Polar Bear Challenge – 2014


* From: aaron farb

* Event Details
Saturday, February 1 started quite early for a team of Spahtens in rural Vermont getting ready to attempt the 2nd Annual Polar Bear Challenge. A group of 31 Spahtens traveled up to join in the cold fun and attempt to beat Shale Hill’s tough course, and arriving early for a 615am prerace meeting found the great hospitality any previous visitor has come to expect from Rob & Jill Butler. Considering that last year’s race had all of 30 something people total, getting that many Spahtens here this year is a great accomplishment! A quick checkin, fill out the form, get your race packet (in a nice icebugs bag!) 2 cotton tshirts for shale & polar bear, and be shown where gear gets stowed, then onto the great breakfast spread of farm fresh bacon, sausage, eggs, french toast, fruit, coffee, danishes, fresh milk & juices. After some general course details, explanation of penalties, it was outside to a quick start.
Parking was typical for Shale Hill, out in the giant field on the course edge, and as always, free! The only vendor present was Icebugs, the preferred footwear for many of the Spahten runners. As usual, Jill was more than willing to let anyone demo a pair of the shoes for a lap as well as an Icebugs rep who could do some general shoe alterations to help fit/hot spots, etc.

* Race Details
The course as a whole is intense – there are not many areas without an obstacle – with 50 obstacles in just over 6 miles, that doesn’t leave a ton of space, especially when the log, sand bag/sloshpipe & rock bucket carries are over 1/4 mile long each! This year, the course started with a few new obstacles – 3 sets of teeter toters to balance/walk over, each set larger than the previous and assorted tires to flip, each with a specific number of flips required depending on the size of the tire. From there, onto the previous sections of the Shale Hill course – into the sandbag carry that was much longer than previous (pushing 1/2 mile from what was heard), the tyrolean traverse and a new ‘gut check’ – 2 logs one a foot off the ground, the other 4 feet off and spaced just far enough to require a jump and hard grab once landing against the higher log – the cause of 1 set of broken ribs today. Then onto a few of Shale’s signatures – the Abacus (a series of parallel ropes stretched between 2 trees that are connected at random points w/ wooden spars to keep them from moving separate from one another too much) a 130′ series of traverse walls and the fireman climb. A newer obstacle was the ‘Loom’ – a ramp of boards each racer must snake over/under onto a short traverse rope and onto a descending ramp of the same over/under boards down – extremely innovative and difficult. Shortly after this was a new double obstacle consisting of a 10′ wall with a rope on it to climb up & over, then a 19′ high rope climb with a 2″ rope to make it much more difficult to foot lock and climb, then a set of parallel bars to be traversed across and shortly off to the most difficult monkey bars any course has ever used. Thankfully, the course only continues on for a bit longer after that before snaking thru the deceptively hard Anaconda and back to the barn, penalties, warmth & bacon! Throughout the course, Rob Butler is a constant presence, showing up on snowmobile or jeep to offer encouragement/obstacle consultation and frequently fresh chocolate milk. The first words out of Rob’s mouth whenever he comes across a racer ‘How are you? Any problems?’ and he genuinely cares about the answer and fixing any issues. How many races have the director out looking after racers like that?
Once arriving back at the course, each racer had to show penalty chips – many obstacles had penalties for not completing them and racers were assigned one of 3 color chips – the chips were given at the penalty table and a dice was rolled, whatever number rolled corresponded to the penalty box given. Penalties were no joke; they ranged from a smile (free pass, yay!) to multiple rope climbs, hercules/tire hoists, 8′ over/under walls, PUP pushups, log flips, log lunges, jumping jacks, and tricep dips. Basically, if a racer failed 3 blue & 2 red obstacles, they were given a total of 5 penalty rounds – some racers were completing 75 tire hoists, 50 over/under walls, 40 PUP pushups & 10 rope climbs – and this was just after 1 lap! Obviously, completing an obstacle was definitely worth it versus the penalties!
As a whole, compared to many of the mountains this group has tackled, the course is relatively flat, and when run in the summer, not too terrible on any climbs or descents. When ice & snow are added into the mix it becomes much more difficult – every climb was slick and foot placement was extremely important – every descent was a choice of sliding down on backsides or running the very real risk of slip and injury. All over the course was sheet ice, so every step was something to watch for (icebug wearers definitely enjoyed their investment today) Thankfully, the snow was not too deep and the trail was decently packed, in the wooded sections, there was ankle deep powder when stepping off the trail, but proved useful to do during some of the climbs/descents. The temps were quite tolerable, average of 30 degrees for the day – a vast improvement on last years frost fest of 3!
Finally, after completing all the laps and penalties earned, racers got to go inside and and enjoy a first class lunch – more bacon & sausage, meatballs, ziti, mac & cheese, pulled pork, chili, salad and lots of deserts including brownies, fresh cookies, cheesecake, and hot apple crumble – a great spread to help rejuvenate tired and cold racers!
Shale Hill is definitely a venue that anyone enjoying OCR needs to take advantage of. Having a venue that is such a challenge so close is an amazing resource in itself, and having Rob and Jill and such intimate races where the director actually knows you and wants to see you advance every visit just makes it that much better! If you haven’t made it here yet, you’re selling yourself short!

* Rating


* From: Joe Benoit

by far the hardest course i have done to date..obstacles where just that OBSTACLES..very challenging..failed 2 or more each lap..so many of them..layout was great as well..up, downs, flats..chances for all to excel at one point or another..man the course/obstacles were BAD-ASS..LOVED IT..my only hang up would be the extreme nature of the penalties..no need for almost, and in some cases, unattainable feats..even for the best this planet can offer in OCR or any other sport would have been brought to failure more than once..just didn’t get the reasoning/point and believe most didn’t accomplish these tasks anyway as the race pushed on..multiple laps with multiple chips..as i said, just my opinion/comment and without a doubt enjoyed myself thoroughly (100%) and will be back for more and more! Thanks Rob and Jill for a memorable,rewarding and great time! see ya soon 🙂


* From: Amy Lillis

* Event Details
The Polar Bear was held at Shale Hill in Benson, VT. Although it’s a long way away, it’s a beautiful location and well worth the drive.
Packets, gear bins, food, and porta-johns were all indoors in Rob’s gym. Packet pickup and gear drop-off were available the night before the race, which made the early morning much easier.
The rep from Ice Bugs was onsite to sell shoes. I was thrilled, as he was able to stretch the back of my slightly too tight right shoe.
On race day, there was a free buffet available from breakfast through the end of the awards ceremony.
Rob and Jill Butler, as always, did a great job making everyone feel welcome. If you have raced with them before, they make sure they address you by name as you walk in the door. They are gracious hosts and they clearly take pride in their race.

* Race Details
Rob Butler is an evil genius. I have been on his course twice before and every time I step foot on Shale Hill, there are new surprises. Rob is constantly dreaming up challenging obstacles that I haven’t seen before or since. He focuses on making every obstacle a challenge, while being sure that they are built safely.
Rob also spends the entire race driving the course on his quad (or in this case, on his snowmobile) to be sure everyone is safe and doing well. He is happy to give a tutorial on how to tackle any obstacle and often comes bearing chocolate milk to give our weary bodies a little lift.
In this race, if a racer doesn’t complete an obstacle, they take a chip and bring it back to the finish line. Chips were green, blue, or red, depending on the difficulty of the obstacle. When you reached the finish line, you turned in your chips and rolled a die. There was a chart with each color and die number (1-6). The idea was that you match the color chip and number rolled to find your penalty, and multiply that penalty by the number of that color chip you brought back. Here’s the problem: Rob Butler is evil and his penalties were evil. I brought back 5 chips: 3 blue and 2 red. I had to do a total of 10 rope climbs, 22 PUP pushups, 6 over/under walls, 30 dips, 10 tire hoists, and 19 log flips. These were the adjusted numbers, as he had apparently decided earlier in the day that the original numbers were just too much. I had already been on the course for over 4.5 hours and my upper body was spent. There was no way I was getting more than two pulls up the rope climb, I could not physically pull myself over the wall, and the tire seemed to weigh more than me. I did my very best and substituted more log flips and some log lunges for the over/under wall. I definitely earned my medal and Rob certainly pushed me very near to my limits.
The Polar Bear is, by far, the hardest OCR I’ve ever done and I can’t wait to tackle it again next year!

* Rating


* From: Sandy Rhee

* Event Details
Rob and Jill Butler know how to organize a race. They opened up the registration area at 4:00 on Friday which allowed folks to drop off their bins and get everything taken care of at a convenient time rather than having to do everything the morning of. Additionally, they had their Icebug vendor there during the Fri registration time for those of us who wanted to spend a little extra money and be able to wear the shoes on Sat morning. Registration was smooth and easy and everything was included in the swag bags we received.

Parking on Fri was very convenient right at the barn and just a short walk away on Sat morning. There was enough moonlight to walk up to registration Sat morning, but they helped us out anyway with two cars parked along the path with their headlights showing the way. This is an extra touch that many would never have thought of, but that seem to happen a lot at Shale Hill. The atmosphere was fairly subdued on Sat morning, but that’s to be expected when the racers’ meeting is at 6:15 and the race starts at 7:00. Food was plentiful by 6:00 as promised, so we were all able to fuel up a bit before the start. The racers meeting was a good opportunity to ask questions and then it was time to line up.

* Race Details
The course. What can I say about this course? This was my 5th race at Shale Hill plus I attended one of the weekend long training seminars offered last summer. This course is constantly evolving. I started Sat morning with the intention of completing two laps. If it had been the same as the Polar Bear 2013, I am confident I would have been able to. However, it was longer, had more obstacles, and was much harder than 2013. I managed to finish a single lap only. And, surprisingly, I don’t feel even the tiniest bit bad about it. This course handed me my ass. But, I continue to get better each time I run it. Obstacles I couldn’t do at Halloween I was able to get. As long as I continue to improve, I’ll be happy.

The course is relentless. Period. There were 51 obstacles on a 6.2 mile course. As impressive as that sounds, it’s actually really even more. 3 of the 51 are carries – about a 1/2 mile sandbag/slosh pipe, and about a 1/4 mile each log and bucket carry. That’s 3 obstacles in a mile which leaves 48 for the other 5. That is A LOT of obstacles. Very few of them are pretty easy. Most are moderate to hard and some are downright nasty (in the best way possible). My favorite obstacle is one called Cliff Jumper. The first time I saw it last summer, it took a group of 5 of us about 30 minutes to figure out how to do it. Once you know though, it is really fun.

Those of us who had done the course before warned all the first timers that it is no joke. Shale Hill is the hardest course that exists. It is harder than the Spartan Beast on Killington. It is hard in the best way. The only difficult thing at the VT Beast was Killington. Rob makes his course hard without the assist of a mountain. It will challenge you physically and mentally. Rob wants to challenge even those athletes who can easily do all the other courses out there. And boy does he! A penalty free round is a dream to me, but it can be done. I was thrilled to get through with only 5 penalty chips.

Penalties. You do not want penalties at this race. They were pretty insane to the point that I physically couldn’t do a few of them. Rob allowed me to reduce the number of one of them, but I couldn’t even finish the reduced number. So, I substituted what I could do from the same level. Penalties range from log flips to log lunges to rope climbs and wall over/unders. The only complaint I have is that if you get a penalty chip for failing a rope climb and then the penalty is more rope climbs, that creates a bit of a head scratcher.

Thank you Rob and Jill for putting on such a quality event. I have to admit, I don’t really mind having my butt handed to me by you. Please keep it up. I look forward to the changes we’ll see in 2014.

* Rating


* From: Michael Carr

* Event Details
Parking: plenty, free, 1/8-mile walk
Facilities: indoor, heated, portapotties, assigned gear storage
Vendors: Icebug, Synergy
Schwag: Long-sleeve race shirt, racer medal
Food: as much chocolate milk as you can drink, free hot buffet all day long. Oh, and bacon.

* Race Details
When I signed up for this event during the summer of 2013, I knew I would have to train differently for it than other obstacle races. I knew it would be upper-body intensive (50+ obstacles? Really?). I figured it would be cold (apparently, it was 3deg F at the start last year). I figured there might be “weather” (this is VT after all). As the fall rolled through, and I planned my 2014 race calendar, this event was turning out to be “the big one” for me. I started training for it exclusively around November. Lots and lots of pull-ups, grip-specific work, monkey bars, rings, I even added 4 ropes to my jungle gym for training the Tarzan Swing, and a 40′ rope traverse. I had to cut waaaay back on my mileage due to recurring hamstring tendonitis. But I wasn’t too concerned about that, because I had heard this is an obstacle racer’s race, not a runner’s race. Let me just say that I was tremendously underprepared for what Rob Butler had in store for us.

We arrived at our motel in Rutland the night before, and as usual, I got very little sleep (pre-race jitters and excitement). We arrived on-site Saturday morning at 5:45, and the place was already abuzz. Check-in was very clear and orderly, and I quickly found my reserved bin spot and dropped off my gear. After some bonding time with fellow NE Spahtens, it was time to go through to 72 pieces of clothing and gear I packed and decide what it was going to be. I settled on a pair of running tights, fleece pants, and light windpants. On top, I went with a mock turtleneck base layer and a light fleece jacket. Two pairs of wool socks and my Salomon Speedcross 3s down below, and a NE Spahten beanie. For hydration, I went with a waist-pack carrying a 12-oz water bottle with just water and a Nuun tablet. Finally, I chose my Burton snowboarding mittens. No handwarmers/toewarmers were necessary — it was about 20 deg at the start, and warmed up over 30 during the day.

The start was a little underwhelming. I was standing there chit-chatting with Aaron Farb and neither of us realized that the race had actually started. It was a fast start, that quickly came to a clogged teeter-totter obstacle that was a lot of fun — higher and longer than at any other race. Then some more snowy trails, and the first “work” obstacle: the tire flip. There were several (but not enough) heavy equipment tires with numbers painted on them. The goal was to flip your tire up the modest hill the number on the tire, and then flip it back down the same number. Most were a 10 (maybe 300+ lbs?), but some heavier (a 2) and some lighter (a 20). Then on to the rest of the course. There were hay bails and 4-6′ walls to jump/climb over at several points in the course. They were deceptively easy at the start of the race, and much less so towards the end.

Somewhere near the 2 mile mark was possibly the worst of the “work” obstacles, a long, hilly sandbag/sloshpipe carry. I would estimate the sandbag to be 60lbs, and the sloshpipe possibly 30lbs. It was suggested to pick on on your first lap, and the other on your second lap. Smart. It was very hard trudging uphill with a 60lb sandbag over your shoulder, and nearly impossible to go down the snowy/icy hills without slipping and falling. That’s where I tore the first hole in the seat of my windpants. Then immediately after that suckage came the pond traverse (a Tyrolean Traverse) with three ropes spanning 85′ across a frozen pond. There was a bit of a back-up here on my first lap, because it is a very time-consuming obstacle. The majority of people performed this obstacle by going on top of the rope and pulling themselves along. Tiring, but not as much so as the hanging method. Not many people who did it that way made it all the way across.

Next up was Gut Check, many people’s least favorite obstacle, and the source of a broken rib or three. You lept up to the top of the first log, and then jumped to the next one, a couple of feet up and out, landing (hopefully) on your gut, and then over the other side. With two more to go. Then onto another “work” obstacle, a tire drag (thankfully just a car or light truck tire) through the snow. Then after more trail running, there were three technical obstacles requiring much upper body and core strength: the Abacus, the Linkin Logs, and the Swinging Ladders. Not super difficult, but all taxing on the body.

The next obstacle is where I earned my first chip: the traverse wall. 150′ of never-ending grip hell. I hadn’t yet earned a chip, and was determined to not fail here, so I gave it four tries, making it further and further each time. But finally, I had to call it at aboutthe halfway point, there was just not enough grip to make it across the high 2×10 traverse using only arms.

I don’t remember the name or location of the obstacle I was the most apprehensive of coming into this: a high rope climb to a platform with nothing to put your feet on for assistance. My first lap I was able to do this, as there were people at the top for help if needed, and my confidence was high. I made it up, and stayed a bit to help out fellow racers. My second lap however, I made it up and had both hands on the platform, but after two attempts, I was unable to get on top, and chickened out and went back down, taking my chip.

And to add insult to injury, the next obstacle following the traverse wall was the Heinous Hoist. Men had to hoist a large concrete weight up probably 25′ using a 1″ rope — 6 times. What little grip was left after the traverse wall was used up here. After this was the first of two barbed wire crawls, this one over a frozen creek. At least it was frozen during my first lap. During my second lap, it was a cold and uninviting slushy. Next, a slant wall with rope assist that wasn’t too bad since it wasn’t very slippery. I could imagine it being much tougher in the other three seasons when coated in mud. Now onto some relatively simple field jogging, to a dastardly Balance Alley, a series of on-edge 2x12s to walk across. Normally, possibly simple, but with sore calves and arches, this one yielded a chip for many people. After 5 or 6 attempts, I finally beat this one.

Next UP: the fireman’s pole. But not to slide down — to climb UP. To a platform, followed by a cargo net to a 60deg ramp slide down. Stuck the landing, painfully. Then onto the second barbed wire crawl, about 17 miles long, and then another “work” obstacle, a log carry around the perimeter of a hay field. With an A-frame to go up and over with said log. More off-field jogging, and then, What’s this? The Loom? What the hell are we supposed to do here. A series of rounded-pver 4x4s at a 45-deg slant, which you had to go over and under alternating, without feet touching the ground. Followed by a short rope traverse, to the same thing going down. My favorite obstacle at the course. Then there were 723 more hay bales. Stupid hay bales.

Then a twofer: a 19′ rope climb, with brand new 2″ polyprop rope, and an 11′ vertical wall with rope assist. Not thinking, I tackled the wall first, and just barely didn’t have enough grip for the 19′ rope. Second chip, thank you. The rope was so stiff that it made it tough to get a foot lock on. More practice for this one for sure. Following a short parallel bar traverse was the last of the “work” obstacles: fill a 5-gallong bucket 3/4-way with gravel, and carry it around a big field loop. A little more running, and then 3 9′ ladder walls to the much-talked-about monkey bars. I thought I was well-prepared for this obstacle, having a similar one in my back yard, but grip had left the building. I made it to the end of the flat section, but only made it up three bars on the incline. Third chip.

What followed was a number of ascents and descents (okay, slides) through some technical wooded and rocky hills. Then the obstacle that almost no one succeeded at: the tarzan swing. 14 ropes in a line leading to an 8′ wall. All without touching the ground. I made it halfway and lost my grip. Fourth and final chip. And that’s where I realized I was going to be in penalty purgatory for a long time. But the good news was, almost done with lap one. Just need to make it through Anaconda, a series of up and downs crossing back and forth over the gravel road to the parking lot. And when it was almost all done, two stupid walls blocking the way. Why? Just because Rob Butler can.

Made it back to the barn, where I had to perform about 90 dips, 45 PUP pushups, 6 wall over-unders, log flips, log lunges, and 10 tire hoists. Before rehydrating, refueling (sweet potato never tasted so good), and heading out for lap two. Lap two was certainly harder, and was more walking than running, but my overall lap time was the exact same because there was no bunching up and waiting at obstacles. I also didn’t spend as much time at obstacles, giving up after one or two attempts and taking my chips (the exact same four chips). Made it back to the finish and completed my penalities at around seven and one half hours. Just in time to change, eat, and relax for the award ceremony.

All in all, this may have been my favorite race to date. Certainly top two. Rob and Jill and the rest of the Shale Hill team made all of us racers feel special, like family, like part of the whole deal and not just numbers. Jill even reached out to our crew a few days before to make sure we had enough mattresses for everyone to sleep on in the guest house. The food was plentiful and delicious, and we were well taken care of. The schwag was great too. If this event grows (which it is sure to), another 2 or 3 portapotties need to be added. There were only two, located inside (odd) one of two changing/gear rooms, and a long line formed predictably at 15 minutes before the start.

My only complaints:
1) The bunching up at the first two obstacles (teeter-totter, tire flip) was excessive, but is easily addressed. Rob has already acknowledged and promised improvements for next year.
2) There was no table at the finish line to take my damn money for 2015 Polar Bear.

Well played Rob Butler, well played.

* Rating

2 thoughts on “Polar Bear Challenge – 2014

  1. I got no complaints. Except having to wait to register for 2015 Polar Bear.

  2. I hear everything you all are saying! I promise to make improvements in all areas for our upcoming races!! Thanks for the support! 🙂

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