Tri-Obstaclon Shale Hill 2014

* From: Sandy Rhee
* Event: Tri-Obstaclon at Shale Hill
* Date: 2014-07-19

* Event Details
The Tri-Obstaclon was a first of its kind event. It was set up with three levels to choose from, so everyone was able to participate in a way that was challenging to them at their own level.
* Sprint – 5 mile mtn bike – 300 yard swim – 5 mile mtn bike – 5k obstacle course
* Power – 5 mile mtn bike – 300 yard swim – 5 mile mtn bike – 10k obstacle course
* Elite – 5 mile mtn bike – 600 yard swim – 5 mile mtn bike – 20k obstacle course (10k x 2 laps)
The swim was set up parallel to the shoreline at chest height, so you were able to stop and stand to rest at any point along the way. This settled nerves for those who were not confident in their swimming ability. I think this was a brilliant move on Rob’s part as it made the course accessible to everyone.

The bike was a strict out and back whose purpose, other than being the bike portion of a tri, was to get you to Lake Champlain and back. It consisted mostly of paved and hard-packed dirt roads, but there was a really technical stretch right before arriving at the lake. Personally, I walked that. The riders I passed who were already on their way back as I was getting there were also all walking back up the hill given the terrain. I believe that some of the riders were able to ride the entire course, but those were the very experienced mountain bike riders. With walking being an option (it wasn’t a lengthy stretch), again it was accessible to everyone.

The event details: free parking on site, free spectators, free water, chocolate milk, and bananas for all at the transition as well as at the finish. This was not a race set up for vendors, so there is nothing to report on those for this inaugural event. Next year may be different. The schwag was a unique Tri-Obstaclon dog tag shaped medal and a sleeveless shirt. They also threw in Shale Hill stickers, dog tags, and temporary tattoos.

* Race Details
I registered to do the Power level of the race. Given that I haven’t been on a bike or in a pool in more than a year, I over estimated my abilities to complete the 10k course. Thankfully, Rob and Jill are nothing if not flexible. When I returned from the bike-swim-bike portion of the race, I asked to please switch to the 5k Sprint option and was obliged. All it took was a quick switch of the wristband I was wearing to indicate the correct length and I was all set.

While I was in the transition area, Rob was there gathering bananas and Powerade. It seems that calls were coming in from all over the course of runners with cramping issues. Rob proceeded to head out with the supplies on his ATV to catch as many in need as he could. I am pretty certain that you don’t get that level of attention at any other race. It is yet more proof that once you are at Shale Hill, you are family. You are never just a registration fee or a bib number to Rob, Jill, or any of their staff or volunteers.

The course. A lot has been said about Shale Hill and Rob’s ability to create ‘Robstacles’. His course is difficult and it is meant to be. His obstacles take a great deal of concentration and strength. They are no joke and make many other races look very easy. With that said, Rob has listened to feedback and has realized a way to keep things challenging for those who need it while also giving us mere mortals a fighting chance at his course. Saturday was the first time I took advantage of his new-this-year 5k course. The 10k was beyond me that day. I just didn’t have it in me to do it safely.

The 5k course was perfect!!! It is set up so that everyone has a great chance to be successful without making it too easy. First, it is half the length of the full course. Second, he has left the very hardest obstacles for the 10k course only. Third, he has given alternatives for the difficult obstacles that remain on the 5k course. I’ll give one example: there is a rope climb that requires racers to transition at the top of the rope onto a platform. This is required for the 10k course. However, the 5k competitors were only required to climb the rope, touch the platform, and then climb back down. Still not easy, but much better for those who are not as strong. And this is just one example. Bottom line is that Rob has made the perfect course for EVERY ability level! There is ZERO reason to keep Shale Hill as a “maybe, someday” course because you need more experience or strength. To me, this is fantastic. There are so many people who are completely intimidated because all they’
ve ever heard about Shale Hill is how hard it is. I can’t blame them for feeling like they aren’t up to the challenge. Now, there is no reason to continue that logic. And I am very excited about that because Shale Hill is the best course in the country and I believe that everyone should experience it. It will be even more accessible when you don’t precede it with more than 10 miles of mountain biking and 300 yards of swimming!

The only thing that could have made this event better was more participants. Those who didn’t do it REALLY missed out on one of the best events of the year!

* Rating


* Name: Michael Carr
* event name: Tri-Obstaclon 2014

* Event details:


plenty, free, .1-mile walk

porta-potties at the base
1 water-station at the lake, plus 3 more on the OCR course free water, bananas, local chocolate milk back at the base, free hamburgers, veggie burgers and beer at the after-party, warmish water hose-off area


Sleeveless athletic-fit race-specific t-shirt
Color-coded swim cap
Finisher medal
Shale Hill bumper stickers
Coupon for race photos
Shale Hill Dog tags

* Race details

This was the inaugural run for this race, and possibly the first of its kind, at least in the NE area. The race consisted of a bike ride to the southern tip of Lake Champlaign, a short swim, return back to the base by bike, and finish with a run of the imfamous Shale Hill obstacle course. There were three divisions for this race, with all sharing the same bike distance, Elites having to swim twice, and the run split up as follows: 5k loop (Sprint Division), 10k loop (Power division), and 2x10k loop = 20k (Elite Division). The majority of racers were Power division, with a handful in each of the other two.

Bike leg:
The race started prompty at 9am, with everyone in one heat, staged 4-5 across on their bikes, in several close rows. There were roughly 30 particpants, so multiple heats were not necessary. Also, simple phone clock time was used, no timing chips or other technology, to keep costs down, which made perfect sense for this relatively small and intimate race. Riders sprinted from the start to gain position through the grassy field area and along the woods, and finally out onto the dirt/gravel fire roads. Although the net elevation change from the base to the lake was negative, it certainly didn’t feel it. The route was very hilly, advantage given to the true cyclists who could spin efficiently up the uphills, and reduce drag still under power on the downhills. Most of us however were just occasional cyclists, and many hadn’t ridden a bike in years. Most riders smartly chose mountain bikes for the task, with one rider opting for a unicycle. Yes, an offroad unicycle. The last mile of the 6+ mile leg to the lake was a challenging, rocky, single-track section that required great care (or dismounting). Approaching the lake, riders dismounted, were checked in, and descended by foot to the swim entrance. Following the swim, riders returned to their bike, their swim time logged, and proceeded back onto the bike course, for a 6+ mile net-uphill return the same way they came. The entire bike leg was very well marked and had encouraging volunteers at every turn/intersection. It was never an issue worrying about going off-course.

Swim leg:
Most riders opted to keep their shoes on during the swim, as the swim area was not a beach, and had a fairly rocky bottom. Swimmers walked straight in away from shore about 20′ to a rope that ran parallel to the shoreline, 50 yards to the left, and 100 yards to the right, and were instructed to swim to the left past the last buoy (a floating milk jug), turn around, and swim back to the other end of the rope and the last buoy there, turn around, and return to where they started (for a total of 300 yards). Elite Division (identified by yellow swim cap) were instructed to repeat, for a total of 600 yds. Since the route was parallel to the shore, swimmers could stand at any point, touching bottom, and rest, with no penalty. In fact, swimmers could walk as much of the “swim” as they wanted as long as they kept their chest below water. There was one rescuer in a kayak at all times, with 2-3 other volunteers on shore spotting swimmers. It was a very well controlled and safe atmosphere. Congestion was never an issue, and the usual problem of people swimming into and on top of each other seen at most triathlons was not there.

Run leg:
Despite being in central Vermont, minutes from major ski mountains, Shale Hill is in a relatively flat section of farm country. There are no long death marches summiting blue ski slopes. Having said that, however, the course does make excellent use of the local rolling hills by winding up and down the shorter, steep hills several times. The course feels like it is an even mix between being out in the open farm fields, and weaving in and through the strips of wooded areas. Hill climbs are usually in shale (hence the name of the course) where care must be taken. Most wooded sections are single-track, but congestion has never been an issue for this racer. The course is very well marked, and getting lost or off-course is just not an issue. There are red and yellow arrow signs making clear where the 5k and 10/20k courses diverge. At some Shale Hill races, the course begins and ends at the base “lodge”, but this race, the start/finish was down the hill, halfway to the parking area. I would have like to see one or two more water stations on course. I missed one, and was thirsty for a while. Having said that, the race director and others ride around the course on ATVs, offering water, PowerAid, and bananas to racers in need.

What the course lacks in elevation change is more than made up for in volume and difficulty of obstacles. As mentioned, for this particular race, there were three divisions, and the Sprint racers did fewer obstacles than the other divisions. I did not run Sprint, but would guess that they did about half the obstacles (20-30?), the Power division encountered 51 obstacles, and the Elite racers were expected to hit all 102 (only two athletes accomplished this). And these obstacles are not your standard, run-of-the-mill 4-8′ walls and playground monkey bars. The obstacles at Shale Hill are designed and built by a man who some think is part genius, part madman. People don’t come to Shale Hill and “crush it”. People, including elites, come to survive it. If Rob Butler, race director, hears someone saying such-and-such obstacle as too easy, you can expect an enhanced version of that next time. Very few people are able to complete a lap of the 10k course failing at none of the obstacles. Gererally people are thrilled to get most, be close at several more, and fail miserably on the “biggies” (tyrolean traverse, rope-to-platform, traverse wall, incline monkey bars, fireman pole, and tarzan swing). Everyone I have raced with that has failed one or more of these obstacles is generally looking to improve on one or more each time they visit the course. Any one of these obstacles may not be all that challenging all by itself to a fresh racer practicing in their back yard. It is the cumulative effect of 20-25 grip and upper body intensive obstacles one after the other that impede most racers from getting through penalty-free. And for this race, three obstacles had a penalty of 50 Spiderman Pushups: traverse wall, monkey bars, and tarzan swing. All other obstacles would cost you “just” 25 SPUs. I won’t go into detail describing each obstacle, because they are all outlined on the Shale Hill website. What I will say is this: do not underestimate the sheer work load of the 4-5 obstacles designed to sap your energy: the tire flip(s), sandbag carry (1/2-mi through very hilly woods), heinous hoist (6x), log carry (1/4-mi around a farm field, dodging a working farm thresher if you are lucky), and the gravel bucket carry (3/4-filled 5-gal bucket of shale gravel, 1/4-mi around a field).

Before the addition of the 5k course this year (which overlays the 10k course and shares many of the same obstacles), some would view this course as “too hard” for the average consumer. Most big box OCRs try to appeal to the masses, and not scare away anyone (except through the requisite “toughest event in the solar system” marketing most use). Not everyone wants to push those limits, and run those distances, thus the introduction of a “kinder, gentler” version, that is still tougher than the majority of the races out there, while still appealing to anyone who can finish one of those other races. The same red/yellow arrow signs that guide runners on course are also used at obstacles to indicate where the 5k and 10/20k racers must do somethign differently. For example, at one point are a series of logs, with yellow arrows pointing down (indicating 10/20k racers crawl under), and red signs pointing up, indicating 5k racers step over. Also, racers are encouraged to help each other. Nothing says one must accomlish each obstacle individually. Some racers set this as a personal goal, and others win by helping others. Most of the Shale Hill obstacles lend themselves nicely to this split.

Other notes:
For this particular race, the staff/volunteer to racer ratio felt close to 1:1. Rob and Jill Butler clearly treat this course like more than a business. They take it personally. If a racer is upset or hurt, they listen, and want to know how and why, and what can be done better. I can only speak from my personal experiences with Shale Hill, but can say this: when Rob heard that I had gone out for my 2nd lap of the 10k course, to the concerns of my friends and the medic, he came out looking for me and found me in the woods at the unstable rope ladder obstacle. I had been standing near the top for a few minutes trying to rest my grip enough to come back down, and ultimately fell off two rungs from the bottom. It was *unsafe* for me to be there, and Rob knew it, and asked how I was doing. He said he’d like to run alongside me. We ran together for maybe another mile, doing 4-5 more obstacles together, teaching me a thing or two, until finally we hit the traverse wall and I knew it was not my day, and had to tap out. He smiled at me, and told me what a great job I had done, and said he knew a shortcut back to the base. Every other racer was already there enjoying the burgers, beer, and chocolate milk. But Rob came back out for me. One racer. Not because I am special or a personal friend, but because I was a racer of his for the day. And this is how you are treated at this course. I go there because I feel like family. Jill Butler texted me later to make sure we were treated okay at the guest house where we stayed, and wanted to know if there was anything they could do for us. When was the last time you were treated like family by Brand X?

* Rating:


1 thought on “Tri-Obstaclon Shale Hill 2014

  1. Means so much to me to hear these wonderful reviews. I hope that Shale Hill will be here for years to come and that we can offer the same type of personal service that we offer today. WE LOVE OUR RACERS!

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