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Featured Review: North American OCR Championships 2018 – 3K

Shaina and Aaron at NorAm OCR Champs start

The story of my 3K race at the North American OCR Championships begins with the past. In October 2017, I traveled to Canada to participate in the OCR World Championships. I had trained hard. I thought I was ready. But I wasn’t. The course was harder than I anticipated and the difference between my expectations for my success and reality were mentally challenging. I had been convinced I would keep at least one of my bands — the symbol for having 100% obstacle completion. I was so focused on this goal that, in some ways, I let my enjoyment of the experience slip me by.

I came back from Canada convinced not to let that happen again. My thoughts were two-fold. I wanted to train smarter (since I was training hard enough). I also wanted to adjust my expectations. To this end, in December, I recruited professional help by enlisting Hart Strength & Endurance Coaching. I got a training log and started recording all my workout meticulously. I also did mental work around goal setting and making sure that the goals I created were not too singular. There had to be many definitions around success and incremental levels to track growth.

My target race was the North American OCR Championships. I had qualified for both this race and the World Championships in August at F.I.T. Challenge but with OCRWC traveling to London, I was going to focus on a more local effort. I wanted to do well at the NorAm Champs and put in a performance where I felt I had given 100% effort. I wanted to race and feel good about my results.

The 2018 NorAm Championships are taking place as I write this in Stratton, Vermont. Stratton is only a 105 minute drive from my home, meaning I was able to drive up Friday morning before my 9:45 a.m. wave for the 30 – 39 women. I arrived at Stratton in plenty of time, which was a good thing since it was a bit challenging to figure out where I needed to be. I ended up driving around and asking for directions. The NorAm Champs main area was located right near the heart of the Stratton ski lodge. I found parking and walked around until I found check-in.

Unlike at OCR Championships, the check-in was entirely stress-free. Not only was I able to walk right up to the registration area, but friendly faces were behind the counter in the form of fellow NE Spahtens, Niki and Sandy. I had registered for the Friday 3K, the Saturday 15K, and the Sunday team relay and charity races. I got four bibs and three bands for the 3K, 15K, and team relay.

After getting my packets, I went over and got my t-shirts. I was excited to find that we got different ones for each race. I have three identical shirts from OCRWC, plus one different one for the OCRWC charity run. From NorAm, I’ll have four unique shirts with different colors, all marked with their distance. Because registration had been so smooth, I had plenty of time before my wave. I chose to take the time to organize the items I had gotten at registration, try to relax, and check my bag. I am not usually nervous before I race, but this was a race where I wanted to do well, and the result was some stress. I wanted to channel that feeling to keep focused and energized on the course.

A little before 9:45 a.m., I headed over to the starting area. One thing I have never liked is how loud music at the starting gate is at races. It’s painful (and bad for people’s hearing). I was happy to see that Coach Pain had been replaced with a new starting line person. I am not one for getting amped up with an MC at the starting line, but I was happy to not have to be offended by Coach Pain, who struck me as a bit of a misogynist at OCRWC.

The 3K was designed so that sets of around a dozen people went out at a time, meaning that the entire wave would start over the period of ten minutes or so. I was fortunate enough to be in the first set of 12 at the starting gate. I was ready to get moving and pleased when announcements were over and we were sent out on the course.

The 3K (1.8 mile) course started with a modest climb. (Note: I logged the course at more like 2.5 miles, but maybe I just did a lot of back and forth?) I was not particularly fast out of the gate, but I persistently jogged uphill passing a few folks. I was in this to complete obstacles, not to worry about my time. I will never be the fastest athlete, but I wanted to have quality obstacle completion. The weather was perfect. It was cloudy with a little bit of a breeze and temperatures right around 70 degrees. It felt like the first nice day in weeks, and I was pleased to be outdoors doing something I enjoy. Soon, I hit the first set of obstacles, a 4′ wall, and then a 6′ wall a little farther down the course. From there, it was a bit of a downhill jog to the Wreckbag carry. I am not a fan of carries, which I always find super challenging and, which tend to slow me down. It took me a while to shoulder the 50 lb Wreckbag, but, once I did, I wanted to move as efficiently as I could so as to get it off my back. The Wreckbag carry was long enough while still being manageable.

I was a bit tired from the carry, but two obstacles were immediately up next. First, there was an inverted wall. Because it was downhill, I was able to get a good running start and jump to grab the top without too much issue. From there, racers proceeded into a tent where we would face our first technical obstacle of the day, the Force 5 Rig. On my way over to the starting line, I had watched a few of the men come in and tackle this obstacle, and was a bit concerned at how challenging it appeared. It would definitely make or break a lot of people’s attempts to keep their band. The Force 5 Rig featured a t-shaped grip that transitioned to a flat rectangular wide grip. From there, racers transitions to a wildly swinging wheel before moving back to a t-shaped grip and then a flat wide grip.

When I approached the Force 5 Rig, I tried to focus and calm myself. I’d been doing a lot of grip strength intensive exercises, and this is where that work could pay off. I climbed the platform so that I could reach up and grab the t-grip. It was a stretch but possible, which was a relief since looking at the rig before I was unsure if the reach would be too far for me. I was happy to see that it was not. In fact, NorAm did a fantastic job making it possible for shorter athletes like me to reach everything. (Note: I am 5 feet tall.) I give race director, Adrian Bijanada, and the OCR Champs team huge props for this. Thank you. I greatly struggled getting onto obstacles that I could have completed at OCRWC. At NorAm Champs, I was given the chance to test myself on these obstacle because the height was not a hindrance.

I took a decent swing, and I was on the rig. I opted for an underhand hold on the rectangular grip, an approach which had seemed to have the highest level of success. It worked. I swung immediately to the wheel, not wanting to lose momentum. From there, I grabbed the next t-shaped hold. I was a bit shaky, so I took a moment to steady myself and kip to get a good grab of the final, most challenging, rectangular grip. I held on with all my worth and smacked the bell. I had done it. I had completed an obstacle I legitimately did not think was possible for me. I felt weak with relief and so drained that I was nauseous for a spell. I walked and tried to regroup. This was still just the beginning of the race.

Up next was La Gaffe, an interesting obstacle with poles that racers had to hang on and move with the weight of their body. I had found this obstacle to be different and interesting at OCRWC and was glad it was at NorAm Champs. I got through without difficulty, knowing from experience, that the obstacle is a lot easier if you keep your center of gravity low on the pole.

I ran over to the low crawl that went up the hill. No fake barbed wire here — this as the real stuff but not too low. I was quite curious about the next obstacle, Skitch. It had been the focus of much social media attention. I had carefully watched a video in which the NorAm crew talked about technique. Skitch featured two horizontal rods. Racers had to take hooks with straight handles and work them down one pole, while hanging from below, then transition to the second pole and move along it to a bell. In the video on the NorAm site, this obstacle seemed “do-able” but when I came to the obstacle, there was a mass of people in the re-try lane. The transition from the lower to the upper bar was quite challenging, and I had to give Skitch multiple attempts. I kept having my hook on the lower bar supporting the transition slip off. It was fairly hard getting both hooks off the high-up poles at my height, and I was worried about them crashing into my face. I tried Skitch about a half dozen times before I successfully made the transition — practice made perfect, I guess. Rumors are that there were some injuries at Skitch, such as pinched fingers and people getting hit by falling hooks, so I might guess that this obstacle gets adjusted for tomorrow.

Next up was Skull Valley. This obstacle had bested me at OCRWC based on issues of height accessibility. As a result, I was beyond pleased to see that for NorAm Champs Skull Valley featured a low ring that I could step into so as to access the main Skull Valley obstacle. Turns out, Skull Valley, if you can get on it, is super fun and not too bad. I had a fun time swinging from skull-shaped hand-grips to some short monkey bars to another set of skull grips. Good times.

I was starting to feel as though I might have a chance to keep my band. All I needed was some focus, luck, and persistence. I still had some tough obstacles to go. I had a job to do. Up next was Trapeze, a fun rig featuring a trapeze, uneven monkey bars, and another trapeze. Just the kind of rig that I enjoy. I breezed through.

The stress of wanting to do well at this race had me breathing heavy, so I took a few minutes to walk and recollect myself as I headed to the rope climb. This was your standard rope climb, so I did the s-hook and worked my way up. From there, I headed over to Rig 1, which featured rings and a rope to low monkey bars to another set of four ropes, two of which had knots at the bottom. I took a brief rest on one of those knotted ropes to breath before swinging my way to the final bell.

From there I quickly came to the Floating Walls. This had been my highlight obstacle from OCRWC — super fun! I made my way through.

As I came down the cargo net on the back on the Floating Walls, I saw Urban Sky. This was the last complicated rig of the day, and it was a doozy. Urban Sky had three sections, with breaks in between. The first section was a wheel to a ring to an angled wheel to a rope. I swag my way across and stopped to shake out my arms before doing the cork-screw section. The last section was the most challenging with a trapeze to two horizontal levers that angled with the weight of your body. I kipped to make a long reach to the last trapeze and hit the bell. I had done it. Urban Sky had bested me at OCRWC but this time it was no problem. I was so pleased. I knew I was going to keep my band, the culmination of almost a year of goal setting and training. I don’t consider myself an emotional person, but I felt a bit choked up.

I raced over to Car Jacked, where I rolled my way over two wrecked cars. The last obstacle was in sight, The Knot, a slip wall with a rope. I dashed up and across the finish line. I couldn’t believe it as the announcer shouted out about how I was a racer who had kept my band and finished 100% of the obstacles. Other than Skitch, I’d gotten them all on the first try.

Athletics loves to celebrate stories of people who have hard work pay off. It’s great when that happens. That’s what happened at the 3K race at NorAm Champs for me this year. But shouldn’t we also celebrate the process? I learned a lot from the hard work that didn’t pay off at OCRWC last year. Some days you win and some days you lose. The wins are great. The loses are not, and the kind of learning it provides isn’t fun, but it can pay off. It helped me become very intentional this year with my training, something that I’ve found to be a joy throughout the process because the effort I put in feels like growth.

Tomorrow, I’ll race the 15K course at NorAm Champs. Maybe it will be my day. Maybe it won’t. But I’m excited, focused, and ready to give it my all.

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Featured Review: Ragnar Trail Vermont 2018

Ragnar Vermont 2018 medals

“We experienced some next level Noah’s Arc shit this weekend, so how is it even possible that I have a sunburn?” I posted on Facebook to the NES Ninja Trail group page the afternoon after getting home from Ragnar Trail Vermont. My teammates agreed — nothing could sum up the weekend better.

2018 was my third running Ragnar Trail with the NES Ninjas (and the team’s fourth year in existence). This year, for the first time since Ragnar Trail came to New England, the event was not at Northfield Mountain in Northfield, Massachusetts but instead at Mount Ascutney in West Windsor, Vermont.

Ragnar Trail is much like the road relay version. You put together a team of your friends — eight folks in this case (versus 12 for the road version). Over the course of around 36 hours, you’ll all take turns running. For the road relay, you do a point-to-point race, with different racers running different distances based on ability. The nice thing about Ragnar Trail is that there’s no point-to-point aspect. Instead of following your runner in a van, you’re camping out. However, each runner has to run the same distance. There are three different loops of trails that each participant must tackle — a red long loop, a yellow mid-distance loop, and a green short loop. The elevation change and degree of technical trail running tend to correspond to the color of the loop as well, with red having the most elevation and technical elements and green having the least. For Ragnar Trail Vermont, the red loop was around 1,782 feet of elevation and 7.2 miles, the yellow loop was 1,064 feet of elevation and 4.5 miles, and the green loop was 731 feet of elevation and 3.1 miles. Based on a runner’s order they ran on their team, which trail they tackled first would vary; however, everyone had to be able to run 14.8 miles, total, and tackle all that elevation. In terms of the order I would run, I was tackling red, yellow, then green. The last two years I had run yellow, green, red, making this a nice change.

Many members of the Ninjas opted to head up and camp out Thursday night because of the 8:00 a.m. start time. I chose to wake up early on Friday and make the hour and 45 minute trek. On my way in, I nearly drove past the parking lot and had to double back. Parking was a bit of an odd situation, occurring in the yard in back of a person’s house. The volunteers seemed a bit confused since I had arrived early before any word from Ragnar HQ. I soon realized that the parking was not as close to the venue as we were used to in Northfield, where I could park and easily walk my gear up the hill. Nope; not here. I was going to have to drive over to the venue, drop off my stuff, drive back to park, and then take a shuttle back to the venue again. Kind of a drag, but it worked. I dropped for my tent, sleeping bag, and bags at base camp, said a quick, “Hello,” and headed back to parking. There I paid the $10 fee, parking my car towards to the top of the hill. At that point it was after 7:00 a.m. and shuttles were running and volunteers had been briefed. This worked fine for me but didn’t work so well for my teammates that arrived super early on Friday so as to get organized before the race started. Ragnar HQ had moved everyone’s start time up and hour, in anticipation of bad weather, but the parking situation was not adjusted. This meant that members of my team were forced to trek on foot the distance from the parking lot to the venue. Not cool.

The set-up in Vermont was a fair bit different than what we were used to from Massachusetts. The main Ragnar transition and festival area was located at the top of a small hill, with the camping area arranged in what must normally be a gravel parking lot located below. The camping area was all dirt, not grass like in Northfield, and a bit more cramped than we were used to. Nevertheless, Ragnar HQ had been kind enough to give the multiple New England Spahtens teams that were at Ragnar Trail a shared area reserved just for us. Pretty good. I had been super lucky that fellow NES member, Amy had put my tent together while I was away sorting out my car. I merely had to drop my gear inside, and I was all good to go. My team had done their check-in while I was away, since I was the last to arrive. The group was fairly similar to last year, comprised of Jess, Jeff, Shaina, Josh, Roger, Bobby, Kelly, and me. Kelly was a new addition, and a welcome one — she was fantastic on our Ragnar Cape Cod team in May. Jess’s brother, Geoff, was there as our official volunteer. He was also filling in on one of Josh’s runs. Alas, Josh had gotten himself a stress fracture during a recent half marathon attempt and was on the DL. Jeff would be running Josh’s long red loop, Geoff was doing the middle length run, and Josh planned to try his shortest run on the green loop.

At around 7:45 a.m., all of us organized, the NES Ninjas made our way up to the main festival area to see off our first runner, Roger. He was running first because he had to leave early on Saturday to make a wedding. The walk up to the festival area to cheer on Roger was my first time seeing how things were arranged. It struck me immediately how much more cramped everything was compared to Northfield yet again. The tents were fairly close together, and instead of having everything in a wide circle, there was a bit of a congested section with tents on either side. Over the course of the weekend, the area ended up not being quite as congested as I had feared, but visually the area was a bit less pleasing than Northfield. Other than that, the layout was similar. There were vendor tents from brands like RxBar and Salomon. There was the main transition tent where you’d go to switch out runners. Like usual, outside the tent was a screen where you’d get information about when your runner was a quarter mile from the transition area. (The trail had a sensor mat about a quarter mile out and a chip in the bib, which is how this information was transmitted). There was also a campfire area, a place to fill water bottles, a Ragnar merch tent, and a beer tent. Unlike in Northfield, the food was not part of the main area but was instead up another smaller hill. Portable bathrooms were beyond that.

Roger entered the transition tent and the rest of the team lined up along the outgoing trail to cheer him on. The race started promptly at 8:00 a.m., and we were on our way. The weather was super humid and overcast with some light rain — more of a sprinkling at this point — so we expected Roger in from his run in a little over half an hour.

I was scheduled as runner six this year, which meant that I wasn’t slated to start running until around 12:50 p.m., if we stayed on pace. I had plenty of time to kill. I walked around the festival area a bit, and headed back to camp to organize my stuff in the tent and unpack the food I had brought to share with the team — deluxe things like Cheez-its, peanut butter M&Ms, and Twizzlers. Our team’s area was a good mix of spaces that allowed for group interaction and as-needed quiet time. Each member of our team had brought their own personal tent and Shaina had brought a large pop-up tent under which my teammates had arranged some chairs for sitting and chatting and a large table for us to store our shared food items.

I spent much of the morning hanging out and walking up to the transition tent now and again to welcome back folks after their runs. At about an hour before the time for my first run, I began to organize myself for the longest run of the weekend. I can knock out seven miles at at 9:45 pace fairly easily on the road, but on trails I was anticipating more like a 15:00 pace. That meant being on the trails for only a little under two hours. I wanted water and a snack for the journey. I changed into running tights, a tank, my good Darn Tough endurance socks, and my Altra Lone Peaks. I grabbed Nathan my hydration vest, threw some chomps in a front pocket and made sure to fill the water jugs that went on the front. (Forgive the pun but they are literally jugs that rest on your jugs if you’re a women and have this hydration vest. The aesthetic leaves something to be desired, but the Nathan vest I has solved the chaffing problems of my former hydration backpack. It’s comfortable and effective.) I had my gear, I was dressed appropriately, I’d had a light lunch. I was ready to go.

I headed up to the transition tent with my team. Right at the anticipated time, our team name flashed up on the board indicating that Jeff, who had run before me, was on pace. I went into the tent, grabbed a red wrist band to indicate I was tackling the red loop, and soon Jeff was there. We did our celebratory #teamchestbump, and I was on my way.

Immediately out on the trails I noticed a difference compared with Northfield Mountain. In Massachusetts, the trails that we had tackled where mostly designed for hiking with some mix of larger fire roads. The trails at Ascutney were all designed with mountain biking in mind. The big difference was that the hiking trails at Northfield went straight up the mountain, while the trails at Ascutney had lots of switchbacks and zigged and zagged up the mountain. This meant that I was able to keep up a decent pace along the first mile of the run, even as I was gaining elevation. Because the elevation was gradual via the switchbacks, I was able to trot along at a 13:20 pace for the first mile — pretty good considering that we really climbed the mountain. At this point, the red and yellow trails were running in tandem, making me happy to consider that this section of trail seemed “do-able” for when I would run my overnight leg.

The red trail wandered into the woods, at some point splitting from the yellow loop, and took a steep turn up at the 2.5 mile mark, slowing me down from mile two to three. The section in the woods was lovely though with runners going past a small waterfall and across bridges. The trail continued relentlessly upward with switchbacks in a way that was starting to get a bit tiring. Unlike in Northfield, the trail never seemed to reach a peak and then descent along fast fire roads. Instead, we were on single track through the woods until almost the end.

At around the five mile mark, the light rain that had been keeping me from overheating for the entirety of the run turned heavy, and I could hear the pounding on the forest canopy. Soon the trail was wet, and seriously slow, enough to slow me down a bit in the last mile in the woods. I was also tired of all the switchbacks and stress on the ankles at this point. The trails were technical, followed by technical, followed by technical, making it hard to really make up time. I was thus immensely happy when we emerged from the trees and had a section of slight downhill through a massive meadow. The rain was really coming down, but I didn’t care as I ran through the meadow at a 9:15 mile. I wanted to push and make up some time. I had posted that I would run 15:00 miles, and I was just a few seconds shy of that goal. I wanted to get my time down, and here was where I could do it. As I got wetter and wetter, I imagined how nice this section of trail would be in clear weather during an overnight run when the stars would be in evidence.

The red loop rejoined the yellow loop a little over half a mile out from the exchange. We did a few road crossings before heading back into the woods to make our way along another set of switchbacks (endless switchbacks). I skidded along on the wet ground. Where the trails joined and there was lots of traffic, things were already getting muddy. Fortunately, the end was in sight. I raced up the last hill, crossed the finish line, and made my way into the exchange tent having averaged 14:55 miles, despite adverse conditions.

There was Shaina, but, in her Dryrobe, she didn’t look ready to go out for any trail running. A volunteer handed me a card. It turned out that while I was on out on the trails experiencing all the rain, a halt had been called to the race due to lightning that was spotted in the area. We were all told to clear out of the main festival area and wait two hours at our campsites. We would start again based on when we had come in, making our team off course until around 4:45 p.m. Major bummer.

I made my way back to the Ninjas’ camp. I was soaked and hungry. Water was gushing down from up above and the camp had already become a flood. My tent was mercifully dry inside. I changed into clean clothing and left my muddy sopping wet shoes outside. At least the rain could wash the mud away. I put on flip-flops unwilling to sacrifice another pair of shoes at this point but grabbed my Dryrode so as least everything but my feet would be dry.

My team was hanging out in the pop-up tent. I snagged a chair and the box of Cheez-its and snacked while I watched my team hang an extra tarp up for additional sheltered area. The other ladies on my team also did some trenching to divert the water from the campsite. I am not sure if their Army Corp of Engineers-style labors paid off, but it certainly didn’t hurt. Everything was moist. Water cascaded off the top of the tent in sheets as we waited.

4:45 p.m. came slowly, but at least I had the best people to hang out with. We passed the time chatting and snacking, staying sort-of dry under the tent. The rain continued. At the appointed time, we headed up to the transition. The all clear had already come. It was impossible to discern the nature of the announcements that Ragnar HQ made up at the festival from down at camp and there was basically no cell service for the Ragnar text updates, so we intuited this information based on seeing folks back on the trails. Ragnar had begun by releasing the teams whose start times were delayed by the hold, and we got to hold our place in lined based on my finish time.

After seeing Shaina off on her first run of the event, the rest of the team headed up the hill a ways to get our free Friday dinner. There were a number of food trucks serving items like mac ‘n cheese, bean and avocado bowls, crepes, BBQ, and pizza. Definitely more options than at the Massachusetts event, where we were subjected to the subpar food of B.Good. I opted for a delicious black bean, quinoa, avocado bowl from Goatacado, which was so much better than what I had gotten at Ragnar Trail the past two years. We had also gotten coupons for free Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, but the ice cream truck had gotten delayed by the weather — no ice cream yet. I came back after 6:00 p.m. with Jeff to get a s’mores ice cream from the Ben & Jerry’s folks after they arrived.

With the continuing rain and heavy foot traffic, the festival area was getting to be a bit of a mess with mud everywhere. Hanging out down at camp in the tents and not in the rain seemed desirable. Plus, it was getting late, and I was tired. I had gotten up before the sun and thought I’d get some rest before my yellow loop run. Originally scheduled for a little after 10:00 p.m., with the delay, I knew I wasn’t going to be running until after midnight if we kept on pace. I headed to my tent to get some shut-eye at around 8:00 p.m. Unfortunately, the deep bass of the music playing up at the festival was super annoyingly audible down at the camp and kept me awake for a little while. Knowing that people will take the opportunity to sleep when they can at irregular hours, I wish that events like Ragnar would keep the music at a minimum or, at least, at a more discrete level. When quiet hours started around 10:00 p.m., I fell asleep.

I got up a little before midnight to change and get ready for my night run. When I emerged from my tent to the continuing rain, I also received the news that we were behind schedule. Way behind. Trail conditions had gone from bad to worse. We were consistently losing 15 to 30 minutes per runner. Bobby was out on his long red loop and Jeff still had a green to go before I ran. I was looking at a start time of a little before 2:00 a.m., though things were pretty variable at this point. Nothing to do but wait.

As I waited, news trickled in. The yellow loop had gotten so bad a section had washed out, and the trail required a re-route, removing a quarter to a half mile of loop. At this point I didn’t care. The rain continued, the conditions were abysmal. Any notion of keeping pace was out the window for me. I had to race the following weekend — my goal race for the year, the North American OCR Championships — and the new focus was on getting it done at Ragnar Trail and, most importantly, not getting hurt.

My team trekked up the mud slick that was the hill to the transition area to welcome in Bobby and see out Jeff. Time slowly ticked by. My rain coat leaked water. My feet squelched in my sopping sneakers.

The NES Ninjas were fortunate in that no one on our team got hurt during Ragnar Trail. Bobby came in safely and Jeff went out, vowing to do the green loop in just over half an hour, something which, I am aghast to report he succeeded in doing. I have no idea how. My turn was up. Time for an hour run in the woods at 2:00 a.m. in the rain through the mud. This was crazy.

I headed out along the section of trail that winded its way up the mountain. I slid like a skater on ice. All of the switchbacks were slightly angled, running perpendicular to the mountain, and I kept sliding down to the lower side of the trail. Moving at much more than a jog — sometimes moving at even a walk — was incredibly challenging. I was relieved to enter a section of woods where I could do some light running. Visibility was poor as the rain reflected in my headlamp, meaning I see the ground right in front of me and not much more. I kept the pace slow. At any moment one could hit a patch of mud and go flying or slip and fall down off the trail.

Because runners had been held, the trail was much better populated than what I was used to in Northfield, a welcome change considering conditions. With the poor visibility, I am uncertain of exactly what terrain I covered or where the re-routed section of trail was, though there was a bit of trail that seemed more leaf-covered than the rest and less heavily tracked. With about a mile to go, the yellow loop headed into the field where I had been able to speed along on the red loop. The yellow loop had a set of switchbacks through the field, which slowed thing down a bit, as did the increased mud, but I was able to make my way along at around 10:15 miles for a spell. I just wanted to get this done safely, and was happy to tick along some distance at a decent pace. I was averaging something like 17:20 miles. Considering I was going to run a bit less than anticipated distance wise, it would all even out.

I merged onto the joint red and yellow trail section that comprised the end of the loop and took a complete wipe-out into the mud. I wasn’t hurt, but I was entirely covered in wet earth. Could be worse. I made it across the finish line in just over 55 minutes, pleased to be done and uninjured. I told Shaina to take it easy; conditions were far from ideal.

We headed back to camp where I cleaned up the best I could with wipes, changed into pajamas, and got into my tent. Everything felt moist beyond belief, but the tent wasn’t leaking, and I was as dry as I was going to get. I fell asleep at around 3:45 a.m. and slept until a little after 6:00 a.m. when the sound of even louder pounding rain on my tent woke me up. Additionally, there was activity going on at the Ninjas’ campsite. I emerged from my tent to see Jeff running through the downpour to the pop-up.

Ragnar had issued a new plan. Teams were falling farther and farther behind and trail conditions were getting worse and worse. Similar to 2016 we would be doubling, even tripling (!), up to run our loops. Rodger was out on his last loop. From there, Jeff, Jess, and Kelly would all tackle the red loop. Then it would be time for the green loop crew. I had been planning to run Josh’s green loop for him, as he couldn’t participate in such adverse conditions with his stress fracture. However, I couldn’t double up with myself, so Jeff and I would be running together. Finally, Bobby and Shaina would bring us home with their last pass of the yellow loop.

Other teams took other options. Apparently, Ragnar HQ told teams that at 9:00 a.m., if they wanted, they could say, “We’re done,” pick up their medals, and leave. I can see the appeal of this. We had been suffering through the most persistent terrible weather for the last day and a half. But the NES Ninjas wanted to finish what we started. We were going to run our legs, each person covering all the distance we had set out to cover. With doubling and tripling up, were were on schedule to finish a little before 1:00 p.m., only about an hour after our originally predicted finish time. In fact, according to post-race reports, only one team managed to finish the race without any doubling or tripling up of runners.

As the Ninjas sent out Jess, Jeff, and Kelly, other teams were beginning to pack-up. With this new development came some distressing news. People were unable to get their cars out of the field where they had parked the night before. Roger had gone to get his car immediately after finishing his last run, having to get packed and to eastern Massachusetts for a wedding. An hour went by and then two, and he had not returned. Cars trickled into the camping area to pick up gear. After two and a half hours or so, Roger finally reappeared. The parking lot was a disaster. Construction equipment had been called in to lay down gravel, but it was just sinking into the mud. There were multiple tow trucks trying to drag cars out of the ground. It had slowed people getting out of the parking area to a sluggish rate. We helped pack Roger up and get him on his way. Now there was nothing to do but finish the race and hope that we could get out of the parking lot later. At least, with other teams leaving early, we’d have an easier time of it and less traffic.

Soon it was time to head up to the transition area for my last run of the race, the green loop with Jeff. He and I had a tradition of running together at Ragnar Trail after our epic run of the red loop in 2016, and I was looking forward to, if nothing else, running with Jeff again. The threesome of Jess, Jeff, and Kelly arrived on schedule. At this point the rain has mostly stopped leaving damaged trails but at least the promise of a dry run (minus my feet, spending their third run in my soaking wet shoes — I had brought multiple pairs, but it would have made zero difference if I changed because the course was incredibly wet, so I opted to not trash a second set of sneakers).

The NES Ninjas headed into the transition tent, dropping off Jess and Kelly. Jeff and I were off. We headed out at a modest run, slipping on the trail. Jeff had just run for a few hours and was going to be tackling yet another run. I was impressed at his endurance and mental focus. We chatted as we headed up the mountain. The course was absolutely demolished, necessitating a lot of walking. My feet and ankles ached from the constant uneven terrain and dragging myself through the mud. It was nice to have company for the final trudge.

The green loop meandered up the mountain opposite the red and yellow trails, more or less staying on the front of the mountain along the open slopes instead of delving too deeply into the woods. The small sections of woods were pleasant with small streams. In better conditions, I can imagine Ascutney is a nice place to spend time.

In our last half a mile or so, we headed down the mountain and looped around the camp site, almost circumnavigating the area (and — super weird — coming upon a woman allowing her toddler to defecate directly to the side of the trail with the excuse that the child “didn’t like porto-potties”). At the very end, the green loop met up with the other two trails, coming in from the opposite direction and took us up the hill to the transition where we handed off to the last group, Shaina and Bobby. I was glad to be done and couldn’t wait to change into some dry shoes.

With Shaina and Bobby slated to be out on the trail until a little before 1:00 p.m., I took the next 1.25 hours to change, pack my gear, and eat a super yummy vegetable crepe from Skinny Pancake. The rain had finally finally finally stopped, and I was going to make the most of the time I had to organize myself. Kelly and Geoff had to depart early, like Roger, leaving Jess, Jeff, and Josh with me to welcome in Shaina and Bobby. We were getting ready to head up to meet them for the finally group run across the finish line when I heard a shout from up the hill. Ack!!! Shaina and Bobby had arrived ahead of schedule. I off-roaded in my attempts to get up the hill as fast as I could to join them, with the rest of the team along with me. Together, the group of six of us ran across the finish line for the last time. We had faced the most displeasing of conditions but had persisted and organized as a team. We had done it!

I am pleased to say the next bit of this tale is a bit anti-climatic. Following our finish, the group of us were easily able to get shuttles to the parking lot where I got my car out without any difficulties. There were several tow trucks and construction equipment laying gravel when I arrived. This seems to have made things better. The field was dug up from the cars trying to get our earlier — trashed like the course — but with the decreased vehicular traffic, there was no problem getting out at around 1:30 p.m. I quickly packed my car and said my good byes to the team.

We had experienced quite the adventure over the last 30 hours, run many miles, endured miserable weather, slept a limited number of hours, and were still friends. Was Ragnar Trail Vermont the most excellent experience I wanted it to be? Certainly not. There were logistical issues, though I think Ragnar HQ tried to do their best under challenging circumstances. Regardless, the new venue seems a step down from Northfield, where I hope Ragnar Trail can return in 2019. But would I do the race again? 100% yes. And that’s entirely because of the fabulous members of the NES Ninjas. As is the case with Ragnar under all circumstances — ideal or not — , the team makes or breaks your experience. I’m lucky to have found some folks that I enjoy having around year after year. So, yes, the countdown to 2019 is on.

(Photo credits: Jeff Wohlen)

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Featured Review: Savage Race Boston 2018

NES Ninjas Savage Race finish photo

Fun! My goal for Savage Race 2018 was to have a good time and chill with my NE Spahten friends. Check and check. I already have plans to register for 2019.

Team photo at Savage Race

 

Savage Race came up to New England for the first time in 2017. I had been eager to check it out and, if you read my blog post from that race, it didn’t disappoint. Savage Race prides itself on having the best obstacles and being the perfect distance. Well, this is somewhat true. Savage has some great obstacles and does an amazing job of blending challenging obstacles that will make the pro’s work hard with obstacles that are downright just for hahas. Think crazy inclined monkey bars juxtaposed against a mammoth water slide, and you have some of an idea of the variety here. All of Savage’s courses are 5 – 7 miles in length. Both of the times I’ve run, we’ve topped out at just over seven miles, so a little on the longer end. It’s enough to be an adventure while still being attainable and not too much of a beat-down for your average athlete.

Saturday morning of Savage Race dawned cool with clouds and temperatures in the mid-60s. Not bad considering that the race venue, Carter & Stevens Farm in Barre, Massachusetts, is wide open fields. I was happy. I hopped in the car and drove the 40 minute drive to Barre. Official Savage parking was $10 with a shuttle bus to the venue. The parking + bus combo is a real “no” for me. Fortunately, Barre has tons of local parking from $5 to $20, all within walking distance to the venue. I opted for the cheapest $5 parking, which was about a quarter mile away from the farm and totally walkable. I was pumped to avoid a motion-sickness-inducing bus ride.

At Carter & Stevens, the Savage team had everything organized. I quickly checked my bib number on a sign adjacent to registration, signed my waver, and got in line to get my timing chip and bib. The wait couldn’t have been more than a minute or two. From there, it was a quick walk over to the NE Spahtens tent, right next to the finish line in the heart of the festival area.

Savage Race does the festival area right. Heavy on food options, light on the overbearing music. (Seriously, I really dislike it when the festival areas have earsplitting music. Thank you to all the races that do not do this. It’s very nice to be able to actually talk with our friends at the races and hear one another and not be overwhelmed with sound.) Savage had a merch tent, which you had to pass through to get from registration to the festival area. Sponsors, such as Rxbar, were in evidence. There were three or four food trucks, including a pizza oven. Carter & Stevens own Stone Cow Brewery was providing the post-race beers. There were changing tents, hoses, and ample portable bathroom, including a sink with water right outside.

Last year, Savage Race, was an unofficial reunion for my Ragnar Cape Cod and Ragnar Trail Team, the NES Ninjas. I was pleased when a few days before this year’s race, many members of the team indicated they’d be at the 2018 Savage Race. A trip over to the NES tent to coordinate my gear pre-race didn’t disappoint. All of the best people were there! (Almost…we were missing a couple.) I was excited to join forces with fellow Ninjas Jess (our captain!), Bobby, and Shaina, plus a couple of brave significant others.

After the elite wave went off at 9:00 a.m., the NE Spahtens team wave was next. We headed off to the start line. There, we experienced the normal OCR-style pre-race announcer fanfare before heading onto the course.

NES group at the start line getting amped up

Carter & Stevens has the benefit of being a fairly flat venue, which is something I enjoy. That being said, the terrain is pretty uneven, with areas that are not unlike Swiss cheese. Ankles beware! The course was mercifully dry this year, which made it much easier to navigate, unlike the marsh that was last year’s course. Similar to last year, my group adopted a strategy where we ran most of the flats and downhills, if the course wasn’t too uneven. (We called this “green light.”) We walked really technical sections or anything even close to being considered uphill. (We called this “red light.”) This “strategy” ensured maximum fun and allowed us to finish in around 2:41, aka. by noon / lunch time.

Many of the obstacles from last year were back for 2018. Savage Race did some permanent build at Carter & Stevens in 2017, meaning that the larger obstacles were similarly placed. It’s a huge testament to Savage that the course nonetheless felt totally fresh. The order of the other obstacles was varied and the trails were adjusted a good deal. Nothing felt stale.

Map of 2018 Savage Race Boston course

Of course, the main focus in OCR is the obstacles. Here’s a rundown of the course.

1. Low Crawl: Like it sounds, a crawl under barbed wire. Unlike some races where crawls are no longer under barbed wire, Savage retains the spiky stuff, so be careful!

2. Squeeze Play: For this obstacle, we had to squeeze our way under three sets of swiveling barrels that were set close to the grounds. Being smaller was definitely a benefit here.

3. Barn Doors: Ladder wall.

4. Backscrather: Alternating five foot walls and short crawls. I seem to recall three walls and two sets of crawls.

5. Blazed: Fire jump. The flames were not too high, so it was just a matter of being mindful and taking a good leap. Naturally, this is a premo photo op, so we paired off to make the most of it. I’m pretty sure that Jess and I will be looking down at our feet in our picture just to make sure we aren’t burning our toes.

6. Shriveled Richard: Ug! This obstacle had participants jump into a container of ice water, submerge below a divider and then edit out the other side. Over the last couple of years, I’ve feel emotionally done with obstacles like this for the time. (I skipped this obstacle last year and Arctic Enema at Tough Mudder the last two years.) Shriveled Richard was the only obstacle that I skipped.
7. Big Cargo: 20 foot A-frame cargo net climb.
NES Savage Race on cargo net
8. Slippery Incline: Your classic angled slip wall with a rope. This one was probably around 12′ high.
9. Lumberjack Lane: Log carry with a piece of lumber. This was the only carry of the race — yay! — and was a totally manageable weight, even for someone as small as me. Really kudos to Savage Race for having their obstacles be real obstacles instead of just lugging lots of heavy things around.

10. Mad Ladders: This obstacle featured a common rope ladder, followed by a rope with rungs, a cargo net, and then another set of rope with rungs and rope ladder. I recalled that last year, this was actually a bit more tricky than I thought it would be, especially with how the second rope rotated a ton. I did better this year by staying up high and not spending much time on the rope with rungs.

11. Mud N Guts: Muddy barbed wire crawl.

12. Wheel World: This obstacle was awesome! It consisted of four horizontal wheels that you had to grab and spin from one to the next. Grip strength required. This obstacle was pretty high up — a complaint of mine from last year, when I needed a boost to get onto the first wheel. I managed to climb up the scaffolding to get onto the wheel this time. Last year, a lot of people slipped back into the water on the dismount, so this this time they had added a rope. This was great, and I was able to make it the entire way through. Also, no back-ups at this obstacle this year (compared to a 10 minute wait last year) — well done, Savage Race, for making this adjustment.

13. Davy Jones’ Locker: 15 foot jump from a platform into the water below. I’m not afraid of heights, so this proved no problem, but I definitely can see how this might give people pause. I will say, that if I were to hover looking over the edge it would be harder. I climbed up and went for it — fun times.

14. Great Wall: Eight foot large wall. I was able to grab the slide and use it to stabilize and jump for the top, where I could pull myself over.

15. Twirly Bird: Twirly Bird was the only obstacle I failed at my first Savage Race, and it bested me again this year. It was a rig where you have to “swing from your standard ring grips to a mop-like cluster of rope strands without touching the ground.” The rope strands were extremely hard to manage. I tried twice before realizing that I’d need some coaching around technique to get this.

16. Big Cheese: A neat twist on a common theme. This is not your standard wall. Instead, it’s a quarter circle with little cheese-sized wedges cut out for you to climb.

17. Me So Thorny: Another crawl. This one had enforced lanes with barbed wire on both the top and the sides! The volunteer at this obstacle was hilarious and made my day. He kept saying, “Eight obstacles to go. Unless you just arrived — then it’s nine. Or 8.5 if you’re in the middle of this one.” Hehe.

18. Battering Ram: This obstacle was new this year, and to be honest, I’m a bit “meh” about it. The obstacle featured a hand grip hanging around a pole. You have to kip to move the grip along and then transition to a second grip where you do the same thing over again. Below is an image from Savage to illustrate. I found it hard to get the ram to move at all but perhaps more time would have perfected my technique. As it was, I got about a quarter of the way across before abandoning ship. I tried again, and found the one on the new lane pretty jammed. I’ll try again next year.

19. Block Party: Pull a cinder block on a rope up a short incline and then carry it down again. Bonus: Half of the cinder block was filled with concrete. The block was heavy without being impossible, and I was able to move it without too much difficulty.

20. Savage Rig: This rig was awesome! I love a good rig, and the Savage Rig was an especially good one. The rig started with a couple of rings, a rope, and a low ring to step in. You then transitioned over a horizontal bar. From there, next up was another rope, followed by a ring. I opted to grab the rope from my seat on top of the horizontal bar and swing for all I was worth, smashing the bell. Nailed it!

NES member Aaron on the Savage Rig

21. Colossus: This two part obstacle starts with a 16 foot quarter pipe. You then have to climb a ladder before descending from the 24 foot structure via an almost vertical water slide. This entire obstacle is kind of insane! I loved the quarter pipe (which has ropes at the top, so it was no problem to pull myself up). I don’t adore slides, but I manage. Kudos to my teammates Jess and, especially, Shaina who are afraid of the slides but both did awesome. The slide was well constructed and so fast that I hardly remember going down it. I recall sitting at the top and then smashing into the water. Crazy.NES member Sandy on the slide

22. Holy Sheet: This is another new obstacle for Savage. Here, you are hanging from a sheet that you move along using only your hands, before transitioning to a set of small ball grips to swing to the end. Yikes. This was a tough one. I made it along the sheet and went to transition to the small ball and completely missed and ended up hanging just from a danging piece of sheet. Not good. Nothing to do but call this on a miss.

23. Nuttsmasher: This obstacle is a set of kind of wobbly balance beams over water. We legit saw a racer almost seriously smash his nuts when his foot slipped near the end. (For those who are worried; he was okay — he hit his knee.) Yeesh.

24. Sawtooth: Monkey bars with a twist! Sawtooth is one of Savage Race’s signature obstacles and one I loved last year and was excited to do again. The 35 foot span starts with uphill monkey bars and transition to a “tooth” where you have to kip up to a higher bar. From there you transition to downhill monkey bars. This obstacle, according to Savage Race, has a 40% completion rate. I enjoyed completing it on my first try again this year. (Bonus: The bars started down low enough that I could reach on my own!)

25. Pedal for the Medal: I am going to give this sponsor-themed obstacle a bit of a meh, definitely a meh considering it was the final obstacle. Racers had to lay on their backs and pedal their feet on a giant wheel to pull in a tire. It was interminable and a bit of a let down for the final obstacle considering the other epic offerings!

We crossed the finish line, clocking in just over seven miles and 25 obstacles in around 2:41. What a fun event!

NES Ninjas Savage Race finish photo

I availed myself of a free post-race beer from Stone Cow and some Mediterranean food from a truck. (Though I totally missed the Baby Berk food truck from last year with their tatter tot poutine!)

Once again, Savage Race will go down as one of my favorite events of the year. Why? Because it’s so darn enjoyable! Good friends, engaging obstacles, a challenging but do-able distance. What’s not to like. See you back there next July.

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Featured Review: Shale Hell 2018

Shale Hell 24 medals

Shale Hill just put on their last summer race, Shale Hell. The weekend of July 7 – 8, up in Benson, Vermont, I took place in the final summer event of the soon-to-be-closing Shale Hill. With one final race, Polar Bear 2019, the fixed obstacle course venue, which has been offering training and races for over six years, will close shop.

I have been going to Shale Hill for training and racing since the summer of 2014. It would not be a stretch to say it’s my favorite place to go for racing, training, and a weekend away. I, in fact, would say that I find Shale Hill to be a meaningful place personally. In my 29th year, I had some significant challenges in my personal and professional life. Going up to Shale Hill to get away and devote myself completely to a physical task, was mindful and a good way to positively deal with the difficulties I was facing. When things got stressful, it was helpful to go to Vermont, spend a weekend camping out in the quiet, run a lap or two of the 6.5 mile obstacle course, and breath the clean air. Memories can be inaccurate, but my clearest memory of feeling peaceful is one of sitting on top of an obstacle in the woods at Shale Hill in the early morning. From what I have read online, I think that Shale Hill meant a lot of things to a lot of people. Personally, it’s been a place where I feel a sense of community, can relax and enjoy my own company, where I experience wonderful physical challenge — I love that the course is always changing so that I can never master it –, and it’s where I have the most fun.

Summer is my preferred season for racing, so I knew going into it that my 24 hour adventure during Shale Hell would be my predominant final memory of racing at Shale Hill. (Note: I will be at Polar Bear 2019 as the media rep for the NE Spahtens, which sounds super fancy. After that event, I will write my final “love letter” to Shale Hill.) I was excited to have a wonderful weekend at Shale Hell. Nice weather was promised, along with good friends, and a fun time. Because, what is better than doing as many laps in 24 hours as you want of the 6.5 mile Shale Hill obstacle course? For those wanting a different experience, there were 8 hour and one 10K-lap divisions. Between all three, the race weekend attracted around 80 participants.

Camping was included in the registration for the 24 hour version of Shale Hell, so I headed up to Benson Friday evening to camp out. I hate to drive. A lot. Anyone who knows me knows this. I basically ride my bike as much as possible. The car is a second-class citizen in my house. Shale Hill is a 2:40 drive from my house, and I go up there multiple times a year. It is the farthest I will go for a race. One time I drove to New Jersey for a race. The race was amazing. The ride was so bad I said I would never drive to New Jersey again. I have never driven to New Jersey again, and it’s been years. I say this because for people who say that Shale Hill is too far away; I feel you. But also, I don’t because if I am willing to do the drive, I feel like most people can.

Shale Hill is a great community. I arrived at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, parked for free onsite, and hauled my stuff the short walk up the hill to the camping area. I dropped my gear and headed for check-in where Jill greeted me by name and handed me my t-shirt and a red ribbon to indicate I was competing in the open division. Shale Hill offers open/competitive racing and a journeyman division for those who want to do the course penalty-free and craft their own race experience. With over 55 ultra-challenging obstacles, the journeyman division is a good option for a lot of folks, and one I often avail myself of; this year, I wanted to challenge myself to have fairly decent obstacle completion, so I opted for open. Only three women were registered to run the 24 hour in the competitive division, meaning I was guaranteed to place.

After checking in, I wandered outside to where Rob was giving the pre-race meeting. He’d give the official meeting on Saturday morning before the main event, but this informal gathering seemed fun, so I grouped up. Rob stopped to say, “Hi, Nicole,” which highlights one of the amazing things about Shale Hill. They know you. They treat you like family. The community that Jill and Rob have created at Shale Hill is hard to explain if you have not been and cannot be overstated. What they give to the obstacle course racing community is legion and when it’s gone, something will be lost. I am glad I was fortunate to experience it. I listened to Rob talk about the obstacles, different race divisions, and penalties. It was starting to get cool, so I grabbed my sweatshirt and figured it was time to set up camp. I assembled my tent and then hung out with folks by the bonfire for a while chatting before calling it a night. I wanted to get some good rest before the long day coming up.

Saturday morning I got up late, at around 6:45 a.m., having gotten a solid 8.5 hours of sleep. Camp was bustling. I said, “Hello,” to a few NE Spahten friends, and we headed down to the Benson Country Store for our pre-race traditional meal of breakfast sandwiches and coffee. We got back to Shale Hill in time for the 8:00 a.m. racers meeting and for those taking part in the 8 hour and 10K divisions to have their 9:00 a.m. race-start. The 24 hour event didn’t start until 10:00 a.m., so I had plenty of time to coordinate my gear and change into race clothing. I might argue that, in fact, I had too much time. I would have been happy to have my race start at 8:00 a.m. to get some time in before the heat of the day.

NE Spahtens team photo at Shale Hell

Unique to the 24 hour format is a rule that says racers can run the first hour obstacle free. This prevents back-ups and allows newbies to get an idea of the course. A loop at Shale Hill is 6.5 miles with 55+ obstacles. (Note: The 55-count groups obstacles together. There are multiple part obstacles like the traverse wall or the balance section where you have multiple obstacles in one. If you look at individual obstacles, your are clocking in more like 75.) The terrain in the woods is somewhat technical with some definite elevation changes. I cannot run the full course in an hour, though some more seasoned and speedy trail racers might be able to. Furthermore, I was uninterested in pushing too much. Last year, at the 24 hour event, I ran journeyman and covered four laps; however, the second half of the last lap I was too tired to do much with the obstacles. I wanted to focus my efforts on quality obstacle completion this year and having fun at the last summer Shale Hill event. My coaches put me down for five laps, but personally, I had stated that four high-quality laps was more likely for me, and more in-line with my “have fun” goal. We would see how things went and go from there.

At 10:00 a.m., I was dressed and at the starting line. Since it would be a fast lap, I skipped taking my hydration pack — I’d take advantage of the five water stations on course, since running with the hydration backpack is a hassle. Rob redid many sections of the Shale Hill course for Polar Bear in February, and I liked the new layout (minus having to do the Zig Zag and Tarzan Ropes reversed, which I don’t enjoy). I was excited to tackle it again. At exactly 10:04 a.m., we were off and running. Let the 24 hour adventure begin!

Starting Shale Hell race

During the hour we had to run the course obstacle free, I focused on cruising along at around a five on the “rate of perceived exertion” scale. I wanted to cover some ground and get pass the hardest obstacles without getting gassed. When the airhorn went off to signal the end of the hour, I was almost done running along the log carry loop, listed as obstacle 46 on the map, with about nine obstacles left to go. Not bad. I should mention for those who have never been to Shale Hill, I am not going to spend much time on this post going through the obstacles in detail — for that information, visit my blog post from the NE Spahtens Shale Hill weekend, where I list every obstacle in detail, and how you complete it!

Map of Shale Hill course

I ran over to the Loom where I started doing obstacles for the first lap. I made my way along at a fair speed, running lightly between obstacles and completing them well. There are large sections of Shale Hill’s course that are in open fields and the sun was already baking down. The temperatures would climb to right about 80 degrees, which doesn’t sound terrible but definitely takes it out of you if you’re in the sun baking hour after hour and working hard.

After about 45 minutes, I made it through the last obstacle on the map, the Anaconda. Naturally, Rob being Rob, that wasn’t it. We had to tackle one last rig with a set of rings. I had mentioned to Rob my frustration at OCR World Championships when I couldn’t reach a few obstacle — the challenge should be completing the obstacle, not getting on it — and he had promised to put the rings at a level I could reach. He was true to his word, and I was able to get on the extremely lengthy set of rings. I made my way along until the last ring, which was super high up. I lost momentum and couldn’t make it. Determined to have a penalty-free first lap, I tried the rings two more times until I made it up to that last ring. 100% obstacle completion for lap 1! I ran up to the top of the hill and the finish line, where I rang the bell to signal the end of my lap and went up to the board to record my time.

Shale Hell board

It was just before noon, and I hadn’t eaten since breakfast at around 7:30 a.m., so I headed back to my tent to grab some food and change my clothing. I had a nutbutter sandwich and grabbed my hydration pack. Within about half an hour, I was back out on course for my second lap.

Early on in my second lap, I knew I was in a bit of trouble. I was extremely hot and everything felt challenging. You have moments as an athlete when you have to say, “Today is not my day.” During the first half of that second lap that was me. I had gone out feeling competitive. I had chanced to look at the board and started thinking about the other athletes up there — the two women in my division. For a little while, rounding the first double log loop, feeling crappy, I started to think about how I was falling behind. I forgot about my goals — have fun, do well on the obstacles — and started thinking about other folks. This was a mistake. In addition to feeling tired and weak, I was not mentally focused. I was hot and tired, and this was only hour three of 24.

I dragged myself along for several miles. I did well on some obstacles, failed a couple, and took some penalties. I was hot and a bit woozy, walking between obstacles instead of running. A small turning point came mid-way through the course. I had entered a section in the woods, which cooled me down and made me feel a little better. I also nailed the five traverse walls (plus two balance beams and two hanging beams) of the Great Wall Traverse, a very challenging obstacle with a low success rate. This reminded me of why I was at Shale Hell — not to compete with others but to compete with myself, to do my best, to appreciate a place I loved.

I finished my second lap at 4:17 p.m. It had taken me just under four hours, and I was wrecked. I had spent hours under the hot sun and was so tired I felt like I couldn’t take a step more, much less do additional laps of the course. Nonetheless, my penalty count wasn’t bad, with just nine failures. These included the Zig Zag and the Tarzan Rope (which I should add I couldn’t do backward but did complete forward before doing the penalty). It also included the Downhill Monkey Bars, Flip Flop, and Rotisserie — a set of back-to-back obstacles I have never been able to do. I didn’t make Bad Attitude, which is Shale Hill’s version of the Stairway to Heaven or Devil’s Steps. I have had no trouble on this obstacle at other races, but the spacing between the steps at Shale is too large for me. I skipped the Parallel Bars, which bothers a shoulder injury I got at OCRWC. The final penalties were on the tire swings on The Rack and the final rings, which I didn’t want to attempt multiple times to get that last ring again. These nine obstacle would be ones that I would fail in future laps and are some I traditionally don’t have the strength, training, or body for at Shale Hill. I did great on some other challenging obstacles like the Pond Traverse on the rope, the spinning Flat Monkey Bars, the 19′ Rope Climb, Great Wall Traverse, Balance Alley, the pole on the Fireman’s Tower, Russian Table, and the Loom.

I needed to cool down and regroup. I dragged myself over to the hose where I ran some water over my head and wetted a cooling towel. I ate some food and went to the barn to hang out in the relatively comfortable temperatures with the cooling towel over my head. I relaxed and chatted with the medic, Sandy, about his time as a double in the first Star Wars movie (where he filled in as Luke!); I began to feel better.

Following an 1:45 rest, I decided, I was ready to try again. It was 6:02 p.m., and the sun was getting lower in the sky as I headed out for lap three. I looked forward to finishing in the dark without the sun beating down on me.

Lap three was much more enjoyable than lap two. I felt better and was able to run between obstacles much of the time. Sure I was tired from the almost six hours of exercise I had done already, but I was moving. The one bummer was that I had gotten two blisters on my feet. This is a very uncommon occurrence — I almost never get blisters. I had worn my Altra Lone Peaks on lap one and done fine but switched to my Icebug Zeals for lap two. With their carbide tips, Icebugs are great for OCR. Unfortunately, mine are super old and really need to be replaced; plus, my feet have gotten a bit bigger in the last couple of years, and the old Icebugs are no longer the greatest fit width-wise. As a concession to comfort, I wore my Altras for the rest of the race and had no issue with my feet, though I had to be slightly careful about slippery obstacles, especially once there was dew on the ground.

There was a small “wardrobe malfunction” on lap three as well. I had changed back into the NES Ninjas tank I was wearing on lap one for lap three (after having let it dry in the sun). While doing the Pond Traverse on top of the rope, I ran into a snag when the logo on the tank, hot from the sun, basically melted along the rope. I could barely move and, thus, failed the obstacle and ruined my shirt. #ocrprobs

I finished lap three at 9:22 p.m., in 3:20 — almost 40 minutes faster than the previous lap. I had 12 penalties, including the nine from before, plus the Pond Traverse, the Flat Monkey Bars, and the post hop part of Balance Alley. I was tired and needed rest. I had enjoyed lap three but needed some sleep. I also had about zero interest in doing an overnight lap. The idea of tackling challenging trail at the middle on the night on such tired legs seemed undesirable. I was here to have fun and challenge myself and complete obstacles. At this point I opted to go to bed, knowing that meant I would likely not get in five laps total. The plan was to do what I did last year and wake up early for a fourth lap. Maybe, knowing this was the last year, I should have pushed myself to try something new and do an overnight lap. In a way I kind of regret that I didn’t. However, I also stand by my decision because when I got up at 4:30 a.m. to take on that last lap, I was ready.

It was lap four that had done me in in 2017. Midway through, my hands had been toast and I had taken the journeyman’s option and finished by basically running past a lot of obstacles. I was not going to do that again. I was going to finish lap four in 2018 as strong as I started it. Plus, I had penalties, in the form of spiderman push-ups, to keep me focused.

At 4:49 a.m., with first light peaking above the mountains in the distance and fog rising up from the fields of hay and wild flowers, I made my way out for the last lap of the course. It’s a certain kind of magic to be up and moving through the chill of the morning air, eyes fixed on the beauty of nature, and mind focused on one goal. I made sure to take time at the top of each obstacle to quickly enjoy the view. This was it.

The entire last lap was a fantastic experience. My body and my mind were focused. I did well on the obstacles only failing 13 (add on the Great Wall and the Loom from last time, but take out the Pond Traverse). My hard training with the coaches paid off in performance gains I could see. I finished strong enough to question if maybe I could have done an additional lap earlier and really tested myself because, as athletes, are we ever convinced its been enough? I was also satisfied. I had covered 26 miles, done several hundred obstacles, and had quality obstacle completion. I had raced with focus, integrity, hard work, and joy. I would like to think there is no better tribute to Shale Hill than that.

I ended up placing third in my age group. The other two women had done more. I have no idea about their penalties; I applaud their efforts and hope they are excited about reaching their goals. I wish that there was another year of Shale Hell to look forward to. I wish that we had more time. After a great 2018 race, I have new goals I want to strive for next year. New experiences to try. Then again, when will that not be the way? Jill and Rob, thank you for the wonderful race, the years of memories, the amazing community that you created, and the outstanding course that you built that has always challenged me in the best way possible. There is no more fitting tribute I can think of than the experience I had at the 2018 Shale Hell race.

With Rob and Jill getting my medal

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Featured Review: Tough Mudder Boston 2018

Tough Mudder logo

On Sunday, June 26, I took part in my fifth Tough Mudder. After four years of racing at Mount Snow in Dover, Vermont, the Tough Mudder crew moved this year’s New England event to Charlton, Massachusetts and renamed it Tough Mudder Boston.

In addition to a new venue, the course took on a new format. In the past, Tough Mudder has focused their efforts on a 10 mile-course format. Recently, they have diversified their offerings and now offer a 5K version and  a 5 mile Tough Mudder Half option, in addition to the 10 mile Tough Mudder Full. Furthermore, there is Tougher Mudder, a 10 mile timed option, and Toughest Mudder, an 8 hour overnight race where racers do as many laps of the course as they can. To be honest this is a bit much to keep track of. As a person who’s been doing Tough Mudders since 2013, I have a bit of nostalgia for the old days. And I have more than a little curiosity about how all these new distances are working for Tough Mudder and what will stay around. I raced the Tough Mudder Full, and definitely felt like there was an impact on my experience due to the new format. More on that later.

My best friend, Serah, and I arrived at 508 International in Charlton, Massachusetts at around 9:30 a.m. for my 10:30 a.m. Tough Mudder wave. Rule of thumb is that your arrive an hour early. Parking was onsite and walking distance, which convenient. It was a bit disorganized. Honestly, if I hadn’t pre-paid for parking online, I doubt the volunteers would have realized they needed to charge us.

We parked and headed over to the entrance. There was quite a long line because the gates were not open yet, even though Tough Mudder had requested people come an hour before their wave time. I think the original plan might have been to open the gates at 10:00 a.m., but the line started moving at around 9:50 a.m. We moved fairly efficiently, but it wasn’t until after 10:00 a.m. that Serah and I got inside. By the time I used the bathroom and coordinated myself to head over to bag check, there wasn’t time to check my bag before our wave started — the line was just too long. I was lucky to have Serah to help out, but this would have been a big problem if I was running solo and could have been avoided by having registration open at 9:30 a.m.

I headed into the starting area and lined up with my fellow NE Spahtens. I had an interesting focus going into Tough Mudder this year. In recent years, I had taken on this race as a fun event where I hung out with friends, we had a fun day on the course, and I wasn’t too worried about pushing myself. This year, I wanted Tough Mudder to be an early test of my fitness. It was my first obstacle course race of the season (since I don’t seriously race in the winter). I have been training hard with “the coaches” (aka. Hart Strength and Endurance) for months, and I wanted to test my fitness at a low-stakes race. I was curious to see if there were improvements in my grip on upper-body-intensive obstacles and how my endurance would be running the entire course. With that in mind, I hit it hard out of the gate at the sound of the starting signal.

The full Tough Mudder course was (re)designed for 2018 to be two laps of a 5 mile course. The second lap mostly followed the first with some side trails to pick-up new obstacles. This meant more obstacles, but it also meant repetition, which I wasn’t too keen on. We had to do 26 obstacles total. Of those 26, several were repeats, so there were 19 unique obstacles.

More critically, the double laps meant back-ups. Because I ran hard from the starting line, I was able to clear my first lap at Tough Mudder in about 1:18, ahead of much of the pack. No back-ups. Unfortunately, my second lap ran into a snag from the start. At the first obstacle, I encountered much of the 11:30 a.m. wave, which had just started. There were just too many people on the course. This meant that I had to zig and zag to get around folks on the second lap quite a bit. Having the 5K, Half, and Full courses overlap led to way more people on the course and more back-ups. People handle Tough Mudder differently — some people walk, some people run. Having lots of people on the course and having new athletes attracted to the course with the new distanced offered translated to more people walking. Totally great because I love seeing more people at obstacle course races. The challenge was wanting to run and having to navigate around lots of people who were wanting to walk. It ended up being stressful for both me and them and translated to a less fun time.

The double lap course was also not constructive to spectating, as Serah and I unfortunately found out. One of the great things about Tough Mudder in the past is that Serah has been able to have great spectating opportunities. This year’s course was less well organized for that effort. We lost track of each other after the first three obstacles and weren’t able to reconnect until the end, which was sad for us. Having a spectator there is super fun — every time I saw Serah at the beginning I was pumped — and it would have been great if we could have seen each other more.
Feelings about the course layout aside, I was pleased with the obstacles at the Boston 2018 event. There were some great upper-body-intensive obstacles that really challenged me. The new obstacle at the finish line, Happy Ending, was a fun update. Electroshock Therapy, the common obstacle where you run through electric wires at the finish, was moved to mid-course. I went around it. You’ve been shocked once or twice and it’s enough, as far as I’m concerned. I am more interested in challenging my fitness instead of doing unpleasant things to my body at this point. I have done it; I have “proven” myself; I didn’t like it. No need to repeat year over year. (Note: Same for Arctic Enema, where you have to jump into ice water.)
Below are some of the highlights and new obstacles from this year’s event. In between these obstacles were some classics, such as Arctic Enema, Berlin Walls, and Devil’s Beard, plus lots and lots of mud pits and crawls, such as Kiss of Mud 2.0 and Mud Mile 2.0.
  • Pork Soda: This was a new obstacle that had racers crawl up a short mound of mud and then slide into a watery pit.
  • Block Ness Monster: The Block Ness Monster features rotating blocks in the water. You have to “push, pull, and roll [your] way through 60ft of slick, rotating barriers” in the water. It’s super fun to grab the top of the block and have people on the opposite side pull it over, dropping you into the water on the other side.
  • Just the Tip: This was an obstacle “from the vault” (though it seemed slightly altered from the past). Racers had to grab a small 2″ thin bar and move across with only fingers to a set of short poles and knobs. There was then another area of 2″ thin bars to make your way across. I tried this with just my finger tips, moving laterally. However, a volunteer recommended trying with hands on both sides. This worked much better. I am including an image from the internet to give you an idea.
  • Rope-a-Dope: This was another “vault obstacle” and a bit of an odd one. It featured a rope fixed in the middle of a pool of water. The goal was to jump, catch the rope mid-air, and then use the momentum to move the fixed rope ever-so-slightly and get to the other side. Needless to say, this was a failure. I jumped, my hands glanced off the rope, and I belly flopped and swam to the other side.
  • Kong Infinity: This obstacle was a huge challenge. It featured a set of rings hanging from a cylinder. One had to kip to grab the rings up and in front of you to move the cylinder and proceed to the monkey bars. This obstacle was epic, and I was really pleased to complete it successfully. (Okay, okay. I was really motivated because when I arrived I was with this group of men who all made it, and I wanted to prove that I was cool too.) Again, hopefully this picture from the internet helps illustrate what I’m talking about.
  • Funky Monkey — The Revolution: This obstacle was directly after Kong. Two upper-body obstacles back-to-back was a lot of deal with, but, hey, again, I wanted to be at least as good as the men I arrived at the obstacle with. (Competitive? Me?) The updated Funky Monkey features the classic uphill monkey bars with transitions to three spinning wheels and then a pipe. At the Boston event, the first wheel was perpendicular to the bar and the next two were parallel (like in the stock image provided). My arms were tired from the previous obstacle, so I took a minute to collect myself before making it across. Nailed it!
  • The Stacks: What a fun obstacle. The Stacks featured a set of cargo containers stacked up and up and up. Mudders had to climb wooden ladders on the sides of the containers and then walk across. We descended using a cargo net.
  • Happy Ending: A new finish line obstacle. It was nice to mix it up here. Racers had to jump into a pit of green water, climb up a slip wall (which was not too troublesome if you did it in a pike position with your shoes having full contact with the wall), and side down into a pit of water on the other side. My feet went over my head on the side down.

I crossed the finish in 2:57, with a course distance of just over 11 miles. Tough Mudder Boston was a good time. I raced hard, and I did well. It was a good test of my fitness, and there were some fun obstacles. The new format is a big downer to me. Tough Mudder’s signature ~10 mile distance almost seemed like an afterthought. Maybe their data bears out that growth is at the other distances, but as a Mudder of many years, I was a bit disappointed. The double lap was less fun and logistically complicated with back-ups.

I think that Tough Mudder is in a bit of a transition period. They’re trying new stuff to see what sticks. Good idea. I am interested to see where they are in 2019. I have no doubt I’ll run a Tough Mudder again. If that’s in a year or two remains to be seen. I might want to wait to see what the course format will be like next year before committing. Tough Mudder has a good brand. I hope they get some focus back on their traditional distance and bring back the excellent spectator experience of year’s past. If so, you’ll see me and Serah there.

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Featured Review: Ragnar Relay, Cape Cod 2018

For the fifth consecutive year, I had the privilege of running Ragnar Cape Cod with the New England Spahten 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 Provincetown, Massachusetts. The team of twelve 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 2018 was a great group. In van one, #teambreakfast, we had (in runner order): Bobby, me, Pete, Wes, Shaina, and Kelly. In van two, #teamdinner, there was Sean, Geoff, Paul, Josh, Jess, and Aaron. My three legs were 5 miles, 3.6 miles, and 4.5 miles, making me one of the runners going a shorter amount of distance. Our captain, Jess, is great about assigning us our legs, and with most of the people on the team interested and able to do long distances, this year I was assigned some shorter ones. (Note: Last year, I had some high mileage and one of the longest legs to run.) Both running long and running short are fun – in truth the real “test” of Ragnar is mental and not 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 Provincetown.

The NES Ninjas Ragnar experience began at 3:00 a.m. on Friday when we pulled ourselves out of bed in the hotel where the six of us stayed for the night before the race and dragged ourselves to the start line for a 4:00 a.m. check-in, an hour before our 5:00 a.m. start. We pulled into Nantaset Beach in Hull almost beating the Ragnar crew. Things were not set-up, and the safety video was experiencing technical difficulties. We, in fact, ended up having to go over and get our bibs and other registration items before the video got organized. Though we were an hour early, Bobby ended up running to the start line just as the announcer was sending folks out because of the lack of coordination of the Ragnar team for check-in. If racers are coming to check-in for 4:00 a.m., I would hope everything can be in place in time. Ragnar being a bit behind in getting exchanges set-up was a bit of a theme for the weekend and something that ought to be rectified for next year.

Regardless, we weren’t going to let Ragnar’s lack-of-organization spoil our fun. Bobby did a great job getting out in time. The rest of our van took a few quick pictures in Hull, as the sun came over the horizon. We grabbed the first of many coffees at Dunkin’ Donuts and headed on our way to meet Bobby at the first exchange.

I was up next for a 5:45 a.m. five miler through Hingham. Bobby arrived a couple of minutes ahead of schedule, we did our traditional team chest bump, passed off the slap-bracelet that served as a baton, and I was off. The weather was great for running. The sun was just up and temperatures were mild, in the 50s. I started by running through some nice neighborhoods. I cruised along at a comfortable 9:45/mile pace, feeling good and doing some “house hunting.” With a couple of miles to go, the course sent me down a dead-end road which led into Wompatuck State Park. I ran along an access road through the woods. It was a beautiful run, and I enjoyed myself entirely. The leg terminated with a final short hill. I rounded one last corner and came into the exchange where I passed off to Pete for his “Wicked Hard” leg, an 11 miler. I had felt good about my run. I enjoyed myself, saw some sights, and easily maintained my pace. I had put myself down for 10:00 miles, knowing that would give me some flexibility. Ragnar, for many of us, is not a race. It’s an experience, and I wanted to run well – reliably – for my team while also having a blast.

For the rest of the morning, we jumped from exchange to exchange dropping off runners and picking them up. In a great show of success, we managed to make each exchange perfectly without having anyone waiting. Getting lost (vans and runners) and missing exchanges totally happens in Ragnar, and it’s good to be prepared for things to not go perfectly, but who can complain about success.

Our last runner of the morning, Kelly, headed off for a four miler, and the van headed to the first major exchange at Duxbury Beach, where we’d trade off to van two. The weather was amazing. It was sunny and around 60 degrees. Our team had started in the first wave of the day, even though we had a solid team of runners. We had to keep an eye on the clock to make sure that we didn’t reach the exchanges too early and risk being held back. Fortunately, we were just after the cut-off time for Duxbury when Kelly ran in. We cheered her on with our van two mates. It was great to get some time with van two. The one sad part of Ragnar is that even though you’re part of a team of 12, you basically only even see the six folks in your van. Major exchanges are always festive because you get to group up and say, “Hello,” to everyone.

From Duxbury we headed off for breakfast. It is a van one tradition from the first year of Ragnar to head over to The Blueberry Muffin for giant pancakes while van two runs, especially because van one has about five hours off. This year, as always, breakfast did not disappoint. We had been up since 3:00 a.m. and all done some running; we were hungry.


In past years, after breakfast, we would head over to the next major exchange in Sandwich. However, this year, there was a gap in the relay. I heard a number of reasons proposed for this. People said it was because of construction or an alternate event taking place in the area. Another theory was that the towns in this area had opted not to participate due to an incident last year where a female runner was assaulted by a man in the area. (Note: As I understand it, the female runner was not physically harmed and was able to complete the race. Ragnar implemented an optional buddy system for 2017 in response.)

The gap in the course map in Sandwich meant that the teams would be doing a virtual exchange. When van two arrived at their exchange in Carver, Ragnar HQ would radio to exchange 13 where our runner would be waiting and then Bobby would head off.  To add an additional complication, the areas where the exchange was to take place was different from where we were designated to wait, plus, the exchange wouldn’t open until 4:00 p.m., which was also the end of the hold time, and when we expected our exchange to happen.

A well-fed #teambreakfast, headed over to the Pop Warner field in Sandwich for a few hours of napping and relaxation. Mostly we napped, read, and generally chatted and hung out, enjoying the sun. At around quarter to four, we hopped in the van to head a mile and a half down the road to the virtual exchange point, at a nearby school. When we arrived at 3:50 p.m., the volunteer turned us away stating that the exchange hadn’t opened yet, despite the fact that runners should have been allowed out at 4:00 p.m. and we were expecting Aaron in around that time. This meant we had to drive around for 10 minutes, since the Pop Warner field rest area was filled with vans that were taking their break.

We arrived back at exchange 13 at 4:00 p.m. and were allowed to park. It was clear, once again, that Ragnar HQ was not organized here. Our runner had arrived, and we should have been allowed to have Bobby head out, but the exchange was not set-up, and we ended up having to wait while volunteers organized. Finally, at around 4:20 p.m., 20 minutes after runners should have been able to go out and after our runner had arrived, people were allowed to begin running. The runners were oddly sent out in waves seemly at random, but at least we were up and moving again. The virtual exchange was somewhat disorganized and having it meant that we missed an opportunity to bond with our van two teammates, so I am hopeful that we will be back to the old arrangement for 2019.

My next run, a quick 3.6 miler, was fast approaching for around 4:50 p.m. With Bobby out on the course, the van headed to Mashpee where I would start. Again, the weather was nice. It was sunny and in the 60s. When Bobby came in I headed out at a 9:35/mile pace down the main road that made up a lot of the course to the next exchange.

While my second run wasn’t very scenic, it was festive. Since I was going down a main route there was lots of traffic and a bunch of people waved and cheered. I think it was because I was wearing my extra festive NES running tights, an item of clothing so highly decorated that my boyfriend, Ben, refers to them fondly as “dazzle camouflage.”

Half way through the run, I turned off the main road. The next bit of course was a bit lacking in markers, and when the final turn came for the run up to the exchange, I would have missed it were it not for a fellow runner coming out of the exchange who directed me correctly. In a few other instanced members of my team mentioned that clearer course markings would have helped. Particularly confusing where instances where Ragnar wanted the runner to cross the street but instead of having a crossing sign and then an additional directional sign (i.e. straight), there were signs that said right and then left and the like. Fortunately, I made it into the exchange without incident and Pete headed off. Van one finished up this set of legs fairly quickly, since the only longer run was Shaina’s 6.5 miler. We were afforded some time on Craigsville Beach while we waited for her. I allowed the Atlantic to kiss my toes. It was frigid. I hastened back to my socks and shoes and curled into my Dryrobe and, in that manner, enjoyed the beach.

Kelly had the last leg, into Barnstable High School in Hyannis, and was scheduled to arrive around 8:45 p.m. She ended up being in a little later than anticipated since she was misdirected by a well-meaning but incorrect crew in another van. They had told her she was going the wrong way when she was in fact going the correct way.  They then brought her back a ways and mistakenly pointed her in the wrong direction. They soon realized their mistake and came back to pick her up and put her on the right path again. To Kelly’s extreme credit, she took this with a great deal of equanimity and was totally chill about it. She had them drop her back off and finished her leg only a few minutes past the time she was expected to arrive. Kudos.

Our van was off until 1:30 a.m. so we quickly headed off to exchange 24, Harwich Community Center where, it was promised, there would be showers. One advantage of running really far ahead…I was the very first person in the locker room and had the entire place to myself to shower. It was amazing to wash away a day’s worth of sweat, sunscreen, and dirt. I felt amazing. I was the best shower ever. Then I brushed my teeth, and it was the best time I ever brushed my teeth. Then I got to wash my hands, and that was the best too.

I also felt tired. We’d been up since 3:00 a.m. It was time for some much needed shut eye. I grabbed my sleeping bag from the van, told Bobby where I was and to come wake me when he was ready to roll and snagged a spot on the gym floor where I promptly passed out for the next three and a half hours. I woke up when Bobby came to get me, fell asleep for a few more minutes, and then dragged myself up so I could brush my teeth again in the locker room and change into running clothing before we left.

Bobby had a 6.6 miler for his night run, so I had some time for a quick snack before my 4.5 miles in Brewster. The night was cool with temperatures in the lower 40s but less humid than in past years, so visibility was good. I was waiting when Bobby arrived and headed out, maintaining a 9:52 pace for my night run and feeling pretty decent for someone who’d dragged themselves out of bed and decided to run for 44 minutes in the middle of the night.

In the past I have really enjoyed my night runs at Ragnar because they are such a unique experience. This year, thinking of the assault that occurred during this event last year, I was a bit more on edge than in the past and very mindful of my surroundings. In past posts I have written about night running saying that it feels like floating in space. It’s fun to run at night, look up at the stars now and again and totally dissociate and just enjoy the wild experience of it all.

With the events of last year in my mind I found I couldn’t really do that. I was 100% focused. Being a woman, and a small woman at that, I am conscientious about running alone and while I don’t generally run feeling fearful and don’t consider running to be dangerous, I am always mindful. I was fortunate that my night run went well. The course was well marked, I saw a runner or two from Ragnar but was untroubled, and I went along feeling good and at a decent pace. I should note how appreciative I am that the course had very frequent markers along the night leg. In the past this has not always been the case, but it was this year, and it was welcome. My run finished at an elementary school where I passed off to Pete. I was done. I changed into pajamas and napped on and off as the van made its way along the course.

Our van was slated to finish up a little after 6:00 a.m. The sun came up as we waited at Cooks Brook Beach in Eastham while Shaina ran. I enjoyed some coffee from a group doing a local fundraiser as we cheered Shaina’s arrival and Kelly’s departure for the last three miles van one had on the course.

The van made its way to Nauset Regional High to join van two. We hung out and chatted; before long Kelly had arrived and passed off to Sean. Van two was live, and we were done. Time to change and head to Provincetown for breakfast at our second traditional breakfast location, Post Office Cafe. There were four plus hours to kill before we could expect van two to finish-up. We grabbed some Dunks on the way out to P-town, knowing that we wouldn’t be able to get into the restaurant until after it opened at 8:00 a.m. This gave us time after we arrived to nap. We grabbed a delicious breakfast and then headed over to the beach for a #teambreakfast photo in the world’s largest chair (unverified).

With a couple of hours left to go, we took time to clean the marker off the van and prowl the festival area. Ragnar has significant merch, though I find it to be a bit of a high price point, especially considering that Reebok is their sponsor, and one of Reebok’s virtues is their general affordability. I decided I was all set with my free race shirt and opted out of grabbing any other items in the store, as usual. We convened with the van two crowd and waited for Aaron to finish his final leg. The wait wasn’t long. Our team has either gotten seriously faster or I’ve gotten much better at how I feel about the downtime during Ragnar. (Perhaps five years has made me better at managing unstructured free time, which, honestly, in my post-graduate-school-life I realize is a gift. How often do you get to sit around outside and do nothing for hours? Not often, and it’s pretty good.)

Aaron cruised up the hill and we joined him for a final run across the finish line. Ragnar 2018 was in the books.


As always, Ragnar is all about your team, and I am so lucky to have a great group with the NES Ninjas led by a terrific captain, Jess. These are folks who I can spend a few days with having little sleep and enjoying the entire time. We’ve really upped our running game, as a team, and can now be reliably counted on to get some decent running done – a bonus to be sure. Ragnar is a must do race for me. Five years ago, it was my introduction to the NE Spahtens. I don’t think I even realized my luck at the time to get to meet this fantastic group in such a cool way. Ragnar 2019 will be on my race calendar for sure. See you there fellow Ninjas.

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Featured Review: Blizzard Blast 2017

Huge thank you to Nicole for our Blizzard Blast review!

Leave your own community review here.
[P_REVIEW post_id=18033 visual=’full’]

There is no better way to say it: Blizzard Blast really stepped it up this year. New OCRWC qualifier status. New venue. New obstacles. Same great attention to theme and focus on fun.

This year, Blizzard Blast took place for the first time at Shedd Park in Lowell with the festival at Wamesit Lanes, a brand new bowling alley and family fun center. Race day logistics had all participants parking at the Ocean State Job Lot about ¼ of a mile down the street from Wamesit Lanes. Buses then transported people to the bowling alley. Another set of buses provided transportation to and from Shedd Park. Prior to the event, I was a bit hesitant about all this busing. I am not a busing fan, plus the buses were a bit slow at last year’s Blizzard Blast . I need not have been concerned. Logistics were well ironed out and ran smoothly, as far as I could tell. I parked my car at the Ocean State Job Lot and then decide to walk the quarter mile to Wamesit Lanes since it was so close. The walk took me no more than five minutes – it was just as close as some places where I’ve parked for other OCRs and not had the benefit of busing.

Registration and check-in was at Wamesit Lanes, along with the post-race party. In sum, Wamesit Lanes was a good place for a party. Personal caveat: I’m not much of a post-race celebrator and I found Wamesit Lanes to be way too loud for my personal taste; however, it was really perfect for what, I think, Blizzard Blast was looking for, and I bet most racers loved it. There was cheap food and drink, large areas to hang out, and plenty to do. It was a bit of a drag that the festival and the course weren’t at the same place, as in year’s past, but the new location was definitely better suited to the number of people at the race, and SmithFest did a great job providing convenient transportation.

Check-in at Wamesit Lanes went very smoothly. I was given my chip and bib. I was able to go and pick-up my free long sleeve t-shirt (love the long sleeve option!) and buff and then proceed to check my bag for free. Excellent all around! I then went to the bar area to hang out with the other NE Spahtens as I waited for the bus for the 11:30 a.m. team wave. The busing was ultra-organized with the DJ telling us when it was time to depart.

The course was, for the first time this year, at Shedd Park in Lowell. The race location was excellent. One reason it was so good was that Fred, race director of Blizzard Blast, did a great job integrating existing elements in the park with the course. Examples: We got to run along a wall that bordered the park, many elements of the race had us using the tables and playgrounds within the park, and finally for traverse walls the race utilized a couple of walls already in existence at the park. This was a really creative approach and added to the number of obstacles on the course.

This year’s Blizzard Blast was, for the first time, an OCRWC qualifier. As such, they really upped their game. In past years, I’ve commented that Blizzard Blast can be light on the obstacles. Last year’s course was a 10K and sparse with the obstacles, making it feel more like a trail run than an OCR. Not so this year! I would say with 100% confidence that this was the best Blizzard Blast yet. There were more obstacles than the past and less running. The course was 3.5 miles in length, and you didn’t run more than a couple of minutes without hitting an obstacle. The length and number of obstacles was spot on!

Blizzard Blast had all the classic obstacles from past years along with some new and innovative ones. To begin a discussion of the obstacles, it’s important to acknowledge that Blizzard Blast is great at keeping with their winter theme. As such they had pine trees aplenty. We had to climb over pine trees, run through pine trees, do a pine tree carry, and do a sled drag with a tree (new this year). There was also sledding. Kudos to Fred on getting some snow out there. Even more kudos because when he heard that the sledding was getting a bit too fast, he adjusted to have us sled from farther down the hill to avoid injury.

The other main themed aspect to Blizzard Blast is kegs. The race is sponsored by Shock Top, a beer company, and the kegs seem to proliferate each year. The signature obstacle at Blizzard Blast is keg kingdom, one of my favorite obstacles. It’s a Rig with hanging kegs that move unpredictably making this one lots of fun. Keg kingdom is one of my favorite obstacles in OCR. There was also a keg hoist, a mini keg raise, and two keg carries – the first of which required racers to roll the keg half of the way (uphill of course!). Inspired by the new festival venue, there was also an obstacle where racers had to walk along slacklines using bowling pins suspended overhead for balance. While not very challenging, this new obstacle was innovative and super fun!

Blizzard Blast featured one new obstacle that was a great new test for racers, Devil’s staircase. This obstacle was a giant metal a-frame with rungs spaced far apart to be ascended by swinging as if doing inclined monkey bars. Super hard for me, and the one obstacle I did not make. These inverted climbs are always a struggle for me and definitely an area where I need to do some training. (Note to self: Talk with my coach.)

Credit: Caley McGuane

Naturally all the traditional favorites were there: walls, under-over-thru’s, a peg board climb, and a rope climb. All of these elements were well placed on the course. I was very impressed by how little running took place between each obstacle. It made the course every enjoyable.

I crossed the line in 1:14:19 (28/116 in my age group and 256/705 overall for open, to provide context). I was given a medal which featured a bottle opener and a little OCR racer who moved back and forth across a mini keg kingdom. So cool!

Blizzard Blast really had a tremendous event for 2017. They nailed the race, integrating new obstacles and creating an engaging course that was challenging for seasoned racers while still be very approachable for beginners. The new location is stellar. Logistics were well handled. (Though the post-race chowder would totally have been enhanced by some oyster crackers – get on it, Fred! Jk!) All around, I was very impressed with what I consider the best Blizzard Blast yet. I look forward to the 2018 race. I plan to be there.

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Featured Review: OCR Buddy App

If you are reading this post, it’s likely you race. A lot. Keeping track of all these races can be a bit of work. Figuring out when you’re racing, where, and what weekends are free (so that you can sign-up for more races) requires some logistics. Yes, you can use your Google Calendar, but it’s kind of a hassle to organize everything so that you can query for all your races at once. Plus, how do you know where your friends are going to be?

Enter OCR Buddy, an app designed for tracking and organizing your race schedule, plus it lets you know which of your friends will be at whichever race you’re planning to attend. For $1.99, it’s a must for any racer serious about organizing their race season.

OCR Buddy fulfills two main functions — it’s a personal race calendar, and it’s a database. When you open up the OCR Buddy app, the home screen gives you a sense of the primary functions of the app. There are areas for finding an event and then a “My Events” area for viewing the races you’ve RSVPed as attending. The app features social aspects as well. You can join a team (i.e. NE Spahtens) and then see the members of the team for easy friending. You can also view a list of your friends under the “My Buddies” tab.

Have a free weekend and want to know what events are available? Here’s where the race database in OCR Buddy can be an asset. Click, “Find an Event” and you’re off and running. You can browse through the dates or search based on specific criteria. Select a date and all the available races are displayed at the bottom of the screen. You can scroll through them or just click on a dot to skip to a specific event. Races that your buddies are attended are highlighted with a heart to allow you to give them priority. If browsing isn’t your thing, you can search events by brand, country, region, state, length, and other criteria. If the race you are looking for isn’t listed, you can add it, thus making it available on the calendar for all other OCR Buddy users.

Once you click on a race, you get to view more detail about the event, including discount codes and a link for registration. There is even a space to add notes. As a bit of a futurist, I love that the app includes a countdown tracker at the bottom of each event. (21 days until Shale Hill’s Polar Bear Challenge — yay!)

Hands down my favorite part of OCR Buddy is the “My Events” section. This is where you can see all the races that you’ve RSVPed for in the app. When I’m thinking about signing up for a new race I like to take into account not just what weekends are free on my personal calendar but the time between races, as I’m not keen to travel too many weekends in a row. Having all my races listed together in an easy-to-view format is a great way to plan for any additional races and to figure out my key races so as to sync my training schedule.

OCR Buddy just received an award from the 2016 Best of OCR: Runner Up in the category of 2016 Best New Product. The award is well-deserved. For $1.99, why haven’t you downloaded OCR Buddy yet?

 

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Featured Review: Bone Frog Challenge Fall 2016

 

With thanks again to Nicole Sibley for sending in our Featured Review for the fall 2016 Bone Frog Challenge!

 

bonefroglogoThis year’s Bone Frog Challenge could be summed up in a few sentences.

  1. It was cold.
  2. We did a lot of trail running.
  3. We got lost.
  4. We crawled under a bunch of stuff.
Suffice it to say, it was a sufferfest. Of course, four sentences is hardly the sum of the story. Let’s get into it.
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Bone Frog Challenge typically takes place at Berkshire East in Charlemont, Massachusetts in May. The 2015 Bone Frog will likely go down as one of my favorite races of all time with over fifty obstacles stretched over a 15K course. The race was meticulously executed. This spring, I took place in the race again and also enjoyed it. As a result, I was quite excited to see they had a fall 10K championship race planned for late October. I signed up right away.
14725721_1233367860070227_5091417190265808907_nFast forward a few months. Suddenly the championship was a standard 9 miler. The October race would be another Bone Frog Challenge. I had been excited for the shorter course, but this struck me as fine. They didn’t have enough racers, I presume, to support a championship — it would be too challenging for people to qualify. (I had signed up for the open wave, for which you did not have to qualify.)
The weather in New England is a fickle thing. Thursday I drove home in a swarm of snow. We got around 3″. Bone Frog posted pictures on Facebook of Berkshire East with obstacles covered in snow. Bone Frog’s course features two water crossings. All I could do was shake my head.
The morning of Bone Frog, I left my house at 7:00 a.m. to make it to the venue for my 9:00 a.m. wave. I live fairly close — less than an hour away — and it was an easy drive. Parking ($10 per car) was a breeze. The turn out was a lot less than for the May event, making both parking and registration a snap. Volunteers were plentiful down in the festival area and on the course. The weather was dreadful, and these people are real champions!
14925464_10208574776465017_1562675363023460515_nI connected with my fellow Spahten and good friend, Matt Puntin. Cool things about Matt include almost everything (i.e. He has obstacles in his backyard!); however, today’s cool thing was that he’d agreed to run Bone Frog with me, despite the fact that I am quite a bit slower. I was seriously off my game during the race, and having Matt with me was key to finishing. Having a good battle buddy makes all the difference.
The weather in Charlemont was unfortunate. It was damp, at times rainy, and in the low to mid 30s. There was snow on the mountain. Everything was slippery and wet. The saving grace, was that there was no wind, but this was still going to be a rough day.
Our 9:00 a.m. wave was pretty small. There were a lot of fellow NE Spahtens. Some others had chosen to do the Tier 1 Challenge, which involves doing the 9 mile Challenge course followed by the 3 mile Sprint course. They had taken off about 15 minutes prior. We had some brief announcements — a good thing in the cold — and then we were off!
The 9 mile course was almost a reversed version of the course in May with stripped down obstacles. Of the Bone Frog Challenges I’ve done, this will not rank as a favorite. I’ll go through the course map and some of the obstacles to give a bit of a breakdown of the course with my feedback.
bone-frog-fall-2016
The course featured around three dozen obstacles; however, this included a lot of repeat obstacles:
  • Four wire crawls and one net crawl
  • Two sets of tires to hop through
  • Two sets of tires on horizontal logs to go over
  • Two water crossings
14591722_1179930705428607_2705936112028398904_nThere were also a number of walls, but I consider walls an OCR staples, and these walls were all different heights so I’m good with that. The wire crawls were absolutely miserable. They were through snow. I couldn’t feel my fingers at a point, and my elbows and knees got soaked through. I should also add that I elected to not enter any of the water. I was frozen enough from the crawls and would not have been able to make it through the course if I entered the water. The first water crossing was the fifth obstacle and was chest high. The second was at the top of the mountain, where it was around freezing temperatures. I acknowledge two things about my electing to skip the water: I had a slightly different race experience and that experience was less hard. I am less strong for doing this.
I should remark that I was definitely having an “off day.” The course did not engage me, I was very uncomfortable, and my performance was lackluster. I am deeply effected by the cold, and I had a challenging day.
14939600_1237149296358750_8614942482441229949_oThere was a lot of trail running during the course. The trails were great. They were technical. The terrain was slippery and people were sliding all over; however, the paths were interesting. There was a lot of climbing up and down the mountain, but there was equally a lot of cutting across the mountain on single track trails. A problem though was that the trails were not as well marked as they could have been. I have never gotten lost on a course during the day. (And only once gotten ever so slightly off course — missing less than 50 feet — during the night.) During Bone Frog, we got lost twice. The second time, we ended up having to cut across the mountain and underneath the mountain coaster at Berkshire East. Yikes! Also, for the third time, I wished that the course had mile markers.
The low turnout, while bad for Bone Frog, meant that there were no hold-ups at the obstacles. The course moved smoothly. While there weren’t any new obstacles I can name, there were a lot of fun ones from the past. I’m a fan of the Solar Walls, which are two huge walls of at least 15′ with a rope to climb them. My hands were frozen from the crawl right before, so I had to use my legs around the rope to make sure I didn’t slip down. I also like Slide for Life. Here, you climb through a hole in a platform and then go down a traverse rope. This is unique obstacle and fun. I have to get a boost to reach the hole in the platform, but then I’m good to go.
14591874_1180029218752089_2876643097850789831_nI should mention that many Bone Frog obstacles are not short-person friendly. I cannot reach on Slide for Life, Swingers Club, Get a Grip, Drunken Monkey, or Black Ops. I also have yet to complete Swingers Club and Get a Grip, both of which are obstacles where you swing from hanging grip to hanging grip. Drunken Monkey, peg monkey bars at varying heights, I have made. Today, I was able to climb up and grab a bar, but this left me unable to get to another. Also, they were super wet, and I kind of fell half off. Matt seemed quite alarmed, and I did not elect to try again. I have made Black Ops at my first two races but did not complete it today. I made it up the rope climb but did not attempt the monkey bars, which were dripping wet. I couldn’t feel my fingers at this point, and was doing my best to just keep moving and make it to the end. Like I said, I did not have a fantastic race and did not make a number of obstacles I normally would have.
There were a few carries — the Ammo Carry for the first obstacle and the Wreck Bag Carry. Both were very short and manageable. I even found them easy. This was a great relief! I enjoyed a number of the cargo climbs and, as always, had fun on the walls. They have a number of thru walls, which are a nice way of mixing it up.
I ended up finishing this race in just over three hours. It was my fastest Bone Frog yet, due entirely to the reduced number of obstacles and zero wait time due to low turnout.
14906964_1179930842095260_6307701073490838827_nAll and all, I would give this race a 3.5 out of 5 stars. (Though I would give having Matt as my battle buddy five stars for sure.) The course was less diverse than I might have hoped, with lots of repetition, and the obstacles were less interesting than in the past. I have never gone off course before and found the markings to be a bit lacking. That being said, the volunteers were great and we got an awesome medal and t-shirt. (Though I still miss the shirts from 2015, which were the best finisher shirts ever and even came in curvy fit!) The weather, which is no one’s fault, definitely put a damper on the day and made the race a whole lot less fun. Still, no matter what, Bone Frog has some really great obstacles. I’ve seen them several times now, and might be a bit jaded, but I don’t take for granted the good work that they do.
I won’t be able to make the May race since I’m running the Vermont City Marathon the following weekend. However, I look forward to doing Bone Frog again soon. It’s a #racelocal favorite, and while this fall’s race was not their strongest showing, I’ll be back.
Got your own opinions? Leave a community review and ranking – http://www.newenglandspahtens.com/community-reviews/
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Featured Review: Shale Hill Halloween Fun Run

Thank you to Nicole Sibley for the Halloween Race at Shale Hill review – and to Jennefer Eaton for the photos!

 

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

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

14708349_1203351039708639_1851549855403414145_nThe Halloween Fun Run is a great way to go out and have some low-key fun at Shale Hill. The race does have a competitive division — I placed 2nd in the women’s division — however, most people coming for the Halloween Run choose to do the non-competitive, penalty-free journeyman division. About half of the field at the Halloween Run were NE Spahtens and most of them chose to run journeyman together. By all accounts they had an absolute blast.

14690845_1203352136375196_6662889938196906456_nSaturday’s 5:00 p.m. race was rainy with temperatures hovering right above 40 degrees. Not ideal conditions to say the least. The racer’s meeting was held in the barn and race director, Rob, was clear to emphasize the main points of the evening — be safe and have fun. The bucket carry and the second log carry, both in the last third of the course, were removed for the Halloween Run. The teeter totters, gut check, and balance logs (over the ravine) were closed due to the slippery conditions. Everything else, including the pond traverse, was open. The penalty for all failed obstacles was 15 spiderman push-ups, which apparently Rob thinks is an easy penalty, stating, “Only 15 spiderman push-ups. We want to have fun out there.” I had the distinction of getting to demo the penalty during the meeting.

14642311_1203353003041776_9119568350692790468_nIt was an intimate group so we were able to all start together at 5:00 p.m. It was still light out. I was able to make it about half of the way through the course until I needed my headlamp, which I turned on at the traverse wall. I was surprised by a number of volunteers and given a few good scares. Let me be clear, the scare factor of this race is not high. I do not like scary things. I never see horror movies and would not be caught dead in a haunted house. The scares at Shale Hill are more funny than alarming. Sure, I started a few times when a volunteer jumped out or when the creepy chainsaw guy revved the chainsaw’s motor. A volunteer dressed as Thor got me pretty good twice. But really the scares were modest, and volunteers always asked, “How are you doing?” afterwards and kept an eye on you while you did your obstacle. There were over a dozen volunteers and I saw people on the course, including Rob, very frequently. This was great since it was dark and I was running alone. It made me feel safe.

14708370_1203353723041704_928123750044343546_nShale Hill has around 60 obstacles including some of the most original and fun obstacles you might encounter. The wet conditions definitely made for a challenge, and I did more penalties than usual. Of the 60 obstacles at Shale Hill, I’d say there are around four that I might routinely fail. Wet metal and ropes made that number skyrocket. I failed some things I can routinely make, such as the Tarzan ropes, fireman’s pole, and the monkey bars. Indeed I couldn’t even grab onto the pole or the bars. Yet on a scale of one to ten, my enjoyment level was a definite ten. When did I last have so much fun? Probably the last time I was at Shale Hill.

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

14724552_1203356986374711_7982663695457848448_nThe post-race party was great! I hung out with friends and enjoyed amazing food, delicious desserts, and an atmosphere that cannot be improved upon. The people who go to Shale Hill are something of a family where everyone knows everyone and we are always happy to catch up and talk about obstacle course racing. One would not say that I’m a very social person, yet I can say that the amount of fun I have socializing at Shale Hill is part of the reason I love racing there. The course is amazing, Rob and Jill are the best race directors ever, and the community that they have built is second to none.

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