Monday, February 1, 2016

Blizzard Blast 2016

The 2016 NE Spahtens #racelocal kicked off on Sunday, January 31 with Blizzard Blast, a winter obstacle course race located at Four Oaks Country Club in Dracut, Massachusetts. 

This was my second year attending the race. A big plus for me was the date fell on a Sunday. I have Saturday classes for graduate school this spring semester and as a result my race schedule is a bit stripped down from last year when my Saturdays were free. There were a couple other key reasons for my participation in this race. Last year, I had really enjoyed myself. Blizzard Blast took place in snowy conditions and did a great job highlighting that it was a winter race. The race is also fairly close to my house -- only an hour and a half away. The final and main reason that this race remains one I will likely keep on my calendar is that it's one of very few winter races. After the 2015 OCR season wrapped at F.I.T. Challenge, since then, I've had limited opportunity to see my fellow Spahtens and enjoy my favorite hobby of obstacle course racing. In the past, I have been lucky enough to have two winter races, Blizzard Blast in January and Polar Bear in February. Then I'd do F.I.T. in April. This year, Polar Bear and F.I.T., two races that I love, won't be a possibility. That means that Blizzard Blast is likely my only race until Ragnar in May. Though I love school, the schedule is sometimes a bummer, since it means less time with friends. With this in mind, I was dedicated to having as much fun at Blizzard Blast as I possibly could. (P.S. I am also going to try to plan a day trip or two to Shale Hill to hang out with people and do some OCR this winter. I was lucky enough to get to go in November and January and am planning to go up again for my birthday in March. This should help!)

I arrived in eastern Massachusetts a little over an hour before the 12:30 p.m. team heat. The parking for Blizzard Blast is always off-site. This means taking a 10 minute bus ride from where you drop your car to the race venue. Kind of a bummer. Parking was the standard $10 and the buses were conveniently waiting, so the trip out was smooth. The trip back was less ideal. My teammate, Bobby, and I ended up waiting almost 20 minutes for a bus to take up back to our car. The 20 minute wait, plus the 10 minute bus ride, added 30 minutes at the end of the day. I wish that the buses could have been as well coordinated for the outgoing trip as for the incoming one.

When the buses arrived at the country club I headed over to registration. This went very smoothly. There was no line. I had my waver signed and ready to go and was instantly handed a timing chip and bib in a packet from a volunteer. From there, I went to t-shirt pick-up. There was a line of maybe a half dozen people here, but there were plenty of well-organized volunteers and the t-shirt pick-up went smoothly too. As a member of the NE Spahtens I received a special cotton long sleeved t-shirt with our team logo on the sleeve and, as a bonus, a Blizzard Blast buff. Last year, the team got a shirt with our logo on the back. These are details I really love. I also love that Blizzard Blast does cotton long sleeve shirts. I am not a fan of the lower quality tech t-shirts races often give out and would much prefer a cotton shirt I can wear around the house and to sleep in. I have very few race shirts that are long sleeved for the cooler months, so ones like the Blizzard Blast shirt get extra usage. 

From registration, I headed into the country club and found the bar room, which the Spahtens had taken over been given as team headquarters. The room was packed! Tons of people had come out for the race. Though I didn't recognize most people, I also spotted many friends that I hadn't seen since F.I.T. I went around saying, "Hello," before situating myself in an unobtrusive spot to get ready for the race. 

The Spahtens had decided that this year for Blizzard Blast we'd all run in onesies. Back at the beginning of the winter, this seemed like it might end up being a idea that was just odd instead of totally crazy -- onesies are warm and January is, in general, cold. However, Sunday ended up being unseasonably warm with a high of around 50 degrees Fahrenheit and a temperature in the upper 40s at the time of our team heat. Nonetheless, I donned my Totoro onesie for the team picture. I debated taking it off, but was both interested in cultivating team spirit and fascinated by what the actual experience of running in a onesie would be like. What can I say; I am an empiricist! 

(Photo credit: Vince Rhee)


I headed over to the start line with fellow Spahten and Ragnar teammate, Bobby, who was dressed in a Batman onesie, complete with cape. At the starting line, we ran into Paul, in a dragon onesie, complete with an elaborately spikes tail. The three of us ended up running the race together.

We started the race with basically no fanfare. I believe announcements were made about penalties. Last year Blizzard Blast had you do 10 snow angels as a penalty for failed obstacles. This year, it was almost 50 degrees and no snow, so we were asked to do jumping jacks instead. We started the race with basically no fanfare. I believe announcements were made about penalties. Last year Blizzard Blast had you do 10 snow angels as a penalty for failed obstacles. This year, it was almost 50 degrees and no snow, so we were asked to do jumping jacks instead.

The course was 5.5 miles in length. A lot of time was spent on the golf cart paths that crisscross the country club. Other time was spent doing some trail running in the woods. There were no significant hills. I'd be surprised if we had more than 300 feet of elevation change. It was mostly rolling hills, which is fine by me. The course roughly followed the path that we used in 2015 with slight modifications due to the lack of snow. It was a fast course, in part because of the lack of snow, but mostly due to the lack of obstacles over the first half of the race. We ran all the way to the first water stop – probably around a mile – before encountering any obstacles at all. Here we had one tall wall and an under wall. That was it. After that, it was another mile and a half of running before we encountered anything else. As it is, I found this race to be okay; if they had cut out that first 2.5 miles of running and done the race as a 5K I would definitely be giving this race higher marks. Obstacle placement and spacing is very important. I like to run. I even sometimes love it. However, when I sign up for an obstacle course race, what I am looking for is obstacles. I would love a 5K distance that is obstacle dense over a longer distance with all the obstacles at the end. It’s much more fun and gives me exactly what I am looking for in my obstacle course racing experiences.

Here's a breakdown of the obstacles in the course with descriptions for each. As always, I have tried to recall as best I can all the obstacles and the placement of each. Feel free to let me know if I missed anything -- it's sometimes hard to remember without a course map or GoPro footage.

- 7' wall: This wall had a set of kicks and a hand hold, which helped a lot.
- Under: Roll under a wall.
- Pegboards: This obstacle was a pegboard attached to a tree. The last Blizzard Blast I had trouble with this obstacle, but I've worked on my technique and managed it just fine at the last two F.I.T. Challenges. It was fine here too.


- Double keg hoist: This hoist was actually very heavy. The rope was thin and completely slippery with mud. Bobby ended up assisting me with the hoist. (I got it up off the ground about once before the rope slipped through my hands.) It was great having the assistance!


- Rope climb: This was a fairly short rope climb, but the Totoro onesie and lack of Icebugs made it harder than usual. I was able to j-hook down pretty quickly though -- Totoro is kind of slick!
- Paintball target: Grab a paintball gun and try to hit a target. Last year we got only three tries. This year, the volunteer said we could have ten. I was able to get it on try five or so.
- Pine tree weave: Dodge and weave your way through hanging pine trees.


- Teeter totters: Climb up and down a see-saw. I didn't have my Icebugs, so I took this one very slowly. The only OCR-related injury I've witnessed was on a set of teeter totters, so I'm always careful on this one. (Note: Last year, I skipped it because it was so slippery. Plus, half of it was closed down for some reason in 2015.)
- Hot chocolate!: Just kidding -- this was not an obstacle. At the teeter totters, instead of a water stop, there was a hot chocolate station. It even featured marshmallows. This helped make up for the 2.5 miles of running I'd done with only a over and under wall back at the start of the race.
- Hoist: This was a unique hoist. We had to haul up a small keg, but instead of just hoisting it, we actually had to wrap the string holding the keg on the pulley onto the handle we were using. Forearm strength was required. This is the second year that Blizzard Blast has had this obstacle. It's fine -- I like it more than a traditional hoist -- but there tends to be a back-up at this obstacle.
- Keg carry: Blizzard Blast is sponsored by a beer company and, as a result, kegs abound. For this obstacle. We had to carry a beer keg along a loop. There were kegs on the ground to weave through and climb over.


- Through wall and 6' wall: Shimmy through the opening in a wall. Then do a standard wall. This second wall was little wobbly but nothing too terrible.
- Christmas lights crawl: Like a barbed wire crawl but with Christmas lights. Festive!
- Cinder block walk: You got two cinder blocks. While standing on one, you had to move the other forward. Then step to that one. You moved one block while balancing on the other to advance.
- Ankle biters: We had to make our way across an bridge criss-crossed with ropes at ankle height.
- Football throw: Take a football and throw it at a tire attached to a tree. I hit around the tire but didn't quite make it. I did the penalty of 10 jumping jacks as we began running to the next obstacle.
- Traverse wall: Doing a traverse wall was a bit more challenging with the limited mobility of the onesie. Fortunately, the hand blocks had lips at the top, and I could pretty much hang off of them.
- Hanging tires: Directly after the traverse wall, you had to cross a suspending a-frame with four tires tied to the trellis. The tires were fixed. The idea was to grab each side like a lip with your fingers and then move your way along. I actually found this a lot harder than anticipated. It ended up taking three tries for me to make it, and it was much more exhausting for my hands and shoulders than monkey bars.
- 5' wall
- Pine tree carry: I like this carry better than a traditional carry because, honestly, what's displeasing about walking around covered with the scent of pine. Also, Blizzard Blast is good about selecting a nice variety of sizes, so it's possible for me to pick a tree that's the correct level of challenge to carry.
- Cars: This is the first time I have ever seen an obstacle like this. And that might be okay. We had to crawl through the window of a dilapidated car and then crawl out the window on the other side. From there, we fell into a pile of foam blocks (kind of like what you see in a gymnastics training facility). Finally, we had to crawl through the windows of another car again. This was a bit of a dirty operation and quite odd, to say the least. However, I totally give it points for originality, and it was novel. I alternated between amusement at the activity we were doing and alarm at how gross the cars were! (Note: Apparently dirty stuff, like mud, in the outdoors is fine. In the "indoors" of a car it's distressing.)


- Keg Kingdom: This was my favorite obstacle last year, and this year I was not disappointed. Last year, we had four hanging kegs, monkey bars, and then another four kegs. This year was a bit of a different set-up. We had a set of four kegs and then some hay bales to rest on. From there, it was a set of over a half dozen kegs. We then got to stand on some hay and transition to a modestly long stretch of monkey bars. Swinging from kegs is tricky for a couple of reasons. The main one, is that they swing in unpredictable ways. The other reason is that they have only two handles you can grab, so you have to be lucky enough to have enough space to reach the next handle.


I had pretty good luck with the kegs and made it all the way through. I was unable to reach the monkey bars. Fortunately, Paul gave me a boost. (Thank you for your help two years in a row at Keg Kingdom, Paul. My height is clearly a limiter on this!) There weren't any hay bales at the end of the monkey bars, which I think was an oversight since it was a pretty long drop down for someone my size. Bobby and Paul helped me down, which was much appreciated. After that, we had to climb up and over one mound of snow and then it was across the finish line. My final time was 1:44:59.

From there, I returned inside. I was massively hot in my onesie (which at that point, I had tied around my waste, leaving my top free). I was ready to change and get some food. Blizzard Blast includes a free cup of soup / chili with entry. This is a nice perk. The food line was a bit long, but it moved fairly quickly. Sadly, selection was limited as they were out of chowder and chicken noodle soup, so we all got some chili. It was not a favorite, but one cannot be dissatisfied with free food after exercising for 1:45. Plus, the race was at the country club which included a restaurant and bar for anyone interested in purchasing food.

Bottom line: Even with its faults, I’ll keep going to Blizzard Blast because it’s a race at a time of year when there are very few things on my calendar OCR-wise. It’s a good opportunity to play outside in the winter and a great opportunity to get to see friends that I see less often than I wish during the colder months. If this race was instead in a busy month like May or July, I might skip it. It also tends to be a very affordable race, costing anywhere from $40 - $70. For OCR that is downright cheap! The race experience is mixed. I like how the obstacles are different from what I see elsewhere. For good or bad, we do get some novelty here. None of the obstacles are going to win “most innovative,” but they, in general, have a fun twist that adds up to a good time. I continue to be a big fan of Keg Kingdom; it continues to be one of my favorite obstacles. I enjoy how dedicated Blizzard Blast is to their winter/snow theme. I like some of the details, such as the personalized t-shirts for our team and the hot chocolate stop along the course. I also think having the race at a country club is quite nice. The venue provides a nice indoor location for the cold weather (when we have it). Plus, it offers any easy place to store gear, get a meal, and use an indoor restroom. What more could someone want!

I still believe that this race would be much better as a 5K. (I said it last year too.) Blizzard Blast is advertised as being a 3.1 mile race; however, last year it clocked in at 5.8 miles and this year it clocked in at 5.5 miles. We ran the first 2.5 miles of the race and only encountered one set of obstacles – an over and under wall. The vast majority of the obstacles were jumbled together at the end. I’ve given my feelings about this in numerous Spartan Race (and other) reviews, and I continue to feel the same way. Good obstacle placement and spacing the obstacle out across the course is key for the experience of your racers. I had fun during the 2.5 miles of running because I was chatting with Bobby and Paul about OCR and Ragnar. Basically, I was lucky and had good people to keep me company. Otherwise, I think I might have been a bit bored. I am sympathetic to the fact that key to Blizzard Blast is snow. I am sure that all bets were off when they realized it was going to be warm and the ground bare. This probably meant the removal of some obstacle from last year, like the sledding, which were a lot of fun and broke up some of the distance.

Have I signed up for the 2017 Blizzard Blast yet? No. Will I? Very likely, yes. It's fun. The level of challenge isn't overwhelming, but you do get some obstacles that will work you. It's a race anyone can do. Friends are key to the experience. So, yes, 2017, I'll be there with the team.

(Note: Photos courtesy of Blizzard Blast and Caley McGuane Photography unless otherwise stated.)

Monday, December 7, 2015

2016 Race Planning

It's official: I have run my last race for 2016. I finished up the year with my annual tradition of doing the Hot Chocolate Run, a local 5K that benefits the charity Safe Passage. I love this event -- it's a huge community collaboration that brings out many friends all of whom are supporting a charity that offers help to families who are effected by domestic violence. It's the one bit of fund-raising I do in my personal life each year. This December, I was able to raise $136!

With the 2015 season in the books, it's time to start planning for next year's races. This spring, I will be taking a Saturday afternoon class for my Master's degree program. This means that certain races I loved this year, like the Shale Hill Polar Bear 8 Hour and F.I.T. Challenge won't be in the cards for 2016. Disappointing for sure, but I will be able to catch up with those races in 2017 after I earn my degree, and there are many other races to enjoy. (Plus, my Saturday afternoon class is Descriptive Cataloging, and I am excited enough for it to make up for missing a couple of races.)

I like to plan, and, as a result, I tend to register for races as soon as possible. This helpful for keeping costs down, extra key in a sport that is as costly as obstacle course racing can be. My 2016 year will be nicely divided between #racelocal OCR events and some more running. This year I've found myself running a lot on trails without thought to mileage, pace, or anything other than spending time on my feet enjoying myself as much as possible. This has kind of refocused how I think of running. It's a good activity for relaxing and something I find I am doing more of and enjoying more when I do it. OCR will always be my main love, but I like the idea of continuing to mix in some running into my 2016 race schedule.

2016 Race Schedule:

January: Blizzard Blast (OCR) -- Sunday, January 31
Description: This is a fun 5K obstacle course race done in central Massachusetts in January. It's a nice off-season race that really nails "fun in the snow!" This year, for added whimsy, our team will be doing this race in onesie pajamas. I am usually not one for dressing up, but I am going to try my best for this. Look forward to seeing pictures of me in a Totoro outfit come January. Occasionally, even I think it's good to take a break from routine and do something out of character!


May: Ragnar Cape Cod (Running) -- Friday, May 13 and Saturday, May 14
Description: Ragnar is a relay run that takes place over two days and has runners covering approximately 200 miles. The Cape Cod race goes from Hull to Provincetown. 12 runners each take turns running three legs total. For me, Ragnar Cape Cod has become an annual tradition; one that I very much look forward to. In May of 2014, this was my first race with the NE Spahtens. It's a sleepover meets a road race. Great times with fun people are a certainty for my third Ragnar with the Spahtens!


May: Bone Frog Challenge (OCR) -- Saturday, May 21
Description: If there was a hometown OCR for me, Bone Frog would be it. The race is located at nearby Berkshire East Mountain Resort, around 45 minutes from my house. Bone Frog Challenge is a 9 mile obstacle dense race put on by Navy SEALs. Last year, it was one of my favorite races. With over 50 unique obstacles, it's a must-do race for anyone in New England.


June: Viking Obstacle Race (OCR) -- Saturday, June 11
Description: Viking Obstacle Race is held on a fixed course at Sunny Hill Resort in the Catskills of New York. Last spring, I was lucky enough to do a free training day at Viking. I loved it. The race dates for Viking Obstacle Race have never worked for me because they've conflicted with Tough Mudder. As much as I love the unique obstacles of Tough Mudder the cost compared with other races combined with the ratio of hiking to obstacles is making me take a year off. Will I miss Tough Mudder? Sure. But also, not really; I am looking forward to Viking. With over 30 obstacles on a 5.5 mile course, I'm looking forward to this race.


July: Shale Hill Relay (OCR) -- Sunday, July 17
Description: Anyone who reads this blog probably already knows that Shale Hill is likely my favorite place for racing and training. Last year's team relay was a blast! Get a team of three and tackle the ultra-challenging 6.5 mile 60+ obstacle Shale Hill course. Each person gets a third. Camaraderie = A+


August: 24 Hours of Shale Hell (OCR) -- Saturday, August 8 and Sunday, August 9
Description: Shale Hill's 24 hour race will be my anchor OCR of 2016. Last year, I did the 8 hour version and completed 2 laps for a total of 60+ obstacles and 13 miles. This year, I am going for the full 24 hours. It's too early yet to set lap goals. Three? Four? Time to research best-practices for training. Either way, this endurance event will be a good set-up for the rest of my plans for the year.


August: Ragnar Trail New England (Running) -- Friday, August 26 and Saturday, August 27
Description: Ragnar but on trails instead of the road. Think camping instead of time in a van. Think running through the woods instead of on streets. Sounds like a dream! When I got invited to join one of the Spahtens teams and take an open spot, I knew it was an opportunity I could not pass up. I cannot wait!


October: Newport Marathon (Running) -- Sunday, October 9
Description: 26.2. Yes, the time has come to commit to the challenge of the marathon. Of all the races I have planned for 2016 this one is the one that gives me pause. I've done OCRs that have taken me seven, eight, or ten hours, but it's the type of exercise I am optimized for. The marathon will require a special level of commitment. I'm reviewing training plans now and have cleared my Saturday mornings (before my Saturday afternoon graduate school classes) for my long runs. Let's do this!


For now, that's the plan. As you can see, my winter and spring are pretty low on races so as to accommodate my class schedule. If a Sunday race or two pops up, I might be tempted. As always, I am waiting on signing up for must in the fall until I see what my course schedule is like for the semester. Additionally, the marathon -- long awaited -- is a big commitment. My longest runs will be in September and, as such, I want to keep my racing in that month to a minimum. I am already planning about how I'll work around my August events for the marathon training, though I think that the endurance focus of those events should dovetail nicely with the training I need to do for my 26.2 attempt. 

Bottom line: It promises to be a fun year with some great challenges. There will be new experiences, such as the marathon and Ragnar Trail, and also enjoyment of classic favorites, like the races at Shale Hill. Now, I look forward to planning my training and then getting to get out to some races with the Spahtens!

Sunday, November 15, 2015

F.I.T. Challenge: The Epic Fifth Challenge 2015

What can I say, I am a fan of #racelocal. Local races are the place where I feel like I see real innovation with interesting and diverse obstacles. They are the place where you can bring friends for free and where everyone knows your name. Local races are where you can chat with the race director, where you can give feedback, where you see people who want to make your experience as a racer as good as it can be. They also tend to be more affordable, allowing people to take part in more events per year. For someone who likes to race once a month, or even more in the summer, these cost-savings are key, since OCR can easily add up. In sum, to me, F.I.T. Challenge is the highlight of what #racelocal is all about.

F.I.T.'s fifth race took place on Saturday at Diamond Hill State Park in Cumberland, Rhode Island. This is my second time going to Diamond Hill, the first time being this April for the fourth F.I.T. Challenge. I had such a great time at that event, that I was very glad when graduate school classes did not conflict and thus allowed me to attend the fall event. Diamond Hill State Park is a great location for F.I.T. in my book. When I arrived, I was quickly directed to the onsite parking, which cost $10. The cost for parking is the only additional charge at F.I.T., again something to be appreciated. F.I.T. is also very family friendly. When I arrived I exchanged hugs with many fellow NE Spahtens. The team had put up a tent right near the parking lot and just a few steps away from my car. (I got the best parking ever -- maybe fifty feet from the starting line!) Right next to the Spahtens tent was registration. I handed in my waver and received my packet with my bib and timing chip. This took seconds. No lines and everything was perfectly organized.


It was a cool day with cloudy skies, gusts of wind, and weather in the low 40s. I kept my hoodie on until the last possible minute. At around 10:40 a.m., the Spahtens headed over to the starting line for a team picture.


Race director, Robb, shared a couple of super quick words and then we were off through the inflatable F.I.T. arch and on our way!


Diamond Hill offers the opportunity for surprisingly rocky and hilly terrain, making for a challenging course. This fall's F.I.T. clocked in at just over 5K in distance, and the park was well-used. In April, I had started more towards the back of the wave and found myself having trouble getting past people on the single track course at the beginning of the race. This time, I started at the front and had a much better time. I had a few waits, probably totaling less than five minutes at some of the obstacles throughout the race, but it was much much less than last time. The course layout made racers tackle a lot of hills early on, which did a great job spacing out the pack.

The course started with a couple of small obstacles -- we had to run over a pair of wood bridges. It was then on to the first climb of the day. The air was cold and my lungs were burning immediately, more than my calves and glutes even. The tried to climb quickly in order to warm up and also to increase my spacing from the pack. As I mentioned before, this was fairly successful and compared with April, the waits were limited.


I ended up running a portion of the race with fellow NE Spahten Ninjas Ragnar teammate, Bobby. Running with others is something I tend to enjoy, so this was a nice diversion from having to navigate some fairly technical rocky areas of trail.

The obstacles at F.I.T. were numerous, interesting, and a good balance of challenging and do-able. I am not going to remember all of them or their order, but I will do my best. The obstacles were well-spaced, something that I appreciate since it keeps the race interesting. The F.I.T. team gets top points for an interesting course with a good use of Diamond Hill's elevation, excellent layout of the obstacles, and for the quality of those obstacles.


After the first bit climb up the mountain and some time in the woods going through rocky, fairly un-run-able sections of trail, we came upon a vertical cargo net climb. There was a little bit of a wait here, but probably only a minute. When I got to the net, I zipped over and then ran off along a stretch of train that was smooth enough to actually have some running take place. There was also a small wait at a section of trail where you used a rope to climb down a stretch of hill between two rocks. F.I.T. offered the option to go around, but no way I was missing this fun.


F.I.T. also had a few strength-based obstacles. After the first climb, we encountered an area were we had to take a barbell and do shoulder presses -- 20 for women and 30 for men. This was an obstacle towards the end of the course last year, and both times, I have found it a challenge. Also, both times, a very encouraging volunteer has made all the difference. Hopefully these ladies know how much I appreciate their kind words! We also had a Wreck Bag carry. There were a variety of weights; I believe 25 lb, 45 lb, and 70 lb bags. I struggle with carries and took the 25 lb bag, which was more than heavy enough to go up and down the hill for a modestly long-enough  stretch. The final strength-based obstacle was an Atlas stone, which we had to lift and toss over our shoulder five times. This was odd but went fine and different weights were provided for men and women, which, as a small woman, I tend to appreciate.

F.I.T. also brought back one of my favorite obstacles from the April race -- a peg board climb, immediately followed by a rope climb.  In April, I struggled on the rope climb after the peg board. This time, I had no problem with either the peg board, which I was able to do using my legs and arms, or with the rope climb. There were a set of knotted ropes and an unknotted rope. I scurried up the unknotted rope with the s-hook and transitioned to the j-hook to speed down. Right after that was an obstacle just like Double Up at Shale Hill. We had to jump up and grab a log, pull ourselves up, and then go over a second round log on top. I enjoy this obstacle and was glad to see it at F.I.T.


The highlight of the day for me was and obstacle called The Destroyer. This is the first obstacle that has scared me in quite some time. I was able to get over it by myself, but I was happy to have a volunteer spotting me just in case, and I would not have made it over without the coaching that the volunteers at this obstacle provided. The Destroyer was an inverted wall where you had to use a kick (and in my case the side of the obstacle) to get up to a tiny grip. From that grip, one grabbed the top of the inverted wall. On top of the inverted section of the obstacle was another wall that went straight up. This, for me was the hardest part. I had to transition from where I was to another block up on the flat wall. The reach from the lower grip and the section where the walls met to the higher block was a far one. It was here that the volunteers' cues came into play. Once I got the higher block, I was able to pull myself up and dig my shoes into where the two walls met and climb over. The transition from the inverted wall to the higher straight wall was a bit of a scary one. I slipped a bit at one point and was glad that the volunteer was spotting me and that I have good grip strength. I was very excited to get over this obstacle!


Another favorite for me was The Rig. I always love a good Rig. This wasn't one of the most challenging, but that was good in a way since it was the second to last obstacle and, at that point, I didn't want to wait for more than a couple of minutes. The Rig had a set of monkey bars, which transitioned to a horizontal bar. That led to a couple more monkey bars which you had to use to swing to a cargo net that you climbed up and over. Super fun!


Throughout the course, there were a lot of walls, many around four or five feet, including at least two inverted walls. I consider these "medium height" walls to be my favorite variety, and really enjoyed them. I'm also a big fan of the inverted wall, so having them there was popular with me. There was also a taller wall of around eight or nine feet with a rope. Towards the end of the course, was a F.I.T. original -- the floating wall! This wall was suspended between two trees. Aaron, one of the race directors, had built this wall and had it at the Spahtens' Labor Day party, which took place at his parents house. At that point, I had battled the wall and more or less lost. As a result, Aaron has put a kick step on the wall -- the so-called Sibley Step. I was glad to see the Sibley Step still attached to the wall, as I took full advantage of it. Fortunately, the wall was hung quite a bit lower than at Aaron's, and I was able to get over without any trouble.


Another thing that I really enjoyed was that the very final part of the course was on trails that you could actually run! After all the up and down of Diamond Hill, it was great to have a stretch of groomed, less rocky trail where I could move quickly and stretch my legs out.

After the Rig, it was a short run to an inverted ladder wall and then across the finish line. I finished in 1:19:01. Good enough for 127/489, 30/214 (top 14%!) for women, and 15/93 in my age group. This was true, despite the fact that I had to wait a little bit at some of the obstacles, and I find this to be an exciting result.

As I said before F.I.T. is a highlight of what #racelocal should be. This is 100% a race I want to do again. (I am super disappointed that the April race conflicts with my spring grad school class and that I won't be able to make it.) The F.I.T. team puts on a fantastic event that emphasizes what a great local race can be. If you live anywhere in New England and can make it to the next F.I.T., I highly recommend that you do so!


(Note: Photo credits NE Spahtens -- Daniel Parker and Vince Rhee.)

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

2015 Shale Hill Halloween Run

The 2014 Shale Hill Halloween Run was one of the most enjoyable races on my calendar. When 2015 rolled around, it was one of the first races that I knew I wanted to commit to. What I didn't know, was that this race would be my brother's first obstacle course race. 

The Shale Hill Halloween Run is, in some ways, the most ideal race for first timers to obstacle course racing. The race has a small field of around 50 people. The attendees are Shale Hill regulars, which means that everyone is like family and the environment is friendly and comfortable. The Shale Hill course is tough, but people will stop to demo obstacles for you. Because there are a small number of racers you can try an obstacle more than once. Also, Shale Hill features the penalty free Journeyman division where you can test yourself on the course without having to worry about doing penalties for obstacles you cannot complete. Finally, the Halloween Run is a fun run. It's a time when parents bring their kids and new people come to have an enjoyable race that's about having a good time more than competing for prizes. 

The Halloween Run is also unique. It starts at around 5:00 p.m. Since it takes the average person a couple of hours to complete the course at Shale Hill, this means that people end up doing a good portion of the race in the dark. Along the course, there are volunteers who are dressed up in costume and will jump out and scare you. If, like me, you are not too keen on horror movies and the like, don't worry -- it's not really all that scary. While the man with the chainsaw might be a bit of a starling character, most of the monsters are children dressed in costume. (Note: When they ask, "Did I scare you?" The right answer is, "Yes! You got me.") All in all, this is a cute race that people can bring their kids to and use to introduce family members to the course of obstacle course racing. The one caveat being the added challenge of the dark.

My brother, Greg, and his fiancĂ©, Grace, had been mentioning for a while that they would like to try some obstacle racing with me. Both are very fit individuals. My brother is one of the most kinetically gifted people I know – for example, he learned to ride a bike when he was three – and Grace has always been an athlete. I convinced both of them to sign up for the Halloween Run, so this race at Shale Hill was one that I had been looking forward to even more than usual. This was combined with the fact that after a summer of going up to Shale Hill to race or train about every other weekend, I hadn’t been up in around a month and a half. The fall semester had started for graduate school, and I had been too busy with that and work to make the almost three hour trip up to Benson, Vermont. Suffice it to say, when Greg and Grace came to pick me up for the ride up to Shale Hill, I was excited and ready to go. 

We chose to head up a bit early to Benson. I wanted to show them the course and give them a little preview before the race, especially since it would be done in the dark. Unfortunately, the only damper on the weekend was that Grace had badly twisted her ankle and would be unable to participate. Fortunately, the Shale Hill crowd was able to hook her up with some volunteer work. She was an expert cheerer and also took a number of great photos (that you'll see in this post). I know she was disappointed not to get to race, so hopefully we will all be able to go up and race or train together soon. 

We arrived at Shale Hill around 2:00 p.m., which gave us plenty of time to look around the course before the 5:00 p.m. race start. We checked out some obstacles for about an hour and a half, headed for a quick snack at the Wheel Inn, and then came back to Shale Hill for the 4:00 p.m. check-in. At this point, a number of the NE Spahtens had arrived. We did some visiting, and I introduced Greg and Grace to some of my friends on the team. Shortly before 5:00 p.m., we finalized our registration, got our goodie bags and t-shirts and then headed outside for the racer's meeting. Grace snapped a quick picture of me and Greg. The weather was cool -- in the low 40s -- and we are bundled up. 



As you can see, my fingers are hiding in my sleeves and my torso is spherical from the three layers I was wearing. The NE Spahtens also took the opportunity to take a quick team picture. This was definitely a better showing than the approximately a half dozen people who came from the team last year.


Race director and Shale Hill owner, Rob Butler, took time during the race meeting to give us some modifications. In the interest of time, two carries were eliminated from the back half of the course. We didn't have to do the log carry in the last third of the race or the bucket carry. I was pretty excited about not having to do two heavy carries, since they are not my strength. However, I wish that the longer Log Splitter carry, which is over half a mile, had been eliminated instead of the shorter log carry in the latter third of the race. Still, this was a definite positive and helped speed things along during the end of the race when running in the woods was a near impossibility due to the dark. 

After announcements, we lined up and at around 5:10 p.m. did a single wave start. Greg and I were off!


Despite my several years of obstacle course racing experience, Greg is a decidedly superior athlete. We had, however, decided to stick together. This was a fun race and to be a family affair. Plus, I was the only one with a headlamp. A fair warning here: Do not be distressed when the balance of this post is about how awesome racing with my brother was and how great of an athlete he is. You have been notified.


Shale Hill is, without a doubt, one of the most (if not the absolute most) challenging courses around. The reason that I recommend it to beginners anyways is two fold: You can go there and train at your own pace and the atmosphere is so friendly that you will not feel intimidated or unsafe.

I won't go through an obstacle by obstacle breakdown in this review. (If you are interested in that information, you can find a list of the obstacles with their descriptions on my post from last summer about Shale Hill. For the purposes of this write-up, I'll just list my highlights. 

The first highlight was at the Zigzag of Awesomeness. This is an obstacle that the NE Spahtens sponsored. We have our banner on it, and it is still one of only a handful of obstacles at Shale Hill that I cannot reliably clear. When Greg and I arrived at the obstacle, the fourth in the course, I was pretty cold. I did a great job handling the first half of the obstacle, as the video Grace took attests to, but unfortunately fell on the transition. My fingers were too cold, and I lost my grip. 


The video that I wish I had was of Greg, who, after using gloves on the obstacle the first time and then falling off, tried a second time and completed it in such record time that 30 Days of Shale Hill attendee, Rita, commented on it with amazement. It was awesome to watch!

The next highlight of the night was the Pond Traverse. The traverse was optional during the Halloween Run, mostly because of how cold it was. Greg and I watched the person in front of us fall into the lake. There was no way that we were allowing that to happen -- it was too chilly! I had showed Greg the way to do a traverse on top of the rope (instead of below). I find it a lot easier since you are not holding you bodyweight up with your fingers and legs. We both traversed that way fairly quickly and without much issue. Fellow Spahten, Nicole, took a video of me finishing up the traverse.


Other highlights of the course were getting to see my brother succeed on some very challenging obstacles. Some of them he managed just by being strong. For example, I tried to show him the j-hook and s-hook for the Rope to Ramp, which he ended up just muscling his way up. That works for him, but I would be hard pressed to replicate that. 

Greg had also mentioned being not very excited for the Loom; however, when we got there, he had a really fun time on that obstacle. He also did a great job on the 19' rope climb with the 2" rope. I had a less than successful attempt at this obstacle, getting to around 2' from the top before being so tired that I couldn't make it. I hung in there for a while, but my legs were too tired to propel me up even with the s-hook. This was a bit of a disappointment and served as an interesting reminder of how quickly we can lose fitness. I had been training at Shale Hill pretty regularly over the summer. My grip strength was good, and my upperbody was strong. After six weeks away, I noticed a very decided difference in my endurance on the obstacles. I definitely got tired a lot easier, especially with my grip, than I did over the summer. For example, while I managed all five panels of the Great Wall, my arms were pretty dead afterwards, where as, during my peak fitness in the summer, I was able to do that without feeling too tired.

Greg also did an amazing job at the monkey bars. After doing the flat monkey bars, he decided to do the uphill monkey bars. I don't know that they were required for the Halloween Race, since they are normally just for the Elite Men; however, it was incredible to watch Greg go all the way up them on his first try. This is the only time that I have ever seen someone do those monkey bars straight through, and it was a first-time obstacle course racer who did it.

One of the unique challenges of the Halloween Run was that it was at night. After less than an hour on the course, everything was pretty much pitch black, and we were moving through the wood with only my one headlamp to light us. (A headlamp that was, I'll note, not entirely effective for such lighting needs -- either that or I've gotten spoiled by my awesome headlamp on my bike.) Shale Hill did have solar lamps lining parts of the course. Unfortunately, a lot of these didn't seem to be working, which meant that it was hard to find the turns. For this reason, it was kind of critical to be out on the course with someone who knew it well. At one point, after the Tarzan Ropes, I even got lost and was lucky that Grace was there pointing the way, as she had done in her volunteer role with many other racers. 

Throughout the course, there were helpful volunteers and buckets with candy. The main theme of the night was fun. As I mentioned before, the course was packed with kids jumping out to "scare" you and adults in costume. The entire feel of the race was that of a family event where everyone out on the course and at Shale Hill was part of a great community. 

Greg and I finished the race in around two and a half hours and finished probably in the first half of racers. The fact that it was so dark that we couldn't run in the woods during the second half of the course definitely slowed up down, but we kept moving pretty consistently and, I think, put up a fairly decent time. 

We got medals at the finish line and then headed into the gym to enjoy the potluck dinner. There was ample food and lots of deserts. Greg, Grace, and I all enjoyed some snacks and socializing with the Spahtens before heading out for the night. 

The Shale Hill Halloween Run remains one of my favorite races. It is entirely fun and, this year, was made even more special because I was able to share the race with my family. As always, I enjoy and appreciate the community that Shale Hill has built with their incredible hospitality. You are always welcome to bring guests and children, and many people do. The inclusivity that Shale Hill promotes is part of what makes it so special. The Halloween Run's focus on getting out there and having a good time fits well with my ethos. I race because I enjoy it more than I do to compete. I like to challenge myself, but I always want to be having a good time. The Halloween Run is just that -- a good time. It's also unique for being one of the only races of the year that is done in the dark. That added feeling of excitement and novelty is something I enjoy. 

I did a lot of racing this year, and I would say that the Halloween Run is probably a top favorite race for me, along with Shale Hill's Benson Bear Race, Bone Frog, and Ragnar. I am already signed up for Bone Frog and Ragnar for 2016, and as soon as Shale Hill posts their 2016 calendar, you can count me in for Benson Bear, 24 Hours of Shale Hell (which will be my keystone race of the year when I get Rob's training program), and the Halloween Run. I can't wait for 2016 to do the Halloween Run again!

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Run the Gauntlet

My mother's birthday is this Monday and, as a result, I took the opportunity to travel down to my hometown in Connecticut and visit with her this weekend. I knew that while I'd be down in Connecticut the NE Spahtens #racelocal race, Run the Gauntlet, was going to be taking place at Hammonasset Beach State Park. Hammonasset is in Madison, Connecticut, on the shoreline, and about 45 minutes away from my hometown of Bethany. Why not check it out?

I arrived at Hammonasset at around 9:10 a.m. for the 10:00 a.m. NE Spahtens team heat. The last time I had been to Hammonasset was when my two best friends, Molly and Clela, and I made a trip there during high school. When asked that classic question, "The beach or the mountains?" I tend to vote for the mountains -- I like to be surrounded and hemmed in by the trees; however, all these years living in Western Massachusetts, I had kind of forgotten the nice contrast of the lovely openness of the beach. Being at Hammonasset was a real treat!

The Run the Gauntlet group did a really excellent job of directing us to parking. This was good since Hammonasset is a big park, and I didn't want to get lost. Parking, like everything else was free. This was a local race supporting the YMCA and had a nice fun small race feel. 

After parking, I went to register. Registration was very well organized and had zero wait time. You got a chip for timing that you had to wear around your ankle and picked up your bib along with your tech t-shirt. For a small local race of around 200 participants or so, Run the Gauntlet has some really top-notch sponsors including Denali, SmartWool, GoPro, and North Face. 

After registration, I headed down to the beach. There wasn't an official bag check, but when I chatted with the person at the information tent, she told me I was welcome to leave my bag with her, especially since I was a Spahten. This is the sort of nice touch that you only get at a local race, and it was really appreciated! 

I had some time to kill before my wave went off since the registration had been so seamless and the free parking so close. I headed out to the beach to enjoy some scenery. Soon, the other Spahtens started to arrive. A lot of them had come early to run the 9:00 a.m. wave and then also do a second lap at 10:00 a.m. I found myself chatting and socializing with a bunch of the other #racelocal regulars. We snapped a quick team picture before lining up to run.


Run the Gauntlet is a beginner-friendly 5K obstacle course race. It's most definitely a race with some simple obstacles, but they are kind of cute and fun. Sure this isn't Shale Hill, and I wasn't challenged, but, overall, I had a good time. Key to this, was the location: Hammonasset. The beach is really lovely and doing a beach race was a departure for me. I am not a huge fan of climbing mountains, and it seems like every third race I do is at a ski resort. It was nice to have a change of scenery and not have to deal with anything other than running on the flat ground. 

That being said, from the moment we crossed the starting line, it was clear that the running portion of Run the Gauntlet would be the challenge. The entire first mile of the race was run entirely on the sandy beach. Let's be clear: Running on the sand is hard work! This was probably the biggest challenge of the day. I was pleased to be able to run the entire time. All that trail running I've been doing is definitely paying off because I was able to handle the unstable surface of the sand better than I anticipated.

As I mentioned before, Run the Gauntlet was a beginner-friendly 5K. The obstacle were not large, but they were cute. I was able to finish the entire race in 38:15 and most of the time was spent running on the sand. Was the race epic? No. Was it a challenge? Not really. Did I have fun? Sure. Everything was well organized, the volunteers were fantastic, and the course along the beach was pleasing. If I had tackled these obstacles on a ski slope (again) I don't think I'd have had nearly the enjoyment I did. Having the race at Hammonasset was key for me. It was the slightly exotic nature of running along the beach that won me over here. The race did a good job of utilizing the area. The obstacles were not the star, and, for me, not a real challenge, but I had a good day anyway. 

Here's a run down of the race's obstacles:


Charlotte's Web: A very short crawl on sand underneath a net that was spread over a wooden frame. 


Into the Drink: While the entire first mile to mile and a half of the race had us running along the sandy beach, we had the option of running higher up in the dry sand or lower, close to the water, for most of the time. For the Into the Drink obstacles, we had to wade into the water a little bit. I was surprised to find that the water was actually really pleasant. I am, shall we say, sensitive to the cold, but this water felt fine. 
Black Hole: This was a crawl under a tarp though a pit of water. The water was a bit cool but overall not too bad. That being said, I couldn't feel my finger too well for about five minutes after this obstacle.
Alligator Alley: I am, perhaps, not the most whimsical person that ever lived. That being said, this obstacle was adorable even to me. There was a pool of water that we had to traverse on a beam. In the pit of water there were three or four inflatable alligators. I had to laugh -- fantastic!
Hammonasset Hurdles: The Hurdles were a pair of orange barriers like you'd see on a road that you had to go up and over. Lately, I've been using the technique I learned at the Shale Hill Weekend Training Camp and more or less rolling over walls. This is efficient and worked well here. 
The First Ascent: This obstacle was a short rope wall with a ladder on the back side. At this point, we were just past the one mile marker and had been running on the sand the entire time. As my post eluded to before; I am not a beach person by result of geography. The last time I ran on sand was for a half marathon a couple of years back, in which the organizers had us do the final quarter mile or so on the sand -- what kind of crazy people are these! -- and I had no desire to repeat the experience. I was happy to see the course head off the sand after this obstacle and move towards other parts of the park.


Prairie Dog: After leaving the beach, we headed off to the grassy area next to the beach. There, we tackled an A-frame ladder wall and some tires before hitting Prairie Dog, a short tube that we had to crawl through. From there, it was onward to another set of tires that we had to run high-knees through before jogging off along the road towards the beach.
Get Over Yourself: Along the road that we took to get to the event, there were a set of obstacle. The first was a short wall of around 4', which I rolled over. Next was a short ladder that we had to climb and then jump down after crossing a platform to the other side. I actually almost fell off the platform, alarming the poor volunteer who was at that obstacle. Fortunately, I was able to correct myself as I jumped down. Oops!
Dodging Ramen: This was another cute obstacle. (I legitimately cannot believe the number of times I have used the word "cute" in this post...) This obstacle featured a balance beam that ran through a set of hanging pool noodles that one had to swat out of the way while traversing the beam. It was entertaining. The pool noodles were dense but very manageable. 
Trek to Basecamp: We headed back to the beach for the next obstacle, Trek to Basecamp. I believe this was a North Face sponsored obstacle. We had to grab a pack of either 20 or 30 pounds and carry it along a small flat out and back loop. I'm not a fantastic athlete at carries, and I lost a little time here, but all in all, this was not too terrible.
Log Hop: After Trek to Basecamp, we were very close to the finish. The course took us up and over a set of very small hills with rocks along the shore. From there, the finish line was in sight. 


The last obstacle was a set of logs set in the sand. We had to jump from one to the other before making a run through the sand to the finish line.


I finished the race with a clock time of 38:15. This was a small, easy, but enjoyable race. I might not trek all the way to the Connecticut shoreline for this race next year, but, if I'm in the area, I would definitely hit it up again. As you all know by now, I am more a fan of the races that challenge me with a lot of technical obstacles. (I've said time and again that racing at Shale Hill is so amazing it's almost ruined me for other races!) That beings said, Run the Gauntlet was well organized and had a nice turn-out from the NE Spahtens, which made the day fun. The weather was great, the venue was stellar, and the race was a fun diversion. If you're a new obstacle course racer or looking for a race to introduce friend or family to the sport, Run the Gauntlet is a nice way to get started.

(Thanks to Jennifer Decker and Daniel Parker for the photos and Run the Gauntlet for the course map.)

Monday, September 28, 2015

Wicked Mud Run

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Shale Hill Weekend Training Camp

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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


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


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

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


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

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

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


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

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


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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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



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


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

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


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


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


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


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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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


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


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

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


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


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


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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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