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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!

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Featured Review: Ragnar Relay, Cape Cod 2015

CC-NB-logoI made a single new years resolution this year (I never make resolutions) – “Don’t die at Ragnar”. I’d signed up for the 2015 Cape Cod Ragnar Relay – but hadn’t run in some time.

Some considerable time.

Injury, busy OCR weekends, a loss of focus on fitness and more excuses had all gotten between me and the road, and 2014 wasn’t a year that saw much running for me. In fact, RunKeeper shows a single 5k road race in May, and a very slow 5 mile Turkey Trot (admission: I walked a bunch) – and thats it. So, I was going to train for this one, and be sure I didn’t enter the event with no miles on my legs – and primarily, don’t die.

Of course, life got in my way, running took a back seat, and training always started tomorrow – so this years Ragnar saw me very unprepared for the running, and having done no training, beyond three 4 mile runs, two weeks before.

This was going to be interesting, then.

So – what is Ragnar Relay? Why is it different from “normal” road racing? A quick break down, for the unfamiliar:

Ragnar Relay is approximately 200 miles of road running – split amongst 1 team, in 2 vans, consisting of 12 people. Every person has 3 “legs” to run, of varying distances, and you rotate through the people and vans.

#nesninjas - Van 1Van 1 – our van – started out in Hull, MA at 6am on Friday morning, meaning we had a 3am wake up call at our Braintree hotel to make it to the starting line, go through the extremely well organized (and funny) briefing and safety procedure and pick everything we needed up – from our safety flags, to race specific T Shirts for the whole team – before lining Jessica up for the 6am departure, and her first leg – and Ragnar Relay was underway!

#nesninjas - Van 1

Here’s the thing with Ragnar, it is full of moments of high activity – like sending a runner out – and longer moments of downtime – like us immediately hitting dunkin donuts once she was out of sight. The whole event is like that – as you drive your 15 seat van from exchange to exchange and wait. But, thats also it’s big attraction – every exchange is a social melting pot, and a chance to get to know your van mates a little better. By the end of the 200 miles, you know them well.

#nesninjas from Van #1
#nesninjas from Van #1

#nesninjas - Van 1Personally, I was very nervous about my running. With my lack of training, and lack of distance in recent memory, I was going to be covering three legs, totaling about 16 to 17 miles, with not much more than gut and memory to go on – I really wasn’t sure what to expect, and in the run up to the event, I’d been lowering my expectations from 10 minute miles, to 11 … rumor has it, I may have mentioned 12 minute miles at one point. To say I had low expectations is an understatement.

Being runner #4, I could watch a couple of exchanges and get my legs before my run. Leg 3 and 4 had a last minute change – leaving us to pick our own exchange point. We made the call to split leg 3 and leg 4 in the middle – with Jes doing a 6.5, and me taking over for a 6 mile.

My first 6 mile run since 2011, that is. With a slap bracelet being handed over, I was off, running through the streets of Marshfield. I had no idea what to pace at, it was hotter than I expected – but I just kept running.

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#nesninjas - Van 1Somehow, it didn’t kill me. Even when I hit some hills. Even when I got dehydrated and over heated. I was actually doing this. I even managed a few kills (Ragnar speak for people you overtake), even if two of them were people peeing in the woods. Totally counted them. I even finished sub 10min miles, catching my team on the hop, as they made the mistake of listening to me, and planning accordingly. Bracelet slapped over to runner #5, Wes was off and we were moving to the next exchange.

This is the fun bit about Ragnar. Once you’re done running, it’s time to chill. In my case, re-hydrate, put on clean clothing, and mentally pat myself on the back for running the longest distance I’ve done in years, at a pace that surprised everyone (me included!). I knew I was basically done for nearly 12 more hours – and could focus on driving the van, and supporting the next runners in our van.

By 11am, Van #1 was done. With Nicole transferring over to the first runner of Van #2 at Duxbury Beach, where we could hang with our other van for a bit, and do some walking, shopping and relaxing at the major exchange point Ragnar had setup. Music, beach, people!

Exchange 6. Van 2 taking over! #nesninjas #newenglandspahtens #ragnarrelaycapecod

A photo posted by @ninjajessi on

But we were hungry. We’d been on the road since 4am, with little more than banana’s for fuel. We found a breakfast place, we ordered the lumberjack, we were blown away by pancakes the size of our faces – and knowing we all had more running to do, we called defeat and gave in – no face sized pancakes for us (I managed 1/2 of ONE – and was stuffed!). The Blueberry Muffin breakfast place? We’ll be back!

No longer hungry, we had hours to kill. We moved to the next major exchange point – this would be where the last runner of Van #2 handed off to Jess – but not for several hours. Nap time. Music. Full Contact Dots.

I liked this bit – when I’m tired, I like quiet and slow – and being able to curl up in the front seat, doze, watch some people – right then, at that moment in time, that was my speed. Bobby took the opportunity to tag some vans (the process of sneaking your magnet onto a van is called tagging – get caught, take your magnet back!), and honed his ninja tagging skills. #nesninjas - Van 1 But – finally it was time to move again.

We sent Jess off, with a chest bump from Josh (#teamchestbump!), and we were back on the road – and the evening legs began. Ragnar safety rules are clear – when night falls, you wear a safety vest any time you’re out of the van, and runners wear headlamps and blinkies at all times. We followed the letter of the law, but quickly found that many people got creative. Christmas lights, LED clothing, light up hats – the brighter, the better. Couples with the silly van markings, costumes, tutu’s, inflatables – another reminder that Ragnar is about FUN and being silly – and Bobby and I are making plans for next year that involve LES tutu’s and homemade light up lobster hats. We will be stylin’.

This ended up being my shortest leg (4 miles), along with being my only night time leg. Running at night isn’t something I’m entirely unfamiliar with, but being lit by not much more than a headlight and the moonlight, it’s tough to really see the bumps and holes in the pavement, and while this leg was a tiny bit slower than my first – it was still faster than projected. I also dealt with some AWESOME crotch chafing picked up during my first, incredibly warm and sweaty run that morning. Thankfully, Jess had magic ointment, which I liberally applied through the rest of the weekend, and it helped. TMI? Welcome to Ragnar 🙂

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It’s at night you realize just what an epic course marking job Ragnar needs. Every single turn of 192 miles needs to be clear. Every single point that could cause confusion, 30 some exchanges – and it needs to be visible both in daylight and night time – done with a blinker on top of every single course sign. They do a good job too – and the communities we run through left them unmolested and unstolen – something my tired ass self appreciated, while running through the night!

Night time legs were fairly short, and by this point we were actually running ahead of schedule. When we handed over our last runner to Van #2, we knew we only had about four hours to wait, before we were being handed back off at 3am, so we moved to the next major exchange, and took advantage of the facilities – Wes and I crashed on a gymnasium floor for a short while (I was cursing myself for not bringing a sleeping pad and pillow), and with showers and tents available, despite being a dark, late at night stop, there was still lots to do here.

Sleepy time #ragnargrelaycapecod #nesninjas

A photo posted by Paul Jones (@nespahtenspaul) on

By now, we’ve run two legs, been awake close to 24 hours – the van is stinky, we’re stinky, and this is where you find out if you picked good van mates – I’m very happy to report that every single person in Van #1 tolerated me the whole time! Yay! 3am rolled around, and it was time for Jess to head out on her final leg – getting everyone moving at the crack of dawn was rough enough – but after our van completed a couple of short legs, it was time for Jes to go and do her longest – 9 miles at 4am.

Huge kudos, I wouldn’t have liked to have that particular one – by now, it was very cold, some of us were under dressed, expecting warmer weather – and 9 miles is tough at any time of day, let alone 4am! I had my last leg to go, and the Ragnar rules state that if you leave before 6am, you need your night time gear, and as the minutes ticked down, and Jes was due in from her 9 miler, we were closer and closer to the 6am window.

I was shivering with cold, my legs were stiff by now, and I had 5.6 to do – Ragnar had marked this as a “hard” leg, and I was a little nervous. 6:01am – I took off my vest, headlamp and blinkie as Jes came around the corner and slapped off to me – what perfect timing! Off on my 5.6 mile “hard” and final leg. I immediately felt fast. The leg was held on paved rail trail, that was pretty much a straight line – totally paved – and slightly down hill – the “hard” rating mis-leading, because it was the easiest leg I’d done, but unsupported with little to no access to the van.

I managed a few more kills, and despite running like my legs were made of sticks, I kept a pretty good pace up – which, when I came into the final stretch – up a bridge, over a road, then down to the transition I kicked as high as I could and sprinted the final section, snagging my last, final and most satisfying kill of the event.

run3 I was done.

Paul is done. Wes (5) is up! #nesninjas #newenglandspahtens #ragnarrelaycapecod A photo posted by @ninjajessi on

After a couple more short legs, our van was wrapped up and our legs complete. I had run almost 16 miles, in about 24 hours – from the heat of a sunny, summery day to the crack of dawn and the rising mist. Rocking a New England Spahten’s drill shirt for each leg, and spending time with a van full of pretty incredible people, who I got to know better as we went. We hit up a Dunk’s, drove to the finish at P Town, and slowly unloaded, resorted and re-packed the van, cleaned some of our markings from the outside, and wandered / shuffled to the finish festival. I grabbed one of the ubiquitous Ragnar jackets, we had some very average free food and a couple of beers overlooking the harbor and docks, and slowly decompressed.

We weren’t done yet – Van #2 had to get their last runner in, and we still had a tradition of running across the line together to complete, before some final photos, hugs, and the long haul home.

Team #nesninjas crossing the finish line of #ragnarrelaycapecod #nespahtens

A video posted by Paul Jones (@nespahtenspaul) on

#nesninjas - Van 1I genuinely didn’t know what to expect going in. I was nervous, due to my own lack of training and preparation. I was also curious, because it’s an event that seems to speak to people, and pull them into the Ragnar life – and I can see why it does.

We’ve all had the Monday Blues. Maybe you went to a convention, or a retreat, or a race. With Ragnar, you spend two days with a small group of people – who, hopefully, all get along and like each other. You go through a lot together, and share moments together. On Monday, you have that feeling in the back of your mind – you can’t wait to do it again.

Neither can I.

#nesninjas - Van 1