“This is a racer supported event! Look after each other out there, especially at night!”
Rob was doing his pre-race athlete briefing before the second annual 24 hours of Shale Hell (with 8 hour option new this year), and this was the serious bit. 24 hours is a long time, and the Shale Hill course is as tough, and challenging, and technical, and draining as they come. People were going to be out on the course in the dark, after many miles and it was important to watch out for each other, buddy up, and leave no one behind.
Why on *EARTH* would anyone want to do 24 hours on what is amongst the toughest courses in North America? I don’t really know, but with the spectacle that is Worlds Toughest Mudder being the closest analogy (24 hours, one bad ass obstacle course), I knew I wanted to be there this year.
Of course – the scale of events is very different. WTM brings thousands of participants, and Tough Mudder are a monstrously huge organization. Shale Hill had 55 runners, and obstacles are built literally in his back yard.
But if you showed up thinking the event would be any less challenging, you’d be wrong, and you’d be in a world of hurt mere hours in. The 24 Hours of Shale Hell was something to be survived, not conquered, and you’d better be ready for it.
For those who may be new to the scene – Shale Hill is a fixed 10k course in Benson, VT. With 60 – 70 *real* obstacles (things tend to grow there), they are a mix of tough upper body strength obstacles and devious versions of obstacles you may have thought you had nailed down. Rob Butler, the evil mastermind behind the venue welcomes everyone as family, and offers competitive and non-competitive options at every race – so you can go head to head for time, or simply put yourself against the course to see how you fair.
The 24 hours of Shale Hell (and it’s 8 hour brethren, that I ran) is simply as many laps as you can, starting at 9am, and wrapping up your last lap before the 9am deadline the following morning.
It was glorious. Rob let people pitch tents at no cost the night before, and we met athletes from Canada (running the Relay option), athletes with Ultra Beast belt buckles, several WTM T Shirts, local “farm strong” Vermonters and a dozen or so New England Spahtens who made the short drive to VT. There were many first timers in the crowd who weren’t quite sure what to expect, but were game for a challenge.
Friday night was a blue moon – great visibility and great company. People hit the sack early, knowing they wouldn’t be getting much sleep the following day, and by the time I’d finished a morning coffee run to the well stocked Benson General Store, the day was ready to kick off.
My only goal was to do two laps – then babysit our mini while Beth crewed overnight – and my mission was complete! With a 3:10 first lap, completing most everything, but dealing with a bugging knee problem, I took about an hour to break, change shirt, change shoes, socks and compression sleeves – and throw down a couple of bagels – before heading back out for the second lap.
That second lap was an odd one. I barely saw another soul on course, so spread out we were. My knee felt ok, but the days temperatures were well into the 80’s and I was combatting dehydration constantly. The lack of social contact meant I moved much quicker than usual, but the heat also meant I skipped a few really basic things, just because I was so exhausted. My 2h 40min finish has a big fat asterisk next to it, because I don’t feel it was legitimately earned, regardless of my Journeyman status, but I still covered 13 miles total, and am happy with that.
My racing was done. Cleaned up, sitting by the tent, I could watch as others assessed their bodies after each lap, talked to team mates, buddied up in the dark and generally felt a very cool, unique atmosphere you don’t get at a race with thousands. People helped their competitors. People paced each other. People repaired torn hands, shared nutrition, passed around cookies and stayed warm at the bonfire.
It wasn’t without incident – 24 hours is a long time to keep climbing, running, swinging … we had a couple of injuries, and a couple of DNF’s, several people didn’t meet the goals they had come in expecting, and some of the ripped open palms were considerably painful looking (and feeling!) – but even so, spirits were high, community was strong and friendships established and developed. When you see people in the dead of night, achieving something they never thought possible (or failing something they expected to be able to accomplish), you learn about them, and become better friends for it.
Really – thats why I go back to Shale Hill. Thats why I want all the people in the OCR world that I care about to come to Shale Hill. It’s not just the course – although that is the toughest course most will ever hit. It’s being with them when they concur something on the course. It’s getting to see their face when they nail the monkey bars at mile 5.5, or when they take an unexpected dunk in the pond. It’s the conversations shared in the bucket carry, and the tips and tricks shared when you hit Rope Ramp.
Shale Hill is a place that communities get forged. Over horrible, heavy long carries. Over insane traverse walls and ridiculous tarzan swings. You see the best in people. At 4am, when someone wants to do yet another lap, or they’re so beat up they can’t manage the final lap they want – you sometimes see the worst in people too. And you become better team mates, better friends, and form a stronger community as a result.
We come for the obstacles, but we come back for the people – this is the mantra that many have used with OCR, and it’s especially true for venues like Shale Hill.