging but do-able distance. What's not to like. See you back there next July.

Monday, July 9, 2018

24 Hours of Shale Hell 2018

Shale Hill just put on their last summer race, Shale Hell. The weekend of July 7 - 8, up in Benson, Vermont, I took place in the final summer event of the soon-to-be-closing Shale Hill. With one final race, Polar Bear 2019, the fixed obstacle course venue, which has been offering training and races for over six years, will close shop.


I have been going to Shale Hill for training and racing since the summer of 2014. It would not be a stretch to say it's my favorite place to go for racing, training, and a weekend away. I, in fact, would say that I find Shale Hill to be a meaningful place personally. In my 29th year, I had some significant challenges in my personal and professional life. Going up to Shale Hill to get away and devote myself completely to a physical task, was mindful and a good way to positively deal with the difficulties I was facing. When things got stressful, it was helpful to go to Vermont, spend a weekend camping out in the quiet, run a lap or two of the 6.5 mile obstacle course, and breath the clean air. Memories can be inaccurate, but my clearest memory of feeling peaceful is one of sitting on top of an obstacle in the woods at Shale Hill in the early morning. From what I have read online, I think that Shale Hill meant a lot of things to a lot of people. Personally, it's been a place where I feel a sense of community, can relax and enjoy my own company, where I experience wonderful physical challenge -- I love that the course is always changing so that I can never master it --, and it's where I have the most fun.

Summer is my preferred season for racing, so I knew going into it that my 24 hour adventure during Shale Hell would be my predominant final memory of racing at Shale Hill. (Note: I will be at Polar Bear 2019 as the media rep for the NE Spahtens, which sounds super fancy. After that event, I will write my final "love letter" to Shale Hill.) I was excited to have a wonderful weekend at Shale Hell. Nice weather was promised, along with good friends, and a fun time. Because what is better than doing as many laps in 24 hours as you want of the 6.5 mile Shale Hill obstacle course? For those wanting a different experience, there were 8 hour and one 10K-lap divisions. Between all three, the race weekend attracted around 80 racers.

Camping was included in the registration for the 24 hour version of Shale Hell, so I headed up to Benson Friday evening to camp out. I hate to drive. A lot. Anyone who knows me knows this. I basically ride my bike as much as possible. The car is a second-class citizen in my house. Shale Hill is a 2:40 drive from my house, and I go up there multiple times a year. It is the farthest I will go for a race. One time I drove to New Jersey for a race. The race was amazing. The ride was so bad I said I would never drive to New Jersey again. I have never driven to New Jersey again, and it's been years. I say this because for people who say that Shale Hill is too far away; I feel you. But also I don't because if I am willing to do the drive, I feel like most people can.

Shale Hill is a great community. I arrived at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, parked for free onsite, and hauled my stuff the short walk up the hill to the camping area. I dropped my gear and headed for check-in where Jill greeted me by name and handed me my t-shirt and a red ribbon to indicate I was competing in the open division. Shale Hill offers open/competitive racing and a journeyman division for those who want to do the course penalty-free and craft their own race experience. With over 55 ultra-challenging obstacles, the journeyman division is a good option for a lot of folks, and one I often avail myself of; this year, I wanted to challenge myself to have fairly decent obstacle completion, so I opted for open. Only three women were registered to run the 24 hour in the competitive division, meaning I was guaranteed to place.

After checking in, I wandered outside to where Rob was giving the pre-race meeting. He'd give the official meeting on Saturday morning before the main event, but this informal gathering seemed fun, so I grouped up. Rob stopped to say, "Hi, Nicole," which highlights one of the amazing things about Shale Hill. They know you. They treat you like family. The community that Jill and Rob have created at Shale Hill is hard to explain if you have not been and cannot be overstated. What they give to the obstacle course racing community is legion, and when it's gone, something will be lost. I am glad I was fortunate to experience it. I listened to Rob talk about the obstacles, different race divisions, and penalties. It was starting to get cool, so I grabbed my sweatshirt and figured it was time to set up camp. I assembled my tent and then hung out with folks by the bonfire for a while chatting before calling it a night. I wanted to get some good rest before the long day coming up.

Saturday morning I got up late, at around 6:45 a.m. having gotten a solid 8.5 hours of sleep. Camp was bustling. I said, "Hello," to a few NE Spahten friends, and we headed down to the Benson Country Store for our pre-race traditional meal of breakfast sandwiches and coffee. We got back to Shale Hill in time for the 8:00 a.m. racers meeting and for those taking part in the 8 hour and 10K divisions to have their 9:00 a.m. race-start. The 24 hour event didn't start until 10:00 a.m., so I had plenty of time to coordinate my gear and change into race clothing. I might argue that, in fact, I had too much time. I would have been happy to have the race start at 8:00 a.m. to get some time in before the heat of the day.


Unique to the 24 hour format is a rule that says racers can run the first hour obstacle free. This prevents back-ups and allows newbies to get an idea of the course. A loop at Shale Hill is 6.5 miles with 55+ obstacles. (Note: The 55-count groups obstacles together. There are multiple part obstacles like the traverse wall or the balance section where you have multiple obstacles in one. If you look at individual obstacles, your are clocking in more like 75.) The terrain in the woods is somewhat technical with some elevation changes. I definitely cannot run the full course in an hour, though some more seasoned and speedy trail racers might be able to. Furthermore, I was uninterested in pushing too much. Last year, at the 24 hour event, I ran journeyman and covered four laps; however, the second half of the last lap I was too tired to do much with the obstacles. I wanted to focus my efforts on quality obstacle completion this year and having fun at the last summer Shale Hill event. My coaches put me down for five laps, but personally, I had stated that four high-quality laps was more likely for me, and more in-line with my "have fun" goal. We would see how things went and go from there.

At 10:00 a.m., I was dressed and at the starting line. Since it would be a fast lap, I skipped taking my hydration pack -- I'd take advantage of the five water stations on course since running with the hydration backpack is a hassle. Rob redid many sections of the Shale Hill course for Polar Bear in February, and I liked the new layout (minus having to do the Zig Zag and Tarzan Ropes reversed). I was excited to tackle it again. At exactly 10:04 a.m., we were off and running. Let the 24 hour adventure begin!


During the hour we had to run the course obstacle free, I focused on cruising along at around a five on the "rate of perceived exertion" scale. I wanted to cover some ground and get pass the hardest obstacles without getting gassed. When the airhorn went off to signal the end of the hour, I was almost done running along the log carry loop, listed as obstacle 46 on the map, with about nine obstacles left to go. Not bad. I should mention for those who have never been to Shale Hill, I am not going to spend much time on this post going through the obstacles in detail -- for that information, visit my blog post from the NE Spahtens Shale Hill weekend, where I list every obstacle in detail, and how you complete it!


I ran over to the Loom where I started doing obstacles for the first lap. I made my way along at a fair speed, running lightly between obstacles and completing them well. There are large sections of Shale Hill's course that are in open fields and the sun was already baking down. The temperatures would climb to right about 80 degrees, which doesn't sound terrible but definitely takes it out of you if you're in the sun baking hour after hour and working hard. 

After about 45 minutes, I made it through the last obstacle on the map, the Anaconda. Naturally, Rob being Rob, that wasn't it. We had to tackle one last rig with a set of rings. I had mentioned to Rob my frustration at OCR World Championships when I couldn't reach a few obstacle -- the challenge should be completing the obstacle, not getting on it -- and he had promised to put the rings at a level I could reach. He was true to his word, and I was able to get on the extremely lengthy set of rings. I made my way along until the last ring, which was super high up. I lost momentum and couldn't make it. Determined to have a penalty-free first lap, I tried the rings two more times until I made it up to that last ring. 100% obstacle completion for lap 1! I ran up to the top of the hill and the finish line, where I rang the bell to signal the end of my lap and ran up to the board to record my time.


It was just before noon, and I hadn't eaten since breakfast at around 7:30 a.m., so I headed back to my tent to grab some food and change my clothing. I had a nutbutter sandwich and grabbed my hydration pack. Within about half an hour, I was back out on course for my second lap. 

Early on in my second lap, I knew I was in a bit of trouble. I was extremely hot and everything felt challenging. You have moments as an athlete when you have to say, "Today is not my day." During the first half of that second lap that was me. I had gone out feeling competitive. I had chanced to look at the board and started thinking about the other athletes up there -- the two women in my division. For a little while, rounding the first double log loop, feeling crappy, I started to think about how I was falling behind. I forgot about my goals -- have fun, do well on the obstacles -- and started thinking about other folks. This was a mistake. In addition to feeling tired and weak, I was not mentally focused. I was hot and tired, and this was only hour three of 24. 

I dragged myself along for several miles. I did well on some obstacles, failed a couple, and took some penalties. I was hot and a bit woozy, walking between obstacles instead of lightly running. A small turning point came mid-way through the course. I had entered a section in the woods, which cooled me down and made me feel a little better. I also nailed the five traverse walls (plus two balance beams and two hanging beams) of the Great Wall Traverse, a very challenging obstacle with a low success rate. This reminded me of why I was at Shale Hell -- not to compete with others but to compete with myself, to do my best, to appreciate a place I loved. 

I finished my second lap at 4:17 p.m. It had taken me just under four hours, and I was wrecked. I had spent hours under the hot sun and was so tired I felt like I couldn't take a step more, much less do additional laps of the course. Nonetheless, my penalty count wasn't bad, with just nine failures. These included the Zig Zag and the Tarzan Rope (which I should add I couldn't do backward but did complete forward before doing the penalty). It also included the Downhill Monkey Bars, Flip Flop, and Rotisserie -- a set of back-to-back obstacles I have never been able to do. I didn't make Bad Attitude, which is Shale Hill's version of the Stairway to Heaven or Devil's Steps. I have had no trouble on this obstacle at other races, but the spacing between the steps at Shale is too large for me. I skipped the Parallel Bars, which bothers a shoulder injury I got at OCRWC. The final penalties were on the tire swings on The Rack and rings, which I didn't want to attempt multiple times to get that last ring again. These nine obstacle would be ones that I would fail in future laps and are some I traditionally don't have the strength, training, or body for at Shale Hill. I did great on some other challenging obstacles like the Pond Traverse on the rope, the spinning Flat Monkey Bars, the 19' Rope Climb, Great Wall Traverse, Balance Alley, the pole on the Fireman's Tower, Russian Table, and the Loom.

I needed to cool down and regroup. I dragged myself over to the hose where I ran some water over my head and wetted a cooling towel. I ate some food and went to the barn to hang out in the relatively comfortable temperatures with the cooling towel over my head. I relaxed and chatted with the medic, Sandy, about his time as a double in the first Star Wars movie (where he filled in as Luke!); I began to feel better.

Following an 1:45 rest, I decided, I was ready to try again. It was 6:02 p.m., and the sun was getting lower in the sky as I headed out for lap three. I looked forward to finishing in the dark without the sun beating down on me. 

Lap three was much more enjoyable than lap two. I felt better and was able to run between obstacles much of the time. Sure I was tired from the almost six hours of exercise I had done already, but I was moving. The one bummer was that I had gotten two blisters on my feet. This is a very uncommon occurrence -- I almost never get blisters. I had worn my Altra Lone Peaks on lap one and done fine but switched to my Icebug Zeals for lap two. With their carbide tips, Icebugs are great for OCR. Unfortunately, mine are super old and really need to be replaced; plus, my feet have gotten a bit bigger in the last couple of years, and the old Icebugs are no longer the greatest fit width-wise. As a concession to comfort, I wore my Altras for the rest of the race and had no issue with my feet, though I had to be slightly careful about slippery obstacles, especially once there was dew on the ground.

There was a small "wardrobe malfunction" on lap three as well. I had changed back into the NES Ninjas tank I was wearing on lap one for lap three (after having let it dry in the sun). While doing the Pond Traverse on top of the rope, I ran into a snag when the logo on the tank, hot from the sun, basically melted along the rope. I could barely move and, thus, failed the obstacle and ruined my shirt. #ocrprobs

I finished lap three at 9:22 p.m., in 3:20 -- almost 40 minutes faster than the previous lap. I had 12 penalties, including the nine from before, plus the Pond Traverse, the Flat Monkey Bars, and the post hop part of Balance Alley. I was tired and needed rest. I had enjoyed lap three but needed some sleep. I also had about zero interest in doing an overnight lap. The idea of tackling challenging trail at the middle on the night on such tired legs seemed undesirable. I was here to have fun and challenge myself and complete obstacles. At this point I opted to go to bed, knowing that meant I would likely not get in five laps total. The plan was to do what I did last year and wake up early for a fourth lap. Maybe, knowing this was the last year, I should have pushed myself to try something new and do an overnight lap. In a way I kind of regret that I didn't. However, I also stand by my decision because when I got up at 4:30 a.m. to take on that last lap, I was ready.

It was lap four that had done me in in 2017. Midway through, my hands had been toast and I had taken the journeyman's option and finished by basically running past a lot of obstacles. I was not going to do that again. I was going to finish lap four in 2018 as strong as I started it. Plus, I had penalties, in the form of spiderman push-ups, to keep me focused. 

At 4:49 a.m., with first light peaking above the mountains in the distance and fog rising up from the fields of hay and wild flowers, I made my way out for the last lap of the course. It's a certain kind of magic to be up and moving through the chill of the morning air, eyes fixed on the beauty of nature, and mind focused on one goal. I made sure to take time at the top of each obstacle to quickly enjoy the view. This was it.

The entire last lap was a fantastic experience. My body and my mind were focused. I did well on the obstacles only failing 13 (add on the Great Wall and the Loom from last time, but take out the Pond Traverse). My hard training with the coaches paid off in performance gains I could see. I finished strong enough to question if maybe I could have done an additional lap earlier and really tested myself because, as athletes, are we ever convinced its been enough? I was also satisfied. I had covered 26 miles, done several hundred obstacles, and had quality obstacle completion. I had raced with focus, integrity, hard work, and joy. I would like to think there is no better tribute to Shale Hill than that.

I ended up placing third in my age group. The other two women had done more. I have no idea about their penalties; I applaud their efforts and hope they are excited about reaching their goals. I wish that there was another year of Shale Hell to look forward to. I wish that we had more time. After a great 2018 race, I have new goals I want to strive for next year. New experiences to try. Then again, when will that not be the way? Jill and Rob, thank you for the wonderful race, the years of memories, the amazing community that you created, and the outstanding course that you built that has always challenged me in the best way possible. There is no more fitting tribute I can think of than the experience I had at the 2018 Shale Hell race.


Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Tough Mudder Boston 2018

On Sunday, I took part in my fifth Tough Mudder. After four years of racing at Mount Snow in Dover, Vermont, the Tough Mudder crew moved this year's New England event to Charlton, Massachusetts and renamed it Tough Mudder Boston.


In addition to a new venue, the course took on a new format. In the past, Tough Mudder has focused their efforts on a 10 mile course format. Recently, they have diversified their offerings and now offer a 5K version and  a 5 mile Tough Mudder Half option, in addition to the 10 mile Tough Mudder Full. Furthermore, there is Tougher Mudder, a 10 mile timed option, and Toughest Mudder, an 8 hour overnight race where racers do as many laps of the course as they can. To be honest this is a bit much to keep track of. As a person who's been doing Tough Mudders since 2013 I have a bit of nostalgia for the old days. And I have more than a little curiosity about how all these new distances are working for Tough Mudder and what will stay around. I raced the Tough Mudder Full, and definitely felt like there was an impact on my experience due to the new format. More on that later.

My best friend, Serah, and I arrived at 508 International in Charlton, Massachusetts at around 9:30 a.m. for my 10:30 a.m. Tough Mudder wave. Rule of thumb is that your arrive an hour early. Parking was onsite and walking distance, which convenient. It was a bit disorganized. Honestly, if I hadn't pre-paid for parking online, I doubt the volunteers would have realized they needed to charge us.

We parked and headed over to the entrance. There was quite a long line because the gates were not open yet, even though Tough Mudder had requested people come an hour before their wave time. I think the original plan might have been to open the gates at 10:00 a.m., but the line started moving at around 9:50 a.m. We moved fairly efficiently, but it wasn't until after 10:00 a.m. that Serah and I got inside. By the time I used the bathroom and coordinated myself to head over to bag check, there wasn't time to check my bag before our wave started -- the line was just too long. I was lucky to have Serah to help out, but this would have been a big problem if I was running solo and could have been avoided by having registration open at 9:30 a.m.


I headed into the starting area and lined up with my fellow NE Spahtens. I had an interesting focus going into Tough Mudder this year. In recent years, I had taken on this race as a fun event where I hung out with friends, we had a fun day on the course, and I wasn't too worried about pushing myself. This year, I wanted Tough Mudder to be an early test of my fitness. It was my first obstacle course race of the season (since I don't seriously race in the winter). I have been training hard with "the coaches," as I call them, for months, and I wanted to test my fitness at a low-stakes race. I was curious to see if there were improvements in my grip on upper-body-intensive obstacles and how my endurance would be running the entire course. With that in mind, I hit it hard out of the gate at the sound of the starting signal.


The full Tough Mudder course was redesigned for 2018 to be two laps of a 5 mile course. The second lap mostly followed the first with some side trails to pick-up new obstacles. This meant more obstacles, but it also meant repetition, which I wasn't too keen on. We had to do 26 obstacles total. Of those 26, several were repeats, so there were 19 unique obstacles.

More critically, the double laps meant back-ups. Because I ran hard from the starting line, I was able to clear my first lap at Tough Mudder in about 1:18, ahead of much of the pack. No back-ups. Unfortunately, my second lap ran into a snag from the start. At the first obstacle, I encountered much of the 11:30 a.m. wave, which had just started. There were just too many people on the course. This meant that I had to zig and zag to get around folks on the second lap quite a bit. Having the 5K, Half, and Full courses overlap led to way more people on the course and more back-ups. People handle Tough Mudder differently -- some people walk, some people run. Having lots of people on the course and having new athletes attracted to the course with the new distanced offered translated to more people walking. Totally great because I love seeing more people at obstacle course races. The challenge was wanting to run and having to navigate around lots of people who were wanting to walk. It ended up being stressful for both me and them and translated to a less fun time.


The double lap course was also not constructive to spectating, as Serah and I unfortunately found out. One of the great things about Tough Mudder in the past is that Serah has been able to have great spectating opportunities. This year's course was less well organized for that effort. We lost track of each other after the first three obstacles and weren't able to reconnect until the end, which was sad for us. Having a spectator there is super fun -- every time I saw Serah at the beginning I was pumped -- and it would have been great if we could have seen each other more. 

Feelings about the course layout aside, I was pleased with the obstacles at the Boston 2018 event. There were some great upper-body-intensive obstacles that really challenged me. The new obstacle at the finish line, Happy Ending, was a fun update. Electroshock Therapy, the common obstacle where you run through electric wires at the finish, was moved to mid-course. I went around it. You've been shocked once or twice and it's enough, as far as I'm concerned. I am more interested in challenging my fitness instead of doing unpleasant things to my body at this point. I have done it; I have "proven" myself; I didn't like it. No need to repeat year over year. (Note: Same for Arctic Enema, where you have to jump into ice water.)


Below are some of the highlights and new obstacles from this year's event. In between these obstacles were some classics, such as Arctic Enema, Berlin Walls, and Devil's Beard, plus lots and lots of mud pits and crawls, such as Kiss of Mud 2.0 and Mud Mile 2.0.

  • Pork Soda: This was a new obstacle that had racers crawl up a short mound of mud and then slide into a watery pit.
  • Block Ness Monster: The Block Ness Monster features rotating blocks in the water. You have to “push, pull, and roll [your] way through 60ft of slick, rotating barriers” in the water. It’s super fun to grab the top of the block and have people on the opposite side pull it over, dropping you into the water on the other side.
  • Just the Tip: This was an obstacle "from the vault" (though it seemed slightly altered from the past). Racers had to grab a small 2" thin bar and move across with only fingers to a set of short poles and knobs. There was then another area of 2" thin bars to make your way across. I tried this with just my finger tips, moving laterally. However, a volunteer recommended trying with hands on both sides. This worked much better. I am including an image from the internet to give you an idea.
  • Rope-a-Dope: This was another vault obstacle and a bit of an odd one. It featured a rope fixed in the middle of a pool of water. The goal was to jump, catch the rope mid-air, and then use the momentum to move the fixed rope ever-so-slightly and get to the other side. Needless to say, this was a failure. I jumped, my hands glanced off the rope, and I belly flopped and swam to the other side.
  • Kong Infinity: This obstacle was a huge challenge. It featured a set of rings hanging from a cylinder. One had to kip to grab the rings up and in front of you to move the cylinder and proceed to the monkey bars. This obstacle was epic, and I was really pleased to complete it successfully. (Okay, okay. I was really motivated because when I arrived I was with this group of men who all made it, and I wanted to prove that I was cool too.)
  • Funky Monkey -- The Revolution: This obstacle was directly after Kong. Two upper-body obstacles back-to-back was a lot of deal with, but, hey, again, I wanted to be at least as good as the men I arrived at the obstacle with. (Competitive? Me?) The updated Funky Monkey features the classic uphill monkey bars with transitions to three spinning wheels and then a pipe. At the Boston event, the first wheel was perpendicular to the bar and the next two were parallel (like in the stock image provided). My arms were tired from the previous obstacle, so I took a minute to collect myself before making it across. Nailed it!
  • The Stacks: What a fun obstacle. The Stacks featured a set of cargo containers stacked up and up and up. Mudders had to climb wooden ladders on the sides of the containers and then walk across. We descended using a cargo net. 
  • Happy Ending: A new finish line obstacle. It was nice to mix it up here. Racers had to jump into a pit of green water, climb up a slip wall (which was not too troublesome if you did it in a pike position with your shoes having full contact with the wall), and side down into a pit of water on the other side. My feet went over my head on the side down. 
I crossed the finish in 2:57, with a course distance of just over 11 miles. Tough Mudder Boston was a good time. I raced hard, and I did well. It was a good test of my fitness, and there were some fun obstacles. The new format is a big downer to me. Tough Mudder's signature ~10 mile distance almost seemed like an afterthought. Maybe their data bears out that growth is at the other distances, but as a Mudder of many years, I was a bit disappointed. The double lap was less fun and logistically complicated with back-ups.

I think that Tough Mudder is in a bit of a transition period. They're trying new stuff to see what sticks. Good idea. I am interested to see where they are in 2019. I have no doubt I'll run a Tough Mudder again. If that's in a year or two remains to be seen. I might want to wait to see what the course format will be like next year before committing. Tough Mudder has a good brand. I hope they get some focus back on their traditional distance and bring back the excellent spectator experience of year's past. If so, you'll see me and Serah there.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Mid-Season Review

Race season is approaching. I traditionally have opened my season with Ragnar Cape Cod and then transitioned into obstacle course racing for much of the summer. This year is no different. Over the next few months I have quite a few races coming up:

June:

July:

August:

September:

Mostly, I've been training. Hard. With the help and coordination of my coaches at Hart Strength and Endurance Coaching, I've been doing three days of lifting and three days of running. All of my workouts are intentional and working towards my goal races, NorAm OCR Champs and the Wineglass Marathon. 

The training has intensified in June, in part because I started doing two-a-days on Tuesdays and Thursdays so as to accommodate a group fitness class I am doing at work. But also the running has been killer. Mileage is increasing, as I build my endurance for my summer races and continue to make sure I have a strong base as I begin marathon training. I have been doing speed work consistently for the first time in my life and my paces are increasing. I am feeling good about my running. I had a serious PR at my last half marathon, the Fort Hill Brewery Half Marathon.

In the weight room, I've been trying new things and definitely building strength and mass. How will this translate to racing on obstacle courses? That remains to be seen. I am interested to see how I feel at the 24 hour Shale Hill event, especially on the rigs and other hanging obstacles, an area where I'd like to make strides for competing at NorAm OCR Championships.

Training is rarely glamorous, and it's hard when goal races are still over 100 days off. My coaches think I can run my marathon at a 9:20 pace. That seems impossible right now. But they are experts, and I trust hard work. I am going to keep at it and feel positive. 

I've been doing better work at adding stretching and recovery exercises into my schedule. This was a real focus for me this year, and I hope I have been keeping on track. (I think I have.) To this end I made sure to make the exercises and stretches I do on a daily basis not overly onerous. I probably spend on average around ten minutes a day. While I am sure I can be doing more, I think that consistency is key, and my health has been good during some tough training. 

So here we are: race season. Time to put my hard work to the test and see how things go. 

P.S. OCR is an interesting sport, and I just happened to read a fairly interesting article crunching some numbers, Fun in the Mud. I think there are some interesting trends in there. 


Note: Additional information about data collection! This wasn't addressed in the article, but I chatted with the author and the data was scraped from race websites and results pages like Athlinks. Yes, that means that it might not be entirely inclusive -- it's hard because OCR doesn't have one great repository of data. Without that the author did a good job, and there are many fascinating insights. Check it out!

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Ragnar Cape Cod 2018

For the fifth consecutive year, I had the privilege of running Ragnar Cape Cod with the New England Spahten Ninja team. For those who have not participated, Ragnar is a 12-person relay race that covers approximately 200 miles. Runners take turns running "legs" and hand off from person to person. Each runner runs three times over the course of around 36 hours as the team makes its way from Hull to Provincetown, Massachusetts. The team of twelve is divided between two vans, with runners one through six in van one and runners seven through 12 in van two. As a team, you are running continuously, which means there is always a runner out on the course. Generally, this means that each runner has one overnight run. You are just as likely to be running at 5:00 p.m., as you are to be running at 2:00 a.m. Each runner is assigned legs of different distance, and the captain of your team can customize who runs what based on interest and capability. This year we were lucky enough to have a team of reliable runners who were all a blast to be with.

The NES Ninjas team for 2018 was a great group. In van one, #teambreakfast, we had (in runner order): Bobby, me, Pete, Wes, Shaina, and Kelly. In van two, #teamdinner, there was Sean, Geoff, Paul, Josh, Jess, and Aaron. My three legs were 5 miles, 3.6 miles, and 4.5 miles, making me one of the runners going a shorter amount of distance. Our captain, Jess, is great about assigning us our legs, and with most of the people on the team interested and able to do long distances, this year I was assigned some shorter ones. (Note: Last year, I had some high mileage and one of the longest legs to run.) Both running long and running short are fun – in truth the real "test" of Ragnar is mental and not physical. Going 36 hours with irregular food and few hours of sleep and then having to wake up for a 3:00 a.m. run is the real challenge. The main focus is on being a good teammate, supporting the group, and running without drama. I cannot overstate how important having a good team is to the Ragnar experience. The NES Ninjas are so lucky to have a group of super cool folks who I am always pumped to spend 36 hours with unshowered and under-rested in a van winding our way towards Provincetown.


The NES Ninjas Ragnar experience began at 3:00 a.m. on Friday when we pulled ourselves out of bed in the hotel where the six of us stayed for the night before the race and dragged ourselves to the start line for a 4:00 a.m. check-in, an hour before our 5:00 a.m. start. We pulled into Nantaset Beach in Hull almost beating the Ragnar crew. Things were not set-up, and the safety video was experiencing technical difficulties. We, in fact, ended up having to go over and get our bibs and other registration items before the video got organized. Though we were an hour early, Bobby ended up running to the start line just as the announcer was sending folks out because of the lack of coordination of the Ragnar team for check-in. If racers are coming to check-in for 4:00 a.m., I would hope everything can be in place in time. Ragnar being a bit behind in getting exchanges set-up was a bit of a theme for the weekend and something that ought to be rectified for next year.


Regardless, we weren't going to let Ragnar's lack-of-organization spoil our fun. Bobby did a great job getting out in time. The rest of our van took a few quick pictures in Hull, as the sun came over the horizon. We grabbed the first of many coffees at Dunkin' Donuts and headed on our way to meet Bobby at the first exchange.


I was up next for a 5:45 a.m. five miler through Hingham. Bobby arrived a couple of minutes ahead of schedule, we did our traditional team chest bump, passed off the slap-bracelet that served as a baton, and I was off. The weather was great for running. The sun was just up and temperatures were mild, in the 50s. I started by running through some nice neighborhoods. I cruised along at a comfortable 9:45/mile pace, feeling good and doing some "house hunting." With a couple of miles to go, the course sent me down a dead-end road which led into Wompatuck State Park. I ran along an access road through the woods. It was a beautiful run, and I enjoyed myself entirely. The leg terminated with a final short hill. I rounded one last corner and came into the exchange where I passed off to Pete for his "Wicked Hard" leg, an 11 miler. I had felt good about my run. I enjoyed myself, saw some sights, and easily maintained my pace. I had put myself down for 10:00 miles, knowing that would give me some flexibility. Ragnar, for many of us, is not a race. It's an experience, and I wanted to run well – reliably – for my team while also having a blast.


For the rest of the morning, we jumped from exchange to exchange dropping off runners and picking them up. In a great show of success, we managed to make each exchange perfectly without having anyone waiting. Getting lost (vans and runners) and missing exchanges totally happens in Ragnar, and it's good to be prepared for things to not go perfectly, but who can complain about success. 

Our last runner of the morning, Kelly, headed off for a four miler, and the van headed to the first major exchange at Duxbury Beach, where we'd trade off to van two. The weather was amazing. It was sunny and around 60 degrees. Our team had started in the first wave of the day, even though we had a solid team of runners. We had to keep an eye on the clock to make sure that we didn't reach the exchanges too early and risk being held back. Fortunately, we were just after the cut-off time for Duxbury when Kelly ran in. We cheered her on with our van two mates. It was great to get some time with van two. The one sad part of Ragnar is that even though you're part of a team of 12, you basically only even see the six folks in your van. Major exchanges are always festive because you get to group up and say, "Hello," to everyone. 


From Duxbury we headed off for breakfast. It is a van one tradition from the first year of Ragnar to head over to The Blueberry Muffin for giant pancakes while van two runs, especially because van one has about five hours off. This year, as always, breakfast did not disappoint. We had been up since 3:00 a.m. and all done some running; we were hungry.


In past years, after breakfast, we would head over to the next major exchange in Sandwich. However, this year, there was a gap in the relay. I heard a number of reasons proposed for this. People said it was because of construction or an alternate event taking place in the area. Another theory was that the towns in this area had opted not to participate due to an incident last year where a female runner was assaulted by a man in the area. (Note: As I understand it, the female runner was not physically harmed and was able to complete the race. Ragnar implemented an optional buddy system for 2017 in response.) 

The gap in the course map in Sandwich meant that the teams would be doing a virtual exchange. When van two arrived at their exchange in Carver, Ragnar HQ would radio to exchange 13 where our runner would be waiting and then Bobby would head off.  To add an additional complication, the areas where the exchange was to take place was different from where we were designated to wait, plus, the exchange wouldn't open until 4:00 p.m., which was also the end of the hold time, and when we expected our exchange to happen.

A well-fed #teambreakfast, headed over to the Pop Warner field in Sandwich for a few hours of napping and relaxation. Mostly we napped, read, and generally chatted and hung out, enjoying the sun. At around quarter to four, we hopped in the van to head a mile and a half down the road to the virtual exchange point, at a nearby school. When we arrived at 3:50 p.m., the volunteer turned us away stating that the exchange hadn't opened yet, despite the fact that runners should have been allowed out at 4:00 p.m. and we were expecting Aaron in around that time. This meant we had to drive around for 10 minutes, since the Pop Warner field rest area was filled with vans that were taking their break. 

We arrived back at exchange 13 at 4:00 p.m. and were allowed to park. It was clear, once again, that Ragnar HQ was not organized here. Our runner had arrived, and we should have been allowed to have Bobby head out, but the exchange was not set-up, and we ended up having to wait while volunteers organized. Finally, at around 4:20 p.m., 20 minutes after runners should have been able to go out and after our runner had arrived, people were allowed to begin running. The runners were oddly sent out in waves seemly at random, but at least we were up and moving again. The virtual exchange was somewhat disorganized and having it meant that we missed an opportunity to bond with our van two teammates, so I am hopeful that we will be back to the old arrangement for 2019.

My next run, a quick 3.6 miler, was fast approaching for around 4:50 p.m. With Bobby out on the course, the van headed to Mashpee where I would start. Again, the weather was nice. It was sunny and in the 60s. When Bobby came in I headed out at a 9:35/mile pace down the main road that made up a lot of the course to the next exchange.

While my second run wasn't very scenic, it was festive. Since I was going down a main route there was lots of traffic and a bunch of people waved and cheered. I think it was because I was wearing my extra festive NES running tights, an item of clothing so highly decorated that my boyfriend, Ben, refers to them fondly as "dazzle camouflage." 

Half way through the run, I turned off the main road. The next bit of course was a bit lacking in markers, and when the final turn came for the run up to the exchange, I would have missed it were it not for a fellow runner coming out of the exchange who directed me correctly. In a few other instanced members of my team mentioned that clearer course markings would have helped. Particularly confusing where instances where Ragnar wanted the runner to cross the street but instead of having a crossing sign and then an additional directional sign (i.e. straight), there were signs that said right and then left and the like. Fortunately, I made it into the exchange without incident and Pete headed off. Van one finished up this set of legs fairly quickly, since the only longer run was Shaina's 6.5 miler. We were afforded some time on Craigsville Beach while we waited for her. I allowed the Atlantic to kiss my toes. It was frigid. I hastened back to my socks and shoes and curled into my Dryrobe and, in that manner, enjoyed the beach.


Kelly had the last leg, into Barnstable High School in Hyannis, and was scheduled to arrive around 8:45 p.m. She ended up being in a little later than anticipated since she was misdirected by a well-meaning but incorrect crew in another van. They had told her she was going the wrong way when she was in fact going the correct way.  They then brought her back a ways and mistakenly pointed her in the wrong direction. They soon realized their mistake and came back to pick her up and put her on the right path again. To Kelly's extreme credit, she took this with a great deal of equanimity and was totally chill about it. She had them drop her back off and finished her leg only a few minutes past the time she was expected to arrive. Kudos.

Our van was off until 1:30 a.m. so we quickly headed off to exchange 24, Harwich Community Center where, it was promised, there would be showers. One advantage of running really far ahead...I was the very first person in the locker room and had the entire place to myself to shower. It was amazing to wash away a day's worth of sweat, sunscreen, and dirt. I felt amazing. I was the best shower ever. Then I brushed my teeth, and it was the best time I ever brushed my teeth. Then I got to wash my hands, and that was the best too. 

I also felt tired. We'd been up since 3:00 a.m. It was time for some much needed shut eye. I grabbed my sleeping bag from the van, told Bobby where I was and to come wake me when he was ready to roll and snagged a spot on the gym floor where I promptly passed out for the next three and a half hours. I woke up when Bobby came to get me, fell asleep for a few more minutes, and then dragged myself up so I could brush my teeth again in the locker room and change into running clothing before we left.

Bobby had a 6.6 miler for his night run, so I had some time for a quick snack before my 4.5 miles in Brewster. The night was cool with temperatures in the lower 40s but less humid than in past years, so visibility was good. I was waiting when Bobby arrived and headed out, maintaining a 9:52 pace for my night run and feeling pretty decent for someone who'd dragged themselves out of bed and decided to run for 44 minutes in the middle of the night.

In the past I have really enjoyed my night runs at Ragnar because they are such a unique experience. This year, thinking of the assault that occurred during this event last year, I was a bit more on edge than in the past and very mindful of my surroundings. In past posts I have written about night running saying that it feels like floating in space. It's fun to run at night, look up at the stars now and again and totally dissociate and just enjoy the wild experience of it all. 

With the events of last year in my mind I found I couldn't really do that. I was 100% focused. Being a woman, and a small woman at that, I am conscientious about running alone and while I don't generally run feeling fearful and don't consider running to be dangerous, I am always mindful. I was fortunate that my night run went well. The course was well marked, I saw a runner or two from Ragnar but was untroubled, and I went along feeling good and at a decent pace. I should note how appreciative I am that the course had very frequent markers along the night leg. In the past this has not always been the case, but it was this year, and it was welcome. My run finished at an elementary school where I passed off to Pete. I was done. I changed into pajamas and napped on and off as the van made its way along the course.

Our van was slated to finish up a little after 6:00 a.m. The sun came up as we waited at Cooks Brook Beach in Eastham while Shaina ran. I enjoyed some coffee from a group doing a local fundraiser as we cheered Shaina's arrival and Kelly's departure for the last three miles van one had on the course.


The van made its way to Nauset Regional High to join van two. We hung out and chatted; before long Kelly had arrived and passed off to Sean. Van two was live, and we were done. Time to change and head to Provincetown for breakfast at our second traditional breakfast location, Post Office Cafe. There were four plus hours to kill before we could expect van two to finish-up. We grabbed some Dunks on the way out to P-town, knowing that we wouldn't be able to get into the restaurant until after it opened at 8:00 a.m. This gave us time after we arrived to nap. We grabbed a delicious breakfast and then headed over to the beach for a #teambreakfast photo in the world's largest chair (unverified).


With a couple of hours left to go, we took time to clean the marker off the van and prowl the festival area. Ragnar has significant merch, though I find it to be a bit of a high price point, especially considering that Reebok is their sponsor, and one of Reebok's virtues is their general affordability. I decided I was all set with my free race shirt and opted out of grabbing any other items in the store, as usual. We convened with the van two crowd and waited for Aaron to finish his final leg. The wait wasn't long. Our team has either gotten seriously faster or I've gotten much better at how I feel about the downtime during Ragnar. (Perhaps five years has made me better at managing unstructured free time, which, honestly, in my post-graduate-school-life I realize is a gift. How often do you get to sit around outside and do nothing for hours? Not often, and it's pretty good.)

Aaron cruised up the hill and we joined him for a final run across the finish line. Ragnar 2018 was in the books.


As always, Ragnar is all about your team, and I am so lucky to have a great group with the NES Ninjas led by a terrific captain, Jess. These are folks who I can spend a few days with having little sleep and enjoying the entire time. We've really upped our running game, as a team, and can now be reliably counted on to get some decent running done – a bonus to be sure. Ragnar is a must do race for me. Five years ago, it was my introduction to the NE Spahtens. I don't think I even realized my luck at the time to get to meet this fantastic group in such a cool way. Ragnar 2019 will be on my race calendar for sure. See you there fellow Ninjas.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Fort Hill Brewery Half Marathon

I have been loving the number of local half marathons that have been popping up in Western Mass. Add to that all the work that I've been doing with my coaches at Hart Strength & Endurance over the past four months, and I was excited to check out the new Fort Hill Brewery Half Marathon in nearby Easthampton, Massachusetts.


I went into this race perhaps better trained than for any running race I've done. Since working with Hart Strength & Endurance, I've added speed work, tempo runs, hill repeats, and long runs with speed work into my running repertoire. The results are clear -- I am getting faster and my endurance is at a great place for a half marathon-distance race. I was excited to line-up at the starting line for the Fort Hill Half and see what my fitness would yield. My last half marathon, in the fall, I had trained for by doing some slow long runs, but done little else. I finished in 2:16. With a more structured plan for this race I was planning to run 9:45 miles and finish with a PR in the 2:10 range.


The weather in New England has been most unfortunate this spring and Sunday was no exception with weather in the low to mid 30s with wind and the threat of freezing rain. Thankfully, the rain held off, though I was quite motivated throughout the race to run fast and finish before the rain was scheduled to start around noon. 

Sunday morning, I headed over to the Fort Hill Brewery for pre-race check-in. The race was scheduled to start at 10:00 a.m., but I had to pick up my bib, so I arrived about half an hour early, which was plenty of time. Getting my bib and free tech t-shirt was a breeze. In the free time, I ran back to the car to drop off my shirt before heading back to the brewery to wait inside for the race to start. It was cold out, and I wanted to head to the start line at the last possible minute. The brewery was packed with like-minded runners all trying to stay warm.

At around 10 minutes to race-time, I headed outside to the starting line. I'll give it to the race organizers; they started promptly. Much appreciated by this runner! 

The race organizers' website describes the Fort Hill Half Marathon course in the following way:

Get ready to take in some inspiring Pioneer Valley scenery! Our half marathon course follows quiet roads and shaded bike paths as it passes farm fields with views of Mount Tom. The course has only 472 feet of elevation gain with no long climbs. This will keep things fun and challenging for sure but if you want to PR or just a fun running experience then this is a course where you can get it!

I am in total agreement about this write-up. The course was totally manageable with a lot of flats and downhill segments and one or two rolling hills to keep things interesting. The biggest hill on the course was no more than a couple minute climb. 


The running route started out by taking us along some back-roads towards the bike path. It was fairly windy and chilly. I had seeded myself somewhat aggressively and that, combined with the need to warm up, meant that I started out at a somewhat fast pace. I quickly checked my watch and then checked my reality. I honed in on running at around a 9:45 pace as we hit mile 1 and the bike path. The next few miles took us further into Easthampton, along the bike path. We ran near downtown, past Williston Northampton School.

Right before mile five, we turned off the bike path and headed up the longest hill of the course into a residential area. The next four or so miles took us through some of the neighborhoods of Easthampton. Despite the weather, there were spectators outside their homes cheering on the runners. (Fun fact: I saw my former boss from Smith College and her husband at around mile four of the bike path -- how festive!) The last mile of this section we turned into a pretty strong headwind of the type to make one questions one's life choices. I was glad when we turned into a wooded area where we were more protected from the elements.

We ran through Nonotuck Park for what was probably my favorite part of the course. I had never been to Nonotuck and found it to be scenic and a fun place to run. We exited the park and ran once again into some strong wind as we headed back to the bike path. At this point I was hustling along at 9:30 miles and, with only a couple miles to go, I was feeling tired. I really wanted to PR on this course and decided to focus and run as hard as I could. This is what all that training was for. Time to run courageously!

The last mile was truly a challenge to hang on and keep pace. Finishing up the race on the bike path was ideal because it meant I had to just truck ahead without worrying about elevation or turns. Interestingly enough, my watch clicked past 13.1 about 0.4 miles (and four minutes) before I crossed the finish line. I counted down in my head and surged forward to cross the finish with a chip time of 2:08:55.


I was tired and my legs were dead. I hobbled over to grab myself a free slice of pizza and a beer (which I didn't finish because I really wanted some water at that point). I hung out for a minute and then headed out since the bar was packed, and I needed a shower.


Weather aside, the Fort Hill Brewery Half Marathon was a fun day. The course was a nice mix of flat and rolling hills -- enough to keep it interesting. It wasn't the most scenic half I've ever done, though I liked the divide between bike path, neighborhoods, and park. The race was well organized and close to home. There was sufficient swag: a tech t-shirt, a medal, pizza and beer. I wish there had been a few more aid stations along the course, but it's a modest complaint in the grand scheme of things. This is a race that fit a niche in my calendar -- I wanted a spring half marathon to keep focused on training this winter and the Fort Hill Brewery Half Marathon fit the bill. It's not a must-do race for me for next year, but it's certainly one I can see doing again depending on circumstances. All in all, pretty good for a race in its inaugural year.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Shale Hill Polar Bear 8 Hour 2018

Anyone who knows me knows that I won't miss a chance to race at Shale Hill. Even if it's in the middle of February. This year, Shale Hill hosted it's sixth annual Polar Bear Challenge, a winter race in which participants do as many laps of Shale Hill's 10K obstacle course as they can in an eight hour period. For me, this was my third time participating and while 2015 wins for the most challenge race with it's 3' of snow, this year was definitely the coldest.


Polar Bear Challenge tends to bring out a larger crew to Shale Hill and some very elite athletes. The race starts bright and early, which check-in from 5:30 a.m. - 6:30 a.m., followed by a breakfast buffet and racers' meeting. Waves were then scheduled to start at around 7:00 a.m., with elites going first and the non-competitive journeyman division heading out in the final wave at 8:00 a.m.

I arrived at Shale Hill just in time to check-in. I parked for free about a quarter of a mile from the check-in. The path up was lit by bonfires -- one of the most epic entrances in OCR.

(Photo credit: Hannah Hawley)

A real perk to racing at Shale Hill is that everyone is treated like family and they know your name. To that end, I checked-in with good friend and fellow Spahten, Niki, and the next thing I knew, I was off to the heated "party barn" to grab a coffee and some eggs and french toast from the buffet. (Bacon was also included for those who prefer pork, i.e. not me; pigs are too smart.) I snacked on my hot breakfast while co-race director, Rob Butler, led the racers' meeting. He explained the new penalty system where racers competing in the elite and open divisions would have to backtrack one obstacle if they failed an obstacle. For select obstacles where backtracking would be too much of a challenge, racers would instead take a chip and then complete their penalties right outside the barn before coming inside to mark the end of their lap. I had been planning to compete in the open division; however, a mild cold, combined with temperatures in the single digits, made me decide to run in the non-competitive journeyman division this year.

At the conclusion of the racers' meeting, the competitive elite athletes soon readied for their wave. It turned out that the course was extremely icy. The newly redone course had racers doing the double log carry as the second obstacle. With the treacherous conditions, people were being forced to go slow. To prevent any back-ups with racers having to wait at this obstacle, the journeyman wave was held a little and we went out at around 8:30 a.m. This was fine for me. It allowed me time to digest my breakfast and spend time with friends. I also chatted with a fellow racer who mentioned that he had read one of my blog posts about Shale Hill, and it had helped him decide to sign-up for Polar Bear. Fame!

In an interesting twist, this year, the course at Shale Hill had been re-laid-out. The obstacles were reordered, there were new paths, and we tackled some new additions to the course. I really enjoyed the new course. We started out by running through what used to be one of the horse pastures and ended up heading quickly over to the ankle biters and the double log carry. I was fortunate enough to get a good (i.e. not too heavy) set of logs that I could manage. It was a good thing too because it was incredibly icy and hilly over the half mile of the log carry. Even with my Icebugs, I was falling all over the place not just during this carry but throughout the race. Running was almost an impossibility. There was a layer of ice under all the crusty snow.


From the log carry, we headed along a part of course that more closely matched what I was used to. We did the pond traverse, followed by the gut check, and the tire pull. The tire pull is the only instance in which I found the ice helpful. Pulling the tire along the ice was easier than dragging it through the grass. The entire time the first half hour or so of the race was going on, temperatures hovered in the single digits. In the woods, it was okay in terms of wind, but out on the fields, one began to understand why the phrase "the wind cut like a knife" exists. For Polar Bear, I had wool socks, feet warmers, two layers of pants, four layers on top (a base layer, a mid layer, a fleece, and a coat), a buff, a beanie, and gloves with hand-warmers. All of these items were essential. There were times when I had my buff pulled up to the edge of my hat and only my eyes were free. The air was so cold that I avoided breathing it directly. While it was hard to grip some of the obstacles while wearing gloves, the alternative -- taking them off -- was impossible on the metal obstacles at this point in the morning. Later in the day, I would selectively take my gloves off for rope climbs or to grip wooden obstacles better, but I had to be quick before my fingers froze to the point of being unable to be effective.

One of the great things about the new course layout was that it allowed racers to tackle hard obstacles followed by easier obstacles in a non-traditional format. In the former Shale Hill layout, there were lots of hard obstacles towards the end and back-to-back. The new layout was great about spreading out challenging obstacles and hitting some harder obstacles sooner in the course. We got to do the Tarzan Ropes earlier on, for example. While we were supposed to do them backward, I decided to approach them in the traditional direction (journeyman division prerogative) and nailed them.

We reversed the course from the Tarzan Ropes and headed over to the monkey bars. The formerly uphill monkey bars were now downhill. I have to say they were still impossible for me. The super skinny rope that was designed to help people climb up to the bars was too slick to get a real hand on, especially with the spinning monkey bars spaced so far apart. My wingspan is almost not wide enough for the monkey bars (or the a-frame devil steps called, Bad Attitude at Shale Hill). At the downhill and flat monkey bars I was fortunate enough to run into volunteering Spahtens, Hannah and Christie. With my cold, I was feeling a bit "meh" and some friendly faces were great! Hannah and Christie walked with me from the monkey bars to two new obstacles -- both were metal and too cold to grab with bare hands but too slippery with gloves. The first was a set of short metal posts sticking out of a center beam. The posts stuck out in a way that implied they were to be tackled like monkey bars. On closer inspection, it became evident that the center post rotated, meaning that with each swing, you'd be wobbling up and down, side to side as you swung across. In my gloves, I couldn't get started, but I can't wait to check this obstacle out again in the warmer months. This obstacle was followed directly but a second new monkey bars or rig-inspired obstacle. This obstacle reminded me of the twister I saw at the Urban Sky obstacle at OCR World Championships but with smaller loops around the central pole. The racers had to grab the loops that corkscrewed around the rotating central pole to move laterally to the far end. Unlike Urban Sky with its nice coated metal loops, the Shale Hill loops were made of rebar. I definitely would need more time with this obstacle to get it down and spending all day there in the 8 degree weather seemed like not the right choice.

The newly designed course took us out to the main field where the final third of the original course used to be twice. This meant that some of the harder obstacles featured in that part of the course were split up since we went out around the midway point of the course and then again in the final mile. We tackled the wheel barrel loop, the 11' wall and the 19' rope climb, and the parallel bars before coming into the woods for the entire "jungle section," categorized by the climbing obstacles -- the abacus, the linkin' logs, and the ladders. I had good success on all these obstacles. For the 11' wall and 19' rope climb, I hazarded to take my hands out of my gloves, which was horrible but also worked. I am a fairly good climber, and the jungle is my favorite part of the course, so I did well there. At this point, I was feeling a bit better and was really enjoying myself, a feeling I would maintain for most of the rest of the race. It didn't hurt that the temperatures were at least edging into the teens, making things a bit less painfully cold, particularly in the woods where we were protected from the wind.

I finished up in the woods with the wall traverse -- almost impossible with my limited mobility with all my clothing and gloves -- the coffins, and the hoist. It was at the great wall where I thought about the big difference that doing the Shale Hill course in the winter is. In the summer, I can fairly consistently do all five panels of the wall with the cross beams. In the winter, with my arms constricted by four layers, my hands covered with gloves, and my joints still from the cold, it was all I could do to make it across one wall. I am a summer athlete -- the winter is my off-season. That is a product of when my key races tend to be but it's also a reflection of the fact that despite living in New England for my entire life, I am very poorly adapted to cold weather. On the other hand, you really won't hear too much complaining from me over the summer. I trained for my first marathon during the hottest summer on record and while runs in the humidity and high 80s weren't my favorite, they were nothing compared to how I feel about the cold. I'll never be competitive at a race like Polar Bear, but I can definitely give it my all at a summer race at Shale Hill.

Following the section of course in the woods, we continued to follow a familiar route out to the field again by way of the Alcatraz wall and balance alley. We zigged into the middle field to do one of my favorite obstacles, cliff jumper, and double up. I got to Bad Attitude, Shale Hill's answer to the devil steps and once again marveled at how I had been able to nail this obstacle at OCR World Championships with the closer together steps. (A fun note: At this obstacle I was also passed by The Twins, a set of identical twins in their mid-20s who compete at Shale Hill regularly. To my comment about how much harder Bad Attitude was compared to the obstacle at OCRWC, one of the twins said, "I'll let you in on a secret -- it's because Rob Butler is an asshole." We shared a laugh. Ah, Rob, you are the best because you're the worst. Seriously, this is why Shale Hill rocks!)

The course then brought us back to the Fireman's tower and the obstacles that would lead us into the final pass through the far field -- the tires, the new Irish Table obstacle( which I love by the way), and the loom (another favorite). Usually at the loom, I am started to get tired and then dismayed at the number of hard obstacles to come. The good news was that with the redesigned course, I had tackled those already and they were done. I had already bested the tall ropes climb, tried my hand at the monkey bars, and been "like Jane" on the Tarzan ropes. Sure I had to go over a few mountains of hay bales and climb a new really steep section of course, but then I was back to right past the Tarzan ropes and in sight of the barn where I knew the course finished.

We got to hit up the rope ramp, another favorite, before going to the warped wall and winding our way along the very slick anaconda, where I had to sit down and slide to descent the berm. Rob had put his giant rig platform right before the finish line and attached rings. I love rings, but I couldn't reach from the first to the second due to height. If the ring had just been an inch lower, I would have loved to do this obstacle. Any chance that small adjustment could be made before the summer? As I was at the final obstacle, I ran into some fellow NE Spahtens who had been volunteering. I had an entourage as I headed up the hill to ring the bell at the finish line!


I finished my lap in around 3:15. There was definitely time to go out again, but I was sapped from my cold, from the freezing weather, and from sliding around on the ice. I had done well with my obstacle completion rate and felt good about my performance and the fun I had enjoyed. This was a race I had come to to spend time with friends and have fun, more than to challenge myself and do "all the laps." I changed and headed back to the bar where I enjoyed the buffet lunch and spent more time with my teammates before heading out.

For someone who hates the cold, I can reliably be counted on to sign up for Polar Bear at Shale Hill again and again? Why? Because Shale Hill is amazing! It's challenging, fun, a community, the best people. Polar Bear Challenge can be whatever you want it to be -- it can be a goal race in the off-season or it can be a tune-up to see where your winter training is at. It can be a change to connect with friends you don't always get to see in the colder months and an opportunity to get to play in the snow. An eight hour race with breakfast and lunch included, it's a great deal. 2018's race was fantastic. I love the new course layout and hope that it is maintained for the summer. I can't wait for the weather to warm up and to get back up to Vermont to hit the course again!