Sunday, June 21, 2015

2015 Shale Hill Relay Race Challege

Saturday night, I headed up to Benson, Vermont, home of Shale Hill, for the 2015 Relay Race Challenge. The race was 9:00 a.m. Sunday morning, and I didn't want to make the almost three hour trip from Amherst to north western Vermont. Luckily, I had been offered a place at the apartment onsite with fellow Spahtens Paul, Beth, Sandy, and Niki. I arrived around supper time on Saturday and was able to spend a nice bit of time relaxing and socializing prior.

After a really excellent night sleep, I woke up Sunday morning for the race. The apartment at Shale Hill has a fully-functional kitchen, so I was able to make my standard pre-race breakfast of Genesis bread toast with almond butter, cherry juice with chia seeds, and coffee. I coordinated my race gear and headed over to check-in at registration.

The Relay Race Challenge divided the standard 10K Shale Hill obstacle course into three segments that you and two other teammates would cover. Paul, Niki, and I had planned to be a journeyman team (aka. the non-contemplative division); due to a last minute injury, Niki ended up swapping to the competitive open division and her friend, Tonya, joined Paul and me in journeyman. The Relay Race Challenge had around 60 registered participants, making it easy to quickly change registration the day-of.

After registration was taken care of, we headed outside to draw straws. This would determine the legs we would run. I drew leg three (considered the most challenging part of the course), Tonya got leg one, and Paul got leg two. We then headed back inside where the race director, Rob, gave us information. The course was very muddy and wet from the heavy rainfall the night before. We were to be cautious on the slippery obstacles (here Icebugs made all the difference), and it was suggested that, since volunteers were limited, we might want to double up and send a second teammate along with the person running each leg of the relay. This would encourage safety. I had already offered to run Tonya's leg with her since she had a slightly injured abdomen. It was her first time at Shale Hill, and I wanted to make sure she got to have a good time but didn't have to face any obstacles that would make her recovery time longer. We were also presented with the "baton," a large metal "key to Shale Hill," as Rob put it. The entire thing was about as long as my torso! Rob also told us the exchange points: The Rope Ramp and the Fireman's Tower.

Tonya and I headed over to the starting line for the 9:00 a.m. start, and Paul headed over to the Rope Ramp to meet us at the first exchange. At 9:00 a.m., everyone was set, and with the sound of the air-horn we were off!

Since I've done so much posting about the course at Shale Hill, I am going to go through the highlights of today instead of recounting everything, obstacle by obstacle. For a comprehensive walk-through of the Shale Hill course, click here.

Tonya and I cruised pretty well through the first leg of the course. There were a few highlights, such as Tonya's complete mastery of the Log Splitter, the obstacle that Rob replaced the sandbag / slosh pipe carry with for Polar Bear. The carry consists of two stumps connected with a piece of flat cord which gets hauled along the 1/2 to 2/3 of a mile loop that marked the sandbag / slosh pipe carry. I struggled a lot with this obstacle at Polar Bear, and was happy to just walk the course with Tonya and offer encouragement. The route was incredibly muddy and marshy from all the rain. It was even more treacherous than normal; just walking was hard. Tonya did a fantastic job! I was very impressed by her strength as she powered through this carry.

After the carry, we headed over to the pond traverse. The traverse, which entails spanning the pond by pulling yourself along a rope parallel to the surface. I wasn't planning to do this obstacle with Tonya, but while I was waiting for her to go I got into a conversation with some of the other racers about the technique for doing the traverse on the top, instead of the bottom. They wanted a demo, so I couldn't say no! (Note, that I might have been showing off a little. I am not proud of this fact -- but, hey, in the interest of transparency, I will report out what occurred.)

Tonya and I had a couple more obstacles and then we met up with Paul at the transition. Tonya wanted to see the full course because it was her first time at Shale Hill, and I wanted to do at least some of the obstacles in the wooded section of the course known as "The Jungle." I hung with Tonya and Paul through until Cliff Jumper, which was great because I was able to "pinch run" that obstacle and Double Up before it. Those are two of my favorites, so I was glad to get the chance to do them and a few of the obstacles in The Jungle. However, I had done a lot and needed to keep something in reserve for my part of the course. While Tonya and Paul headed into the woods for the Giant Wall Traverse, I headed over to the Fireman's Tower to regroup before my leg. (Note: The one minus of this was that I missed getting to see the new obstacle, the Coffin. Next time for sure!)

While I was waiting for Paul and Tonya at the Fireman's Tower, I hung out with some other people waiting to run their third leg or having just finished their second leg. This highlights some of the fun of the relay. The atmosphere was light and all about having a good time as a team, at least for me in journeyman. There was great camaraderie. Plus, it was fun to get to go around with teammates for much of the course and aid each other on the obstacles.

Soon, Paul and Tonya appeared over the hill and headed towards me. It was "Go" time!

Both Tonya and Paul followed me around my section of the course as I did my obstacles. Tonya was surveying the rest of the course and Paul was taking some pictures for some obstacle demo videos that he and Rob wanted to do for the Shale Hill website. My section of the course included some of the most challenging obstacles. I started with the barbed wire crawl, then did the log carry with A-frame.

I then made my way to one of my favorite obstacles, The Loom. Fun as always!

The Hay Bales from Hell seem to multiply every time I am over at Shale Hill. There was actual a hay bale "obstacle" at Tough Mudder a few weekends ago, and I had to laugh because now only were the bales only two in number, but they were not the huge mounded piles I'm used to from Shale Hill.

My biggest victory of the day was on the 19' rope climb. This climb takes place right after the 11' rope and wall climb.

A couple of ropes back to back is tough, and these are late in the course. To make matter even more challenging, the 19' climb uses a 2" thick rope, a rope so think even elites find it challenging. I had yet to make it up this climb. Today, was the first time I made it. I was able to get a good s-hook with my legs and, because I was fresher than normal, having not run the entire course, I made it up.

After the victory on the ropes, it was on to the bucket carry. This is always not a favorite, but with journeyman, I am able to self-pace and determine the right weight for the bucket for me (in my case not all the way full). I was able to fill the bucket a challenging, but not abusive, amount, something I appreciated it. Go journeyman division!

I burned myself out a little on this because my hands were pretty tired for the monkey bars. Tonya had wanted to try them and did around 3/4 of them, leaving only 1/4 for me to do, which ended up being just fine. My hands were muddy, the bars kept rotating, and I have trouble finding purchase.

Another interesting moment of the day -- I won't quite call it a victory -- was on the tarzan ropes. The best I had ever done was make it around half way through. Today, I had a tough time getting started and made my way to the half way point falling off a few times but still keeping trying. However, from the mid-way point, I was able to get a good rhythm going and actually made it all the way to the wall. My hands were toast at that point, and Paul helped push me up over the wall. I was very excited though to make it the second half of the way. This obstacle is all grip strength and cadence. I am hoping to really learn to nail it during my week at camp at Shale Hill in August.

From there it was a failed attempt on the warped wall. (Again, I plan to go and see if my Spahten friend / Ninja Warrior expert, Matt can help with this.)

The race finished as it always does, weaving along the culverts along the obstacle known as the Anaconda. At this point I was pretty tired. I hadn't brought my hydration pack or snacks thinking I'd just cover my two or so miles, and I was ready for some lunch. I ran up the hill and crossed the finish line right after Tonya. We were done! Time for chocolate milk (a Shale Hill staple) and a banana.

The Shale Hill Relay Race Challenge was a fun time. It was a good way for people to get an introduction to the course in a less intimidating way. It was a good opportunity for those of us who love the course at Shale Hill to tackle it as a team. Relays have a different vibe. They feel more communal and supportive. I am lucky that I get to do my races with the NE Spahtens and always have a great group of people to race with and support me. The Relay Race Challenge is a nice opportunity for other people to enjoy that same sense of community.

(Note: Amazing photos are all credit of Paul Jones of the NE Spahtens. Thank you, Paul!)

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Tough Mudder New England 2015

Summer 2015 marked my third Tough Mudder. As in past years, the event was at Mount Snow in Dover, Vermont. Tough Mudder is the big box store of obstacle course races. As someone who more and more likes to #racelocal, Tough Mudder has become a bit of a departure for me. However, I look forward to the event each year because Tough Mudder is different. There obstacle are more "fear factor" than physical challenge, and it's not the same obstacles you'll see everywhere else. There is also a great emphasis on doing obstacles as a team. Many of the obstacles would be almost impossible without a person or two to help you out. Tough Mudder is untimed -- it's an event and challenge, not a race -- and this really fosters the "no Mudder left behind" mentality.

This past year especially, Tough Mudder has gotten a bit expensive. I was able to purchase my ticket early, which was key to me going this year. Spectators and parking costed extra. I will continue to never understand why one might charge for spectators -- these are your future racers! Tough Mudder has always gotten top marks from me for parking. This year though, I'd rate parking a B-. They broke parking up into premium and general parking. The general parking was around a ten minute walk away, and basically all the lots near the entrance, where we were able to park last year for the normal price were vacant. Kind of odd. There also wasn't any good signage from the general parking to check-in, so that took a bit of figuring out. Once we realized that things were just in the exact same place as last year (minus the fact that parking moved), things were fine.

As per usual, check-in took around ten minutes. Considering how many people they have to get through the gates, I think Tough Mudder is pretty effective at this. Soon we were in the main festival area, I had inked my forehead with my bib number, signed-up for the Legionnaire privileges, met up with my team of John, Dan, and Jane, and headed over to the start line.

For 2015 they were doing something a bit different at the start line. Instead of sending you straight over the first wall and into the corral, we first did a group warm-up segment with some jumping, jogging in place, butt kicks, and hip circles. Kind of odd but an effective way to get people ready to go. From there it was over the first wall and into the corral to listen to the main motivational speaker for Tough Mudder, Sean, who is responsible for sending off all the Tough Mudder participants at each race. 

I had admitted in the past to a certain lack of fondness to the chest-thumping style of "HooRaah" that takes place at the starting line for OCRs. However, I am going to give Tough Mudder this one because Sean was amazing today. His speech wasn't too long, and it served to put me in a good mood. I had had a challenging week or so and was extra in a funk when arriving at Tough Mudder because I had forgotten my wallet at the house, causing us to have to drive home, spending and extra thirty-five minutes in the car and almost making us late. I was filled with serious ennui, and what Sean said really helped me refocus on the race ahead. I did not realize how much I needed this motivation today.

Tough Mudder did a bit of retooling for 2015 changing up some of their obstacles and creating new 2.0 versions as well as adding some other obstacles. They advertised that everything on their courses for 2015 would be 100% new, and while that wasn't true, there was enough variety to definitely mix things up. 

Tough Mudder is a ten mile course and is much less obstacle dense than some of my favorite courses. There is without a doubt a lot of hiking at Tough Mudder. The obstacles tend to be clustered towards the bottom of the mountain for spectating, and there can be a lot of up and down without much to do. I actually think that Tough Mudder did a pretty good job with the obstacle layout this year. Placement was solid and there was enough to do on top of the mountain. My only gripe would be that the first couple of miles were pretty sparse and things got a little tedious; however, the course was a huge improvement over last year's course and definitely fun. 

The course map below will give you a pretty good idea of the amount of hiking required. We probably did somewhere around 5,000 feet of elevation change, and some sections were quite steep. When thinking about physical challenges, the mountain is the biggest one is many cases. I'll review the obstacles one-by-one with descriptions of each below. In some cases, my order deviates slightly from the map based on changes that much have been made to the course after the map's printing.

Kiss of Mud 2.0: It took about a mile into the course to get to our first obstacle. Kiss of Mud was a traditional crawl through the mud and under barbed wire. It wasn't too long or too hard and there weren't too many rocks. A pretty basic obstacle. I'm not sure what the change was between the original and the 2.0 version.

Bale Bonds: For this obstacle, we had to run over a pair of hay bales. They were pretty trampled, so it wasn't much of an obstacle in my mind. Maybe it's because I'm used to the endless tall well-bound hay bales at Shale Hill, but this was a snap.

Liberator: The Liberator was the first really interesting obstacle of the day at around 2.5 miles in. This obstacle had you scale a wall using pegs. There were toe holds to help you so you didn't have to use your arms, which was a big help and definitely decreased the difficulty factor. I didn't get a picture of this one, but the image from the Tough Mudder website should give you a good idea. 

Quagmire: Another standard OCR obstacle. We had to climb down a mount of dirt into waist deep water and go to the other side and climb out. 

Beached Whale: A new obstacle for 2015, Beached Whale is a giant inflatable you have to climb over. Sounds easy, right? Nope. Team work was definitely required. I ran at Beached Whale and managed to pretty much just bounce my face right off. The contours made it hard to get purchase at all. We ended up doing what everyone else does which is having a teammate at the top pull people up from the bottom. 

Everest 2.0: Everest is the signature half-pipe obstacle Tough Mudder is famous for. The new version is taller and with a rounded lip at the top (instead of the easier to grab right angle). They ended up adding ropes so that people could help their teammates up. The video below shows it perfectly.

Birth Canal: Another new obstacle. For this one, you have to crawl under a liner filled with water. It was heavier than expected. However, it was open on either side, so if you had problems, you could just go right out. Again, I didn't have an image, so here's one from Tough Mudder to give you the idea. This one was interesting and, again, different, but not as scary as advertised.

Funky Monkey 2.0: The best obstacle of the day! Funky Monkey 2.0 is hard. Seriously. You have to do uphill monkey bars, then transfer to a trapeze, and finally do a pipe down. This is a true physical challenge. I was solid on the monkey bars, but transferring to the trapeze was hard and transferring to the pipe was even harder. You had to have sufficient momentum to make it. I actually almost slipped off the pipe at one point and had to hold on with all my grip strength to make it to the other side. Well worth the price of admission. 

Prairie Dog: Scoot down a medium narrow tube into a pool of knee high water. I had though we'd just slide down the tubes, but they weren't wet, so I was forced to wiggle my way along. 

Skidmarked: Tough Mudder's answer to the inverse wall, Skidmarked is a 10' wall angled towards you. This one is definitely taller and more challenging than your average wall. I ended up kind of climbing up using the supports until I could grab the top. Teamwork helped!

Devil's Beard: This obstacle had us crawling downhill underneath a net that was pinned to the ground. The net was pleasantly unscratchy, which made this a kind of fun obstacle. I enjoyed it more than I normally do obstacles of this type.

Balls Out: Another fun new obstacle! Using ropes that were hanging along an angled wall, we had to traverse the wall laterally. I didn't have too much trouble with this one. My Icebugs helped as did the fact that I had done something very similar at Battlefrog. Grip strength and having good momentum were key for this one. Here's a picture from Tough Mudder.

Warrior Carry: The Warrior Carry is more a symbolic gesture (in honor of the Wounded Warrior Project, Tough Mudder's chief charity) than an actual obstacle. You and a partner take turns giving each other a piggyback ride across a small stretch of course. I partnered up with Jane, which worked great.

Arctic Enema 2.0: Arctic Enema remains pretty much the only obstacle that absolutely terrifies me. For the original, you had to jump into a container of ice water, go under a board, and then get out. For the 2.0 version. You had to slide into the water, completely submerging at the bottom of the slide, then climb over a board, get back in the water, and then exit. The entire things gives me serious pause. As Serah said, "I've never seen that look of terror on your face for anything. And it's just some water with ice in it." No, no it is not. The cold is the worst! Every year, I am convinced I won't do it. Of course, ever year, I do. 

Walk the Plank: I basically stayed frozen from Arctic Enema at mile 8.5 or so until the end of the race. It didn't help that the next couple of obstacles featured more water. Next up was Walk the Plank. This obstacle is basically just an exercise in gravity. Climb up to the platform and jump. I was super hopin that King of Swingers would have been in this obstacles place, but no such luck. Either way, I find this one to be just fine. The key is getting to the top and jumping right away before you realize how high up you are.

Cry Baby: This new obstacle strikes me as rather odd. You had to go under a dunk wall and then crawl through an enclosure filled with what they advertised as a tear-gas substance. I'm pretty sure that what we encountered was air filled with something like Vick's Vapor Rub. If you took shallow breaths and kept your eyes mostly closed, you'd be totally fine. My nose had been stuffy from some light allergies, and this obstacle kind of helped out. Interesting, very different, and definitely not as intimidating as advertised. I am so fascinated by Tough Mudder's creative team -- who comes up with these things?

Berlin Walls: Another Tough Mudder staple is the 10' Berlin Walls. The two options here are team work or scrambling up the side like I did. Unlike some races, Tough Mudder doesn't say that the supports aren't to be used when climbing their walls. Since it's part of the obstacle, I say it's fair game, and it's a way I can have something my short girl arms can reach and grab.

Dead Ringer: The special Legionnaire obstacle for repeat Mudders this year was Dead Ringer. This proved my only failed obstacle of the day. Dead Ringer is an American Ninja Warrior style obstacle where you swing from peg to peg on moving rings. Serah got a video of my first abortive start. I tried again and made it not quite half way before slipping off. I need to practice at my friend Matt's house -- he has all this cool American Ninja Warrior stuff in his backyard and can give me some pointers.

Electroshock Therapy: As always, the last obstacle of the day was Electroshock Therapy. I'll be honest. This obstacle never made any sense to me. Running through a field of dangling live wires as you stomp through mud and dodge hay bales is insanity. (The non-PG friendly version of myself said that Tough Mudder should get rid of this obstacle and just get a set of rulers so we can all sit around and take measurements.) Unpleasant. Of course getting zapped is unpleasant. I raced through as fast as I could with fellow teammate, Dan. After all, the finish line was on the other side.

Made it! Tough Mudder 2015 finisher. I had earned yet another headband.

After a quick team picture, we headed over to a special new obstacle that they had put in Mudder Village. This obstacle was called Ring of Fire. It was free for Legionnaires and $5 for first time Mudders and anyone else. I was kind of emotionally done for the day with throwing my body around, but it did look cool...

So now I have this video of "that time when I slide down a pole from 30' up through a ring of fire and splashed into a bucket of cold water."

Tough Mudder 2015 is in the books! The innovations promised on the course are what brought me out again this year. I was excited to try the modified and new obstacles. The variety did not disappoint, and, like I've said before, Tough Mudder is very different from an other race on my calendar.

That being said, I am not sure if I plan to do Tough Mudder again in 2016. Honestly, it will depend on my race schedule. While I like Tough Mudder, it's getting expensive, and I've also come to find that the course is less obstacle dense than I prefer. It's a lot of money for a lot of walking. Plus, how many times do I want to run through electrified wires anyway? However, the obstacles are top-notch and very diverse, so if Tough Mudder HQ ends up having another set of really cool obstacle for next year, I may very well be back.

Note: Read my reviews of Tough Mudder 2014 and Tough Mudder 2013.