Monday, July 28, 2014

NE Spahtens to Shale Hill Weekend

Most amazing weekend ever! I returned around dinner time yesterday from two days training and "racing" at Shale Hill with the New England Spahtens. Shale Hill is a fixed obstacle course in Vermont, a little over a two and a half hour drive north from my home in Amherst. The 10K course (with a 5K loop option) features over fifty of the toughest obstacles that I have ever faced. My weekend at Shale Hill was probably the most physically taxing of my life and the most fun.

Paul, the leader of the Spahtens, had coordinated with Rob, the owner of Shale Hill, for the Spahtens to come up and spend the weekend at his training facility. We would spend Saturday going through parts of the course and training on some of the most technically challenging obstacles. We would spend Sunday racing either the 5K or 10K versions of the course. The weekend was for the team, so we got a ton of individual attention from Rob and learned a great deal. The cost of the entire weekend of training was a bargain $85, which is what you'd generally pay for a one-day few hour race if you're lucky enough to get the earliest registration and cheapest price. The return on investment was better than I can even say!

I left my house around 9:00 a.m. on Saturday to arrive up at Shale Hill for our 12:30 p.m. training, which was scheduled to last around four or five hours. I met up with the group -- some familiar faces but mostly new -- and we took a quick team picture before heading out on the course with Rob.


Rob asked us which obstacles we wanted to train on. Hearing our suggestions, he planned out the day, taking us strategically around the course to the most challenging and technically demanding obstacles. Rob is an amazing teacher and the tips he gave were invaluable. If you are interested in obstacle course racing, a trip to Shale Hill to train with Rob is an absolute must. Not only are his obstacles the most challenging around (and certainly will train you for any Spartan Race, et cetera), but the information he provides will help you get through any course you tackle in a smarter and faster way.

The other great thing about heading up to Shale Hill is that you can go to train on specific obstacles, the way that we were doing. In a race, you have to attempt an obstacle once and then are done. Plus, you have to move fast because people are all around and trying to get a move on it. At Shale Hill, you can try an obstacle as many times as you want so that you can master technique or just try to get proficient at an obstacle that you find exceptionally challenging. If you want to spent thirty minutes trying to master a rope climbing technique you can. If you always fail at the transverse wall, you can spend all day on it at Shale Hill. Case in point, during our training day we went to the obstacle that generally gave our group the most trouble when we're racing.

We started the day by heading over to the pond for the Pond Traverse obstacle. I was pretty excited to check this out because I had not had the chance to do a traverse obstacle in the past and had heard that there is a traverse during the Vermont Spartan Beast. Rob started off by explaining the two types of ways that you can handle the traverse, over and under. Then people got up on the ropes and began to demonstrate.


I watched a few people try it to get an idea of technique before giving it a go myself. Here's Rob helping me rotate so I can try the method where you traverse on top of the rope. Ideally, you climb, grab the rope and rotate yourself using the post that the rope is attached to. You then inch along the top of the rope with one leg dangling to the side to balance you and the other leg helping to push you up while your arms pull you along.


I made it to around the mid point of the pond using the top method. Then a combination of things happened and I lost my balance on the top while also giving into the discomfort of having the rope dig into my inner thighs and chest. I switched to finishing the traverse using the hanging method.


The hanging method definitely is harder on the arms because you have to support all your body weight and you cannot rest the way you can if you're on top of the rope. It does definitely hurt your torso less though. I was absolutely exhausted, but I did not want to get wet, so I forced myself through the traverse and finished. I was so excited to make it all the way across on my first try!


After everyone tried the traverse, we headed over to the next obstacle, Gut Check. The name of the obstacle says it all -- the idea is to jump from the lower log as hard as you can up to the higher log and then pull yourself over. I made it over and had a nice stomach bruise to show for it. Definitely not a favorite; however, I was glad we got to try this obstacle because jumping as high as you can without fear is key to getting it on the first try.


After Gut Check, we headed over to check out an eight foot wall. Rob taught us a technique for handling walls, especially taller ones. He encouraged us to run at the wall, putting a foot against the wall and jumping up as high as we could along the wall, reaching our hands to grab the top. From there, we could walk our feet up the wall then pull ourselves over and hang down the other side to get down. This is easier said than done, as your mind puts up a bit of a mental block when you try to run at a wall. I ended up getting it on my third try on Saturday but was unable to duplicate my success on Sunday. This is definitely something I would love to go back to Shale Hill and practice. I know I am so close to getting it because my fingers are just scraping the top of the wall when I miss. I really need to commit to the jump. If I can get a hang of this, I think it would be a huge help at all my races since walls are one of the most popular obstacles you see.


From the wall training, we went over to Rope Ramp. This obstacle had you climbing a rope to a platform and then climbing down an inclined ramp on the other side. I've included a picture from the Shale Hill website to give you an idea.


Our plan for this obstacle was to use it as a place to do some rope training. Rob reviewed a few techniques with us. One thing he reinforced throughout the course was grabbing the rope in a smart way. Rob recommended lining up the rope with the base of the fingers and wrapping the thumb around. This, as opposed to a traditional grab of the rope, allows the strongest fingers of the thumb and forefinger to support you as opposed to having weight on the pinkie. Rob also trained us on how to position our feet during the rope climb to help support our weight and take work out of the arms. I had seen a video on rope climbing technique online and had wanted to try what Rob and the video mentioned. This was a great opportunity.

We were practicing rope technique, but when I was climbing the rope, I got all the way to the platform and got excited. Rob had mentioned this was a tricky transition, so I wanted to give it a try. Rob kindly gave me instruction. I pulled myself up the platform in the same manner that I would if doing a pull-up and walked my feet up the rope using the support technique we had just learned. Totally tricky and totally awesome. I pulled hard with my upper body and made it up on the platform. From there, all I had to do was carefully back down the ramp to get back to solid ground.


Throughout the day, people had been talking about checking out the obstacle, the Loom. Rob had even mentioned that one of the Spartan Race course designers had been out at Shale Hill and seemed very impressed by the Loom, so we might see it in a Spartan Race soon in some permutation. So what was the Loom? I was excited to go over and see.

The Loom did not disappoint. It is probably one of my new favorite obstacles ever and is a great challenge. The obstacle is set up with a half dozen rungs at a 45-degree angle to the ground. You have to traverse them weaving your body over and under each rung as your climb upward. Then at the top. You have to do a rope traverse. You then go down the other side again weaving yourself over and under the rungs.


Rob again gave us good technique for this obstacle. The "overs" are easy, but the "unders" are the hard part. Rob explained that we should try to hang "like a hammock" and then rotate ourselves to grab the next rung. We could then push off with our legs and up. Easier said than done but great fun when you get it.


At the top of the obstacle were three ropes. Like most people, I assumed we'd have to do a traverse here much like we did at the lake, but Rob said there was as easier way. You could grab the side ropes and bring them up high to create railings. From there you could easily walk across like a tight rope. I think we were all a bit incredulous, but Rob was 100% right -- this was the easiest way. Getting balanced to stand up holding both ropes is the hardest part, though totally do-able, and once you do that you are easily all set.


It was then time to weave down the other side. While Rob helped the rest of the Spahtens with the first side, one expert Spartan, Steve, showed me a good way to weave my way down. Using this method, you worked more parallel to the sides of the Loom instead of perpendicular like you did on the way up. Getting down was tricky, but definitely easier than going up. Got to love the challenge that is the Loom!

From the Loom we made our way over to a pair of rope obstacles, and 11' wall and 19' rope climb.


There were thin ropes on the wall climb and then a 2" thick rope for the 19' climb. We were mostly here to train on the wall, but we all got a feel of the 2" rope, which was much thicker than most ropes at obstacle course races (OCRs).


The technique for climbing the wall with the rope was an interesting one. We were supposed to lean back as far as we could and then climb as high as we could with our legs and feet. Then we could pull ourselves over the top.


Lots of people were wearing Icebugs, which have metal tips. These shoes are ideal of OCR and would make this obstacle a lot easier. For the training day, I had decided to see how my Altra Lone Peak trail running shoes would do. I had been doing a lot of trail running in them and was enjoying them a lot for that purpose. I didn't have a pair of dedicated shoes for all my obstacle course racing and after a few slippery sections during Tough Mudder as thinking I really needed a pair. I wanted to see how the Altras did on obstacles. The answer was proving to be not that great. The Lone Peaks were wonderful and very comfortable trail running shoe but not a good shoe for obstacles where more grip and aggressive tread was needed. Fortunately, they sold Icebugs at Shale Hill. I made a note to check into them for the next day, especially since most of the Spahtens had them and were raving about how well the shoes gripped the obstacles.

At this point we were all getting pretty tired, and it was getting late, so we decided to check out just a couple more obstacles before the end of the day. First up was the monkey bars. I had nailed the monkey bars at Tough Mudder, but at this point in the day at Shale Hill I was totally tired. I was going to be lucky to make it half way across those monkey bars, which is exactly what I ended up doing. I had to keep something in the tank for Sunday's full run through the 10K course.

Of course, the monkey bars were not normal monkey bars. First then had swinging rungs. Second there were two very long set of monkey bars and the second set went uphill. What?!?! As always, Rob had some excellent tips to share. Throughout the day he kept reminding us to relax saying that being tense took up a lot of energy and the goal was to maintain as much energy as you could throughout the course. For the monkey bars relaxation was key. Rob also had a good strategy for dealing with the rotating rungs. For the first rung, he recommended trying to get on the bars either very quickly or with a grip where one hand faces in each direction, as that will keep the bar from swinging. For rotating bars you have to go rung by rung one at a time, instead of swinging your arm past your body on each rung. Rob also said to pedal your legs as you go because this will give you good momentum. For the uphill monkey bars, Rob demonstrated them going backwards while using a kipping motion to help propel you upward.


The last obstacle of the day was the Great Wall of Shale, an eight part traverse wall. I have done traverse walls before, and they are always just one section. This was something else. I snagged some pictures from the internet to give you an idea of how massive the traverse wall is at Shale Hill.



As a bonus, the walls are not back to back and you have to transition from wall to wall without touching the ground. A balance beam connects wall one to two. For wall two to three you have to pull yourself up a pair of boards above your head. Rob recommended doing this backwards again because the boards are on an incline. You then walk your hands back ward. For the transition from wall three to four, you get an easy balance beam again, but there is another above the head transition from wall four to five. This one is going downhill, so Rob recommended swinging out forwards as far as you could to grab the board and then swing to the other wall.

For handling the transverse walls themselves, we were supposed to focus on having our feet stepping on the points of the blocks and keeping our hips towards the wall. If our fingers got tired, we could wrap our hands around the side of the blocks and apply pressure to keep ourselves in place while our fingers rested.

Since we were all pretty spent at this point, we mostly only did a couple of sections of the wall. I did the first two walls and then the uphill overhead section. Yikes! My arms were screaming.

We finished up our training day at around 5:15 p.m. From there we decided to have some quick showers before meeting up at Rob's house around 7:00 p.m. for a cookout and bonfire. A group of us, myself included, had opted to split a rental of the guest house at Falkenbury Farm for $20 per person. For that price, I would pretty much have slept wherever; however, that was not necessary -- I got a nice twin bed all to myself. There were six people staying at the house and three rooms, so it worked out perfectly.

We headed back to Shale Hill and met up at Rob's house for the cookout that he and his wife generously agreed to host. The Spahtens had brought loads of food. I enjoyed some salad with local greens, chicken, and a chocolate milk from a nearby farm. Later on, we roasted s'mores over a huge bonfire. It was great fun hanging out for a couple of hours and chatting about obstacle racing with the Spahtens. Around 9:45 p.m., we headed by to the guest house, a five minute drive away and called it a night.


Sunday -- race day -- dawned extremely rainy. It had rained overnight and it was pouring at around 7:00 a.m. when I got up and headed downstairs. This was going to be a wet course. It was also a bit cold out. I debated wearing the awesome Spahten sleeves that I had just gotten (in size small but the upgraded to size medium to fit over my massive muscles -- kidding.) I decided againt it, thinking the weather would get warm, which turned out to be correct. I'll have to wait a little longer to use this awesome new accessory.


I did head over to Shale Hill a bit early to check out some Icebugs. I knew the course would be very slippery, and I did not want to have an accident because of my foot wear. I tried on a few models of shoes, but nothing really seemed to suit. One had big of a heal to toe drop. The other was pretty good feeling, but had a tight point along the widest part of my right foot. I was almost discouraged, when I noticed that they had a bin of tester shoes. "Wait, can I try one of these pair on and use them on the course?" The answer was, "Yes," as they keep test shoes around so people can see how the Icebugs perform. I wear a 6.5 street shoe, but usually opt for a 7 or 7.5 running shoe to allow room for my feet to swell. I found a nice pair of carbide tip studded shoes called, Spirits. They were fairly minimalist like I like and had a very small drop. The fronts look a bit narrow, but the narrowing actually took place at the very front of the toes. The shoes were a 7.5 and fit maybe a hair too big, but overall seemed a good fit. I decided to check them out. They ended up being a huge asset on the course! The tips really dug into the wood and the ropes on the course. They also helped when navigating technical terrain. I could not believe the difference. At the end of the day I was completely sold on the shoes. They did not have a new pair of the Spirits in my size; however, the sample shoes, while a couple of models older, had only been used for around two months on the course. Since not many people are likely to have 7.5 size feet, the shoes had been used less than a dozen times. I was able to get them for $65, which is way less than half of what I would have had to pay for a new pair that would have to be special ordered. Sold!




The race we had scheduled for Sunday was a casual event. Basically it was just a timed run of the course for the Spahtens. We could take either the 5K or 10K route. The race was scheduled to start at 10:00 a.m., but we ended up holding out for a little bit in order to wait for the rain to stop. We ended up starting a little before 10:30 p.m.


Some of our group decided they might opt for the 5K version of the course after the training day on Saturday. This was my first time up at Shale Hill, and I really wanted to see the course so I opted for the full 10K version. In the end we had approximately three different sub-groups doing different things. One group of "elites" did the 10K course and really raced it. They did penalties if they failed an obstacle and did each and every obstacle all the way through as designed. (This may sound like a natural thing because at most obstacle course races you do all the obstacles completely but the obstacles as Shale Hill are so challenging at in some places you just give it your best effort and modify as needed. Especially if you are a mere mortal.) The second group did a hybrid between the 5K and 10K courses and meandered along as they wanted. The group I was with did the full 10K course, but not at race pace. We attempted the obstacles as best we could and modified as needed. It was more or less a complete course run through done with a training mentality instead of a race mentality. We were there to have fun and learn more than to have fun and compete.

Below is a complete map of the course. I believe that the course layout might have changed a little bit since the map was produced, but I'm going to go through and describe as many of the obstacles as I can in the order I recall encountering them. As I mentioned, I ended up running the full 10K course with a group of three others, Erin, Josh, and Sean. This was a great group and everyone was super supportive of each other and helpful. Sean and I had attended the training day, but Erin and Josh had not, so we stopped at each of the obstacles and shared some of what Rob had taught us.


Teeter Totters: The first obstacle I recall from the course is the Teeter Totters. This was a set of three seesaws that you run up and down. They were very slippery from the weather, and the Icebugs were a must. I went very slowly and with caution. Unfortunately, one of our team members suffered a mishap on the Teeter Totters and went to the hospital with a broken ankle.

Tires: Following the Teeter Totters was a section with some tire flips. You got to pick whatever weight tire you wanted but light weight ones had to be flipped more. It was then over some logs and hay bales and on to the first wall.

7' Wall: This wall was probably more like eight feet, since it was the wall Rob had trained us on yesterday with the running technique (and reported was 8'). I tried the method of running at the wall a few times but was unable to get everything in place and was slipping a little bit on the wet wood. I decided to handle the wall using my more traditional method and made it over. From there, we headed into the woods, over a shorter wall, and up a slippery shale-laden hill.

Ankle Biters: Next up was a web made of rope at around knee height. We had to navigate through the web with our feet without falling over.

Sandbag Carry: Of all the things I am most worried about for the Spartan Beast, the carry tops the list. With good reason; I am small and it's hard for me to carry heavy things. Of all the things I did at Shale Hill, I think the Sandbag Carry was my weakest and where I struggled the most. We each had to grab a 60 pound sand bag and carry it up and down hills, through water, and all around for almost half a mile. (Slosh pipes were also an option, and honestly I probably should have gone in that direction.) I struggled mightily with the sandbag carry and probably would have given up if not for my teammates who helped me emotionally and physically. I have never been so glad as I was to drop the sandbag off my shoulders at the end of this ordeal. I am going to have to work on this more for the Beast.


Pond Traverse: After the sandbag carry we headed over to the traverse from yesterday. I had wanted to nail it again using the same method of going over half the expanse on my stomach and the other half below the rope. Unfortunately, my legs and torso were so bruised from the other day that I couldn't do the top method. I tried as best I could below but my body, pre-fatigued from the intense training day on Saturday, could not make it over the entire pond. Swimming was required.

Gut Check: My entire gut-region was a huge bruise from doing this obstacle on Saturday. I did one attempt at doing it the traditional way, but was floored by the discomfort and only managed to scrape up my arms. I did the modified version where I climbed from log to log along the support beam.

Tire Pull: Next up was a fairly short tire pull that I managed without too much issue. Then it was on to another favorite from Saturday.

Rope Ramp: I love this obstacle and was ready to get to use my rope climbing technique that I had learned the day before. I managed to be the only person in our group to get up the rope and onto the platform, so I can definitely say that Rob's tips paid off. That wrap of the legs around the rope really make a huge difference and is the only way I can see getting up on that platform. I know that I will encounter many more rope climbs at many obstacle races, and I will be glad to have had a chance to practice a technique that makes it much more manageable.

Tunnel / Net Crawl: We ran off and encountered a wide tunnel which emptied into a cargo net. We held the net over head and passed it along to one another and made it through.

Abacus: Super fun! Sunday was my first time seeing abacus, and it was a blast. The obstacle is awesome looking, as I am sure you can tell by the picture below. I climbed to the top, transitioned over and headed down the other side. If you are a person who likes climbing you'll love this one. It's not too hard; it's just fun. From Abacus, we crossed a small ravine on a log and then headed to the next obstacle.


Linkin Logs: I was very excited by this second new and neat obstacle which featured logs with small cut-outs hanging from ropes. I had to try this one twice before succeeding. The cut-outs were far apart and the logs would swing as you tried to climb them, adding to the difficulty factor. After reaching the top of the log, you climbed the rope to the frame and then came down.


Swinging Ladders: More climbing in the woods. Next up were ladders that swung from a frame. The object: climb up and down. The ladder would swing backwards under your weight as you climbed, putting you at an angle to the ground. This definitely required some upper body strength to help right you. Plus the rungs of the ladder were spaced very far apart, requiring some hip flexibility to get your leg up from one rung to the next. Fortunately, you could always sit down on the ladder rungs and rest.

Double Up: From the ladders, we headed out of the woods for a little bit to tackle Double Up. The obstacle looked simple, a bar with another bar right above it, but proved a bit tricky. For starters, the first bar was a good couple of feet above my head and unreachable even with my arms extended. I grabbed a post, wrapped my arms around and climbed with my feet until I could get to the first bar. I then hoisted myself on to it and dragged myself over the other bar with my arms. Then back down. I was pretty proud of myself for giving this a try and tackling it completely on my own.

Cliff Jumper: I wish I had a picture of this obstacle! Cliff Jumper was a challenge that I only partially made. The obstacle had you climbing a wall. There was a platform hanging above. You had to grab a rope loop behind and above you and then grab a rope behind that. From the short hanging rope, you then swung up to the platform above. You then got down by repelling down a longer rope. I wasn't quite able to get from the loop to the rope behind me. I asked Rob about technique though, and I was tackling the obstacle correctly. Josh in our group made it over. I ended up jumping over the wall without making it to the platform. I want to try this obstacle again when I am not so fatigued. I think that with fresh arms and some playing around I could get the hang of it.

Ladder Wall: It was then over a standard seven foot ladder wall to get back into the woods. From there, we headed over to the Traverse Wall. Here, Rob and Paul came to check up on us, so we stayed and chatted a little bit. Rob told us we were around half of the way through the course. We had been going for over two hours -- I couldn't believe it. I had brought a hydration pack with me and some GUs, but I was starting to wish that I had more to sustain me. Paul and Rob promised to meet us with us again soon. In my slightly depleted state, I tackled four out of five of the walls but cut out the overhead transitions. My arms were feeling a bit wobbly, and I wanted to stay safe.

Heinous Hoist: As if our arms weren't spent enough, right after the Traverse Wall was the hoist. Men had to lift a cinder block five time; the women had to lift a tire four times. All of these items were on a pulley system. Sean mentioned a technique where we pulled the item a little and then just backed up, putting all the weight in the legs. This worked absolutely wonderfully and made this obstacle a lot easier to handle.

Barbed Wire Crawl: Next up was a barbed wire crawl. Rob must be some crazy type of genius because he put this a very low wire crawl in the muddiest part of the course. In a way this worked well. I got completed soaked and dirtier than dirty, but I got to miss my least favorite part of a wire crawl: getting my legs are arms torn up on rocks. The mud was smooth and it was easy to move without getting messed up. I was very impressed with my hydration pack during this portion of the course. I had been taking it off for lots of the obstacles, not wanting it to throw off my balance or add weight. For the wire crawl, I left it on and was pleased that it was low profile enough to make it through unscathed.

Alcatraz Wall: The downside to doing the muddy wire crawl and getting completely soaked was that we were now faced with the Alcatraz Wall. This wall was significantly tall -- think around 17 to 20 feet. We were supposed to climb up with the aid of a rope and then climb down a ladder on the back. Having slippery mud caked hands was a huge challenge here. I was able to get a good grip with my fingers, using the technique for holding the rope that Rob taught us on Saturday. That plus the Icebugs made this obstacle go well for me. Erin actually slipped coming up the wall, recovered and pressed on. I was very very impressed by her bravery because the slip backwards down the rope must have been terrifying. She did an amazing job!


Balance Alley: After the wall, we exited the woods and came upon Balance Alley, the frame of an old garden bed that we had to balance around. More welcome, Paul was there were a case of cool chocolate milk. See how happy I look! 300 calories of milk later, I was feeling much much better. Thank you, Paul!



Firemans Tower: From there it was a few jumps over some short 4' vaults and on to the Firemans Tower. There were two options for getting up to the first platform: one was to climb up the firemans pole, the second was to climb a cargo net on the side. Josh tried the pole and found it super slick, so we opted to take the cargo net up. We then rolled across the cargo net to another platform and took the ramp down. This was a fun one. This is the first obstacle that you probably see at Shale Hill; the reason being that it is positioned at the intersection you pass when you drive to the farm. It's cool looking, and seeing it in the car had made me eager to try it. I was not disappointed.


Barbed Wire Crawl: From there we jogged into the center of a large field and met our second barbed wire crawl. We all tried to do it rolling since it was across lovely grass (not rocks -- yay!), but got dizzy and had to finish by doing a military crawl. At this point we ran into the group that was doing the 5K/10K-hybrid or Special K course. It was great to see some more friendly faces and say, "Hello."

Kindling Karry and A-frame: Next up was a log carry. I was scared because of the horribly difficult Sandbag Carry and took a smaller-sized log. The wood was nice and dry though and the loop was around 1/4 of a mile, so shorter than the Sandbag Carry. I did fine. With the log we also had to go up and over an A-frame. Next time I might have to challenge myself more but upgrading to a bigger log.


Loom: Next up was one of my new favorites, the Loom. Sean and I were able to give Josh and Erin some tips based on our training day. I was tired but pumped for this Loom and made it across with lots of glee! I also knew, based on Sean's past experience of the course, that we now had only a mile and a half to go.


Hay Bales from Hell: I worked hard on the Loom and was getting tired again. However, there was no time for rest as we ran over to the 11' Wall and 19' Rope Climb we had trained on the day before. In between the Loom and the climbs, there were over half a dozen bales of hay. Some were just single bales. I used the same tactic as Rob had taught us with the walls -- I ran at them, dug my foot in and jumped. For the hay bales, mostly belly flopped on to them and then pulled myself over. A few of the bale grouping were very interesting. One had three set of bales one after the other with a gap in between. You had to jump from bale to bale to bale. I tried to be an energy efficient as possible, but this late in the race my form was suffering a little. I maintained a little energy for the wall and rope climb, but opted to just do the wall and skip the 2" thick, 19' rope climb because my arms were still super tired from the Loom. Most of my group made the same choice.

Parallel Bars: After the ropes and walls, we headed over to the Parallel Bars, which were exactly like they sounded. All four of us decided to do a modification and instead of just going along on our hands, we used our feet as well.

Rock Bucket Carry: The Rock Bucket Carry was another 1/4 mile or so loop, this time with a bucket filled with shale. Sean mentioned that for Spartan a good technique for the bucket carry is to hold is baby-style in front of you. You shouldn't put it on your shoulder because it can cut into your neck and mess up blood flow. You shouldn't use the handle because the buckets at Spartan races won't have them. For the bucket carry, we got to determine how much weight to put in the bucket. I filled mine about half way full and made the loop carrying the bucket in front of me as instructed. This worked pretty well and allowed me to squat down and rest the bucket on my knees as well as shift the bucket and give my arms a rest. When I got back from the loop I noticed that both Rob and Paul were there. At is point, the other groups had more or less finished, so they decided to keep us stay with us for the last mile or so of the race. It was energizing to have some extra company and great to get tips from Rob and pictures from Paul.


9' Ladder Walls: Next up were three ladder walls with three rungs each, back to back. After all the work we had done, this didn't seem that bad. After all, you can sit on a rung.

Flat and Uphill Monkey Bars: The course then took us back into the woods for the Monkey Bars. Having the monkey bars so late in the course is brutal! All my comments from having to do the monkey bars last on Saturday stand for Sunday, only many more times over since I was way more tired at this point. I made it about half way along the rotating rungs before my hands, so tired from all the rope climbs, gave out. I did remind myself of all of Rob's lessons and tried to relax and pedal my legs to help with forward momentum. I definitely felt both of these things working and can see this being a great help at any race where I have to do monkey bars.


Hill Scramble: From the monkey bars, we headed further into the woods and up a steep hill. The hill was short but steep enough that a rope was provides to pull yourself along. After a few more transitions through the woods, we scrambled over the pipe from the Tunnel / Net Crawl and found ourselves back in the field from the beginning of the race. In front of us was the coolest looking obstacle, which was coming up next.

Tarzan Ropes: It's hard to explain how awesome the Tarzan Ropes obstacle is. I think it will go down in history as one of my favorites, and it's definitely one that I would want to come to Shale Hill and train on again. It falls almost last on the course and at a point where your arms and hands are completely dead. The goal is to swing from rope to rope across ten ropes and to then use the last rope to pull yourself over a wall. This was my first time seeing this obstacle. I was thrilled to make it across eight ropes. Rob made me feel like a champion for doing this on my first time. Of course, he had provided detailed instruction and an amazing demonstration to start. The method he mentioned was swinging with one hand high and the other low. Grab the next rope low with your high hand and then high with your low hand, letting momentum carry you through. Doing this obstacle, even just part way through made me feel like an American Ninja Warrior.



Vaults and Walls on Anaconda: Only one obstacle to go and the end was in sight! We snaked our way along Anaconda, running up and down short steep inclines. At the top of most of the tiny hills was a wall. My legs were spent, but finally the Anaconda was done. It was a short jog up to the bar and the end of the race. We pledged to run to the finish line. I may have been doing the slowest jog ever but I made it and crossed the finish line.


The 10K course at Shale Hill is by far the most difficult race I have ever done. I have never worked as hard physically as I did this past weekend. Shale Hill is a gem. The NE Spahtens are the people to experience the course with. I had been looking forward to this weekend for months, and it surpassed every expectation that I had. I learned so much and was able to benefit from the advice and camaraderie of an amazing group of people that helped me work as hard as I possibly could.

Today, I am so sore that it hurts to sneeze and so bruised that I thought I still had patches of dirt on my skin, but I also am trying to figure out when I might be able to make it back to Shale Hill again. I want to spend more time on the course challenging myself with obstacle that I could not do or could only partially do this time around. I want to visit favorite obstacles and do them again for the fun of it. If the Spahtens do this trip again next year I 100% want to be there. Shale Hill is a must-visit location for anyone interested in obstacle course racing. I hope to travel up there again this summer. Maybe I can convince come of my Spahten friends to come along.

(Note on photos: These photos are taken from a variety of sources. The ones with the Spahtens logo in the corner were all taken by Paul Jones for the NE Spahtens -- thank you, Paul. The other photos are taken from the Shale Hill website or from other sites where I found images via Google. I can only take credit for the final picture of the swag.)

Friday, July 25, 2014

PiYo: Drench Review

Yesterday evening, I got to launch myself into the unexplored territory of PiYo disk three with the inaugural time through Drench. Drench, clocking in at just under fifty minutes, is the endurance PiYo workout. It's also the workout that is going to make me take back some of my words about PiYo being easy because this workout is hard. 100% definitely a challenge for anyone. 


PiYo Drench throws in all the PiYo moves we have learned and a few new ones, like PiYo flip (see the insert in the image above for a look at a PiYo flip). The variety was great. The speed at which we transitioned from move to move was endlessly engaging. I felt really focused and absorbed the entire workout because I was being challenged in interesting ways and kept constantly in motion.

The workout consisted of eight sections. The first two, Warm Up and Heat, were somewhat standard and similar to what we've done in the past. (More or less the Warm Up in the same on most of the PiYo workouts.) The Heat section felt a little longer to me, and I think we did more reps that in the past.

We then moved onto Legs. This was without a doubt the toughest part of the PiYo Drench workout for me. The really hard part about it was that you did all of the moves through on one side and then the other. This meant that you were working each leg for an extremely long amount of time! Midway through each side, I found that my legs were really burning. I can feel my glute muscles today and they are sore.

The Plank & Core section was another one that used a lot of moves we've seen in the past. I actually considered it a recovery because I was so glad to be using my arms instead of my legs. There were a few PiYo push-up variations. I find that move to be kind of fun, so it was nice to do it again.

From there we moved onto the Power section my legs were still a bit tired from the earlier Legs section, so they were shaking a bit during the Plie squats that we did. However, we moved through the moves pretty quickly here and had some fairly easy cardio segments that made this power section go quickly. You had the option to add a little bit of impact here during the Lunge < knee lift you could jump on the standing leg; plus there were some burpees at the end (though only one set).

By the Beast & Kick Thrus section I was getting kind of tired -- this was a really workout! I was so excited to be really challenged by this PiYo workout. The Beast is a move we've done a lot before, but I like how it forces you to engage your core and use your legs and arms. (Beast involves being on all fours and then lifting your knees off the ground so that your weight is evenly distributed between hands and curled under toes. This engages your quads, shoulder, and core a lot.) I'm still getting the hang of the kick thru and cannot get my leg very high or very far forward -- though I probably never will because I have poor hip flexibility.

The penultimate section, Flow, was definitely my absolute favorite and alone worth the price of admission. It was exactly what I imagined I'd get when I ordered PiYo and is precisely what I wanted from the program. Here we were doing yoga moves with a lot of quick movement from move to move. We didn't hold a lot of static poses but were continually transitioning through focusing on dynamic flexibility. Midway through we got to experiment with the new move PiYo flip, which was pretty exciting. I felt a lot of work in the supporting arm and on the last flip that arms was starting to feel kind of jelly-like. So basically, it was awesome.

The workout finished up with Stretch & Strengthen. As if often the case Pigeon, one of my favorite moves, was featured along with some push-ups. At the end of the workout, I was beat. No impact, but I had worked hard. This was definitely all that I have been hoping for with PiYo. Drench, unlike the rest of the PiYo workouts can truly stand alone -- I would have this be my sole workout of the day.


To give you a more detailed idea of what to expect here is the moves list. A big shout-out to my husband for helping put this, plus the other moves lists you see on the PiYo posts, together.

WARM UP:
Best posture
Circle arms, bend knees
One arm over, one arm down
Chair pose
Lunge, arms back
Repeat series from top
PiYo Cross
Repeat series from top
Inhale up
Half bend over
Calf stretch
Crouch
Repeat series from top

HEAT:
Plank
Knees down
Tricep push-up
Down dog
Crouch and extend
Runner's Lunge
Sun Salutation 1:
-Inhale up
-Half bend
-Hop back
-Plank
-Chaturanga
-Up dog
-Down dog
-Lunge back x 2 (each leg)
Sun Salutation 2:
-Inhale up
-Half bend down
-Hop back
-Plank
-Tricep push-up with leg raise x 2
-Down dog
-Up into windmill
-Chair pose
-Windmill other side
Repeat Sun Salutation 1 x 2
Repeat Sun Salutation 2 x 2
Combine Sun Salutations 1 and 2
Lunge stretch
Switch leg
Inhale up
Half bend down

LEGS:
Plank
Low lunge
Lift and lower
Rise and lift knee
Warrior 3
Bend knee > lower
Low lunge (alt. lead)
Lift and lower
Rise and lift knee
Warrior 3
Bend knee > lower
Repeat series (alternating leads) x 5
Plank
Up dog
Down dog
Feet forward > roll up
Lunge > toe tap
Add touch floor
Add knee lift
Add straight-leg kick
Bowlers lunge > toe tap
Add touch floor
Add knee lift
Add sweep arms
Skater
Squats (wide 2nd time through)
Repeat series from standing lunge (alt. lead)

PLANK & CORE:
Squats
PiYo Push-up
Squats
PiYo Push-up
PiYo Push-up variation > right leg, left leg, tricep push-up x 3
Plank
Elbow plank, legs wide
Alternate reach arms
Plank
Down dog
Open split down dog
Knee in > leg extend > knee in > leg up
Down dog
Walk hands to feet
Roll up
PiYo Push-up variation > right knee, left knee, tricep push-up
Roll up
Chair
Repeat series (alt. lead)
Down dog
Roll up

POWER:
Squat
Slow skate
Add speed
Add arm pulls
Squat
Lunge > knee lift
Add lift onto toes
Repeat lunge (alt. lead)
Wide squat, arms lower and lifting
3-Pulse wide squat
Add toe lift
Sumo Burpee
Wide squat

BEAST & KICK THRUS:
Beast
Alternating hand touches
Alternating fall back > beast
Add kick thru
Add higher kick thru
Increase tempo
Beast
Lower knees
Child's pose

FLOW:
Plank
High lunge
Raise arms, then lower
Warrior 2
Right Angle
Triangle, circling arms
Repeat series (same lead) x 4
Runner's lunge
Sweep leg back, flex abs
Side plank
PiYo flip (optional)
Plank
Repeat from runner's lunge (same lead) x 2
Repeat series from high lunge x 3
Down dog
Repeat entire series (alt. lead)

STRETCH & STRENGTH:
Down dog
Open split
Slowly bend knee
Repeat (alt. lead)
Plank
Tricep push-ups
Pigeon
Pigeon (alt. lead)
Elbow plank
Alternate leg lift
Plank
Runner's lunge
Switch legs
Wide plank
Push-ups
Walk hands back
Straddle stretch
Inch feet in
Round up
Inhale up
Half bend down
Round up

PiYo Drench is a serious workout that was a lot of fun and a good challenge. It's more of a time commitment than the other PiYo workouts on the calendar, but, believe me, it's worth it. This one will work you!

Thursday, July 24, 2014

PiYo: Hardcore on the Floor Review

For those individuals who order PiYo through a Beachbody coach or Teambeachbody.com, you are rewarded with a special treat: a bonus workout, Hardcore on the Floor. People with this workout are given the opportunity to have it replace the Core workout starting on week four of the PiYo calendar.


Hardcore on the Floor clocks in at thirty-three minutes, so it's approximately the same time as Core. In general, I find the workout to be a bit more challenging than Core and the moves a little bit more exciting. A lot of work is done in Beast and Plank, which left my shoulders significantly fatigued at the end of this workout. If you are looking to straighten your core with a workout that isn't just crunches and sit-ups, Hardcore on the Floor is an excellent option.

I've been listening to Obstacle Dominator podcast lately and have noticed a theme when the hosts talk about training -- core strength is key! There is a lot of talk about having a strong lower back, overall core, and stabilizer muscles. The hosts, Hunter and Ben, talk about doing plank work and plyometic work that engages the stabilizers as much as they talk about the importance of endurance for long obstacle course races. Hearing this makes me think I should be placing more emphasis on PiYo in my training program than I was. PiYo is a ton of non-impact core work and is just the sort of thing Ben and Hunter are talking about for core work. Because PiYo is easy on the joints, it's a nice workout to add in on a day that I do a run or any other impact activity.

Below is the moves list for Hardcore on the Floor. I think reading through will give you a good idea of how this workout differs from Core. Based on my goals, I definitely prefer Hardcore on the Floor. Might as well order your copy of PiYo through Beachbody to get this workout. I find it to be one of the most interesting in the PiYo program.

WARM UP:
Roll down, then up x 4
Roll to hands and knees
Flex abs, then flex back
Knee tucks in, then leg back (both leads)
Crouching position
Straighten > crouch
Child's pose

PRIMAL TO TRADITIONAL
On all fours, tabletop
Beast
Lower knees
Beast
Lower knees
Beast > turning roll-out
Add kick-out
Lift and lower in kick-out (advanced is curling in while lifting)
Roll back > roll up > lift and lower in kick-out
Child's pose
Repeat series (alt. lead)
V-Sit
V-Sit, alternate leg lifts
V-Sit, lift and lower both legs
Lie back, roll up into v-sit hold
Feet to floor, roll back to lying down position
Both legs straight up, shoulders off floor
Alternating twisting oblique crunch
Add scissor kick
Bend knees
Elbow to side > turn knees to same side > extend legs > knees back > lie down
Repeat elbow series (alt. lead)

PRIMAL
Ball sit
Roll back > roll forward > hold
PiYo Pedal
Add lean back
Side plank
Side crunch
Kneeling kicking
Child's pose
Repeat side plank series (alt. lead)
Beast
Flip around, knees don't touch floor
Roman twist
Flip around, knees don't touch floor
Beast
Tap knees
Repeat series x 3

PLANK TO ELBOW PLANK
Plank
Knee in, then extend leg
Add leg lift
Elbow plank
Hip tap
Child's pose
Repeat series (alt. leg)
Child's pose
Down dog
Hold down dog split
Down dog split > knee in
Down dog split > tap ankle
Down dog split > knee in > tap ankle
Child's pose
Repeat series (alt. lead)
Elbow plank
Walk feet in < walk feet out
Repeat x 4
Plank
4-count Tricep push-ups
Down dog
Plank
2-count Tricep push-up
Down dog
Repeat x 3

BACK EXTENSIONS AND COOL DOWN
Lie down on stomach
Lift alternating arms out, then back
Lift both arms, then back
Lift arms and legs > cross > extend > back down (officially called Sea Turtle)
Child's pose
Lie on stomach
Grab back to heel, pull towards you stretching the quad (like doing Bow but one side at a time)
Switch arms/legs
On all-fours
Round and release back (Cat-cow)
Child's pose


All and all a good workout that seems to engage a lot of important muscles. I found myself sweating more from this workout than most. I have to say that there is one thing I really respect about the PiYo model -- it's what attracted me to Insanity too -- no gear. The only thing you need for PiYo is your body because everything is a body-weight exercise. Like I said, Insanity was the same way. 

For obstacle course racing, you need to be good at moving your body around and pulling and pushing your body weight. Functional movements and body-weight exercises are the sort of training that seem to make the most sense for obstacle course races. I think resistance training with weights is great, and I do a bit of it, but I have been cutting back on that sort of training and doing more body-weight training, like planks, push-ups, pull-ups, dips, lunges, and squats because these sorts of moves will likely benefit me the most when I do an obstacle race. 

I was a little bit hard on PiYo in some of my earlier reviews since I thought the program was a bit too easy. However, I am beginning to see the merits in the program and find that it's a nice supplement to the higher intensity workouts I am doing earlier in the day. I do occasionally wish PiYo was a bit faster paced but respect that it holds a unique place it my workout library. It may be a simpler gentler workout. It may be easier overall, but it definitely has value and is giving me something that I wouldn't do as much otherwise. That is a good thing.

Monday, July 21, 2014

PiYo: Strength Intervals Review

Week three of PiYo finished up with a new workout, Strength Intervals. This workout is 22 minutes in length and alternates between cardio intervals and strength training moves that use your body for resistance. 


The workout is divided into three sections, plus a warm-up and cool down. Overall, the focus is more on the lower body that upper body. For the most part, the cardio sections are low impact though some jogging and burpees add a small degree of impact. Of course, you can always follow Michelle and do the workout completely non-impact.

In general, the cardio sections are short and not extremely challenging. Chalene has you start with a move and build in intensity (for both the cardio and strength segments). The intervals all seemed to be less than a minute long, so they flew by -- just when you're getting uncomfortable, you switch from doing cardio to strength of vice versa. I do, in a way, wish that the intervals had been a little bit longer and more strenuous (increasing the length of the workout overall), but I certainly understand the appeal of a 20ish minute workout, especially for those just starting to workout or people tight on time.

My favorite part of this workout was how it seemed to really incorporate all of the elements of PiYo: flexibility, cardio, and strength. As you read through the moves list you'll see there is a little something for everyone!

WARM-UP
Squat
Squat, 3-Count
Add knee lift
Squat > knee lift
Squat with arm circles > 2 lunges
Repeat (alt. lead)
PiYo Cross
Relax down
Calf stretch

LEGS
Jogging side to side
Turn to side > jog > turn to front > jog
Deep lunge > toe tap
Deep lunge (hold)
Repeat from jogging (high knees, alt. lead)
Skating
Add one arm reach, wider skate
Bowlers lunge > toe tap
Bowlers lunge (hold)

SQUATS & SUMOS
Toe tap back
Add hop
Add jumping lunge
Skiing
Squat slow
Squat hold
Repeat series
Wide sumo squat
Rock off alternating feet
Squat with pulse
Squat with Single arm, single leg Burpee
Squat to double Burpee
Add jack to Burpee
Lunge pulse
4-count push-ups
Single-count push-ups
Down dog

TRICEPS, BICEPS, & CHEST
Lower to plank
Beast (This move has you on all fours. Lift your knees from the floor balancing your weight evenly on both arms and feet)
Down dog
Beast
Down dog
Jumping low lunges with pulse
Slow Tricep push-ups, legs wide
8-count down, push-up for 4 > down dog
Repeat series to Tricep push-ups
Beast
Kick through
Repeat
One-count beast to kick through
Child's pose

COOL DOWN
Down dog
Walk back hands
Roll up
Side stretch
Flat back down, round up
Reach forward, quad stretch
Lift arms, deep breath
Half bend


I definitely like the variety in this quick workout. As I mentioned before, you move quickly from section to section, so there is no fear of getting bored. The workout is finished almost before you know it. 

The moves are all ones that we've seen before in other workouts. My favorite parts of the workout are probably the burpees and the section with Beast. The entire Legs section is fairly basic; however, it's nice to see stretching segments worked in with cardio. (Though in my option this is done much more effectively in Focus T25: Speed 1.0.)

I have noticed Beachbody, the company that puts out PiYo, moving to shorted workouts, such as Focus T25 and P90X3, which are 25 minutes and 30 minutes respectively. The PiYo workouts are also short. Almost all of them clock in at between 20 - 30 minutes. I am not against short workouts -- I love to do a P90X3 workout on a cardio day for some supplemental strength training. However, I hope Beachbody continues to put out some more of the more challenging longer-length programs, like Insanity: The Asylum.

If you are looking for the most bang for your buck time-wise, I would recommend Focus T25 and P90X3 over PiYo. Those two workouts are a bit more challenging and seem to feel like a more complete workout. I would probably rate T25 highest based on my personal proclivity for the instructor Shaun T over P90X3's instructor Tony Horton. However, if you're interested more on strength do P90X3 and if you're more interested in doing cardio to T25. I think PiYo is best for people who have real limitations with their exercise, such as injuries, or are getting into exercise for the first time. The moves are basic and everyone can feel successful doing them. 

I'm now entering week four of PiYo. Up next will be two new workouts, Hardcore on the Floor and Drench. Stay tuned for more!

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Anniversary Adventures: Mount Norwottuck and Jacob's Pillow

July 17, 2014 was Seth and my 4-year anniversary. To celebrate, we took the day off from work and spent a lovely day enjoying the wonderful weather and each other's company.

One of our main activities for the day was a lovely hike along the M+M trail up Mount Norwottuck. Amherst and the surrounding towns boasts a ton of conservation land and loads of trails. For example, the Robert Frost Trail is less than half a mile away from my door, and I run along there all the time. I was excited to check out some new trails in the area.

We started our hike at the Mount Holyoke Range Notch Visitors Center.


We took a quick tour of the Visitors Center, which offered some brief exhibits, before beginning our hike. We had plans to climb to the top of Mount Norwottuck, the highest point in the Mount Holyoke range at 1,100 feet. We were starting at probably around 800 feet, so this would be a relaxed and fun hike.






We planned to take the M+M trail up the mountain and come back a different way, taking the M+M trail father out past the summit, walking through the Horse Caves, and then returning back to the Notch along the Robert Frost Trail. The hike would be around 3.5 miles through some lovely trails.

Our relaxed hike went great. The trails were easy to follow and perfect for someone wanting a nice walk without too much difficulty.


It took us around forty minutes to get to the summit. The views were amazing! We could even see the UMass library clearly in the distance.





One of the most exciting parts of our hike was the return trip which took us through the Horse Caves. These were more of a rocky outcropping than deep caves where one might go spelunking, but it was a very cool area to get to explore and climb around.



We returned from our hike at around 1:00 and were ready for some lunch. We decided to head up to Mount Pollux, where we had a picnic lunch.


Mount Pollux is another conservation area in Amherst and one of the most lovely spots around. For the non-hiker, you can drive right up and enjoy the sights and scenery without any extra effort.


We finished our anniversary with a lovely dinner at the Lumber Yard restaurant in Amherst and a movie at the Amherst Cinema. A wonderful day!

Our second adventure of the week happened yesterday. The long-awaited trip to Jacob's Pillow. Located about an hour away in the town of Becket in the Berkshires, Jacob's Pillow is home to the oldest dance festival around. It's also a mecca for dance with educational components, such as classes, and rehearsal space for dance troupes to come and do retreats.

We had tickets to see Ballet 2014, a performance put on by some of the best New York City Ballet dancers coordinated and featuring Daniel Ulbricht, a NYC Ballet principal dancer. The show was at 2:00 p.m., but we arrived a little bit early so that we could walk around and enjoy the area.


Our trip to Jacob's Pillow was during the dance festival. There were lots of free things to enjoy. We got to check out an exhibit of old movie posters that featured dance.



During the festival, there are free talks and free outdoor performances in addition to the performances you can purchase tickets for. After wandering around, we headed back to the Ted Shawn Theatre to take our seats for Ballet 2014.



The performance was absolutely amazing! Seth said it was the best ballet he had ever seen. He's used to seeing a lot of the classical ballet (think Swan Lake, The Nutcracker, and ballerinas in tutus) and was really excited to see some slightly different and more modern works.

The performance was about an hour and a half, including an intermission. The first half of the program featured five shorter works. Furiant, Pas de Duex from Two Hearts, Liturgy, Opus 19 Andante, and Sunshine. The most stand out pieces were the pas de duex from Two Hearts and Sunshine. The pas de duex was amazingly emotive and flawlessly performed. The music was a very interesting almost folk-inspired song with words. I am not a ballet critic by any means, so it's hard for me to describe how excellent this piece was. The performance of Sunshine by Daniel Ulbricht was a ball of energy and technically masterful. It was a short piece, but I think it stole every one's breath!

The second half was one ballet, Fancy Free, which was a fun and energetic story about three sailors on shore leave. The ballet had been performed in the mid-40s and not since. It was a fun period piece with a lot of lighthearted humor, seemingly well suited for a summer show at Jacob's Pillow.

After Ballet 2014, we headed over to the Inside/Out theatre, where you can see performances for free. The group there (which I believe was from the school at Jacob's Pillow) was performing some very modern ballet with "Thriller" inspired music and zombie-like moves. It was very interesting to watch.


I cannot say enough about the fantastic trip we had to Jacob's Pillow. I definitely want to go again next year. I know that they offer discounted tickets to individuals under 35 for Friday night performances, so I might look into that for next year. Jacob's Pillow certainly seems like a very special place and a must-see location for anyone who enjoys dance.