Saturday, April 25, 2015

Viking Hill Obstacle Course

Sunny Hill Resort, in the Catskills of Greene County New York, is home to the Viking Obstacle Course, a fixed obstacle course covering 5.5 miles and consisting of 35 obstacles. Twice a year, they host races, but I have never been able to make it up to Sunny Hill to check out a race and the course. I had heard rave things about Sunny Hill, a family friendly resort, and the obstacle course they had there, created by none other than Shale Hill's owner, Rob Butler. Today, the stars aligned, and I was able to go up Greenville, New York and check out the course during their free training day for Bone Frog Challenge participants.

I got up bright and early to head out to Lee to meet my Spahten friend (and FIT Challenge carpool buddy), Matt. He lives west of me in Massachusetts and we were planning to head to the Viking Obstacle Course training day together. After a quick meet-up in Lee, we were on our way to Greenville, New York, a little over an hour drive west. 

When we made it to Sunny Hill Resort, it was immediately clear why this is a popular destination. This is the most family-friendly place I could imagine. There were tons of playgrounds, golf courses, pools and water parks, and cabins to stay in. If I had a family this would be a definite destination. (ie. Kids enjoy the water park; I enjoy the obstacles.)

We were able to drive right up to one of the club houses where we checked in with Tinker, who is in charge of Viking Hill. She was welcoming and clearly knew Matt, who living an hour away is somewhat of a regular. After we changed our shoes, she said we were welcome to head out on the course by ourselves. It was a day of training, and we were free to roam. 

Matt is a lot faster than me. (Those who read this blog regularly might recall that he qualified for OCR World Championships at F.I.T. Challenge a couple of weeks ago.) He was very kind to stay with me the entire training day at Viking Hill and show me the whole course.

Overall, the course features some nice trail running through the woods around the golf course. There are some rolling hills, but you're not going to have to worry about elevation much. Everything is well marked using yellow arrow markers, in the style of Shale Hill. The placement of the obstacles is truly excellent! They are pretty evenly distributed and you never go more than a fifth of a mile without something to tackle.  

Below is a list of all 35 obstacles with descriptions. As you can see form the map, and as I said before, distribution of the obstacles is excellent. There is some mud and water on the course, so be ready for that, and wear your OCR shoes -- for me, the Icebugs that I don't mind getting dirty with water and mud. Upperbody strength is key for this course. There are a lot of walls, so you're going to want to be efficient at tackling those. The course features a lot of unique and fun obstacles you won't see anywhere else, so it's worth the drive!

1. Troll Traps: A spiderweb of knee-height ropes. Agility required to jog your way through. 
2. 5' Wall
3. 4' Wall
4. Loki's Ladders: A rope ladder with wooden rungs. Some of these ladders are actually tied down at the bottom (unlike the similar ones at Shale Hill), which makes them a bit easier. You climb up the ladder, ring the bell, and then go back down.

5. Helga's Hurdles: Three chest-height logs that you had to pull your self up and over. 
6. Freya's Cloak: A webs of netting (plastic) to crawl under, down a slight decline. Matt gave me a good tip, which was to do this one feet first. I managed to forget to take of my hydration pack and got a bit tangled, so I would recommend doing this one with your pack off, like you might with a barbed wire crawl.
7. 5' Wall
8. Odin's Tables: Absolutely awesome obstacle! You climbed up a ramp and then climbed down the rope hanging off the other side. There were two of these back to back. This obstacle really impressed me because it was the opposite of one of my favorite ones at Shale Hill. On the Shale Hill obstacle, you have to climb the rope, and hoist yourself up onto the platform and then take the ramp down. It was fun doing this in reverse. Plus there were two of them. Proper technique with your feet on the rope (j-hook or s-hook) is key.

9. Tall Wall: The Tall Wall was probably around 12 feet and featured a rope. You used the rope to climb over the wall and then lower yourself down on the other side.
10. Triple Walls - 5', 6', 7'
11. Cargo Net: This was a nice large a-frame cargo net. It was well secured and a fun climb.
12. Runestones: The Runestones were a use of a natural feature on the trails. This was a set of boulders that you had to climb over and weave your way through.
13. 10' Walls
14. Down 'n Dirty: This was a crawl underneath some logs and through some wet mud.
15. Asgard Skywalk: Another amazingly fun and innovative obstacle. (I wish I was able to find a picture!) This obstacle is actually three parts. The first is a set of three or four logs that you have to walk across like balance beams. You then transfer to a rope, where you do a fairly short rope traverse. From the traverse, you have to lower yourself back down onto another balance log and complete a set of two or three more balance logs. You are probably off the ground for over 100 feet!
16. The Norse Poles: This obstacle had you climbing up a wooden log with small foot holds and then transferring to a rope for a rope climb. Be warned, you have to do the rope climb with just the strength of your arms. The log weighs down the rope, so a j-hook or s-hook is impossible. I wasn't actually sure I'd be able to make the climb, but it's a short one and not too deep into the course, so I did. Pretty exciting!

17. Triple Walls - 5', 6', 7'
18. The Hull: Another fantastically interesting and innovative obstacle. This was an inverse wall with a difference. First the wall was more inverted than what you normally see. Second, there were no rungs underneath. You had to grab the top, get a foot over, and muscle your way up. For fellow short people, like me, you're going to need a bit of a jump to grab the lip, but I was able to do it by myself. From there, you slide down the other side of the wall before climbing up and over a wooden ladder. Again, take note, the ladder was on a slight angle, so you were leaning back a tiny bit on the way down. Awesome!

19. Tree Bob: Matt and I had been avoiding getting really wet for the first part of this course; the Tree Bob would make that impossible. For this obstacle, you had to walk across a set of logs that were bobbing just above the surface of the water. This balance challenge was made more difficult by the pieces of bark that sometimes flew off underfoot. The Icebugs saved the day and we both made it across the slippery logs. 

20. Creek Culverts: Time to get more wet. This obstacle had us walking up a small creek and through a culvert. Brr. (I used to be able to feel my feet.)
21. Traverse Wall: Most raced have one traverse wall. Viking Hill has five. Three back-to-back traverse walls, followed by a balance beam, followed by another wall, followed by an overhead beam (that you have to walk up with your hands), followed by a final wall. This is a very similar set-up to the Great Wall at Shale Hill, but there are many more hand and foot holds on the wall at Viking Hill. I've never made it past the third wall at Shale Hill without falling off, but I was able to make it through all five walls at Viking Hill. I am actually pretty thrilled about this accomplishment. My forearms were pretty tired after the fourth wall, and I wasn't sure I'd be able to do the overhead beam. However, I made it, and then I had to do the last wall. I will say that this entire obstacle pretty much trashed my arms for the rest of the course. I need to do some work!

22. Loose Logs: Another balance obstacle. This one featured logs, suspended by ropes over a small stream. These logs moved forward and back quite a bit. I almost fell off at least once. 

23. Arnie's Armbusters: This obstacle was a log carry. They had a lot of different sizes and most were dry and pretty easy to carry. The loop was fairly small. This was the only "work obstacle" on the course, something that I enjoyed since I am not one for carries, and it was not overly difficult. It served as a nice break from all the walls!
24. 4' Wall
25. Over-Unders: The Over-Unders featured a 4' wall and then a log to roll under followed by another wall and log. 
26. Frigg: Frigg was a giant inclined wall of around twenty feet. There was a rope that you grabbed to help you walk up the incline. Then, you got to climb down a ladder on the back. After the obstacle, you had to wade up a swampy area of freezing water to get to the next obstacle.

27. Dragon's Tooth: Dragon's Tooth is no ordinary set of monkey bars! The obstacle featured a set of flat bars, followed by uphill bars, then downhill bars, and finally a last set of flat monkey bars. My arms were still feeling it from the traverse wall, and my hands, which have not yet developed their mid-summer-frequent-obstacle-course-enthusiast callouses were not having it. I made it through the flat set of bars but could not do the uphill ones. The rungs on these do not move (thank goodness!); however, the uphill and downhill bars are fairly widely spaced, making it a challenge for shorts arms. I definitely want to improve the endurance of my grip and forearms, but this obstacle would have been a challenge for my reach on any day (though not impossible -- more work is needed!). First failed obstacle of the day.

28. Old Futz Xing: The crossing has you walking across a pond, guided by a rope. This one wasn't set up yet for the season, so we skipped it.
29. Climbing Culvert Pipes: Here we had to crawl up a small hill through a plastic pipe. The pipe wasn't too narrow or too long. Not too bad. 
30. 21' Ropes: A 21' rope climb this late in the course! I love a good rope climb, and usually consider this to be a strength, but I know from the Beast that a late course rope climb can be a challenge. I made it about half way on this one, making this my second failed obstacle of the day. A killer long climb at a killer place in the course. 
31. Raster Grid: As the name implies, this obstacle is grid-like in structure. It's an open rope construction between two trees that you climb up and over like a rope ladder. At Shale Hill, it's called the Abacus. I wasn't able to find an image from Viking Hill of this obstacle, but here's a picture of the Shale Hill one to give you an idea. I find this obstacle to be a lot of fun, and it's always one of my favorites because I really enjoy climbing. 

32. Valhalla's Moat: Wet! This section of the course has you go under a log into some mud and then navigate through a set of Troll Traps through a very muddy region. 
33. Viking Gate: Finish line! One climb over the a-frame ladder and it's across the finish line.

I enjoyed my trip to Viking Hill immensely. They are going to be doing their first race of the season on June 13, and I definitely recommend signing up. (The price is super reasonable and includes a shirt, medal, food, and free parking and spectators.) If, like me, you're unfortunately busy that day, know that the course is open for training from spring through fall and is a very affordable $25 for the day. It's worth the drive. 

As Matt said, Viking Hill is like Shale Hill's little brother. The course is obstacle heavy, but has around 25 fewer obstacles than Shale Hill. There are tons of walls. If you want to practice some moderately sized walls, go no further. The course had me pretty tired at the end, but it was fun all the way through. We were going at a relaxed pace and stopped to chat with people along the way and still finished the course in just under two hours. (For comparison the 6.5 mile, 60 obstacle course at Shale Hill takes me probably 3.5 hours.) 

Viking Hill has innovative obstacles that will challenge any level of athlete. At the same time, a lot of the course is very approachable for first-timers because of the flat terrain and the fact that you can come and train and spend as much time as you want on any obstacle. You might not get every one on your first time through -- I certainly didn't -- and that is part of the fun. 

As you've seen throughout my post, comparisons to Shale Hill abound. These are more Rob Butler obstacles, so naturally they don't disappoint. I highly recommend a trip to Greenville, New York to Sunny Hill Resort to check out this course. 

(Note: All photos from the Viking Hill Obstacle Race website. Thank you for their use!)

Saturday, April 11, 2015

F.I.T. Challenge 2015

Today, I took part in the third race in the NE Spahten's #racelocalF.I.T. Challenge, an approximately 5K obstacle course race that took place today in Cumberland, Rhode Island at Diamond Hill State Park. It was a fantastically fun day with a great event and course, perfect weather, and cool people to spent time with.

The day started at 8:00 a.m. when fellow Spahten, Matthew, met up with me in Amherst, so that we could head to F.I.T. together for the 10:45 a.m. team wave. Something like over 200 Spahtens were signed-up for this local race! The ride to Cumberland was surprisingly easy, taking just over 90 minutes; plus, I had good company. When we arrived at Diamond Hill, we were greeted by follow Spahten and my Ragnar team member from last year, Marc. Parking was $10 -- pretty standard -- and onsite, which was fantastic. People were having to park in the overflow lot, which was a little bit of a walk away, but fortunately, I was able to parallel park the Beetle into a nearby spot about a three minute walk from the start line.

There was a small registration / event area right near the start line. Matthew and I both had our bib numbers written down, and registration took a second. We got our bibs for our chip time, a t-shirt, and a F.I.T. headband. The event area was pretty small. In addition to the registration area, there as a table for Wreck Bag and OCR World Championships (which was also selling Icebugs -- I didn't check that out since I get mine at Shale Hill. Note: I entirely recommend Icebugs for OCR and Shale Hill is the place to get them. [Incidentally, if you click through to the link, the picture is one that was taken by Paul of my foot in an Icebug doing The Loom obstacle at Shale Hill!). The F.I.T. Challenge race was a qualifying race for OCR World Championships -- a neat bonus.

After registration, we headed over to the other side of the park to meet up with the rest of the Spahtens and drop off our gear before the 10:45 a.m. team heat. The weather was really nice. It was the first sunny day we'd had in a long time and the temperatures were in the low to mid-50s, though it was windy. I wind kept things a bit cool, so I opted for a long sleeved tech t-shirt underneath my team drill shirt. I was a bit warm with this combo, but I'd rather be hot than cold. At the team area, I also met up with Kerri, with whom I had run Polar Bear back in February. It was great to see her and the couple of friends she'd brought along, and we kind of made plans to run the race together.

At 10:30 a.m., we took a quick team picture and then it was off to the start line. I had talked with Aaron, fellow Ragnarian, Spahten, and another sort of race director for F.I.T. who told me that the course clocked in somewhere between three and four miles. I was looking forward to it!

There were some brief announcements at the start line. The race was a great one for beginners because it was penalty free. You just tried your best at an obstacle as many times as you wanted and took it from there (at least for the open waves). With a, "Go!" we were off.

The race started with a bit of trail running along a river that winds through that section of the park. Our wave was a bit large, and there was some bottlenecking here preventing me from jogging along as I might have. Things spread out a bit as we hit the first climb. The course took nice advantage of the terrain at Diamond Hill. We did a bunch of trail running and some climbing up and down the hill. It was at least somewhat technical trail, but everything was well-marked and none of the trails were too demanding. We did enough hiking that I felt my legs were getting a great workout but not so much that it felt like a day hiking. There were sections where you might hike uphill for five minutes or so, but nothing more than that and obstacles were fairly well places, though, of course, clustered to some degree at the bottom of the hill and towards the end of the race.

After some up and down on the trails, we hit the first obstacle, a wall of probably around seven or eight feet. It had some nice kickboards, so you could climb up. Using those. I was about to get over the wall without difficulty.

There was a bit of a bottleneck at this first wall, but nothing beyond a couple of minute wait. After climbing the wall, we exited the woods where we did a set of over-through-under walls before heading back up the hill. Part of this was a crawl underneath some rope (instead of barbed wire). It was of moderate length, considering it was uphill, and my knees took a bit of a beating. Coming back down, I believe the next obstacle we tackled a wall climb of maybe nine or so feet with a rope. This wall also had kickboards to help you up if needed, plus the rope.

I don't exactly remember the order of the course at this point, but I do recall that soon we came to what I would consider the hardest part of the course: peg boards and a rope climb. I had seen peg boards at Blizzard Blast back in January and been foiled by this obstacle. When I saw a picture online indicating that the peg board would be back at F.I.T., I knew I had to nail it. This determination, plus warmer fingers, must have worked because I made it all the way up the peg board. It was definitely a challenge to do this obstacle without a board to practice on. I think that technique with the pegs would save a lot of effort. Fortunately, I was able to wrap my legs around the tree, which was key.

Immediately following the peg boards was a rope climb. Diabolical! My arms and legs were already a bit tired from the peg board, so the rope climb was a tough one. I used the s-hook, which allowed me to take a couple of breaks for my arms and, thus, enabled me to make it to the top.

Following the rope climb, was the Wreck Bag carry. I dread carries. I am not very good at them, and as a small person, I have a lot of trouble. However, the Wreck Bag carry was great. They had 25 pound bags, which were a perfect challenge for someone my size without feeling debilitating. Also, the Wreck Bag had amazing handles and a soft exterior. I was able to carry it on my shoulders without chaffing of any sort -- amazing! We did a walk up and down a stretch of hill with the bag. I left my tired arms rest in the straps and supported the weight of the bag with my back, shoulders, and legs.

We dropped off our bags and got some water before heading off again. There was an inverted wall. Like most, the inverted wall featured rungs on the underside that you could use to pull yourself up and over the wall. From there, it was over some teeter totters and back up the hill and through some more trails before coming back to the last set of obstacles that were set up near where the Spahtens had made camp. We had to weave our way through a set of picnic tables before making it to a very obstacle-dense part of the course.

The final and most prominent set of obstacles featured two rigs with some small walls, overs-and-unders, and an up-and-over. While the rigs were some of the best obstacles on the course, they presented a real problem. The lines in this section of the course were very lengthy. I think, all said and done, I probably spent around 25 minutes of the race held up because of bottlenecking -- most of that time was spent on this section of the course.

Before hitting the rigs, we wove our way under a set of three picnic tables. The first rig obstacle was a set of monkey bars and then a cargo net. There were two set of monkey bars -- one easier and one harder. I opted to challenge myself with the harder set. Things were going along great until I reached the second to last bar which was way way high up. My arms could not reach -- they were almost too short. Matthew was telling me to try jumping, and what I didn't realize was that he was saying to swing and jump to the next flat monkey bar rung. I made another valiant effort to reach the higher bar and just couldn't make it. I had to drop down to the ground and then tackle the cargo net. My only failed obstacle of the day.

From there, we did a quick roll under one of the big trucks provided by sponsor ABF Mud Run. The next rig proved to be my favorite obstacle of the day. There was huge bottlenecking at this obstacle, and I had to wait at least fifteen minutes in line to try. It was worth it. The obstacle featured a rope climb to a set of descending monkey bars to a set of rings you had to walk along a poll to a rope ladder you had to climb to another set of descending monkey bars to a poll traverse. Right in my wheelhouse. I loved it. Using the rings to "walk" along the first poll traverse was extra fun! Kerri kindly waited for me as my line for this obstacle took way longer than the line she was in.

We did a quick set of over-unders before heading to the next line to wait to do the up-and-over.

The up-and-over featured to logs one on top of the other. The first log was probably around six and a half feet in the air. The second log was directly parallel and on top of the first with around two feet separating them. For this obstacle, one has to grab the first log, pull your self up and then step over the top obstacle. This was pretty much the same as an obstacle they have with metal rungs instead of logs at Shale Hill. I was able to use the same technique to get over. 

From there we jogged over to a set of strength-based obstacles. We had to do a set up frog jumps with burpees, followed directly by an Atlas stone carry. They had varying weights, and I was able to take a 35 pound stone, which worked perfectly. From there, we went directly to an area where you had to clean a 45 pound barbell and then do twenty shoulder presses. No different weights here for people of varying sizes. I did ten presses straight through, then did five and then another five. Made it!

The finish line was in sight. We ran a short ways to the last obstacle, and inverted ladder wall. This was it. I pulled myself over the wall and crossed the finish line in 1:53:07.

I met back up with Matthew and learned that he had qualified for the OCR World Championships! I was in the presence of a celebrity. He asked if we could hang out for the awards, which of course we could. We took a picture by the Shale Hill truck, and I went to change before the ceremony. 

While waiting for the awards, I got as close the the OCR World Championships as I probably ever will when I helped the race directory tidy up the qualifier t-shirts. In all honestly, even that was pretty exciting.

I didn't go away empty handed though.I got an awesome F.I.T. t-shirt, headband, and cool medal. The medal is in the shape of a Wreck Bag and is already looking pretty cool on my medal rack.

F.I.T. Challenge was a fantastically fun obstacle course race. The atmosphere was fantastic. This, of course, was helped by the fact that there were lots of people I was friendly with there and the amazing turn-out from the local OCR community, such as Shale Hill (#OCRUnited).

I really loved the frequency and quality of the obstacles at F.I.T. The course layout was fantastic. There was just the right amount of running / hiking up and down hills without it seeming tedious. The running was balanced well with the obstacles, and the the placement of the obstacles was well-thought-out, overall.

My one caveat is that for those of us in the middle of the pack for the open heats, bottlenecking was a huge issue. I spent a significant amount of time waiting to try an obstacle, especially in the obstacle-dense section towards the end of the course. I waited at least fifteen minutes for the second rig. (Part of this is because of an injury, and I want to make clear that I am 100% not complaining about having to wait because of this. I would have happily waited to insure that everyone was okay, but the other thirteen or so minutes were just general hold-up.) I would love to see this improved for next year, and I say that because this race was a blast, and I definitely would love to come again in 2015, schedule willing.

Bottom line: Check F.I.T. out! It's a really fun course. mixing the perfect level of challenge and fun. First-timers could do it, and for those who are more experiences, there are some neat and original obstacles you probably haven't seen before. The race has great local support from the NE Spahten and local race directors. This adds to the atmosphere. It's family friendly, at an easy-to-get-to lovely location, and is sure to guarantee a fun day.

(Note: Spahten photo credits: Mary Donohue and Ron Steffero)