Monday, February 6, 2017

Shale Hill Polar Bear 8 Hour 2017

This year marks the 5th Shale Hill Polar Bear 8 Hour, a winter race in which participants are given eight hours to do as many loops of Shale Hill's 6.5 mile course as possible. I had taken part in Polar Bear two years ago in 2015 when there was around three feet of snow on the ground. In 2015, it took me almost five and a half hours to do one lap (compared with the summer when I can do a lap in around 2:45) and still ranks as one of the hardest races I have ever done.


No pretense: I am not a cold weather acclimated athlete. I do poorly in the cold. For me, a race like Polar Bear is never going to be competitive. In the summer, I'll crank out a few laps. In the winter, I'm just going to do my best and have some fun. No goals. For me, Polar Bear is a great time to hang out with friends and get out an play in the outdoors during a time of year when I traditionally have less fitness motivation, less time in the fresh air, and not nearly enough time playing around on obstacles. Polar Bear fills my off season in a most excellent way.


(Note: Video taken by OCRTube.)

This year, we were fortunate to have an almost snow-free course for Polar Bear. After 2015, I was supremely relieved! That being said, it was cold. Temperatures at start time, 7:30 a.m., were in the teens and they never got above the low to mid 20s. Obstacle racing in the cold weather is an entirely different thing than in the warmer temperatures. Winter clothing restricts mobility, muscles are cold making everything seem more challenging, and, worst of all, one's fingers are unable to grasp things. I was either forced to wear gloves, which made my grip almost worthless and removed any tactile sensation from my finger tips, or I had to try to grab things with freezing fingers. After one lap my hands were dead. I couldn't close my fingers and my palm were raw. For me, there is no fighting this.

Nor is there any fighting how draining the cold is. One and done was my motto again this year, despite the fact that, in finishing my lap in 3:19, I had plenty of time to do another. I was not competing. One lap was fun. Two would have been a struggle and I would have failed lots of obstacles without my fingers working. I opted for a happy one and time socializing with friends.


All this being said, Polar Bear is a great competitive race if you want it to be. For this event, Shale Hill draws athletes from all across the US and Canada. It is amazing to be witness to these athletes giving there all. For the rest of us, it's one or two laps and then one of my favorite race parties in OCR. It's perhaps an understatement for me to say that I'm not a party person. I, in fact, often dislike parties. For me to say that I like the party at Shale Hill is huge. Why? Because Shale Hill is a close-knit community. I know people. It's friendly and low-key. Owners, Rob and Jill, treat me like family. Suffice it to say, Shale Hill is a special place. It's the best fixed OCR course in the country, a unique community I love, and a special place. Polar Bear has an all day buffet with coffee and bacon (for those who eat it -- certainly not me!) all day long. In the morning there was french toast and eggs. At lunch time there was soup, rolls, mac 'n cheese, meatballs ,and ziti. A hot meal before and after spending time in 20 degree weather is the way to go and a huge perk of this race.

Polar Bear starts bright and early with the 6:35 a.m. racers' meeting. With the early hour, my carpool buddy and teammate, Amy, and I decided to stop by Shale Hill Friday night on our way into town to register and drop off our stuff. As always, everything was awesome. We received our bibs (which were giant flexible stickers, meaning they didn't rip off on the course -- amazing!) and a goody bag with stickers, snacks, and our race t-shirt. I love that Shale Hill does a long sleeve shirt for Polar Bear. (Note: I left my t-shirt at the house where I was staying and am super lucky that fellow Spahten, Becky, is very nicely mailing it back. I was even more lucky that Jill at Shale Hill would have sent me another one if this one had gone missing. Good people!) Amy and I dropped our gear at Shale Hill before heading to our rental house about five miles away.

The close accommodations were helpful for our early wake-up. We were at Shale Hill parking a little after 6:30 a.m. and just in time for the racers' meeting. One of the great things about Shale Hill is that they don't charge for the extras. Parking, bag drop, and food is all included. Parking is onsite and just a 1/5 of a mile walk up the hill to the heated barn where all the action is happening.


During the racers' meeting, Rob went over the rules for the course. I was doing the open division this year, meaning that I would have to do penalties. Shale Hill also offers the penalty-free Journeyman division, which is an excellent option for those doing their first season at Shale Hill's highly difficult course. Journeyman is also great for the less competitive athlete who don't want to waste energy on penalties. All that being said, penalties are handled in a special way for Polar Bear. Usually, you do your penalties on the course in the summer, often completing spiderman push-ups for each failed obstacle. During Polar Bear, to keep the racers from stopping and getting cold on course, you collect small chips at each obstacle you fail and then bring them back and do all your penalties at the end right in front of the barn. Depending on the obstacle you fail, you get different color chips which correspond to different difficulty penalties. You then roll two dice to determine how many penalties you have to do and of what type. This year's penalties included such things as dips, hitting a tire with a sledge hammer, jumping into a box and out, push-ups using PUPs stands, and hugging a stranger while singing a song.

After the meeting, I quickly organized myself before the 7:30 a.m. open wave start. I put on my Icebugs, layered up, and put a buff around my face. I was ready to go. I ran out the door at exactly 7:30 a.m. and was on my way.


The weather was cold. At 7;30 a.m., it couldn't have been much above 18 degrees. I pulled my buff over my face and trundled on. The first challenge I hit was at the NES sponsored obstacle, the Zig Zag of Awesomeness. This obstacle features metal pipes that you have to traverse using only your hands. In such cold temperatures, it was ill-advised to remove my gloves and touch the bare metal. Unfortunately, in my gloves I could not get purchase on the pipe and kept sliding off. After several attempts, I ended up taking my first penalty chip.

I kept moving with the goal of staying warm. It was cold but at least the sun was out and when the wind wasn't blowing it felt almost tolerable. I had warmers in my shoes and in my pockets (for my hands), which was a must. I made it to one of my least favorite obstacles, the log slipper carry, which requires racers to carry to logs connected with a nylon cord for half a mile. My favorite logs weren't there, but I got a good set and was impressed at how I powered through an obstacle that I often struggle on.


Next up was the pond traverse. The pond was deeply frozen, making this obstacle a "go." There were some short lines, so I opted for the traverse rope with Heaven's Gate on it. Heaven's Gate is a metal ring, wrapped around the traverse that one has to go around. I don't usually have much problem with it, so I decided to forge ahead. I had taken off my gloves to gain better purchase on the traverse rope, not thinking about how I'd have to touch the metal gate. Touching Heaven's Gate was like touching the coldest thing in the universe. I quickly made my way around and continued along the rope. My hands were ice and I kept asking Steve, who was stationed at the obstacle, "Am I there yet?" My fingers were hurting! I finally made it and was able to warm up my hands with the warmers in my gloves. I pressed on.


Rob is perpetually adding to the course at Shale Hill. Case and point, a new obstacle about half way through the course. This obstacle was of a type I am increasingly seeing and have yet to master -- the inverted stair / uphill monkey bar. It made my second failed obstacle of the day. I have done research and have a set of exercises (mostly pull-ups incorporating a plyometric element) that I plan to master in order to increase my ability to do these sorts of obstacles!


I was racing on my own. The winter is not my season and the cold was getting to me. I was feeling somewhat low energy and hoping for a friend to pass my way. Fortunately, as I hit the halfway point of the course on the traverse wall, hope appeared in the form of one Mr. Paul Jones (aka. the most famous person I know). Paul served as my battle buddy (and sherpa for my hydration pack) for the second half of the course. Having his company was key to my enjoyment of the race!


Of course, one new obstacle on the course wasn't enough, so Rob created the Shale Hill ATWB, the all terrain wheelbarrow. This demonic new obstacle replaced the old bucket carry and, dare I say it, was even worse. My forearms were trashed and my arms were shaking after taking the ATWB around the old bucket carry loop. Having this obstacle right before the monkey bars was just terrible!


At this point, I was feeling pretty tired. Fortunately, the end was in sight as we finished up at the Tarzan Ropes and headed over to the warped wall. Two more obstacles and then time to cash in my chips, do my penalties, and, finally, get warm and fed.


I crossed the finish line and headed over to the penalty table, extracting five red and three green chips from my pocket. I had failed the Zig Zag, the new staircase obstacle, two sections of giant traverse wall, the fireman's pole (though I had made it to the top, my fingers lacked the strength to pull me through the opening), the 2" rope climb, the monkey bars, and the Tarzan ropes. For me, this was a bit of a poor showing, but with the cold, I was okay with the results. Apparently, my penalty count for the day was not overly high because I only had to hug a stranger while singing and do 15 tricep dips. Not bad. I finished in 3:19.


I had time to go back out again. I even debated it for quite a while. I had finished in good time, and I had hours before the eight hour limit would be up. I could entirely do another lap. Then I realized, it wouldn't be fun, and I was there for an off-season race that day. I was there for fun. I collected my medal, satisfied with my choice. I had the summer, when I planned to peak, for a competitive endeavor. Now, it was time to change into warm clothing and hang out with friends.

What followed was an amazing few hours. I put on some clean clothing, had some hot food, and then hung out spectating by the fire, toasty warm in a Dryrobe that one of the vendors super nicely let me borrow. (Hint: These things are amazing!) Suffice it to say, I got to enjoy Polar Bear on many levels -- as a racer and as a spectator.


I cannot wait to get back to Shale Hill again. Next up for them is their August festival weekend. I plan to take part in the relay 1 miler, 8 miler (where I do plan to be more competitive and do multiple laps), and the charity relay. Between races, I plan to volunteer and spend time cheering on friends. Hopefully, in the meantime, I'll make it up to Shale Hill a couple times this spring to get in some training. Already, I can't wait to be up in Vermont again!


(Note: NE Spahtens photos courtesy of Vince Rhee. Shale Hill pictures from Jennefer Paquette Eaton. Thank you!)

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