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Featured Review: Bonefrog Boston 2018

Bonefrog logp

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Featured Review: North American OCR Championships 2018 – 15K

NES members at finish line

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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Ep75: It’s been a while …

It’s been a while since our last show … with all this sunshine happening, we got carried away and went outside!

As a result, we’ve got lots to talk about! Josh is in a boot! Josh runs lots of Spartan Races! Josh ignores his doctor! Sandy tells rude jokes! Sandy talks about Dynamic Dirt Challenge and Tough Mudder / Toughest and Savage Race! Shale Hell was amazing and Shale Hill is closing 🙁 Paul did … nothing!

Lots of great content! Leave us a comment, leave us a review, subscribe, share – are you still listening?

 

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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.