Monday, February 1, 2016

Blizzard Blast 2016

The 2016 NE Spahtens #racelocal kicked off on Sunday, January 31 with Blizzard Blast, a winter obstacle course race located at Four Oaks Country Club in Dracut, Massachusetts. 

This was my second year attending the race. A big plus for me was the date fell on a Sunday. I have Saturday classes for graduate school this spring semester and as a result my race schedule is a bit stripped down from last year when my Saturdays were free. There were a couple other key reasons for my participation in this race. Last year, I had really enjoyed myself. Blizzard Blast took place in snowy conditions and did a great job highlighting that it was a winter race. The race is also fairly close to my house -- only an hour and a half away. The final and main reason that this race remains one I will likely keep on my calendar is that it's one of very few winter races. After the 2015 OCR season wrapped at F.I.T. Challenge, since then, I've had limited opportunity to see my fellow Spahtens and enjoy my favorite hobby of obstacle course racing. In the past, I have been lucky enough to have two winter races, Blizzard Blast in January and Polar Bear in February. Then I'd do F.I.T. in April. This year, Polar Bear and F.I.T., two races that I love, won't be a possibility. That means that Blizzard Blast is likely my only race until Ragnar in May. Though I love school, the schedule is sometimes a bummer, since it means less time with friends. With this in mind, I was dedicated to having as much fun at Blizzard Blast as I possibly could. (P.S. I am also going to try to plan a day trip or two to Shale Hill to hang out with people and do some OCR this winter. I was lucky enough to get to go in November and January and am planning to go up again for my birthday in March. This should help!)

I arrived in eastern Massachusetts a little over an hour before the 12:30 p.m. team heat. The parking for Blizzard Blast is always off-site. This means taking a 10 minute bus ride from where you drop your car to the race venue. Kind of a bummer. Parking was the standard $10 and the buses were conveniently waiting, so the trip out was smooth. The trip back was less ideal. My teammate, Bobby, and I ended up waiting almost 20 minutes for a bus to take up back to our car. The 20 minute wait, plus the 10 minute bus ride, added 30 minutes at the end of the day. I wish that the buses could have been as well coordinated for the outgoing trip as for the incoming one.

When the buses arrived at the country club I headed over to registration. This went very smoothly. There was no line. I had my waver signed and ready to go and was instantly handed a timing chip and bib in a packet from a volunteer. From there, I went to t-shirt pick-up. There was a line of maybe a half dozen people here, but there were plenty of well-organized volunteers and the t-shirt pick-up went smoothly too. As a member of the NE Spahtens I received a special cotton long sleeved t-shirt with our team logo on the sleeve and, as a bonus, a Blizzard Blast buff. Last year, the team got a shirt with our logo on the back. These are details I really love. I also love that Blizzard Blast does cotton long sleeve shirts. I am not a fan of the lower quality tech t-shirts races often give out and would much prefer a cotton shirt I can wear around the house and to sleep in. I have very few race shirts that are long sleeved for the cooler months, so ones like the Blizzard Blast shirt get extra usage. 

From registration, I headed into the country club and found the bar room, which the Spahtens had taken over been given as team headquarters. The room was packed! Tons of people had come out for the race. Though I didn't recognize most people, I also spotted many friends that I hadn't seen since F.I.T. I went around saying, "Hello," before situating myself in an unobtrusive spot to get ready for the race. 

The Spahtens had decided that this year for Blizzard Blast we'd all run in onesies. Back at the beginning of the winter, this seemed like it might end up being a idea that was just odd instead of totally crazy -- onesies are warm and January is, in general, cold. However, Sunday ended up being unseasonably warm with a high of around 50 degrees Fahrenheit and a temperature in the upper 40s at the time of our team heat. Nonetheless, I donned my Totoro onesie for the team picture. I debated taking it off, but was both interested in cultivating team spirit and fascinated by what the actual experience of running in a onesie would be like. What can I say; I am an empiricist! 

(Photo credit: Vince Rhee)

I headed over to the start line with fellow Spahten and Ragnar teammate, Bobby, who was dressed in a Batman onesie, complete with cape. At the starting line, we ran into Paul, in a dragon onesie, complete with an elaborately spikes tail. The three of us ended up running the race together.

We started the race with basically no fanfare. I believe announcements were made about penalties. Last year Blizzard Blast had you do 10 snow angels as a penalty for failed obstacles. This year, it was almost 50 degrees and no snow, so we were asked to do jumping jacks instead. We started the race with basically no fanfare. I believe announcements were made about penalties. Last year Blizzard Blast had you do 10 snow angels as a penalty for failed obstacles. This year, it was almost 50 degrees and no snow, so we were asked to do jumping jacks instead.

The course was 5.5 miles in length. A lot of time was spent on the golf cart paths that crisscross the country club. Other time was spent doing some trail running in the woods. There were no significant hills. I'd be surprised if we had more than 300 feet of elevation change. It was mostly rolling hills, which is fine by me. The course roughly followed the path that we used in 2015 with slight modifications due to the lack of snow. It was a fast course, in part because of the lack of snow, but mostly due to the lack of obstacles over the first half of the race. We ran all the way to the first water stop – probably around a mile – before encountering any obstacles at all. Here we had one tall wall and an under wall. That was it. After that, it was another mile and a half of running before we encountered anything else. As it is, I found this race to be okay; if they had cut out that first 2.5 miles of running and done the race as a 5K I would definitely be giving this race higher marks. Obstacle placement and spacing is very important. I like to run. I even sometimes love it. However, when I sign up for an obstacle course race, what I am looking for is obstacles. I would love a 5K distance that is obstacle dense over a longer distance with all the obstacles at the end. It’s much more fun and gives me exactly what I am looking for in my obstacle course racing experiences.

Here's a breakdown of the obstacles in the course with descriptions for each. As always, I have tried to recall as best I can all the obstacles and the placement of each. Feel free to let me know if I missed anything -- it's sometimes hard to remember without a course map or GoPro footage.

- 7' wall: This wall had a set of kicks and a hand hold, which helped a lot.
- Under: Roll under a wall.
- Pegboards: This obstacle was a pegboard attached to a tree. The last Blizzard Blast I had trouble with this obstacle, but I've worked on my technique and managed it just fine at the last two F.I.T. Challenges. It was fine here too.

- Double keg hoist: This hoist was actually very heavy. The rope was thin and completely slippery with mud. Bobby ended up assisting me with the hoist. (I got it up off the ground about once before the rope slipped through my hands.) It was great having the assistance!

- Rope climb: This was a fairly short rope climb, but the Totoro onesie and lack of Icebugs made it harder than usual. I was able to j-hook down pretty quickly though -- Totoro is kind of slick!
- Paintball target: Grab a paintball gun and try to hit a target. Last year we got only three tries. This year, the volunteer said we could have ten. I was able to get it on try five or so.
- Pine tree weave: Dodge and weave your way through hanging pine trees.

- Teeter totters: Climb up and down a see-saw. I didn't have my Icebugs, so I took this one very slowly. The only OCR-related injury I've witnessed was on a set of teeter totters, so I'm always careful on this one. (Note: Last year, I skipped it because it was so slippery. Plus, half of it was closed down for some reason in 2015.)
- Hot chocolate!: Just kidding -- this was not an obstacle. At the teeter totters, instead of a water stop, there was a hot chocolate station. It even featured marshmallows. This helped make up for the 2.5 miles of running I'd done with only a over and under wall back at the start of the race.
- Hoist: This was a unique hoist. We had to haul up a small keg, but instead of just hoisting it, we actually had to wrap the string holding the keg on the pulley onto the handle we were using. Forearm strength was required. This is the second year that Blizzard Blast has had this obstacle. It's fine -- I like it more than a traditional hoist -- but there tends to be a back-up at this obstacle.
- Keg carry: Blizzard Blast is sponsored by a beer company and, as a result, kegs abound. For this obstacle. We had to carry a beer keg along a loop. There were kegs on the ground to weave through and climb over.

- Through wall and 6' wall: Shimmy through the opening in a wall. Then do a standard wall. This second wall was little wobbly but nothing too terrible.
- Christmas lights crawl: Like a barbed wire crawl but with Christmas lights. Festive!
- Cinder block walk: You got two cinder blocks. While standing on one, you had to move the other forward. Then step to that one. You moved one block while balancing on the other to advance.
- Ankle biters: We had to make our way across an bridge criss-crossed with ropes at ankle height.
- Football throw: Take a football and throw it at a tire attached to a tree. I hit around the tire but didn't quite make it. I did the penalty of 10 jumping jacks as we began running to the next obstacle.
- Traverse wall: Doing a traverse wall was a bit more challenging with the limited mobility of the onesie. Fortunately, the hand blocks had lips at the top, and I could pretty much hang off of them.
- Hanging tires: Directly after the traverse wall, you had to cross a suspending a-frame with four tires tied to the trellis. The tires were fixed. The idea was to grab each side like a lip with your fingers and then move your way along. I actually found this a lot harder than anticipated. It ended up taking three tries for me to make it, and it was much more exhausting for my hands and shoulders than monkey bars.
- 5' wall
- Pine tree carry: I like this carry better than a traditional carry because, honestly, what's displeasing about walking around covered with the scent of pine. Also, Blizzard Blast is good about selecting a nice variety of sizes, so it's possible for me to pick a tree that's the correct level of challenge to carry.
- Cars: This is the first time I have ever seen an obstacle like this. And that might be okay. We had to crawl through the window of a dilapidated car and then crawl out the window on the other side. From there, we fell into a pile of foam blocks (kind of like what you see in a gymnastics training facility). Finally, we had to crawl through the windows of another car again. This was a bit of a dirty operation and quite odd, to say the least. However, I totally give it points for originality, and it was novel. I alternated between amusement at the activity we were doing and alarm at how gross the cars were! (Note: Apparently dirty stuff, like mud, in the outdoors is fine. In the "indoors" of a car it's distressing.)

- Keg Kingdom: This was my favorite obstacle last year, and this year I was not disappointed. Last year, we had four hanging kegs, monkey bars, and then another four kegs. This year was a bit of a different set-up. We had a set of four kegs and then some hay bales to rest on. From there, it was a set of over a half dozen kegs. We then got to stand on some hay and transition to a modestly long stretch of monkey bars. Swinging from kegs is tricky for a couple of reasons. The main one, is that they swing in unpredictable ways. The other reason is that they have only two handles you can grab, so you have to be lucky enough to have enough space to reach the next handle.

I had pretty good luck with the kegs and made it all the way through. I was unable to reach the monkey bars. Fortunately, Paul gave me a boost. (Thank you for your help two years in a row at Keg Kingdom, Paul. My height is clearly a limiter on this!) There weren't any hay bales at the end of the monkey bars, which I think was an oversight since it was a pretty long drop down for someone my size. Bobby and Paul helped me down, which was much appreciated. After that, we had to climb up and over one mound of snow and then it was across the finish line. My final time was 1:44:59.

From there, I returned inside. I was massively hot in my onesie (which at that point, I had tied around my waste, leaving my top free). I was ready to change and get some food. Blizzard Blast includes a free cup of soup / chili with entry. This is a nice perk. The food line was a bit long, but it moved fairly quickly. Sadly, selection was limited as they were out of chowder and chicken noodle soup, so we all got some chili. It was not a favorite, but one cannot be dissatisfied with free food after exercising for 1:45. Plus, the race was at the country club which included a restaurant and bar for anyone interested in purchasing food.

Bottom line: Even with its faults, I’ll keep going to Blizzard Blast because it’s a race at a time of year when there are very few things on my calendar OCR-wise. It’s a good opportunity to play outside in the winter and a great opportunity to get to see friends that I see less often than I wish during the colder months. If this race was instead in a busy month like May or July, I might skip it. It also tends to be a very affordable race, costing anywhere from $40 - $70. For OCR that is downright cheap! The race experience is mixed. I like how the obstacles are different from what I see elsewhere. For good or bad, we do get some novelty here. None of the obstacles are going to win “most innovative,” but they, in general, have a fun twist that adds up to a good time. I continue to be a big fan of Keg Kingdom; it continues to be one of my favorite obstacles. I enjoy how dedicated Blizzard Blast is to their winter/snow theme. I like some of the details, such as the personalized t-shirts for our team and the hot chocolate stop along the course. I also think having the race at a country club is quite nice. The venue provides a nice indoor location for the cold weather (when we have it). Plus, it offers any easy place to store gear, get a meal, and use an indoor restroom. What more could someone want!

I still believe that this race would be much better as a 5K. (I said it last year too.) Blizzard Blast is advertised as being a 3.1 mile race; however, last year it clocked in at 5.8 miles and this year it clocked in at 5.5 miles. We ran the first 2.5 miles of the race and only encountered one set of obstacles – an over and under wall. The vast majority of the obstacles were jumbled together at the end. I’ve given my feelings about this in numerous Spartan Race (and other) reviews, and I continue to feel the same way. Good obstacle placement and spacing the obstacle out across the course is key for the experience of your racers. I had fun during the 2.5 miles of running because I was chatting with Bobby and Paul about OCR and Ragnar. Basically, I was lucky and had good people to keep me company. Otherwise, I think I might have been a bit bored. I am sympathetic to the fact that key to Blizzard Blast is snow. I am sure that all bets were off when they realized it was going to be warm and the ground bare. This probably meant the removal of some obstacle from last year, like the sledding, which were a lot of fun and broke up some of the distance.

Have I signed up for the 2017 Blizzard Blast yet? No. Will I? Very likely, yes. It's fun. The level of challenge isn't overwhelming, but you do get some obstacles that will work you. It's a race anyone can do. Friends are key to the experience. So, yes, 2017, I'll be there with the team.

(Note: Photos courtesy of Blizzard Blast and Caley McGuane Photography unless otherwise stated.)

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