Monday, July 18, 2016

Tri-Obstaclon 2016

Last year, I called Tri-Obstaclon one of the top three hardest races I had ever done. Obviously that meant I had to do it again this year. Tri-Obstaclon is Shale Hill's version of a triathlon. Participants mountain bike approximately 7 miles to Lake Champlain, do a 300 yard swim, bike back, and then run the 10K obstacle course at Shale Hill. There are options for everyone. If you are looking for a shorter length challenge, you can opt to do the bike, swim, and then 5K obstacle course. If you are looking for even more of a distance to traverse, there is an elite option with a 600 yard swim and two laps of the 10K course. As always, Shale Hill offers both open waves (with penalties of 25 spiderman push-ups for failed obstacles) and the journeyman non-competitive and penalty free division. Shale Hill also offers the option for a relay format (thought I don't think I saw anyone take that option).

For Saturday's race, I chose to do the 10K open wave (with penalties) option. Last year, I ran Shale Hill's races in the journeyman category. I had been encouraged to consider the competitive option. Shale Hill is edging in on 70 obstacles, and there are only a handful that I routinely fail -- time to get "serious."

I borrowed a bike rack and my roommate's car to take my bike up to Vermont. Let me be clear that while I have a bike and use it pretty much daily to commute to and from work, it is not, perhaps, ideal for racing. It's a heavier model, optimized for transporting my lunch and gym clothing with a basket on the back. The gears are not as smooth as I might want and sometimes the chain jumps. However, the bike has hybrid mountain bike tires and is rugged. The mountain bike 14 mile portion of Tri-Obstaclon is mostly on rolling hills along country dirt roads -- my bike would suffice for this purpose. It did last year.

Saturday morning dawned hot. I was staying in Benson (home of Shale Hill) with a few teammates. We coordinated, stopped by the Benson Country Store for some coffee and bagels with eggs, and then headed up to Shale Hill to check-in. As always, registration at Shale Hill is a breeze. This is a place where everyone knows you, where the race director will give you a huge and welcome you, and where the volunteers know your name on course and will cheer you on personally. Shale Hill is really the NE Shaptens home away from home, if you ask me. It's for sale, and so if you haven't made it up to Benson yet, this year is the year to take advantage. It's a special place.

At check-in we got a goodie bag with some stickers for Shale Hill, Tri-Obstaclon, and Team Sinergy. We also got a nice sleeveless tank as our finisher shirt. This is my first memory of Shale Hill providing a shirt that's not 100% cotton. I know a lot of people love tech shirts, so I can only imagine that this was met with excitement. (I'm a cotton and cotton blend person myself since I like to wear race shirts for casual wear or as pajamas instead of at the gym.)

The race was set for a 9:00 a.m. start. Considering the heat, I almost wish that we had started a bit earlier, but a 9:00 a.m. start is good for anyone who wants to travel in the day-of. There was a racers meeting at around 8:45 a.m. where Rob, the race director, outlined what we needed to consider for safety, announced the penalties for the obstacles failures, and told us more about the bike and swim portions. Helmets were required for the biking and shoes were required for the swim since the lake had zebra clams. 

After announcements, Vince Rhee took our lovely team picture and then we were off to get inline for the biking portion.

We began lined up along the fence that runs perpendicular to the barn. At the starting gun, we ran to our bikes and jumped on to begin the ride to the lake.

In 2015 I bemoaned the biking portion of Tri-Obstaclon. This year, I knew the ride would be 7 miles each way, not the 5 to 6 that is advertised. I was more prepared, had tuned up my bike, and had more biking experience, including a brief weekly trail ride to pick up my CSA after work. As a result, I was able to enjoy the bike ride a lot more this time around.

The bike course took us along rolling hills. On the way out to the lake, there was definitely more downhill than up. I don't especially like the feeling of going downhill on gravel and the lack of traction, so this was a good opportunity to practice getting comfortable with that feeling and keeping my bike under good control. In general, I did pretty well. I also limited the amount of time I got off the bike. In general, a lot of the Tri-Obstaclon participants are into OCR foremost and don't do a ton of biking. I am lucky that I bike regularly, if not quickly. I kept reminding myself to not pull up too much on the handlebars when going uphill so as to save my arms strength for the obstacles. I also tried to be smart about using the gears on my bike.

Because it was warm out, I kept hydrated. The wind of the bike cruising downhill felt fantastic. It was so warm and humid, that after about 10 minutes, I ended up taking off my NE Spahtens drill shirt and raced the rest of the day in my sports bra. This is the first time I have ever done a race in a sports bra, and it was a very nice way to race, as it was much cooler. Any worries I had about scratching up my delicate stomach were unfounded. I had no trouble going over walls, carrying logs, or going up ropes in just a sports bra and capri tights. The only modification I had to make was that doing the traverse rope could not be done on the top. Riding a bike without a shirt was amazing!

The scenery along the bike route was lovely. Soon, I made it to the wooded area bordering the lake. This part of the trail is quite technical for someone like me who really only rides on the road, so I ended up running the last quarter mile or so down to the lake, as I did last year.

All along the bike course and at the lake there were lots of volunteers to keep an eye out for everyone and cheer people on. At the lake, I checked in with a volunteer, as splits were being manually tracked. I had make the ride in less than an hour. With the heat, I was eager to get into the water. When I did, it felt wonderful. The temperature was refreshing but not too cold.

The 300 yard swim was set up for people who are not regular swimmers. The entire way, a person could stand up and have their head above the water. (Note: This is not true if you're especially short like me, but you are, even then, swimming parallel to the shore with the ability to swim in only a foot or too towards the beach and be able to stand.) There were ample volunteers at the swimming section, including a life guard who was in the water with us and following along as we swam. The swim was perfectly lovely, if a bit of work on my arms. I got out of the water refreshed and jogged back up to my bike to begin the ride back to Shale Hill.

The ride back took slightly longer than the ride out since there were more uphill sections. I only had to walk in a couple of places -- one of which was because my chain jumped. All in all, I enjoyed the biking section much more than last year and felt slightly less tired afterwards; though biking 14 miles is work no matter what and gravel roads require much more effort than paved ones.

When I got back to Shale Hill, I took a couple of minutes to eat a Larabar and change my socks and shoes. I had uses my Reebok Spartan shoes, which have drainage holes, for the bike and swim, and I wanted to change into my Injinji socks and Icebugs with carbide tips for the obstacle course portion. I drank a lot of water and put on more sunblock. I decided to skip taking my hydration pack with me, since I had so enjoyed running without it at Viking Obstacle Race last Sunday. This was certainly convenient, but I probably should have taken it. Viking had 4 evenly spaced water stations and was mostly in the woods and took me around two hours per lap. Shale Hill has most of the water stations towards the end and has large portions of the race in the fields, which lacks any protection from the sun. Having my pack would have been nice, since I got slightly dehydrated towards the end of the course and quite sunburned.

Last year, I finished the race in 5:27. This year, I did it in 5:22. I consider that basically the same. My time on the obstacle course was faster last year. This year I did a bit better on the biking. I think that a huge factor in my decreased speed on the course was the heat. I did very well on the obstacle course portion -- that is my main sport -- however, during the last mile I was dragging. Also, doing penalties takes some time.

I failed less than a half dozen obstacles -- Zig-zag of Awesomeness, Slackline, parallel bars, monkey bars, and Tarzan ropes. Of those, I commonly fail the Zig-zag; the Slackline is new (and is something I feel I should be able to do); the parallel bars is the one obstacle I have yet to get at Shale Hill; the monkey bars I have trouble with because they are so late in the course; and the Tarzan ropes I can almost always make in training but can sometimes miss during races since they are the third to last obstacle and require so much grip strength. Suffice it to say, I can do better, and know that if I keep training there will be a time when I get all of the obstacles at Shale Hill.

I did, on Saturday, make a couple of obstacles I find to be hit-or-miss with completion. I did very well on the tire swing, and make the 19' rope climb without too much difficulty. I did well on the log splitter carry too. Those are all obstacles that have given me trouble in the past. I also did the pond traverse very efficiently despite having to do it entirely underneath. (As I mentioned, I ended up running the course in just a sports bra and capris and doing the traverse rope on top, my preferred method, gave my stomach too much rope burn.)

When I crossed the finish line I was exhausted but happy. I had enjoyed my day tremendously. The last mile of the race was incredibly challenging! I was hot and tired and would have signed up for Tri-Obstaclon 2017 in a heartbeat! I put on my finishers medal and headed over to the bar for some tacos and local chocolate milk. What a great day.

Shale Hill is hands down my favorite place to race. Rob and Jill, owners of Shale Hill and co-race directors, always put on a wonderful event. My next race of the season, coming up on August 6 is 24 Hours of Shale Hell, in which I'll try to do as many laps of the Shale Hill course as I can in 24 hours. I cannot imagine how hard this will be and how much fun. I cannot wait to get back to Benson in a few weeks and spend a weekend with the NE Spahtens and other OCR friends hanging out and doing lap after lap at Shale Hill.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Viking Hill Obstacle Race

The July 2016 Viking Obstacle Race may just be my favorite race of the season. The race takes place at Sunny Hill golf resort on the Viking Hill obstacle course, a 5.5 mile course with around 33 obstacles. I have been up to Greenville, New York in the Northern Catskills a couple of times to train at Viking, but I had yet to race there. Last year's race conflicted with Tough Mudder. This year though, I was going to opt for the Viking Obstacle Race over Tough Mudder. I am glad I did.

For the first time this year, Viking was offering the opportunity to do a double lap. This meant racers would get to cover the entire course twice for a total of 11 miles and just under six dozen obstacles. I decided I was up for the challenge. I wanted to get some good distance training in for this August's 24 Hours of Shale Hell. In 2015, I had done the eight hour version of this race, successfully completing two laps (totaling around a half marathon distance and six dozen obstacles). With all the distance running I've been doing this year in order to train for my marathon in October, I thought doing some endurance obstacle course racing would be a nice complement. I have fewer obstacle course races planned for 2016 because of the marathon training -- I didn't race in June and don't plan to race in September.

The June break was because I was just finishing up my spring semester of school, for the first time not taking a summer class, and was wanting some free weekends to run and spend time hanging out in Amherst/Northampton. I wanted no commitments. My June was a blast. I didn't race, but I did a ton of training. I got in some great runs, made it up to Viking with my friend, Matt, to train one weekend, and spent a lot of quality time relaxing. The lack of race commitments in September is the simple result of needing time for school work, with classes starting again in the fall, and needing time for my really long marathon training runs.

Back to Viking Obstacle Race. On Sunday, I woke up at 5:00 a.m. and headed out to drive 2 hours to the Catskills and do two loops of the Viking Hill course. The Viking Double was an elite wave. I have never run elite before. In general, in obstacle course racing, anyone can run elite. Usually, it means you run earlier in the day and that you pay an extra fee. There are also sometimes more challenging rules, such heavier carries or mandatory obstacle completion. In the case of Viking, they were requiring mandatory obstacle completion for all elite and Viking Double racers.

What mandatory obstacle completions means is this: In order to receive prize money, you have to complete all the obstacle. Every participant received a wristband. When you failed an obstacle, your wristband was taken away and you were not ineligible to win your division. The good thing is that with mandatory obstacle completion, you are allowed to attempt the obstacle as many times as you'd like (while giving first dibs to people who are approaching the obstacle for the first time). The Viking Double had a cut-off time of 12:30 p.m., allowing participants 4.5 hours to make it around the course twice. For people who had the time, they could spend it giving a challenging obstacle a number of tries.

I arrived at Sunny Hill at around 7:15 a.m. and 45 minutes before my scheduled wave. The elite would go off at 7:30 a.m. and then the Viking Double would follow. Parking was conveniently onsite and free. Spectators could join for free as well. (Note: This is not a good spectator course -- it's all in the woods and all spectators can see is the finish, so if you're the kind of spectator who likes to follow your racer and take video and photos, know that Viking is not the best course for it.) Check-in was a snap. Viking has a tent by the lake where the race starts and ends. There was pretty much zero wait time. I received a finisher t-shirt, bib, timing chip, and my Viking Double wristband.

After check-in, I headed by to my car to organize my gear and change into my Icebugs. I put on my Viking Double band. I was pretty sure I wasn't going to be able to retain it. I have a very high obstacle completion rate at Viking; however, I have a lot of trouble on Dragon's Tooth, a set of monkey bars that has a very steep uphill and downhill section. I had yet to make that obstacle. As a person of shorter stature, the span between the bars on the uphill section is challenging. I had worked on this obstacle a bit last time I was at Viking and didn't quite have the technique or strength down to do the ascending section. I was going to try my best but feared I might lose my band here. Either way, I was determined to complete my two laps of the course. That was the challenge for me -- having the endurance to make it around the course without missing any obstacle other than Dragon's Tooth. That would mean I'd have to do a number of challenging obstacles -- a 22' rope climb, a five panel traverse wall -- twice without losing my grip strength.

We lined up at the starting line a little bit before 8:00 a.m. There were probably around 30 people, only a half dozen or so of whom were women. The race director, Tinker, gave us some announcements, and then we were off!

I started out in the back of the pack; however, I knew that we had a long race ahead, and I wasn't worried. I won't do a complete obstacle-by-obstacle breakdown here because I have that information posted on my blog in a previous write-up about Viking -- see that post here. What I will recount is some of the unique aspects on Sunday's race.

Because I was more-or-less in the back, I was soon running mostly by myself. I did see people. Because of the mandatory obstacle completion rule, there were volunteers at each obstacle. Viking is a very wall-heavy course, featuring at least a dozen walls. many of them in sets of three, increasing in height. There were volunteers at each set of walls. The volunteers were great! They were encouraging and helpful. I wanted to keep an eye on my time. Viking features a lot of water, so I wasn't wearing my Fuelband and had no idea of time if I didn't ask every now and then -- I wanted to make sure I got my two laps in under the cut-off. I wasn't too concerned. When Matt and I came up to train we had taken a very manageable pace, stopped to do extra work on Dragon's Tooth, and still managed to finish the course in two hours. Still, if I got tired and my time suffered on the second lap, I wanted to be sure I'd have the time I needed.

A main challenge of the course on Sunday was how wet it was. It had rained the night before the was raining or drizzling during much of my first lap. The skies cleared by the time that lap was over, but the walls and balance obstacles were slippery. This added to the difficulty. I recall having a challenging time making it up the 10' rope wall, because it was so slick, making the rope hard to grasp. This obstacle doesn't usually trouble me in the least -- suffice it to say, in obstacle course racing, weather really matters.

I was moving along efficiently without seeing many others until I reached the Asgard Skywalk. With the wet conditions this balance obstacle was causing some significant problems. There was a line of people attempting the obstacle again and again. The Asgard Skywalk features a lengthy set of balance logs, a traverse rope, and then another set of balance logs. If you failed on any portion of the very long obstacle, you had to start over. I was glad to be wearing my Icebugs. On a wet day, they were a game changer. I had no problems on the Skywalk, though I had to take it slowly so as to not run into people. My success was a matter of good gear over good skill on this obstacle. Like the weather, footwear matters.

After the Skywalk, I found that I was running with other people, at least some of the time. Viking Obstacle Race probably attracts somewhere around 120 to 150 people, so the course was never crowded enough to cause significant obstacle back-ups. I moved along pretty well, the only big challenge for a while being a bucket carry that was added right before the Tree Bob. This obstacle required you to take a bucket filled with around 45 pounds of water and carry it around the lake. Fortunately, the lake was not large because carrying a 45 pound bucket is a serious challenge for me.

Pretty soon after, I reached the dreaded Dragon's Tooth monkey bars. It was a mess. The bars were set from the rain and people were failing left and right. Just as the Asgard Skywalk was costing people lots of time and they tried to meet the mandatory obstacle completion, so too was Dragon's Tooth. The difference was that while most people cursed the Skywalk, they inevitable made it, while Dragon's Tooth was a "band cutter" (as we say in OCR). I gave it a try and made it across the flat section, but I couldn't make the swing up to beyond the third bar on the uphill monkey bar section. I made a good effort but decided that repeat effort would not yield good results and would just serve to exhaust me. I had really wanted to keep my band -- it's a badge of honor! -- but I also wanted to play it smart. My goal was to finish two laps. I knew this obstacle was one that I have yet to make. I wanted to focus on my larger goal of finishing with a decent time and completing all the other obstacles. I moved on.

For the most part, the course after the monkey bars went smoothly. There was an additional obstacle that was added for the race. It required participants to swim across a shallow pond, swimming under a half dozen or so logs. All of the water at Viking is kind of... natural. There is a lot of silt, dirt, reeds, grass, and bugs. Not the most pleasant, especially when grass pieces get in your clothing and feel like tiny snakes, but it is natural. 

The most challenging part of the course, post-monkey bars, is the massive 22' rope climb. I was determined to make it though, and was able to get up the first lap around with out too much trouble, if not in an entirely effortless way. Soon I was approaching the Viking Gate and the end of my first lap. I crossed the line, quickly ate half a Larabar from my drop point, and then grabbed some chomps for the second lap. With cool, if very humid, temperatures, I was using the four water stations on the course instead of racing with my hydration pack, a strategy that I really liked since it was so much easier not having to manage the pack. 

Within no more than two minutes I was off for my second lap. As it turned out, I was the first female Viking Double to come through. I have never been first in anything sports-related ever. I knew it didn't matter because I'd lost my band and wasn't competing, but it felt kind of cool to be "in first place." (Okay, not really, but kind of...) I felt great! My endurance was in a good place from all the running I've been doing, and I felt strong on the last lap -- I was really no more tired than on my first time around. It was exciting to see volunteers and have them say, "You again!?! Great job!" I was moving smoothly. 

I realized how tired I was when I got to the last mile or so of the course. Back to the 22' rope climb. Honestly, I barely made it. I was determined to have the Dragon's Tooth be my only failed obstacle of the day. I made my way up the rope at a snails pace, stopping to rest on the knots several times. Each upward pull was a struggle, but I was persistent and finally made it to the bell. Success! 

The rope climb made me realize that I was tired. I had less than a mile left. I had had a fun day, but I was really to be done. I kept moving, jogging through the last mile and completing obstacles. I got each one. Finally, I could hear the festival area in the distance. I ran towards the Viking Gate and became the first female Viking Double to cross the line. My time was 4:02. 

I had done it! I got my medal from a volunteer and headed over for a free sandwich and beans, followed by a hosedown of my shoes. While I was washing I heard the first place women's double finisher come in. I cannot imagine how much effort she must have put in getting through Dragon's Tooth and keeping her band -- what a great accomplishment! I was pleased with what I had done too. I completed 11 miles and just under six dozen obstacles. I had completed the goal I set out for myself and identified where I need to work for next year. I also got to see how distance running was having a tremendous impact on my endurance. I was able to keep going, moving quickly, feeling good for much longer than before. Who knew marathon training would be such a help for my obstacle course racing.

Suffice it to say, Viking Obstacle Race is going to be on my 2017 calendar. This race is challenging without being a beat down. They have some unique obstacles -- for example, Viking has far more balance obstacle than I've seen anywhere else and they are all much more interesting. The course terrain is nicely "run-able." The trails are not too rugged and there aren't any serious climbs. I love being able to run along between obstacles and enjoy obstacles that I find difficult but do-able. I had a blast doing the Viking Double. You'll see me there again in 2017. After all, I need to try to keep my band.