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.