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Featured Review: Shale Hill – Haunted Halloween Obstacle Run

halloweenI missed the first Haunted Halloween Obstacle Race at Shale Hill in 2013, and was kicking myself for it. I thought I was going to miss this years too, as O2X was being held at Loon Mountain and my wife was running that (review to come).

But, the stars aligned, the 3.5 hour drive in the middle was negotiated, and I had my ticket for another spin of Shale Hill in my grubby little hands (well, my email inbox – but close enough).

64752_737221632982401_5514739945111676491_nIt’s really hard to talk about Shale Hill and not sound like you’ve taken a sip at some chocolate milk flavored kool-aid … but, just in case you’ve missed the memo … Shale Hill is home to simply the best, most challenging, most FUN obstacle course in North America. It’s in VT and an easy drive from the Boston region. Local accommodation is plentiful and cheap if you don’t mind sharing with some friends, and you won’t get a better, more friendly welcome than you will from the owners, Rob and Jill Butler.

It’s not my first time up there, of course. I love the place, and can’t say enough positive things about it – but this particular race was a first for me, in that we were running the Halloween event. Costumes, headlamps and running into the dark – along with volunteers who got into the spirit of things by dressing up and scaring you half to death at points, decorations all around the course, and being fairly remote VT – a perfectly black night sky, and nothing but natures noises in the background.

1898286_737217779649453_1413736676649218613_nI’m not so good with costumes … so I showed up in a skull mask and top hat long enough for the photos, but knew I wouldn’t be able to run in them and dropped them in my car before we head off. I’d decided I only wanted to do the 5k lap this time – I’m still nervous about my ankle, and my old lower back injury has been bugging me this past week – so, take it easy I told myself. Just go have fun, I told myself.

I ended up battle buddying it with Nicole and Stephen, and they were planning on the 10k loop – so I set off with them, and figured I’d stick with them until the course split … this happens once you’ve gotten through the teeter totters, the pick your poison wall, some of the woods and you get to the evil sandbag carry from hell … 5k goes straight through, 10k goes on a 3/4 mile cross country scramble, then they meet up. So, ok, I’ll go do that bit – *then* I’ll go back on the 5k course.

Following the sandbag, we moved to the pond traverse. It was at this point that we discovered Rob had hidden candy in little pots at all the obstacles. Candy! Sorry traverse, I was more interested in the tootsie rolls at this point 🙂

We moved on. Climbing over obstacles, getting awesome bruises and road rash at the gut check, sprinting out the tire pull (that thing got longer!) and nailing the rope climb to the platform – which apparently the 5k loop only has to go up the rope … hmm, that 5k option is getting longer.

Hitting “the jungle” we moved through some climbing, balancing, climbing things and got chased down by a guy revving up his chainsaw – the volunteers up until now had been encouraging and nice, this guy was mean and scary and he REALLY nailed the chicks who came through after us – got them good 🙂

10371458_737220389649192_7759022667699458592_nMoving out into the field after the jungle, we made the call to cut about a 1/2 mile of forest out and use the 5k section. It was dark, I wanted beer, and Nicole and Stephen got dragged along 🙂 Sorry guys! They immediately got me back after the tower, as we decided to get back on the 10k course and do the loom, may as well do the log carry while we’re there, right? I made it up the first section of the loom for the first time, but had to bail at the ropes as I couldn’t get my shoes to grip, and I was feeling very wobbly – still, small victories!

More freaking hay bales. They’re breeding again. Then onwards to the final woods and the monkey bars (hah) and rock scramble to the field with the tarzan ropes (hah), then onto the VERY slick and slippery anaconda to the finish line (ps. We gave Rob an awesome idea for the Anaconda that, should be chose to implement, will make your life horrible. You’re welcome!)

When we crossed the line together and Jill asked us which course we did (meaning 5k or 10k), we had to try and explain that, despite intending to do the 5k, or the 10k – we ended up doing the Special K. My GPS has us at 5 ish miles, so we dropped a little over a mile on the 10k loop somewhere, but picked up over a mile on the 5k loop. Oh well, we had a BLAST in the process, even if we drive Jill crazy when she has to figure out how to place us on the timing sheets 🙂

1622150_737234672981097_8269539454111908010_nWith Shale Hill, it doesn’t end when you cross the line. Being a themed race, we had a gathering in the gym/barn and shared a potluck, post race dinner. We caught up with Heather and Geoff of Relentless Forward Commotion who had just experienced their first visit to Shale Hill (spoiler: they loved it) and hung out all night. By all night, I mean that three of us were sitting around a camp fire enjoying some beers at 2:30am, before finally heading off to sleep.

2014-10-20 11.40.28You don’t get to do that at your average OCR.

Hats off to the volunteers – I know it’s always tough to get volunteers for a race, and when that race is running into the night I can only imagine it’s even tougher – yet they were out there, with a well timed “boo!” or a revved chainsaw and zombie mask … they jumped us from behind hay bales, from bushes and the sides of trails .. many we saw more than once as they moved back and forth on the course to keep you guessing too. Thank you for being out there, and thank you for making the event so much fun!

Shale Hill is a gem in the OCR world. It’s in our back yard. When you register for a race at Shale Hill you directly support one of the hardest working, most committed and nicest OCR businesses, who truly appreciate both your business and participation. In this age of the OCR lifecycle, when more and more people are looking for alternatives to the big box circuses, you should come out to Shale Hill and check them out. I can promise you won’t be disappointed.

See you all at the Polar Bear Challenge!

(Also, thanks to MemorEvents for free photography, posted before the weekend was over!)

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Polar Bear Challenge 2014 – interview with the Butlers

Shale Hill Adventure logo

Shale Hill Adventure Farms landed in the OCR scene only one year ago, and immediately impressed everyone who was at their innaugural race, the 2013 Polar Bear Challenge. They had something special – unique obstacles, a serious challenge, never ending bacon and big promises.

Rob and Jill Butler changed the game, and have continued to do all the way through 2013 – the four race Benson Bear Challenge may never have pulled in the kind of numbers you would get at a big, flashy traveling event – but the incredible obstacles, friendly welcome, chocolate milk on demand and heated hose pipes to wash off with were fantastic.

With the 2014 Polar Bear Challenge coming up in just a few weeks, and space limited to just 200 participants, I wanted to reach out to Rob and Jill and ask them a few questions. They have big plans for 2014, and my gut reaction when I first met Rob continues – if anyone can do it, Rob can.

EURO - Polar Bear- resize

Q) Who in their right minds thinks 8 hours in Vermont in February is a good idea?

Rob: Well, ME and of course! If your going to make the trip up here, you might as well spend plenty of time out on the course!

Jill: Only Rob Butler thinks this is a great idea….however, I like the element of snow/ice/frigid temperatures adding an element to the challenge. The 8 hour venue allows us to host a more unique and personal experience. I believe some of the best people we’ve met in OCR we have gotten to know since they came to our last Polar Bear race a year ago.

Q) The Shale Hill course has become much better known since last years Polar Bear – how many people would you estimate have been through the course in 2013?

Rob: We have had about 1000 people through the course (not counting repeat visits). Our growth in the middle and high school market is incredible!

Jill: Between 700-1000 visitors in 2013, almost double since 2012!

Q) It seems Rob is always tinkering with the course – new obstacles, new challenges, new layouts – what are some of the biggest changes you’ve added recently?

Rob: First of all, Rob does not tinker! 🙂 The most note-able change for the Polar Bear is the distance of 6 miles this year. I have added quite a few new items like the towering teeter totters and the parallel bars (they are only 24′ long , no worries!) . We have the traverse ropes over the frozen pond this year and a new layout for the sandbag, slosh pipe, stone carry loop!. I have also added a little treat after the pond traverse (you will see!) and then a rope tire pull to really test your arms after the traverse! 🙂 ON ANOTHER POSITIVE NOTE: WE WILL HAVE 3 FIRES AROUND THE COURSE FOR WARMING UP!!! (Im getting soft as I get older)

Jill: If Rob has his way and an unlimited budget, the entire farm would be covered in obstacles! Rob is always figuring out how to take a basic obstacle and re-invent it! For example, adding 8′ walls to the end of the Tarzan Swing…an obstacle that is already very difficult to impossible for most folks.

Q) This is a competition event, with penalties – what penalty system do you plan on using this year?

Rob: The Penalty Box system will be in full effect and we may offer a couple of twists in that department to spice things up a bit.

Jill: The same idea as last year. Fail an obstacle, take a chip from that obstacle. They do the penalty at the “penalty box” you draw for that chip up at the barn for ALL to see! One thing for sure, there will be no “skipping” obstacles and taking chip if you know you cannot do it. You must try it each time. If you fail, at least you gave it an honest try. But, if you chose to skip…that’s not really fair because you are then shaving time off your lap and the energy you were supposed to use to do it. We WILL be enforcing this and skipping will not be tolerated….especially if you are a contender in the running for a top prize.

Q) Shale Hill is part of the Obstacle Racing Training Center program – tell us more about it?

Rob: ORTC™ or Obstacle Race Training Centers is a company that is uniting all fixed location obstacle courses in the country to work together toward a common goal. Among other things, ORTC will be producing the countries first national racing circuit using only fixed location courses. ORTC will also be working to develop new courses, new training gyms and so forth. All gyms and courses involved will operate under their own names and utilize the ORTC licensing and branding under their name. These will not be franchises, just certified facilities and sanctioned events. I am also putting together a competition to be held at the ORTC gyms throughout the country. This competition will be a virtual “race” and all data, nationwide, will be collected and winners will be announced with national prize money!! I am just touching on this here, there is a lot more to it. So we will have the racing aspect covered and the gym aspect covered! FUN STUFF!!

Another quick note: Having the ORTC-USA system in place will allow for the assignment of national racing numbers! You will be able to register for your national racing number and use the same number indefinitely!! This will allow you to have uniforms made up, post to your blogs and be instantly recognized in photos, ads, etc etcetc… This will also make race registration much faster and easier! Imagine that, just like a real sport! 🙂

Jill: As you know, we not only host great down to earth competitions with a heavy emphasis on “obstacles” as well as racing, we are also a fixed-obstacle training facility open year round to the public. You can come train as an individual, run with one of our weekly guided runs, or schedule your school, group, or corporate outing for a unique team building experience. We also host OCR camps for youth and adults. Like us, we want to help others build the “outdoor gym” on their properties offering valuable advise on course design, construction, and building costs along with a membership to ORTC-USA that oversees all of it’s partner gyms to establish a high level of service, community, and consistency across the nation. If you go to an ORTC sanctioned event or training facility in Arizona, you will get the same great service and quality to excellence on their outdoor course as you will see here at Shale Hill. This also includes a sanctioned race series that will be held among all ORTC affiliated facilities around the country with it’s own numbering system, OCR governing rules, points tracking, and National year end championships. We are currently looking for self-motivated, hard-working, fitness based individuals/entraupenaurs to open up their own ORTC affiliate facility.

Q) I had the fortune to run at Sunny Hill in NY in 2013, also an ORTC sanctioned course – how many more ORTC course’s do you expect to see in 2014?

Rob: I expect that 2014 will show about 8 courses on board and probably about 20 gyms nationwide. By the end of 2015, I expect to have an international sponsor and approximately 50 courses in the U.S. and about 200 gyms. We will be expanding in 2015 to worldwide with interest currently in Australia, New Zealand, England, South Africa, Germany, and Russia among others…

As a side note: Sunny Hill will be holding two races this season and will be open for monthly training memberships just like Shale Hill Adventure!!!

Jill: We are hoping to have about 3 – 7 courses sign on with us this year. And, once we are established and people see we are here to stay (and it works), that we’ll double or triple that number in 2015!

Q) Looking into 2014 – what are the biggest changes Shale Hill will see? Will it get even more challenging, or open up to “regular joe’s”?

Rob: Shale Hill will never get easier . I have built this place to challenge the best obstacle racers in the world. That being said, we are going to be offering a 3.1 mile Benson Bobcat course that will offer about 22 obstacles and challenges and the 6.2 mile Benson Bear with 60 obstacles and challenges. The Bobcat will be ideal for beginner/intermediate racers and the Benson Bear will challenge the best of the best to see what they are made of. When the Benson Bear is complete, it will be an amazingly difficult course with some obstacles that have never been seen before.

Jill: Well, there is no doubt that the “expert’s” course will always be evolving, changing and growing…especially with Rob behind the hammer and chain saw!! With his background in Engineering and as a timber-frame builder, you can always count on solid built obstacles that are unique and challenging, mentally and physically. However, we are going to have a 5K course for beginners and intermediates this year to introduce people to the sport of OCR 🙂 Also, we will be adding the TRI-OBSTACLON™ to the race roster this year!! This is a moderately easy 5 mile mountain bike ride to Lake Champlain; swim in the lake (length based on level entered); return to SH via a “not so easy” 5 mile uphill bike ride; and then finish with a lap on the Benson Bear Obstacle course!d

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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!