Tuesday, October 27, 2015

2015 Shale Hill Halloween Run

The 2014 Shale Hill Halloween Run was one of the most enjoyable races on my calendar. When 2015 rolled around, it was one of the first races that I knew I wanted to commit to. What I didn't know, was that this race would be my brother's first obstacle course race. 

The Shale Hill Halloween Run is, in some ways, the most ideal race for first timers to obstacle course racing. The race has a small field of around 50 people. The attendees are Shale Hill regulars, which means that everyone is like family and the environment is friendly and comfortable. The Shale Hill course is tough, but people will stop to demo obstacles for you. Because there are a small number of racers you can try an obstacle more than once. Also, Shale Hill features the penalty free Journeyman division where you can test yourself on the course without having to worry about doing penalties for obstacles you cannot complete. Finally, the Halloween Run is a fun run. It's a time when parents bring their kids and new people come to have an enjoyable race that's about having a good time more than competing for prizes. 

The Halloween Run is also unique. It starts at around 5:00 p.m. Since it takes the average person a couple of hours to complete the course at Shale Hill, this means that people end up doing a good portion of the race in the dark. Along the course, there are volunteers who are dressed up in costume and will jump out and scare you. If, like me, you are not too keen on horror movies and the like, don't worry -- it's not really all that scary. While the man with the chainsaw might be a bit of a starling character, most of the monsters are children dressed in costume. (Note: When they ask, "Did I scare you?" The right answer is, "Yes! You got me.") All in all, this is a cute race that people can bring their kids to and use to introduce family members to the course of obstacle course racing. The one caveat being the added challenge of the dark.

My brother, Greg, and his fiancĂ©, Grace, had been mentioning for a while that they would like to try some obstacle racing with me. Both are very fit individuals. My brother is one of the most kinetically gifted people I know – for example, he learned to ride a bike when he was three – and Grace has always been an athlete. I convinced both of them to sign up for the Halloween Run, so this race at Shale Hill was one that I had been looking forward to even more than usual. This was combined with the fact that after a summer of going up to Shale Hill to race or train about every other weekend, I hadn’t been up in around a month and a half. The fall semester had started for graduate school, and I had been too busy with that and work to make the almost three hour trip up to Benson, Vermont. Suffice it to say, when Greg and Grace came to pick me up for the ride up to Shale Hill, I was excited and ready to go. 

We chose to head up a bit early to Benson. I wanted to show them the course and give them a little preview before the race, especially since it would be done in the dark. Unfortunately, the only damper on the weekend was that Grace had badly twisted her ankle and would be unable to participate. Fortunately, the Shale Hill crowd was able to hook her up with some volunteer work. She was an expert cheerer and also took a number of great photos (that you'll see in this post). I know she was disappointed not to get to race, so hopefully we will all be able to go up and race or train together soon. 

We arrived at Shale Hill around 2:00 p.m., which gave us plenty of time to look around the course before the 5:00 p.m. race start. We checked out some obstacles for about an hour and a half, headed for a quick snack at the Wheel Inn, and then came back to Shale Hill for the 4:00 p.m. check-in. At this point, a number of the NE Spahtens had arrived. We did some visiting, and I introduced Greg and Grace to some of my friends on the team. Shortly before 5:00 p.m., we finalized our registration, got our goodie bags and t-shirts and then headed outside for the racer's meeting. Grace snapped a quick picture of me and Greg. The weather was cool -- in the low 40s -- and we are bundled up. 

As you can see, my fingers are hiding in my sleeves and my torso is spherical from the three layers I was wearing. The NE Spahtens also took the opportunity to take a quick team picture. This was definitely a better showing than the approximately a half dozen people who came from the team last year.

Race director and Shale Hill owner, Rob Butler, took time during the race meeting to give us some modifications. In the interest of time, two carries were eliminated from the back half of the course. We didn't have to do the log carry in the last third of the race or the bucket carry. I was pretty excited about not having to do two heavy carries, since they are not my strength. However, I wish that the longer Log Splitter carry, which is over half a mile, had been eliminated instead of the shorter log carry in the latter third of the race. Still, this was a definite positive and helped speed things along during the end of the race when running in the woods was a near impossibility due to the dark. 

After announcements, we lined up and at around 5:10 p.m. did a single wave start. Greg and I were off!

Despite my several years of obstacle course racing experience, Greg is a decidedly superior athlete. We had, however, decided to stick together. This was a fun race and to be a family affair. Plus, I was the only one with a headlamp. A fair warning here: Do not be distressed when the balance of this post is about how awesome racing with my brother was and how great of an athlete he is. You have been notified.

Shale Hill is, without a doubt, one of the most (if not the absolute most) challenging courses around. The reason that I recommend it to beginners anyways is two fold: You can go there and train at your own pace and the atmosphere is so friendly that you will not feel intimidated or unsafe.

I won't go through an obstacle by obstacle breakdown in this review. (If you are interested in that information, you can find a list of the obstacles with their descriptions on my post from last summer about Shale Hill. For the purposes of this write-up, I'll just list my highlights. 

The first highlight was at the Zigzag of Awesomeness. This is an obstacle that the NE Spahtens sponsored. We have our banner on it, and it is still one of only a handful of obstacles at Shale Hill that I cannot reliably clear. When Greg and I arrived at the obstacle, the fourth in the course, I was pretty cold. I did a great job handling the first half of the obstacle, as the video Grace took attests to, but unfortunately fell on the transition. My fingers were too cold, and I lost my grip. 

The video that I wish I had was of Greg, who, after using gloves on the obstacle the first time and then falling off, tried a second time and completed it in such record time that 30 Days of Shale Hill attendee, Rita, commented on it with amazement. It was awesome to watch!

The next highlight of the night was the Pond Traverse. The traverse was optional during the Halloween Run, mostly because of how cold it was. Greg and I watched the person in front of us fall into the lake. There was no way that we were allowing that to happen -- it was too chilly! I had showed Greg the way to do a traverse on top of the rope (instead of below). I find it a lot easier since you are not holding you bodyweight up with your fingers and legs. We both traversed that way fairly quickly and without much issue. Fellow Spahten, Nicole, took a video of me finishing up the traverse.

Other highlights of the course were getting to see my brother succeed on some very challenging obstacles. Some of them he managed just by being strong. For example, I tried to show him the j-hook and s-hook for the Rope to Ramp, which he ended up just muscling his way up. That works for him, but I would be hard pressed to replicate that. 

Greg had also mentioned being not very excited for the Loom; however, when we got there, he had a really fun time on that obstacle. He also did a great job on the 19' rope climb with the 2" rope. I had a less than successful attempt at this obstacle, getting to around 2' from the top before being so tired that I couldn't make it. I hung in there for a while, but my legs were too tired to propel me up even with the s-hook. This was a bit of a disappointment and served as an interesting reminder of how quickly we can lose fitness. I had been training at Shale Hill pretty regularly over the summer. My grip strength was good, and my upperbody was strong. After six weeks away, I noticed a very decided difference in my endurance on the obstacles. I definitely got tired a lot easier, especially with my grip, than I did over the summer. For example, while I managed all five panels of the Great Wall, my arms were pretty dead afterwards, where as, during my peak fitness in the summer, I was able to do that without feeling too tired.

Greg also did an amazing job at the monkey bars. After doing the flat monkey bars, he decided to do the uphill monkey bars. I don't know that they were required for the Halloween Race, since they are normally just for the Elite Men; however, it was incredible to watch Greg go all the way up them on his first try. This is the only time that I have ever seen someone do those monkey bars straight through, and it was a first-time obstacle course racer who did it.

One of the unique challenges of the Halloween Run was that it was at night. After less than an hour on the course, everything was pretty much pitch black, and we were moving through the wood with only my one headlamp to light us. (A headlamp that was, I'll note, not entirely effective for such lighting needs -- either that or I've gotten spoiled by my awesome headlamp on my bike.) Shale Hill did have solar lamps lining parts of the course. Unfortunately, a lot of these didn't seem to be working, which meant that it was hard to find the turns. For this reason, it was kind of critical to be out on the course with someone who knew it well. At one point, after the Tarzan Ropes, I even got lost and was lucky that Grace was there pointing the way, as she had done in her volunteer role with many other racers. 

Throughout the course, there were helpful volunteers and buckets with candy. The main theme of the night was fun. As I mentioned before, the course was packed with kids jumping out to "scare" you and adults in costume. The entire feel of the race was that of a family event where everyone out on the course and at Shale Hill was part of a great community. 

Greg and I finished the race in around two and a half hours and finished probably in the first half of racers. The fact that it was so dark that we couldn't run in the woods during the second half of the course definitely slowed up down, but we kept moving pretty consistently and, I think, put up a fairly decent time. 

We got medals at the finish line and then headed into the gym to enjoy the potluck dinner. There was ample food and lots of deserts. Greg, Grace, and I all enjoyed some snacks and socializing with the Spahtens before heading out for the night. 

The Shale Hill Halloween Run remains one of my favorite races. It is entirely fun and, this year, was made even more special because I was able to share the race with my family. As always, I enjoy and appreciate the community that Shale Hill has built with their incredible hospitality. You are always welcome to bring guests and children, and many people do. The inclusivity that Shale Hill promotes is part of what makes it so special. The Halloween Run's focus on getting out there and having a good time fits well with my ethos. I race because I enjoy it more than I do to compete. I like to challenge myself, but I always want to be having a good time. The Halloween Run is just that -- a good time. It's also unique for being one of the only races of the year that is done in the dark. That added feeling of excitement and novelty is something I enjoy. 

I did a lot of racing this year, and I would say that the Halloween Run is probably a top favorite race for me, along with Shale Hill's Benson Bear Race, Bone Frog, and Ragnar. I am already signed up for Bone Frog and Ragnar for 2016, and as soon as Shale Hill posts their 2016 calendar, you can count me in for Benson Bear, 24 Hours of Shale Hell (which will be my keystone race of the year when I get Rob's training program), and the Halloween Run. I can't wait for 2016 to do the Halloween Run again!

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Run the Gauntlet

My mother's birthday is this Monday and, as a result, I took the opportunity to travel down to my hometown in Connecticut and visit with her this weekend. I knew that while I'd be down in Connecticut the NE Spahtens #racelocal race, Run the Gauntlet, was going to be taking place at Hammonasset Beach State Park. Hammonasset is in Madison, Connecticut, on the shoreline, and about 45 minutes away from my hometown of Bethany. Why not check it out?

I arrived at Hammonasset at around 9:10 a.m. for the 10:00 a.m. NE Spahtens team heat. The last time I had been to Hammonasset was when my two best friends, Molly and Clela, and I made a trip there during high school. When asked that classic question, "The beach or the mountains?" I tend to vote for the mountains -- I like to be surrounded and hemmed in by the trees; however, all these years living in Western Massachusetts, I had kind of forgotten the nice contrast of the lovely openness of the beach. Being at Hammonasset was a real treat!

The Run the Gauntlet group did a really excellent job of directing us to parking. This was good since Hammonasset is a big park, and I didn't want to get lost. Parking, like everything else was free. This was a local race supporting the YMCA and had a nice fun small race feel. 

After parking, I went to register. Registration was very well organized and had zero wait time. You got a chip for timing that you had to wear around your ankle and picked up your bib along with your tech t-shirt. For a small local race of around 200 participants or so, Run the Gauntlet has some really top-notch sponsors including Denali, SmartWool, GoPro, and North Face. 

After registration, I headed down to the beach. There wasn't an official bag check, but when I chatted with the person at the information tent, she told me I was welcome to leave my bag with her, especially since I was a Spahten. This is the sort of nice touch that you only get at a local race, and it was really appreciated! 

I had some time to kill before my wave went off since the registration had been so seamless and the free parking so close. I headed out to the beach to enjoy some scenery. Soon, the other Spahtens started to arrive. A lot of them had come early to run the 9:00 a.m. wave and then also do a second lap at 10:00 a.m. I found myself chatting and socializing with a bunch of the other #racelocal regulars. We snapped a quick team picture before lining up to run.

Run the Gauntlet is a beginner-friendly 5K obstacle course race. It's most definitely a race with some simple obstacles, but they are kind of cute and fun. Sure this isn't Shale Hill, and I wasn't challenged, but, overall, I had a good time. Key to this, was the location: Hammonasset. The beach is really lovely and doing a beach race was a departure for me. I am not a huge fan of climbing mountains, and it seems like every third race I do is at a ski resort. It was nice to have a change of scenery and not have to deal with anything other than running on the flat ground. 

That being said, from the moment we crossed the starting line, it was clear that the running portion of Run the Gauntlet would be the challenge. The entire first mile of the race was run entirely on the sandy beach. Let's be clear: Running on the sand is hard work! This was probably the biggest challenge of the day. I was pleased to be able to run the entire time. All that trail running I've been doing is definitely paying off because I was able to handle the unstable surface of the sand better than I anticipated.

As I mentioned before, Run the Gauntlet was a beginner-friendly 5K. The obstacle were not large, but they were cute. I was able to finish the entire race in 38:15 and most of the time was spent running on the sand. Was the race epic? No. Was it a challenge? Not really. Did I have fun? Sure. Everything was well organized, the volunteers were fantastic, and the course along the beach was pleasing. If I had tackled these obstacles on a ski slope (again) I don't think I'd have had nearly the enjoyment I did. Having the race at Hammonasset was key for me. It was the slightly exotic nature of running along the beach that won me over here. The race did a good job of utilizing the area. The obstacles were not the star, and, for me, not a real challenge, but I had a good day anyway. 

Here's a run down of the race's obstacles:

Charlotte's Web: A very short crawl on sand underneath a net that was spread over a wooden frame. 

Into the Drink: While the entire first mile to mile and a half of the race had us running along the sandy beach, we had the option of running higher up in the dry sand or lower, close to the water, for most of the time. For the Into the Drink obstacles, we had to wade into the water a little bit. I was surprised to find that the water was actually really pleasant. I am, shall we say, sensitive to the cold, but this water felt fine. 
Black Hole: This was a crawl under a tarp though a pit of water. The water was a bit cool but overall not too bad. That being said, I couldn't feel my finger too well for about five minutes after this obstacle.
Alligator Alley: I am, perhaps, not the most whimsical person that ever lived. That being said, this obstacle was adorable even to me. There was a pool of water that we had to traverse on a beam. In the pit of water there were three or four inflatable alligators. I had to laugh -- fantastic!
Hammonasset Hurdles: The Hurdles were a pair of orange barriers like you'd see on a road that you had to go up and over. Lately, I've been using the technique I learned at the Shale Hill Weekend Training Camp and more or less rolling over walls. This is efficient and worked well here. 
The First Ascent: This obstacle was a short rope wall with a ladder on the back side. At this point, we were just past the one mile marker and had been running on the sand the entire time. As my post eluded to before; I am not a beach person by result of geography. The last time I ran on sand was for a half marathon a couple of years back, in which the organizers had us do the final quarter mile or so on the sand -- what kind of crazy people are these! -- and I had no desire to repeat the experience. I was happy to see the course head off the sand after this obstacle and move towards other parts of the park.

Prairie Dog: After leaving the beach, we headed off to the grassy area next to the beach. There, we tackled an A-frame ladder wall and some tires before hitting Prairie Dog, a short tube that we had to crawl through. From there, it was onward to another set of tires that we had to run high-knees through before jogging off along the road towards the beach.
Get Over Yourself: Along the road that we took to get to the event, there were a set of obstacle. The first was a short wall of around 4', which I rolled over. Next was a short ladder that we had to climb and then jump down after crossing a platform to the other side. I actually almost fell off the platform, alarming the poor volunteer who was at that obstacle. Fortunately, I was able to correct myself as I jumped down. Oops!
Dodging Ramen: This was another cute obstacle. (I legitimately cannot believe the number of times I have used the word "cute" in this post...) This obstacle featured a balance beam that ran through a set of hanging pool noodles that one had to swat out of the way while traversing the beam. It was entertaining. The pool noodles were dense but very manageable. 
Trek to Basecamp: We headed back to the beach for the next obstacle, Trek to Basecamp. I believe this was a North Face sponsored obstacle. We had to grab a pack of either 20 or 30 pounds and carry it along a small flat out and back loop. I'm not a fantastic athlete at carries, and I lost a little time here, but all in all, this was not too terrible.
Log Hop: After Trek to Basecamp, we were very close to the finish. The course took us up and over a set of very small hills with rocks along the shore. From there, the finish line was in sight. 

The last obstacle was a set of logs set in the sand. We had to jump from one to the other before making a run through the sand to the finish line.

I finished the race with a clock time of 38:15. This was a small, easy, but enjoyable race. I might not trek all the way to the Connecticut shoreline for this race next year, but, if I'm in the area, I would definitely hit it up again. As you all know by now, I am more a fan of the races that challenge me with a lot of technical obstacles. (I've said time and again that racing at Shale Hill is so amazing it's almost ruined me for other races!) That beings said, Run the Gauntlet was well organized and had a nice turn-out from the NE Spahtens, which made the day fun. The weather was great, the venue was stellar, and the race was a fun diversion. If you're a new obstacle course racer or looking for a race to introduce friend or family to the sport, Run the Gauntlet is a nice way to get started.

(Thanks to Jennifer Decker and Daniel Parker for the photos and Run the Gauntlet for the course map.)