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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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