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Featured Review: Ragnar Cape Cod 2019

NES Ninjas team photo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Featured Review: Cinco de Mjolnir Ultra Viking 2019

NES at Viking

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Featured Review: Shale Hill Polar Bear 8 Hour 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Ep 79 – Adrian Bijanada Announces New Race Format Coming to OCRWC 2019 / Spartan Trail Series

It’s been a busy news week in obstacle course racing, so it’s time for a recap.

Adrian Bijanada joins Josh on the show to discuss OCRWC’s newly announced race format. Josh also covers Spartan’s announcement from Spartan about their new Trail Series event, as well as predictions on the US National Series dates and venues, and a preview of the Iceland Ultra World Championship and Jon Albon’s shot at $1 Million dollars of Joe De Sena’s money.

As always, if you enjoy the show, leave a review on the podcast platform of your choice – it is much appreciated!

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My era ends

8 years ago, and some of my gym buddies wanted to run this Spartan Race thing – the second Spartan ever, at Amesbury Sports Park. No “Sprints”, no trifectas and we didn’t even do burpees. None of us had any idea the rocket we were getting on, and where OCR would go.

6 years ago, I did the first year anniversary hurricane heat, two Sprint laps, and through a stroke of providence, met a whole bunch of amazing people and together, we founded the New England Spahtens. Right place, right time, indeed.

It was more work, more effort, more stress – with more ego’s and drama’s – and also more rewarding and fun and amazing than I could have anticipated – from running FB groups and pages, to setting up an e-commerce site, launching and operating a video series and a podcast, and operating #racelocal, supporting dozens of local OCRs … it was frequently fast paced chaos, and not everything ran smoothly. But it has been a blast.

A year ago, I made the decision to step back, and take my life down a new path. Running OCRs had lost it’s sparkle for me – I found myself frequently injured, and frequently away from my family at weekends. Coupled with a demanding day job that had me traveling mid week, I would land in Logan on a Friday and want nothing more than to spend the day with my loved ones, and not get up at 5am to drive somewhere to run another 5k OCR.

NES brought me so many amazing memories. So many amazing friends. We went from a few people sharing codes for race discounts, to a 501c7 organization that has raised money for Team Mike McNeil and others. We’ve clothed the homeless of Boston and seen individuals overcome personal demons, finish endurance races, earn medals and skulls- and I’ll always be proud of the part I’ve played in making that happen and bringing those experiences to people.

This last year, I’ve been spending my time moving daily operations over to the board, and this last few months stepping back almost entirely, and playing a support role. Long term, that’ll be what I do – when the board need technical help, I’ll help – and day to day decision making and operations (and the mistakes that will surely come with this learning curve!) will reside with them. Be patient. Give them your support – just like this last year, they are your elected board, so be engaged! The more involved YOU are, the better job THEY can do.

What next for me? I fully plan to be at the final Polar Bear Challenge – the best local race of the season, I believe, and Shale Hill’s swan song. For the foreseeable, it’ll be my final OCR. I’ve been so lucky to make so many good friends, we frequently have people from NES over at the house for smoked meats and drinks in the hot tub, and I hope those friendships last beyond OCR and NES. My brain will eventually latch onto another hobby, or project, and my life will be all consumed in a new direction – but until that happens – and I’m not looking for it, I’ll enjoy some piece and quiet.

A new era begins. “English” signing off.

 

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Featured Review: Iron Farmer

Iron Farmer was a small event located in Phillipston, MA at the Red Apple Farm, put on by Fitness Concepts Health Club and Crossfit 696 out of Gardner, MA. It was an event advertised as a sprint distance that would be scattered with farm tough tasks and obstacles. Participants could choose to run timed competitive ($50 Early Bird / $60 after November 1st) or non-competitive ($35 Early Bird / $45 after November 1st). The competitive heat was timed and had prizes for the top 3 males and females.

Upon arrival, parking could be found on site at the orchard. After parking, it was a very short walk down to the barn where registration was set up. It was an easy, quick, in and out. I gave my name, got my bib, and was off to find some friends.

I will say, this event was unlike anything that I have participated to date. But it was a lot of fun! The competitive wave went off at 10:00 am and Non-Competitive followed fifteen minutes later.The course was 2.7 miles comprised of a 0.54 mile loop that athletes would repeat five times. Each lap brought the runner back to the start where we would have to complete one tire flip followed by another task or obstacle. After the first lap the task was an apple carry around a short loop. The second lap consisted of moving a square bale into a wheelbarrow, looping up around a row of trees, then back where we would return the bale to the pile. Any broken bales consisted of a burpee penalty (I must say, it appeared all hay bales survived!) The third lap was a bucket carry. Runners had to fill the bucket 3/4 full before carrying it another small loop before dumping it. On the fourth lap runners had to jump over large round bales. One could opt for burpees if they could not hurtle over the bales, followed by the final 0.54 mile loop. The snow left by Thursday night’s storm gave the added challenge of snow and mud.

Something key to note is that this event was not a typical OCR. It was more of an outdoor challenge. Any level could participate in this event and find success. There were all ages present and participating. This is an event that I would definitely recommend for beginners and families.

All participants received an Iron Farmer medal upon completion of the event.

Afterwards participants were invited to go back to the barn where the Red Apple Farm was hosting their Thanksgiving Harvest Festival. The Harvest Festival included plenty of food and drink options as well as crafting vendors. It was up at the festival where the winners of the competitive heat were announced. Each of the top three received apple pies as their awards.

Over all, this was a small but fun event. I would definitely recommend it to anyone who wants to just get out there and have a little fun.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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Ep77 – GIVEAWAY Alert – Spartan Race, Tough Mudder, Bone Frog & More…

The NE Spahtens Show has a new sponsor. And to celebrate we’re giving away something that EVERY OCR athlete needs come race day! You’ll have to listen to find out (that’s called a tease, and I am not ashamed to admit it).

Josh is taking the reigns tonight, talking about Spartan Race’s recent bevvy of announcements heading in to the 2019 season. Tough Mudder takes a “Classic” look at their events. And boy that escalated quickly – there was a man on fire, and Bone Frog has a Trident (Yep – Ron Burgundy quotes too. It’s midnight, I’m a little loopy writing the show notes).

Settle in, take a listen, and I would love for you to leave a LIKE on The NE Spahtens Show Facebook Page, Instagram Page, or leave us a review in iTunes so we know how we’re doing!

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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.