Monday, August 29, 2016

Ragnar Trail New England 2016

Over the past three years, I have been lucky enough to be a member of one of the NE Spahtens Ragnar Cape Cod relay teams. This year, I was also fortunate enough to be invited to enjoy the NES Herd of Cats team for the 2016 Ragnar Trail race in Northfield, Massachusetts, a quick 40 minute drive from my home in Western Massachusetts.

Like with the traditional Ragnar road race, Ragnar Trail has teams doing an approximately 24-hour relay race where runners continuously run, switching off each runner after each run. Over the course of the relay, each person on the team will get to run three times. For the Ragnar Trail race, teams are comprised of eight people. Until with the road race, Ragnar Trail has participants camped out at the base of a mountain. All runners complete three loops of runs of varying lengths and elevations. For the traditional Ragnar road race, teams of 12 runners are provided with different length legs (Ragnar speak for "run"), which allows for customization -- you can assign people who prefer longer runs the longer legs and people who prefer shorter runs the shorter legs. In contrast, at Ragnar Trail, each runner is required to complete the same three runs with only the order of the legs differing. The runs are color coded according to perceived difficulty:
  • Red (hard): 7.3 miles and approximately 1,500 feet of elevation gain
  • Yellow (intermediate): 4.9 miles and approximately 1,000 feet of elevation gain
  • Green (easy): 3 miles and approximately 500 feet of elevation gain

Friday morning, I got into my Beetle with my boyfriend, Ben, and a bunch of camping gear to head to Northfield. Just as the Ragnar road race used to do, the Ragnar Trail race required each team to have a volunteer, and Ben had very kindly offered to help out.

When we arrived, things were very well organized. Volunteer directed us to drop our camping stuff at the top of the hill before allowing us to park in the lower parking lot. The parking was free and, I felt, convenient. The lot was probably no more than a quarter mile from the camping area and, even without having the option to drop off things, it would have been no problem. After arriving, I texted our team captain, Jess, who told us that the team area was located in the camping area up in the second field. The second field was located closer to the main festival area, which meant a balance of better access to the going's-on but also more noise.

It was fairly easy to find the team. We dropped our stuff and began to set up the tent. Fortunately, teammate, Shaina, had brought a large pop-up tent, which allowed us to hang out as a team and enjoy some shade. In fact, shade was key. Through the duration of Ragnar Trail, temperatures for the day climbed into the upper 80s. Heat and the accompanying potential for dehydration proved to be major factors throughout the next 24 plus hours.

We had arrived at around 10:00 a.m., several hours before our expected team start of 2:00 p.m. and a couple of hours before we could check-in at noon. It was mandatory for all team members to watch a brief safety video prior to check-in, so we headed up to the main festival area where we watched a video that provided fairly common-sense but nonetheless important information. (Note: My favorite take-away from the video was the short segment where they said, "Volunteer is Latin and means a person who spends time doing something they do not want to do... for free!")

There was lots of time to be spent hanging out in the tents. This was pleasant -- good company of all involved with key -- and also very very hot. Soon it was noon. Jess, as team captain, went to check our team in. We each received some sample snacks (such as Kindbars and Half Pops) as well as our t-shirts and a ticket for a free meal. I went to pick-up my t-shirt, a poly-blend very similar to what we got for the road Ragnar with no distinction between curvy and boxy shapes, meaning basically they were all shirts designed with the more common man physique in mind. I miss the tech t-shirts New Balance provided back when they sponsored the road Ragnar.

There was plenty of time to browse the festival area. I was impressed that it was quite a bit more robust that the road Ragnar, probably due to the fact that there was no need to move for a few days.

There was a tent where one could purchase Ragnar Trail merchandise. There were sponsor tents for REI, Klean Kanteen, and Solomon, to name a few. Solomon was offering the opportunity for people to do a test run in their sneakers, which was very cool. There were stations where you could borrow a foam roller, something I took advantage of on day two of Ragnar. There was also a place where you could charge your cell phone. Along the running route, there was a set of hammock where people could relax.

There were plenty of beverage and food options. There was also a beer tent where, rumor had it, you could also attend a whisky tasting. With the heat, I had no desire to have any alcohol what with the running I had to do, so I opted out of visit that tent. Though it also had coffee and hot chocolate! (Note: I had a very decent cup of french press coffee from the REI tent on Saturday morning. From what I heard it was a good deal better than the other coffee that was offered. I'm a bit of a beverage snob and even I thought the REI french press was enjoyable.) The mess hall, with food sponsored by B. Good was also in this area. I found the food from B. Good to be mediocre. Their model of local agriculture is admirable but the food was mixed and somewhat expensive ($8 sandwich for lunch, $12 hamburger with pasta salad for dinner and $8 for a breakfast sandwich and yogurt). The dinner was probably the best of the bunch, though bread was stale all around. Lines for the food tended to be long, so this is definitely an area where their might be room for improvement. Having a free meal was great -- I wish they had offered this for volunteers too.

One of the things that really impressed me about Ragnar Trail was their focus on low impact on the environment and sustainability. To that end, they had bins for trash, recycling, and composting.

They also had a system where water bottles were required -- there were no cups either for water at the festival area or on course. Runners were mandated to have bottles with them for runs and for hydrating throughout the day, key in the warm weather. The water station provided in the festival area was excellent with nice tasting filtered water. They kept the water station well-stocked and did their best to keep up with demand.

Ragnar also kept things fun by having events in the festival area throughout the afternoon and overnight. Solomon sponsored and event where people had to do a t-arm raise and hold it with shoes in their hands. The people who held it longest got a free pair of shoes. A record was set when the men did this for an hour -- two people tied and both received shoes. There was also a lip sync contest, a dance contest, and a live singing event. Ragnar also showed a movie overnight. There was also a fire pit where one could roast marshmallow for s'mores. I wasn't really into the events, but I wish I had made it to the s'mores roasting (though at the time it was happening I was too tired to move from my tent).

The festival area also housed the transition tent where runners would switch off. The tent was where one runner would come in after running the green, yellow, or red loop, and meet their teammate going out on the next colored loop. One knew when to enter the transition tent by monitoring a board right outside. The race bib that all runner wore on course, had a chip in it. About a quarter mile out from the tent, you'd pass a sensor which would relay your team name to a display outside the transition tent. When a waiting runner saw their team name appear on the board, he or she would then know it was time to enter the tent.

The order for the legs was always green, yellow, red, so when Roger as runner 1 came into the tent the first time, he was done with his green leg and met me for my yellow run. There were three stations with carpets right in a row and the outgoing runner would stand in the area that corresponds with the run he or she was going to be embarking on. Volunteer would provide a green, yellow, or red arm band depending on which leg a runner was going to be running. This would allow volunteers on course to help provide directions. Ben volunteered in the transition tent from 2:30 - 5:30 p.m., so, when I wasn't running, I got to spend some time with him keeping him company and watching the operation.

At around quarter-to-two, the team headed up to the transition tent to see Roger off for the first run of the day. I was scheduled to run right after him, and Roger was running the shortest green loop, so I knew I had to be ready soon. After seeing Roger off with much clapping and cheering, I headed back to the tent to change and grab a water bottle. It was, at that point, probably around the hottest part of the day. I was scheduled to run 4.9 miles with 1,000 feet of elevation and wanted to make sure I brought hydration. From there, I went back to the transition tent. It wasn't long before Roger had arrived and I was off.

Immediately when I began my run, I knew it was going to be a rough one. The start of the run was steep. I had conceptually understood I would be taking on 1,000 feet of elevation gain, but I didn't really think about what that would mean for my body on a very hot day. I was hiking. All around me people were hiking. I run a 10:30 road pace (give or take depending on distance), and I think I covered the first two miles of my yellow loop at more like an 18 minute mile. I was pushing it too. I hiked up the hills as quickly as I could; I was huffing, and I am a fit person. It was hot, and over two miles straight uphill was tough. I felt terrible from the physical discomfort, but I also felt like I was letting my team down. I was only a few minutes into my Ragnar Trail experience, and already I was well behind schedule.

The yellow trail started combined with the green and red trails and eventually took a turn off. There was then a section of more technical downhill running. Most of the uphill climbing had been on ski slopes, which were wide and easy to navigate. There was a small technical component on the uphill climb, but that was it. The downhills were almost all gnarly. There were roots and rocks. The red route was stated as the most challenging, but I actually thought that the steep beginning climb matched with the amount of technical running on the yellow loops downhill segment made that the more challenging of the two. I ended up falling twice as I made my way back down. I wanted to go as fast as I could to make up for my lost time, but too much speed was not my friend, since my experience running on technical trails is not as vast as it could be.

I had been out running for almost an hour and twenty minutes when I made it back to the transition tent -- almost twenty minutes longer than expected. At least I had made it. Turns out that I need not have been so hard on myself. As it turned out, everyone was significantly off pace, both with our internal estimates and with the time Ragnar must have calculated to provide us with our 2:00 p.m. start. I was supposed to have my second run at around 9:45 p.m. Instead, I ended up running at 12:35 a.m., almost three hours behind schedule. However, our team was not unique. As I headed out to complete the 10th loop for our team, most other teams were on lap 10 or 11. With the heat and the elevation being more intense than anticipated by most, everyone was behind schedule.

After my yellow run, I was feeling a bit tired from my efforts in the heat. I took in plenty of water and spent a little bit of time with Ben, who was volunteering in the transition tent. When Ben got off his shift at 5:30 p.m., he and I, along with fellow teammates Bobby, Roger, and Josh headed over to get some dinner from B. Good. Dinner was definitely the best of the meals provided -- hamburger with pasta salad and broccoli (which I skipped since it's harder to digest and I was running). We also go a strawberry lemonade.

I thought dinner would perk me up, but I was wiped from the heat. While I feel bad for not being social and enjoying quality time with my team, I ended up lying down in my tent after dinner. Ben and I chatted on and off and mostly I napped since I was feeling a bit woozy. I got up and headed out of the tent at around 9:00 p.m. to check to see when I might be running next. It was going to be a wait with a likely go-time of 11:30 p.m. With that in mind, I headed to the tent and immediately fell back asleep.

When the alarm went off, I was feeling a bit better. I am glad I slept. My only regret is missing time with the team and the s'mores by the camp fire; however, the sleep was necessary for good performance on my next two runs. I wanted to do as well as I could for the team. Though we all knew that, at this point, we'd be running a bit slower than anticipated -- everyone had to walk up the hills -- I wanted to be able to go as quickly as possible. I was dedicated to working hard.

When I left the tent, the weather was cooler and my head felt clearer. I quickly changed into running clothing, grabbed my headlamp, and headed out. Jess and Josh were up and together we headed up to the transition tent to watch for Roger to arrive from his run along the red loop. At around 12:30 p.m., our team name flashed up on the board. I had been waiting by the fire since I was chilly. I thanks Jess and Josh for waiting with me and headed to the transition, grabbing my green wrist band.

Roger came in, and I headed out for my 3 mile green loop. The green, yellow, and red loops all begin along the same stretch of trail. In fact, there is quite a bit of overlap between all three loops. Yellow and red share much of the first couple of miles of each and, thus, have similar elevation over the first two miles. Green follows the first bit of trail as well before splitting off. Red and green join up for the last mile of each. All three trails converge for the last quarter mile or so. This means that you get to run the same stretch of trail a few times, in some cases. This has pluses and minuses. I remember thinking as I set of on my yellow run that I was dismayed that I'd have to make the climb I was dealing with more times that day. However, overall, I think that some overlap with the trails was very desirable. It was helpful to have some idea of what to expect, to know where you could go fast and where the trail was more technical, and to be able to pace yourself knowing some of what was ahead.

It was dead dark for my green run; however, it was absolutely amazing. I had a blast! Hills are physical, but they are also mental. In the dark, it was hard to see how steep things were. Plus, I knew I had a very short run planning. I jogged most of the uphill portions. It was slow, but it was faster than my hiking pace. The weather was cooler, and I felt great.

The trail marking were absolutely excellent at night. I actually think that the visibility of the trail markings for night-time running was better than during the day. The three trails were marked with arrows in colored shapes. The green directional arrows were in green circle, the yellow ones were in yellow squares, and the red ones were in red diamonds. This made night-time navigation more easy. Also, there were illuminating markers on each directional sign that fluoresced in the light of one's headlamp either green, yellow, or red depending on the trail. Marker were frequent proving not just direction but also caution signs that indicated where there might be an especially gnarly stretch of trail. I never once felt unsafe.

I moved along consistently really enjoying my night run. During one stretch, I came upon a stretch of trail that broke through the trees and continued through an open area. Above the sky stretched, punctuated with a vast numbers of stars. I continued onward through the most technical part of the green trail. This part was somewhat technical, which meant that it was also somewhat slow going in the dark.

My headlamp, which I purchased three years earlier for my first Ragnar does fine on road but is not bright enough for the rigors of trail running. I have used it a couple of times for night-time obstacle course racing and was using it now for Ragnar Trail, but I might need to purchase something with more lumens. While this slowed me down a little bit, I was able to keep moving at a decent pace. I was feeling good and have a unique experience. Yes, it was running through the woods in the dark by myself. I saw only three or four people on my run. Yes, I loved it. For me, the woods are a relaxing place. I was in my element.

I finished my green loop in something slightly under 40 minutes. Time was out the window at this point since we were behind by so many hour. I was glad I had not stressed about it. I had run my best and also enjoyed myself. I got back and met up with Jess and Ben who super kindly both got up to meet me at 1:15 a.m.

All three of us headed back to the tent, where I once again went to sleep. I woke up at 4:30 a.m. to someone announcing, "Team meeting!" and wrapping on my tent door. I headed outside. The weather continued to be cool. It was also damp. The outside of the tent was wet. Anything that was uncontained was soggy to the touch.

The meeting commenced. We were significantly behind schedule and, at the rate we were going, we would not make the Saturday 4:00 p.m. cut-off. However, Jess had a plan. We were going to be doubling up for the last round of runs and reordering a bit. For the last half dozen runs, we'd consolidate into three groups that would run green, yellow, and then red in order. Josh and Jess would run green together, then Shaina and Bobby would run yellow. I would run red last with Jeff who was going to be running for Stacey. This meant, I was moving from my runner 2 slot to running last. I had never closed out a Ragnar before. While I tend to be somewhat type-A, Ragnar is a good opportunity for me to exercise flexibility. We were in a bind and this was what the team needed for success. I was happy to do it. In fact, we were lucky to have a team full of people who were able to adjust their expectations and do what needed to be done. We all quickly agreed to the new plan and got ready to implement out solution. We were going to finish this thing!

We were not unique, when I had set off for my green loop run, we were starting our 10th run. All the other groups on the sign were on run 10 or 11 too. In fact, later in the day, when I went out for my last run, I would see that pretty much all of the teams on course had doubled up. Ragnar has you submit your 10K road pace for determining start time. Trail pace is a lot different. Fr next year, I'd like to see Ragnar make a big adjustment here. We had a 2:00 p.m. start time, but a 10:00 a.m. time for starting on Friday would have been much better. This is definitely a recommendation I would have for next year. The warm weather and the elevation made for slow times -- hopefully, next year this will be taken into account. (Note: Also, the previous year Ragnar was in June, and, from what I understand, the weather was cooler. The intense heat was an unavoidable minus, though I still totally had a very stellar weekend. Moving the race back to June might be a great solution since the weather tends to be more mild then.)

Since I wasn't going to have to run again until the early afternoon, I headed back to bed and slept for a few more hours. Ben and I woke up probably some time around 7:00 a.m. and headed out to get some breakfast from B. Good. We also hung out in the festival area a bit enjoying the atmosphere and having fun. We snapped a few pictures.

Once we got into having people doubled up on their legs, things began to start moving. Soon it was around 12:30 p.m. and time for me and Jeff to consider getting ready. Jeff had just completed his red loop about an hour and a half before, so this was going to be a big run for him. Fortunately, I run quite a bit slower. It would be a perfect match considering how much running Jeff had just completed.

We were expecting the group running yellow to get into the transition tent at around 1:00 p.m. Ben and I were spending time in the mess hall tent to get some time in the shade. At around 12:40 p.m., I headed out to go and find Jeff so we could get ready for our run. I wandered around, soon finding him and some others from the team over by the hammocks. At around 12:50 p.m., I told the group I was going to check-in with Ben and let him know I was going to wait by the tent. As I headed over to the mess hall, I saw Shaina and Bobby coming into the transition. I called to Jeff who quickly joined me as I clipped on our bib. We were off!

The red loop was almost 1,500 feet of elevation and 7.3 miles, including some rugged trail, which we ran during the hottest part of a day where temperatures were in the upper 80s. It was also an amazing experience. I cannot underscore enough how much of a difference it made to have someone to cover those miles with. The first four miles were mostly uphill with a small downhill section around mile three. Mostly it was relentless climbing. Jeff and I chatted and kept each other's spirits up. It made a huge difference. The miles passed much more quickly than they would have.

The entire run, we had been focused on reaching the water station at the four mile mark. After that, the run was mostly downhill, plus it was an opportunity to get water. We had both taken handheld bottles with us, but we were pretty much out. Finally, we reached the water station. However -- disaster! -- it was empty. This was actually a real problem. The idea of running for another forty minutes without water was undesirable to say the least. Fortunately, right as we began to really worry, a truck came up the hill filled with two jugs of cold water. Inside, was one of my colleagues from Amherst who was volunteering with another team. I have rarely been so happy to see someone. Jeff and I helped get the jugs off the truck and the empty jugs on. We took our fill of water and headed back down the mountain.

The back half of the run was an effort against fatigue. We both tried to push it as much as we could, running all the downhills and hiking, as needed, any small stretched of incline. When we hit the one mile mark, we decided to really hit it and go as hard as we could. Despite some cramping that Jeff had, he really powered through and we made good time. We crossed the timing mat and knew we had only a couple of minutes of running left. As we rounded the corner, we saw the rest of the NE Spahtens Herd of Cats team waiting for us. 

I, uncharacteristically, yelled "Let's go!" as the rest of the team fell in behind and we crossed the finish line. It's hard to describe how excellent it feels to get to be part of the duo that brings in your team at the end of a 24 hour relay. It was a big effort, and amazing to get to lead the charge.

Ragnar Trail was a great experience. There were difficulties that we overcame, some hot weather, and quite a bit of time where I was concerned about my performance. Dealing with these challenges -- coming together as a group and really pulling together to get the most out of each individual -- is what makes Ragnar unique. The quality of my experience, which was amazing, is credit to the people on my team. Would I do Ragnar Trail again next year? If Herd of Cats will have me again, then without a doubt. Absolutely.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Marathon Training

I'm training for a marathon. This October, I am signed up to take part in the 2016 Newport Marathon.47 days to go.

 So I'm training and running more than I have in the past. However, while my training has been inspired by the Hal Higdon marathon training plan, I've also kind of been doing my own thing. In order to clarify, let me talk about my goals.

Marathon training goals

  • Train sufficiently so that I can finish the marathon, running most of the way. Time does not matter. Having a good experience does.
  • Enjoy training. See training runs as an adventure and opportunity to explore new areas where I live.
  • Avoid hating running when I am finished with training for the marathon.
  • While training will involve a significant amount of time, I do not want it to take over my life.
  • Allow energy for the other physical activities I enjoy:
    • Strength training and attending the strength and conditioning class at the Amherst College gym (which I love!)
    • Hiking and going for walks
    • Riding my bike to work daily
    • Obstacle course races (super super important!) 
  • Have the ability to do the long runs without problems. (i.e. Having the ability to run the distances.)
  • Don't get injured. (I'm not prone to injury, but I want to be careful. I've heard statistics that up to 70% of first-time marathoners get injured during training. Note I don't know where this statistics is cited from, so take it with a grain of salt.)
As a result, I've implemented my training in an interesting way. 

Marathon training implementation
  1. Run three days a week, strength train two days, one day of cardio/strength training of my choice or doing an obstacle course race, one rest day.
  2. Calendar out all my long runs, making sure that I work around my obstacle racing schedule.
  3. Skipping the midweek long runs for two weekday moderate runs of 4.5 miles and then the weekend (extra!) long run.
  4. Execution of plan!
My ultimate goal of having trained enough to finish the marathon running most of the way and generally enjoying myself has yet to be realized. However, I can speak to some of the other goals and how they're working.

Over the past few weeks, I have begun to tackle some of the longer runs. Recently, I did a 15 miler. This was a couple of weekends ago. It was hot -- think 80s and humid. However, for the first 13 miles, I felt totally fine. I have charted out a running route that takes me along the bike path and through parts of Belchertown before returning me to Amherst. This run has allowed me to discover a bunch of new places that are close(ish) to my house and that I never knew existed. Case in point: Arcadia Lake and the Belchertown Town Beach. These were lovely discoveries along my 15 miler. 

Mid-week, I have been doing my standard 4.3 mile loop near my work. Again, I frequent the bike path. I also enjoy doing about a mile of trail running along the Emily Dickinson Trail -- this loop is great for variety. I usually do this run on Mondays and Wednesdays at a moderate pace and leave my long runs for Saturdays.

This past weekend, I tackled a 16 mile run. Because of my strategy of adventure and exploration, I ended up running uphill for almost two miles between miles 10 and 12 -- not ideal! Still it was fun to run along the bike path in Northampton and Leeds and then explore some of the lovely farm area in Leeds, a town I have not really ever visited.

The marathon training journey is ongoing. I will admit to not wanting to go for a long run some Saturday mornings. Last Saturday it was kind of a challenge to leave the house after a rough night sleep. However, it must be said things are going well. I have been able to complete all my runs, I usually spend the bulk of the time I am running relaxing and enjoying the scenery -- generally having fun -- and I think I am able to balance my running with my other interests. Fingers crossed that all this gets me across the finish line in October.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

24 Hours of Shale Hell

12 hours. 3 laps. 19.5 miles. Approximately 155 obstacles. That's this weekend's 24 Hours of Shale Hell by the numbers. 24 Hours of Shale Hell is an endurance obstacle course event up at Shale Hill, a fixed obstacle course in Benson, Vermont featuring approximately 70 obstacles over a 6.5 mile loop. For those interested in other challenge options, the race weekend also featured a 5K and 10K race and an eight hour option. I took part in the eight hour race last year, really enjoyed myself, and decided this year, I was ready for a little bit more.

I know this might sound ironic, but I would not say I'm an endurance athlete. I have no interest in pushing myself to my limits. I am the kind of athlete who thinks of athletics more as a form of entertainment. I work hard and train hard, but the goal is always to have fun. I applaud people who are endurance athletes. I applaud people who train to go fast. Basically, I feel that racing can be whatever someone wants it to be. For me, the goal is always heading out on the course and having a good time.

With this in mind, I set my distance goal for Shale Hill. At last year's 8 hour race, I had completed two laps. I decided, I'd plan for three this year. I had little interest in racing through the night. I wanted to show up, do three laps in a row, and then head to bed. Perhaps if I was feeling overly ambitious, I would consider doing more, but probably not. This was a matter if inclination more than skill.

To provide myself with an element of challenge, I decided to run the competitive open wave, instead of the penalty free journeyman division. I had raced competitive -- the division with ranking and penalties -- for Tri-Obstacleon and found I wasn't forced to do a lot of penalties after all. I might not be fast, but I am fairly consistent on the obstacles and, thus, my obstacle completion rate is pretty good.

For me, 24 Hours of Shale Hell was going to be an experience more than a race; a fun weekend away in lovely Vermont, with friends, doing something I love.

Friday, I took the day off from work to organize for my weekend adventure. I packed my tent, sleeping bag and pad, awesome solar-powered inflatable camping lamp, and a duffel filled with socks, Icebugs, sports bras, and other race clothing. I ensured I had my SPF 100+ and some Body Glide and hit the road.

I got up to Shale Hill at around 8:15 p.m. I pulled in and parked next to my friend, Matt's truck, glad he had arrived. I figured I'd find him and we could hang out and camp together. My plan was confirmed with I walked up to the hill from the free onsite parking to tent city. Matt waved and directed me to where he had set up camp. With his assistance, my tent was up in minutes. (The process went like this: I removed the tent from the bag and coordinated a pole. Matt did everything else. It was the easiest tent assembly I have ever done.)

We had a couple of hours to relax before bed. Matt and I walked around and said, "Hello," to a few people and then basically just hung out and chatted by our tents amongst ourselves and with some of the other Spahtens who were camped nearby. A little before 10:00 pm, I brushed up and headed to bed.

I slept for a solid 8.5 hours and woke up to lovely clear skies. Already, it was getting warm. The 24 hour race wasn't schedule to start until 10:00 am, so I had some time to kill. Matt and I headed down to the Benson Village Store for some egg sandwiches and coffee. Matt, having a wedding that evening, had to be back home early. He was doing the 10K race, scheduled to start at 9:00 am (along with the 5K and 8 hour). After breakfast, he decided to start the race early and headed out a 8:00 am. I cheered him on his way out.

After Matt left, I headed over to check-in, where I got my bib and a really nice poly-blend 24 Hours t-shirt (unisex athletic cut, which will fit less well than a curvy cut but better than the traditional boxy cut). I dropped off things in my tent and headed over the 8:30 a.m. racers' meeting. Rob explained the rules of the course and told the people taking part in the 24 Hours that the first hour of the first lap would be obstacle free. He then reviewed the penalty structure -- 25 spiderman push-ups on laps 1 and 2, 15 spiderman push-ups on lap 3, 7 spiderman push-ups on lap 4, lap 5 was penalty free, lap 6 was 30 jumping jacks. Beyond that I kind of tuned it out since anything beyond the first few was going to be irrelevant.

At 10:00 a.m., I headed over to the starting line. It was quite hot, so I decided to do lap 1, which would be mostly running, in my Spahtens sports bra and capris and Icebug Zeals, which I love for OCR but am not as keen on for trail running. If I had realized about the first lap having an hour of running pre-obstacles, I might have opted to bring my Altra Loan Peaks and worn them for lap 1. I went without my hydration pack. There would be five water stops on the route -- the normal four, plus one right after Cliff Jumper. I have to say that this arrangement was A+, and I'd encourage Rob to keep that extra water station during every race! This was the area where I'd wished I'd had water during Tri-Obstaclon. I'm so glad he added the extra station. Running that first lap relying on the water stations worked well. I ended up bringing some chomps with me.  

I can image the logic behind wanting to give everyone an hour to run the course before starting on obstacles. It spreads out the field. However, given my preference, I would have rather started in on the obstacles right away. It was hot. In fact, over the course of the day, the high would get into the 90s. We started the race late -- at 10:00 a.m. Running for an hour, most of it in sunny fields in the heat kind of felt like pre-fatiguing before the real fun of the race -- the obstacles -- started in. A few people I spoke with felt this way. Start earlier -- maybe around 8:00 a.m. for the 8 and 24 hours folks and 9:00 a.m. for the 5K and 10K group. Have everyone doing obstacles right away. I'd have opted for a couple of 15 minute waves even. 

During the course of the first hour, I ran about 5 miles through the trails and fields of Shale Hill. When the siren signaled to begin the start of the required obstacle portion of the race, I was by the Loom. This was past the 2/3 portion of the course. I had made decent progress, if not had a ton of fun. It was hard to pass by the obstacles and not wish I was attempting them. 

All of the running had made me pretty overheated. I was careful to keep hydrating and ate some chomps to replenish my electrolytes. As a result, my first lap was almost penalty free. I made some challenging obstacles -- the monkey bars, the Tarzan ropes, and, for the first time, the parallel bars. This was my first time making the parallel bars. Now that I've done so, I have successfully completed every obstacles at Shale Hill, with the exception of the uphill monkey bars, which are not usually required for women. Now I just have to string those successes together during one race! During my first lap, the uphill monkey bars were my only failed obstacle. 

I finished up lap 1 at 12:10 p.m., taking an 2;05. I headed over to my tent to eat and change my Zeals, which were pinching my toes a little. I was getting a small blister on my right foot, and I didn't want to make it worse. I had a quick lunch of a slice of wholegrain bread with peanut butter and a banana, along with a couple of Twizzlers. I changes from Darn Tough socks into Injinji and swapped out my Zeals for my Icebug Pytho2's. My sports bra was soaks with sweat. I slather on Body Glide and changed that out too. Because I was going to do the next lap with my hydration pack, I put on a tank so I wouldn't get chafing on my lower back. After taking just about half an hour to do these tasks, I signed out and was back on course at 12:41 p.m.

Lap 2 was even more of a challenge than lap 1. It was the hottest part of the day. I struggled -- not with the obstacles, but with my pace. My obstacle completion continued to be solid. I made the Zig-zag, which often gives me trouble. I was surprisingly slow on the pond traverse, which I usually zip across, but I made that too. I, in fact, did not fail anything until the post hop and Slackline at almost the 2/3 point of the course. I am usually just fine on the post hop but with the heat, I was feeling a bit woozy. My legs were wobbly, and tired from running around 10 miles in temperatures of up to 93 degrees with humidity. I was also eating some chomps that didn't have caffeine, which, for race day, is not my preference. I was bonking. 

Fortunately, I was lucky to have some good company on and off for my second lap. Shaina and I ran a bunch of this lap together, and it was great to have a battle buddy. We both had some rough spots, but we finished. She was good enough to do some spiderman push-ups with me at the Tarzan ropes, despite the fact with was running Journeyman and was totally not required to! Other than that, the obstacle completion on lap 2 was not bad. I made all the rope climbs, the monkey bars, and the entire five panel traverse wall. I consider this a pretty good accomplishment based on how I was feeling. 

The lap took forever though. After the Anaconda, Rob had added another rope climb. Shaina and I both made the climb and then crossed the finish line to complete our lap at 5:11, four and a half hours after we'd set out. This is probably my slowest lap at Shale Hill to date.

I headed back to my tent to regroup. I, again, had a piece of bread with peanut butter and a banana. I had some Twizzlers. A fellow Spahten came around and gave me a cocoa rice treat, which was basically the most delicious food ever. I swapped out my socks and headband. I'd left my Spahtens sports bra out to dry while I was on lap 2, and changed back into it, keeping my tank on. I stuck with my shoes, which were feeling okay. I drank water and began to feel a little bit better. At least I was full of sugar and calories. Forty-five minutes later, I was back on course. I was tired but I was determined to meet my three lap goal.

It was getting cooler when I headed back on course at 5:56 p.m. I was a bit woozy still through the Zig-zag, which my tired hands failed. I was tired at the Pick Your Poison obstacles (where you choose between a 7' wall, a rope climb, or a tire hoist -- I always choose the wall). I was dreading the Log Splitter, a half mile carry with two logs connected with a bit of rope. Ironically, it was during the Log Splitter, one of my least favorite obstacles, that things started coming together for me. I had been uncomfortable for so long that the discomfort of the heavy carry barely registered. The weather was cooling down. I had eaten a few caffeine powered chomps. I  was feeling better. 

I made it to the Rope Ramp, and make my climb. I was finally feeling good. This is what I had waited all day for. The only minus as that this rope climb had finally opened a small abrasion on my ankle. I use an s-hoot technique for climbing ropes. It works great, until you're at hour 10 in a race and your unprotected ankles finally determine they've had enough friction for the day. Next year I'm getting some calf sleeved. 

The last four or so miles of the course were my favorite of the day. I nailed the five panel traverse wall for the second time of the day. I had fun on all the climbing obstacles in the wooded area termed "the jungle." I enjoyed the obstacles out in the field because I wasn't baking in the sun. I had good company again. I spent some time running with Steve and Jason. The former was a Shale Hill regular who often did guided training runs and was trying for three laps penalty free; the latter was an ultra runner who did a couple of OCRs a year. I spent the last third of the lap with Jason, and we both made sure to stay safe in the dark. 

We were about a mile and a half from the finish at the bucket carry when we had to take our our headlamps. This meant a torrent of bugs attacking, but at least we could see. The last mile of the race was my most failed obstacle section. I failed the 19' rope climb -- my leg hurt too much to s-hook and my arms were too tired to do anything else. I failed the parallel bars, the monkey bars, and the Tarzan ropes. I wasn't feeling as tired or as weak as when I was suffering from the heat but my skin was abraised and when I jumped down from the one billionth hay bale I'd climbed it felt like hitting ground with my feet -- a normal thing -- was a trauma. My body having gone around 19 miles and doing 150 or so obstacles was tired. 

Jason and I hit the last rope climb at the bottom of the hill with the finish line in sight. A bonfire was burning at the top of the hill. I was feeling good. I was having fun. I decided to make this my last lap of the night. I had hit my goal. My hands were tired. I knew that, even though I was feeling good at the moment, if I went out again, soon, I wouldn't be having fun. Plus, I'd be doing more penalties than obstacles as my hands got more and more tired.

I wrote my time of 9:29 on the board. I had finished my third lap in 3:35, about a hour faster than my second lap. After 12 hours of racing, I was calling it a night.

24 Hours of Shale Hell is a fantastic race. It can be whatever you want it to be. I saw people push themselves to do a half dozen laps. Some people, like me did fewer. I opted to compete in the open division and do fun laps where I knew I could complete all but a few obstacles in a quality way. I did my penalties, and did well on the obstacles. I am pleased. Three laps was fun. Three laps in cooler weather and without that first hour of running would have been even better. 

For 2017, I will definitely be at Shale Hill for this weekend again. I'm on the fence about if I prefer the 24 hours or the 8 hour. Honestly, what I really want is what I did -- the 12 hour race. Signing up for the 24 and then doing what I did might be the best option for this. My other option would be to do the 8 race more competitively. Last I looked at the board, it seemed that for the 8 hour, most women completed two laps. Some went out for a third, but none of those were finished in time. It might be fun to see how I stack in that division. Time will tell. I can say this with certainty though, Shale Hill is and will always be my favorite place to do OCR because of the amazing course, care of the race directors, and the wonderful community of people who play there.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Miles for Mikey

I had always been somewhat dismissive of virtual races. What, exactly, was the point? I enjoy the community of races, the excitement, the energy. How would a virtual race make these things happen for me?

And yet…

This April I had a half marathon in Middletown, Connecticut on my calendar. The idea was to have a race to keep me motivated to do some long runs throughout the winter, as a bit of base-building for my October 2016 Newport Marathon attempt. It worked. I ran.

The evening before April race day, New England was struck by a cold snap. There were intense winds. The race was cancelled. I was deferred into a June race in Simsbury, Connecticut. “Fine,” I thought at the time. This was despite the fact that a half marathon the first weekend in June was terrible for my schedule. It came on the heels of some intense traveling and racing with Ragnar and Bone Frog preceding the race.

The first weekend in June arrived and, for only the second time in my racing career, I opted to skip a race. (The other time I skipped a race was a local 5K I missed due to a calf strain.) I had no motivation to get up early, to drive an hour and a half, and to do a run some place unexpected. Instead, I ended up doing a 10 miler on the bike path near my house. I was happy. The run was great. It was the right decision for me during this time in my training.

On the heels of this experience, I saw a post in the NESpahtens #racelocal Facebook group about a race called Miles for Mikey. It was a virtual race sponsored by Team Mike McNeil to raise money in support of cancer research at Massachusetts General Hospital. There were four options for the virtual race – 5K, 10K, half marathon, or all three. I signed up for the half. Here it was: My opportunity to run a half marathon on my own schedule, exploring my own community, with zero travel.

The last Saturday in July I had a 13 miler scheduled as part of my marathon training program. This was it – my opportunity to run my Miles for Mikey 13.1. The weather was fairly promising. It was not overly sunny and the temperatures were in the mid-70s, much cooler than the rest of the week where temperatures hit the 90s. I laced up my sneakers and headed out at around 9:30 a.m. after sleeping as late as a wanted and having a nice breakfast of oatmeal and coffee a luxuriously relaxed pace in the quiet of my own home.

I ended up doing a loop course, adding on some distance to one of my favorite runs in my neighborhood. I am lucky enough to live about a mile away from a bike path that runs, uninterrupted from Belchertown in the east to Northampton in the west. It is not an exaggeration to say that our community’s bike path is one of my favorite things about living in the Amherst/Northampton-area. I use the bike path at least a half dozen times a week. My lunch-hour running route incorporates the bike path. I use the bike path for all of my weekend long runs. I commute via bike to work usually around four days a week between late March and early October and take the bike path for much of that trip. I’ve biked and run from my house, nine miles along the bike path into Northampton. I explore many of the trails that jut off of the bike path. I love its beauty and utility.

My virtual half marathon running route took me from my home, through the neighboring Amherst Woods community (where I often also run through the Wentworth Farms conservation area – though I skipped it on Saturday). From the back of Amherst Woods, I was able to take the Ken Cuddeback Trail for about half a mile and meet up with the bike path. From there, I ran east into Belchertown where the path reaches its terminus. Along the way, I was hemmed in with swamp and trees. I could see the 7 Sisters mountain range in the distance.

The terminus of the bike path in Belchertown is about 4.5 miles from my house. From there, I had done some brief exploration of the roads in the area. The other day, after uploading my GPS data from last Sunday’s 12 miler, I noticed that if I ran along the road perpendicular to the bike path, I would end up on Bay Road in Belchertown. From there, I could run back west to Amherst, loop around to South East Street, and, from there, return back to the bike path, which would take me back to the KC Trail and then, finally, home. 

This entire plan actually worked fantastically well. The road connecting the bike path to Bay Road was nicely wooded, surrounded with farms and conservation land. It had some rolling hills – more up than down – but was a nice new adventure in scenery. After all, it had been a while since I’d run someplace new.

Exploring my local area by foot is one of my favorite things. I love noticing new houses I’ve never seen as I run along local roads. I am always excited to stumble upon a new hiking trail. A few weeks ago, Ben and I found a new conservation area right along South East Street and got to do some wonderful exploring of a new meadow area we had both never seen. These quiet explorations of nature at the pace of a slow run or an even slower ramble, are an excellent way to unwind and discover Western Massachusetts, even though I’ve now lived here for well over a decade.

The two miles I ran along Bay Road were certainly more trafficked and less picturesque than the rest of the run, but they allowed for a bit of downhill running, which was nice. I was glad to turn onto South East Street and return to more quiet environs.

The run along South East Street was, again, rolling hills. There were lovely homes, farm land, and other conservation areas. I was feeling good as I made the turn on to Station Road to go and meet back up with the bike path. The weather was not overly hot, I was hydrating enough, and I was fueling well with the new chomps I had purchased by Probar.

I reached the bike path and knew that I had less than two miles to go. I was invigorated! I have done two half marathon races in my life, Hogsback Half Marathon and Gulf Beach Half Marathon. During both of those, I ended up doing some walking at the end. This would be the first half marathon I’d done where I’d run the entire way through. (Minus three quick 30 second walks to allow me to eat the chomps. I always stop running when I fuel and walk since I fear choking.)

The last mile I was tired, but I ran strong and faster than in my previous several miles. I finished my run in 2:31. This was close to my Hogsback time of 2:28 and my Gulf Beach time of 2:29. My slower running speed allowed me to run the entire way, instead of run/walking, which was satisfying, though, ultimately a similar speed. I am getting better at pacing myself at a consistent pace.

The Miles for Mikey race was great! I've hung my medal on my rack and value the memories of this half marathon in a similar way to my past in-person races. (Though Hogsback will always be special to me as my first half marathon.) 

Virtual races? I get the point now.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Tri-Obstaclon 2016

Last year, I called Tri-Obstaclon one of the top three hardest races I had ever done. Obviously that meant I had to do it again this year. Tri-Obstaclon is Shale Hill's version of a triathlon. Participants mountain bike approximately 7 miles to Lake Champlain, do a 300 yard swim, bike back, and then run the 10K obstacle course at Shale Hill. There are options for everyone. If you are looking for a shorter length challenge, you can opt to do the bike, swim, and then 5K obstacle course. If you are looking for even more of a distance to traverse, there is an elite option with a 600 yard swim and two laps of the 10K course. As always, Shale Hill offers both open waves (with penalties of 25 spiderman push-ups for failed obstacles) and the journeyman non-competitive and penalty free division. Shale Hill also offers the option for a relay format (thought I don't think I saw anyone take that option).

For Saturday's race, I chose to do the 10K open wave (with penalties) option. Last year, I ran Shale Hill's races in the journeyman category. I had been encouraged to consider the competitive option. Shale Hill is edging in on 70 obstacles, and there are only a handful that I routinely fail -- time to get "serious."

I borrowed a bike rack and my roommate's car to take my bike up to Vermont. Let me be clear that while I have a bike and use it pretty much daily to commute to and from work, it is not, perhaps, ideal for racing. It's a heavier model, optimized for transporting my lunch and gym clothing with a basket on the back. The gears are not as smooth as I might want and sometimes the chain jumps. However, the bike has hybrid mountain bike tires and is rugged. The mountain bike 14 mile portion of Tri-Obstaclon is mostly on rolling hills along country dirt roads -- my bike would suffice for this purpose. It did last year.

Saturday morning dawned hot. I was staying in Benson (home of Shale Hill) with a few teammates. We coordinated, stopped by the Benson Country Store for some coffee and bagels with eggs, and then headed up to Shale Hill to check-in. As always, registration at Shale Hill is a breeze. This is a place where everyone knows you, where the race director will give you a huge and welcome you, and where the volunteers know your name on course and will cheer you on personally. Shale Hill is really the NE Shaptens home away from home, if you ask me. It's for sale, and so if you haven't made it up to Benson yet, this year is the year to take advantage. It's a special place.

At check-in we got a goodie bag with some stickers for Shale Hill, Tri-Obstaclon, and Team Sinergy. We also got a nice sleeveless tank as our finisher shirt. This is my first memory of Shale Hill providing a shirt that's not 100% cotton. I know a lot of people love tech shirts, so I can only imagine that this was met with excitement. (I'm a cotton and cotton blend person myself since I like to wear race shirts for casual wear or as pajamas instead of at the gym.)

The race was set for a 9:00 a.m. start. Considering the heat, I almost wish that we had started a bit earlier, but a 9:00 a.m. start is good for anyone who wants to travel in the day-of. There was a racers meeting at around 8:45 a.m. where Rob, the race director, outlined what we needed to consider for safety, announced the penalties for the obstacles failures, and told us more about the bike and swim portions. Helmets were required for the biking and shoes were required for the swim since the lake had zebra clams. 

After announcements, Vince Rhee took our lovely team picture and then we were off to get inline for the biking portion.

We began lined up along the fence that runs perpendicular to the barn. At the starting gun, we ran to our bikes and jumped on to begin the ride to the lake.

In 2015 I bemoaned the biking portion of Tri-Obstaclon. This year, I knew the ride would be 7 miles each way, not the 5 to 6 that is advertised. I was more prepared, had tuned up my bike, and had more biking experience, including a brief weekly trail ride to pick up my CSA after work. As a result, I was able to enjoy the bike ride a lot more this time around.

The bike course took us along rolling hills. On the way out to the lake, there was definitely more downhill than up. I don't especially like the feeling of going downhill on gravel and the lack of traction, so this was a good opportunity to practice getting comfortable with that feeling and keeping my bike under good control. In general, I did pretty well. I also limited the amount of time I got off the bike. In general, a lot of the Tri-Obstaclon participants are into OCR foremost and don't do a ton of biking. I am lucky that I bike regularly, if not quickly. I kept reminding myself to not pull up too much on the handlebars when going uphill so as to save my arms strength for the obstacles. I also tried to be smart about using the gears on my bike.

Because it was warm out, I kept hydrated. The wind of the bike cruising downhill felt fantastic. It was so warm and humid, that after about 10 minutes, I ended up taking off my NE Spahtens drill shirt and raced the rest of the day in my sports bra. This is the first time I have ever done a race in a sports bra, and it was a very nice way to race, as it was much cooler. Any worries I had about scratching up my delicate stomach were unfounded. I had no trouble going over walls, carrying logs, or going up ropes in just a sports bra and capri tights. The only modification I had to make was that doing the traverse rope could not be done on the top. Riding a bike without a shirt was amazing!

The scenery along the bike route was lovely. Soon, I made it to the wooded area bordering the lake. This part of the trail is quite technical for someone like me who really only rides on the road, so I ended up running the last quarter mile or so down to the lake, as I did last year.

All along the bike course and at the lake there were lots of volunteers to keep an eye out for everyone and cheer people on. At the lake, I checked in with a volunteer, as splits were being manually tracked. I had make the ride in less than an hour. With the heat, I was eager to get into the water. When I did, it felt wonderful. The temperature was refreshing but not too cold.

The 300 yard swim was set up for people who are not regular swimmers. The entire way, a person could stand up and have their head above the water. (Note: This is not true if you're especially short like me, but you are, even then, swimming parallel to the shore with the ability to swim in only a foot or too towards the beach and be able to stand.) There were ample volunteers at the swimming section, including a life guard who was in the water with us and following along as we swam. The swim was perfectly lovely, if a bit of work on my arms. I got out of the water refreshed and jogged back up to my bike to begin the ride back to Shale Hill.

The ride back took slightly longer than the ride out since there were more uphill sections. I only had to walk in a couple of places -- one of which was because my chain jumped. All in all, I enjoyed the biking section much more than last year and felt slightly less tired afterwards; though biking 14 miles is work no matter what and gravel roads require much more effort than paved ones.

When I got back to Shale Hill, I took a couple of minutes to eat a Larabar and change my socks and shoes. I had uses my Reebok Spartan shoes, which have drainage holes, for the bike and swim, and I wanted to change into my Injinji socks and Icebugs with carbide tips for the obstacle course portion. I drank a lot of water and put on more sunblock. I decided to skip taking my hydration pack with me, since I had so enjoyed running without it at Viking Obstacle Race last Sunday. This was certainly convenient, but I probably should have taken it. Viking had 4 evenly spaced water stations and was mostly in the woods and took me around two hours per lap. Shale Hill has most of the water stations towards the end and has large portions of the race in the fields, which lacks any protection from the sun. Having my pack would have been nice, since I got slightly dehydrated towards the end of the course and quite sunburned.

Last year, I finished the race in 5:27. This year, I did it in 5:22. I consider that basically the same. My time on the obstacle course was faster last year. This year I did a bit better on the biking. I think that a huge factor in my decreased speed on the course was the heat. I did very well on the obstacle course portion -- that is my main sport -- however, during the last mile I was dragging. Also, doing penalties takes some time.

I failed less than a half dozen obstacles -- Zig-zag of Awesomeness, Slackline, parallel bars, monkey bars, and Tarzan ropes. Of those, I commonly fail the Zig-zag; the Slackline is new (and is something I feel I should be able to do); the parallel bars is the one obstacle I have yet to get at Shale Hill; the monkey bars I have trouble with because they are so late in the course; and the Tarzan ropes I can almost always make in training but can sometimes miss during races since they are the third to last obstacle and require so much grip strength. Suffice it to say, I can do better, and know that if I keep training there will be a time when I get all of the obstacles at Shale Hill.

I did, on Saturday, make a couple of obstacles I find to be hit-or-miss with completion. I did very well on the tire swing, and make the 19' rope climb without too much difficulty. I did well on the log splitter carry too. Those are all obstacles that have given me trouble in the past. I also did the pond traverse very efficiently despite having to do it entirely underneath. (As I mentioned, I ended up running the course in just a sports bra and capris and doing the traverse rope on top, my preferred method, gave my stomach too much rope burn.)

When I crossed the finish line I was exhausted but happy. I had enjoyed my day tremendously. The last mile of the race was incredibly challenging! I was hot and tired and would have signed up for Tri-Obstaclon 2017 in a heartbeat! I put on my finishers medal and headed over to the bar for some tacos and local chocolate milk. What a great day.

Shale Hill is hands down my favorite place to race. Rob and Jill, owners of Shale Hill and co-race directors, always put on a wonderful event. My next race of the season, coming up on August 6 is 24 Hours of Shale Hell, in which I'll try to do as many laps of the Shale Hill course as I can in 24 hours. I cannot imagine how hard this will be and how much fun. I cannot wait to get back to Benson in a few weeks and spend a weekend with the NE Spahtens and other OCR friends hanging out and doing lap after lap at Shale Hill.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Viking Hill Obstacle Race

The July 2016 Viking Obstacle Race may just be my favorite race of the season. The race takes place at Sunny Hill golf resort on the Viking Hill obstacle course, a 5.5 mile course with around 33 obstacles. I have been up to Greenville, New York in the Northern Catskills a couple of times to train at Viking, but I had yet to race there. Last year's race conflicted with Tough Mudder. This year though, I was going to opt for the Viking Obstacle Race over Tough Mudder. I am glad I did.

For the first time this year, Viking was offering the opportunity to do a double lap. This meant racers would get to cover the entire course twice for a total of 11 miles and just under six dozen obstacles. I decided I was up for the challenge. I wanted to get some good distance training in for this August's 24 Hours of Shale Hell. In 2015, I had done the eight hour version of this race, successfully completing two laps (totaling around a half marathon distance and six dozen obstacles). With all the distance running I've been doing this year in order to train for my marathon in October, I thought doing some endurance obstacle course racing would be a nice complement. I have fewer obstacle course races planned for 2016 because of the marathon training -- I didn't race in June and don't plan to race in September.

The June break was because I was just finishing up my spring semester of school, for the first time not taking a summer class, and was wanting some free weekends to run and spend time hanging out in Amherst/Northampton. I wanted no commitments. My June was a blast. I didn't race, but I did a ton of training. I got in some great runs, made it up to Viking with my friend, Matt, to train one weekend, and spent a lot of quality time relaxing. The lack of race commitments in September is the simple result of needing time for school work, with classes starting again in the fall, and needing time for my really long marathon training runs.

Back to Viking Obstacle Race. On Sunday, I woke up at 5:00 a.m. and headed out to drive 2 hours to the Catskills and do two loops of the Viking Hill course. The Viking Double was an elite wave. I have never run elite before. In general, in obstacle course racing, anyone can run elite. Usually, it means you run earlier in the day and that you pay an extra fee. There are also sometimes more challenging rules, such heavier carries or mandatory obstacle completion. In the case of Viking, they were requiring mandatory obstacle completion for all elite and Viking Double racers.

What mandatory obstacle completions means is this: In order to receive prize money, you have to complete all the obstacle. Every participant received a wristband. When you failed an obstacle, your wristband was taken away and you were not ineligible to win your division. The good thing is that with mandatory obstacle completion, you are allowed to attempt the obstacle as many times as you'd like (while giving first dibs to people who are approaching the obstacle for the first time). The Viking Double had a cut-off time of 12:30 p.m., allowing participants 4.5 hours to make it around the course twice. For people who had the time, they could spend it giving a challenging obstacle a number of tries.

I arrived at Sunny Hill at around 7:15 a.m. and 45 minutes before my scheduled wave. The elite would go off at 7:30 a.m. and then the Viking Double would follow. Parking was conveniently onsite and free. Spectators could join for free as well. (Note: This is not a good spectator course -- it's all in the woods and all spectators can see is the finish, so if you're the kind of spectator who likes to follow your racer and take video and photos, know that Viking is not the best course for it.) Check-in was a snap. Viking has a tent by the lake where the race starts and ends. There was pretty much zero wait time. I received a finisher t-shirt, bib, timing chip, and my Viking Double wristband.

After check-in, I headed by to my car to organize my gear and change into my Icebugs. I put on my Viking Double band. I was pretty sure I wasn't going to be able to retain it. I have a very high obstacle completion rate at Viking; however, I have a lot of trouble on Dragon's Tooth, a set of monkey bars that has a very steep uphill and downhill section. I had yet to make that obstacle. As a person of shorter stature, the span between the bars on the uphill section is challenging. I had worked on this obstacle a bit last time I was at Viking and didn't quite have the technique or strength down to do the ascending section. I was going to try my best but feared I might lose my band here. Either way, I was determined to complete my two laps of the course. That was the challenge for me -- having the endurance to make it around the course without missing any obstacle other than Dragon's Tooth. That would mean I'd have to do a number of challenging obstacles -- a 22' rope climb, a five panel traverse wall -- twice without losing my grip strength.

We lined up at the starting line a little bit before 8:00 a.m. There were probably around 30 people, only a half dozen or so of whom were women. The race director, Tinker, gave us some announcements, and then we were off!

I started out in the back of the pack; however, I knew that we had a long race ahead, and I wasn't worried. I won't do a complete obstacle-by-obstacle breakdown here because I have that information posted on my blog in a previous write-up about Viking -- see that post here. What I will recount is some of the unique aspects on Sunday's race.

Because I was more-or-less in the back, I was soon running mostly by myself. I did see people. Because of the mandatory obstacle completion rule, there were volunteers at each obstacle. Viking is a very wall-heavy course, featuring at least a dozen walls. many of them in sets of three, increasing in height. There were volunteers at each set of walls. The volunteers were great! They were encouraging and helpful. I wanted to keep an eye on my time. Viking features a lot of water, so I wasn't wearing my Fuelband and had no idea of time if I didn't ask every now and then -- I wanted to make sure I got my two laps in under the cut-off. I wasn't too concerned. When Matt and I came up to train we had taken a very manageable pace, stopped to do extra work on Dragon's Tooth, and still managed to finish the course in two hours. Still, if I got tired and my time suffered on the second lap, I wanted to be sure I'd have the time I needed.

A main challenge of the course on Sunday was how wet it was. It had rained the night before the was raining or drizzling during much of my first lap. The skies cleared by the time that lap was over, but the walls and balance obstacles were slippery. This added to the difficulty. I recall having a challenging time making it up the 10' rope wall, because it was so slick, making the rope hard to grasp. This obstacle doesn't usually trouble me in the least -- suffice it to say, in obstacle course racing, weather really matters.

I was moving along efficiently without seeing many others until I reached the Asgard Skywalk. With the wet conditions this balance obstacle was causing some significant problems. There was a line of people attempting the obstacle again and again. The Asgard Skywalk features a lengthy set of balance logs, a traverse rope, and then another set of balance logs. If you failed on any portion of the very long obstacle, you had to start over. I was glad to be wearing my Icebugs. On a wet day, they were a game changer. I had no problems on the Skywalk, though I had to take it slowly so as to not run into people. My success was a matter of good gear over good skill on this obstacle. Like the weather, footwear matters.

After the Skywalk, I found that I was running with other people, at least some of the time. Viking Obstacle Race probably attracts somewhere around 120 to 150 people, so the course was never crowded enough to cause significant obstacle back-ups. I moved along pretty well, the only big challenge for a while being a bucket carry that was added right before the Tree Bob. This obstacle required you to take a bucket filled with around 45 pounds of water and carry it around the lake. Fortunately, the lake was not large because carrying a 45 pound bucket is a serious challenge for me.

Pretty soon after, I reached the dreaded Dragon's Tooth monkey bars. It was a mess. The bars were set from the rain and people were failing left and right. Just as the Asgard Skywalk was costing people lots of time and they tried to meet the mandatory obstacle completion, so too was Dragon's Tooth. The difference was that while most people cursed the Skywalk, they inevitable made it, while Dragon's Tooth was a "band cutter" (as we say in OCR). I gave it a try and made it across the flat section, but I couldn't make the swing up to beyond the third bar on the uphill monkey bar section. I made a good effort but decided that repeat effort would not yield good results and would just serve to exhaust me. I had really wanted to keep my band -- it's a badge of honor! -- but I also wanted to play it smart. My goal was to finish two laps. I knew this obstacle was one that I have yet to make. I wanted to focus on my larger goal of finishing with a decent time and completing all the other obstacles. I moved on.

For the most part, the course after the monkey bars went smoothly. There was an additional obstacle that was added for the race. It required participants to swim across a shallow pond, swimming under a half dozen or so logs. All of the water at Viking is kind of... natural. There is a lot of silt, dirt, reeds, grass, and bugs. Not the most pleasant, especially when grass pieces get in your clothing and feel like tiny snakes, but it is natural. 

The most challenging part of the course, post-monkey bars, is the massive 22' rope climb. I was determined to make it though, and was able to get up the first lap around with out too much trouble, if not in an entirely effortless way. Soon I was approaching the Viking Gate and the end of my first lap. I crossed the line, quickly ate half a Larabar from my drop point, and then grabbed some chomps for the second lap. With cool, if very humid, temperatures, I was using the four water stations on the course instead of racing with my hydration pack, a strategy that I really liked since it was so much easier not having to manage the pack. 

Within no more than two minutes I was off for my second lap. As it turned out, I was the first female Viking Double to come through. I have never been first in anything sports-related ever. I knew it didn't matter because I'd lost my band and wasn't competing, but it felt kind of cool to be "in first place." (Okay, not really, but kind of...) I felt great! My endurance was in a good place from all the running I've been doing, and I felt strong on the last lap -- I was really no more tired than on my first time around. It was exciting to see volunteers and have them say, "You again!?! Great job!" I was moving smoothly. 

I realized how tired I was when I got to the last mile or so of the course. Back to the 22' rope climb. Honestly, I barely made it. I was determined to have the Dragon's Tooth be my only failed obstacle of the day. I made my way up the rope at a snails pace, stopping to rest on the knots several times. Each upward pull was a struggle, but I was persistent and finally made it to the bell. Success! 

The rope climb made me realize that I was tired. I had less than a mile left. I had had a fun day, but I was really to be done. I kept moving, jogging through the last mile and completing obstacles. I got each one. Finally, I could hear the festival area in the distance. I ran towards the Viking Gate and became the first female Viking Double to cross the line. My time was 4:02. 

I had done it! I got my medal from a volunteer and headed over for a free sandwich and beans, followed by a hosedown of my shoes. While I was washing I heard the first place women's double finisher come in. I cannot imagine how much effort she must have put in getting through Dragon's Tooth and keeping her band -- what a great accomplishment! I was pleased with what I had done too. I completed 11 miles and just under six dozen obstacles. I had completed the goal I set out for myself and identified where I need to work for next year. I also got to see how distance running was having a tremendous impact on my endurance. I was able to keep going, moving quickly, feeling good for much longer than before. Who knew marathon training would be such a help for my obstacle course racing.

Suffice it to say, Viking Obstacle Race is going to be on my 2017 calendar. This race is challenging without being a beat down. They have some unique obstacles -- for example, Viking has far more balance obstacle than I've seen anywhere else and they are all much more interesting. The course terrain is nicely "run-able." The trails are not too rugged and there aren't any serious climbs. I love being able to run along between obstacles and enjoy obstacles that I find difficult but do-able. I had a blast doing the Viking Double. You'll see me there again in 2017. After all, I need to try to keep my band.