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!