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Shale Hill, Polar Bear Challenge 2018

This is year 6 for Polar Bear Challenge – and a whole bevy of new people got to come to Shale Hill and figure out what we’ve all been talking about for the last half a decade.

The basics – Shale Hill is a fixed course, based about 30 minutes away from Killington, in the sleepy little town of Benson, VT. It has all the physical challenges of an award winning permanent training venue, with none of the huge marketing budget. Shale Hill is simply the best grass roots obstacle course experience you can get in the North East, maybe even the entire US.

Which is why we go back to the Polar Bear Challenge every year. Because the short walk across the field from your parked car to the barn is lit up by bonfires, and looks amazing. Because check in takes seconds, and once she knows you, co-owner Jill greets you by name. Because no matter what mother nature throws at him, Rob is always running around and building something new, or having a talk with a competitive racer about technique, or a joke to put the casual runners at ease. Because the local restaurant ensures there’s a never ending supply of hot bacon and coffee (and sure, some other food) going in the barn all day.

Because you’re always greeted by people who care very deeply about their event, and their sport – and in the OCR world of big box races and big brand sponsorship – that shows.

I’m not going into each obstacle. There were old favorites, and new challenges. As always, they were built well, sometimes quite intimidating and for those of us who run Journeyman – always optional. NEVER be scared of coming to Shale Hill because it’s “too hard”, as the Journeyman option lets you pick your own challenges and do the things you are confident in, and try the others with no penalty.

There were two major changes for the 2018 season.

A new course layout – as we heard on our podcast interview with Rob a week prior, he had put a significant amount of effort into changing the course – and it was entirely different. I also know that he had major problems with the wind blowing down the course tape the previous day, but can happily say that by the time I got there, everything was up, clearly marked – and there was only one time I saw someone off course, and they had entirely missed a really clear arrow pointing in the right direction.

The new course mapped out to about the same distance – just shy of 6.5 miles in this case. Efforts were made to get some of the bigger, more challenging obstacles into the front part of the course, to give the competitive crew a bit more of a shot of completion on the really difficult stuff. This meant that the previously uphill monkey bars were down downhill monkey bars – and I think that worked out just fine for most. As someone who has run many many laps on the “old” course, I didn’t get lost once!

The next big difference was in the competitive penalty system. Due to the nature of the Polar Bear Challenge – and it’s temperatures – penalties have always been done by picking up a chip at a failed obstacle, then “cashing in” for a penalty when you arrived back at the end of your first lap – but, for 2018 there were only 3 stations like that. Everywhere else, if you chose to “fail” the obstacle (you could attempt it as often as you like), you had to run back to the previous obstacle that you fully completed. This could mean a short jog back to a tough obstacle, or it could mean a long trot back to an easy obstacle. Once you had run back, done the last obstacle, you could turn around, come on back, and “touch and go” through the tougher one you chose to fail. I didn’t run journeyman, but it seemed to flow well.

The biggest theme of the day though? Ice.

It’s a winter race, so duh, it’s going to be cold – but this was one of the coldest renditions of Polar Bear Challenge I’ve experienced (the only one colder being year one, which stayed around 10f for the whole day) – but, with that cold we also had ice. Lots of ice. Ice everywhere. There were several slopes and hills that were only safely traversed on your butt, or riding a log!

So many people skip this event. Considering Shale Hill “too far” (tell that to the guys from Texas here for the event) or too hard (many of us only ever do one lap!) or too cold (I always finish a sweaty mess) – Shale Hill should not be missed and like all local events, support them, or you’ll lose them.

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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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Team store update!

Our store has been around for a few years now, and many of you have used it for everything from pre-ordering a new drill shirt, to picking up a ticket to the latest team social.

It’s easy to use. It’s simple to navigate – and PayPal makes the checkout process really really easy.

But one thing that everyone likes, is savings. So we’re giving you some.

For every $1 you spend in the store, we are now giving you a mud-buck.
For every 100 mud-bucks you have in your account, you get $5 off your next purchase.

The system works automatically – and there are a couple of limitations (you can’t discount virtual items, like tickets or registrations for example) – when you check out, it will tell you what you can redeem, and what you have banked.

And in our never ending quest to support the local OCR scene, and bring you the coolest gear out there, we now offer Shale Hill, Sinergy Sports and FIT Challenge merchandise – check out the latest products, right here:

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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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#racelocal 2017 is fast approaching

A new year, and a new #racelocal season is almost upon us!

It’ll be our fourth season of #racelocal, and like previous seasons, we switch things up, learn from mistakes and grow the program – and I’m hoping you’ll be along for the ride, and bring your friends!

(all this, and more can be found right here:

For those who may be new, #racelocal is a program started within the New England Spahtens to encourage and promote the rich and high quality local obstacle race scene we have here in New England. All too often, people start with, stick with and retire within the large national programs – and never get to know the physical challenge that is Shale Hill, or the huge group of friends gathered at FIT Challenge, or run in a snuggly onsie at Blizzard Blast – or the many other unique events going on in the region. As a community we’re firm believers that the local scene here is pretty much the best in the world – but if you don’t participate in it, don’t register for the races, don’t support it – we lose it.

So, #racelocal was born. The more events you participate in, the more miles you complete – the more prizes you get.

Lets talk a bit about 2017 – this is not news if you’re a member of our #racelocal Athletes group on Facebook, so if you haven’t already, hop on over and join in.

Firstly, the confirmed race list keeps growing. More and more local events are still building out their schedule, so expect this to grow even more. But, as of today, we have the following events.

For every event you complete, we will be converting your miles covered into points. The points table looks like this.

+20% for competitive miles (elite wave at FIT Challenge, Shale Hill’s competitive division and Bonefrog’s competitive division)
-50% for non-OCR events (We’re an OCR community, but run lots of races. Events that aren’t obstacle based will be handicapped¬†to reflect that)

Most recently we announced that the competition isn’t just going to be the full year – we have two mini-competitions going on.

Winter Warriors – all miles logged before the Spring Equinox (6:29am, March 20th 2017) will count towards the Winter Warrior prize. Top Male / Female prize earners will win some unique and cool swag.
Charity Runners – all miles logged at events hosted by registered charities will count towards the Charity Runners award. Top Male / Female points scores.

Of course, there are prizes to earn along the way – and at the end of the season, the biggest points ranking prize awards we’ve ever done (more to come) – and we’re putting significant development time into a better tool for tracking (this is a way bigger job than I realized!).

#racelocal 2017 is going to be our best yet – I hope you’re along for the ride, and I hope you bring your friends along too!

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Featured Review: Shale Hill Halloween Fun Run

Thank you to Nicole Sibley for the Halloween Race at Shale Hill review – and to Jennefer Eaton for the photos!


If you had only one race that you could do for the rest of our life, what would it be? For me, the answer is Shale Hill’s Halloween Fun Run. Friends, my favorite obstacle course, and a post-race potluck that cannot be beat! Bonus points for amazing volunteers who jump out to scare you (and then remove their masks to encourage you as you climb over the next obstacle). More bonus points for the unique experience of running Shale Hill at night.


While driving home with Amy Lillis after this weekend’s race, she hit the nail right on the head. “If I have to miss a race I really love, I’m sad. But if I have to miss a race at Shale Hill, I’m devastated!”

14708349_1203351039708639_1851549855403414145_nThe Halloween Fun Run is a great way to go out and have some low-key fun at Shale Hill. The race does have a competitive division — I placed 2nd in the women’s division — however, most people coming for the Halloween Run choose to do the non-competitive, penalty-free journeyman division. About half of the field at the Halloween Run were NE Spahtens and most of them chose to run journeyman together. By all accounts they had an absolute blast.

14690845_1203352136375196_6662889938196906456_nSaturday’s 5:00 p.m. race was rainy with temperatures hovering right above 40 degrees. Not ideal conditions to say the least. The racer’s meeting was held in the barn and race director, Rob, was clear to emphasize the main points of the evening — be safe and have fun. The bucket carry and the second log carry, both in the last third of the course, were removed for the Halloween Run. The teeter totters, gut check, and balance logs (over the ravine) were closed due to the slippery conditions. Everything else, including the pond traverse, was open. The penalty for all failed obstacles was 15 spiderman push-ups, which apparently Rob thinks is an easy penalty, stating, “Only 15 spiderman push-ups. We want to have fun out there.” I had the distinction of getting to demo the penalty during the meeting.

14642311_1203353003041776_9119568350692790468_nIt was an intimate group so we were able to all start together at 5:00 p.m. It was still light out. I was able to make it about half of the way through the course until I needed my headlamp, which I turned on at the traverse wall. I was surprised by a number of volunteers and given a few good scares. Let me be clear, the scare factor of this race is not high. I do¬†not like scary things. I never see horror movies and would not be caught dead in a haunted house. The scares at Shale Hill are more funny than alarming. Sure, I started a few times when a volunteer jumped out or when the creepy chainsaw guy revved the chainsaw’s motor. A volunteer dressed as Thor got me pretty good twice. But really the scares were modest, and volunteers always asked, “How are you doing?” afterwards and kept an eye on you while you did your obstacle. There were over a dozen volunteers and I saw people on the course, including Rob, very frequently. This was great since it was dark and I was running alone. It made me feel safe.

14708370_1203353723041704_928123750044343546_nShale Hill has around 60 obstacles including some of the most original and fun obstacles you might encounter. The wet conditions definitely made for a challenge, and I did more penalties than usual. Of the 60 obstacles at Shale Hill, I’d say there are around four that I might routinely fail. Wet metal and ropes made that number skyrocket. I failed some things I can routinely¬†make, such as the Tarzan ropes, fireman’s pole, and the monkey bars. Indeed I couldn’t even grab onto the pole or the bars. Yet on a scale of one to ten, my enjoyment level was a definite ten. When did I last have so much fun? Probably the last time I was at Shale Hill.

At the end of the race, I headed back into the barn to tell race director, Jill, my time. I received a medal and a wristband, in addition to the t-shirt I had gotten at registration. (Note: I should add that registration at Shale Hill is always a breeze and parking and spectators are free.) I changed in the locker room and then headed into the potluck.

14724552_1203356986374711_7982663695457848448_nThe post-race party was great! I hung out with friends and enjoyed amazing food, delicious desserts, and an atmosphere that cannot be improved upon. The people who go to Shale Hill are something of a family where everyone knows everyone and we are always happy to catch up and talk about obstacle course racing. One would not say that I’m a very social person, yet I can say that the amount of fun I have socializing at Shale Hill is part of the reason I love racing there. The course is amazing, Rob and Jill are the best race directors ever, and the community that they have built is second to none.

All of this to say: Yes, if I could only do one race for the rest of my life, it would definitely be a Shale Hill race.

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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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The NE Spahtens Show: Episode ten

nespahtensshow-finalTodays episode marks double digit show counts! Yay!

Josh digs into the Montreal Ultra Beast, and why Spartan HQ should seriously reconsider their water situation.
Sandy talks about trashing team tents and #racelocal miles
Paul brings up a couple of Frogs, and some Civilian Military Combine news.

As usual, we wrap up with questions from the community!

If you’re listening, please leave us a comment, a question or a review in iTunes – we love to hear from you guys – it’s what keeps us going – let us know you’re out there!

Do you want to sponsor this show? Reach out!

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So you signed up for 24 Hours of Shale Hell, now what!

24 Hours of Shale HellSo you bit the bullet and signed up for 24 Hours of Shale Hell or 8 hours, or some other race where you must go as many laps as possible in a given time period.  Your reasoning might have been a desire to challenge yourself to see what you are capable of or you might have been suffering from FOMO (fear of missing out) but at this point, the why matters a little less and the how matters a little more.

A 24 hour race takes a little more than just showing up.  Many of us can show up and fake our way through a 5k or even a 10k.  To go for 24 hours, you must pay attention to your nutrition, you hydration, your feet, and your body.  You also have to keep your head in the game.

where-magic-happensSet a goal.  It gives you something to push towards or something to push beyond.  The way you set your goal is your choice.  You are going to go as long as you can, regardless of how many laps that gets you.  You want to get at least 5 laps or more than 3 laps.  You might want to go the entire time and take less than 20 minutes between each.  Whatever will drive you forward.

Know your why. ¬†This can be a part of your goal but doesn’t have to be. ¬†You want to push yourself. ¬†You are running in memory or honor of someone.


Stephanie Rios Bin Drop
Photo courtesy of Stephanie Rios

Head Games. ¬†Your mind will try to tell you that you are too tired to go on, that you can’t do it. ¬†Find a way to silence that voice. ¬†That being said, listen to your body and stop before it gets injured.


Despite telling you to watch out for head games, if you decide you are done and have had enough, that is okay. Just make sure it is a rational choice and not an emotional “I QUIT!”

So now that your head is in the game you need to take care of everything else!

Stephanie Rios Food Bin
Photo courtesy of Stephanie Rios

Hydration. ¬†Start early. Start now. If you normally drink 3-4 liters in a day, up that should be plenty. ¬†If you drink less, up it. ¬†While Shale Hill has 4 water stations on course, I encourage you to carry water with you in a bottle, a belt, or a hydration pack. ¬†The last thing you want is to get dehydrated while running multiple laps in the hot sun. ¬†If you like your water icy cold, bring a cooler with ice, don’t count on a venue to have it. ¬†If you like having something mixed in your water, electrolytes, sugars, such as Nuun or Tailwind, you can pre-mix in liters or gallons and keep in your cooler ready to refill.

Stephanie Rios Food
Photo courtesy of Stephanie Rios

Nutrition. ¬†Keep your tummy happy, don’t try new foods on race day. ¬†If you know bean burritos give you an upset stomach don’t eat them the night before or during the race. ¬†Make sure to consume calories during your run and in between your laps. ¬†This can be in the form of gels and chews while on the course, or via tailwind,
but could also be real food, almonds and dried mangos.  When you come in to transition, in addition to refilling your water, make sure you to consume calories.  Eight to ten hours into a 24 hour even is not the time you want to bonk.  Bring more food with you than you think you will need.  Remember, food for fuel and food for happy.

Foot Care. Keep your feet dry and happy.  Change your shoes on socks as often as necessary to keep your feet dry. Apply Trail Toes or some other type of moisture barrier.  Powder your feet to remove moisture, drain blisters as they form to keep them from getting worse. Blisters are not your own problem, keeping your feet dry is imperative to keeping away maceration.  Maceration, if severe enough, can end your race.

Body and Chafing. Lube is your friend.  Inner thighs, where the waist pack or hydration pack rubs, shoulders, and especially between your butt cheeks.  Finding out you chafed when you get in the shower is not a pleasant experience.

Stephanie Rios Bin
Photo courtesy of Stephanie Rios

Gear List. Towels, headlamp(s), spare batteries, water, food, gels, hydration pack, water bottle, socks, shoes, two to three sets of running clothes, long sleeve, hat, sun glasses, tent, chair, first aid kit, foot care kit, sunblock, bug spray, and a roller if you want one. Don’t forget a bin or bag to hold it all and keep it organized!

That’s it! Oh, and remember to have fun.