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Featured Review: Polar Bear Challenge

 Did you participate in Polar Bear Challenge? Leave your own review here! Want to pick up a 2016 Polar Bear shirt? Shop here!

5 years ago, I took a trip up to this place in Vermont that had assured me via email that they had something worth traveling for – and this winter race they were putting on would be something really really great.

They weren’t wrong.

Today was the fifth year of that race – the Polar Bear Challenge at Shale Hill remains a destination event for many OCR enthusiasts, providing far far more than most events on the OCR calendar.

For those who have never visited Shale Hill – it is a property in Benson VT, about 30 minutes outside of Rutland. Primarily, it’s a 10k fixed trail around their property, covering everything from open field to woods – with short sharp hill climbs, a pond and some open running sections. The obstacle count grows from race to race – back in 2012, they had under 50 obstacles, but now, that is more like 75. The obstacles range from the ordinary – walls, crawls, heavy carries – to the famous Destroyer, weaver and gut check – to the wildly unique – and you will have to visit to check them all out. Also, owner Rob keeps adding to the course, with at least two totally new obstacles for this event.

So what makes Polar Bear Challenge a different ball game? Rather than run a lap, cross the finish line, drink a beer, you run for 8 hours. That may simply be a lap, but those so inclined can push for more. Two laps, three laps – or this year it was won by the ever awesome Vincent Larochelle with 4 laps. Don’t have a competitive bone in your body? Then pick the ever popular Journeyman category, which lets you push yourself, try what you would like, and enjoy your experience with no penalties. There’s something for everyone. Including an all day buffet for racers, with rather excellent breakfast and lunch fair to keep you moving.


Of course, it’s not just the obstacles. The weather is the game changer, and the reason you do a race with the name of “Polar Bear Challenge”. We’ve had everything from 3f to 60f at this event, but for 2017 things were a cold 15f to 25f through the day. New Polar Bear sponsor DryRobe were present, and plenty of dryrobes were out and about keeping people warm and toasty when the fires on course weren’t enough (and watch this space, we’ve started talking to them about NES DryRobes …)

For me – I’ve ran enough laps of Shale Hill to not have anything to prove to myself and was out there for some fun, and mostly, friends. I started the lap on my own, knowing that hanging around at obstacles waiting with a large group would leave me frozen – so I set my own pace and being Journeyman, I picked my obstacles carefully. This tactic was great, until I rolled my shoulder on a simple wall (it’s fine today, but was sore for the rest of the race). The pond was frozen solid, so the traverse obstacle was open – and the ground was nice and frozen, so obstacles like tire drags were nice and simple. The Destroyer destroyed me – well, the Destroyer plus cold – and the warm boots I was wearing weren’t biting on rope obstacles – like I said, I picked my obstacles this time around, and many of the more complex ones I’ve done in summer, warmer events were attempted but ultimately bypassed, the benefit of being Journeyman.

When I hit the Great Traverse wall, I caught up with Nicole Sibley who was running in the more competitive Open category – and continued to pace each other through the rest of the race – obstacles she had to complete or attempt before picking up a chip were obstacles I would sherpa her pack through – and in between we matched pace and chatted about life, the universe and everything – as you tend to do when battle buddy’ing through an OCR. The company was appreciated!

Rob’s two new obstacles – one being a large A frame with wooden “steps” that you had to hoist yourself up using your hands only (on the inside of the obstacle), before transitioning to the other “leg” and going back down was a significant challenge, and bumped the difficulty of this obstacle to a new level beyond similar setups at OCRWC or Samurai Sprint – consistent with Shale Hill’s motto – train harder than you race – if you can do this one, you are golden when you encounter the others. I simply didn’t have the grip or upper body strength for it, but appreciated the significant padding underneath, which included several twin mattresses! His second fresh obstacle, replacing the bucket carry with a new wheelbarrow – a large go-cart type type, on a metal frame, with a 45lb plate and concrete block – weighing close to 100lbs this was proving to be a real challenge for many people, but played to my strengths well and I didn’t find it too challenging, although my grip was shot at the end.

I called it a day at one lap – preferring to hang out with friends, make new friends and have some food than go back out for a second lap.

A big shout out to the volunteers! This is one race that standing around in a field or woods all day is particularly brutal – the cold sucking all the body heat from you quickly, and not being able to do much to warm back up. They faced their own endurance event, and like any race – you just can’t do it without them. It was also especially nice seeing many Spahtens out there – getting a welcome smile as you came into their “zone”. Thank you!

This particular Polar Bear seemed to get more than normal numbers of traveling athletes – OCR Nation were down from Canada, and OCR Tube was up from Miami. Amie Booth was in from South Carolina and I got to meet several people who listen to The NE Spahtens Show, including many from the Quebec region – if you are from that region, hi! If you’re French speaking, check out their podcast over at 3-Seconds.

Once again, a long weekend with Shale Hill – the race is, in many ways, simply an excuse to go to a happy place – an amazingly good looking venue, with a world leading obstacle course, where you’re always welcomed like family, surrounded by friends – both on the course, in the party barn, and wherever you go to eat or sleep. It’s like a mini vacation from the real world – one that sends you home sore and achy, with bruises in places you didn’t know could bruise.

And what more could you ask for in life?

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The NE Spahtens Show – Episode 31

The 2017 race season has started! In episode 31 Paul, Sandy and Josh talk about the recent Blizzard Blast event (Featured Review here), the upcoming Polar Bear Challenge and the #racelocal program

We also talk about the end of an era, with Tough Guy having it’s 30th year – and final – event this weekend in the UK. Check out the video, it’s pretty amazing to watch.

We have a larger than usual batch of listener questions to run through – thanks to Vincent4Vega4, Marie O’Keefe, Michael Braniff, Ben Millina, Flux and Amy LaPanne for those!

And we round out the show with Josh covering the latest in Spartan Race’s T Shirt obsession. You can read more about that here, too.

See you all at Polar Bear Challenge next weekend!

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Episode 29 – Shale Hill

It’s been almost exactly a year since we last spoke to Shale Hill – fresh off winning the best fixed OCR venue award from Mud Run Guide (again!), Jill joins me on the show to talk about what they have coming up for their 2017 season.

First up, we talk about Polar Bear Challenge. Their signature event – this 8 hours, as many laps as you can race is one of my personal favorite events on the New England OCR calendar every year – and they’re already putting in more obstacles and preparing the all day buffet!

Want to run with us? Join team NE Spahtens and use code “NES15” to get 15% off! Find more info right here.

Next, we talk a bit about their summer plans – many have heard the rumor of a weekend long OCR festival, and Jills lets us in on some of the details (and more is to come, of course) – with a ton of different race formats, it looks like this will be a “must do” for any OCR enthusiast and their families – if you’re not in the New England region, start saving your travel budget now ūüėČ They plan on offering everything from 72h endurance events, to a simple 1m relay race – and a kids course for the first time. I’ll see you guys there ūüôā

Big thanks to Jill for joining us!

Can I ask you guys a favor? Subscribing to our show is easy, and leaving a review for us in places like iTunes is super helpful. We made a post recently that shows you how easy it is to subscribe, and then you’ll always get the latest shows as soon as we publish them – you can find that right here.

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Winter is coming …

10629393_798675933554088_8871261640807198930_oand so is the winter obstacle course race season.

Wait, what?

Spartan Race recently announced that they will be holding their first winter focused event – and the social media space got all excited.

Spartan Race, in the snow? I mean, holy crap right? Crawling in the snow? Running in cold-gear?

I’m here to break the news to you that while I think this is an awesome move on their part – they are late to the party.

New Englanders have been running in the snow for four or five years now.

Blizzard Blast – January 29th 2017 – Lowell MA. While the snow doesn’t always co-operate, this is a ridiculously fun event, and last year, we ran in onsies. That non co-operative weather? 50f.

Join Us.


Polar Bear Challenge – February 4th 2017 – Held on the world class course at Shale Hill, snowy and challenging – you want to push yourself, this is where you should do it. One lap, or 8 hours worth of laps.

Join Us.


BoldrDash – March 4th 2017 – A Rhode Island staple, this Winter Dash was a blast!

Join Us.


and of course, now a Spartan Race. Held in central New York state, a 6 or so hour drive from Boston. If you’re excited for this, check out the other much more local options too – because after all, there is no off season!

Join Us.


(and here’s to there being *snow* this winter!)

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My personal #racelocal recap, and the strangest FOMO ever.


These people…they make it all happen.

From late September of 2014, Paul Jones and I have been working hard on the 2015 #racelocal Grand Prix. ¬†Everyone knows who Paul is, he is arguably, the face of NES. ¬†Me? ¬†Not so much, mostly by design. ¬†I have always been a “behind the scenes” type, this is where my comfort level is. ¬†I’m not a stranger to the Biggest Team tent, and a lot of you know me and have met me, but I’m much more involved in areas a lot of you will never know. ¬†A “forced extrovert” is how I’ve always defined myself, I’m definitely on the quiet side.

Finally…Bone Frog!

But, boy…have I enjoyed watching this season. ¬†Every time someone posted pictures of their medals, every time I saw someone in a #racelocal shirt. ¬†Showing up at Killington and having someone race past me in a #racelocal “hoodie.” Reading the reviews of the races, seeing the pictures of the events I wasn’t able to attend, seeing the triumph at the ones I did. ¬†Paul and I had so many “behind the scenes” talks about how proud of this community we are, supporting this effort.

As the races signed on and committed, everyone “behind the scenes” became more and more excited. ¬†Amazing races like Pounder, Shale Hill, O2X. ¬†You know the names. ¬†I was stoked about all of them, and started checking ones off the list, what have I never done before? ¬†Snow race. ¬†Bone Frog. ¬†Shale Hill. ¬†My “to do” list went through the roof (and a ¬†lot of it still remains).

I remember the days leading to this year’s Blizzard Blast. ¬†I looked outside and, speaking to a friend on the phone, we both thought out loud “it might be a blast, but there won’t be much blizzard!” ¬†It was warm, and very non-snowy, right up until a few days until the event. ¬†Boy, did the weather change, just in time!

…and then it wasn’t! ¬†More snow than we knew what to do with. It was awesome, and a sign of an amazing season to come!¬†We raced, slipped, slid and slipped our way through six miles of fresh snow (that wouldn’t stop falling all year). ¬†And, with that, #racelocal 2015 was off and running!


Killing it at Bold ‘R Dash!

I’ve wanted to do a Bone Frog for a couple years, this was going to be the year I would not be denied. ¬†Setting out with my buddy Rob, I can’t think of a course that pushed and challenged us more. ¬†Another unexpected weather day, yes? ¬†So much for “60’s and raining,” by the time it was all said and done, we saw mid 80’s that day! ¬†#racelocal was certainly an adventure this season. ¬†I watched my wife crush Bold R Dash (I was sidelined with injury), same with FIT in April. ¬†I was this (-) close to finally getting to Shale Hill (which will not elude me in 2016), only to be derailed by child care issues. ¬†And, through all the races, I was able to do my “thing,” watch from the back ground and really enjoy all of your successes.

So, you may be asking yourself how I could have all these cool memories and still have this “strange FOMO.” Last year one of my best friends moved to North Carolina. ¬†We planned a time for me to fly down and see him, coinciding with Spartan’s Beast weekend. ¬†Bought my plane tickets, booked the hotel and the plan was set. ¬†The #racelocal Grand Prix was scheduled to end weeks before this event, there were no conflicts. ¬†I figured, great – I get to see a friend, and race. It sounds like a great weekend!

…And then Robb McCoy announced the fall FIT Challenge. ¬†Now I was going to be missing something. ¬†Now my weekend away wasn’t so clear and easy. ¬†Everyone “behind the scenes” would be at FIT, except me.

My buddy Ryan and I, running hard in South Carolina.

I had an amazing time with my buddy, we had a great weekend; however it is really hard knowing that everyone it gathering at an event, except you. ¬†An event you had a large hand putting together is going to be ending, there will be a lot of smiling faces, awards, laughs, memories…and I won’t be there.

It was a strange feeling, being at a fun event with a great friend and, yet, having this strange FOMO feeling at the same time. ¬†While I was running with, literally, thousands (and thousands) of people in South Carolina and doing the exact obstacles I’ve done hundreds of times, my mind was wondering what you folks were doing. ¬†I loved being with my friend, I wouldn’t trade that weekend for the world. ¬†But I would be lying if I didn’t admit I wasn’t jealous, and I didn’t miss you guys.

I guess that is what #racelocal does to you.

I was glad to have Paul to talk after both races, yours and mine. ¬†I loved seeing the pictures of the event, and the prize winners. ¬†But, really, aren’t we all “prize winners,” everyone who ran even one #racelocal event? ¬†I know that is how I feel.

My wife and Paul at FIT!
My wife and Paul at FIT!

And next season I am determined to not have the FOMO feeling again. I hope you avoid it as well.  How do you avoid it?  Pretty simple, something Paul and I have been working on since about October of this year..

#racelocal #strongertogether

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The Kids Are In The Game!

Benson Bear

Soon, the 2016 #racelocal Grand Prix will be on us. ¬†Walls will be climbed, heavy things carried, miles will be run, mountains will be scaled. ¬†There are medals to be earned. ¬†One of the items we are very excited, and very proud, to announce about ~this year’s~ 2016 Grand Prix is it’s not just for *you* any longer.

It’s time to get the kids into the game!

A few early details for you: Some races will have a minimum age requirement, some will not.  Some will have a minimum age requirement, and require the child to run with their parent.  But this year your children are going to have the ability to run, crawl, jump, get muddy, and #racelocal right along with you! FULL details are coming very soon!

MaAlong with the registration information, there will be information about how to register your child for #racelocal as well. ¬†While you are earning swag for your races, so will your child (or children). Oh, wait…you didn’t think we’d save all the cool stuff for the big kids, did you? ¬†Oh, no…we have a lot of very cool things lined up just for the kids division! ¬†The more they race, the more they earn!

What could be better than spending the day together, racing, and earning cool swag? ¬†That’s what we thought, too…nothing! ¬†Which is why we’ve put this whole thing (and prizes) together!

Racing should be able to combine all of your passions together, and now it can.  We told you the 2016 #racelocal was going to be bigger and better than ever, and we mean it.

Now, look Рmedals and prizes are fantastic, we all enjoy earning them.  We have all crossed a finish line with friends, our battle buddies. Imagine taking on a race with your family! Helping each other on the course, building memories as you finish the race together; those would be memories which would stay with you, and your family members, forever!  Ultimately this is the big goal, to bring us all together.  #racelocal #strongertogether


We hope you have questions, and we hope you’re as excited as we are! Keep your eyes peeled, more information will be coming soon! ¬†All questions will be answered soon!

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Featured Review: 2015 Polar Bear Challenge at Shale Hill

EURO - Polar BearAs if it wasn’t crazy enough that we were running an eight hour endurance event, in Vermont, in the snow Рbut that event was full of Rob Butlers famous crazy obstacles, and with the amount of snow we’d seen in recent weeks, everything was buried in knee deep powder.

Never a dull moment at Shale Hill ūüôā

This past weekend saw the third running of the Polar Bear Challenge – one of the signature races held by the Butlers at Shale Hill. This annual event takes place on the full 10k loop of the permanent obstacle course built up by Rob Butler – but, at eight hours, the goal is to run as many laps as physically possible in that time. Most laps, in the shortest time wins.

This was my third Polar Bear Challenge. Robs habit of adding to, and growing his venue continues, and we enjoyed both new obstacles, new facilities, new penalties, new divisions – and many many more new faces – and that is what makes Shale Hill so perfect for the OCR enthusiast – no matter how many times you visit, the venue grows, evolves and adapts. New people find Shale Hill, fall in love and come back for more. I know I do.

But – nothing could prepare us for the snow. It was the great equalizer, the game changer – and took this already challenging event to another level.

The 2015 Polar Bear Challenge had around 130 participants – seemingly small numbers translate into an intimate experience – with no crowding, no lining up, no waiting – and like Cheers, everyone knows your name. We chose to stay overnight on the Friday, sharing the on-premise apartment for very very short money. There were plenty of local lodging options, from guest homes to share, to hotels a short drive away. For little more than $30 a night, I had a warm bed, no commute and great company.

For 2015, Rob had made a few facility upgrades Рturning a large horse barn into a party barn Рthis accommodated the racers, their spectators and the staff and volunteers perfectly, staying warm and providing big glass windows to view the fields and the penalties. He also showed off his new Shale Hill vehicles … a lovely looking wrapped mini, and The Truck. This thing.

Of course, he’d also added more obstacles. Because thats just what happens when Rob has too much time on his hands. One of which was the New England Spahtens crowdfunded obstacle Рthe Zig Zag of Awesomeness. This uphill single pipe traverse Рthen drop to another pipe, then a rope decent Рthis is one of those challenging obstacles Shale Hill is renowned for Рsomething that you may not get your first few attempts, but it’s a goal. It’s a reason to come back.

But, one of the biggest changes on previous years was the introduction of the Journeyman Division – initially proposed by our very own Sandy. Journeyman is the non-competitive wave. This means you can take the course at your own speed, your own pace. You can chose to do all the obstacles, or you can choose to step past them, and continue on. You have no penalties at the end, and, of course, you win nothing but your pride at completing the course and achieving what you set out to do.

For everyone who thinks Shale Hill is too hard, or is intimidated by the obstacles – this is for you. All the fun, none of the stress.

Of course, no matter what wave you left with, the snow didn’t really care and became the biggest obstacle of the day. From knee to hip deep in places, sometimes nicely broken in by earlier waves and snowmobiles Рsometimes tough and challenging unbroken terrain Рit was a slog! It made for a fantastic and unique experience, and a soft landing when coming off an obstacle incorrectly (year, that would be me and Gut Check!)

Bundled up in our winter gear of choice РI found a combination that worked well. Temperatures ranged in the 20’s all day, and my Icebug Speed boots, with thick LL Bean hiking socks Рand Icebug gators kept my feet warm, dry and the snow out. Under Armor cold gear tights and tech running pants kept my legs dry and warm, and a matching UA cold gear top and a drill shirt kept my torso good. An Icebug hat, a buff around my neck, and some grippy liner gloves and outer snow mittens, and I was just fine all day. Other than some moments when I got snow on my arms Рand a single layer of cold gear wasn’t quite enough РI had very few cold problems if I stayed mobile. In fact, during one pit stop at the Loom, I was steaming significantly! I took a pack Рbut no bladder, there were plenty of water stops and fires to keep them thawed.

No run through of obstacles РI ran journeyman, and had the pleasure of running / slogging alongside Margaret of Dirt in your Skirt / MudRunGuide for the race Рalong with Steve, our philosophy was to help others, keep moving, have fun. Sometimes, this meant skipping something we knew we’d find impossible (coughcoughtarzanropes), giving some the old college try, and nailing others down.

At the end of each lap, if you ran the open waves you handed in some poker chips for penalties. In previous years, this was an area that had a lot of people grumbling Рthe penalties were some pretty significant physical challenges Рsome people didn’t come back because of this. They missed out РRob traded in the backbreaking physical work for time consuming Рbut fun Рtasks. With the number being pulled randomly, you could find yourself eating saltine crackers dry, or sledding down a hill repeatedly, or flipping a wooden beam Рand more. None of these were particularly *hard*, but they took time, and you had to complete them before you crossed the timing mat for your finish, or your extra laps. Journeymen could skip right on by.

All told, The race was won with just 3 laps this year, the least yet and entirely down to the deep snow. People who managed a second lap were few and far between, although the later laps got faster as the course was packed down some more. There were a few penalty free laps done, but certainly not many. Lots and lots of smiling faces.

So Рan 8 hour window to run laps of the best, most fun fixed venue course available Рjust a few hours from anywhere in New England, with non-stop food all day and an amazing intimate environment full of friends and new friends. The weather shouldn’t be a deterrent, you just put more clothing on, and the company can never be beat.

It was also fantastic to see industry collaboration – Icebug, a title sponsor had an awesome presence there, and fellow #ocrunited (and #racelocal) events, FIT Challenge, BoldrDash, GritNWit were present too.

This was my third turn of the Polar Bear Challenge. It remains one of the top – must do events on the calendar. If you let the distance, or the snow put you off, then you missed out. It was extremely rewarding to see new faces and first timers come across the finish line with big smiles on their faces, and talk of returning for the relay, or the 24h event.

Shale Hill has already opened registration for the 2016 Polar Bear, at the best price they’ll have available Рin a sport where I never recommend registering for events so early on РI’ve already registered for this one. I recommend you do too.

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Interview: Shale Hill

EURO - Polar BearBy now, you shouldn’t be a stranger to Shale Hill – described as the “Obstacle racings Field of Dreams” by Margaret Schlachter of Dirt in your Skirt¬†in her article –¬†and raved about by everyone who visits and trains there, they truly are a must visit for the OCR enthusiast who wants to push themselves and see what they’re about.

This coming weekend, we’ll see the third rendition of the Polar Bear Challenge – an 8 hour long endurance event – as many laps of the course as you can make in that time window. It sounds horrific – especially when you consider that the temperatures will be low – but with Journeyman divisions that allow you to take it at your own pace, complete what you can, and skip the penalties at the end – it’s accessible to pretty much every level of OCR athlete.


We reached out to Rob and Jill, the venue owners, and asked them a few questions – both about the Polar Bear Challenge, and Shale Hill itself – check them out.

– It’s no secret that Rob can’t stop building … how many obstacles per lap should we expect this weekend?

* If you count every hurdle and effort within some of our obstacles, then you’re looking at 80+ efforts per lap!

– Some are straight forward – flip a tire, climb a rope – others a less so … what obstacle do you consider the most challenging?

* Top 3: Tarzan Swings, The Great Traverse Wall, Uphill Monkey Bars (but the whole damn course is challenging!) – However, I believe the new horizontal pipes, warped wall and log splitter carry are going to be game changers on the course this season.

– How many laps will win Polar Bear 2015?

* Jill – 4+‚Ķ.we’ll see. The conditions play a big part. We have a lot more snow and ice this year than the last two years. This will slow one down considerably to be more careful.

Rob – My prediction is 3 with current conditions. ¬†It will be key to go with no penalties. ¬†the penalties are going to play a major role this season. ¬†they are made to be fun, but they are going to add a considerable amount of time to your lap. ¬†the key is to push to be part of the Shale Hill “No Penalty Club”

– Who’s your favorite to win it?

* Now now, we don’t say this out loud, do we!!?? We wouldn’t want to jinx our leaders from last year ūüôā We’ve got last year’s winner, Dave Olsen, returning and a great field of uber elite athletes attending‚Ķbut, there is an unknown field of Canadians coming to make their debut here at SH and I think they’re here to deliver some serious competition!

– With more unique endurance events on your calendar, is this the niche you are looking at in 2015?

* Yes. We are seeing a great interest in non-traditional races across the board. Although the marketplace may be smaller for unique and interesting adventure/OCR races in general, there really aren’t a lot of options out there unless you are willing to travel. So, we’re keeping it local, attracting the endurance athlete that is looking for a change in scenery. So, why not run on SH’s wicked tough obstacle course for 24 hours. Or, shake up the traditional boring road triathlon with our TRI-OBSTACLON‚ĄĘ. And the surprising interest and excitement over our Obstacle Relay Challenge! We were blown away by how much fun we had hosting it, but also with energy and excitement of only running a 1/3 or our course at full throttle with teammates. Offering these unique races seem to be catching the attention of athletes out of state. Enticing them to come see what Shale Hill is all about and experience how wonderfully hard we are ūüėČ

– Rob recently ran the course, daily for 30 days – tell us about that experience?

* Jill – I’ll let Rob answer this one ūüôā But, I could give you good account of what it’s like to mow SH for 120 days straight ūüėČ Does that count?

Rob РRunning Shale Hill for 30 days in a row is an experience like no other.  I did this to prove a point.  I have always said that your body will do what you tell it to do.  If you make something routine, your body will adapt and deal with it.  I experience in then first week that I hurt, my hands and legs and arms were sore.  I failed the tarzan ropes on day 6 because I just simply could not hold on any more.  Driving that day, I could not hold onto my steering wheel.  Then I witnessed something incredible,  I woke up on day 7 and my hands were fine…..never failed another obstacle for the next 23 days.  On day 20 I ran a 1 hour and 17 minute lap with little effort and was not pushing for a fast time.   I ran the next 10 days all at a sub 1:18 time and was not pushing to do it.   My body and mind just simply knew what I was going to ask of it and it just did it.  I was no longer sore, my hands were like leather and I was strong, all over strong.  I had lost all the unnecessary weight that we tend to carry around.  i was streamlined and efficient and smiling while I did it.  I will do the 45 days of Shale Hill this summer and I think that my body will once again adapt and just simply do it.  Out of all the training activities that are out there today, I am convinced that grass roots obstacle training of your mind and body makes you the strongest.

IMG_9765– Where is the hot tub kept? We want a “soak in a hot tub” obstacle!

* A hot tub can mean many things‚Ķbe careful what you wish for! ¬†ūüôā

This weekend I’ll be going for my third spin of the Polar Bear Challenge. It ranks up there as one of my favorite events in the season, thanks to it’s mix of physical challenging obstacles and inclement weather. If you think it’s “too cold”, then you wear more clothing. If you think it’s “too hard” then you run Journeyman. If you think it’s “too far”, then you have your priorities wrong ūüôā

See you at Shale Hill!

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Featured Review: Polar Bear Challenge

Shale Hill Adventure logo

When I first got a message from ORTC VT, inviting the Spahtens to an 8 hour obstacle course race, in January on the first permanently installed obstacle course – I admit to a little bit of¬†skepticism. How on earth had we missed such a gem? I’d never heard of him … I reached out to a bunch of folks at Spartan Race, asked around the industry and received a response along the line of “oh yeah, he’s the real deal”.

I was in, and so were several others. We would have had more, but for a scheduling conflict with Blizzard Blast on the same weekend – one that really should have been avoided – poor form for whoever announced their event second!


ORTC VT (Obstacle Course Training Center, VT) is located on Shale Hill Adventure Farm in Benson, VT. It’s a bit of a drive, just shy of three hours from my house, just shy of four from the Boston area – and with the race starting at 7am, most of us drove up the night before and stayed at a hotel in Rutland, just 30mins away from the venue. We actually stopped by Shale Hill Farms on Friday night to leave our gear boxes and do early registration, and thats where I first met Rob Butler – the guy behind ORTC VT and the owner of Shale Hill Farms.


Rob is awesome. Rob is high energy, full of ideas, and as he was describing his obstacles and property and the challenges ahead of us, you could see the gleam in his eye as he jumped from foot to foot. Rob is clearly a fan of the sport, and has some big ideas – coming from anyone else, I don’t believe those ideas would ever come to life – but Rob has what it takes to make it happen ūüôā I will actually do a second article about Shale Hill Farms in the coming weeks – so more about the race itself.

Early checkin was easy, free parking. We got long sleeved 50/50 blend Ts, a bunch of stickers, coupons – all in a classy brown paper bag ūüėÄ

Waking up at 5am in Rutland, driving up to Shale Hill Adventure Farms for a 6am race¬†briefing¬†– Rob explained some of the more unique or complicated portions of the course. Some loops were¬†explained¬†and mapped out, his unique penalty system was explained, and the rules for the day laid out. Rob let us know that the course record was set by himself – 7 laps in 8 hours, in the middle of the summer. that wouldn’t even be close to being challenged today – the cold and the snow were going to be killer.

Thanks to James’ webinar, I felt prepared for the cold. My back had been sore all week, so I wasn’t *really* even sure I was going to race, until I found myself standing out at the start line, at 7am, in 3f weather, wearing 4 warm tops, merino wool socks, two pants and a balaclava. Guess I’m running then. The field of runners was relatively small, probably somewhere around 40 folks, but this was no novelty, themed race – the people coming here were serious about obstacle course racing and ready.

Spahtens before the race

No play by play for the course from me – as usual, race brain kicks in and rope climbs blur with tall walls blur with bucket carries. Video at the bottom of this review.

However, many notable things on the course.

Firstly Рthe terrain Рsome seriously challenging steep inlines and declines-  made even more challenging by the snow and ice. In summer, Rob has several ponds, rivers and water spots to traverse, but for us Рthey were mostly frozen solid. At one point on the sandbag carry (a 60lb tube sandbag through some SERIOUS terrain and walls) my foot broke ice and I lost my shoe in the small stream below Рa very unpleasant experience putting that back on, but fortunately my body runs hot and after a couple more miles my foot warmed back up and felt ok. Hills you had to slide down on your butt, open fields with biting winds Рa frozen pond to cross (that is supposed to be FUN in summer!) РShale Hill has it all.


Secondly – the obstacles. When I say that Robs obstacles challenge, and in several cases *shame* the big races we’re come to consider gold standards, I do not¬†exaggerate. Rob has the unique and welcome benefit that anything he installs does not have to fit in a cargo container. It doesn’t have to move from venue to venue. He can build it to last an age, and he has. His traverse walls were amazing – four walls, joined with balance beams or overhead shuffle bars … a very unique rope climb … firemans pole towers you climbed UP … some wicked walls, some with ropes to climb, others without. The monkey bars, oh god, the monkey bars! They were long, and the guys were then expected to go up a set that were going uphill on a 45 degree slope – never made it! There was one of the most unique rope net / climbs I’ve ever seen, some evil rope ladders with massive spacing – you can tell a lot of love has gone into making this course a challenge for everyone – new and veteran.


Rob appears to breed hay bails – there were lots and lots of them – and while we’ve all seen hay bails at races, never in this volume, or complexity. Jumping up a frozen hay bail from a downhill run? Yeah. Do it 20 times? Ouch. and they all had those damn smiley faces on them, like they were happy to break you, or something. Damn hay bails!


We had three carry stations – a sandbag right at the beginning, a log of your choice (pick a big one!), and a bucket full of gravel – fill it to the top, folks! each was on a 1/4 to 3/4 mile loop.


All told, the course was just shy of 5 miles, across some amazing terrain, with many amazing, soul crushing obstacles.

Oh, and penalties! No “30 burpees for you!” – at each big obstacle, when you missed it, fell off it or just got so tired you walked by it, there was a little cup full of colored chips. Collect your chip – and at the end of your lap you handed them in and received your penalty card – these varied, and included spider burpees, pushups on the Push Up Pipes, over and under a wall, tire hoist, rope climbs, tire flips – and sometimes, the beloved “free pass” card! All of this was done right outside the heated barn, and provided much entertainment for the warm spectators. There was a cute little girl here who appears to have a mean streak developing – she LOVED to “no rep” you when you did a penalty wrong, or didn’t get the form right. Someone taught her well ūüôā

Personally, I was done at lap one and two hours. My shoe was frozen, my gloves and mask were frozen, my back was screaming at me – I finished enough to get a finishers medal and called it a day – then I got to hang out in the large heated barn, with all day buffet of great food and drink, and a never ending stream of amazing people to hang with.

As a team, we had Corrine who hit a full three laps and took third place for the women, Nele who went back out for her fourth lap and took second place – Eric who hit four laps, and called it in second place for the guys – Many of our team took three laps, several took two laps, and a few of us walking wounded were happy with one spin around the course.


With temperatures never getting over 14f, this course was made even more challenging – but don’t think for a minute that a summer race here will be easy – Rob has some unique challenges, and some brutal obstacles, and his penalty system is very *very* good. Fortunately for us, his wife has our backs, and makes him take down the obstacles that only the truly crazy can manage … someone has to be the sane one in every marriage ūüėÄ

The smaller turn out, and the incredibly warm welcome by Rob, his family and his staff made this a very intimate event. Rob has big plans, and I fully expect them to come to fruition – he has what it takes. The location may be a bit of a drive, but don’t kid yourself – we’ve all driven this far to run the Beast, or a Tough Mudder, and the events Rob puts on at Shale Hill Adventures are going to be just as much of a challenge, and even more rewarding when you run with a few hundred people, instead of fighting to run with tens of thousands of people. Local hotels run at only $60 a night – and was well worth it.


I’ll be posting more about Shale Hill in the coming days – including some news about their four race event series and more.

If you didn’t make the trip to VT this weekend, you missed out on one of the best, most intimate, most *pure* obstacle course race experience I’ve had in over 3 years doing these events. If you’re the kind of racer who comes out for a challenge, and wants to experience the best obstacles around – this is the place for you.

Shale Hill GPS LogFull Garmin GPS Log Details

Many more photos

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Guest Blog: Shale Hill Adventure – review

A few days ago, New England Spahten Tom Kelly paid a visit to Shale Hill¬†Adventure – the location of the Polar Bear Challenge later this month. I wanted to share it, with some photos, and *now* I’m getting nervous!

To sign up: (make sure you mention your with the New England Spahtens to get a discount)

To join in with the Spahten community: event

Before reading this please take the following quiz:

1.what does shale hill have in common with Zombieland?
Answer: Rule 1 CARDIO!
2. What is worse then Burpees?
Answer: a foot of snow!
3. What is harder then a Spartan?
Answer: A man in Vermont who builds an obstacle curse for other like minded souls

Before I can give a report on Shale Hill Adventure I need to give you a little info about me to put this in perspective  I’m 45y/o and 30 lbs overweight. I have done 4 OCR events, a local mudrun, a zombie run, a hero rush and a Spartan super. This is my first blog, and my first winter run.

I found out about Ortc Vermont or Shale Hill Adventure through the NE Spahtens Facebook page. Its approximately 1 hour from my home in Saratoga NY, and probably 3-4 hours from Boston and NYC. I had a plan of going with 5 coworkers who have signed up for a Spartan race but have never done an OCR. This was to be a baseline measurement of fitness and desire, until no one else showed up leaving me solo. The ride from Saratoga to Benson Vt is straight forward route 4 to route 22. One hour on the road and I found myself in the parking lot, alone. Rob Butler, the owner and creative mind behind this showed up right after I got out of the car. Because I was the only one I got a personal tour and training session with Rob.

Rob turned out to very nice, outgoing and in shape. This was important as I quickly found out. While I was short of breath, he was able to carry on the conversation for the two of us. This made the course go by quickly. A short run through the snow followed by a sandbag climb left me wiped out. Did I mention the 30 lb fat and the foot of snow. Rob kept his eye on me while I wheezed like under tuned bag pipes, but I drove on.

The obstacles came next. It started with the basics, small walls, hay bales, barbed wire. By this time my energy was fading. I was able to walk the course but not try the big stuff. Rob was explaining the different types of obstacles and layouts for the different seasons. This is not a course you will get bored with. It is going to change by moving or modifying the obstacles for continuous challenge. He is also going to make Shale Hill a family friendly activity center where you can bring everyone. There will be horseback riding, mountain biking, a full gym so you can do the course while everyone else is being active.

And, about these obstacles. There is a new measuring stick for tough and it’s made in Benson, Vermont. I don’t want to scare anyone off as I’m still 30lb overweight and drained from the snow. At the Spartan super, with no experience, I was able to do a lot of the obstacles. Here, you need to be in good shape and dressed appropriately(more on this later). The bad boys in the jungle (a section of the course) will challenge the experienced racer. While completely doable, they can intimidate the out of shape middle aged man. I am using these as motivation and plan on beating them in warmer weather. Four stick out in my mind, the climbing wall, the monkey bars, the Tarzan swing and the anaconda. These will be my nemesis. They are superior to anything I have seen in the military or on the internet. Rob was actually building more as I was driving home.

As I was pushed for time and out of energy, we proceeded through the rest of the course while he told me about various events he is doing. The Polar bear challenge will be tough, real tough with snow added. Unfortunately, I have to work that weekend and will not be able to attend. Then he has a four race points challenge with prizes. It should be a busy year for him and his family. Rob is a man with a vision, and has the energy to achieve his goals.
If you are willing to travel hundreds of miles for a name brand race then you really need to go here first. Here you can train at low cost on harder events with great people, and the only thing you will miss is a big guy at the end with a padded stick. 200 miles from Boston, maybe 260 from NYC, no problems, no parking fees, no spectator fees, this is a no brainer.¬†I’m¬†looking forward to a) being in better shape to tackle this, b) Having the family there having fun, c) coming back several times to see my improvement and d) watching Rob and his family grow the Shale Hill Adventure.

PS Clothes for this. I ran in Army combat boots and combat pants with polypro long underwear, a cotton shirt under a wicking shirt and heavy fleece coat. Hat was not needed as I quickly overheated(if it is windy bring one. Fleece was to heavy, boots had no traction in snow but kept feet warm. My hands stayed warm but I did little in the obstacles. The pants with thermal underwear were to hot and limited range of motion. Please read the blog by Ellen Duffy, frost on the ground.