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Featured Review: North American OCR Championships 2019 – Team Relay & Charity Open

Sunday of a race weekend is always tough. You’re sore. You’re tired. You’re probably “hangry.” Perhaps you just want to get home and settle yourself on your coach under your cat with a book and some tea. And there’s one more day of racing.

The final day of the North American OCR Championships featured the team relay and the charity 7K events. The team relay allowed for groups of three, where participants specialized in the areas of speed (i.e. climbing the mountain), strength (i.e. doing some heavy carries), or technical (i.e. rigs and obstacles). This was my third year as a member of the team Tiny^2 + 1, which consisted of Niki on speed, Steve on strength, and me on technical. My body was one massive ache. This was going to be an interesting day. 

The co-ed team wave was scheduled to go off at 10:15 a.m., leaving us time to coordinate checking out of our rental and heading over to the venue. For the third day in a row we had some really nice weather. It was sunny with mild temperatures in the upper 60s and low 70s.

At 10:15 a.m., Steve and I saw Niki to the starting chorral and cheered as she went out for her leg of the relay. Last year, the team relay had taken us around three hours, so I knew there was some time to kill. That being said, we anticipated being faster. Niki had recovered from her injury, plus the speed section was not quite as long. In fact, the team relay seemed to be much better balanced that last year. The speed section was a reasonable distance, the strength portion was beefed up with more obstacles than just one Wreck Bag carry, and the technical section — always the strongest design-wise in the past — remained much the same as past years and was a portion of the 3K course.

I used some of my free time at the venue to do some shopping. I have been talking a lot about having 2020 be all about training for OCR and, with no good OCR gym near my house, I wanted to get some gear. I ended up at the Force5 tent where I got a good deal on some rings, a t-grip, a pipe, and a short rope, all of which I can attach to a set of monkey bars at a playground near me for some quality grip and swinging training to keep up my obstacle fitness when I’m not at races. 

After dropping my purchases (seriously the most shopping I have done all year) in my car, Steve and I headed up to meet Niki. I made a quick detour to the restroom on the way and was below the transition when Steve zoomed by, Niki having arrived seconds before and ahead of her projected time. We were definitely on schedule to be faster than last year, if our non-competitive group cared about such things. Nevertheless, Niki ran an awesome race, and I was excited for her!

Steve was out on the course, which meant I was up next. I checked my bag for $5 and headed to the team exchange point where a bunch of NES folks were hanging out. We chatted as I waited for Steve. Niki spotted him as he set off for the Wreck Bag carry, the final portion of the strength section. She ran up the hill to wait. About 15 minutes later, they were charging down the hill. Steve handed me the timing chip. I attached it to my ankle and jogged off. 

Every step hurt as I ran. My quads were slabs of pain. My biceps and back ached with each impact. I arrived at La Gaffe. My body was so stiff from the last two days that I couldn’t really get my legs around the pole. I tried with all my might to climb high enough to ring the bell and kept sliding down. No go.

From there I made my way to Underdog, which had been adjusted again for the third day of racing, this time with a rope, to monkey bars, to a pair of vertical cargo nets (instead of just one). A bunch of NES folks were around cheering me on. With their encouragement, I hauled myself up and, using painful hands, made my way across the monkey bars and to one net and then the next. I rang the bell. I had made it. 

Skull Valley and Gibbon did not treat my aching body well, but I knew that after Stairway to Heaven, I might have a fighting chance. I made several attempts on Skull Valley, where I made it half way, and then on Gibbon before heading up the hill to do a low crawl and then examine Stairway to Heaven. In my tired state there was just no way, though I tried.

The rope wall with the oddly positioned rope was next. It took almost max effort, but I dragged myself up and over and ran down the hill to the next obstacle. I was starting to warm up a little and even though every step hurt, I was at least able to get some response from my body on the obstacles. 

I tackled the balance logs and ran down to Little Foot. A bunch of NES friends were hanging out at the obstacle and shouting for me. Having everyone there gave me such a mental boost. I love how supportive NES is for everyone. The camaraderie is great! With all this encouragement, there was no way that I was going to miss Little Foot. I sailed along, rang the bell, and hopped off at the end.

Over Under was next and, once again, happy to be enjoying the company of my team, I zipped through. 

Next up was Tricky Swiss. I made my way along, though my arms were feeling pretty beaten up. After finishing with a bell ring, Niki and Steve joined me for the last three obstacles that we were supposed to complete as a team.

We slid over the parked cars for Car Jacked and then ran through the center of the Stratton village to Urban Sky. In order for a team to keep their bands, all athletes had to make it through the team obstacle. (Note: I have heard some back and forth on this. Some reports say that everyone loses their bands if the team doesn’t all get through Urban Sky; other reports say that if you have your band getting to Urban Sky and make it through as an individual that’s fine, even if other teammates fail.) I knew that with my hands and arms the way they were, I wasn’t going to make it far on Urban Sky; however, there was little pressure beyond the want to do one’s best as all three of us had already lost our bands earlier on the course. Niki and I gave Urban Sky a try and didn’t make it super far, but Steve nailed it 100%. 

The last obstacle was the giant slip wall. Unlike during the 3K and 15K, there were no ropes for you to pull yourself up. Instead, we had to make a pyramid of people. Steve and Niki sent me up to the top first. From there, Niki was able to grab my legs and climb up. Finally, I held onto Niki from over the top of the wall as Steve used her to climb up. It was probably the most efficient we’ve ever been on the final wall!

We crossed the finish in 2:12:21, our fasted team time yet.

NorAm Championships and OCRWC always finish the weekend with a charity 7K fun run to benefit a local non-profit, in this case the Stratton Foundation, which provides support for families challenged by poverty through efforts like food banks, educational support, and clothing. 

The truth is that by the time the charity run comes along, there’s next to no one on the NES interested in tackling a trip up the mountain again. This is true for many other athletes as well. The goal here is to give money to charity. Running the exact course is not important since the “7K” is not timed in any way. 

As with past years, we opted to stay at the bottom of the mountain and walked around 1.25 miles in just under an hour. This was a time to goof off. Niki, Steve, and I headed out with a fellow NES member, Adam, who had stayed at the same house in Stratton with us over the weekend. We were a motley crew, bumbling along, legs and arms not quite working right. 

The 7K course is basically the same as the team relay, and we more or less covered the same ground as I had just raced. It was a fun time to hang out and recap the weekend’s festivities.

NorAm Championships is one of the premiere events in our sport, only topped by OCRWC, in my opinion. It is such a privilege to get to race at this event. 2019’s NorAm races were not the athletic success that I had in 2018, but I think I learned a lot. I learned how I’m not the kind of athlete that can be ready for both ultras and OCR if I want to do well at the latter. I also was reminded of how OCR is my real passion. I cannot wait to begin training for 2020 so as to be more obstacle dominant. One of the first things I did upon returning home was to email my coach at Hart Strength & Endurance Coaching to chat about my 2020 training goals. What better can be said about an event than that it inspires you to train harder and with more specificity?

As of the writing of this post, the 2020 location for NorAm OCR Championships has yet to be announced. OCRWC tends to move every two years, and NorAm has been at Stratton for two years, which leaves me anticipating a change of venue. That being said, there’s no reason that NorAm has to follow any two year rule. I would love to race age group at NorAm in 2020, pending a location that doesn’t require lengthy travel — Stratton would be great. Either way, I will always watch how this event unfolds and will spend the next year training with the idea of addressing gaps I saw at this event. If NorAm OCR Championships is anywhere I can get to in 2020, I want compete and crush it!

(Note: NES photos credited to Vince Rhee.)

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Featured Review: North American OCR Championships 2019 – 15K

40 obstacles. 15 kilometers. Over 3,000 feet of elevation. The 2019 North American OCR Championships 15K beat me down like very few races have.

Saturday morning dawned perfect for racing. Temperatures were in the 50s and wouldn’t get out of the mid-60s. There was a mix of sun and clouds. I was sore from my efforts of the previous day, but I was determined that I would give the 15K race my all.

The women’s 30 – 34 age group had a great start time at 9:15 a.m. I headed to the NorAm venue at Stratton Mountain about half an hour before my wave start — I was staying a quick five minute drive away in a house with a bunch of my fellow NES teammates. Having half an hour free allowed for time for some pre-race mental focusing, bathroom usage, and to check my bag. I also purchased a pair of NorAm goodr sunglasses. I’ve been wanting to get prescription glasses with transition lenses for running but, at the moment, can’t justify the expense. These $25 running shades fit the bill.

I joined NES friend, Niki, in the starting corral. As I mentioned, we were a bit beat up from yesterday but we were going to get this done. In fact, Niki and I ran most of the race together, true battle buddies. While the first half we kept leap frogging each other, the second half we were in lock step.

The 2019 NorAm course was somewhat similar to last year. The race started by taking us up a short climb, after which we did some low hurdles. Then it was up, up, up. In fact, the first three kilometers (around two miles) was mostly climbing with only one obstacle, a ladder wall called Confidence Climb, to break it up. It was a slog, taking an hour to get from the base of Stratton to the summit. Like last year, I was not enthusiastic about starting the race in this way; however, listening to an interview with race organizer Adrian Bijanada has given me at least an understanding of how necessary this climb is so that obstacles can be effectively and safely placed.

Finally, after a grueling hour, I reached the summit and was brought face to face with Skitch, an obstacle where you had to take two hooks and move them along a horizontal pole to the end. I hadn’t worried too much about Skitch, which I got with limited problem at NorAm in 2018 on the 3K and 15K courses. Mistake. Skitch of 2019 had some slight adjustments that had an impact on my performance. Unlike the previous year when I had been easily able to slide my hooks along the horizontal pole, my hooks this year would not move an inch. I kept falling off and falling off. We were only 3 miles into a 9+ mile race and only at obstacle three of 40. I had to move on. As on Friday, I was displeased at losing my band so soon and renewed my commitment to adjust my training for next year to resume more OCR and decrease my ultra running.

I quickly tackled a slant wall before heading over to the Force5 rig from last year with a trapeze, t-grip, wheel, t-grip, and trapeze. I had nailed this last year. The reach to start seemed a bit more this year (or perhaps it was me) and already my arms were extremely pre-fatigued from the previous day. I didn’t have it in me. 

Up next was a low rig with monkey bars, a t-grip, and a pole. I was prepared to do well here, having 

done just fine on the low rig last year. But again I failed.

These early failures gave me a lot to think about as I headed back down the mountain. Training specificity matters, and I was not as prepared for this race physically as I thought I had been. I needed a plan for next year. I was composing an email in my head to my coaches and thinking about acquiring new tools — perhaps a set of rings to bring to the playground near my house? That being said, I remembered my mental training efforts and didn’t beat myself up or “live in the past.” The race was ongoing, and it was important to be focused on what was important now. Doing as well as I could do in the present.

Midway down the hill I made my way up and over the big ramp and over to the next rig. This rig was similar to last year but instead of having rings hanging from square monkey bars, you had to be able to kip up to the bars. Another failure. I headed over to the short farmer’s carry, which went off without incident. Then it was over to hi/low, a basic obstacle where we had to walk along with our hands on a pole and our feet on the other. We did some crawl jacks, and continued to head down the mountain to meet up with the beginning of the 3K course from the other day.

Racers crawled over the 8′ wall and were back at the a-frame with rings, Valkyrie. My luck was no better than the previous day, despite a few attempts. I was beat. After a 6′ wall, the Wreck Bag carry was next, longer than the previous day. Instead of terminating at the crawl, we had to continue up the mountain a stretch. I labored up, and it was agony. At the top, I sat down for a second and decided to drag my Wreck Bag back down — I couldn’t stand the idea of it on my shoulders for one more second. It was slow, but it worked. I made the carry in 15 minutes, not bad for someone as small as I am who traditionally takes ages on carries.

Next was La Gaffe with its set of three poles. I did a way better job here than the previous day and made it through on my first try, transitioning to to a high point on the wood post to make the last swing possible.

I jogged over to Underdog, which had been adjusted from the previous day, the cargo net now hanging vertically instead of being strung up horizontally. This actually worked to my advantage! I climbed the rope, made it across the monkey bars, and sat myself in the net to rest. I swung myself under and did the last monkey bar to hit the bell. Finally; a success!

Skull Valley followed, though, alas, my grip was toast at this point and I didn’t make it through like the previous day. I was, again, unable to get Gibbon, but after a few attempts knew to continue on. Niki and I made our way through the crawl jacks and jogged up the mountain a little bit. It was time for Stairway to Heaven, where I would not be any luckier than the previous day. I was, again, racking up obstacle failures, but I was getting so tired, it was hard to figure out how to be successful.

We started climbing again for yet another trip up the mountain, though — thank goodness — not to the summit. There was a basic through wall and then trapeze, a rig with trapezes and monkey bars. I was tired but determined and, somehow, made my way across. Obstacle complete!

Niki and I made our way to Top Shelf, a wall with a rope tied to a trust above it. We climbed our way up the wall and then over the very top of the obstacle. With our tired grip this was not an inconsequential obstacle. We ran up the mountain some more and by ran I mean walked and by walked I mean slogged. At the top of the slog was Triumph.

Triumph is the updated version of Dragon’s Back. If you read my recap of the 15K from 2018, you’ll know that Dragon’s Back sparked huge fear in me. I eventually made it last year. I wanted to keep my band, and I was determined to make it. This year, I was exhausted, and I could not bring myself emotionally to get up there. (I had also spent Sunday night cowered in fear as bats circled my house over Ben and my heads and that contributed to not being willing to be so fearful again.) While it is some kind of failure that I didn’t get up there, in my mental state it was all I could do to move on. Let me be clear: This race sounds like failure after failure, but I was, in fact, trying much harder than at most races where I have been more successful. It’s harder to keep focused, positive, and moving during a hard race than one where you’re cruising along. It took great mental and physical energy each time I came to an obstacle to try it with all the effort I had.

Next, I ran over to the rope climb, which was a quick vertical gain. Then it was over to another rig, starting with a horizontal pipe and then some monkey bars. I made it along the pipe but my grip was too trashed to move on — I kept falling off.

This was immediately followed by a 50 pound Wreck Bag hoist, which was, fortunately, not too tall. We then moved fairly immediately again to some metal ladders before starting to head down the hill. We hit an inverted wall, which took all I had to get over. From there, we continued down the mountain to meet up with the 3K course for the final part of the race. Before that was a gapped ladder wall, which Niki and I did in perfect sync, impressing passerbyers.

We met up with the 3K course at the rope wall. This wall had the rope at an awkward placement and took some effort the previous day. I tried but ended up coming back down. I almost never have problems with walls, but I was that drained. From there it was over to balance logs, which we crossed without much issue. At this point a brief rain shower started. It was cold and wet. We made our way to Little Foot. With the wet, I slipped off on the second traverse. I was almost ready to give up, but the volunteer on this obstacle was amazing. He gave me tips and told me that I could do it as I made my way through. With his encouragement, even in my super tired state, I made it. I was so grateful and happy. Kudos to that guy for his help. He assisted my race for sure.

We jogged to the over under obstacle, which was soaking wet metal. I had been able to make this obstacle the previous day. I dragged myself along the wet obstacle and transitioned to the under section and did alright. On the second transition to get back on top, right near the end of the obstacle, I slipped off the wet poles. I was too tired to try again.

Niki and I made our way to Tricky Swiss with it’s swinging walls with holes and rings. At this point, my body was so tired that it was shaking everywhere. I made it through the first set of walls, across the rings, and to the second set of walls. I was hanging from the last set of rings when my grip just entirely gave out. I could not try again even though I had been just one wall from the end.

We had only a few obstacles left — I had rarely been so relieved to almost be done. We ran over the car for Car Jacked. Then we made our way through the Stratton Villiage and to Urban Sky. I was still shaking from fatigue and was able to do not much more than hang and swing a tiny bit.

There was one obstacle left: the last slip wall. Niki and I jogged over. I made it over and cheered Niki on as she made a few attempts. The announcer called our names as we crossed the finish line. I was exhausted and beyond pleased to be finished.

NorAm’s 15K course challenged me like few other races have done. I was completely wiped out by this course. The elevation and the obstacles were hugely challenging. My training was not quite right to dominate this course — having been better aligned for ultra running this season — and I think that was a part of the difficulties of the day. To be honest, this was a bit inspiring. It reminded me of how fun it is to do OCR when you’ve trained for it. I am so ready to switch to training that is 100% (or nearly 100%) focused on OCR. I want to swing with a sense of flow, climb strong, and enjoy doing well at OCR competition. 2020. I think we have a goal!

(Note: A huge thanks to all my fellow NE Spahtens who provided awesome pictures for this post.)

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Featured Review: North American OCR Championships 2019 – 3K

Last year, my one and only goal was to have 100% obstacle completion at one of the races of the NorAm OCR Championships. I did it on lasts year’s 3K, in what remains probably my happiest moment as an athlete. This year, going into NorAm, I knew things would be different.

Thus far, 2019 has been the year of the ultra. The bulk of my training has been focused on running long and slow. It’s taken a lot of time and, most importantly, energy. That means I have been less intentional about my OCR training, I’ve run fewer OCRs, and it shows. Where I used to feel fluid and light on obstacles, things now feel a bit more effortful. I’ve lost my sense of flow.

With a good sense of where my training has been, I knew I had to be realistic about NorAm OCR Championships. I wanted to have a strong showing, but 100% completion seemed to be a stretch for where my OCR-related fitness was relative to the obstacles that NorAm was promoting on their social media. I believe strongly in goal setting and having those goals drive your planning (and, naturally, the implementation of that plan). NorAm had been a goal for me, but it was a lesser goal, in some ways, to trying out new things in the ultra running world. So now I have, and I’ve realized that OCR is my true love. I am going back to it as my main focus next year and my training will change accordingly. But, of course, we are still left with this year. What was success at NorAm going to look like with my fitness focused more on running long over swinging with strong grip?

In race goal setting, I am a fan of having A, B, and C goals. Of course my A goal was to keep my band and complete 100% of obstacles, but I knew that was aspirational. For my B goal, I wanted to get through an obstacle I didn’t think I could. I have been focusing time on mental training this season and goal B would allow me to put that mental training to use. When you have to try an obstacle again and again, there can be pressure and you can get out of the zone. I wanted to stay focused. Goal C was to have a good time. We do sports for fun — I certainly don’t make my money this way. After 2019 NorAm in all likelihood will move from Stratton, Vermont to who-knows-where, and I wanted to enjoy the experience since I might not be able to afford travel costs next year.

NorAm OCR Championships has a qualification system where athletes have to compete in their age group at a qualifying event earlier in the year and place well. I had qualified at Bonefrog Boston back in September. (For athletes who are not as fast, there is a journeyman qualification that rewards people who race frequently.) My 3K age group was set to start at 9:45 a.m. with the heat being divided up with sets of eight athletes going off at a time to make sure the short course didn’t get overly crowded. I decided to come in for the race first thing in the morning since Stratton is only 1:45 from my home in Western Mass. Registration, where you get your bibs and t-shirts, is a snap at NorAm day-of, and I knew I would have time. Before my wave started, I was able to register, drop off stuff in my car, check my bag, and take a moment for one last mental training session before heading to the start line. As a note, the t-shirts for 2019’s NorAm event were tech shirts instead of the former Next Level cotton blend. I tend to prefer the latter, but I will try wearing the NorAm shirts to the gym once or twice to test them.

The women 30-39 wave was the second of the day. We were running about eight minutes behind schedule with the men 30-39 wave taking a bit of time to get out (probably due to its large size). I was hoping to not spend too long in the starting area, so when it opened up, I went and got in line right away, making it possible to be in the second group of eight ladies to cross the start line. I was joined by some of my favorite fellow NES members and even had the pleasure of both starting and finishing with Niki, a great Spahten buddy and fellow team relay member (of team Tiny ^2 + 1).

At 10:00 a.m. we crossed the starting line to tackle the 3K course. The course started with a brief  climb. The total elevation gain was around 515 feet, much of which I think we got in the first climb and the Wreck Bag carry (obstacle four). The initial climb spread us out a bit (and reminded me of how much running on flats I had been doing — I’ve done fewer hill repeats with my current training for sure). The first obstacle was a basic 8′ wall with some small steps to make things pretty manageable.

Valkyrie was up next. The obstacle was an a-frame with rings hanging underneath. I had seen this obstacle previewed on the NorAm website. I actually felt okay about my chances with this obstacle going into the race because the reach seemed reasonable, and, indeed, I could reach. On my first attempt, I made it to the penultimate ring basically doing one-handed pull-ups to make my way along. Unfortunately, I didn’t make the last ring, slipping off, and ended up down on the ground. (Note: Valkyrie goes up really quite high but the padding underneath the obstacle was top notch — much appreciated.) I was tired from my efforts but wanted to do my best and made a number of attempts on Valkyrie. Unfortunately, after about a half dozen tries I decided it was best at this point to move onto my B goal and cut my losses with the idea that I could do more obstacles if I didn’t entirely gas myself on this one. I was also not feeling entirely 100%. I was sluggish and a bit heavy. I gave up my band, and, while last year I would have been devastated, this year I felt okay. My mental training had given me the ability to be present about focusing on the next task, and my self-awareness about my training allowed me to realize that my A goal might not be a 2019 option.

The course had racers tackle a 6′ wall before heading over to the Wreck Bag carry. Athletes of all sexes were required to take a 50 pound bag. It was heavy. It was a sufferfest. It hurt. I was glad to take the bag off my shoulders and drag it under the Wreck Bag crawl. Getting it back up was another story but after a while I got it up and made my way down the hill to drop off the bag with relief.

Next up was La Gaffe, an obstacle that featured a set of pipes you had a to climb and made lean from pipe to pipe. I like this obstacle, having enjoyed it at OCR World Championships in 2017 and at NorAm last year. It is challenging and unique. As long a it’s not wet it’s something I can usually accomplish. It took a few shots, but I made my way through.

We went from La Gaffe to Underdog. I was feeling pretty ‘bleh’ at this point in the race. Underdog was a rig that started with a rope to a hanging cargo net to some monkey bars. The reach from the net to the higher-up bars was a bit more than I could handle at the moment. This was a rig that I should have been able to nail no problem (and in fact did the next two days), but I was a little out of it. I walked away and took a moment to catch my breath. I wanted to get rid of the slightly nauseated feeling I had. I took a breather and headed over to Skull Valley.

I took some breaths and started to feel a bit better; things were not going great, and I wanted to reset. Next up was Skull Valley. The set-up had you starting on some skull-shaped grips before moving to a set of pipes and then along another set of skull hand grips. I actually got a good sense of flow on this obstacle — perhaps some of the best so far this season — and made it through on my first pass. I was pleased. Things were turning around, though only for a little bit. I made my way to the next obstacle.

Gibbon was a highly technical obstacle and arguably the hardest of the day if you hadn’t encountered it before. The obstacle required racers to take a peg and in insert it into a grip to make your way along — think moving monkey bars. Again, I had watched this on the NorAm social media channel. This obstacle was hard though. I had no success with getting beyond the first grip and was still feeling a bit unwell. After several minutes, I moved along.

The course headed back uphill through a set of crawl jacks. I think all racers were pleased that the wire between the jacks wasn’t barbed. At the top of the mountain was Stairway to Heaven, an a-frame with stairs racers had to climb from underneath using only their fingers. I lost my band on Stairway at NorAm last year, though I had no problem with it at OCRWC in 2017. The first step started extremely high up and getting started was a struggle. My grip was fairly tired at this point and my work on Stairway was not ideal. Like I said, I had nailed Stairway at OCRWC in 2017 when I felt like it had stairs a little lower down to get you started, and I can reliably do the obstacle at some other races. The exact details matter.

For the last eight obstacles (42%) of the course I had no failed obstacles. I tackled the Rope Wall, which was actually a bit slippery with an oddly placed rope but do-able. Next were the balance logs where racers had to walk a set of up and down balance beams then doing a rope traverse-style move under a log and a final flat beam. It was, in the end, easier than it looked.

Little Foot was the next obstacle. It was somewhat like a traverse wall where you had to move your way along foot holds. Instead of a wall, there were beams that were angled toward the racers, which you could wrap you legs. This obstacle seemed fun enough and didn’t offer too much trouble.

Toward the end of the race the obstacle density was high. I jogged over to the obstacle over under. This obstacle had racers slide a long a metal pipe then switch to going below a pipe with hand and foot grips before again transitioning to being above a pipe. It was a bit awkward going from below to above but, again, totally do-able. The best part of almost all of these obstacles is that they were quite different from what a racer might see at their standard weekend event. The variety, difficulty-level, and innovation displayed in the obstacles at NorAm really sets it apart and challenges racers.

Twisted Swiss was next. This obstacle reminded me of one from Savage Race, though this version was from City Challenge. There were hanging metal boards with holes cut in them, much like Swiss cheese. You would transition from board to board with some sets of rings in between. I finished the obstacle and saw a racer fall off it hard onto her arm. Fortunately she was okay and the end was in sight.

Here I would like to add a bit of feedback I received from some volunteers when I posted on the NES Facebook page mentioning I was doing a review. I came upon a fellow Spahten at Tricky Swiss, and he was doing A+ work. It sounds like being a volunteer on-course had some challenges. Two experienced volunteer mentioned that they were not given as much instruction as would have been helpful for their volunteer roles. Here is a quotation from a volunteer working at the farmer’s carry on Sunday.

I arrive to find a bunch of sandbags and no instructions. Didn’t look like there was a difference between M / F, presumed 1 bag each hand (it is a farmer’s carry after all); so far I could make assumptions based on my experience. Then there was the camera guy, set up (in his words) to get people coming down the hill. This assumed a clockwise rotation but again – nobody told me. I had to ask and eventually got it confirmed that the camera guy was in the wrong place; that they were going counterclockwise.

A similar story was echoed by my teammate at Tricky Swiss.

I was at Tricky Swiss, and there was some confusion as to what parts of the rig the athletes were allowed to use. Originally we were told that any surface on the boards were in play, but when approached by [a race official], he told us they could only use the holes, not the tops or sides of the boards. We called out a few athletes for this, and made them reattempt the obstacle for grabbing sides and/or tops of the boards. NorAm staff came by later and then said that all surfaces of the boards were in play. I am not sure if this affected the outcome of the results at all, but I can see how it could.

I mention these two bits of feedback for one reason — NorAm cares about the experience of everyone who engages with their brand. My experience as an athlete at the 3K was top notch. I am always so appreciative of our volunteers, so I’d like to think that anything we can do to make their experience top notch too should be encouraged. I also know NorAm is very diligent about making sure that everyone has the same chances on each obstacle. Clarifications for volunteers sounds like a key piece of that.

Back to the race.

We ran toward the main area of the ski resort village, taking time to slide across two cars for Car Jacked. The last main obstacle loomed, Urban Sky. The current configuration featured two side ways trapezes, which rocked side-to-side, to three wheels at various angles and then a final set of two sideways trapezes. I failed this obstacle quite a few times but was determined to keep trying. I had made this obstacle sometimes in the past and not others. I wanted to make it now. I was focused on my B goal and doing well with as many obstacle as I could. I was finally feeling more like myself and was not dizzy at all. I had a bit of a rhythm going. My friend, Niki, met me at Urban Sky. “One more time,” I said, “Then we go to cross the finish line together.” This time, I made it all the way through. I actually missed ringing the final bell by an inch but for someone who lost their band making it through was good enough.

Niki and I ran over to The Wall, a last slip wall with a rope at the top. In wet weather this obstacle is killer but in the dry weather it was a snap. We made it in our first try and then ran across the finish line to collect our medals.

The 3K NorAm race was a challenging course. I didn’t feel my best the entire time and didn’t hit all my goals but I had fun and tried things again and again, challenging myself even after I lost my band because I wanted to. I played. I saw Adrian Bijanada, the creator of OCRWC and NorAm Championships at Urban Sky. “Are you having fun?” he asked. And you know what? I was.

Do I wish I had done better at NorAm 2019? Of course! That being said, I am glad to have had some back-up goals that I was able to attain. I’d love to have access to a good OCR gym, which I don’t have so super close to me, so that I can train for races like this instead of encountering new obstacle on race day. In the meantime, I’ve purchased some Force5 grips to bring to a playground near me for training. As I’ve mentioned, my training this year has moved away from OCR to endurance running. It’s been an adventure, but, if anything, NorAm reminded me that I want to return to focusing on OCR as my main sport. It’s what I love doing.

NorAm and OCRWC are the Olympics of our sport, certainly OCRWC is. It’s a great privilege to complete at these races and try your best. I am not sure where NorAm will be in 2020. If it’s close, I would love to go again and try my hand with a season of OCR-specific training behind me. That goal alone is a testament to the fantastic event that Adrian and team put on. I am looking forward to tomorrow’s 15K with curiosity and expectation.

(Note: A huge thanks to all my fellow NE Spahtens who provided awesome pictures for this post.)

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Featured Review: Ragnar Cape Cod 2019

NES Ninjas team photo

For the sixth (!) consecutive year, I had the privilege of running Ragnar Cape Cod with the New England Spahtens Ninja team. For those who have not participated, Ragnar is a 12-person relay race that covers approximately 200 miles. Runners take turns running “legs” and hand off from person to person. Each runner runs three times over the course of around 36 hours as the team makes its way from Hull to Smuggler’s Beach, Massachusetts. The team of 12 is divided between two vans, with runners one through six in van one and runners seven through 12 in van two. As a team, you are running continuously, which means there is always a runner out on the course. Generally, this means that each runner has one overnight run. You are just as likely to be running at 5:00 p.m., as you are to be running at 2:00 a.m. Each runner is assigned legs of different distance, and the captain of your team can customize who runs what based on interest and capability. This year we were lucky enough to have a team of reliable runners who were all a blast to be with.

The NES Ninjas team for 2019 was a great group. In van one, #teambreakfast, we had (in runner order): Kelly, Wes, Shaina, Bobby, Pete, and Aaron. In van two, #teamdinner, there was me, Sean, Geoff, Monica, Josh, and Jess. My three legs were 7.8 miles, 6.3 miles, and 12.3 miles, making me one of the runners going a longer (actually the farthest) amount of distance. Our captain, Jess, is great about assigning us our legs, and everyone almost always gets something in their top three choices. Both running long and running short are fun – in truth the real “test” of Ragnar is mental as much as physical. Going 36 hours with irregular food and few hours of sleep and then having to wake up for a 3:00 a.m. run is the real challenge. The main focus is on being a good teammate, supporting the group, and running without drama. I cannot overstate how important having a good team is to the Ragnar experience. The NES Ninjas are so lucky to have a group of super cool folks who I am always pumped to spend 36 hours with unshowered and under-rested in a van winding our way towards the tip of the Cape.

This year was the second that I was in van 2. The different experiences between the various vans is significant. While my van 1 teammates were pulling themselves out of bed at around 4:00 a.m., the folks in van 2 got to sleep in — we didn’t have to be at the check-in point at Duxbury Beach until 10:00 a.m., which would give us ample time to organize ourselves before van 1 was set to exchange with us around noon.

The weather in May in New England can be a chancy thing, and this year’s Ragnar Cape Cod offered a sample of New England weather at its finest, which is to say the weather was wack. It was cloudy and in the mid-50s when we pulled into Duxbury Beach, and, boy, was it windy. By which I mean it was some next level wind that made it hard to hear people. We clamored out of the van and headed over to the festival area where we presented our safety gear — Ragnar requires all runners to wear reflective vests, a headlamp, and a blinking “tail” light during overnight hours — and watched the brief and eccentric safety video before getting our bibs. We wandered around checking out vendor tents and the merch tent. If you’re a Ragnar regular it is all stuff you’ve seen a million times, but the selection is solid. Reebok is the partner for Ragnar, and they provide a lot of good gear for those who are interested. (As someone who’s lucky enough to product test for Reebok, I am able to get their products for free as compensation for my testing, so I opted out of purchasing anything this weekend.)

Soon, van 1 rolled into Duxbury. Aaron was out on course and soon it would be my turn to kick it off with my first run of 7.8 miles. It wasn’t long before we could see Aaron heading into the transition area. I shrugged off my DryRobe and stood underneath the arch where we’d make the transition. Our team tradition is to do chest bumps at each exchange. I’ll admit it — I am a bad chest bumper (too short), so when Aaron came in for bump I almost fell over and the poor guy had to catch me. Thanks for having my back, Aaron! 

I ran out from Duxbury Beach into a really strong headwind. The 7.8 miler ended up being more challenging than anticipated but an absolutely lovely run — one of the nicest in my Ragnar Cape Cod experience. From Duxbury, I ran across a large wooden bridge that traversed the bay. The wind was so loud that I couldn’t hear, but the views were spectacular. About a mile into the run, we made a turn and were protected from some of the wind by a street lined with homes. The houses in Duxbury are just great. I enjoyed “house hunting” as I ran along. It was nice to have the distraction. The route we took was hilly. Forget anything I have ever said about the Cape being flat because I take it all back. I kept up a decent pace though. I’d predicted I’d run 10:00s. With the strong wind and hills, I was running more like 10:30s, but, all things considered, I thought that was pretty excellent. It also rained a little bit towards the midpoint of my run. I was happy to look out over beautiful bays and enjoy historic homes as I ran through Duxbury. 

After around 80 minutes of running the exchange was in sight. I spotted Sean and ran to pass off. I was glad to be done. My run was fun because of all of the great views and picturesque town, but constant hills and wind had me feeling a bit beaten down. Plus, I still had a 6.3 miler and a 12.3 miler to go. Time to change into dry clothing, eat some snacks, get warm, and rest. 

Van 2 made our way though the the towns right before the Borne and Sagamore Bridges. (Yes, many people say you are technically not on the Cape until you cross the Cape Cod Canal, so I guess the first legs for our team were not really on the Cape.) We would be making our Myles Standish State Park in Carver where we’d have a virtual exchange with Van 1. Basically, they weren’t meeting us there but would be notified by Ragnar HQ when we arrived so they could start running from where they were located at Sandwich High School. Good thing that Ragnar was using some boosters to connect to a signal because Myles Standish was a cell phone dead zone. 

While we waited, we were lucky enough to connect with another Ragnar team of fellow NE Spahtens, the NES Men-ish team’s van 2 group. I think we got to see more of them than of the van 1 NES Ninjas. An odd thing about Ragnar is how little you get to see your fellow teammates in the other van — really only a couple of times when you transition between runners six and seven and runners 12 and one. The only sad thing about Ragnar is I wish I could have seen my friends more. Seeing the NES Men-ish was a great bonus though.

After the virtual exchange, van 2 was off. It was time for some noms. The NES Ninjas and Men-ish teams headed across the Cape Cod Canal to Hyannis and dinner at the Black Cat Tavern. I was really in need of some food having probably not taken in enough calories over the course of the day, lunch being some random bison jerky, nuts, and crackers. In fact, my dinner of shrimp scampi was just what I needed because after an afternoon of feeling pretty drained of energy and slightly nauseous, I was feeling more like myself again. Just in time to run around 6.3 miles.

Our team was running about an hour or so ahead of schedule, so my evening run was slated to start at 8:30 p.m. instead of the originally predicted time of 9:30 p.m. I was pleased to start early — it meant I would be able to get some sleep sooner, and I was feeling tired. We headed to Barnstable High School where I coordinated my safety gear and changed into running clothing again. 

Night running is interesting. When it’s dark and you’re the only runner on the road, it can almost feel like you’re not even moving but instead floating through space. I didn’t quite get to that flow state on this run but had a fine enough run nonetheless. The course took me along some main roads and there were a lot of street crossings, which required some care and lots of attention. They slowed me down a little but fortunately the route wasn’t too hilly and the weather was not overly windy (though instead it was crazy humid — you could see moisture in your headlamp, according to some of my teammates). 

I finished my run in a little over an hour. The weather was warmer than it had been all day and my outfit was very wet from the elements. I changed immediately. I was super beat. I had run over 14 miles and in between sat in a cramped van. Sound fun? I’m not going to lie; some of the deprivations are part of the enjoyment of the Ragnar challenge. Regardless, I had another 12.3 miles coming up in less than 12 hours and was not feeling my best. I needed to crash. I pulled my sleeping bag out of the back, crawled in and immediately passed out on the back seat. 

I am a good sleeper. It’s probably a super power. Regardless, I lay down at around 10:00 p.m. and completely zonked out. Other than a trip to a portable bathroom at some unfortunate hour, I don’t remember a thing until 6:00 a.m. This might sound fairly unremarkable. Perhaps you are a person who often sleeps between 10:00 p.m. and 6:00 a.m.; that’s reasonable. But let me put this into perspective for you. This entire time, my teammates were getting in and out of the van, running their legs, and we were driving all around. I have zero memory of this. Apparently at one point someone even tried to give me information while I was sleeping. Nope. No memory of this at all, though apparently I produced some inaudible phonemes. Pretty much everyone else on my team slept something like 8 minute. 

So for all of that when my 12.3 miler rolled around at 8:00 a.m. Saturday morning, I was hoping to feel my brightest and best self. I wasn’t. I was feeling dead on my feet. It’s ironic too because I had trained for this. I had been doing 13 to 15 mile long runs with a back-to-back run of 70 to 90 minutes the next day for months. The bottom line is that some days are off days and unfortunately the running I did at Ragnar this year was some off day running.

I headed off on my 12.3 miler down the Cape Cod Rail Trail in Eastham. I had a plan to do 4/1 run/walk intervals to make my way through. I was feeling meh but keeping it moving at a steady pace, running sub-10:30s and walking at around 15:00s to 16:00s. Midway into my second or so mile a fellow NE Spahten, Courtney, from one of the other NES teams met up with me. She was doing great; I was struggling. Courtney was a true champ and a pal and kept with me adding some much needed mental support. Another bonus was that at around mile five my team met us on the bike path! The 12.3 mile run was technically no van support, meaning that the running route and van routes did not converge. The Ninjas had made a special effort to meet up with me. They are an awesome group.

A little over half way through the run, we took a turn off the bike path onto a fire road and into Nickerson State Park. This is where the run really went downhill for me. I was beat and using every motivational strategy I had to keep up my pace. With the change to fire roads, trails, and small sidewalks throughout the forest, things got hilly. Really hilly. The last four or five miles were relentless with the ups and downs. I was hurting. I was chaffed, my legs were sore, and I was trying my best to keep moving as fast as I could. I didn’t want to let me team down — more than anything that was my goal. Courtney was feeling great, while I was really flagging. In the last two miles I felt badly enough for holding her back that I said, “Really go. I will meet you at the finish.” I had plans to change my strategy to a 3/2 run/walk but instead decided that I would power hike the hills and run everything else, responding to the terrain instead of a timer. My early miles had all been in the 11:00-range but my pace dropped into the 12:00-range at this point. I was giving 100% effort though; even if it was for 10% results. I had not had such a bad run in a really long time. I still don’t know what my issue was, but I know I was entirely exhausted and doing everything to keep moving as fast as I possibly could. 

We exited the park, making our way up and down in a hilly neighborhood and finally onto a main street. There was just a half mile to go. I gritted my teeth and ran hard as I could up the final hill to the finishing arch. There was Sean waiting to hand me a medal for finishing the longest leg on the course. He handed it to me and took off as I sat down in a heap on the ground. I was done.

I have mixed feeling about my last run of the 2019 Ragnar relay. First, I should say that my team was overwhelmingly supportive and encouraging. On the one hand, I am dismayed that I lost us about 20 minutes with my slow pace. I am disappointed in myself with the performance I gave. But what could I have done? I trained right, and I ran that leg as hard as I could on that day. Usually those two things combine, and they pay off. Sometimes they don’t. As athletes, we don’t always know why we have an off day. Sometimes you run and it feels like flying and freedom, which is a joy. Sometimes you run and it feels like pulling yourself through sand and dragging weighted legs, which is a mental trial. Having the longest leg at Ragnar is a privilege. I wish I could have taken more advantage of it and enjoyed it more. Not every race can be the best race we want; sometimes we just struggle through and do what we can.

A key thing about Ragnar though is being present in the moment — I don’t mean this in a “new age” kind of way; I just mean that you don’t want to dwell on your performance or spend you free time engaged with your phone instead of your friends. So I put my feelings about my long run on the back burner and took the opportunity to enjoy the last Ragnar afternoon with my teammates. I got out of the van at each exchange to cheer people on and to enjoy the beaches of Harwich and South Yarmouth. The weather had turned sunny with temperatures in the mid-60s. After a spring of days of uninterrupted rain, I was going to maximize this time.

Before I knew it we were sending out Jess, runner 12, for her last leg and making our way over to Smuggler’s Beach to meet up with van 1 and finish this Ragnar thing.

The parking at Smuggler’s Beach was crowded, but we found a place where we could quickly clean the marker off the van. (Note: Marking the van is a Ragnar tradition, as is “tagging” other team’s vans with magnets.) We grabbed our gear and headed to the festival area where the rest of our team was waiting for us. 

Prior to this year, the Ragnar Cape Cod event had always finished in Provincetown and, I admit, that I prefer that venue to Smuggler’s Beach. The festival area here was a bit crowded, way too loud, and somewhat lack luster. The joy of relaxing on the grass, having a post-race chowder and beer was replaced with sitting on the asphalt with no beer (the line was too long) and a pulled pork sandwich. (Okay, yes, the food was still pretty good, and the mac ‘n cheese side was killer awesome.) So, yeah, I miss Provincetown but, whatever, because I was sitting in the sun with friends and we had just run almost 200 miles together. Can I complain? Naw.

Six years has turned Ragnar Cape Cod into a tradition. It is legitimately the race I look most forward to year after year. I give 100% credit to the NES Ninjas and our fantastic captain, Jess. There are no other folks I would rather spend 36 hours with and run the length of the Cape. So, same time, same place next year? Oh, yeah, and I’ll take more beer and less miles for 2020. Thanks, all!

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Featured Review: Cinco de Mjolnir Ultra Viking 2019

NES at Viking

I’m a fan of Viking Obstacle Course, a fixed course of around six miles at Sunny Hill golf resort in Greenville, New York. I try to make it there every year for at least one of their several races. 2018 ended up being busy and the races just didn’t fit into my schedule. As a result, I was determined to make it to Viking in 2019. Enter their May 5 race, Cinco de Mjolnir Ultra Viking.

It actually turned out that the May 5 race wasn’t ideal for my schedule either — the date was the Sunday before Ragnar Cape Cod, where I’ll be running around 26 miles that Friday and Saturday. As a result, while I was signed up for the eight hour “ultra” race, I decided it made sense to do one fun lap to see how my obstacle fitness has overwintered and otherwise keep this an easy effort. There was an option for a charity 10K the same day as the Ultra Viking, but that race was at around 11:30 a.m., and the ultra started at 8:30 a.m., which would leave more time free in the afternoon for R&R.

My house is about two hours from Greenville, NY, so I got up early and made my way to the race the day-of. There are plenty of places to stay on-site for those who want them, so if you’re traveling from father away, keep that in mind. The race tends to have an intimate field of less than a hundred runners, so check-in in the club house on-site was a breeze. I was able to park my car footsteps from check-in and a very quick walk to the start line.

The day of Viking dawned wet and cool. We’ve had rain non-stop in New England for pretty much all of April and the start of May but the 50 degree temperatures have been on the colder side for this time of year, I think. Regardless, I layered up with long pants and a long sleeved t-shirt. The Viking course is wet in the best of times with muddy sections as well as a pond and a river that are all integrated into the course. I was hoping that race director, Asa, would have some pity and not send us through every water element on the course.

At about 15 minutes before our 8:30 a.m. race start, I headed out of the club house, where I’d been avoiding the weather, to the start line. I stashed my gear in the covered picnic area and checked in with some fellow Spahtens. It was a small but awesome group.

We braved the rain to line up and listen to pre-race announcements at the start from Asa. He explained the penalty system for the race. There were five obstacles that you got a penalty for not completing, which were to be completed at the end of your lap — the rope climb, the Dragon’s Tooth monkey bars (which included up and downhill bars), the five-part traverse wall, the Norse Poles (wood blocks hanging from ropes), and Asgard Skywalk (a balance obstacle with rope traverse). At each obstacle you passed, you’d receive a band to prove you’d completed it and, thus, avoid a penalty. All standard walls and carries were mandatory. Odin’s Tables, where racers climbed up a ramp and then climbed down the rope hanging off the other side, had an on-course penalty if you didn’t complete the obstacle.

At 8:40 a.m. we headed off to begin the race! I was planning just one fun lap but many people were serious about doing as many loops of the approximately six mile course in eight hours as they could. To that I say, “Props!” The weather was wet and the course even wetter. We waded through mud and traversed streams. I was completely submerged up to my shoulders after one river crossing. The weather stayed rainy, which meant that once you were wet — which was immediately — you weren’t getting dry. Plus the course put us through water again and again. The temperatures hovered in the low 50s, but as long as I kept moving I actually felt alright and the cold was less a problem than I thought it would be. Fortunately, the course did not have us doing a swim in the pond and completely submerging.

Viking has a wonderful and diverse set of obstacles, created by Rob Butler of Shale Hill. I have a detailed write-up from Viking with descriptions of all the obstacles on my blog from the past. Since that post, which I recommend reading for more content about the obstacles, the layout for how you tackle the obstacles has changed a bit. Racers now run the old course almost in reverse, though there’s a bit of meandering back and forth to add some miles. Regardless the course is fun, and I love the obstacles there. They are the perfect mix of challenging and achievable. The only obstacle I failed was the Dragon’s Tooth monkey bars, which I find hard always and the wet didn’t help.

Despite the weather, I actually had a blast at Viking. I took it fairly easy on Sunday, keeping a modest pace and focusing on enjoyment over performance. I’ve seen very serious about my athletic pursuits lately and have been training super super hard. In all of that, I have somewhat forgotten that this is play. Taking a step back at Viking and playing instead of beating myself up with lap after lap was a good move for me and great for my mental state. It also gave me the opportunity to bond with teammates, something I haven’t done in a while as I’ve been in a “run my own race” state of mind. I didn’t let the weather get me down and prevent me from having a good day.

Being relaxed definitely helped my performance in some ways too. Though I wasn’t at my fastest, I did well with only one failed obstacle. Winter training for me doesn’t involve a lot of grip work, and I tend to bulk up a little from lifting heavy, so I was glad to have solid results on the obstacles this early in the season. Over the next week or so, I will be switching up my training to work on grip and muscular endurance and should lean down a little going into August and my A-race for OCR, NorAm.

For those who are looking to hit up Viking this season, they have another race coming up on July 27 and have regular training throughout the summer. While I won’t be able to make the July race, I would love to go back to Greenville for training and for a fall race, if they do one for, say, Halloween (hint hint). Fellow, NE Spahtens, I’d love to have some friends to run with, so maybe I’ll see you all there?

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Featured Review: Shale Hill Polar Bear 8 Hour 2019

The temperature gauge on my Volkswagen registered -10 degrees Fahrenheit as  I pulled out of the driveway of the Lake Bomoseen house where I was staying with my fellow NE Spahten teammates. It was 6:00 a.m. and I was headed to Shale Hill for their final race, Polar Bear 8 Hour.

The sky was still dark when I pulled into the parking lot and made my way up the hill to the barn for check-in. The air was the kind of cold that makes your body suck into it self. I huddled in my Dryrobe and walked as close as was safe to the many small fires that illuminated our way. I had done this walk so many times before; there was no way that this could be the end.

At the top of the hill, I hurried myself into the barn to check in. Jill Butler, co-race director, was there graciously managing all the logistics as always. She welcomed me by name as I picked up my bib and dropped of my gear. From there, I headed over to the “party barn” for breakfast, catered by the local Wheel Inn and the pre-race meeting.

Familiar faces met me right away. One element of Shale Hill that I cannot overstate is the sense of community. Racers who come to Shale Hill to train and race often mention the innovative and challenging course and the beauty of watching the sun rise and set from the start line. These things keep people coming back again and again. But the piece that has always struck me as unique about Shale Hill is the community that co-owners, Jill and Rob Butler have built. At Shale Hill, racers tackle the course together, they know each other by name, and they support each other. This is a testament to the welcoming and familial atmosphere that Rob and Jill have created. Shale Hill is greater than the sum of its parts in that most inexplicable way that so many wonderful things are. As someone who quantifies things for a living, it strikes me that I cannot entirely quantify all my feelings about Shale Hill. How can I place an exact figure on the sense of love I have for the place and how its supported me in my growth as an athlete and provided refuge in good and challenging times? Shale Hill has been there for me in and has given me something that I hadn’t even known I needed.

In the party barn, I connected with fellow NES friend, Bobby, and the two of us grabbed some breakfast and coffee. I chowed on eggs and french toast while Rob Butler led the pre-race meeting providing details relevant to the day. The frigid weather has left tires and wheelbarrows buried under snow and glued to the frozen earth with ice, meaning non-elite racers would walk those loops unencumbered. Rob also explained the Polar Bear penalty system, which required racers to run back to the previous obstacle when they failed something. In select instances, where obstacles were quite far apart, racers would instead take a chip and complete obstacles like battle ropes and sled rides at the conclusion of their loop. The goal: As many loops of the approximately 6.5 mile, 70 obstacles Shale Hill course as possible in eight hours.

Did I mention it wasn’t even zero degrees Fahrenheit outside?

I am not a good cold weather athlete. I’ll be fine if it’s 80 degrees, but winter weather is a challenge. Knowing this, my goal for Polar Bear is always to be non-competitive and run in the penalty-free journeyman division. I am quite serious about setting only a small handful of A-races per year during my peak time of the summer. I don’t believe in every race being an all out event, and I am lucky to have coaches that work with me on periodization that makes sense for my race calendar. Suffice it to say, that with temperatures as cold as they were and snow on the ground, I was realistic about planning to do one lap at the 2019 Polar Bear race.

After breakfast, I coordinated myself for the 7:50 a.m. start time of the journeyman wave. Vermont had gotten about 18″ of snow over the past few weeks. The first layer has packed down into an impermeable icy layer. On top of it was another 6″ to 10″ of powder that we’d have to wade through, similar to running along a sandy beach. I put on Icebugs with carbide tips, gaters, two layers of pants, two tops and a jacket, and two buffs — one for my face and one for my ears. I put on gloves and added Bleggmits on top. I stuffed foot warmers into my shoes and hand warmers into my gloves. I was ready to go. Or as ready as I would ever be. At 7:54 a.m., I crossed the starting line at Shale Hill for the last time.

I have spoken at great length in many many blog posts about the obstacles at Shale Hill. If you’re looking for a detailed play by play, I refer you to my write-up from summer 2014 and the NES weekend training. Obstacles have been added since that time, but it will give you a good idea about what we were up against. Rob Butler’s obstacles are no joke. They are innovative, challenging, and a heck of a lot of fun. I am a decent enough obstacle course racing athlete, and yet I have never completed an entire loop of Shale Hill with 100% obstacle completion. For context, I cannot think of any other race series where I haven’t been able to 100% in one or more of their races.

Polar Bear 2019 had its own set of challenges. The cold was mind-numbing. When the wind blew I got a cold headache, like one might get from drinking a bubble tea too fast. My muscles did not cooperate. My fingers did not grip. My hips were locked. Of course, faced with the snow, ever step was effortful and anything more than a little bit of running was off the table for me. It is truly humbling to experience the effects of weather on the body. All of the racers at Polar Bear were challenged in this way. I failed obstacles that are a snap for me in warm weather. The 7′ wall that I consider one of the most manageable obstacles on course was a challenge without assistance. My gloves slipped on the ropes making them impossible to climb. If I tried to take my fingers out of the gloves, they would get numb, making my grip strength exactly zero. Everything was a tremendous effort.

The first couple of obstacles, the split log carry and the pond rope traverse, had some unexpected back-ups. Since I was journeyman, I walked the log loop sans-log. The pond traverse is a favorite of mine and something I wanted to do one last time. As luck would have it, very few people wanted to try the lane was the metal ring around the rope. I opted to tackle that traverse, leading me to get to move ahead quickly. However, the pond traverse was a good example of what was to come in terms of effort. That rope traverse took it out of me. I barely made it to the end and was left huffing and sapped of energy, body almost shaking. Exerting yourself in the extreme cold is no joke.

I was glad to have the company of fellow NE Spahtens on the course to keep up morale. I ran with Bobby for quite a bit, saw Niki and Steve, Josh and Molly, and encountered a few others briefly. Friendly faces helped. I got to meet some entertaining guys from Connecticut who gave me a mental boost in the last mile. It was great to see some photographer friends all over the course to add a smile to a rough race experience.

It’s pretty easy to get lost in the “pain cave” when you’re walking across a meadow into the wind in weather that makes your eyes feel as though their fluids are turning to a solid state. It’s almost impossible not to question how you define fun when you’re on the top of a metal obstacle and feel its penetrating chill. 2019 Polar Bear was mentally challenging. I have never failed so many obstacles in my life. Truly it’s a shame because while I did as much as my body could do in this last race at Shale Hill, what I really wanted was to be able to do everything, something that was impossible for me given the conditions. In a way, I knew this would happen — I am not a winter racer after all. So in many ways, this summer’s 24 Hours of Shale Hell was my farewell effort. Though just as I say that I want to take it back. Because every time I run Shale Hill I want to run it again so that I can try harder, do better, see the moon from the top of a pile of hay bales, watch the sun come up over the mountains as I wrench myself up from my sleeping bag for another lap.

I crossed the finish line after 3:50 out on the course. I was freezing, and I was tired. One and done. I accepted my medal and went inside to change and get a hot drink and some food. I’m not such of a social person, but I love post-race time at Shale Hill. I ate many delicious rolls from the buffet while I chatted with Amy, Bobby, Liz, Niki, and Steve about our love of Shale Hill and various feelings of denial and sadness that it was over. (There was some bargaining thrown in there too — those of you familiar with the Kubler-Ross model may sense a pattern…)

Finally, it was time to go. I said goodbye to my team and then made my way around saying farewell to all the Shale Hill folks I have come to have such affection for. I was especially glad that I was able to see Jill who has always been so generous with allowing me to come up to Shale Hill for training and stay over. I was sorry to not get to say a final goodbye to Rob and thank him for his excellent coaching during training weekends and for building such an amazing course.

I don’t think that I will ever race anywhere else again in the same way that I raced at Shale Hill these past five years. Shale Hill has always been a staple in my race calendar. It’s odd not to have a race to look forward to with them this summer. And I know that while other things may fill my time, nothing will be a replacement. Shale Hill will always be a special place, the years an experience to forever value, and the camaraderie we all found there a testament to Rob and Jill’s efforts.

The truth is, I don’t know how to end this post because I am not quite sure yet how to say farewell to Shale Hill. But maybe it’s as simple as just this: Thank you.

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Featured Review: F.I.T. Challenge XI Fall 2018

November 17, 2018, F.I.T. Challenge hosted their eleventh event at their regular venue, Diamond Hill in Cumberland, Rhode Island. F.I.T. Challenge is always a popular event with me. The (slightly over) 5K course is absolutely the right blend of challenge and do-ability and makes this race both an accomplishment and good fun.

F.I.T. Challenge also offers a lot of options for racers who really want to push themselves. In addition to the standard open waves, where racers do one lap, F.I.T. Challenge offers an elite wave with mandatory obstacle completion, a multi-lap variant where racers can do as many laps as they want in five hours, and an ultra option where racers push to complete eight laps for a coveted buckle.

I arrived in Cumberland a little bit ahead of my 9:15 a.m. wave start, paid $10 for parking, and walked over to registration. Parking is on-site and so close to the starting line that you can see it. Registration took a matter of a minute or two, and the next thing I knew, I was dropping my bag in the multi-lap area. I had decided, after many years of doing one lap, that I wanted to try my hand at multi-lapping this year. That being said, by November I was easing into my off season and intentionally hadn’t been doing a ton of mileage. For this reason, multi-laps for me meant two laps. That was my goal, and I stuck to it.

At start time, I headed over to the line with fellow NE Spahten friend, Bobby, who was also running the 9:15 a.m. multi-laps. It was fun to have a buddy, and, in fact, F.I.T. Challenge is a great race for this — I saw many NES friends at the race today and have seen many at past event. There were some brief announcements at the start line and then we were off.

One of the challenges of this fall’s F.I.T. was the weather. The Northeast had received about six to eight inches of snow two days before the race, meaning that while temperatures in Cumberland on race-day were in the upper-30s and 40s, the course was a mess. The first waves of the day trundled through snow; the later waves wadded through mud, as racers traversed 1,000 feet of elevation along technical trails.

The course layout was fairly similar to what I had experienced the last time I was at Diamond Hill the previous spring. F.I.T. Challenge is obstacle dense. Race directors Robb and Aaron do an excellent job spacing obstacles well and making sure racers don’t run far without something to do. The main stretches of “just running” take place at the beginning and end of the race. The first half mile or so is mostly obstacle free, in an effort to space our racers and prevent back-ups. While I’ve had some experience with obstacle back-ups at F.I.T. Challenge in the past, it was not a big issue for me this fall for whatever reason — perhaps it was my earlier starting time, the racers at the event being faster on the course, or maybe the field was slightly smaller due to the weather. Whatever reason, this allowed for faster times in my case even with the messy terrain. Conditions were very slick, and I was glad to be running in my Altra Superior 3.0 trail sneakers. I saw some less experienced racers in road sneakers and was worried for their safety.

The best part of F.I.T. Challenge is the epic and creative obstacles. In addition to having all the basics — a carry, a rope climb, a crawl, and walls — F.I.T. mixes it up. The carry also features a set of over-under-thru walls. The rope climb is followed immediately by a peg board climb, right into a suspended cargo net racers hang from and make their way across underneath. The walls are the most interesting part of all. There are two set of hanging walls, which swing off a fixed top, meaning that you’ll be leaning backward as you climb. Best of all, are the two Destroyer walls, a pair of inverted walls with an additional wall at the top. The newer 2.0 version even has a set of balance tires to finish up the obstacle (which I slipped right off in the wet weather). Finally, the already challenging Devil’s Steps obstacle has an “upgrade” at F.I.T. Challenge — the Devil’s Playground obstacle (see image below). I have made it through the Devil’s Steps at F.I.T. before, but I could not make the transition to the top blocks on Devil’s Playground, making it my only real failed obstacle of the day.



The course also has a number of cargo net climbs, double-ups, a hoist, and hurdles. Between racers and the finish line is a rig with four lanes of difficulty, right into an inverted ladder and a slip wall. The rig is an absolute blast with monkey bars, horizontal pipes, and all matter of other grips. The hanging/swinging section of the rig terminates into a cargo net climb for an added challenge.

As planned, I made my way through two laps at F.I.T. This was my first serious elevation in months, and I felt it the next day. I had fun, I was challenged, and I closed out my season at one of my favorite race series. My laps took me 1:25 and 1:27 each, according to my watch. I took a few minutes between laps for an overall finishing time of 2:55. I definitely would have had time for one more, but I was feeling good and wanted to have fun at F.I.T. more than try for a challenge. I grabbed my medal, a two-lap pin to add to it, and a hamburger from the onsite vendor before heading out.

F.I.T. Challenge reliably delivers a fun time with a well-laid-out course and quality obstacles. Their twice-annual races in April and November start and end the season for many obstacle racers. I am always pleased to attend F.I.T., and it will remain a staple in my race calendar for years to come.

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Featured Review: Bonefrog Boston 2018

Bonefrog logp

This year, for the first time, Massachusetts native company, Bonefrog, took their obstacle race to Carter & Stevens Farm for the September Bonefrog Boston event. My last Bonefrog was at their home venue, Berkshire East in Charlemont, MA. However, I had taken a year off from Bonefrog, a mix of circumstances based on my schedule and personal course design preferences. When I saw that Bonefrog was coming to Barre I was pleased. I like racing at Carter & Stevens. Some folks state that it’s a bit of a ubiquitous venue at this point and has the minuses of being a working farm; however, I am never disappointed when I can tackle a course that involved more running than mountain climbing. Carter & Stevens fits the bill — it’s flat and fast.

Bonefrog offers many different ways of tackling their course. There is the Sprint (3 miles), the Challenge (6 miles), Tier 1 (the 6 mile course followed by the 3 mile course), and the Endurance option (the 6 mile course followed by as many laps of the 3 mile course as you can do before the time cut-off). The Challenge is more or less the “default” option and was what I signed up for. It would allow me to do the full course without pushing too hard, a good idea considering that I’m running a marathon at the end of the month.

I arrived in Barre in advance of my 9:00 a.m. wave start. Parking was offsite with folks getting bused in. I opted to park in non-official parking, walking distance to the venue. I know it’s hypocritical, but I don’t want to encourage what I did because races rely on parking funds. But the bus trip from the parking lot in Barre to the venue has always made me really motion sick, so I did what I did. Parking was $10 (both for the official parking and the non-official parking I selected). Reviews I heard of the official parking were mixed but overall fine. It seemed buses were running reliably. This is a long-established venue, and, as far as I can tell, parking is usually handled sufficiently.

When I arrived at the festival area things were a bit chaotic. I made it through registration in a snap, but the lines for bag check and the bathrooms were significant. There were only a few hundred people running Bonefrog (225 for the Challenge with me). With such a limited field, one would hope lines wouldn’t be an issue, but they were. I was pleased to see that during my wait in the bag check line, Bonefrog staff began to come down the queue to give people bag tags so we could pre-organize and just have to pay at the front. This speed things up a bit. From there, I moved to the bathroom line, where I waited another 10 minutes. Eight restrooms for 225 racers didn’t seem like quite enough. The entire festival area was somewhat minimal with limited vendors — basically just Stone Cow, which is Carter & Stevens owned, providing beer and not much else. The feel was super different than Savage Race, the last event I attended in Barre. Savage felt lively and hopping; Bonefrog seemed a little dead. I will give Bonefrog huge props though for not having annoyingly loud music. Thank you!

My 9:00 a.m. wave was the first general open wave of the day, after the elite waves and Tier 1 and Endurance waves. I went right from the restroom line to the starting line. I was super pleased by a few things: (1) no loud music, (2) no MC!!!, and (3) we started on time. There was zero fanfare, but that’s the way I like it. I hung out with fellow NE Spahten (and best Ragnar Captain ever!), Jess, and we were on our way before we knew it.

The Challenge course measured in at just under six miles with 31 obstacles. The course made up for some of less-than-ideal logistics pre-race. The obstacle placement was good — things were fairly evenly placed and there didn’t seem to be too much unnecessary running for running sake to pad the miles. It’s rare I can say that. Bonefrog made good use of Carter & Stevens. Regulars know what to expect there, but Bonefrog did a nice job of taking us on some routes less traveled, I think. (Though I should note I haven’t done a Spartan in Barre, so perhaps others found the paths more familiar.) Bonefrog has had some issues with course markings in the past — I got pretty lost during the fall 2016 event in Charlemont. The Barre course marking were not perfect either, and a group of us got slightly off course at one point. We zigged where we should have zagged but, fortunately, ended up in the same place — the error was slight and made no difference. As I mentioned before, the course was flat, and, with the exception of a few really muddy spots, I was able to run the entire way. There was some single track that got a little congested, but this was mitigated by the small number of participants. I love a flat and fast course, and appreciate that I can experience this in Barre. I also appreciated that we didn’t have to go through water on the course. I am more into obstacle racing than doing a mud run and with temperatures in the low 60s, I did not want to submerge myself into water.

Bonefrog has some solid obstacles. They are interesting, fun, and challenging. The mix is good, though a bit heavy on the rigs, so if those aren’t your jam, take note. I enjoy rigs, so I tend to be a happy camper at Bonefrog. Fortunately, the open waves are penalty free, so you have the option of giving everything a solid attempt and moving on if it isn’t working out. Interestingly, some of the obstacles on course Saturday were beginning to show their age a bit, which was worrisome at first, until I noticed the care put into doing reinforcements — everything felt sturdy, so I was not concerned about safety.

The main minus of the course was back-ups. With such a small field, this shouldn’t have been an issue, but it was. The first obstacle, Rolling Thunder, had a back-up right away, and I pretty much had to wait a least a minute at a third to half of the obstacles. (Some waits were much more than that, some less.) That’s a bummer and had always been an issue for Bonefrog, perhaps because of the challenging nature of some of their obstacles.

Here’s a bit more detail about the obstacles at the Barre event.

  • Rolling Thunder: This obstacles features tires on a horizontal pole. It’s deceptively challenging and caused a back-up right away. I’m a bit “over” this obstacle which I consider hard and not that fun — unless you love flinging your body at things.
  • Guillotine: This obstacle was neat! A balance log led up to a wall, which you went over before heading down another log.
  • Dead Weight: Classic hoist.
  • 1st Phase Wall: 6′ wall.
  • Normandy: A crawl with jacks and wire (sans barbs).
  • Rope Swing: For this obstacle, you jumped from a platform, only a foot or so off the ground, to a rope in front of you and swung across. Kind of fun.
  • 2nd Phase Wall: 8′ wall.
  • Siege Wall: Slip wall.
  • Get a Grip: This obstacle is a perennial challenge for me. Hanging from the rig were ropes with plastic handles attached. You had to swing from one to the other to get across. That would have been fine — I am good at rings — however, the ropes were looped through the handles meaning that they were not fixed and rotated. I took one swing and the handle rotated right under me sending me down to the ground.
  • Kraken: Cargo net climb to a cargo net up high that you rolled across and a cargo net down.
  • Swingers Club: Another rig, this time with ropes with small balls at the end. I was able to grab above the balls, which gave me the ability to swing across. This was one I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to do, but I was able to make it across no problem, which felt great.
  • Cliff Hanger: An inverted runged ladder.
  • Viking Tables: Also known as Irish or Russian Tables, this obstacle is a horizontal rectangular prism that you have to hoist yourself up and over.
  • Red Wings / Extortion 17 / Medal of Honor: These were three PT obstacles that had racers recalling fallen servicemen. We did dips, burpees, and pull-ups while reciting officers’ names.
  • Night Crawler: Low crawl.
  • Walk the Plank: This was a wobbly balance beam, right on the ground. Stakes were low, but I wanted to make it, so I focused and gave it my best balancing effort.
  • Rope Climb: Standard rope climb.
  • Reverse Slant Wall: Classic inverted wall.
  • Ship Boarding: Skinny ladders. I climbed this from the side and found that I had no problem.
  • The Chopper: What a fun rig variation. There was a ring, which led to spinning horizontal 4-barred “chopper” — this sequence repeated twice before racers reached the end. I should mention that Bonefrog has done work to address concerns about height accessibility and had boxes at Chopper and other rigs to help shorter racers be able to get up to the handholds.
  • Brute Force Carry / Dry Hole: A carry with a twist. We grabbed canvas bags filled with around 40 lbs of sand which we had to carry along a short loop with three thru walls of increasing height. Kept things interesting!
  • Mike / Murph: You do this obstacle twice — forward and then backward. The obstacle has a ladder wall with a rope down the back. The first time through, you do the wall first; the second time, you do the rope first.
  • 3rd Phase Wall: 10′ wall.
  • Strong Hold: Another interesting rig! I was actually so short that even with the boxes provided, I couldn’t reach this rig, so instead I climbed the trussing holding up the obstacle. Strong Hold featured a section of u-shaped monkey bars, which transitioned to two sets of straps, followed up another set of u-shaped monkey bars to a final grip and bell. The reach to the first strap was a bit challenging, and I ended up too low down on the straps to be able to make it to the final u-shaped bars. I think this obstacle could be done successfully with a bit of work, and I’d like to try my hand at it again some time.
  • Dirty Name: Otherwise known as “Gut Check,” this obstacle has a lower log from which you jump and then pull yourself over a higher log. I am not a fan of this obstacle, as I’ve seen people hurt themselves on it. I climbed up the side supports — hey, I want to live to race another day.
  • Cargo Net: A huge A-frame cargo net.
  • Black Ops: For reasons I cannot fathom, and despite completing it successfully many times, Black Ops, the perennial Bonefrog finish line obstacle, makes me nervous. This obstacle has you climb up a rope wall and then traverse a set of monkey bars before landing on a platform and climbing down a ladder. Here’s the thing. The monkey bars are really high up and below them is just this net. Did I mention the bar rotate. Oh, yeah, they do. I had to climb up the side truss to reach the bars, but I did it and slow and stead — double-handing each bar — I made it to the end.

I finished the Bonefrog Challenge in 1:39, good enough for third place in my age group, making this race a North American OCR Championships qualifier for me, which is pretty exciting. My overall impression of the event was that it was solid — overall a middle of the pack experience. It was not overly outstanding, but it was decently good. Some of the logistics could use tightening up. I enjoyed the course while wishing some adjustments could be made for fewer back-ups. Bonefrog is a “sometimes race” for me. If it works well with my calendar that’s great; if not that’s okay too. Bonefrog, I am sure we will meet again at some point. I look forward to it.

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Featured Review: North American OCR Championships 2018 – Team Relay & Charity Open

NES members Nicole, Steve, and Niki at the finish of the team relay

The last day of the North American OCR Championships featured two events, the Team Relay and the Charity Open 7K to benefit the Stratton Foundation. My team from OCR World Championships, Tiny^2 + 1, had once again joined forces for the team race at NorAm. Niki and Steve were good teammates from the Spahtens and excellent friends to do the team run with because we all were on the same page — camaraderie over competitiveness. After two days of racing, we weren’t “in it to win it” for the team relay. We wanted to each do our best and have a good time.

Sunday morning, I woke up to an extremely sore body. I didn’t want to move, much less run another obstacle course race. Additionally, the wet weather from the previous day had continued overnight. The rain was unabated. In a way this was a blessing; I had no notions that I would be competitive on my section of the team relay in the wet. I could focus, instead, on having fun. I find three day of sustained heavy competition to be too much for me, both physically and mentally. I like to race on Sunday at NorAm or OCRWC, but it has to be more a “fun time.”

The team race at the championship races, like NorAm and OCRWC, is designed for teams of three, where individuals can specialize in the areas of speed/endurance, strength, and technical. The speed/endurance section is the longest, and focuses on running and climbing the mountain. The racer tackling the strength portion of the relay will be doing the heavy carries and the hoists. The technical person is the obstacle specialist and does the rigs. For our team, Niki would handle speed, Steve would manage strength, and I would do technical.

After feedback last year about the strength section, it had gotten beefed up for NorAm. There were even some technical elements — La Gaffe and Skitch — , an interesting choice, and a band cutter, considering the rain. Speed was left the most obstacle “lite” though a last minute change made runners have to tackle Dragon’s Back on the speed course, instead of Rolling Thunder. This was a challenging adjustment for sure and made me supremely happy I was not doing the speed section. The technical portion of the course, covered a little over 3K and incorporated many of the obstacles from the 3K course from Friday.

Tiny^2 + 1 was part of the mixed open wave that started at 10:15 a.m. There was light rain as we headed off to the starting line to see Niki off on course. I knew that Niki would be out for around an hour, since she had some significant elevation to cover, and Steve would be out for around 40 minutes. That meant I had plenty of time to hang out before my turn came. While Niki ran, I spent time relaxing in the athlete lounge, basically an empty (but quiet!) room. I wanted to keep warm. It was raining and in the low 60s, which was fine if you were moving, but rough if you were hanging out in just a hoodie for a few hours.

After about 50 minutes, I headed out to the transition area to wait for Niki with Steve. At around 11:40 a.m., Niki arrived, having spent quite a while trying to keep her band at Dragon’s Back, with the weather causing the challenge and, ultimately, making it not a possibility that day.

Steve was off, so Niki and I went in so I could check my bag. Steve’s portion of the race featured an endless Wreckbag climb and the farmers carry, which was all pretty easy to see from the main area, so we were able to track his progress. The rain made La Gaffe impossible — I saw almost no one make it during my wait there — so Steve moved on. I knew he just had Skitch and then it was my turn. I headed out at 12:25 p.m.

I was cold and stiff. My arms and quads were killing me but I made myself move at a light jog. It helped. The first obstacle was Skull Valley. Going into the technical section of the team relay I knew I would not keep my band. It was a function of the weather but also because Stairway to Heaven was on course. I had lost my band there during the 15K before it rained. I had no hope today. That might have been discouraging, but, in fact, for the Sunday race it was liberating. I could have fun and try my best. My arms could barely move, so I would do what I could do — no problem.

With this strategy, I climbed up to Skull Valley. I grasped the skulls and moved along. What had been easy enough on Friday with fresh arms felt like torture, as if my arms were being pulled out of my body. During the monkey bars I decided to give up my band here. I wanted to do it on my terms and not lose two to Stairway to Heaven.

Even though I had given up my band, I wanted to put in a solid race. I did the full rope climb, and made it over the Confidence Wall, where you had to climb a 12′ wall with a rope. Both of these obstacles were slippery in the rain and no joke as a result.

The course then took racers uphill to Stairway. I had thought the climb would be lengthier, like the section of the 15K that brought us to Stairway, but it was a short hike, necessitating only a brief bit of walking. I was determined to run and move along at a decent speed. I cut my losses at Stairway before moving on to the metal ladders. I like to do skinny ladder climbs like this sideways because it uses way less arm strength. It worked like a charm here.

I ran down the hill to trapeze. Just like Saturday, it was soaking wet. I made it about 3/4 of the way through before slipping off. I did a quick ladder wall before running over to the rig with the rings and low monkey bars from the 3K course. I noticed that some adjustments had been made. There were two hanging rings for you to step in under the monkey bars and a t-bar replaced the third ring on the first set of the rig. This meant, there was a section with two rings, a small ball (which you could skip) and a t-grip. Then there was a section with rings hanging below the low monkey bars, and finally there was the section with four ropes, unaltered from earlier races. I was excited to try something new at this point in the weekend — it was a nice mix-up for the mind, plus, I was approaching this from a “have fun” standpoint. I made a couple of attempts and kept slipping off the t-shaped bar, but I wanted to keep at it. If I got past that point, I thought I could do it. I persisted and managed to make it to the low monkey bars. I “walked” through, getting to the first rope, which I s-hooked around my foot and stood up. I transitioned to the next rope, where there was a knot. My arms were tired, so I took the opportunity to sit on the knot for a little and regroup before finishing the rig. Excellent!

There were just a few obstacles left. I ran down to the floating walls and quickly made my way through. Urban Sky proved too much for me at this point in the weekend, and I could only make the first section. I ran on. My teammates were waiting right beyond the car obstacle. We met up and raced over to the final slip wall, The Knot. The wall was so slick at this point, I couldn’t even make it to the rope (which had, of course, been raised so that it was harder to reach). Steve ended up helping me and Niki make it to the top before heading up himself solo — nicely done, sir! We crossed the line at just around 1:10 p.m.



There was little time to celebrate before the charity run. Technically, the charity 7K started at 1:00 p.m., which was the time that Steve and I had registered for; however, we were promised that we could go off after that — they would release waves every 20 minutes. We grabbed our chips and bibs and headed back to the starting line. There was no one there, and the rain was coming down. It was 1:20 p.m., so we headed out on course.

Much like at OCRWC, the charity run was a do-as-you-like fun run for us. We had covered over a half marathon’s worth of miles over the past few days, and another 7K, with a trip up the mountain wasn’t happening. Most of the charity runners I saw felt the same. This was an opportunity to play as we liked on obstacles and meander around the course.

Steve and I headed out, running into a band of other NE Spahtens mid-way. We walked with them for a while, tackling the inverted wall and watching people play on the Force 5 Rig before heading out on our own again. We goofed around on La Gaffe, which was way too wet to do anything serious on and then walked over to the rig that had been modified for the team relay. There, we ran into Josh and Molly. After playing around on the rig for a few minutes, we jogged to the finish line, having run just over a mile and spending around 35 minutes on course.

I love that the charity open exists for those individuals who are at NorAm with family and don’t want to tackle the full 15K or didn’t qualify. For those of us who are on day three of racing, it’s a fun way to donate some money to charity and have one last good time with friends. Rain and a desire for lunch kept my frolicking short, and that was just right. A nice cap to the weekend.

NorAm was a blast. I loved the course, which was world-class. I appreciated that it was a smaller event than OCRWC. NorAm felt more intimate and was much less stressful to navigate. Completing the 3K with my band was the culmination of almost a year of training. The progress I showed with my physical and mental strength on the 15K was encouraging and makes me want to work for next year. Running with friends during the team relay and the charity open event were a wonderful finish to a weekend spent with some pretty cool folks doing something I love.

NorAm at Stratton was the highlight of a great race season. I am super super super hoping that NorAm is at Stratton again. I thought it was a good venue (minus the pricey food — but parking was great, the mountain excellent, and lodging adequate). The course layout couldn’t have been better; even though we all hate a “death march,” the one on the 15K was at least reasonable. I was so pleased about the adjustments made so that the course was height accessible, that I ran over to race director, Adrian, when I saw him at the venue to personally thank him. In sum, NorAm delivered.

What’s next? The countdown to hear about the 2019 location for NorAm, figuring out where to make my qualification attempt (F.I.T. in November?), and then training for the big event. I hope to see you at the 2019 NorAm Champs!

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Featured Review: North American OCR Championships 2018 – 15K

NES members at finish line

15K. 39 obstacles. Hard core. The 2018 North American OCR Championships delivered on the difficulty with the 15K race, which had over twice the number of obstacles from Friday’s 3K course and what felt like infinitely more feet of elevation.

The women 30 – 34 wave set out early in the day at 9:15 a.m., an amazing privilege, not the least because rain was predicted for the afternoon. The start-of-race experience was much the same as on Friday. Loud music…check. MC…check. The good news was that they didn’t keep us in the corral long before sending us on our way at exactly 9:15 a.m. Unlike with the 3K, we didn’t do a phased wave start but were able to all go out on the course at the same time. We were on our way!

The course took racers up in a short incline in much the same way as the 3K. We faced the 4′ and 6′ walls before continuing up the mountain, in a way decidedly not like the 3K course. The hike up Stratton Mountain was intense, and it was lengthy. We climbed continuously until mile 2.25. The climb was, simply put, a beat-down and exhausting. It was relentless. The saving grace was that the weather was clear and cool and conditions were good. We were able to keep moving at a fairly decent climbing pace. The views were spectacular.

At the top of the mountain, we finally encountered some obstacles. I don’t quite recall everything between obstacles three and five on the map. I know that Log Runner had racers walk up a short inclined balance beam. The ramp wall would have been an inclined slip wall with ropes, I imagine, but I don’t remember that obstacle being at that position. Q Steps was similar to the American Ninja Warrior style quintuple steps, though you were able to put your hands on one set of steps and your feet on the other to move your way though.

I actually think that obstacle six on the map, Pipe Dreams, preceded the previous set of obstacles. Pipe Dreams challenged racers to do a short rope climb to a horizontal pipe, which the racers then had to shimmy along with hands, before a rope down to the ground. (Shale Hill regulars will know that this obstacle is an easier version of the zig-zag obstacle.)

We stayed on top of the mountain for the first rig. I saw a number of folks have issues with this rig and definitely some bands were lost here. I did just fine. The rig featured rings to a horizontal rectangular pipe. There were also some monkey bars and a rope to the final bell.

I grabbed some water from the water stations as I headed down the mountain. The water stations were very intelligently organized for the 15K with many of them being able to be visited twice — both going and coming on the course. As a result, I was totally fine with bringing no hydration, even though I was out on the course for four and a half hours. Moderate temperatures and well-positioned water stations made this possible.

We encountered a barbed wire crawl on the way down the mountain. The map lists obstacle nine as Rolling Thunder, though I recall that obstacle actually being positioned after the through wall. Regardless, Rolling Thunder is an obstacle from Bone Frog that has tires wrapped around a horizontal board, which racers have to roll themselves over. The tires are about face-level for me, so this is a bit tricky, but I managed to wedge myself between the small space between two tires and get over.

What I recall before Rolling Thunder is obstacles ten through thirteen. The quarter pipe was steep enough that I had to run at it twice. A volunteer encouraged me that I really needed to commit to racing up the incline and leaping to grab the top. To get down, racers had to roll across a cargo net and then climb another net on the other side.

The next obstacle was Dragon’s Back. At OCR World Championships, I hadn’t been able to get up this obstacle because it was so wet. At NorAm, conditions were dry, and they had added a rope. I climbed up. “I’m not afraid of heights,” I thought, “This will be no problem.” And I promptly freaked out.

How to describe Dragon’s Back? The obstacle is almost entirely mental and requires racers to leap off a platform, onto a board, angled away, and grab a pole. If you really want to understand, I recommend an article I found called, “Dragon’s Back Open Letter” (Content note: swearing, discussions of mental health issues). I do not kid you when I say I was up there unable to move. I have never really been afraid of anything during my time as an OCR athlete, and I had no idea what to do. I was extremely lucky that my OCR friend, Niki, came along while I was stalled. She encouraged me, told me I could do it, demonstrated by doing it herself. I really really really didn’t want to lose my band here. This obstacle was mental, and I didn’t want to lose my band on something mental. Something physical, something where my strength gave out? Fine. This? Not fine.

I had many false starts. I almost jumped and didn’t. Until finally, I did. And I made it. And there was one more jump to go. It was farther. How could I make it? I was going to miss and end up splattered on that wall and it was going to be terrible and I definitely shouldn’t and okay I could do this, I would do this because I wanted my band and I couldn’t lose it this way and and and…I jumped, and I made it. And I burst into hysterical tears while Niki hugged me. To anyone who has stood on the top of Dragon’s Back and not made the leap, I understand.

I pulled myself into some semblance of decent shape and moved over to the low rig, a super low structure with hanging loops that requires racers to move through without touching the ground. You have to keep yourself suspended with feet in loops and arms supporting you as you move forward. But I was back in familiar territory with this obstacle, pleasantly so, and I made my way through without too much difficulty.

I jumped a quick through wall on the way back down the mountain. In terms of mileage, we were around half way through. The next section was going to be terrible though — a hoist, a farmers carry, and a Wreckbag carry with a crawl. (Note: The hurdles listed on the NorAm 15K map were definitely not on the course.) The hoist was pretty standard, with racers having to use a pulley to lift a 50 pound Wreckbag. The rope was skinny, which was annoying, but I used the technique that Rob Butler, owner of Shale Hill, taught me at one of their summer training camps, and was able to get it up. For the farmers carry, we actually only had to take one cloth bucket of sand, so I alternated between hugging it in front and balancing it on my shoulder. I survived, but I was felt myself tiring. The 50 pound Wreckbag carry was twice the distance of the 3K and one of the most horrible parts of the NorAm experience. I struggled. I weigh 120 pounds, so the Wreckbag was 42% of my body weight, a significant increase in mass. My shoulders and spine protested as I trudged super slowly up the mountain. I almost didn’t make it to the crawl, but I did. The bag came off my shoulders as I turned to go downhill and under the crawl. Unfortunately, after dragging the bag through the crawl, a new problem presented itself; how would I get the bag back up? I writhed around on the ground, while racers walked by sympathetically offering encouragement. Somehow, I managed to get the bag shouldered and my body moving again. I walked down with a guy who distracted me with pleasant talk. Carries over. Thank goodness. Never again.

I was beat, but there were some technical obstacles up next, and I had to maintain my focus. I ran downhill and vaulted over the inverted wall before heading into the tent to the Force 5 Rig. I had done well on this during the 3K and hoped to do well again. Fortunately, I did. The underhand grip on the rectangular blocks worked well once more, and I made my way through with focus and intentionality.

Next up was La Gaffe and the low crawl up to Skitch, just like on the 3K. I had some time for trial and error on Skitch on Friday and was able to fly through during the 15K without any issue.

I was feeling optimistic at this point in the race. Most of the challenging upcoming obstacles were ones that I have managed the previous day. Up next were a couple other obstacles from the 3K, Skull Valley followed by the rope climb. The 15K course then diverged from the 3K course to take us up to a tall wall with a rope. The top of the wall was significantly thick for added difficulty.

I jogged along lightly uphill until I came along to Stairway to Heaven, an a-frame with steps that you have to ascend with your hands. I had been pleased to do well on this obstacle at OCRWC and hadn’t given it much thought since then since I had been doing similar / enhanced training. When I approached the obstacle I felt a bit of concern. The steps that had been easy for me to reach at OCRWC, so I was displeased to see that they started quite a bit higher and that the angle of the steps seemed adjusted with more space at top and between steps. The volunteer was telling racers that we could use our legs to get started. I braced myself against the two boards with my legs and shimmied up until I got my hands around the first step. I did a series of pull-ups to move up the stairs with my hands until I got to the top step. I went to transition and couldn’t make it. The reach! Back down to the ground. I couldn’t believe it. I had my band. I had done a bunch of really hard obstacles. I had done this obstacle before without any issue! Many times in fact.

I stayed at Stairway to Heaven and tried again and again and again. Over time, my body began to shake with fatigue. I took a break for water and tried again. Then it started to rain. At this point, I made the decision to move on. It was a difficult choice, but, I think, it was the right one. I felt sad as the volunteer cut the band off my wrist. I had done a lot of hold onto this band. I was at around the 12K mark and had obstacles that I had completed before ahead of me. However, with the rain, I knew things were going to get hard. I was exhausted, and I needed to finish. A fellow racer gave me a pat on the back and said, “Good job.” I super appreciated that lady’s support!

I trekked uphill. I was spent, but I kept a positive mental attitude and moved forward, though I couldn’t believe we had to walk up the mountain again. I just wanted to keep moving. After what seemed like ages and ages of climbing, I came to two obstacles. The first was Z-man, a set of horizontal board making a z-shape, shifted 90 degrees. I climbed over no problem and ran over to the next obstacle, top shelf. This obstacle had racers climb to a board using a rope and then climb over a board right above it. Both of these obstacles were fine, even in my tired state.

I ran along until I reached a wall with a rope. I had done something like this at Shale Hill many times, so I confidently made it over the wall. Following that, the course map had stated we’d come to a cargo net, but I didn’t see it on course. I continued onward running as best I could on super exhausted legs. I just wanted to finish. I came to the caving ladders, which I quickly ascended.

I knew that from there we had about a mile and a half to go. I had to do this. We met back up with the 3K course, so I knew what to expect. I headed over to Trapeze. At this point the rain was really coming down and the rigs were all soaked. I had made it through Trapeze with zero problem during the 3K but with the rain, I kept rolling off the monkey bar section. I made it about 2/3 of the way through, tried around three times and decided to move on to the rope climb, which proved just fine. Next up was the second rig. The first set of rings went well, but the low rectangular bars were super slick, and I couldn’t make it to the ropes, despite multiple attempts. I wanted to save something for the team relay the next day, so I moved on to the floating walls, which I was able to make my way through, slowly but steadily.

I came up to Urban Sky where I made, again, multiple attempts before deciding I was too exhausted and the rig was too wet for my efforts to have gains. I had only missed four obstacles on the entire 15K course, and I had given it significant effort. I was satisfied. I ran up to Car Jacked, rolled over the cars, and up to the final obstacle, The Knot. I ran as best I could at the slip wall, which was wet. I slid down, re-tried, and made it to the rope. I pulled myself up and over and ran across the finish line. I was so relieved to do done!

I finished the 15K course in 4:31 with only four obstacle failures — one of which I had done last year and three of which I had done the day before in better weather. I had put forth a significant effort and showed improvement. When I had failed an obstacle, I was able to keep a good attitude and motivation and move on. I also recognize that there are definitely some areas for improvement next year. When I posted my results to the tool that I use with my coaches I finished out my post-workout comments by writing, “Brainstorming 15K NorAm 2019 goals… How do you feel about pull-up negatives? ;-)” 2019 NorAm Champs? I can’t wait.