Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Shale Hill Weekend Training Camp

The past two days, I spent five hours a day doing obstacle course training at Shale Hill's weekend training camp. (Note: I had been planning to do the week long training camps in mid-August, but that camp was cancelled due to under enrollment causing me to attend the weekend camp.) I had come up to Shale Hill for a training weekend with the NE Spahtens last summer -- it was actually my first time on the course. I found the experience invaluable and was excited to get more time on the course training and getting some suggestions for a couple of the obstacles that I have yet to really get down.

Prior to the camp, the half dozen participants received an email with information and asking one key question: What do you want to work on this weekend? Because I'm apparently impossible at replying to anything with brevity, my reply email (minus pleasantries and logistical information) read like this:

My overall goal with the weekend is to lay the groundwork for my off season training so that I can be in top shape for racing come next summer. One thing I am particularly interested in doing is racing the full 24 hour event at 24 Hours of Shale Hell next summer. I'd be interested in talking with Rob about a training plan for that race. I see the 24 hour race as a goal race that can highlight my increased OCR-related fitness next year. Also, I'm probably looking to do the open division instead of racing journeyman next year -- it's time. Here's a breakdown of the smaller goals that I see feeding into that bigger goal.

1. With the exception of the parallel bars, I have now made it through every obstacle at Shale Hill at least once. I would like to improve my consistency on a few obstacles: Tarzan ropes (which I've made during training but not on race day), tire swings, zigzag of awesomeness, and the 19' rope climb (which I'm getting better at, so that might come off the list). Any suggestions for technique or muscles to improve so as to get more consistent on these obstacles would be great. I'll work on doing more dips to get better at the parallel bars.
2. Carries. I struggled with the carries. In fact, my almost complete inability to make it through the log splitter is what's keeping me in the journeyman division (as I like the option of taking a slosh pipe). I need to get better at this and would like to hear how I can train to be more efficient and effective with my carries. 
3. Figure out a training plan for 24 Hours of Shale Hell!

I was ready to head up to Benson and begin the work necessary to set the stage for the 2016 race season.

The Shale Hill weekend training camp costs $350, housing included, or $250 if you want to train without housing. For the price, you get to train with Rob, the owner of Shale Hill and an extremely excellent obstacle course racer and trainer, from 9:00 a.m. - 2:00 p.m. daily. As the Shale Hill site says, the camp will cover:

  • Obstacle technique (efficiency and movement)
  • One on one time
  • Training techniques for home use
  • Running gate assessment and shoe fitment

All training will be custom - based off the attendees goals and abilities. Full access to the course and gym outside hours.

I arrived up at Shale Hill Friday night. The $350 included two nights (Friday and Saturday). Since I live around three hours away, it made sense to go up the night before. I would be sharing accommodations with the other camp attendees: Barbara, Louise, Wanda, Jim, and Marc.

The apartment at Shale Hill is outfitted with two rooms each containing two sets of bunk beds and two sleeper couches.There is also a full kitchen, so you can make all your food there. When the apartment is not in use for training camps and the like, it can be rented out for $150 a night.




After I arrived on Friday night at around 7:30 p.m., we decided to use some of the daylight left to us to go and look at one or two obstacles on the course. We started by heading over to the Zigzag of Awesomeness. It was Marc and Louise's first time up at Shale Hill. Barbara had been up a lot. Jim had been up once last fall (so the Zigzag was new to him). Wanda had been up a few times but didn't tend to race. All of us stood at the Zigzag when Louise gave it a try. I was impressed -- it was her first time seeing it, and she made it across.


We also decided to head over to the Tarzan Swing. I'm able to make it through this obstacles with increasing consistency. Rob had provided training tips when I was first up at Shale Hill last year, and after a year of practice, I found I was finally able to make it through most of the time. I shared some of the instruction I had received and did a small demo on the Tarzan Swing. We all took turns trying it out and practiced getting the feel of the movement through the air. 


After, we decided to head back for an early night and some rest. After all, we had five hours of training the next day, and we didn't want to tire our hands out already.

Saturday morning, I got up, went down to the Benson Village Store for some coffee and an egg bagel, and then headed back to Shale Hill to meet in the gym at 9:00 a.m. for day one of training. We were also joined by Sarah, who was coming to train for the morning in preparation for her first Spartan race next weekend.


We started by going around and talking a bit about our goals for the training weekend. The group contained people who were all fit but had varying levels of experience with obstacle course racing. I talked about how I was hoping to use the weekend to set the stage for my 2016 training, to get some take-away's for training on my own, and to get advice for training for next year's 24 Hours of Shale Hell race.

After getting a feel for our goals, Rob did a bit of talking about obstacle course racing in general and how to train in the gym so as to gain skills that would help you on the course. He began by detailing the ABCs for approaching obstacles (Accelerate towards the obstacle, use a Burst of energy to get through, and Complete the obstacle). Rob also gave us information about how to do training in the gym with ropes and recommended that we all get some rope to carry around the gym with us for all purposes. Having strong hands and good grip strength and endurance is key to success in obstacle course racing and making your hands used to having ropes in them is a good first step.

From there, we headed out on to the course to begin practicing rope climbing and going over walls. We all had a chance to try the s-hook and the j-hook for rope climbing. I use the s-hook for ascending ropes, as I prefer how stable it is; however, it's not ideal for coming down -- the j-hook is designed for repelling and is faster and less likely to give you rope burn. I did a bit of practice on transitioning from the s to the j-hook while we all did our rope climbing.  


Rob also showed us the most efficient way to go over a wall. He's a fan of running at and then up the wall, a technique I had seen before. He also likes to roll over the wall, putting his stomach over and then rolling the legs along the side, instead of sitting up on the wall. I do okay with running at the wall but definitely needed to practice getting over the top without sitting up. This was a good opportunity to do so.

Next up was the Rope Ramp. This gave us the opportunity to do a bit more practice with rope climbing, especially useful for the newer folks.


From there, we headed over to the jungle (the area at Shale Hill in the woods with lots of climbing obstacles). We took the chance to talk about trail running and downhill running. Rob talked about his strategy for training running: Look for flattest path around objects on the trail by sighting far ahead for level ground. While Rob emphasized keeping your torso upright and movement minimal when doing most running, when trail running he said it often made sense to stutter step and have arms out to side for balance. 

He also showed us the most efficient way to run downhill by planting the foot (not heel) and using your quads. Finally, we discussed the best way to seamlessly vault a log, planting your foot on the side on the log nearest you, instead of directly on top of the log and moving over the log in a crouch, trying to keep your head from bobbing up at down. All of these efforts conserve energy for later in the course.


Up next were the climbing obstacles, the Linkin' Logs and the Ladders. We more or less just practiced going up and down the Linkin' Logs, with Rob reminding us how to properly angle our feet in the cutouts and sight upwards, dragging our feet along the logs and feeling for the next grove instead of looking down. I enjoy the Linkin' Logs, and it was fun to get to play around a bit on them and see everyone else be successful at this obstacle.


At the Ladders, Rob demonstrated a few different approaches for speed and efficiency. There was the option to grab the rope right above the step, put a knee on the first rung and then climb normally. Alternatively, you could climb the side, which would make the ladder move less. I've used the sideways technique before with smaller, metal ladders, but I personally doing a more traditional climb to work better for me with the Shale Hill ladders. 


From the Ladders, we made our way to the Great Wall, a five paneled six part traverse wall. At Shale Hill, you start on the first traverse wall and don't touch the ground until you've made it across all five panels and the balance beams or overhead beams that connect the walls. In general, you start on one side and stay on that side, alternating between walls that have you holding blocks and standing on blocks and other easier walls that have you standing on a railing and using blocks for handholds. I've been pretty successful on the Great Wall lately, so while Rob introduced the wall to others, he told me to go ahead and complete it using the foot and hand blocks side all the way along.


I had to stop and shake my arms out a couple of times, but I made it. Rob then provided instruction about the fastest way to make it across the overhead beams that connect two sets of the traverse walls. He recommended leaning out as far as you could, swinging and almost jumping your hands to the end of the beam. I tried twice, and this is definitely going to take some practice, but you cannot beat this technique for speed. 


The Heinous Hoist was up next. I find hoists a bit challenging, and Rob's pointer on this was very helpful for me. He recommended grabbing the rope high and then dropping down in a frog squat using the entire weight of your body to move the object up. As you do this you almost jump back up and quickly go up the rope with your hands using momentum to help you move the object. This strategy works much more easily than what I had been doing (which was grabbing the rope high and then walking back in a squat to bring the weight up). Rob's technique uses a lot less energy and is much faster. I will be doing this at all future races.


Our final couple of obstacles before lunch were the Alcatraz Wall and the Balance Beams. We were all pretty successful here. 


We even practiced playing around on speeding through the beams at an (almost run). Plus, some people (though certainly not me) were doing them backwards!


From there, we headed back to the gym for lunch and a quick selfie and team photo with Sarah who had to head back home. 



During lunch, Rob took time to do more instruction about how to train at the gym for obstacle course racing success. Some of the exercises and tips he shared included:
  • Bicep curls where you roll the weight out to fingertips 
  • Alligator crawls
  • Farmers carry (for which he recommended using a weight with lip on one side and carrying weight plates almost to failure) 
  • Roll-outs
  • Rope walk downs, in which you stand and hold a rope then lean forward towards the rope and walk your planked body towards the floor
  • Tricep pull downs with a rope 
  • Putting a regular rope around a dumbbell and doing curls and the like that way
  • All ropes, all the time 
  • Do hundreds of reps instead of a small number to build muscular endurance instead of bulk


Rob also highlighted the importance of keeping your feet happy and showed us how to wrap vet tape around your ankle and the top of your shoes to keep out pebbles. 

After lunch, we headed back out onto the course to hit up the Zigzag of Awesomeness. I struggle on this obstacle a little bit and was glad to get some practice in. We reviewed doing the obstacle the traditional way, ascending the poles, and also did the obstacle in reverse. The purpose of doing the obstacle backwards was to give us a feel for the best way to pendulum our body left and right as we moved our hands along the pole. Rob also emphasized reaching far apart so as to move most quickly. 
I chatted with Rob a little bit about how I am not the best at this obstacle and he recommended working a bit on getting my hands stronger. I also think a piece of this is focus. The one time I completed this obstacle, I was super focused and also did not let any doubt creep into my mind. I need to maintain that mentality. 


Next up was the Tarzan Swing. I had done some demonstrating on this obstacle the night before, so Rob let me go first and show him what I had told the others. I made it all the way through. Others then took turns practicing as Rob gave pointers and showed the different methods you need to tackle the obstacle when you use the knotted versus unknotted ropes. 


We had taken a while with lunch and also spent a good amount of time on the Tarzan Swing, since it's a very challenging obstacle for people. It was time to head back.


After taking some time for some R&R, the training group decided to take advantage of our time at Shale Hill and access to the facilities there and head back out on the course. We hit up the Loom and the Tire Swings for about an hour and a half and played around. We went back to the apartment in time to all take showers and then get ready for the cookout over at Rob's house that evening. 


The cookout was a great way to wrap-up the day and enjoy some socializing and downtime. As always, Rob was an amazing host. We had plans to do a bonfire and roast some s'mores but ended up being tired and decided to head back to the apartment for a good night's sleep before our next training day on Sunday. 

Day two of training, I awoke to a second day of perfect weather. Rob had intimated that we'd be having some "celebrity" trainers coming. I had been excited to learn that it would be none other than Jason and Heather Moss, both members of Team Sinergy, experienced obstacle course racers, and all around fantastic trainers and athletes. I have done a bit of training with Rob at this point, so getting to train with Heather and Jason was a fabulous opportunity to get a different take on some of the obstacles and learn different techniques. Benefiting from the expertise of a variety of different athletic trainers proved to be likely my favorite part of the training weekend. 

Again, we met up in the gym at 9:00 a.m. Jason started us out with a boot camp inspired warm-up and then Heather led us through a stretch. It was very nice to see their two different coaching approaches, which worked to complement each other very well. Jason has a no nonsense "Just do it" approach, which I really enjoy. Heather offers a more encouraging take. The balance of the two is really effective. They are both great at showing you various approaches for tackling obstacles. Jason is tall and can take advantage of that on some of the obstacles. Heather is more around my height, and I found it extremely helpful to get advice from her as a result. Techniques that work for taller athletes like Rob and Jason are sometimes a bit more of a challenge for shorter athletes like me, and so Heather's versions of things proved very useful. 

We started our day on the course out at the wall and rope again and had a chance to practice our skills. Heather also modeled a different approach to getting over the wall -- instead of running at the wall, she stands next to it and jumps to reach the top before walking up and then rolling over. I had some success with the running method, but it's not 100%, so Heather's approach was great to see and will be what I do in future races.

Next up, we headed over to the Pond Traverse. Jason demonstrated the below the rope technique and Heather showed us how to do the traverse above the rope. I tend to favor both methods -- doing the top technique to the middle of the rope and then transitioning to below. I practiced both ways. I very rarely fail the rope traverse. (The only time I've failed in the last year was at Tri-Obstaclon.) I am definitely getting faster though. Honestly, going as fast as possible makes this obstacle easier. Limit your time on the rope was the key message.


After the Pond Traverse, we headed down to Gut Check. Of all the obstacles, I think this one gives me most pause. I always just climb up the sides, which is not the proper way to do this obstacle at all. One is supposed to jump from the lower log to the upper one, like you can see Heather doing in the picture below. Heather talked with me a bit about this one and how to really power off the bottom log. For the first time, I did both Gut Checks (that's right there are two of them) and made it over. I had to scramble a little bit to pull myself over the top log and scraped my arm a bit, but I now understand now key it is to jump hard off the bottom log. This will never be a favorite obstacle, and it will always make me kind of nervous with the potential for bruises and scrapes, but if I keep practicing technique, I should be able to do it properly soon. 


We headed over to the Rope Ramp where we did a bit more rope climbing and talked about running form some more. Jason talked about mid-foot striking and how proper running form will help with endurance. He also reiterated some pointers from earlier about hill climbing and downhill running. For climbing hills, you want to keep your torso upright and act as though you are climbing stairs. For running downhill, he mirrored what Rob said the day before about the importance of sighting ahead.

From there, we headed into the field where we got to do some work on the Double Ups and the Cliff Jumper. Everyone did really well on the Double Ups. Some people even modeled a fancy dismount with a flip.


I really like Cliff Jumper, so I was excited to get to look at this obstacle. I have no trouble getting up, but I am fairly inefficient coming down, since I use a rope on the back of the obstacle, do an s-hook and slowly lower myself. Jason showed me how to just lean off the top and climb down the wall on the other side without the rope. This looks surprisingly easier than what I was doing. Good tip!


We headed back to the barn for what was supposed to be a quick lunch but ended up being an hour of chatting about OCR World Championships in Ohio this October and the sport of Obstacle Course Racing. It was a good time to socialize and digest, but it took away time from training. I'm hoping that for next year, the Shale Hill camp considers doing training from 9:00 a.m. - noon, breaking an hour for lunch, and then training again from 1:00 - 3:00 p.m. As it was, with the 9:00 a.m. - 2:00 p.m. training window, we really only ended up training for four hours instead of five because of lunch. Splitting things up might allow for a less compacted afternoon of training and time for chatting during lunch. 

Once lunch was finished, we ran the approximately one mile out to the Loom. We had practiced some there the other day, and I am pretty efficient on the Loom, having spent a good amount of time on this obstacle at our NE Spahtens training weekend last year, so I could have skipped this one. However, it was a good opportunity for others. I ran through the Loom a couple of times because it's always good to repeat and train. 


It was almost 1:30 p.m., so we made a quick trip to the 11' wall and the 19' rope climb. There is no real trick to the 11' wall, according to Jason -- just walk up and over. We had done a lot of rope climbing at this point. I did a quick trip up and down. Some others did the same. A few people had kind of roughed up hands at this point and decided to save their strength for the next obstacle, the monkey bars. 


Since everyone in the group was able to make it across the horizontal rotating monkey bars, a lot of time was spent on the uphill monkey bars. I had never really devoted any time to them since they are not required for women running in the open division. However, it was great to see how people worked on this obstacle. The key seems to be doing them backwards so as to use the strength of your back to lift yourself up and along. The rungs are pretty widely spaced, so for someone with a shorter wingspan, you find your self almost doing a pull-up. Heather did an amazing demonstration and a number of people in our group made it impressively far on the uphill monkey bars. I decided to try, and was able to make it to the third rung. While this isn't an obstacle I think I'll ever have to do, it's always fun trying new challenges and getting the feel for new things. I might come and play around on this one more in the future. 


The day was winding down, so I asked if it would be possible to go over to the Log Splitter Carry. One of my goals for the weekend was to get some work in with the heavy carries. Jason said we could, so we headed over there. 

The Log Splitter is my nemesis and part of the reason why I have been running in the journeyman division. Since this had to change, I needed to figure out a solution for the Log Splitter. This was my chance to get some pointers for how to select a log, do the carry, and train for success. 


Heather gave me a great demonstration for the carry. She told me how to select the longer, thinner logs for a slightly lighter log but also emphasized the benefits of taking slightly shorter logs which I could holder underneath with my hands. (The thinner logs, while lighter are quite long and you cannot grasp them underneath.) She demonstrated how to stand the logs on the ground with the strap separating them and then how to squat down to pick up. To do this, you put your head under the strap and then stand with a flat back using the strength of your legs. The band between the logs should be positioned, as much as possible, on the meaty part of your upper shoulders and back instead of on your neck.


I tried with the thinner logs and then the thicker shorter logs, until I got the feel of it. Getting the logs on my back properly and efficiently made a big difference. The other two women in the group decided for their last activity of the day to go and do the Tarzan Swing again. Heather took them, while Jason and the other two men joined me for a loop of the Log Splitter Carry. This was my second time doing the carry, and I was much more successful than at Polar Bear. Not only did I not hurt myself, but I managed the weight well, kept good form, and kept moving at, what is for me, a descent pace. At the end of the carry, I thanks Jason for letting me practice. This was what I came to training camp for -- to get solutions to the obstacles I struggle with the most. 

So who should attend the Shale Hill training camp? The short answer: Anyone interested in obstacle course racing. The long answer: I would highly recommend the camp for anyone wanting to go to Shale Hill for the first time. I think it's very helpful to go to Shale Hill and do a couple of days of training where you can get a feel for the obstacles before doing a race there. Sure this is not a requirement by any means, but the obstacles at Shale Hill can be technical and having someone run you through them with detailed instruction is very helpful. The camp is also great for anyone new to the sport of obstacle course racing. Rob is an experienced, patient, and detail-oriented teacher. He will teach the proper technique that will allow you to be successful in the sport. Learning good skills early-on is key for building a good base.

For next year, I'd love to see Shale Hill offer "leveled" camps for beginner, intermediate, and advanced training. This would provide a great opportunity for athletes at similar places in their training to work together and learn from each other. It would also mean that people who are learning techniques for the first time would be grouped together and not feel rushed as they practice skills. Similarly, it would allow people who have already mastered the basics to spend more time working on more technical areas and improving skills in the margins to improve speed and efficiency. No matter your level of experience, Rob has something to teach you, and he is good at customizing training to the individual once he sees your level of experience. Having the training weekends (or weeks!) broken out by experience will allow athletes to have a more catered experience.

I got some good training tips from the Shale Hill camp -- the weekend in Vermont was a great investment -- I look forward to talking with Rob more about a training plan for next year and to begin training for a good 2016 season. I think the training weekend, plus the training I've done up at Shale Hill on my own this year, has resulted in some nice improvements. I plan to do some scaling back of my training this fall (to coincide with the start of my classes for my Master's) and then will begin training in earnest again in early winter with some base building and then more systematic training in the spring. I look forward to having a good plan to do that and think the training weekend has gotten me off to a good start.

(Note: Photos taken by me, Louise, and Marc. Thanks, team!)

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