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Featured Review: 2015 Polar Bear Challenge at Shale Hill

EURO - Polar BearAs if it wasn’t crazy enough that we were running an eight hour endurance event, in Vermont, in the snow – but that event was full of Rob Butlers famous crazy obstacles, and with the amount of snow we’d seen in recent weeks, everything was buried in knee deep powder.

Never a dull moment at Shale Hill 🙂

This past weekend saw the third running of the Polar Bear Challenge – one of the signature races held by the Butlers at Shale Hill. This annual event takes place on the full 10k loop of the permanent obstacle course built up by Rob Butler – but, at eight hours, the goal is to run as many laps as physically possible in that time. Most laps, in the shortest time wins.

This was my third Polar Bear Challenge. Robs habit of adding to, and growing his venue continues, and we enjoyed both new obstacles, new facilities, new penalties, new divisions – and many many more new faces – and that is what makes Shale Hill so perfect for the OCR enthusiast – no matter how many times you visit, the venue grows, evolves and adapts. New people find Shale Hill, fall in love and come back for more. I know I do.

But – nothing could prepare us for the snow. It was the great equalizer, the game changer – and took this already challenging event to another level.

The 2015 Polar Bear Challenge had around 130 participants – seemingly small numbers translate into an intimate experience – with no crowding, no lining up, no waiting – and like Cheers, everyone knows your name. We chose to stay overnight on the Friday, sharing the on-premise apartment for very very short money. There were plenty of local lodging options, from guest homes to share, to hotels a short drive away. For little more than $30 a night, I had a warm bed, no commute and great company.

For 2015, Rob had made a few facility upgrades – turning a large horse barn into a party barn – this accommodated the racers, their spectators and the staff and volunteers perfectly, staying warm and providing big glass windows to view the fields and the penalties. He also showed off his new Shale Hill vehicles … a lovely looking wrapped mini, and The Truck. This thing.

Of course, he’d also added more obstacles. Because thats just what happens when Rob has too much time on his hands. One of which was the New England Spahtens crowdfunded obstacle – the Zig Zag of Awesomeness. This uphill single pipe traverse – then drop to another pipe, then a rope decent – this is one of those challenging obstacles Shale Hill is renowned for – something that you may not get your first few attempts, but it’s a goal. It’s a reason to come back.

But, one of the biggest changes on previous years was the introduction of the Journeyman Division – initially proposed by our very own Sandy. Journeyman is the non-competitive wave. This means you can take the course at your own speed, your own pace. You can chose to do all the obstacles, or you can choose to step past them, and continue on. You have no penalties at the end, and, of course, you win nothing but your pride at completing the course and achieving what you set out to do.

For everyone who thinks Shale Hill is too hard, or is intimidated by the obstacles – this is for you. All the fun, none of the stress.

Of course, no matter what wave you left with, the snow didn’t really care and became the biggest obstacle of the day. From knee to hip deep in places, sometimes nicely broken in by earlier waves and snowmobiles – sometimes tough and challenging unbroken terrain – it was a slog! It made for a fantastic and unique experience, and a soft landing when coming off an obstacle incorrectly (year, that would be me and Gut Check!)

Bundled up in our winter gear of choice – I found a combination that worked well. Temperatures ranged in the 20’s all day, and my Icebug Speed boots, with thick LL Bean hiking socks – and Icebug gators kept my feet warm, dry and the snow out. Under Armor cold gear tights and tech running pants kept my legs dry and warm, and a matching UA cold gear top and a drill shirt kept my torso good. An Icebug hat, a buff around my neck, and some grippy liner gloves and outer snow mittens, and I was just fine all day. Other than some moments when I got snow on my arms – and a single layer of cold gear wasn’t quite enough – I had very few cold problems if I stayed mobile. In fact, during one pit stop at the Loom, I was steaming significantly! I took a pack – but no bladder, there were plenty of water stops and fires to keep them thawed.

No run through of obstacles – I ran journeyman, and had the pleasure of running / slogging alongside Margaret of Dirt in your Skirt / MudRunGuide for the race – along with Steve, our philosophy was to help others, keep moving, have fun. Sometimes, this meant skipping something we knew we’d find impossible (coughcoughtarzanropes), giving some the old college try, and nailing others down.

At the end of each lap, if you ran the open waves you handed in some poker chips for penalties. In previous years, this was an area that had a lot of people grumbling – the penalties were some pretty significant physical challenges – some people didn’t come back because of this. They missed out – Rob traded in the backbreaking physical work for time consuming – but fun – tasks. With the number being pulled randomly, you could find yourself eating saltine crackers dry, or sledding down a hill repeatedly, or flipping a wooden beam – and more. None of these were particularly *hard*, but they took time, and you had to complete them before you crossed the timing mat for your finish, or your extra laps. Journeymen could skip right on by.

All told, The race was won with just 3 laps this year, the least yet and entirely down to the deep snow. People who managed a second lap were few and far between, although the later laps got faster as the course was packed down some more. There were a few penalty free laps done, but certainly not many. Lots and lots of smiling faces.

So – an 8 hour window to run laps of the best, most fun fixed venue course available – just a few hours from anywhere in New England, with non-stop food all day and an amazing intimate environment full of friends and new friends. The weather shouldn’t be a deterrent, you just put more clothing on, and the company can never be beat.

It was also fantastic to see industry collaboration – Icebug, a title sponsor had an awesome presence there, and fellow #ocrunited (and #racelocal) events, FIT Challenge, BoldrDash, GritNWit were present too.

This was my third turn of the Polar Bear Challenge. It remains one of the top – must do events on the calendar. If you let the distance, or the snow put you off, then you missed out. It was extremely rewarding to see new faces and first timers come across the finish line with big smiles on their faces, and talk of returning for the relay, or the 24h event.

Shale Hill has already opened registration for the 2016 Polar Bear, at the best price they’ll have available – in a sport where I never recommend registering for events so early on – I’ve already registered for this one. I recommend you do too.

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