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Featured Review: Shale Hill Relay Challenge

relayracemedalAfter wrapping up the Saturday at the MA Spartan Race Super and enjoying a beer, I headed home to pick up the family and we jumped in the car to head north, and 3 hours later we arrived at Shale Hill.

Shale Hill is like mecca, for obstacle course racing enthusiasts. We’ve talked about it at length, and I’m a huge fan, but in case you’re coming here for the first time …

Shale Hill is a fixed venue obstacle course in Benson, VT. An easy 3 hour drive from my house (4 from Boston) – the star attraction is a 10k course packed with over 60 well constructed, challenging and technical obstacles – and it’s not designed to be a course that you complete in full – in fact, the owner and designer, Rob Butler, specifically adds things that are hard to finish – with a tag line of “Train harder than you race”, if you can get even slightly comfortable on the Shale Hill course, there is quite literally nothing on the OCR scene that will scare you.

This particular visit was for the 2nd Relay Challenge – a three person attack on the Shale Hill course. Co-Ed teams could sign up as competitive or not (Journeyman division), and with a baton, you broke the course into three segments, and had at it.

Now, for comparison – if you’re new to Shale Hill. There are a lot of obstacles. On Saturday, I ran 7 miles and had roughly 20 Spartan obstacles. On Sunday, I ran 1.3 miles officially, and hit as many obstacles – and they were significantly tougher obstacles too. This was an exhausting weekend, to say the least!

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Athlete briefing

As is common for the venue, parking is free and a short walk from the main registration barn. We had stayed onsite the night before in the apartment so our walk to registration took seconds, and once we had our teams sorted out and shuffled – with Nicole, Tonya and myself making up a Journeyman team – we drew straws to pick our legs. Tonya (Shale Hill newbie) got leg 1, I got leg 2 and Nicole got leg 3 – each one being roughly 2 miles.

Rob explained the rules – with the heavy overnight rains, obstacles were going to be slick. Many people chose to go out in pairs with their team mates for no other reason than to ensure runner safety – then he handed out the relay batons.

Nicole finishing her leg with the "baton"
Nicole finishing her leg with the “baton”

Gee, thanks Rob. Heavy, long bolts with short loops of rope were handed out. While this was better than the pool noodle and balloons of last year, the bolt was long and heavy enough to be a pain, and the rope short enough many of us couldn’t loop it anywhere convenient. Typical Rob shenanigans 🙂

Tonya and Nicole took on leg 1, and I headed over to the rope tower obstacle to wait for them to come through, along with a group of other slightly nervous leg 2 runners …

Leg 2 transition
Leg 2 transition

and here they come! They had to complete the tower before they could hand off, and we made the snap call to all go on together. Nicole still needed to get to her transition and Tonya hadn’t seen the course yet – so into the woods we go.

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Off we go!

This leg of the course is short – but full of extremely technical obstacles. I got the rope ladder, abacus rope wall, lincoln log and others – falling off every single section of the damn traverse wall, and those damn coffins proved too physically and mentally tough for me, that day. Moving through to the hoist – which while *technically* not heavier than the Spartan hoist the previous day, I had to do it 6 times, and the footing was incredibly slick – I found the best technique to be locking the rope around my wrist, then walking it backwards, rather than actually pulling with my spent and burned arms.

And, that pretty much burned me out. I couldn’t keep my grip on the tall slanted wall, couldn’t keep my grip on the double bars – and I didn’t even get on the tower. For me, it was now a case of simply getting to the transition and handing off – I was very happy to finish the cargo net towers, slide down the ramp, and get rid of the bolt to Nicole for her third leg.

At this point, I grabbed my camera bag from my wife, who was volunteering, and trailed after Nicole and Tonya who were absolutely beasting the course – all the way to the finish line.

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Shale Hill is a challenging course – no doubt about it – but that challenge is the reason I keep going back. I’ll never complete every obstacle, and thats why I go back – it’s been a long while since I did the lincoln logs – but I nailed it this time. It’s been a long time since I failed the two bar over obstacle, but I didn’t have it this weekend.

As is usual after a race here, chocolate milk was flowing, people were hanging around and chatting – with it’s more intimate numbers, Shale Hill is the most social venue I’ve run into – and time with friends post event is always special.

With a 2015 calendar full of cool races (a triathlon with an OCR? Halloween race?) and a bunch of week long and weekend training programs going on – I can only encourage you again to make the trip and visit Shale Hill – it’s worth it!