Saturday, July 25, 2015

BattleFrog New England 2015

"This is different from New Jersey," was the first thing Paul said to me when he saw me at the NE Spahtens tent at today's BattleFrog race. I couldn't agree more; it's what I had been thinking all morning.

Last year, I had won an entry to the Tri-State BattleFrog race, one of the first three or four races BattleFrog had put on. It was epic. I wrote a glowing review. The race was 15K and dense with challenging obstacles. When the registration for the 2015 New England event opened, I jumped at the chance to sign-up. Here was a great race at Carter & Stevens Farm in Barre, Massachusetts, within 45 minutes of my house. It was one of my favorite events -- a surprise hit -- in 2014. 

In the time between the Tri-State race in 2014 and the New England race, things have changed for BattleFrog. The company has faced serious financial difficulties. Things were on a downward trend. The race, which had originally been said to be a 15K was downgraded to an 8K. I won't go into all the details about the industry gossip but suffice it to say I'm not sure BattleFrog is going to be around next year. All of this talk got me concerned about what this would mean for the 2015 New England event. As the date approached, I was curious more than excited. How will this race compare with last year? The answer. Not even close. 

I arrived in Barre about an hour and fifteen minutes before our scheduled 9:45 a.m. team wave to find that parking was going to be a bit inconvenient. I thought I had gotten away from parking off-site after the closing of Amesbury Sports Park, but apparently OCR remains the only sport I can think of where off-site parking is routine. The parking was around 10 minutes from the venue and cost $10. When I arrived the wait to get into the parking lot wasn't bad -- maybe 5 minutes -- and the wait for the bus was similarly short. Unfortunately, I heard that shortly after I got on the bus, things got extremely backed-up, and the parking and waits for the bus turned into a very lengthy wait. Suffice it to say, that is not cool. I know that a lot of races have been taking place in Barre, for example the Spartan Super a few weeks ago, and parking was less of a problem then (per reports). 

When I arrived at the venue, I saw that things were very much scaled down from what we saw at the 2014 Tri-State race. There were a few vendors, but the tents were smaller. There were less bonus activities in the festival area. 

Check-in is still an area where I think BattleFrog has every other company beat. It's always a snap. There are tons of lanes, you don't need to sign a waver, and they assign you a number the day-of, so you don't need to bring anything. 

After registration, I headed over to the Spahtens team tent. BattleFrog offers more swag than any other race I know (perhaps part of their financial woes?). Our team had around 340 people registered for BattleFrog, the largest team in the company's history. We were provided with free parking (limited number), a spectator pass, additional beer/cider tickets, buffs, free bag check, and sleeves and t-shirts (which will be coming in the mail). The team perks, minus the sleeves and t-shirts, were all provided to our team captain, Paul, who had fellow Spahtens helping him pass out materials at the tent. I snagged my free back check, buff, and beer ticket, and sat down to change my footwear, while chatting with teammates. I quickly checked my bag before the line got to long and then headed back to the tent for the team picture before heading to the starting line.  


Like many OCR races, once we all got into the coral (after climbing a short ladder wall, of course), it was time for a motivational speech. I'm pretty sure that every speaker at every OCR is trying to be Sean from Tough Mudder. I'll give it to Sean from Tough Mudder -- seriously no one is nearly like that guy. I am not a fan of motivational speaking, but Sean can get me ready to go. Needless to say, BattleFrog announcer, while giving it 100%, didn't really do it for me. I was happy when we were off and running!

The course was an 8K, 5 miles for those of us who cannot get the metric system. Carter & Stevens Farm in Barre is pretty much dead flat, which meant that you could run the entire course. I know that we are New Englanders and are supposed to be rugged and like climbing steep mountains. I'll be honest and say that I personally love a flat course. I like running the entire thing and getting from obstacle to obstacle as quickly as possible. Climbing up mountains is not a huge strength for me, and it's also not something I'm that interested in doing a lot of training to get better at. Some things are just not things I like, and that's okay with me. What it means, is that a course, like BattleFrog, where I can do a lot of running has a lot of appeal. (Note: Variety is good too. For example, Shale Hill cannot be beat! The course has enough flat parts that I can "speed" along, but also has some ups and downs.)

Compared with Tri-State 2014, the New England course had fewer obstacles and more running. The obstacles had also been scaled way back from last year. In Tri-State there were two 12' walls back to back. Here there was one and it had kick boards. Tsunami last year had a warped wall you had to run up and grab a rope (my biggest fail of the day and biggest regret). This year there was just a cargo net. Some of the bigger and more complex obstacles were gone. The swims, which I really enjoyed from last year -- this is a Navy SEALS affiliated event after wall -- were gone. No declined rotating monkey bars. No balance obstacles. They were replaces with walls. Lots and lots of walls. This is not to say that the race wasn't fun and didn't have it's share of great obstacles -- the Rig stands out as a hugely fantastic obstacle -- but the comparison with last year is lacking. 


The obstacles were pretty well spaced, something I always consider very important. There was more running and fewer obstacles than I would have preferred, but the running was fun and well divided between fields and woods. The trails had some muddy patches where you had to watch your footing, but you could pretty much jog the entire thing if you wanted to. There was a little bit of bottlenecking at some of the earlier obstacles but nothing more than a minute or two wait, which I consider fine. I got to run with a bunch of different Spahtens as I traded places with people throughout the team wave. One Spahten said that he was looking forward to reading my review. (Thank you! I felt famous.) I also got to talk with another Spahten who did the winter Death Race, making him, in my mind, an epic hero of the same sort as the Avengers. All-in-all, it was a fun time hanging out with some good people, which made tackling the average course more fun. 

Here's a run-through of all the obstacles on the course. I'm following the order listed on the map, which is not exactly the same as what we saw on the course. For example, the Over/Under/Thru was much later. There were three well-stocked water stations on the course, meaning you could do this race without hydration.

1. The Dirty Name: Honestly, I don't remember this being first. I'm guessing this was just a muddy section of trail.
2. Rope Climb: Very standard rope climb or probably around 15' or less. This was early on in the course and no problem. I powered up and down the rope quickly.
3. Over/Under/Thru: Standard go over a wall, through another, and then under the last one. (Yes, they were in a different order than the name suggests. Also, this obstacle was swapped with the Tire Flip.)
4. Mud Trudge: I believe this was just a muddy section of trail. We had to go through a muddy stream around this point in the race. I wouldn't necessarily call it an obstacle.
5. 8' Wall: There was a small back-up at this obstacle, though nothing terrible. A pretty standard wall. I was able to get up by myself without too much difficulty. 
6. 60 Degrees: This obstacle was cool. It was a metal ladder with around a half-dozen rungs inverted at 60 degrees towards you. We had to climb up the underside, then over the top, and down the back. I liked this one. 
7. Jerry Can Carry: I remembered this obstacle from Tri-State. We had to carry a jerry can of water. At Tri-State we had to do the carry up and down muddy, slick motocross mounds. Here, it was a somewhat lengthy walk around the field. The can was a bit heavy, but no so heavy I had to put it down. We were required to hold the handle in our hands instead of doing a bear-hug around the can or putting it on our shoulder, so it was work for the grip.


8. Natural Ledge: This obstacle was an analog of Gut Check from Shale Hill. You had to stand on one log and then reach for another, jump and pull yourself around. Ideally, the logs are spaced so you hands can at least reach the top one. No dice. Someone was actually hurt when I reached this obstacle, since it was very wet and slippery. This obstacle is dangerous in most circumstances -- I've heard stories of broken ribs -- and I was in no way going to be able to make the leap from the bottom log to the top. While the volunteers said people could help you, participants were not allowed to use the side supports to help themselves. I got up on the obstacle, assessed, decided I liked my teeth in my head, and did the penalty.
9. Mounds of Grounds: Climb a hill of mud, go through muddy water. Times four.
10. Normandy Jacks: This obstacle features wooden jacks with wire (not barbed) between them. The wire is low, similar to last year, so it's good that it's not barbed. There are some divots that you have to navigate as you do this crawl. Similar to other barbed wire crawls but a bit more fun because the jacks are kind of fun looking.


11. 12' Rope Walls: Climb a 12' wall using a rope. There were also a couple of kicks. Last year, at Tri-State, there were two of these back-to-back after a number of upper body obstacles and no kicks. This year, there was one wall. Definitely an example of how BattleFrog had scaled back. I tackled this wall no problem. (Last year, I was exhausted and made one wall but failed the second. Though, I think this year my upper body fitness is better and I could have made two.)
12. Wreck Bag Carry: Uuuuggggg! This carry actually almost killed my shoulders. Both men and women had to carry 50 lb Wreck Bags along a long loop. Mid-way, we stopped, did a wall, and then continued with the carry. 50 lb is a lot, and I was sorely wishing that they had varied the weight for men versus women. After doing the wall, I wrenched my left shoulder pretty badly getting the Wreck Bag back up. I'm now pounding cherry juice and resting my shoulder to get it ready for the Shale Hill 8 Hour race (part of 24 Hours of Shale Hell) next weekend.
13. 4' Wall: This 4' Wall was the one I referred to that we had to climb during the Wreck Bag Carry.
14. Slant Wall: Standard inverted wall. This was a bit of a shorter one but with no kicks underneath, so you had to jump, grab the top, and pull yourself over. 
15. Platinum Rig: The Rig wins obstacle of the course for me for sure! It was a huge challenge and fantastic. I always love the Rig and the many different configurations offered. For BattleFrog, they had one option for women and a different one for men. For women it was a rope climb, then walking through two suspended rings and grabbing a vertical pipe. From there, you had to take another rope and swing to a large square monkey bar. Next were to normal monkey bars, one of which was spaced super far away. I had to get a really good swing for my arms to make it. Next up was a pipe and then a ring to step in. I opted to get a swing from the monkey bar and grab the ring and bring it to me. This was very hard and took me a while to get. I imaged the American Ninja Warriors commentating and saying, "She's been up there a really long time. I think her grip is going to give out." However, my grip did not give out, and I eventually got the ring. From there, I had to grab a ring with my hands, swing to at least touch the last ring, and then I was done. Standing in the last ring, my legs where shaking with fatigue. This was a very challenging and rewarding obstacle.
16. Delta Ladder: This was a big ladder climb of around 20' with widely spaced rungs.



17. Tire Flip: This was actually switched with the Over/Under/Thru. We had to flip a large tire up three times and back three times. They were heavy, but I was able to tackle a pretty large one, so I'm sure others found this to not be a big hassle. 
18. 6' Wall: I ran at this wall and was able to get over without any problem. Good technique definitely helps on these medium height walls.
19. Tsunami: I mentioned before how this obstacle was definitely trimmed down from last year. Gone was the warped wall with the rope, which is too bad because I wanted to nail that jerk after my failure last year. Instead it was a cargo climb to the slide on the other side. Slides make me nervous after all the carnage at the slide at Superhero Scramble back in 2013, but BattleFrog does slides pretty well. This wasn't as good as the slide at Tri-State, since it ended in the grass instead of a small pool, but it was fine. The slide down was almost vertical and fast. I went flying into the muddy grass and got a face full of mud.
20. Inverted Wall: Unlike most inverted walls, These walls were inverted away from us. If you didn't get a good run up and jump to grab the top, there was no way to do anything other than slide down. I found this out when I neglected to get a good run and jump the first time. I nailed in on a quick try #2 though.
21. 12' Ladder Wall: Two back to back ladder walls. The finish line was in sight, and there was just one obstacle to go!
22. Tip of the Spear: This was my runner-up for favorite obstacle of the day and an improvement on the still very good obstacle Bangers & Mash from last year. The obstacle featured three transverse walls with a balance beam connecting them. The first had around a half dozen ropes and the second had ledges that you had to grab with your fingertips. The third had ropes again. The rope sections were no problem. The ledge part was okay too, though my feet slipped a little on this one, and I had to grip hard. 

I made it across Tip of the Spear and raced my way across the finish line for a finish in 1:38. Done!



In 2014 BattleFrog was one of the best courses I'd run. This year it was just another Spartan-style race. BatteFrog's future is certain, and they are going through a period of transition. I'm not sure what the future holds for them, but I can say that I am very glad I was able to go to the Tri-State race in 2014. I feel like that was the pinnacle of what BattleFrog had to offer. Today's race was fine, but it wasn't anything special. I'm not sure I'll be doing BattleFrog again in 2016. (Honestly, Shale Hill may have spoiled me for all other racing with the combined challenge and interest of their course and the perks like onsite parking and a race director that knows your name.) Did I have a fun day? Sure. Was it stand-out and stellar? Not really. It was average. If I didn't know how much potential BattleFrog had from their event last year, I might have been more satisfied. This year is going to be an interesting one for the company. We'll see how BattleFrog fairs for 2016.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Tri-Obstaclon

Tri-Obstaclon is Shale Hill's answer to the triathlon. Honestly, this is one of those events that I never thought I'd see myself at. I'm not a biker. One Shale Hill season pass and a birthday gift of a commuter bike that happens to have hybrid tires later, I found myself lined up at the starting line for today's Tri-Obstaclon race.


Tri-Obstaclon was advertised as having a bike ride of ~5 miles on rolling hills to Lake Champlain where we'd swim 300 yards in shallow water and then ride back. Participants then had the option to do the 5K or 10K 60 obstacle course. (Truly gifted [insane?] athletes could opt for two runs of the 10K obstacle course.) In reality, the ride to and from Lake Champlain totaled more like 13.5 miles. With the swim and 10K course, we ended up tackling around 20 miles for the entire race. This race is not for the faint of heart. You need to be fit! The entire thing, run in the non-competitive Journeyman division (in which you try all the obstacles but don't have to do penalties), took me around five and a half hours, and I believe I finished fairly early in the Journeyman division. 

The race started at 9:00 a.m. The 41 registered participants all arrived at Shale Hill around an hour before to check-in, organize our gear at the transition point, and head over to the 8:45 a.m. racer's meeting. 


I had debated gear, especially what to wear for this race quite a bit. I don't have biking gear, but I do have a bathing suit. Should I opt for the suit under pants for the bike and swim and then change? In the end, I decided to wear my carpri tights and NE Spahtens drill shirt throughout. For the bike and swim, I wore some old Altra minimalist sneakers that were actually designed for tri's and had good drainage. For the swim, I would just take off my drill shirt and swim in the tights and sports bra. On the recommendation of the race director, I kept my sneakers on for the swim -- the shoreline had sharp rocks and clams. For the bike to obstacle course race transition, I switched my socks and shoes, opting to wear my normal Icebugs and Injinjis for the obstacle piece. I used my hydration pack throughout. I had water with MiO Fit, Larabars, and Sharkies Energy Chews (which are sadly pretty much impossible to find now -- too bad because they're the best!). I didn't get quite enough fuel on the bike portion of the race, but my fueling on the obstacle race part was on-point. This turned out to be key.


After sorting out my gear at the transition area in the barn, I headed out to socialize and wait for the racer's meeting. Rob, race director and owner of Shale Hill, gathered up at 8:45 a.m. With the exception of one or two people, everyone had been up to Shale Hill before, so the remarks were brief. 




By 9:00 a.m., we were on our bikes and at the starting line ready to go. I hung to the back. I commute usually around four days a week 3 miles to work and 3 miles back on the relatively flat bike path. I had not taken my bike out for any off-roading prior to the race, and I knew I was going to need to take the bike section slow. In addition, it had rained heavily the night before, making the ground slippery.


The 6.5 mile ride started by taking us out of Shale Hill along part of the course. I actually almost fell off my bike here. The ground was wet and muddy. Along with many people, I found myself walking sections of the course. 


The first technical (in my limited opinion anyway) section was fortunately brief. We soon were out on the main road going along one of the brief paved sections of the course. We quickly turned off onto a dirt road where most of the riding would take place. This part was certainly no problem to navigate on my bike; however, it was hard. Rob had said "rolling hills," which sounds friendly enough. In my mind, rolling hills conjures hills where you can coast down, building up enough momentum to get up the next hill. This was not the case. 


If you were to ask me, I would say that the biking section felt like it was uphill both ways. I was constantly pedaling uphill in gears so low I had never used them before. On a couple of hills, I had to get off my bike and walk a section, again something I had not done before. For much of the bike ride I was DFL (dead f*!king last), minus a person with a bike malfunction, and it was a very odd feeling. Lonely. Definitely not good. (Note: I have so much respect for the back-of-the-packers. They are out there for longer than anyone else and working hard that entire time. Please know that my feeling shared here are more based on discomfort of being in that position for the first time and should not be taken as a negative against anyone. Believe me; I think you guys rock!) The roads were well-marked and well-staffed with volunteers. I wasn't worried about getting lost, but I didn't want this to take all day -- I had carpool buddies I didn't want to hold up. I decided, in the interest of catching up to a few people, to be a little bit less cautious on the downhills. This definitely helped a little bit, and I did catch up with Sandy and Steve, who I did the rest of the ride and the swim with. 

It also taught me why people have fenders on their bike. By the time I got back to Shale Hill after the second bike ride, my face and legs were spattered with mud, and I had some dirt lodged in my right eye. All in all, I was very impressed with my bike, which held up fantastically. It got super muddy, and was treated to a post-race power-washing at the car wash near Okemo on the ride home. 


The relentless bike ride along dirt roads culminated in a section of technical trails near Lake Champlain. The last half mile or so, was so technical that Sandy, Steve, and I ended up ditching our bikes and walking. On our way down to the lake, we saw people coming up from the swim with their bikes and no one was riding. There was deep mud, rocks, and steep hills. I was wearing pretty flat shoes designed for road running and my bike's platform pedals. I was slipping around in the mud and on the hills. 

Once we got to lake, a volunteer took our split, and then we headed into the water. At this point, my shoes seemed genius. They had drainage and were great in the water. The 300 yard swim was actually extremely pleasant. It followed the shore, going first to the right and around a buoy and then back to the left around a buoy and back. You could walk the entire thing if you chose. I alternated between swimming and walking. Lake Champlain was a pleasant temperature, though with lots of grass and weeds. Walking from the transition, doing the swim and walking back was pretty quick, taking around 15 minutes all-in-all. 




The swim was nice to break things up a bit. I really needed some time away from my bike at this point. Soon though, it was back to the bike and back to the dirt roads for the ride back to Shale Hill. Again, it felt like uphill all the way. I did better than time overall though. I was less far back, did better with shifting my gears, felt more confident on the hills, and only got off my bike to walk it maybe once, maybe twice (compared with four times or so on the way out). 


The entire ride back I kept thinking, "I cannot do the 10K after this." My legs felt wobbly. I had been out for a couple of hours and not had quite as many fluids as I should have. I felt spent. I seriously considered dropping from the 10K to 5K option before convincing myself that I would be very disappointed in myself if I didn't at least make the attempt at the full distance. The last hill that I had to get off the bike and walk, I felt as if my legs weren't working. They were gelatin! This was going to be interesting.


I finally made it back to Shale Hill. I dropped off my bike and headed into the bar to change into my Injinjis and Icebugs for the obstacle course portion of the race. I took the time to take in some good nutrition in the form of a Larabar and drank some water. My legs were starting to feel a bit better. Apparently daily three mile bike rides to and from work paired with hour long gym sessions mid-day meant that my legs were good at recovering off the bike. Though I wasn't ready for the technical nature of the bike ride and though I had under estimated the intensity of the bike segment (not to mention the distance -- a little over 13 miles, instead of 10), my legs knew how to recover from a ride fast.

I had not anticipated this. I considered my daily rides of 15 to 20 minutes to the office and 15 to 20 minutes back home to not ever be "real" exercise -- that was just how I commuted. It turns out, in this regard, I was more prepared for a triathlon than I thought. My body was tired, but my legs were okay. This held true, and I was able to run through the entire course. I was overall fatigued but my legs were moving fine.


Because I could run, by which I mean do my normally jog that I call running, I was able to pass a lot of people on the course. I ended up making up a ton of time on the obstacle course and caught up with and passed a lot of people who had been far ahead of me on the bike ride.

In fairness, I should add that being in the Journeyman division and not having to do penalties helped here. The Journeyman division is for people who want to try every obstacle, give it 100%, but not do penalties for failed obstacles. The Journeyman division is non-competitive, meaning you cannot place or qualify for prizes. It's perfect for people who like to go out on the course and challenge themselves and have fun. I do Journeyman because I like to save my strength for the obstacles instead of having to worry about penalties. There are around a few obstacles at Shale Hill that I normally fail (Zigzag of Awesomeness, Tarzan ropes, Great Wall, parallel bars) and a few I sometimes fail (2" rope 19' climb [so thick!], warped wall, and the rotating monkey bars [which are very late in the course]), which for Shale Hill is actually pretty good. I could probably run competitive, but I like the flexibility of Journeyman. It also allows me some adjustments in my carries. I do a slosh pipe instead of the double logs on the Log Split Carry because I hurt my shoulder a bit on the Log Split Carry at the Polar Bear race. I can try multiple times on obstacles, and I do. I give it my all, and Journeyman works well for me. I completely understand people who want to place and who are more competitive doing the other divisions. It's also great for those who are motivated by penalties. I love that Shale Hill offers both options.

Once I hit the obstacle course part of Tri-Obstaclon, I was cruising. (Note: I will just recount the unique aspects of the Tri-Obstaclon race. For a full write-up of the Shale Hill course, visit my blog post here.) Instead of not being able to do the 10K course, I nailed it! It felt fantastic. I only missed on obstacle that I normally make -- the traverse rope across the lake. My overall fatigue caught up with me here, and my legs and arms gave out a little bit. While that was a disappointment, I made all the other obstacles I normally do and actually had some good improvement on some. (At the end of the race, a fellow Shale Hill regular came over to complement me on my work on the Loom saying that I was faster than the last time she had seen me!)



I also, for the first time in a race at Shale Hill, ran most of the course by myself. This meant that I could go at my pace, which in some cases meant I was moving a bit more quickly as I didn't have to wait for people at obstacle -- a natural occurrence when you do any running with people since you all have to take your turn. In general, I love the camaraderie and motivation of racing with others, but sometimes you have to run your own race. This allowed me to be efficient. I was tired from the ride, and I wanted to tackle the course as quickly as possible and get this done. For this race, this strategy worked well for me.



This was also my first time on the course with a few of the new Robstacles (the name for the obstacles created by Shale Hill owner, Rob Butler). It was my first time seeing the Coffins, a 16' narrow box that you had to slide through, uphill, on your back using just your fingers in tiny holes. This obstacle was right after the giant traverse wall and, sadistically, recruited some of the same muscles that were sapped from the traverse. Fortunately, this was one obstacle were being small came in handy. I was able to wedge my feet and knees against the wall and frog-kick my way up as I pulled myself along with my fingers. This was a fun one!

The other new obstacle came right at the 2/3 mark on the course after the Fireman's Pole. It featured three lanes: One with hanging tires, one with hanging baseballs, and one that is TBD. (Here's a link to a video of the new obstacle.) I made it through five out of eight tires before falling off. I think this will be an obstacle I can do in the future though. I just lost momentum transitioning from one tire to the next and got a little hung up. Next time I'm up in Benson at Shale Hill, I'll be sure to work on this one.

I had a great run through the course. While, overall my body was very tired from the bike ride, I was feeling better than expected. Shale Hill is upper body intensive, and my upper half was not warn out. I kept my energy up with good fueling, and my legs had recovered better than expected. The only enemy was the overall fatigue of 2:15 of exercise before running the 10K course, which takes me around three hours. I'm not sure of my splits, but in the end, I think I tackled the course in just over three hours, basically a decently average time for me.


Since I was not running with other people, I got to meet up with people along the way and run with different people for different amounts of time. It was fantastic. My energy was definitely flagging on the last mile. After the hay bales (my least favorite part of the course -- they wear you down mentally and physically), I was ready to be done. I made a valiant effort on the monkey bars before heading up the hill and making my way to the Tarzan Ropes, warped wall [which I made for the first time ever by grabbing the side and then pulling myself up!], and anaconda). On the way, I ran into Rob and found a small bit of energy to razz Rob about the "five mile bike ride with rolling hills." I didn't want to stop moving because I knew if I stopped I would never get moving again.





Finally, the finish line was in sight. I wove my way up and down the seemingly endless anaconda and then up the hill to the finish. My legs could barely move, but I was almost there, and I wasn't going to stop running. People where cheering. I got to the top of the hill, rang the bell, and got my medal!

This was my most challenging race to date, other than the Spartan Beast (which was a type of suffering I really did not enjoy and will never do again) and the Shale Hill Polar Bear race (which was the type of "suffering" I do like, and which I will do again if my schedule allows).


The remarks I posted on Shale Hill's Facebook page say it all, "Excellent race! Definitely one of the more unique events I've done. That bike ride was no joke and really made the 10K obstacle course afterwards feel very different." This race was a challenge. It was also interesting, different, and fun. It brought me out of my comfort-zone with the biking and allowed me to play to my strengths with the obstacle course race portion. Like I just said, this race was hard. At times, I could not image making it through the 10K obstacle course race at the end of the hardest bike ride I have ever done (and, honestly, ever plan to do). I am happy I had the mental focus and physical fitness to tackle the course and do as well as I could. From a race like this, I can see how my obstacle course skills are improving and where my fitness is growing and where I need work.

Tri-Obstaclon is a great race for anyone who wants to bring together some disparate sports and test their mental and physical toughness. As a bonus, it's a fun time with a supportive group of people. Looking for you next endeavor? Tri-Obstaclon might be it. 


(Note: Photos from Shale Hill's Facebook page and MemorEvents. Spahtens photos from Vince Rhee. Thank you!)

Sunday, June 21, 2015

2015 Shale Hill Relay Race Challege

Saturday night, I headed up to Benson, Vermont, home of Shale Hill, for the 2015 Relay Race Challenge. The race was 9:00 a.m. Sunday morning, and I didn't want to make the almost three hour trip from Amherst to north western Vermont. Luckily, I had been offered a place at the apartment onsite with fellow Spahtens Paul, Beth, Sandy, and Niki. I arrived around supper time on Saturday and was able to spend a nice bit of time relaxing and socializing prior.

After a really excellent night sleep, I woke up Sunday morning for the race. The apartment at Shale Hill has a fully-functional kitchen, so I was able to make my standard pre-race breakfast of Genesis bread toast with almond butter, cherry juice with chia seeds, and coffee. I coordinated my race gear and headed over to check-in at registration.

The Relay Race Challenge divided the standard 10K Shale Hill obstacle course into three segments that you and two other teammates would cover. Paul, Niki, and I had planned to be a journeyman team (aka. the non-contemplative division); due to a last minute injury, Niki ended up swapping to the competitive open division and her friend, Tonya, joined Paul and me in journeyman. The Relay Race Challenge had around 60 registered participants, making it easy to quickly change registration the day-of.

After registration was taken care of, we headed outside to draw straws. This would determine the legs we would run. I drew leg three (considered the most challenging part of the course), Tonya got leg one, and Paul got leg two. We then headed back inside where the race director, Rob, gave us information. The course was very muddy and wet from the heavy rainfall the night before. We were to be cautious on the slippery obstacles (here Icebugs made all the difference), and it was suggested that, since volunteers were limited, we might want to double up and send a second teammate along with the person running each leg of the relay. This would encourage safety. I had already offered to run Tonya's leg with her since she had a slightly injured abdomen. It was her first time at Shale Hill, and I wanted to make sure she got to have a good time but didn't have to face any obstacles that would make her recovery time longer. We were also presented with the "baton," a large metal "key to Shale Hill," as Rob put it. The entire thing was about as long as my torso! Rob also told us the exchange points: The Rope Ramp and the Fireman's Tower.


Tonya and I headed over to the starting line for the 9:00 a.m. start, and Paul headed over to the Rope Ramp to meet us at the first exchange. At 9:00 a.m., everyone was set, and with the sound of the air-horn we were off!

Since I've done so much posting about the course at Shale Hill, I am going to go through the highlights of today instead of recounting everything, obstacle by obstacle. For a comprehensive walk-through of the Shale Hill course, click here.

Tonya and I cruised pretty well through the first leg of the course. There were a few highlights, such as Tonya's complete mastery of the Log Splitter, the obstacle that Rob replaced the sandbag / slosh pipe carry with for Polar Bear. The carry consists of two stumps connected with a piece of flat cord which gets hauled along the 1/2 to 2/3 of a mile loop that marked the sandbag / slosh pipe carry. I struggled a lot with this obstacle at Polar Bear, and was happy to just walk the course with Tonya and offer encouragement. The route was incredibly muddy and marshy from all the rain. It was even more treacherous than normal; just walking was hard. Tonya did a fantastic job! I was very impressed by her strength as she powered through this carry.


After the carry, we headed over to the pond traverse. The traverse, which entails spanning the pond by pulling yourself along a rope parallel to the surface. I wasn't planning to do this obstacle with Tonya, but while I was waiting for her to go I got into a conversation with some of the other racers about the technique for doing the traverse on the top, instead of the bottom. They wanted a demo, so I couldn't say no! (Note, that I might have been showing off a little. I am not proud of this fact -- but, hey, in the interest of transparency, I will report out what occurred.)

Tonya and I had a couple more obstacles and then we met up with Paul at the transition. Tonya wanted to see the full course because it was her first time at Shale Hill, and I wanted to do at least some of the obstacles in the wooded section of the course known as "The Jungle." I hung with Tonya and Paul through until Cliff Jumper, which was great because I was able to "pinch run" that obstacle and Double Up before it. Those are two of my favorites, so I was glad to get the chance to do them and a few of the obstacles in The Jungle. However, I had done a lot and needed to keep something in reserve for my part of the course. While Tonya and Paul headed into the woods for the Giant Wall Traverse, I headed over to the Fireman's Tower to regroup before my leg. (Note: The one minus of this was that I missed getting to see the new obstacle, the Coffin. Next time for sure!)


While I was waiting for Paul and Tonya at the Fireman's Tower, I hung out with some other people waiting to run their third leg or having just finished their second leg. This highlights some of the fun of the relay. The atmosphere was light and all about having a good time as a team, at least for me in journeyman. There was great camaraderie. Plus, it was fun to get to go around with teammates for much of the course and aid each other on the obstacles.

Soon, Paul and Tonya appeared over the hill and headed towards me. It was "Go" time!

Both Tonya and Paul followed me around my section of the course as I did my obstacles. Tonya was surveying the rest of the course and Paul was taking some pictures for some obstacle demo videos that he and Rob wanted to do for the Shale Hill website. My section of the course included some of the most challenging obstacles. I started with the barbed wire crawl, then did the log carry with A-frame.



I then made my way to one of my favorite obstacles, The Loom. Fun as always!



The Hay Bales from Hell seem to multiply every time I am over at Shale Hill. There was actual a hay bale "obstacle" at Tough Mudder a few weekends ago, and I had to laugh because now only were the bales only two in number, but they were not the huge mounded piles I'm used to from Shale Hill.

My biggest victory of the day was on the 19' rope climb. This climb takes place right after the 11' rope and wall climb.


A couple of ropes back to back is tough, and these are late in the course. To make matter even more challenging, the 19' climb uses a 2" thick rope, a rope so think even elites find it challenging. I had yet to make it up this climb. Today, was the first time I made it. I was able to get a good s-hook with my legs and, because I was fresher than normal, having not run the entire course, I made it up.


After the victory on the ropes, it was on to the bucket carry. This is always not a favorite, but with journeyman, I am able to self-pace and determine the right weight for the bucket for me (in my case not all the way full). I was able to fill the bucket a challenging, but not abusive, amount, something I appreciated it. Go journeyman division!




I burned myself out a little on this because my hands were pretty tired for the monkey bars. Tonya had wanted to try them and did around 3/4 of them, leaving only 1/4 for me to do, which ended up being just fine. My hands were muddy, the bars kept rotating, and I have trouble finding purchase.


Another interesting moment of the day -- I won't quite call it a victory -- was on the tarzan ropes. The best I had ever done was make it around half way through. Today, I had a tough time getting started and made my way to the half way point falling off a few times but still keeping trying. However, from the mid-way point, I was able to get a good rhythm going and actually made it all the way to the wall. My hands were toast at that point, and Paul helped push me up over the wall. I was very excited though to make it the second half of the way. This obstacle is all grip strength and cadence. I am hoping to really learn to nail it during my week at camp at Shale Hill in August.


From there it was a failed attempt on the warped wall. (Again, I plan to go and see if my Spahten friend / Ninja Warrior expert, Matt can help with this.)


The race finished as it always does, weaving along the culverts along the obstacle known as the Anaconda. At this point I was pretty tired. I hadn't brought my hydration pack or snacks thinking I'd just cover my two or so miles, and I was ready for some lunch. I ran up the hill and crossed the finish line right after Tonya. We were done! Time for chocolate milk (a Shale Hill staple) and a banana.



The Shale Hill Relay Race Challenge was a fun time. It was a good way for people to get an introduction to the course in a less intimidating way. It was a good opportunity for those of us who love the course at Shale Hill to tackle it as a team. Relays have a different vibe. They feel more communal and supportive. I am lucky that I get to do my races with the NE Spahtens and always have a great group of people to race with and support me. The Relay Race Challenge is a nice opportunity for other people to enjoy that same sense of community.


(Note: Amazing photos are all credit of Paul Jones of the NE Spahtens. Thank you, Paul!)