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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 – but 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 🙂

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 – turning a large horse barn into a party barn – this 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 – the Zig Zag of Awesomeness. This uphill single pipe traverse – then drop to another pipe, then a rope decent – this is one of those challenging obstacles Shale Hill is renowned for – something 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 – sometimes tough and challenging unbroken terrain – it 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 – I 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 – and 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 – and a single layer of cold gear wasn’t quite enough – I 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 – but no bladder, there were plenty of water stops and fires to keep them thawed.

No run through of obstacles – I ran journeyman, and had the pleasure of running / slogging alongside Margaret of Dirt in your Skirt / MudRunGuide for the race – along 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 – the penalties were some pretty significant physical challenges – some people didn’t come back because of this. They missed out – Rob traded in the backbreaking physical work for time consuming – but fun – tasks. 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 – and 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 – an 8 hour window to run laps of the best, most fun fixed venue course available – just 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 – in a sport where I never recommend registering for events so early on – I’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+….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 🙂 We’ve got last year’s winner, Dave Olsen, returning and a great field of uber elite athletes attending…but, 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™. 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 😉

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

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

Rob – Running 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…be careful what you wish for!  🙂

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 🙂

See you at Shale Hill!

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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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Featured Review: Shale Hill – Haunted Halloween Obstacle Run

halloweenI missed the first Haunted Halloween Obstacle Race at Shale Hill in 2013, and was kicking myself for it. I thought I was going to miss this years too, as O2X was being held at Loon Mountain and my wife was running that (review to come).

But, the stars aligned, the 3.5 hour drive in the middle was negotiated, and I had my ticket for another spin of Shale Hill in my grubby little hands (well, my email inbox – but close enough).

64752_737221632982401_5514739945111676491_nIt’s really hard to talk about Shale Hill and not sound like you’ve taken a sip at some chocolate milk flavored kool-aid … but, just in case you’ve missed the memo … Shale Hill is home to simply the best, most challenging, most FUN obstacle course in North America. It’s in VT and an easy drive from the Boston region. Local accommodation is plentiful and cheap if you don’t mind sharing with some friends, and you won’t get a better, more friendly welcome than you will from the owners, Rob and Jill Butler.

It’s not my first time up there, of course. I love the place, and can’t say enough positive things about it – but this particular race was a first for me, in that we were running the Halloween event. Costumes, headlamps and running into the dark – along with volunteers who got into the spirit of things by dressing up and scaring you half to death at points, decorations all around the course, and being fairly remote VT – a perfectly black night sky, and nothing but natures noises in the background.

1898286_737217779649453_1413736676649218613_nI’m not so good with costumes … so I showed up in a skull mask and top hat long enough for the photos, but knew I wouldn’t be able to run in them and dropped them in my car before we head off. I’d decided I only wanted to do the 5k lap this time – I’m still nervous about my ankle, and my old lower back injury has been bugging me this past week – so, take it easy I told myself. Just go have fun, I told myself.

I ended up battle buddying it with Nicole and Stephen, and they were planning on the 10k loop – so I set off with them, and figured I’d stick with them until the course split … this happens once you’ve gotten through the teeter totters, the pick your poison wall, some of the woods and you get to the evil sandbag carry from hell … 5k goes straight through, 10k goes on a 3/4 mile cross country scramble, then they meet up. So, ok, I’ll go do that bit – *then* I’ll go back on the 5k course.

Following the sandbag, we moved to the pond traverse. It was at this point that we discovered Rob had hidden candy in little pots at all the obstacles. Candy! Sorry traverse, I was more interested in the tootsie rolls at this point 🙂

We moved on. Climbing over obstacles, getting awesome bruises and road rash at the gut check, sprinting out the tire pull (that thing got longer!) and nailing the rope climb to the platform – which apparently the 5k loop only has to go up the rope … hmm, that 5k option is getting longer.

Hitting “the jungle” we moved through some climbing, balancing, climbing things and got chased down by a guy revving up his chainsaw – the volunteers up until now had been encouraging and nice, this guy was mean and scary and he REALLY nailed the chicks who came through after us – got them good 🙂

10371458_737220389649192_7759022667699458592_nMoving out into the field after the jungle, we made the call to cut about a 1/2 mile of forest out and use the 5k section. It was dark, I wanted beer, and Nicole and Stephen got dragged along 🙂 Sorry guys! They immediately got me back after the tower, as we decided to get back on the 10k course and do the loom, may as well do the log carry while we’re there, right? I made it up the first section of the loom for the first time, but had to bail at the ropes as I couldn’t get my shoes to grip, and I was feeling very wobbly – still, small victories!

More freaking hay bales. They’re breeding again. Then onwards to the final woods and the monkey bars (hah) and rock scramble to the field with the tarzan ropes (hah), then onto the VERY slick and slippery anaconda to the finish line (ps. We gave Rob an awesome idea for the Anaconda that, should be chose to implement, will make your life horrible. You’re welcome!)

When we crossed the line together and Jill asked us which course we did (meaning 5k or 10k), we had to try and explain that, despite intending to do the 5k, or the 10k – we ended up doing the Special K. My GPS has us at 5 ish miles, so we dropped a little over a mile on the 10k loop somewhere, but picked up over a mile on the 5k loop. Oh well, we had a BLAST in the process, even if we drive Jill crazy when she has to figure out how to place us on the timing sheets 🙂

1622150_737234672981097_8269539454111908010_nWith Shale Hill, it doesn’t end when you cross the line. Being a themed race, we had a gathering in the gym/barn and shared a potluck, post race dinner. We caught up with Heather and Geoff of Relentless Forward Commotion who had just experienced their first visit to Shale Hill (spoiler: they loved it) and hung out all night. By all night, I mean that three of us were sitting around a camp fire enjoying some beers at 2:30am, before finally heading off to sleep.

2014-10-20 11.40.28You don’t get to do that at your average OCR.

Hats off to the volunteers – I know it’s always tough to get volunteers for a race, and when that race is running into the night I can only imagine it’s even tougher – yet they were out there, with a well timed “boo!” or a revved chainsaw and zombie mask … they jumped us from behind hay bales, from bushes and the sides of trails .. many we saw more than once as they moved back and forth on the course to keep you guessing too. Thank you for being out there, and thank you for making the event so much fun!

Shale Hill is a gem in the OCR world. It’s in our back yard. When you register for a race at Shale Hill you directly support one of the hardest working, most committed and nicest OCR businesses, who truly appreciate both your business and participation. In this age of the OCR lifecycle, when more and more people are looking for alternatives to the big box circuses, you should come out to Shale Hill and check them out. I can promise you won’t be disappointed.

See you all at the Polar Bear Challenge!

(Also, thanks to MemorEvents for free photography, posted before the weekend was over!)

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Featured Review: 24 hours of Shale Hell

Shale Hill – one of our favorite venues for obstacle course racing and training recently held their very own endurance 24 hour event. As many laps on the 10k course as possible in a 24 hour window – which boggles my mind. Hannah Hawley participated, and below is her recap!


10589687_605939556684_1450642774_nWell, I have had my first DNF, technically speaking.  If only in the manner that I couldn’t go continuously for 24 hours, nor could I finish my fourth lap.  Thank you 24 Hours of Shale Hell for that!

The start and finishing for each lap of the 24 Hours of Shalle Hell (Hell) was the first Pick Your Poison and the finish was at the Tarzan Swing.  This was a bit different than their other events that either start in the center field or up at the barn and start with the Oxfords and Teeter Totters. As the Benson Bear Challenge #3 was currently taking place, we did register down in the center field.  We were able to park (free as always) next to the Tarzan Swing, set up tents, canopies, and whatnot; we had access to porta-johns, a grill; the medic was stationed here and a fire was started at dusk that was kept going all night.  This was also where your support crew was set up ($40 registration fee per crew member).

I opted to camp Friday night, the drone of the race track down the road lulled me to sleep without a coyote howl to be heard.  With a mornings worth of time to fill, I opted to help Jill stuff bags for the Benson Bear Challenge #3, registered a few of the Hell racers, and then was stationed out at the sandbag carry to direct 5k and 10k racers on the correct loop.  Was a beautiful day for a race and I was able to see Sandy and Michael on course.

It wasn’t long before I had to start getting ready for my event and made my way up to the tent.  Before too long had passed, Rob was pulling all ten of us racers together for a meeting.  The rules were simple:
10351254_541614379297384_8299694786119451725_n– As many laps as you could manage safely in 24 hours.
– The Tyrolean Traverse would be closed from dark to sunrise.
– Penalties would be normal the first lap and scaled for each lap as follows:
Lap 1 – 30 Spiderman Push-ups (every obstacle, not 25 for most and 50 for 4)
Lap 2 – 15 Spiderman Push-ups
Lap 3 – 15 Spiderman Push-ups
Lap 4 – 20 Jumping Jacks
Lap 5 – 10 Inchworms
Lap 6 – No Penalties
Lap 7 – 5 Lunges
Lap 8 – 10 Flutter Kicks
Lap 9 – 10 Arm Circles
Lap 10 – Balance 15 seconds on left leg, repeat on right
Lap 11 – We shall see
– We were to help each other, if someone was down and hurt, if they were on course and weren’t being safe/smart, etc
– That we were to check in and out on a white board after every lap and let the medic know when we went back out on course.


Rob suggested a first lap of sticking together with a 2:30 lap pace, especially for the people who had never been on course.  I know I spoke up immediately and said I knew the course and wouldn’t be able to keep that pace, I was fine alone.  I did start my lap with another female racer, Serena, a Shale Hill veteran and high school classmate!  I spent the second half of the lap with the other two female racers, both elite racers out of Canada, Jen and Sara.  I was able to give them some tips on several of the obstacles!  Can’t wait to see them again in September at the Killington Beast.  After my first lap, Sandy, Michael, and Adam decided that I wasn’t going to do any additional laps on my own, of which I am very greatful.  I had the pleasure of Michaels company on my second lap, someone whose racing and attitude inspire me.  My third lap, Adam accompied me and other than my slip on the loom that resulted in a small panic attack, I never seemed to stop laughing.  The taco’s Sandy got me were the best food I ate all weekend, if you do a race at Shale Hill, volunteer, or are just in the general area, West Coast Taco (I think thats the name) is worth a stop, cash only!

10561646_541614355964053_8122930209907970690_nOver the course of my 3 full laps, I was able to scale the 8 foot wall, climb the HUGE slant wall, walk the top of the loom, and more.  All things I had either never done before or just learned the previous weekend at a NE Spahtens training day.  I will be honest, other than a few Spiderman Push-ups in my first lap, I didn’t do any penalties.  I wasn’t there to beat myself up with penalties, just to see how far I could go in 24 hours.

There were very few volunteers stationed on course but there were plenty around and mobil on course.  They were great at keeping the on-course fires burning, candles burning, and refilling the water stations when they were told they were empty.  There was a crew stationed at the Bucket Carry with a fire that definitely lifted my spirits.

The decision was made about 3:30 to close the course due to heavy fog that left runners with no visibility beyond the few inches in front of their noses.  Incredibly smart decision!  This was just after I got back from my decision to stop less than a quarter of the way into my fourth lap as my left hip flexor was not happy and I couldn’t lift my leg over even the smallest of obstacles.  The medic seconded my decision but also respected my decision to rest, see if stretching would help.  It didn’t.

1896787_541614325964056_7927272582114913561_nRob was called away as he finished his second penalty free lap due to a family emergency but was able to call in at the finish to congratulate us all.  What a race director!

OH! SWAG! There were prices for the top three females and top three males (top male finished with 8 laps, top female finished with 5), and every racer got a special Hell shirt, Hell medal, Shale Hill sticker, and a $10 gift certificate to The Wheel House in Benson.  Even the crews got a special Pit Crew shirt.

All in all, this event was small, intimate, and incredible.  My one and only suggestion would be to build the cost of one crew member into the registration fee as I could not imagine, personally, being able to do this race without someone there as support.

I cannot wait to see where I can go in a year!

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Shale Hill training and race weekend

What happens when you take the best fixed obstacle course in the world, and combine it with the biggest obstacle race team in the world?

Two days of affordable, muddy, obstacle fun is what.


Obstacle Race Training Center at Shale Hill is opening it’s doors to the New England Spahtens for a full weekend of fun on the course.

When: July 26th and 27th
Where: ORTC at Shale Hill, Benson, VT

What: Saturday the 26th 12:30pm, we meet for a four hour training session on the amazing course at Shale Hill. That night, we eat, drink and be merry. Sunday the 27th 10am, we meet for a timed, manned race. Pick 5k or 10k courses.

These are semi private events – this will be for NES and friends. Bring your friends with you!

Accommodation for Saturday night is available locally and cheaply with multiple beds and rooms in guest houses mere minutes away, or get a nice hotel room within an easy 30 min drive.

Do you have a training pass? Redeem it for Saturdays training!
Do you have a free race pass? Redeem it for Sundays race!
Don’t have either? You still get BOTH days for $85!

Registration is open (simply pick the day / days you need (redeem your passes on the day) –

Questions, ride shares, accomodation requests – check the event out:

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Polar Bear Challenge 2014

EURO - Polar Bear- resize

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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Featured Review: Viking Challenge at Sunny Hill

It’s fairly common knowledge that the world of obstacle course racing is competitive, and races – most especially the entry level “easy 5k” races are busy canibalizing each others business to the point that they are starting to go bankrupt and fail, or having to reschedule their events to get more numbers.

So, when Sunny Hill Golf Resort in the Catskills of New York wanted to put an obstacle course on their property – they were smart to try something different to the pack – and I am very happy that they did.


The Venue – Sunny Hill is very unique place. It’s not hard to find, 3 hours from my home, and just a little way off i90 as it goes through New York state. Their usual business is golf – and they provide a great resort for people who want to get out into the mountains and swing a club. But, golfers don’t like to go off green – and it’s rare for them to step into the woods – and Sunny Hill has lots of woods and trails – so the owners decided they really wanted to add something new – and an obstacle course was born.

As a resort – Sunny Hill is pretty much the perfect place to have an obstacle course race. You can be in your rooms in a hot shower minutes after crossing the finish line. Your kids can be in a daycare and entertained while you race (and Dylan was waiting at the finish line for us too!). You get to sit down at a dinner table with your fellow racers in the evening and catch up on life, the race and anything else you want. The meals are included, the food was fantastic (they were able to cater for Beths gluten issues too!) and there is so much more to do – at night we rode in the back of a humvee on the trails – or in the cab of a monster truck – and around the roads on a train – they have fireworks, music, plenty of play parks and gazebo’s if you want to do your own thing.

If the race was only “ok”, I think the venue alone would be enough for us to give this a hearty recommendation – especially for anyone with family in tow. I’m very happy to report back that the race was more than “ok”  – it was excellent.

The course itself weighed in at close to 5 miles – and what it lacks in elevation change, it makes up in challenges. Rob Butler, one of our favorite evil geniuses of OCR designed the obstacles and course – and while there are a few familiar obstacles to anyone who has spent time at Shale Hill Adventure Farms – there are also unique obstacles. In keeping with the Viking theme – they all have Norse names and themes to them.

So – a challenging obstacle course of a safe and secure design, on a beautiful venue, with childcare, meals, accommodation and entertainment included?


Sunny Hill Viking Challenge


We started the race on the side of the lake (which has a viking ship in it) – a very low drama affair, with waves going out every 20mins, and tens of people per wave – I heard they had a couple of hundred participants for their first event, which is pretty good, considering the course isn’t going anywhere – we were launched with an air horn blast and right into the woods.

The Viking Challenge was on. This was a pretty obstacle heavy course – with some of our Shale Hill favorites in attendance – but there were several very cool unique obstacles too. Because the venue is new, there are still some wide open spots for runners to get their legs stretched – but despite being “only” 5 miles, it still took the elites the best part of an hour to make it through – us mere mortals were considerably longer.

Penalties were 25 burpees per obstacle – and the elite wave in the AM was enforcing this – with at least one leader being DQd for leaving his burpee penalty early – this is something that we’ve seen people complain about at the bigger events, and it was fantastic to see that even a smaller, first time event was upholding these standards and enforcing them. For the non competitive runners, you were welcome to modify as needed – with several people opting for air squats or walking lunges to save on smoked or injured shoulders.

The obstacles were relentless. Walls were usually in sets – 4′, 5′, 6′. The over and unders were typically logs, making the “overs” a little tougher.

If you’re interested in an obstacle walk through – check out the video below – 8 minutes, and many of the smaller obstacles and chains of walls had to be cut … this is an obstacle heavy course, folks!


Lets cover some of the standout obstacles, the order is from memory, so I may be out of sync.

Loki’s Ladders – these are a familiar item to me – a rope ladder, with wooden steps. A welcome modification is that these are tied down with a bungee, so they still swing freely, but not so bad you can’t stay on. When I reached the top, I had such a death grip on the rope, I had to headbutt the bell!

Odins Tables – Steep wooden climbs to a rope down. If you have good rope climbing technique, these were pretty cool to do – if you fall off ropes, don’t try it 🙂 Two of these in a row.

Cargo Net – This was huge, and solid. The rope wasn’t moving at all, and the entire structure was rock steady. Really enjoyed that, over the more typical wobbly frame and loose netting that bites your fingers!

10′ walls – Ten feet, straight up with a rope. My Icebugs gave me TONS of grip to get to the top, but I couldn’t make the transition – first burpees of the day for me.

Asgard Skywalk – A balance obstacle with a difference! Three really long tree trunks to balance on – before a transition to a tyrolean traverse – then a drop down onto a last final balance log. Really really awesome.

The Norse Poles – Known as human Lincoln Logs at Shale Hill, these are climbs up a beam of wood – before a short rope climb to ring a bell.

The Hull – A combo obstacle! Starting with an inverse wall (with no beams to put your feet on), you slid down the back of it to a slightly leaning wooden ladder wall that took you pretty high, then the climb down was leaning backwards slightly. Nice and challenging to get your butt up the wall!

Tree Bob – a fairly straight forward balance obstacle on logs. Except the logs were underwater. No problem for Icebugs, but sneaker wearers were screwed 🙂

Traverse Wall – Shale Hill is known for it’s evil traverse wall – and a similar variation on it appears here – you have three wall segments to navigate, before a balance beam to a fourth segment, before a hand over hand shuffle to the last segment – for the first time, I nailed this one – it was a big help having a TON of grip, and not being covered in mud 🙂

Frigg – a 16 foot, maybe more, sloping wall to get up, with a rope for aid. We all made this one – again, inhuman amounts of grip from my shoes helped massively here. Ladder to get down the other side.

Dragons Tooth – a set of killer monkey bars with a large uphill/downhill section in the middle. Not as evil as the ones at Shale Hill, but I still came off these and back to burpees.

Old Futz Xing – Tyrolean Traverse over a lake. Rather than try and secure the rope with steaks – they simply tied them off to some of the old army transport vehicles, and backed them up until the rope was tight – made for an awesome sight, and you KNEW you weren’t getting dunked in the lake!

21′ ropes – The longest rope climb I’ve seen, and by this point, my arms were toast and I had no grip. I think the ropes were narrower than we usually deal with too – as I could get NO grip on the damn things. First rope climb I’ve burpee’d on in a couple of years!

More photos to come when the official photos are released

Of course – in the middle of all of these were countless walls, natural obstacles like ponds, streams, crawls, pipes (uphill!), boulders and balances – with 33 official obstacles in total.

One of the most impressive things for me was the volunteer staff. This is where most first time races fall flat on their faces. If you don’t have enough volunteers, you don’t have a good, safe race. Sunny Hill had a volunteer at every single obstacle, and everyone of them was engaged, encouraging and motivating. They also knew to enforce penalties and which number obstacle they were at. There were two water stops that I recall – both had plenty of water and people – with one water stop providing some cheerleading to keep you going 🙂 Twice on the course, a medic on a gator pulled by to ask if we needed anything – bandaids, wounds cleaning – and talking to the race director after, they had a great system in place for every volunteer to be able to reach a central co-ordinator who could dispatch a repair crew, medic or simply aid anywhere on the course.

This sounds so simple, but it’s one of the big tripping points for many new races – a solid volunteer plan and staff is essential. Sunny Hill proved that, with a flawless event (although, I’m sure if you ask the RD she’ll tell you all the little niggly things that didn’t go as planned – they never showed).

Course markings were great – although a couple more barriers and arrows in key spots would have helped keep us on the course when it veered off the road or trail we were on.

After the race finished – there was fantastic food in a pavilion nearby, right on the lake front – with a free (good) beer provided also. Kids had yet another playpark to be entertained with, while the adults caught up and hung out in the shade. Schwag as a nice T Shirt, with a sponsor list on the back – and a really unique wooden medal. T Shirts with no sponsor listings (in a different color) were also available in their resort gift shop for $15, and we bought those too.

2013-09-29 09.35.46 HDR-1

Should Sunny Hill have put on an easy race, that was accessible to 99% of people? No. They did right by putting on an event that is challenging, even if some people will be turned off by it. By putting on a challenge, they guarantee that people will come back. I’ve only ever done one Warrior Dash, because frankly, it’s not worth my money. Yet, I’ve driven 3.5 hours to run at Shale Hill three times in the past year alone – and I still can’t wait to go back. By providing a challenging course, they have made certain that we will always keep them on our race calendar, and always come back to do better, or faster. Smart move.

Clearly, we had a great time, as did our four year old. For as much fun as local races offer, and as good a time we have when a traveling race series passes through our region annually, we are lucky that we’ve got access to some of the best outdoor, permanent installations in the country – from Shale Hills constantly evolving challenge, to the Sunny Hill experience on a fantastic resort – even indoor facilities in Rhode Island at Unleashed – New England is one of the best places to be an OCR fan.

Sunny Hill is planning a 2014 event, early in the Spring before their main business of being a golf retreat kicks off – and I am planning on being there, with the entire family – watch this space for dates.

The scary bit – the price tag – I’m here to report that if you wanted to show up and race on race day, with none of the frills of the resort, you had to pay the grand total of $50.

Wait, what? $50 for a race of this quality is a STEAL. Try and find race day sign up for ANY regional OCR in that price range. With free parking. No spectator fee. Awesome wood medal.

Of course, you *can* add the resort experience onto it. You get accommodation, three meals, child care, all the entertainment your little ones can handle – and the race is included in the package price – we worked it out to approximately $150 per adult, per night if you shared – which I firmly believe is ALSO a steal, considering some races have price tags close to that just to race.

Thank you, to both Tinker and the Sunny Hill crew, and Rob Butler and the Shale Hill crew – we had a blast, we will be back.

Good times, good friends.
Good times, good friends.
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Icebug Spwider OLX – review

I introduced Icebug in an early post (that you can read here), and wanted to follow up now that I’ve done more than simply hike a mountain in a pair of their shoes.


Specifically, I was trying out a pair of Icebug Spwider OLX, in US mens 12 –

I decided to try them out during the Hurricane Heat. This was approximately 3 hours of wear at Amesbury Sport Park, and it’s surrounding roads and parking lots.

During the hurricane heat, we ran on tarmac, buddy carried each other up and down the main tubing slope, completed several of the Spartan Race obstacles, such as the traverse wall, slippy wall (with no ropes), inverted wall, over / under / throughs, rope climb and the barbed wire crawl.

We ran, walked, burpeed, planked and carried heavy stuff all over the place.

They were awesome.

They weren’t perfect. I don’t know any shoe is. But for their intended use, and the use I can see them being used for in the obstacle course world, they did an amazing job.

Icebugs are designed for slippery, icy conditions. The Spwider model especially has a bunch of tiny metal studs for additional grip, although the range does include a shoe that isn’t studded – and still has a more aggressive grip pattern than something like an x-talon 190 from Inov-8, and WAY more than my Inov-8 Trailroc 245’s.

In practice, when you are in the grass, or the trails, or the sloppy, goopy mud – I had amazing grip. The metal studs worked especially well when climbing ropes, or going up the slippery wall (it almost felt like I could walk up it!), as they were able to bite into the soft materials, and not shift.

I felt this was at a cost though – hiking Wachusett Mountain, which has very rocky trails nearer to the surface (large, flat rocks several paces wide, not small pebble trails), I didn’t feel I had the same level of grip as my Trailroc 245’s do – and this was also replicated when we ran on the tarmac roads for ~1 mile at the Hurricane Heat. I never lost my footing – but I did sound like a herd of horses, trotting along as the metal studs and the paved surface met.

However – considering how much obstacle course racing is done on large flat rocks, or on paved roads (none of it), I don’t see this being a particular big problem for me in the long term.


As a shoe, the Spwider is much more solidly constructed than I’m used to. Despite it only having a 4mm heel to toe drop – which means it runs and feels like a minimal shoe (the Trailroc 245’s are 3mm, for example – and Salomon Speedcross 3’s are in the 9mm to 12mm range), the sole is solid, and the upper of the shoe is supportive. Icebug sell multiple inserts too, for those who feel the need for different types of support – however, those minimal shoes that show you how you can roll them up into a teeny tiny ball? Not happening with the ‘bugs 🙂

This particular model was their Medium width, which with my flat and wide feet felt just fine. Many of their racing shoes have a narrow fit for performance, which felt snug to me – and many of their hikers and boots have a wider comfort fit.

Icebug rate this particular shoe as a 300g shoe (in US size 9), which is the same weight system Inov-8 uses, so these are 55g heavier than my Inov-8 TrailRoc 245’s – barely noticeable when moving – to be honest.


One thing I did notice with the Icebugs, that I did not notice with my Inov-8 TrailRoc 245’s, was the amount of small pebbles and crud that got into them. To be entirely fair, I didn’t crawl the barbed wire in the Inov-8’s, and did in the Bugs, so that may be the cause of that right there – but I do plan on picking up a pair of the very neat looking gators that Icebug sell for their shoes. While water drained well enough (the tongue isn’t sealed), rocks did annoy me a little more than I wanted – the gaters will fix that.

On a 5 star rating, I would happily give the Icebugs a solid 4.5 – I’m docking a little because of their “rock/paved road” performance, and I do tend to prefer a slightly more minimal shoe – both of which are about as much criticism as I can find on this solid performing option for OCRs.

Icebug has several shoe options available – many without studs, some with more of a heel to toe drop, some narrow, some wide – and Shale Hill Adventure Farms is now an outlet for them with many models in stock and ready to ship. I tried mine on when I was at the third Benson Bear event, but found they ran very very close to Inov-8 for sizing.

I’ll be wearing these at future races – and can see them being my “go-to” shoe for many events. The TrailRoc 245’s are going to stay in my shoe rotation for training – due to their on road and on rock grip and confidence – but there’s no arguing or debate, the Icebugs have second to none grip everywhere else.


Making short work of the ropes!

January 15th 2014 UPDATE

I wrote this review after running the Hurricane Heat in Amesbury in them. Post HH they were so crud covered I didn’t wear them for the race, and I missed their grip when I got to the walls and similar obstacles.

So, when it came to picking a shoe for the longer 8mile Super in NJ, and the 13mile Beast in VT – sticking with the Icebugs was a no brainer. I have played with fit and sock combinations a little after Smart Wool socks gave me a heel blister in NJ – but switching to a Darn Tough brand sock, and adding a “surgeons knot” to the middle of the laces, I had no problems with blisters at the Beast, or since.

The grip these lend to an OCR athlete of any level is unbelievable. Specifically, these studs make rope climbs much easier, as they grip into the fibers and don’t slip. They bite into wood obstacles, like traverse walls and vertical walls. I was able to get my ass over every single wall in NJ and VT by myself simply by stepping into it with the shoe first, it provided enough grip to give me a single step that no one else had. This was highlighted when I ran the Fenway event in Inov-8s and could NOT get over the tall wall first time.

As a word of caution, while these are loud (but well behaved) on Tarmac, you want to avoid wearing them on wood flooring or lino flooring – they will leave marks.

At time of writing, the Polar Bear Challenge – an 8 hour endurance event in the snow of VT is coming. I’ve just placed an order for my third pair of Icebugs – the Speed running boot. This will give me grip, but also a bit more thermal protection than this reviewed model. Expect a review of the Speeds to follow!