The premise of the Polar Bear Challenge is to come up to Vermont is the coldest part of the winter and do as many laps of the course as you can over the span of eight hours. I was anticipating one lap but hoping for two. In the summer months, I can easily do a lap in three hours, but with the amount of snow that had been falling, it was hard to know what to expect.
I drove up to Benson, Vermont, home of Shale Hill on Friday night and stayed over at nearby Falkenbury Farm Guest House with some other Spahtens. On the way to Falkenbury, I stopped at Shale Hill to register and check my gear bag, which contained a change of shoes and clothing if I wanted to do a second lap and also attire for after I finished. Check-in with Jill, one of the two owners of Shale Hill, was a snap -- I was there for around five minutes and then on my way to Falkenbury to relax and sleep. At check-in I got a nice racers goody bag. It contained my bib (which I never wear at obstacle course races if I can help it) and a timing chip. There were also lots of goodies from the sponsors including a buff from Icebug, a sweatband from X-Racewear, a bracelet from BattleFrog, a sample of Trail Toes, some Supercandy, and a #racelocal bracelet from the NE Spahtens. The race t-shirt was also in the bag, a nice cotton long-sleeved T-shirt, perfect for the colder months.
The race was to start bright an early with a 6:15 a.m. racers meeting and breakfast. The race would start at 7:00 a.m. with the elite heat, followed by two open waves and then the journeyman division (which did not require penalties if you failed an obstacles) heading out last at 7:30 a.m. I turned in early, but 5:30 a.m. still dawned fast. I got up, put on loads of gear and headed over to the pre-race meeting. Parking, like bag check, was 100% free. It was also located on-site in a field right off the race course and a quick two minute walk from the main area.
Rob is always building. For Polar Bear, he had constructed a heated party barn, right next to the bar that houses registration and the indoor Shale Hill training gym. I checked some additional gear on my assigned shelf in the registration barn and then headed over to the party barn.
One of the great things about Shale Hill is the close community that exists among the people who race there. Polar Bear is probably one of the bigger races that Shale Hill puts on, but they cap registration at 200 people so that everyone has a great race experience. I would guess there were around 150 people at Polar Bear this year, making it, what I would consider a big success. The party barn was rocking with fun music. I navigated the buffet and picked up some eggs, french toast, coffee, and a banana. Bacon was available all day for the pork-consuming crowd. All nice standard easily digestible pre-race food.
As I sat down with my plate, Rob came in to lead the pre-race meeting. There was discussion about the proper way to do the obstacles and the rules for penalties. At Shale Hill, if you are racing elite or open divisions, you have to take chips for obstacles that you fail and then perform the penalties at the end, before you can cross the timing mat. You can try an obstacle multiple times to complete it. Because Shale Hill has smaller crowds back-ups at obstacles aren't a worry and people can do multiple attempts. I had elected to race the journeyman division, which meant that there weren't any penalties; you tried the obstacles as many times as you wanted and if you couldn't complete it then you moved on. I race for fun, not for time, and I enjoy trying the obstacles over fighting through penalties, so the journeyman division at Shale Hill is a great fit for me.
Shortly after the pre-race meeting, the elites heading out. I look the time before my heat to coordinate my gear. The weather was a fairly mild 20 or so degrees with light flurries and no wind. I had elected to wear a base layer, fleece layer, and top thin windbreaker jacket. On the bottom I had tights covered with snow pants. On my feet I had Darn Tough socks with feet warmers stuck on the top and my Icebugs. I also wore gloves, a hat, and my Spahtens buff. I brought along my hydration pack with water and some larabars and Sharkie energy chews. I planned to use the blow back method to keep my tube on the hydration bladder from freezing. This worked only mediocrely -- the tube got frozen a couple of times and had to be thawed at the fire at one of the four water stops on the course. The valve got frozen once too, but I was able to thaw that in my palm, so that was less of a problem. I had to go a little ways without water, but was able to snack on some clean snow, so it wasn't much of an issue. Getting an insulator for your hydration pack tube would be a good move if you want to take your pack on and off during this race.
At around 7:20 a.m., I went to line-up for our 7:30 wave start. Many of the fellow Spahtens were doing the journeyman wave, so we snapped a quick team picture before getting the siren that signaled we were off and running!
Currently, the course at Shale Hill measures in at 6.5 miles, just over a 10K. Pretty early on in the day, it became clear that one of the biggest challenges of the day would be traversing the trails between the 60 obstacles that lay scattered across the course. Vermont, like the rest of the Northeast, was blanketed with around three feet of snow. The trails were tamped down, but ever step was like moving through sand. Walking was exhausting!
Usually, when I do a race, write-up I do a detailed listing of all of the obstacles. Because I have been to Shale Hill so many times, I'm not going to do that here. If you want a complete detailed write-up of all the obstacles, you can find one in this blog post. What I will talk about is the new obstacles and the completely new experience one can have racing Shale Hill in the winter.
The summary line is this: The course takes me around three hours in the summer; this time it took me between 5:15 and 5:30. That's over five hours to do one lap! There were four waves: elite, two open waves, and journeyman. I heard reports that only 20% of elites went out to do a second lap. That means almost everyone just did one.
Conditions were treacherous. Icebugs or some other traction shoe were a must. I had on a pair of Icebugs that included carbide tips, which was definitely a help was we marched up and down ice covered hills. Some hills were so slick and steep that ropes had been added to help you get up or down. Running -- or should I say walking -- from obstacle to obstacle was, as I said before, exhausting. Every step had you sinking into snow and having to stabilize. Movement was slow and belabored. The snowy conditions were without a doubt the most challenging part of the day. Otherwise, the weather was quite pleasant with temperatures in the low 20s and no wind. I felt pretty comfortable temperature-wise in my gear and stayed fairly dry. My feet got a bit wet at the end -- water resistant shoes can only stand up to so many hours trudging through snow -- but the feet warmers kept things feeling fine.
Obstacles that are do-able in the summer are much harder in the winter. My fingers definitely got cold and gloves had to be removed in many cases to provide traction and increase grip strength on obstacles. I am usually great on the rope traverse. My technique has me doing the first half on top and the second half underneath. At Shale Hill I had only ever failed this obstacle once. Now I've failed it twice. My fingers were so frozen that when I switched to the underneath technique they couldn't hold my weight.
Overall though, I was pretty happy with my grip strength and success with the climbing-based obstacles. These sorts of obstacles (versus the work obstacles such as carries and hoists) are definitely my strength. I did well on all the rope climbs, all of the climbing obstacles in the area referred to as "the jungle" (Abacus, Linkin' Logs, Swinging Ladders). I nailed Cliff Jumper, the huge Alcatraz Wall, the Loom, and the 11' Wall. My grip held out. I made it through two panels of the giant Traverse Wall, which is not my best showing (as I've made it to the fourth out of five), but it isn't the worst I can do. I did okay on the rotating Monkey Bars and made it half way through. The bars are late on the course, and my strength is always a bit sapped by then. I did have some trouble with the third to last obstacle, the Tarzan Swing. I love that obstacle. I have never made it all the way through, but I can always do a little. My hands were so chapped and sore at that point though that I couldn't get a grip on the rope.
When I arrived at the obstacle, there was a group of fellow Spahten gathered around it and kind of just staring and analyzing. I understood why. The obstacle consisted of two metal pipes you had to traverse with your hands and then a rope climb down. This was early in the day and the metal was cold. When my turn came, I could barely wrap my hands around the over 2" diameter pipes. I maybe made it a third of the way along the first pipe before I came down. My numb fingers could not get a good grip around the thick poll and just gave out. This summer, Zig Zag of Awesomeness, I am coming to resolve some unfinished business.
The other new obstacle that presented a problem for me was a carry. I am not very good at the work-style obstacles that require hauling of heavy objects. This list includes such obstacles as sandbags carries, bucket carries, log carries, and hoists. Being 5' tall and weight 115, these obstacles are probably always going to present a problem, but I need to start training harder for them. For Polar Bear, Rob had replaced the sandbag / slosh pipe carry with a log carry. This was no traditional log carry. The carry consisted of two stumps connected with a piece of flat cord. We had to carry this mess along the 1/2 to 2/3 of a mile loop that marked the sandbag / slosh pipe carry. This route is marshy in the summer and, apparently, icy in the winter. It consists of lots of up and down and you go down hills. After almost killing myself with the 60 pound sandbag the first time I was at Shale Hill, I had moved to the less-heavy-but-hard-to-manage slosh pipe. Now there was no option. The logs easily weighed as much as the sandbag. I tried my absolute best, but it was a bit of a mess and a sufferfest. I got lots of encouragement from fellow-Spahen, Mike, who was a huge help. It was a case of one foot in front of the other, until I either collapsed or the strap holding the logs slipped off my shoulders. I have large bruises on both shoulders today and can barely move my arms all courtesy of this obstacle. It left me spent when it came time to the other log carry and the bucket carry. (Note: The bucket carry was re-done from the shale bucket carry to the ice bucket carry for the winter. I did not take a full bucket; I would not have made it.)
The final new obstacle of the day was the second to last, the warped wall. By the time I reached this obstacle I was beyond exhaustion. The past five plus hours spent navigating through the snow had left my legs so tired they were at the point of collapse. The small group of Spahtens I was with just stood looking at the wall. Of course, we had to try. With the minimal power my legs could muster, I ran towards and up the wall. I made it about half way before slamming into the snow slick wall and tumbling back down. Another mission for this summer!
From the warped wall, we could see the finish line. We snaked our way along the Anaconda, a bunch of moguls with some walls for good measure. I slide down the declines on my seat and climbed the inclines counting my steps.
I crossed the finish line, my one lap completed with a smile on my face. My legs, arms, and lungs were burning, I had a bit of a cough from sucking down so much cold air, but I had spent a very fun day doing something I loved.
Obstacle racing is a predominantly summertime sport. Shale Hill's Polar Bear race is really unique. I've tacked the Shale Hill course over a half dozen times now. This was by far the hardest. Doing an obstacle in the summer and doing it in the cold of the winter are two very different things. The level of challenge is upped immeasurably by icy ropes and freezing fingers that lack grip strength. Trekking through the snow and up and down ice-covered hills is a mental task in an of itself without having to consider over sixty obstacles that test your strength, agility, and fortitude. Every step taken on this course was work.
Polar Bear was a one-of-a-kind experience. Shale Hill is a fantastic place. If you haven't visited yet, I seriously don't know what you're waiting for.
(Note: Most pictures in this post are from the NE Spahtens or Shale Hill Facebook pages. Credit goes to them!)