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Featured Review: Benson Bear Challenge #4

Recently, we had a busy weekend, with 7 OCRs going on – one of those was held at our favorite outdoor OCR venue, Shale Hill Adventure Farms, and was the last in their Benson Bear race series. Stephen was there, and sent me in a review (and I was lax in getting this out on time!).



Review: Benson Bear #4  (9/7/13)

Stephen Mello

The Benson Bear 4 was the last race in a point-based series located at Shale Hill Adventure Farm in Benson, VT. Owners Rob and Jill Butler promote Shale Hill as a grass roots obstacle course and they have certainly achieved that. The majority of the competitors were locals familiar with the course and each other, which gave the day a fun and friendly atmosphere. Both owners were very hands on and available to all, with Jill working the registration, while obstacle mastermind Rob drove around the course checking in on racers and volunteers on his 4-wheeler. Both were very friendly and stayed and chatted with everyone post-race.


Venue & Pre-Race

Shale Hill is located about 4 hours northwest of Boston, in the middle of rural Vermont farm country.  Beautiful landscapes and scenery made the long drive pass by rather quickly, and the empty 4am roads certainly helped too! The free parking was more than adequate for the turnout, and was just a short walk to registration. Two port-a-potties were provided, as were three (warm water!) hoses for cleaning off after. Registration took less than a minute, and the packet included a racing bib and a bag of goodies with a t-shirt, dog tag, and car sticker.

About half an hour before the elite heat started, Rob got on the bullhorn and gave a welcome speech that included need-to-knows like penalties, new obstacles, safety guidelines, etc. The DJ then turned up the music and promptly at nine o’clock the elite heat began, with a few more heats following every half an hour.


1280825_10200565625523814_2084688009_nThe fixed course does a great job utilizing all aspects of the local landscape, including hilly fields, a pond, muddy forest trails, and slippery shale-covered slopes. There are around 50 obstacles spread throughout the 5 miles, so I won’t go through each one specifically. Just know that as a builder by trade, Rob’s primary focus for Shale Hill is creative, innovative, and just plain nasty obstacles. Included in Benson Bear are the usual obstacles that can be found at the Spartan and Tough Mudder races, but specifically designed to be harder and more challenging. The monkey bars span 140 feet and include an incline section and spinning bars. The three (3) different weighted carries are all for significant distances and require climbing over more obstacles while never letting the objects touch the ground. The 90lb rope pull requires not one, but six repetitions (five for the ladies at a lighter weight). The tyrolean traverse seemed to go on forever, the rope climb requires you to pull yourself up onto a platform at the end of the rope, and the 130 foot traverse wall is broken up into four sections connected by beams that must be crossed going hand over hand while hanging… talk about evil and twisted!


There are also several out of the norm obstacles that really display Rob’s creativity. One obstacle combines wall and rope climbs, another called the Abacus looks like a cargo net made by giants, and the Anaconda can be brutal at the end of the race.

Of special interest to those who have raced at Shale Hill before is the addition of two new obstacles. The first was a standard tire drag out to a certain point and back. It was shorter and easier than the three carries, which leads me to believe that by the next race there will be some new twist to it. The second one is called The Loom, and is strategically placed about three-quarters of the way through the race. I won’t spoil the surprise by going into too much detail, just know that it requires a lot of full body strength, dexterity, and flexibility… all at a time when exhaustion is setting in and those things are severely lacking!  But in the end that’s why Shale Hill is regarded as one of the best and most difficult ever created.  A few racers who attended the Benson Bear 4 said that though the Tough Mudder and Super Spartan are longer in distance, the Bear was more difficult hands down. I consider myself in good shape, and the Benson Bear 4 was the most physically demanding challenge I have yet to encounter.


Post-Race – Volunteering –Falkenberry Farm

1231676_815490688065_265974280_nAt the finish line there was a crowd cheering racers on for the last obstacle, and bananas and chocolate milk were a welcome prize at the end. The race bling was a cool looking piece featuring a roaring bear on a spinning medal with green ribbon. Homestyle burgers and grilled cheese were some of the great grub supplied by local restaurant The Wheel Inn. Also on hand was Gary Richter, a representative from Icebug, a Swedish shoe company specializing in trail and orienteering shoes. Gary was extremely knowledgeable about both shoes and feet, and even taught me how to lace up and tie my new Spirit3’s in four different steps to make sure they fit my feet correctly. Gary was also very generous, giving the most enthusiastic and motivating volunteer a free pair of Icebug hiking shoes. What got me most excited was his talk about Shale Hill and Icebug collaborating on a shoe specifically designed for obstacle course racing! The post-race party was small and quiet, and highlighted the only downside of the day… the small turnout. There were only a few dozen people who took part in the race, and most were locals. While this made for quick registration and minimal waiting at obstacles, it really was a shame to see such a great race and event get such few participants. Hopefully it was just a case of bad timing, as that weekend was packed with races, including the only nearby Super Spartan in New Jersey.

Two other things to note, the group I went with consisted of three other racers and three volunteers. The volunteers had an extremely enjoyable time, and said that Rob, Jill, and the other workers made their experience very easy and comfortable… and were given either two free training sessions or a free race for their time! All three said they’d definitely volunteer again. Also, for those racers making the trip to Shale Hill from a distance and want to spend the night, I highly recommend Falkenberry Farm. Only a five minute drive from Shale Hill, it was just $150 for an entire guest house that sleeps seven, and owners Bob and Jacki Ambrozaitis were very friendly and accommodating.

In all it was a great trip, and an amazing and difficult race that really pushed our limits. We are all looking forward to the first Benson Bear race for 2014!


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Dear Race Director… Scheduling

I want to introduce a new spot, here on the New England Spahten blog – one I hope provides useful feedback and ideas to one of my favorite demographic in the OCR world – Race Directors.

Having spent the past year talking to various race directors in the region, and having being an avid OCR racer in the New England region since 2010 – I’ve seen lots of different things come, go, stick around and change.

Some worked. Some didn’t.

I plan on covering everything from marketing tactics, to the race itself – and some of it will be difficult to hear, some of it will be useful information. I would love to see feedback, conversation – even constructive debate from both the racers themselves *and* the race directors.

This week – in our first “Dear Race Director …”, we’re going to cover a very hot topic. Scheduling.

This weekend, in the New England region, there were no fewer than *six* obstacle course races.



None of them will get the numbers they should have, because ALL of them were not only in competition with each other, but also with the super distance Spartan Race in New Jersey – the closest one of it’s kind, and a MUST event for anyone on the path to a Spartan Race tri-fecta medal in 2013.


So – that’s six local events *and* the most popular, “must do” race within a days trip of the New England.

Why does this happen? What is the possible explanation for this? We have 52 weekends in a year, why do events end up booking on top of each other like this?

Note – I am not making a comment on the quality of any of these events. Some of them, I wish I could have given my money to and run myself, but due to the scheduling, it’s not possible.

Lets look at the reasoning I’ve heard from more than one of the race directors –

“My venue was only available that date”

So … move venue? There’s plenty of them in the region, I’ve run many of them. The NE Spahten community can surely recommend a few. What would you prefer? A poorly attended race at your first choice of venue, or twice as many people and bump things a week.

“I’m not competing with the other events – my race has a different demographic”

No it doesn’t, not really. OCR is a growing sport, and the fan base is enthusiastic and persistent. We’ll run any and every event out there, even if we have to drive two hours to your little 5k beginner event. From the 5k foam fest with it’s inflatable fun, to the 8 hour endurance Polar Bear Challenge in deepest, coldest Vermont. The SAME people ran both in 2013, and are likely signed up again. When you tell us that you’re really only looking to attract women, or first timers, or locals all you’re really saying is you don’t understand what attracts us to the sport.

“My event is the best one, the others are crap”

Yep – I’ve heard this (or polite variations of it). Doesn’t matter. OCR is new, and people will sign up for the ones that looked interesting, or their buddies were going to, or they got a code for, or they signed up for first. If you’ve double booked yourself, you’re shut out already, and have to spend twice the marketing money to get your voice heard.

Of course, the only other likely explanation – and not one that anyone will admit to, is simply “I didn’t know”. Ignorance is bliss, and if you didn’t do your homework, picked the first date you thought was good, or your venue or vendors could make – then you lost out big time.

The information is out there, from national events listings to our own local events listing ( – there is no reason at all not to know what races are going on locally on any given weekend.

I’m not suggesting for a minute that a double or triple race weekend is the end of the world. Later this year, we’ll be running Ruckus in the AM and Panic in the Dark in the evening – rather than this being a disaster of scheduling, it’s going to be a pretty awesome day. But neither of them are pushing up against the mighty OCR power that is Spartan Race, and neither of them picked a weekend with almost a 1/2 dozen races going on. Pick your battles.

In the case of this weekend, six events lost out, because anyone who could attend, promote and be a participant in their event was in New Jersey.

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Featured Review: Benson Bear Challenge #3

If you’re new to the community, you may not be aware of Shale Hill Adventure Farms in Benson,VT. Owned by Rob Butler, Shale Hill is a permanently installed, approximately 5 mile course – featuring a heavy base of obstacles and rough terrain, it’s a fantastic training ground thats open for private runs, training – and for 2013, the four race Benson Bear Challenge.

The Spahtens
The Spahtens

For those who are not new to the community, you’ll be aware that we LOVE Shale Hill. For good reason. It’s a gem in the New England OCR crown, and if it wasn’t for it’s slightly out of the way location, we’d be up there way more frequently than we are.

As it is, we brought a small (but mighty) team back for the third running of the Benson Bear Challenge – and, again, it was epic.

This time, we stayed at the very convenient, and very nice Falkenbury Farm guest house – less than three miles from Shale Hill, it was $150 between 7 of us, and Vince put on a fantastic cooked breakfast on the morning – really, it doesn’t get better than this! Driving up on Friday night and staying somewhere so close with your fellow team mates makes this a really easy, convenient night out.

If you aren’t too familiar with how things run at Shale Hill – this is grass roots racing. There are very few theatrics or big budget bells and whistles – the focus is on the amazing course and obstacles.

9:30am being briefed
9:30am being briefed

Parking is easy, with a very short stroll over to the area of the field with the registration tent. Here, you’ll be greeted by name if you’re a regular and handed your bib number, race T and some other schwag. Shale Hill is using sticky bibs – but after the last race, where lots of them came off somewhere on the course, they now also provide pins. I don’t know that anyone has perfected the bib system yet – but having options is good. Being grassroots and low volume, Shale Hill doesn’t use timing chips yet, so it’s not the end of the world if you lose the bib!

Waves went out on the 1/2 hour, with maybe 20 or 30 people per wave – Rob giving his safety and course briefing before each one. The penalty system was explained (spiderman pushups for failed obstacles), and some quick tips on some of the more challenging obstacles.

One thing it’s worth pointing out to people who have never had the Shale Hill experience – Rob is evil. Rob is a genius. Rob puts up obstacles that make you approach them, and go “huh? who the hell thought of *that*?” – quickly followed by “and how the hell am I doing it?!” – but here’s the thing. For all the intimidation of big, scary, complex obstacles – or obstacles that require massive upper body strength – there is so much emphasis put on technique, and instruction and encouragement, that it doesn’t matter if you try it three, four or ten times. The volunteers on the course are always amazingly encouraging, and Rob is omnipresent on his four wheeler – always ready to hop off and teach you.

As a result, after three trips around the course through the year, I completed some obstacles that I’ve never done before – or have better idea’s on how to approach them when I hit similar obstacles at other events. If you can train and race and learn on a course like Shale Hill, anything you hit at a Spartan Race or Tough Mudder will be relatively straight forward. Sloping walls, rope climbs, walls – and more – Rob installs his bigger and tougher and harder, then puts an inordinate amount of effort into teaching and encouraging people who simply don’t think they can do it – and getting them over it anyway.

The course map for this run was much the same as previous races – but of course they had installed a few new things.

The pond, instead of being a simple rope to pull yourself across is now a tyrollean traverse – and the opportunity to play on one of these was pretty neat.

Every single Spahten made it up this rope, and onto the platform!

We now had a new wall obstacle – a 10′ or so wall, with a step, that transitioned into an overhanging ledge – and some ropes to help you make that transition. Something that sounds scary – but with the right technique and with seeing others do it ahead of you – it was amazing how many people managed it!

Of course, there are also the old favorites – the lincoln logs and abacus ladder, the 130′ of traverse walls and three separate weighted carries varying between 1/4 and 1/2 mile in distance – some of the old not-so-favorites, like the tarzan ropes 🙂

Basically, Shale Hill is pretty much the best venue to visit if you are interested in trying some challenging obstacles in a very supportive environment. It’s welcoming, challenging – and when you cross the finish line, you will be chilling out with tens of your best friends, eating amazing food from a local VT restaurant, drinking locally sourced chocolate milk – and rock your heavy weight race T, and spinning race medal with a pride you don’t get from an easy, not so challenging 5k OCR – you know you really earned this one.

Rob had also brought in a couple of vendors this time – Another Best Day shirts who’s gear looked great – but I didn’t get time to check them out – mainly because I was spending lots of time with the Icebug vendor – and there will be more to come from them in the near future.

I know my featured reviews usually cover more obstacle and race specifics – but we’ve been over those with the Polar Bear Challenge and the Benson Bear #2 review. What I really want to get across for folks here is that Shale Hill is a welcoming, challenging OCR venue, with few distractions – their job is to simply make you a better OCR competitor – whatever level you are at.

Check out their training days, if you can, check out the last Benson Bear #4 event – and plan ahead, because the second Polar Bear Challenge is open for registrations in February 2014, and they are capping the field. Don’t let a little snow distract you – the 2013 Polar Bear Challenge is still one of my favorite events ever …

More photos on Facebook

Head Cam (Thanks Aaron!)

Course Map



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Featured Review: Benson Bear Challenge #2

Shale Hill Adventure logo

Last time we visited Shale Hill Adventure Farms, the temperatures varied between 3f and 11f and we were planning on doing 8 hours worth of laps of their unique, permanently installed obstacle course.

You can read more about that experience here – and if you have not, please take a few minutes to click through and watch the race footage so you can get a feel for some of the unique and challenging obstacles Shale Hill will offer you.

This time, we were planning on running the second race of the Benson Bear Challenge (it’s a four race series for 2013) – as many of us were already in the neighborhood crewing or volunteering for the Death Race, taking place less than an hour away.

I’m so glad we did! The weather was perfect for us, and while Shale Hill doesn’t attract the kinds of numbers you see at a big name event in a metro area, the course and the welcome you receive are second to none. Normally, I’d have a GoPro video of the course to show you, but at the start line, my camera wouldn’t start – no wonder, the memory card is sitting in the side of my iMac, staring me in the face as I type. Talk about a rookie move!

Still – it’s worth going into what Shale Hill is about.

photo (3)

Situated in Benson VT, Shale Hill Adventure Farm is the best permanently installed obstacle course you will find anywhere in the country. Currently spanning around 5 miles of trails, with terrain varying from open fields to seriously treacherous and technical slopes – the obstacles have the luxury of being permanent installs, so Rob Butler, the master mind behind the whole thing, can go bigger than anything you’d seen before. Rob has big plans, and I’ve said it before, if anyone can do them, it’s Rob.

We arrived early so Corrine could run in the elite, 8am wave. Parking is right on the site, and no charge. Spectators are free and have full access to the course – with great views of the start and finish line, and several of the final obstacles – Shale Hill is such a friendly event, they would likely put you on the back of an ATV and run you anywhere on the course you wanted to go, if you like – I know Vince, our camera guy, was tailing us the entire time.

The goodie bag we were provided with rivals that of much bigger events – a nice heavy weight T Shirt, a bunch of stickers for your car and other stuff – a dog tag engraved with their designs – for the finishers another fantastic medal (that spins! and can take an iTab!)


Being a small, friendly event, the waves were small – just a handful of people running the elite devision – Shale Hill sponsored athlete Randy Feely was the winner, with a time of just over an hour, which should tell you how this course compares to something like a Spartan Race or other OCR you may have run before – with finishing times for the meer mortals pushing closer to two hours. One thing was clear, since our run through back in January, Rob had been busy expanding … The remaining Spahtens, and our new friend Matt B Davis (website), ran together later on, with Corrine doing a second lap and ultimately taking third place for the women!


How do you expand an already great course? In January, we walked over a frozen lake … this weekend we were dunked in it. Every bucket carry and sandbag carry was longer, and the terrain slick and steep. New obstacles were present, including Alcatraz, a 16′, 75 degree wall with ropes that it took us more than a few attempts to get up (if we got up at all!). Familiar obstacles like the abacus ladder were slick with mud – and rather than try going over the metal rod at the top, I popped through the top rung.

2013-06-22 at 07-04-06

We had just as may hay bales to deal with, but they were falling apart this time (and still smiling at us!) – another new obstacle being the two metal rods held up on tall poles (the Double Up?), with the challenge being to get over the top – I have NO IDEA how to do this solo, it took three of us working together to make this one … climbing the firemans pole to a cargo net and wall slide sucked as much as it did in January too.

2013-06-22 at 08-49-50

Then you come to the final stretch, and things get tougher — the human sized lincoln logs hanging from ropes, the really awekwardly spaced climbing walls, the goddam monkey bars (and the welcome Chocolate Milk stop at the top), the final tarzan ropes, that were tough enough to begin with, now have an 8′ wall at the end – *thanks* Rob!

Then the home stretch – running through the Anaconda obstacle – something that seems so easy – simply run up and down the banks of a raised road – at the end of this race, it’s exhausting, hard work.

Once the race was done, we hung out and chatted – Rob has some really good ideas coming, including some big ideas that are already underway – look forward to hearing about a family friendly OCR resort (yes, exactly what it sounds like) that will be within easy driving distance for most of us, training weekends, and more.

If you haven’t made the trip to Shale Hill – you are missing a gem. This is an obstacle heavy, challenging course – you won’t be driving to VT to run an easy 5k, thats for sure. If you’re looking to take this sport seriously, and want to learn better techniques, then seriously consider taking the drive for one of the Benson Bear races, or staying up there for one of the training sessions (which include instructors from our own elite ranks – Eric Matta) – and watch your skills at these events improve – we can all build up our running on the roads and trails, but where do you get to improve on a real, complex obstacle course? Shale Hill, thats where.