Saturday, October 29, 2016

Bone Frog Challenge New England: Fall 2016

This year's Bone Frog Challenge could be summed up in a few sentences.

  1. It was cold.
  2. We did a lot of trail running.
  3. We got lost.
  4. We crawled under a bunch of stuff.
Suffice it to say, it was a sufferfest. Of course, four sentences is hardly the sum of the story. Let's get into it.

Bone Frog Challenge typically takes place at Berkshire East in Charlemont, Massachusetts in May. The 2015 Bone Frog will likely go down as one of my favorite races of all time with over fifty obstacles stretched over a 15K course. The race was meticulously executed. This spring, I took place in the race again, and also enjoyed it. As a result, I was quite excited to see they had a fall 10K championship race planned for late October. I signed up right away.  

Fast forward a few months. Suddenly the championship was a standard 9 miler. The October race would be another Bone Frog Challenge. I had been excited for the shorter course, but this struck me as fine. They didn't have enough races, I presume, to support a championship -- it would be too challenging for people to qualify. (I had signed up for the open wave, for which you did not have to qualify.)

The weather in New England is a fickle thing. Thursday I drove home in a swarm of snow. We got around 3". Bone Frog posted pictures on Facebook of Berkshire East with obstacles covered in snow. Bone Frog's course features two water crossings. All I could do was shake my head. 

The morning of Bone Frog, I left my house at 7:00 a.m. to make it to the venue for my 9:00 a.m. wave. I live fairly close -- less than an hour away -- and it was an easy drive. Parking ($10 per car) was a breeze. The turn out was a lot less than for the May event, making both parking and registration a snap. Volunteers were plentiful down in the festival area and on the course. The weather was dreadful, and these people are real champions!

I connected with my fellow Spahten and good friend, Matt Puntin. Cool things about Matt include almost everything (i.e. He has obstacles in his backyard!); however, today's cool thing was that he'd agreed to run Bone Frog with me, despite the fact that I am quite a bit slower. I was seriously off my game during the race, and having Matt with me was key to finishing. Having a good battle buddy makes all the difference.

The weather in Charlemont was unfortunate. It was damp, at times rainy, and in the low to mid 30s. There was snow on the mountain. Everything was slippery and wet. The saving grace, was that there was no wind, but this was still going to be a rough day. 

Our 9:00 a.m. wave was pretty small. There were a lot of fellow NE Spahtens. Some others had chosen to do the Tier 1 Challenge, which involves doing the 9 mile Challenge course followed by the 3 mile Sprint course. They had taken off about 15 minutes prior. We had some brief announcements -- a good thing in the cold -- and then we were off!

The 9 mile course was almost a reversed version of the course in May with stripped down obstacles. Of the Bone Frog Challenges I've done, this will not rank as a favorite. I'll go through the course map and some of the obstacles to give a bit of a breakdown of the course with my feedback.

The course featured around three dozen obstacles; however, this included a lot of repeat obstacles:
  • Four wire crawls and one net crawl
  • Two sets of tires to hop through
  • Two sets of tires on horizontal logs to go over
  • Two water crossings
There were also a number of walls, but I consider walls an OCR staples, and these walls were all different heights so I'm good with that. The wire crawls were absolutely miserable. They were through snow. I couldn't feel my fingers at a point, and my elbows and knees got soaked through. I should also add that I elected to not enter any of the water. I was frozen enough from the crawls and would not have been able to make it through the course if I entered the water. The first water crossing was the fifth obstacle and was chest high. The second was at the top of the mountain, where it was around freezing temperatures. I acknowledge two things about my electing to skip the water: I had a slightly different race experience and that experience was less hard. I am less strong for doing this. 

I should remark that I was definitely having an "off day." The course did not engage me, I was very uncomfortable, and my performance was lackluster. I am deeply effected by the cold, and I had a challenging day.

There was a lot of trail running during the course. The trails were great. They were technical and interesting. The terrain was slippery and people were sliding all over; however, the paths were interesting. There was a lot of climbing up and down the mountain, but there was equally a lot of cutting across the mountain on single track trails. A problem though was that the trails were not as well marked as they could have been. I have never gotten lost on a course during the day. (And only once gotten ever so slightly off course -- missing less than 50 feet -- during the night.) During Bone Frog, we got lost twice. The second time, we ended up having to cut across the mountain and underneath the mountain coaster at Berkshire East. Yikes! Also, for the third time, I wished that the course had mile markers.

The low turnout, while bad for Bone Frog, meant that there were no hold-ups at the obstacles. The course moved smoothly. While there weren't any new obstacles I can name, there were a lot of fun ones from the past. I'm a fan of the Solar Walls, which are two huge walls of at least 15' with a rope to climb them. My hands were frozen from the crawl right before, so I had to use my legs around the rope to make sure I didn't slip down. I also like Slide for Life. Here, you climb through a hole in a platform and then go down a traverse rope. This is unique obstacle and fun. I have to get a boost to reach the hole in the platform, but then I'm good to go.

I should mention that many Bone Frog obstacles are not short-person friendly. I cannot reach on Slide for Life, Swingers Club, Get a Grip, Drunken Monkey, or Black Ops. I also have yet to complete Swingers Club and Get a Grip, both of which are obstacles where you swing from hanging grip to hanging grip. Drunken Monkey, peg monkey bars at varying heights, I have made. Today, I was able to climb up and grab a bar, but this left me unable to get to another. Also, they were super wet, and I kind of fell half off. Matt seemed quite alarmed, and I did not elect to try again. I have made Black Ops at my first two races but did not complete it today. I made it up the rope climb but did not attempt the monkey bars, which were dripping wet. I couldn't feel my fingers at this point, and was doing my best to just keep moving and make it to the end. Like I said, I did not have a fantastic race and did not make a number of obstacles I normally would love.

There were a few carries -- the Ammo Carry for the first obstacle and the Wreck Bag Carry. Both were very short and manageable. I even found them easy. This was a great relief! I enjoyed a number of the cargo climbs and, as always, had fun on the walls. They have a number of thru walls, which are a nice way of mixing it up.

I ended up finishing this race in just over three hours. It was my fastest Bone Frog yet, due entirely to the reduced number of obstacles and zero wait time due to low turnout. 

All and all, I would give this race a 3.5 out of five stars. (Though I would give having Matt as my battle buddy five stars for sure.) The course was less diverse than I might have hoped with lots of repetition and the obstacles were less interesting than in the past. I have never gone off course before and found the markings to be a bit lacking. That being said, the volunteers were great and we got an awesome medal and t-shirt. (Though I still miss the shirts from 2015, which were the best finisher shirts ever and even came in curvy fit!) The weather, which is no one's fault, definitely put a damper on the day and made the race a whole lot less fun. Still, no matter what, Bone Frog has some really interesting obstacles. I've seen them several times now, and might be a bit jaded, but I don't take for granted the good work that they do. 

I won't be able to make the May race since I'm running the Vermont City Marathon the following weekend. However, I look forward to doing Bone Frog again soon. It's a #racelocal favorite, and while this fall's race was not their strongest showing, I'll be back.

(Note: Thanks to Vince Rhee and Daniel T. Parker for photos!)

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Shale Hill Halloween Fun Run 2016

If you had only one race that you could do for the rest of our life, what would it be? For me, the answer is Shale Hill's Halloween Fun Run. Friends, my favorite obstacle course, and a post-race potluck that cannot be beat! Bonus points for amazing volunteers who jump out to scare you (and then remove their masks to encourage you as you climb over the next obstacle). More bonus points for the unique experience of running Shale Hill at night.

While driving home with Amy Lillis after this weekend's race, she hit the nail right on the head. "If I have to miss a race I really love, I'm sad. But if I have to miss a race at Shale Hill, I'm devastated!"

The Halloween Fun Run is a great way to go out and have some low-key fun at Shale Hill. The race does have a competitive division -- I placed 2nd in the women's division -- however, most people coming for the Halloween Run choose to do the non-competitive, penalty-free journeyman division. About half of the field at the Halloween Run were NE Spahtens and most of them chose to run journeyman together. By all accounts they had an absolute blast.

Saturday's 5:00 p.m. race was rainy with temperatures hovering right above 40 degrees. Not ideal conditions to say the least. The racer's meeting was held in the barn and race director, Rob, was clear to emphasize the main points of the evening -- be safe and have fun. The bucket carry and the second log carry, both in the last third of the course, were removed for the Halloween Run. The teeter totters, gut check, and balance logs (over the ravine) were closed due to the slippery conditions. Everything else, including the pond traverse, was open. The penalty for all failed obstacles was 15 spiderman push-ups, which apparently Rob thinks is an easy penalty, stating, "Only 15 spiderman push-ups. We want to have fun out there." I had the distinction of getting to demo the penalty during the meeting.

It was an intimate group so we were able to all start together at 5:00 p.m. It was still light out. I was able to make it about half of the way through the course until I needed my headlamp, which I turned on at the traverse wall. I was surprised by a number of volunteers and given a few good scares. Let me be clear, the scare factor of this race is not high. I do not like scary things. I never see horror movies and would not be caught dead in a haunted house. The scares at Shale Hill are more funny than alarming. Sure, I started a few times when a volunteer jumped out or when the creepy chainsaw guy revved the chainsaw's motor. A volunteer dressed as Thor got me pretty good twice. But really the scares were modest, and volunteers always asked, "How are you doing?" afterwards and kept an eye on you while you did your obstacle. There were over a dozen volunteers and I saw people on the course, including Rob, very frequently. This was great since it was dark and I was running alone. It made me feel safe.

Shale Hill has around 60 obstacles including some of the most original and fun obstacles you might encounter. The wet conditions definitely made for a challenge, and I did more penalties than usual. Of the 60 obstacles at Shale Hill, I'd say there are around four that I might routinely fail. Wet metal and ropes made that number skyrocket. I failed some things I can routinely make, such as the Tarzan ropes, fireman's pole, and the monkey bars. Indeed I couldn't even grab onto the pole or the bars. Yet on a scale of one to ten, my enjoyment level was a definite ten. When did I last have so much fun? Probably the last time I was at Shale Hill.

At the end of the race, I headed back into the barn to tell race director, Jill, my time. I received a medal and a wristband, in addition to the t-shirt I had gotten at registration. (Note: I should add that registration at Shale Hill is always a breeze and parking and spectators are free.) I changed in the locker room and then headed into the potluck.

The post-race party was great! I hung out with friends and enjoyed amazing food, delicious desserts, and an atmosphere that cannot be improved upon. The people who go to Shale Hill are something of a family where everyone knows everyone and we are always happy to catch up and talk about obstacle course racing. One would not say that I'm a very social person, yet I can say that the amount of fun I have socializing at Shale Hill is part of the reason I love racing there. The course is amazing, Rob and Jill are the best race directors ever, and the community that they have built is second to none.

All of this to say: Yes, if I could only do one race for the rest of my life, it would definitely be a Shale Hill race.

(Note: Photo credits Jennifer Paquette Eaton -- thank you! It was awesome seeing you on the course.)

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Newport Marathon 2016

26.2. The number of miles in a marathon.

A bucket list item for me has always been to run a marathon, but for years, I felt skeptical about making the effort. I love obstacle course racing and never wanted to devote the time to training for a marathon attempt. Last fall, for reasons I cannot explain, I decided that after a decade of regular running I wanted to do it. I signed up for the Newport Marathon and decided 2016 would be the year of the marathon.

And it was. I trained. For my training, I had goals -- to not hate running when I was done and to be able to complete the marathon. No time goal, just finish. It worked. I ran three days a week, with a long run on the weekends. I really loved it to. The long runs were, by and large, fun. I got to explore new areas of my community. It was an adventure. Even my 20 miler, felt fine. Sure, the last couple of miles were a bit hard, but overall everything was good. I was feeling ready for October 9th and my first marathon-length run. 

So, how was the Newport Marathon? The answer is that it was a good experience slightly overshadowed by terrible weather. The week of the marathon, the forecast came out. At first, it appeared like Hurricane Matthew might hit. After a year of preparation, the marathon might be canceled. Then mid-week the weather look promising. The storm was heading back south and it appeared the weather would be dry with a high in the mid-60s. Race day was somewhere in the middle. While there wasn't a hurricane, the weather was very wet and windy. 

Sunday's race began at 7:30 a.m. I live about two and a half hours away from Newport, Rhode Island. This meant a 3:45 a.m. wake-up call and a departure time of 4:00 a.m. The Newport Marathon recommended arriving at the parking lot to catch the shuttle by 6:00 a.m. at the latest. 

My roommate, Serah, and I headed out into the black to drive to Newport. The weather was cool and slightly rainy in Western Massachusetts. As we drive out east to Rhode Island, the weather got more and more inclement. By the time we arrived at the parking lot where we were going to take the shuttle, it was clear that this was going to be a wet run.

Parking and the shuttle were well coordinated. Parking was free. After the many times I have paid for parking and spectator fees for obstacle course races, I almost forgot how cheap running is -- I've never paid to park for a running race and spectators are always free. It was great!

The Newport Marathon sold out at 4,000 registrants; however, because of the weather, a fraction of that number were in attendance. The bus ride to the starting line was quick -- no more than five minutes. There was no waiting for the bus to or from the parking lot. This was handled very smoothly and was quite impressive.

Registration took place at the Easton Beach rotunda. It was great to have check-in take place inside. The place was packed with runners. It seemed like approximately 75% of people were registered for the half marathon and the other 25% were planning to do the full. Runner were color coded by distance -- half marathon had a pink bib and got a medal with a pink ribbon where as the marathon runners had blue bibs and ribbons. I headed upstairs to get my bib. I had to check a board to get my number, was far too short to see my name at the top of the list, and had to recruit a pair of taller gentleman to assist. From there check-in was a breeze. Zero waiting. The volunteers were awesome. I got a goody bag with snacks from the sponsors and a ladies-fit tech shirt. 

Due to the weather, Serah and I decided to hang out inside until the last possible minute, when I'd walk to the starting line. The Newport Marathon definitely has a small race feel, so it was easy to hang out and not feel stressed about needing to line-up in advance. I also wanted to take some time to collect myself. I had experienced a somewhat rough car trip to Newport, where I had felt quite car sick. I had eaten just about half of my breakfast. Being settled at the starting line and no longer in a moving vehicle, I was feeling a bit better, but I wanted to be as close to 100% as possible for the start of the race. In all honestly, I was feeling a bit nervous too, so it was helpful to have a few minutes to try and get ready for the big run. 

At around 7:20 a.m., I made my way out into the pouring rain. I had dressed for the marathon in capri running tights, a tank, a running jacket of the water resistant wind breaker type, my favorite Moving Comfort Rebound Racer sports bra, Darn Tough socks, and my Altra Intuition sneakers. This ended up being a fairly good outfit. That being said, the moment I step outside I was soaked. It was so rainy and windy that my jacket almost instantly started letting through water (and believe me I've done many runs in the rain where the jacket kept me dry the entire time). My shoes were instantly wet through. Suffice it to say, the weather was unfortunate and uncomfortable.

The Newport Marathon has planned to do three waves, separated by a few minutes. With the attrition due to the weather, only two waves were necessary. I started towards the back, anticipating a pace of just over 12:00 / mile. Despite the weather, the announcer was in good spirits. After the national anthem, the first wave was off, and then we were too. 

The Newport Marathon course is basically something of a figure eight. The marathon consists of two 13.1 mile loops, with the race coming back past the start/finish lines at the midpoint. While this race is a marathon, with the marathon field being so small, I am betting this race might be one of the ones that becomes just a half marathon soon. Honestly, it would make sense. The course is designed with the 13.1 folks in mind -- all of the attractions -- the run along the cliffs, past the mansion, and through Salve Regina University -- is all in the first half of the race. The second half, is not in Newport itself, but instead in the adjacent town of Middletown. While also lovely, the second half of the route features a number of out and back sections. There were a couple out and back elements in the first half, but way more in the second half, plus they were lengthier. These sharp turnarounds were not the most fun. All in all, I'd give the course a B+. It was, overall quite lovely, and I could see that on a day with good weather, the course would be amazing. However, the out and back elements were a bit of a bummer. 

The race coordinators had warned of rolling hills in the second half of the marathon on the race page. Honestly, to me, the first and second half seemed evenly matched with the elevation change, which was never more than 100 feet. It was rolling hills, but they were gentle. The biggest "bummer" in terms of elevation was the elevation gain between miles 22 and 25, which was a rough few miles just due to fatigue. Mile 25 through the end was mostly downhill and a great finish. 

The marathon began by taking us through downtown Newport. I had never been to Newport and the downtown was cute with the sorts of stores I associate with a beach town that caters to tourism. From there, we made our way through some nice farm land and towards Fort Adams State Park. At Fort Adams, around the four mile mark, we did a very odd little out and back through the parking lot of the park. We didn't get to see much of anything, so this was a strange decision. At this point, the rain was not as heavy as it had been at the start of the race (or as it would be later on). I took the opportunity to enjoy running with my jacket unzipped for a bit. 

That chance was brief. From Fort Adams, we headed out to Ocean Avenue, where we were running entirely exposed along the coast. It was cold. The weather was just over fifty degrees, it was windy, and rainy. The wind drove the rain sideways into me as I ran along the coast. This would have been the most beautiful part of the marathon on a good day. Even with the unpleasantness of the wind and wet, I could tell how picturesque it was. Unfortunately, this part of the marathon was probably my least favorite part of the day; due to the wind any piece of me not covered was pretty cold.

I was glad when I noticed that the course was making its way back inland. There we runners were more protected. Without the wind things felt much better.

Newport is renowned for its mansions. A lot of the Newport Marathon was a chance to do some house gazing. This activity was somewhat mitigated as I zoned out while I ran, doing my best to ignore feeling super wet. I did catch a number of great houses though, including some of the most famous mansions owned by the preservation society. 

We ran about two miles along a stretch of concrete road that ran along the mansions. Where was the private homes we had run by earlier were fenced in a manner that did not allow you to see much, these mansions were on display through gilded gates. It was great!

The other fun element of the first half of the race, was a quick running tour of Salve Regina University. What a lovely campus! The run through Salve was probably one of my favorite parts of the course. The rain was light, the wind was not bad, and the scenery was great. I do love a good institution of higher learning.

To make things even better, at this point in the course, I came across fellow NE Spahten, Peter. How excellent! We ran together for a little bit chatting all the while. It was great. The first half was almost over, and I began to feel as if the race was flying by. 

At that point, the half marathon runners were getting ready to finish their race. We turned back towards the start line, where the runners for the half would turn off to finish. Along the course, spectators kept calling, “You’re almost there.” I saw people who had already finished walking around with metal blankets and their medals on their necks. Running through the rain, it was tempting to wish that I was almost finished with my race and would be soon stopping and changing into dry clothing. Yet with a year of training, this would never seriously be a consideration for me. I ran past the starting line and back out for the second half of the race.

Over 13.1 miles into the race, and I was feeling pretty good. I was not tired. I had been good about taking in fuel (four Probar chews every 45 minutes) and had my hydration pack so I could sip at water. Things were going well. 

The second half of the course took runners through Middletown, Rhode Island. There were some rolling hills, though nothing more than in the first half. We ran through residential neighborhoods mostly. This wasn't as beautiful as the run along the Newport coast, but it was protected from the intense wind. I could see the ocean past the rows of nice homes. It was a good opportunity to check out some real estate and do some running. 

During the second half, we also got to explore some the Sachuest Point Wildlife Preserve. This was a bit of a windy area, and yet another out and back. The roads here were seriously wet. I ended up having to wade through a puddle at around mile 18. 

Mile 18 was also when my Apple Watch decided it had experienced too much excitement for the day. Even though I had charged Apple Watch to 100% that morning, over three and a half hours of running was more than the battery could handle. Because it was important for me to keep track of the time to know when to take in fuel, I switched the watch to power saver mode. Alas, my GPS log for my marathon terminates at mile 18. I was now running solo. There were markers every mile, but I would have no idea of my pace.

From the nature preserve, we headed back into suburbia. The next part of the course featured a few less interesting sections of out and back running through quiet town streets. This was definitely the least interesting part of the course. Around mile 22, I started feeling pretty tired. I had been wet for a while, running for over four hours, and was on a tedious piece of the course. As you can see from the picture below, it was beginning to be a struggle to keep a smile on my face.

I decided to keep focus. Miles 22 to 25 were slightly uphill. Nothing terrible -- I had trained on rolling hills -- but it was enough to make things a bit of a drag. That being said, I kept positive. I was running the entire time. I passed a lot of people who were walking. I had decided during training that I would maintain a pace where I would run the entire time, walking only to take in fuel. (I don't want to choke.) Plus, the weather was chilly. If I stopped running, I was going to get way to cold. The final point I kept in mind was that I had only four miles left. My standard weekday lunchtime run is just under four and a half miles. I just had a lunch time run left to go. 

I pushed on. Yes, I was tired, and yes, I didn't know my pace, but I kept moving consistently. The miles rolled by very slowly at this point. It was tiring work. I felt like I was ready to stop running. My fingers had turned red, puffy and chilly. I realized I couldn't bend them all the way. My shoulders were getting chaffed by my wet wind breaker. 

Yet I realized I had done more challenging things than this. I recalled the races I'd finished. By and large, the marathon had been enjoyable, and I'd felt good. The race was going to take just over five hours, far shorter than some of the obstacle course races I've done. I could definitely do this. 

Onward! I kept moving and finally was at mile 25. At this point I had a mile to go and it was downhill. I was going to finish my first marathon! I ran down the main road and could see the rotunda at Easton Beach which was adjacent to the finish line. I rounded the last bend. Serah cheered me on.

I crossed the finish line at 5:19:42.

A medal was put over my head and a metal blanket was draped around me. I had done it!

One of my goals with running my first marathon was to not hate running and to enjoy the race. I would say that I realized both of these objectives. Once I started running, I felt really quite good, despite the challenges I had that morning and the weather. Sure, the weather was terrible. I was consistently wet the entire race. My feet were drenched. I have chaffing in odd places from my wet jacket constricting my arms for 26 miles and my hydration pack thumping against my back. When we were out along the coast, the wind drove rain right into me. The weather was decidedly uncomfortable, and, at times, I thought, "This is terrible." Yet, by and large, my run went extremely well! I feel good the entire time. At mile 22, I became quite a bit fatigued, but at that point I only had four miles to go. It was shorter than the run I do at work twice a week. I kept moving, made it to mile 25 and felt fine. 22 miles feeling perfect, three challenging miles, and one good last mile. I cannot complain. My body did well. I had no pain -- I only got tired at the end from over five hours of exertion. This is excellent. I was able to train the way I wanted and have a good experience. 

I will also say that the endurance I've built up from obstacle course racing was a huge asset. The stories I had heard of marathons made me think that doing one would be the most challenging event I'd do, requiring the most physical and mental energy. I realize, now having completed a marathon, that in the past I had done things that are far harder: The Spartan Beast24 Hours of Shale Hell this summer (especially the second lap), and Polar Bear Challenge. These races were all harder than the marathon. With the exception of the Spartan Race, which I found not much fun, I have plans to do all these races again. 

Would I do another marathon? Absolutely. I really enjoyed the training, and I want to have the chance to run a race in beautiful weather. 

(Note: Images from Newport Marathon's Facebook page.)