Monday, June 23, 2014

Merrell Down & Dirty

Today I was up at the bright and early hour of 5:30 a.m. to go run in the 7:00 a.m. 10K wave of Merrell Down & Dirty obstacle race at Riverside Park in Hartford. I had gotten a great deal on this race through LivingSocial, the course was a 10 minute drive from my father and step-mom's house, and I was going to get to connect with some of my friends in the NE Spahtens. For these reasons alone I signed up. The race was also a great chance to decompress from a very busy time at work. I knew that Down & Dirty is kind of an introductory obstacle course race, so I wouldn't have to do much training. I could just go out and have a fun day. And that is exactly what happened.

My dad very nicely drove me over to the race. Parking was about a five or ten minute walk from the venue site. It was a bit of a haul, and you had to cross the highway, but I didn't find it to be a problem. I was just glad that we didn't have to take a shuttle from the parking lot to the venue (i.e. like at Amesbury). Also, parking was a great deal at only $5 versus the $10 to $15 prices you can see at other obstacle course races. For example, parking at Tough Mudder this year was $10 if you got it in advance or $15 if you got it day-of. 

Merrell Down & Dirty really won points all around for being very affordable. Spectators were free (versus $30 or so at other events like Tough Mudder and Spartan Race) and there was no charge for checking a bag (versus $10 at other races). This meant that Down & Dirty attracted a lot of family and guests, and had more of a family-friendly vibe than a lot of other races I've been to. I know that some of the Spahtens brought their kids along for the kids races later in the day. You could have Down & Dirty be an event for the entire family.

When I arrived at the registration tent things moved very quickly. I had my waver filled out and was instantly given my bib number, swag bag, and participant t-shirt. The volunteers here, and everyone I dealt with throughout the day, were great. I was able to get my bib and get my bag checked in around ten minutes. I did a quick check of the course map and headed to the starting corral. I lined up with a pair of ladies wearing Spahten drill shirts and introduced myself. I planned to start running with them.

After a bit of short announcements and fan fair the corrals starting being released and we moved towards the starting line. At around 7:10 or so it was our turn. With the sounding of an air horn, we were off.

The 10K (6.2 mile) course began by taking us up a very short hill, more like an embankment. The course overall was very very flat as it went along the Connecticut River. This was one of only a few time we headed up and down the embankment to add some "hills" into the run. The second set of "hills" was at around the half-way point of the race were we went up and down the embankment three times. Either way, it was a very short hill and took around a a minute or less to climb. This was true later in the course as well.

The obstacles were spread fairly evenly throughout the course. There were twenty obstacles in total. The overall difficulty level was not high -- as I said before this is a very approachable beginner-friendly race. The 10K distance was not too long feeling and not too short. I think that the 5K would have felt a little too easy for me. This was overall a fun race. Because the obstacles were fairly quick to do, most of the time was spent trail running through the woods along the Connecticut River. The trails were very well marked and you could run along at a fairly good clip. I ran into one of our Tough Mudder teammates, Ben, at the third obstacle on the course and ran with him for about three miles until which point I could tell his running pace was faster than mine, so I told him I'd meet him at the finish line. It was great to see a friendly face on the course!

Here is a list of all the obstacles with descriptions and my notes about the experience with each. I have them in the order that we see them on the map; not that we encountered them on the course. (The last mile or so had the obstacles in a slightly different order on the course than on the map.) Since I don't have many images, I am including some from the Down & Dirty website.

  • Mud pit: Standard pit filled with muddy water. You have to get low and slide under flags. Most other obstacle course races would have you going under barbed wire, so this was a bit easier. It was around 7:10 a.m., when we did this one, so the water was a bit chilly, but the mud was very smooth and not too rocky. No cuts on the limbs from this obstacle.
  • Low Crawl: Crawl through a pool of water underneath a cargo net. I've actually never seen a net paired with a water obstacle, so this was kind of neat. The traverse was short and the net was not heavy, so it was easy enough to get through.

  • Give Me 20: Drop down and do 20 push-ups. They even had a nice mat for us to do them on. I cranked out 20 push-ups in full plank and continued on my way in a snap. Not very exciting -- I would give this "obstacle" my lowest ranking since I basically do push-ups every other day during my workouts.
  • Marine Hurdles: These were five foot high hurdles. I have not seen hurdles at this height, and they were great for someone my size. I was able to jump and pull myself up and over without too much difficulty.

  • Military Walls: These were your classic OCR walls with a-frame support but shorter. They were probably also five feet, like the hurdles, but in this case you had a wall to support you (instead of just a hurdle). These shorter walls is an example of how Down & Dirty is beginner friendly, as pretty much anyone should be able to get over a wall this height. I was able to jump the three of them without much trouble; the same as the Marine Hurdles.
  • Cargo Climb: Climb up a cargo net, then over a hurdle and then down the net at the other side. The hurdle at the top was open, so this wasn't too bad. As with all the cargo nets, the rope was a bit wet and muddy meaning that things were slippery and you had to be careful.

  • Balance Beams: For this obstacle we had to get up on a beam that must have been around three or four feet in the air. We walked that beam, got on a higher one, and then stepped down to a third lower beam. When I got to the balance beams the volunteer at the obstacle told me that I had picked one with a slightly wobbly high beam in the middle. I decided to stick with it, and he was definitely correct. The middle beam was wobbling a lot, and I almost fell off at one point.
  • Monkey Cross: This was a very interesting obstacle! We had to step from strap to strap grabbing ropes above our head. I was running with Ben at this point, and it was a good thing because I was way to short to reach the ropes overhead. Ben brought them down for me, so I could do the obstacle. Thanks, Ben! I literally could not have done it without you.

  • Tires: Tires on the ground, some stacked two high. The double height ones meant I had to go a bit slowly. I kind of wish they were all short so I could have run through agility style like I did at Fitathlon.
  • Jim's Jungle Gym: This was a new obstacle for Down & Dirty and a lot of fun. We had to climb up on a pipe with foot holds and then climb down a cargo net. Again, we had to remember "slippery when wet." I actually found that my road running sneakers, which are usually terrible for OCRs, where great on this obstacle and I had less trouble than others.

  • Ladder Wall: Climb a giant wall made of rungs like a large ladder. Not too challenging here.
  • Tunnels & Original Hurdles: The tunnels were like those plastic tubes you might have played in as a child. These were followed by a couple of short walls.
  • Sand Bag Haul: For this the women had to carry a 50 pound sand bag up and back a length of the course. The distance we had to go was very short, and I was happy because that is a lot of weight. I think that a photographer took my picture at this point, and I can't imagine it will come out very flattering. I was getting slightly tired at this point. I was congested and just getting over a cold, and I had been running faster to keep up with Ben, whose company I left at the last obstacle so we could go at our own paces. I needed to recover a bit, so walking with a heavy weight was at least not running.
  • Colossus Climb: We climbed net along the back a giant inflatable slide and then slid down the front. This slide was fast, and I flew down. There was nothing at the bottom, so I kind of tumbled off. I wish that there had been more of a flat bit at the bottom so I could have landed on the inflatable bits. I flailed around quite a bit to keep from hitting the ground hard.

  • Heavy Hoist: For this obstacle we had to hoist a 20 pound (for women) bag up on a pulley and then lower it. The weight certainly feels a bit heavier on the pulley, but this was still a snap.

  • Water Crossing: There was a pool of water. We walked in and then out.
  • Monster Climb: This was one of the more exciting obstacles, and I was able to get a nice picture of it on the way out. We had to climb up a cargo net, roll over a net, climb again, roll again, climb down, roll, and climb down again. The structure they built for this obstacle was impressive looking, and it was neat to get up so high.

  • Rock Wall: Let's do some bouldering! For this obstacle we used climbing wall techniques to climb the wall and then got to use stairs on the backside. The hand and foot holds were we, so even through I've done rock wall climbing a few times, this was hard. I actually had a foot slip out and was holding myself just by my arms at one point. Here's a picture that I took to give you an idea.

  • Slippery Mountain: Using just your arms and lying on your belly, you had to pull yourself up and inclined wall. The wall was, as the name of the obstacle suggests, slippery with soap. I was able to get a good grip on the rope, and the wall was mercifully short, so things worked okay for me here.

  • Mud Pit: The final obstacle actually took place after you ran across the line that scored your timing but still before the finish line. It was a giant pit of mud that you had to crawl through keeping low and under the flags.
To reiterate, the obstacles were not terribly difficult, but they were well-executed (by which I mean they had good build quality). There were many volunteers all along the course who were always ready to help on any obstacle were people were having difficulty. Because of my short stature, I was offered help a few times, but was able to manage myself. The obstacles were fun and quickly tackled. All in all, an entertaining time. 

I finished the six mile course in 1:21:12. This time was faster than I was anticipating. I run a 10K road race in around an hour. I anticipated taking a lot longer on this course considering that it was on trails and I would have to stop for all the obstacles. Also, I was doing this as a fun race and wasn't running hard to beat a target time. For example, I walked the water stations and Ben and I walked some of the ups and downs because of an injury he has. Even with all this and stopping for a dozen and a half obstacles my course time wasn't very long. This speaks to the speed at which you can do the obstacles, which are not complex. The top finishers were doing the course in 45 minutes or so.

After finishing, I ran into more of the Spahtens, Ragnar teammates, Wes and Andrew. It was great to see them and to get to run with Ben. We chatted for a bit, and then I went to hose down and change. After that, I wandered the festival area getting some samples and looking for my dad. Down & Dirty provided a food goodie bag with some nice snacks (mini larabar, mini orange, and trail mix) and a bottle of water. I am not much of a beer drinker and it was still before 8:30 a.m., so I was glad for the food and beverage provided instead of the normal beer-fare.

I had finished earlier than anticipated, so I missed my dad and step-mom at the finish line. The festival area was crowded, but I finally ran into them.

I was glad that they had some time to look around because I think I will be able to convince them to try this race next year. Dad and Lisa always think I'm crazy when they hear about the stuff at Tough Mudder, but Down & Dirty is a more friendly experience and one that they seem interested in doing. It could be described as a gateway OCR.

I got some fun swag from the race: a tech t-shirt, a dog tag medal, and a hair wrap. The medal is kind of fun and different looking. 

While Down & Dirty won't go down at the most epic race I've done, it was a fun time. I got to enjoy a hobby of mine, on a great day, for a very reasonable price, at a good location, and with people I like. I'm 50/50 if I might do this race again, mostly since the obstacles were a little underwhelming. I would probably do it again if my family wanted to and if I could get a good deal. After all, not everything has to be the hardest challenge in order to be a good day. 

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