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Featured Review: Polar Bear Challenge

Due to some unfortunate delays with air travel, I couldn’t make my annual trip to Shale Hill to partake in the even that sits right up there with my favorite event’s ever – Polar Bear Challenge. I had no bacon. I didn’t play on The Destroyer.

Fortunately, Niki did – and has written up her experience. Over to you, Niki!

12716054_982652671823079_8025138727343932192_oThis weekend one of the largest groups yet of Spahtens headed up to Shale Hill to take on the 4th annual Polar Bear challenge, an “as many laps as you can in 8 hours” event on the 6.5 mile, 70(ish) obstacle permanent obstacle course. This year presented a whole new challenge, as ironically, while most of us left a snow storm in southern New England, arrived to a nearly snowless terrain in Benson, Vermont. With the day of weather expected to be 40f and partly cloudy, we were in for an entirely different experience than not only the past, but what was expected for a February race in Vermont.


This was my first Polar Bear Challenge at Shale Hill, although not my first race here, and I can’t deny, that the weather for this year made me incredibly happy. Knowing that Rob took advantage of his downtime between Halloween and now, adding in a number of obstacles, a.k.a. Robstacles, as well as teaming up with Larry Cooper to bring a whole new version of The Destroyer, any advantage, especially a snowless one, was incredibly welcomed.


I arrived around 8:30 Friday night on one of the clearest, most star-filled nights that can only be offered in small town Vermont, to take advantage of the new offering of getting our packets the night before the race in order to make a more efficient morning for everyone. I arrived minutes after my housemates left with my packet for me, but instead was greeted with hugs from both Jill and Rob, as well as wonderful puppy love from Max and Mogul. The most wonderful part of Shale Hill is the amazing way they welcome you in like family. Running at Shale Hill isn’t just a race experience like no other, it is one of the most intimate courses you can ever visit where the owners will care to know your name.


The next day, on a clear cold morning (and another one of those amazing views of the sun rising over the surrounding mountains), we gathered in the party barn, where the Wheel had a wonderful spread for the breakfast buffet, and listened to Rob once more tell us what crazy new ideas he’s thought up for the race this time, what has changed, and what to expect. The pond traverse was closed due to thin ice, but added to the course in the mean time was the Destroyer, with 4 lanes of difficulty; hardest on the far left, easiest on the far right (elites had to go to the left, of course), as well as the new “improved” version of balance alley with rising and falling height of log hops, to the garden, to the a 15′(ish) slack line, and you can’t touch the ground at all in between (thankfully, you only have to repeat the section you fail here and not go back to the beginning like the great wall, if you’re running elite/open), and the obstacle after the fireman’s pole was expanded by two lanes, adding Sinergy fat bars and Sinergy hanging bars. For Polar Bear, failed obstacles collect chips, which are then turned in at the end of your lap where you have to do the penalty listed coordinated with your chip color, as well as roll the die to see how many reps. Penalties this year included sledge hammering a car, lunges up and down the hill with giant logs, and my personal favorite, hugging Sandy Korda (I took this penalty and I was journeyman because this was the bestest penalty ever)!


12697119_982651531823193_662858493665375557_oCompared to previous years, the lack of snow definitely allowed for more laps to be completed this year. The winner finished 4 laps in under 8 hours (last year won at 3 laps). While quite chilly in the morning (only about 25-30* at the start of the race), this actually played in our favor, as much of the course that had previously been mud, was frozen stiff. Also, many of the typically saturated areas on the course was ice. However, if you were one of the brave few who took on this course without Icebugs, this may not have played in your favor. There were many times throughout the day where you could hear “I love my Icebugs” being said around all the course. Seeing as that was what was on my feet, I had a VERY good race! When you finished lap one, you went and checked in with timing where your time was recorded, and you received a bracelet. Then you went out again whenever you were ready (of course you need to hit up the buffet for more bacon and other good treats before heading out again) and you would receive a different bracelet at the end of the second lap. If you were running open or elite, then you had to go to the penalty table, turn in your chips, and do your correlating penalties before you could time out that lap. All penalties had to be completed before the end of the 8 hours for the lap to be counted.

12694886_982652275156452_4180560205984391312_oOne thing you’ll find at Shale Hill that you’ll likely never find at any other race, is the sincere desire to make their course for everyone. You want a whole new experience that no other course has been able to challenge you with? Run elite. You’re still working on your upper body strength and fear you’d do too many penalties? Run journeyman and enjoy doing everything you can without crazy penalties on the obstacles you can’t. Endurance isn’t for you and 8 hours is too long? Sign up to run Polar Bear for just one lap with the 10k. For all the 8 hour runners, no matter what difficulty, a full breakfast and lunch buffet was included in your registration, provided by the delicious Wheel Inn, which also could be purchased by the 10k runners and spectators.


This year’s finishing medal was gorgeous, and the long sleeve shirts visually appealing. Included in our packet bags were also the cutest beer cozies, stickers, and other awesome goodies. The finishing touch, every NES member got a free training pass for Shale Hill for being a part of the biggest team! And let’s not forget to mention arguably the best part about doing Polar Bear (versus any other Shale Hill event) is the UNLIMITED ALL NATURAL BACON. Yes, UNLIMITED. And it is delicious with the standard (and best ever) chocolate milk received after completing a Shale Hill race.

If you love obstacle course racing, truly love it for the obstacles and the family you create along the way, and you haven’t been to Shale Hill yet, then you’re selling yourself short. You will never experience any obstacles like Robstacles at Spartan (even Norm Koch was there this weekend, and this wasn’t his first visit), and you will never experience a course where the owners want you to become family. This is a course that will help you grow strong, both inside and out. Find a way to get here, and you will never regret the experience.

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The Best Of – 2014 New England OCR

A recent Facebook Poll of the New England Spahtens was run to determine the top five favorite OCR events in our region.

As we ALL know, polls are not science, and the wording used was “favorite”, which is subjective. Also, Facebook polls allow you to vote on multiple entries – but only one vote, per entry.

All that being said, I think the list is pretty representative of the New England Spahtens, and with good reasons – so, here’s your top five favorite OCR events in the New England region.

Note – the poll is still active and receiving votes, so the results you see *now* maybe different to the results I saw when I started this article. In fact, I’d bet on it.

bonefroglogo5) Bonefrog Challenge

A relative new comer to the scene, Bonefrog landed with a big splash – putting on a longer distance, obstacle heavy format for the true OCR enthusiast. Bonefrog puts on solid, challenging courses that have very quickly become fan favorites. Attracting Elites and average Joe’s, with a Navy Seal theme and inspiration, this series is also owned and operated entirely by retired Seals.

With a #racelocal Grand Prix event in western MA in May, Bonefrog wants to expand – so keep an eye on their calendar for races as they open up.

Next Race – May 2015 – REGISTER

EURO - Polar Bear4) Polar Bear Challenge at Shale Hill

This was my personal pick – 8 hours to run as many laps of the famed Shale Hill course in the snow, in February. I’ve done this event twice now – and countless other events at Shale Hill, and never managed more than a single lap in that 8 hour window – but with an amazing family welcoming you by name, another challenging course thats perfect for the enthusiast, or the weekend warrior looking to push themselves – Shale Hill is world class, and in our backyard. Every event is going to be on the #racelocal calendar!

Next Race – February 2015 – REGISTER

fitchallengelogo3) FIT Challenge

It’s easy to spot why FIT Challenge is a New England Spahtens favorite, and staple in the #racelocal Grand Prix. Race Director Robb is active in the community, from participating as a fellow athlete at events, to answering any and all questions people bring up prior to his races. A good choice of past venues, all in an active region of New England. On race day, people are treated well, with large amounts of community space, the best pricing and treatment rarely seen anywhere else. The FIT course is usually around 5k, and while a solid course in it’s own right, it’s the family and friends treatment that puts FIT above many other similar races.

Next Race – April 2015 – REGISTER

Fenway sandbag2) Spartan Race – Fenway Park

Despite the frigid cold and packed ball park, Spartan nailed it with Fenway. A fun, but challenging course, a space set aside for the biggest team, and a full street taken over by the festival outside. As a community we saw a huge turnout, which was handled as well as can be expected on race day, and you couldn’t turn anywhere without seeing a Spahten shirt, even if they were supporting other communities. Massive volunteer turnout, both in the days setting up, all day on race day and during tear down showed what this community was all about.

Next Race – November 2015? – Registration not open

beastmedal1) Spartan Race – VT Beast

The Grand Daddy of all Spartan Beast events. This particular rendition was overly long, criticized by many for having almost all of it’s obstacles in the last couple of miles, and having too many “carry heavy things” obstacles – and despite that, it topped the rankings for the most popular event of the calendar year – showing that no matter what the internet experts think, the general OCR population is still in love with the Spartan Race suffer-fests. The VT Beast takes your Average Joe and puts them out of their comfort zone, testing themselves somewhere they never thought they’d be, and Killington holds a dear place in many hearts as a result. Time will tell if removing the World Championship, and adding a Beast in New Jersey will help, or hinder the VT Beast.

Next Race – September 19th – REGISTER

Of course, this isn’t the most comprehensive, scientifically deduced list out there. You may not see yours on it, and you may not agree with it – but, it’s clear that in New England, in 2014, Spartan Race provided the highlights for the most – but with three solid choices right behind them, and many other solid choices in the Grand Prix -New England leads the country in quality and choice for OCR.

Which races do you think we missed? Which races are you already registered for?

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Polar Bear Challenge 2014

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Roughly a year ago, 11 New England Spahtens took a chance and drove to Vermont to a farm where the owner was promising an 8 hour OCR event that sounded too good to be true.

You can read here (Polar Bear Challenge 2013) – Rob Butler delivered, and we’ve been back a few times over the year to experience his ever expanding, always tougher permanently installed obstacle race course on Shale Hill Farms in Benson VT.

And here we are again – it’s one year since we arrived at Shale Hill for the first time – and we’re back in the snow, staring down an 8 hour event – and it was clear that the race has grown, and Shale Hill has matured in that time.

In 2014 Shale Hill were expecting a lot more people than before, and our community was bringing nearly three times as many athletes as last year. We had arranged accommodation at local guest houses, hotels in Rutland – and come Friday night, we were checking into the event.

Shale Hill prides itself on being a grassroots event. If you’ve raced with them before, then every time you show up, they’ll be greeting you by name and dishing out the handshakes and hugs – it’s the most welcoming event on the race calendar. The barn was finally finished, with easy access racks for our bins and bags, an office area for our packet pickups, and a nice communal area full of tables for us to hang out – with great views of the penalty box for the spectators and resting athletes. My personal favorite shoe vendor, Icebug were sponsoring and vending, with Icebug product experts on hand to help people. The Butlers had brought World Toughest Mudder female Champ Deanna Blegg over from Australia to provide some competition and give a motivational talk on Friday – and Robs eyes were gleaming as he described the new starting loop and obstacles, and told us what a world of hurt we were in for. I was fortunate enough to be able to sit in on Deanna’s talk on Friday night, and her story was amazing and inspiring.

Reason #234 why you should come to the Polar Bear Challenge

Checkin provided us with an Icebug drawstring bag, a super nice 50/50 blend long sleeved T, another sponsor T, a form for entry into the USA OCR sanctioning body we’ve talked about before – and a few stickers and goodies. As usual, some pretty nice stuff 🙂

6:15am on a Saturday morning, in February in VT, and with much muttering of needing new friends, needing a new hobby … we were arriving for athletes briefing. Rob explained the rules – try every obstacle, the new penalty box system (you pick up a chip at anything you fail, and trade that chip in for punishments in the area in front of the heated barn) – some of the newer obstacles like Gut Check and The Loom were explained (it didn’t help) and we were left to eat bacon until the 7am start time.

Lets talk about what this race was … and what it wasn’t … Rob’s course is already legendary. It’s the most challenging course out there. Seriously, the obstacles at Shale Hill make anything you’ll find at Spartan or Tough Mudder look like tinker toys. They don’t have to be moved, and they don’t have to be dismantled. Unlike the summer events that consist of one lap, the Polar Bear is won by the person who makes the MOST laps in an 8 hour time frame. This race isn’t for sissies. At 6 miles long, the course is about as long as Shale Hill can physically accommodate, and what it lacks in elevation change, it makes up in seriously steep descents and climbs – usually under sandbags. This race is not easy, and anyone not prepared to be challenged and put outside their comfort zone shouldn’t bother signing up.

Fortunately, as a community, we tend to appreciate being pushed outside our comfort zone. If you read this, and you haven’t been to Shale Hill, you owe it to yourself to go.

7am came around quickly. The count down and starting siren were a little chaotic, but when everyone vanishes down the hill, you get the idea that the race is on pretty quickly, and we took off. Rob had already warned us that his new starting loop was fast, with a few obstacles that would cause the pack to be bunched up – and his new teeter totters and tire flip station did that, but I think they caused a little bit too much of a backlog – at least on the first lap. Still, those teeter totters were amazing – I’ve seen them before at other races, but never as big! After the tire flip, we were back onto the more familiar course.

I’d show you a video, but sadly my GoPro crapped out around two and a half hours, and my single lap took more like 4 and three quarter hours. Did I mention that this 6 mile loop is epic? and tough?


It’s impossible to give you an obstacle break down. The new teeter totters were fantastic, and got bigger each time. The old favorites of the lincoln logs and traverse walls kicked serious ass *again*. New obstacles like the gut check – a log a couple of feet off the ground, then a second one about 4′ higher that you had to jump over too – caused people to double take. The Loom, a series of horizontal logs you had to weave through, over then under, then over, then under and so on was a major challenge – very impressed by the people getting through this one! I defeated my nemesis, the 60 degree sloped wall that I’ve fallen off time and time again, usually to a muddy splash down – this time I made it.


It goes on – and giving you an obstacle by obstacle break down is almost pointless – I’ve ran this course four times now, and it’s different every time, despite some of the “old favorites” being present each and every time.

While this was generally regarded as one of the toughest events on the OCR calendar – and I fully agree – for me personally, I was disappointed in my own turn around the circuit. Initially planning two laps, I was doing great for the first couple of miles before an old back injury started causing me problems and slowed me WAY down – I was quickly swept up by Mamma Hen and Amy, before bumping into Nele, Ben and Copie – forming a small pack kept me moving, despite several points where I thought seriously about hopping on the quad or snowmobile and taking a ride back to the barn “to go out again later”. By the final obstacle, the devious Anaconda I was hurting bad, but determined to make it home. I want to be clear – the course is amazing. Rob has done wonders, and I’ve loved every minute on that farm – this just wasn’t going to be my day.


1782144_599614713460212_1543230233_nThe worst bit about the Polar Bear Challenge was that after you had been chewed up and spit out by a challenging course, you have a penalty box. Hand in your chips, roll some dice and you’re assigned your penalties. This year, the penalties were brutal – and dare I say it, too brutal? Climbing over a wall is one thing, but doing it 20, 30 times – mixed in with 10’s of PUP pipe pushups, rope climbs, tire hoists and log flips – you could be there for some time and lost a LOT of energy. The goal of the penalty pit is to get you motivated to do the obstacles, and for sure it does that!! I’ll admit, I had very little left at this point – I flipped the log a couple of times, hoisted the tire and crawled indoors, tale between my legs.

The results spoke for the difficulty. Last year, the winner Randy came in with 5 laps – this year, he DNF’d at lap one after a log bounced off his toe and broke it. This year, the winner Deanna Blegg managed three laps – and those who did three looked beat – really really beat.

All this talk of a difficult course? Don’t ever let it discourage you. Rob is an ever present face out there, buzzing around on his snowmobile or quad and handing out advice and chocolate milk to elites and new folks in equal measure. I saw him showing elites how to get a good foot lock on his 2″ rope, and encouraging new runners over walls and through carries. This course is about showing you your limits, and helping you get through them – this is a place to build your strengths and discover your weaknesses – in positive and supportive ways. Robs friendly, grass roots approach is refreshing in a sport where we run with 8,000 of our closest buddies – and back in the barn, Jill keeps things running smoothly.

1798622_598587373562946_552485144_nThe Spahtens had a great showing – 31 team members, and we placed well on the podium, with Corrine getting second place female behind Deanna Blegg, and some slight confusion on the mens side means at time of writing, I’m not sure who placed where – but man, any athlete who did this course competitively needs to be proud. We had many athletes go out for their third lap (not all finished it), many more going for two – and lots of us doing a single lap and being happy with that (again!).

So, it’s very safe to say that the Polar Bear Challenge was the hardest course I’ve ever done – and the most challenging – and the most rewarding. I didn’t do what I set out to do, but I learned a lot in the process – and thats really what Shale Hill is about. To complete this course with no penalty means you are truly in the elite levels of this sport – but every time I’ve taken a spin around, I’ve completed one more obstacle I’ve previously struggled with – this time being the Lincoln Logs and Alcatraz Wall. To run this course shows you the areas you need to develop, and provides you with the most fun you can have, 10′ off the ground hanging off a rope with tired hands.

Shale Hill is opening up its warmer weather, single lap, Benson Bear series – along with some high school challenges and an obstacle triathlon – and they are always open for training sessions – you owe it to yourself to get up there and check them out.

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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.

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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