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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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Ultra Beast and other Demon speak

Note from the editor: Horgan has been here since day dot. He has a reputation for being something of a Yoda, always around to say the right thing, to the right people, at the right time. I’ve been struggling to write my own recap of this race – and while my experience and sentiments were very different to Horgan’s, I thought this was well worth sharing, and showing a very different side of the weekends experience. Buckle up.

10702007_10152463378549811_1509408334021861424_nThe Spartan Ultra Beast.

Disclaimer: This blog was written under the duress of exhaustion and pain.
Disclaimer 2: If you have become accustomed to my blogs which attempt to find a positive aspect to my experiences you probably are not going to find one here.
Disclaimer 3: If you are looking for an inspirational story of willpower and grit with a triumphant ending or even a tongue in cheek best face forward resolution; stop now.

Warning: If you have not directly experienced my duress induced humor; which starts with philosophical Zen like koans and illogical quips on standard inspirational clichés. If you have not heard me speak in sharply sarcastic remarks, until I’m fully engrossed in darkly sardonic metaphors. If you have not been present when I have reached the frayed ends of sanity, where the voices in my head, spring forth spewing anger and filth through the open doors of my mouth. IF this will be your first experience with that side of me; then I might suggest that you stop reading now. I simply ask this because if this is will be new to you; there is nothing in this blog that you’ll want to read. The following article is not going to be pretty. It is going to be convoluted, rife with inconsistencies, contradictions, apathy, self-indulgent tangents, possible profanity and a heaping helping of self-loathing and pity.

IF YOU’RE STILL READING YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.

Seriously if you’re looking for some motivating inspirational shit STOP right now. I don’t want to change any image you may have of me. I put on an excellent Jungian mask most times but this time you’re going to get the shadow and right now he’s not fucking pleased.

Still here? All right, strap in. This is going to be a bumpy fucking ride. Sit down, hold on, and shut up because I’m driving. These are my opinions and yours have not been solicited.

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Before I begin let me get a little god in here first. Just in case at the end someone should strike me down they’ll know I looked higher at some point.

Proverbs 24:27-29
Prepare your work outside. Get everything ready for you in the field and after that build your house.
-Do not be a witness against your neighbor without cause, and do not deceive with your lips.
-Do not say, ‘I will do to others as they have done to me. I will pay them back for what they have done.’

With that Norm Koch deserves all the credit in the world. He put together the most difficult Spartan Race ever created. He did his job and let no man be held under scrutiny for doing his job well and as asked. Now that I’ve said that I feel I have license to go on and say exactly how I feel, how I want to.

10178098_10152460126834811_6280330827670188269_nI didn’t come to the Ultra Beast to crush it or kill it or any other non-productive, completely ridiculous, pseudo-inspirational, two words on a gym wall motivationals. I came to face a Demon of my own. I came to look it in its eye. I came to break the bones of some skeletons that have been taking up space, collecting cobwebs. But I came to the Ultra Beast defeated. I was probably defeated the day I clicked the “check out” button on the registration page a year ago. I came to try and settle a score, but I didn’t bring any chips to the table. Maybe I thought I could gamble on an outstanding marker and expected that I could bluff far enough through the game to get some good cards later. That didn’t happen.

I don’t remember a lot of the race in any order. Lets just start with the swim. I actually thought I was doing pretty well until then. I remember looking at my watch and guessing I was on a pretty solid pace. A good friend reminded me that I could in fact swim. So with out PFD I swam out. It was cold but not miserable. I got up the ladder without difficulty, but it was at that point that I realized, no upper body strength. Bell tap, and then I was only able to get both hands on the first knot. I decided to drop.  So grabbing my hat I let go. Down, down, down deep. And I puked, underwater, through my nose. Talented I know, right? It made the swim to shore lovely. So I went and did my burpees…most of them. And no I don’t care what you think, so fuck off. Which led us back into the water. This became a swim for the full length of the pond because the FUCKS in front of me didn’t want to go in over shin deep and clung like turds on a bowl to the edges. In all honesty I was already cramping at this point so swimming was a relief to my legs. When I exited I met up with a most excellent friend and Spahten who looked at me with all honesty and said, “This isn’t fun.” No. No this was most certainly not fun. Even in the most sarcastic, sadistic sense of fun that I keep tucked away in the deeper recesses of my mind. None of this was fun, and it was only about 8am.

From here on it’s going to get a lot fuzzy. We went up the mountain. I had some mustard. You know what? Fuck this bullshit about mustard! I poured that shit down my throat all day and all it did was irritate my soft pallet and upper esophagus. If you want to argue with me about mustard I’ve got some left. You can slather it on a certain area of mine and suck it!

Moving on. Up the mountain! You know straight up just slogging up the mountain. Oh was there an obstacle? I didn’t see it. Wait I remember it was the phoned in, half forgotten, Fedex cargo net they inherited from Tom Hanks after he got off the island.

And then there was just more walking up. At some point I ran into some Cornfeds.  I managed to stay with them for a good bit. I stayed with them till just about to where we dragged a rock. It wasn’t particularly taxing until you get to end and your legs lock with 7 out of 10 pain. I know it was a 7 because I couldn’t breath to scream. I stood standing stiff as a board becoming, myself, an obstacle to other racers. And then I fell over. I managed to drag myself out of the way, by my hands. If you have ever tried to cry through the lump in your throat where a half strangled scream had been only recently stifled; you may begin to understand my agony. Then through tears:  one hand, one knee, one foot, one push and I was on my feet again.  In no longer than five minutes.

On to the memory: India 202-2871, and then a spear throw. Don Devaney gets all the credit. I learned the technique from his, via telephone, spear throwing lesson on Friday: “Hold it like a dart and push it at the target.” Perfect.  That would be the first, the last, and the only happy moment for me on the mountain that day.

If you haven’t stopped reading yet now would be a good time. It’s not going to get better and it’s going to get a lot darker and self-indulgent. Thankfully at this point, as I write, the anger is ebbing.

So we went down the mountain. I don’t know how long we were headed down but when we got down it was at the inverted wall. My Cornfriends (in fairness for background I’ve know both of them for a long time and they are friends) were ahead of me due to my leg cramps that just continued to shift from one leg to the other from one muscle to the other. But at the inverted wall they were sitting. Rick was hurting from an earlier injury and at this point we were not aware of another very serious injury he had. But this isn’t about him. I helped him over the wall. Then it was over to the bucket carry. I think it was number 2. Anyway, it doesn’t matter. For the purposes of  this it is the one where I saw another Spahten spectating. This Spahten is an animal and is always there with honest encouragement. During the carry I had to stop too many times and I sat down. That’s the race killer there. Once I finally completed the carry I asked if he could work some magic on one of the cramps that was locking. He did, but said the best thing is to walk it out even if its Frankenstien walking, His last piece of advice was “but if it is really that bad, stop your race.” Death knell. He certainly didn’t mean it to be a coffin nail.  He was only truly looking out for my safety.

I’m not entirely sure but I believe this next part was the direct climb up, under the gondola. Again for purposes of my story timeline and not giving a damn about facts, this is where I started to stare at my demon. He’s only man size and not much bigger than me. He has a pronounced dragon like head with a torso covered in tight shiny green scales like a snake. His wings project backwards and would look only like a decoration. His red tongue dances and darts from his mouth through crocodile arranged teeth. He speaks telepathically in a soothing condescending voice. He never told me to quit. He made me convince myself that the race was over. That I couldn’t finish.  That I was a fraud. That I should just walk down the mountain. I wanted to. But I was too high at that point. And now I was with another set of forlorn souls, Golan and Bill. Golan from Wisconsin and Bill from NH. But this is not their story. So I walked. And I sat. And I stood and walked and sat. I stared blankly down over the parking lot. I looked over the valley at a perfectly cut timberline and thought “Oh there’s a utility line over there.” And I began to break old skeleton bones. Feeling them crack in my hands.

The thing about dragging skeletons out of closets is, they don’t want to come willingly. You gotta start with small bones. “You never thought you would actually finish this year anyway: Snap!” Then the Demon speaks and he says, “but did they have to make this so fucking hard?” And you pull out a bigger bone and think, “well you were pretty nonchalant about the whole thing, you were just trying to act cool: Snap!” And then the Demon says, “If you do go to the top you can take the gondola down.”  You reach in and grab a hand full of ribs and say “I didn’t put a damn bit of effort into this race and I fucked myself right into this shitty mountain and I have no other fucking person to blame but myself! Snap! Cackle! Pop!” The Demon speaks again, he’s so cunning, He says “oh but you had so much on your plate. You don’t sleep. You have a crazy schedule. Your wife, your kids, the dog.” Now you dig in and you grab that skull. That grinning, gape mouthed fucker and you hold him up to the light for the last time and you say, “I’m a quitter that’s what I do. I quit. I quit. I quit. IFQ!” And you take that skull and you crush it under your heel and you stand up and you look at the absurdity of your situation which is: Go ahead fucking quit. But what the hell are you going to do? Go down the way you came, or go down by going forward? Forward. Up and forward.

And then down. Down, down and more down. There was no trail left. I felt like George of the jungle swinging from tree to tree. Legs cramped so fucking bad and then a horrifying collapse. My water bladder collapsed not me. It collapsed because I was out. Out of water. Great. At some point this was bound to happen but really, now? Now I went to pull a tire. Great obstacle. I’d have rather been pulling a noose around my neck at this point. Cop out obstacle. Up side, I was able to get Golan a walking stick to brace himself. Kid has the guts of a martyr but he was toast and I don’t blame him. His knee wasn’t getting any better. It was the last pitch down to safety. A stick was my parting gift to him. I left him with a crossfitter named Susan from ME. She’s pretty badass, completing a Goruck heavy. We knew some of the same people.

And the Demon managed to stick a new skeleton into my closet. A skeleton whose bones where rotting green with mold and mud. I left an injured person clearly in pain on a mountain. Fuck you Green Demon. Fuck you Ultra Beast.

When Dante descended into hell with the poet Virgil he passed through it’s many levels and the inhabitants there of. As I walked down this nasty half excuse of a goat trail I couldn’t help but think of Dante. I knew there were nine rings and that Satan was at the bottom frozen up to his waist eating those denizens of the ninth circle: Betrayers. Was that what I have become a betrayer? Turns out with a little research no I wasn’t destined for the ninth circle quite yet. I’m destined for the eighth. Circle eight that’s where I sit. The fraudulent: liars, deceivers, false prophets, panderers, seducers and thieves! These, these are my vices and those are my people. And sandbags apparently.  Two sandbags because: “Fuck it I’m going to quit anyway but I’m Ultra so I have to carry two.” I want to say it was about 2 pm. I think I had it in my head that I already hadn’t made a cut off but it didn’t matter though because when I was done. I was going to quit. 10 feet. Stop. 10 feet. Stop. 10 feet. Stop. Wow that took like 16 minutes and I’m…fuck im like one one hundredth of the way there! The Demon says, “You said you’re quitting, just put the bags down and walk.” No that just means somebody else has to clean up my mess. 10 feet. “Your going to leave just leave.” No because how could I write about this later if I have to tell 3300 Spahtens not only did I quit; I trashed the course for them to pick up? The Demons is not so subtle any more: “Fuck them he say’s.” NO Demon: FUCK YOU. 10 feet. A wonderful gentleman with a beautiful smile and an ancestry I guessed to be Mexican said to me “You can’t quit now man were headed down.” I said thank you but when I’m done I’m going right through that arch, I quit. Then he, in the most elegant, cheery, Spanish accented English said. “Well I hope you change you mind.” Fuck you feelings: 10 feet!

When I got to the bottom I couldn’t quit. I couldn’t quit because telling someone I quit would be harder than actually doing it. It would have been easier to lie down and die right there than make the effort to quit. And it was so easy. It would never be easier than right there to quit. Strangely enough, you see a lot of things you need to see, only when you need to see them. Yes I’m patriotic but I don’t go busting my zipper every time I see a flag go by. I know what it means to me. That’s what matters to me. But when you see a flag on a Spartan course, it is usually being carried by someone for a reason; and usually by someone I know. If you have ever seen a man who looks like he jumped off of the pages of Robinson Caruso, its Stephen Reid. Bones. That was his flag and that was he. It dawned on me that with his “more faith than fear and more heart than scars” I just needed to keep going, off into the woods. Fill the water first.

The next last bits you know. The anger is subsiding as I write. I can tell you that at the race. at this point, my venom was toxic and it was killing me quickly. I didn’t care any more. I got to try my hand at the new obstacle. Some rings and swing bars. NO problem I nailed it, until the rope. One hand two hands; and faster than you can say fireman on a pole I was in the dirt. Slicker than snot on a doorknob. I tried to burpee. My legs wouldn’t unlock. So in the now rigid, prone position where I lay. I gave three or four more attempts and I had to give up even trying, You can start breaking the bones on that skeleton your holding right now because we’re going to need the space.

Now off to the Tyrolean traverse. It said in the rules if any body part touches the water you failed. So I got on top of the rope and sank. And I went out further and it sank further. How the fuck can I keep my body out of the water when the fucking rope is under the water. So I floated my bloated, cramped, broken ass. Hand over hand down the line. Slapped the bell, rolled off and swam in.  I still did it right.

Rope climb, fail. Limped past the two volunteers who couldn’t even be bothered to look up from their iPhones. Spear throw: Perfect. Perfectly short. It did stick in the ground underneath. I limped to the burpee coral. 5 or 6 until my arms couldn’t move. More broken skeleton bones. Don’t get too angry just yet, I blow off plenty of more burpees.

Texans. Why is it always Texans! They are always big happy and helpful. Hobbling now I approached the wall. My defeated face must have given me away. He asked if I needed help. I could only say yes. And that was it. Knee, shoulders, wall. Crushed my testicles in spectacular fashion and then guided myself down…to barbed wire. At this point any prone position is a lightning storm of fiery pain and agony. I made it all the way through and then through the rolling mud. I could not physically bring myself through the last section. I had indeed; quit. And so I walked.  Past the American Ninja Turtle, this is only here for the elite heat to look epic on TV, 30 yards of pipe BS obstacle. No I didn’t attempt it, or burpees. Why? Fuck you that’s why.  Just staying on my feet at this point was torture.  Up and over and down and then to the Herculean hoist.  The rope was slick but I made it no issue. Monkey bars: I’ve lost count but I think I have done 15 Spartan races, 4 or 5 hurricane heats and sometimes multiple laps of the same course. I have never, ever, ever failed the money bars. I couldn’t hold on for 1 transition. NO I didn’t do burpees. Why? Why are you still reading?

At the long over grown blow down ascent which actually might have been kinda cool I caught up with Haidar Hachem. I’m not sure what intrigued me the most, the hat, the hairiness or the stash. Either way, this is Spartan Race. You come for the race and you stay for the people. Hadir is more than a competent athlete.  He began to tell me his story, a similar one to my own except he was actually on pace to finish his Ultra.  As we all were at one point.  But now to finish, to simply try and finish, we just had to walk up this hill and down. That’s all.

The very last bag of bones I can shove into my closet is this:  I pulled my sleeves over my coveted green armbands and hobbled toward… the finish. Fraud. Coward. Quitter. Liar. Cheater.

At the start line I had given up. At mile 3 I had quit. And I stayed quit until the end of my race, the whole Beast distance. My race. NOT yours. Not yours to measure against mine. Not yours to tell me what I did wrong. Not yours to tell me that you are disappointed in me. Not yours to tell me you have lost respect for me. My race. Yes I took a 2014 Beast Medal. I crossed the start line and the finish line and at no point in between did I cut the course, or not carry the weight. I went as long as I could, as far as I could, as well as I could until I could not. No I did not do all the burpees. NO I could not do all the obstacles. It was medically irresponsible for me to continue. It was also ethically irresponsible for me to destroy myself into irreparable harm for a race. Once I finished and took my medal I went to my truck to leave.  And that should have been the end.

253292_10100600883117453_6769654311866755350_nHowever providence struck again as it always does in Sandy Rhee. She made a bus driver stop and let her off as she went by. Sandy has always been there for me, as she has for so many others but Sandy just seems to be there right when she’s needed the most, for me. I was changing to leave. Angry. Demoralized, Crushed. Belittled. Betrayed. Broken physically and mentally. Friendless in a sea of brothers and sisters; and then a friend. So instead I decided to stay. To watch some of my heroes actually complete their Ultra Beast. I did get a chance to meet teammates I only know online.

So yes I am proof that I can finish a Beast, mostly, without any training. But not an ultra. I may never finish an Ultra race. I’m positive I will never finish an Ultra Beast. Now that it is all said and done. I’m done. I’m done with Beasts and trifectas and Spartan races. I will end my Spartan relationship the same place it started. When I started it was fun. It was hard and brutal but fun. Sunday was not fun. It was not fun and it got worse the further I went. That whole useless awful race catered to the Sprint distance at the end and NBC. That’s my opinion, which you are welcome to disagree with, or not. If I wanted to aimlessly hike straight up and down a mountain I would do it in Colorado for free. The distinct lack of obstacle spacing was bullshit and simply carrying something heavy up a hill is not an obstacle. Shit I would have rather the atlas stone carry 5 more times than just some endless up hill sand bag or bucket. No, Spartan has lost any allure for me. I will gladly encourage my teammates to set and accomplish goals. I would even volunteer at a Spartan Race to see and encourage others, but to give my money to that? Not anymore. Racelocal and have fun.

Like all good things this came to and end. I rattled some bones.  I had open and frank discussions with my demon. He wasn’t crushed, quelled, released or any manner of exorcised. He’s still there and he speaks, a lot. A great deal of what you have just suffered through was written on that mountain in between fits of rage and despair. In the end I thought mostly of my Spahten family. I thought about the people, you people. The people I would have to tell “I quit.” Not because I was physically injured requiring immediate medical attention. No I would have to tell you I quit and then suffer all the “good effort man, you really tried” comments. As well-meaning as those are they don’t break skeleton bones. Instead I chose to finish the only way that I could. And if that means I left burpees on Killington that’s fine with me. They are up there with my ego, my pride, some dignity, a couple of aspirations and a belt buckle.  But when it was really. sincerely, all done. I got in my truck put TOOL radio on Pandora and drove 3 hours straight home, by myself, and was still at work at 7am this morning.

Authors note:  This was originally published without reflection or edit.  It was published in raw form, The media added were not mine and the sole choice of the editor, which I am happy with.  After being able to review this I have not changed anything with the exception of deleting some occasional profanities which were unnecessary.  I write what I feel.  After closer inspection I would simply like to say that anyone choosing to do a Spartan Race should most certainly do one or many.  To have the aspiration to complete an obstacle course race on the caliber of Spartan Race is excellent.  My personal experience is varied, and should not influence anyone not to do a race.  I work with my Demon every day and everyday he wins some battles and I try to push through the losses the best that I can.  I don’t do many things for myself and OCR are my chance to beat on that voice inside my head.  On Sunday the Demon had a lot of time and distance to dance in my head and he did so without restraint.  When I write down what I was experiencing you only get the edited 1% of those thoughts.  So again, if you choose to judge me or my choices remember you are judging less than 1% of one race, on one day in the life that I live 24 hours a day, everyday.  Thank you for reading.

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Featured Review – O2X Summit Challenge, Sugarbush VT 2014

10308268_555086614612414_3782403764330128507_nI’ve spent the last couple of days trying to find the right words to describe O2X Summit Challenge. When you have such a great experience you simultaneously want to scream it to the world, and then keep it to yourself. I can say this – I imagine all of the fellow runners for that first event feel the same way! I’d been trying to find a way to describe O2X. The only way to describe O2X is to place it in a class of its own. If I were to compare it to a rock band, you’d have Spartan as Kiss (great once but kind of treading water now and commercial), Tough Mudder as Pink Floyd (killer production values, and a great show but again a bit dated), CMC would definitely be System of a Down (eclectic and infectious and HIGH ENERGY) but O2X would be Queen. Queen was always in a class of their own way above everyone else, doing their thing honestly and never able to be categorized as any one thing except amazing.

When I first heard about the race, I had one thought which was “Oh neat, a mountain run. But why should I sign up? I can hike for free.” A common refrain I also heard was “Oh NO!! It’s the weekend before . I could NEVER do that!” Add to that being a brand new series, and with the number of races that met their demise this year, O2X was definitely looking at an uphill challenge (pun intended)

So what makes them different? And why should anyone care?

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I liked their concept of “Obstacle Racing goes Au Natural”, meaning no man-made obstacles. However, just running up trails could be a bit boring. Again, I could do that for free. But when O2X revealed they were blazing the trails and not using much of the existing trail system, I grew more excited about it. I started thinking what all could they throw at the racers. I could see water crossings, bouldering, lots of rock climbs, mud, stinging nettle patches, climbing over and under trees, etc. I knew it wouldn’t be for everyone, but having done other OCRs on “hilly terrain” made it sound interesting.

After speaking with the founders, and hearing more about their approach, I knew this event had potential to be something special. The founders – Craig Coffey, Adam LeReau, Paul McCullough, Gabriel Gomez – wanted to put together more than a race. They wanted an experience that focuses on human performance. They wanted an environmentally conscious race. They wanted something that would get every person that ran to push themselves. They also wanted a fun party feel, so the BaseCamp and camping experience came into play.

O2X wanted something that spanned a large group of people: something for the “average joes” looking for a bit of a challenge, something that the ultra-marathoners and trail runners would like because it would be short compared to what they were used to, something mountain runners would like because of the elevation, and something OCR folks would like because of the “natural obstacles”. That’s a tall order, but they definitely pulled it off.

10705189_10152772316228338_1130946357_nOne of the first things that really impressed me was the pre-race communication. Firstly, they were always VERY responsive to me anytime I had a question or a comment to them. But the one thing O2X did that I’ve never seen before is sent out hand addressed and hand signed thank you cards to each participant. That in and of itself created quite the buzz in our NES community. Secondly O2X emailed out something that again was unique which was a detailed training guide. It had gradations for all levels and spanned a 33 week time frame. So while maybe not useful for the Sugarbush event, it would certainly be a great training guide for next year. They also sent out some great pre-race emails such as “How to prepare for O2X”, gear lists, environmental responsibility and greening tips. They also sent out bib assignments that had a repeat of the gear list and what we are getting from them, which leads me to my next part of my review – the race itself!

Race registration was a complete breeze. They were well organized and everything was ready for you. They had some of the best schwag I’ve ever received – a nice drawstring bag (not the cheap disposable ones I normally see), Paleo jerky sticks (I love those things), a really nice T-shirt (very soft cotton shirts) and then the Lululemon running shorts. These were extremely NICE shorts, not cheap!! In the merchandise tent, they had shirts for sale and these cute canteen water bottles. I wish they had sweatshirts given how cold it was – they would have sold out! Personally I’m a fan of hats too, but I get why they didn’t have those.

Credit: Jared Herman
Credit: Jared Herman

The festival area was really nicely set up. They had Juti Bars there, a green smoothie vendor, Reverb, Yak Burgers, and a Maple syrup vendor. They had live music, a great fire pit and a treadmill type of climbing wall. Then there was the camping area. They allowed you to camp onsite, so you were steps away from the start line, the base lodge and the festival area. This was really different. To get the full experience I decided to camp out. We weren’t allowed campfires, but being at the base of a ski slope and not a campground I get it. There were plenty of restrooms and a couple of Porta-potties over in the camping area. There were plenty of recycling bins and compost bins for food scraps which I thought was a nice touch!

The fireside chat was such a nice touch. It made the evening a very intimate event. You got to hear from the founders, who were so humble and so excited to see all of us that came out, and Frank Fumich, who is a Death Racer, extreme endurance athlete, but also very inspirational being “an average joe” doing all this. There was plenty of decent beer and cider for those of us who don’t drink beer – so a very nice touch there. While I liked the idea of the all you can eat dinner and then breakfast, I kind of wish the cost was wrapped up in the admission rather than paying separately. Not a deal breaker by any means, just a random thought, as I don’t normally carry my wallet around at a race, so needing cash stopped me in my tracks a bit. They did try to feed most of the racers as they did have gluten-free and vegan option for the chili. I’m hoping they are able to do something similar at their future events – a nice all you can eat healthy dinner (maybe not chili but something).

Parking was free as was bag check which was also very nice! There was a free morning yoga session and a dynamic warm-up before each wave.

10606499_714701945284821_2270120540989268624_nThe course was fantastic. They seemed to really look for difficult sections of terrain to send us through. There were boulders to climb over, steep rocky inclines to get up, mud, water, and the moss. Moss was definitely a new terrain for me personally so I was immensely happy I wore my Icebugs. Other folks mentioned the moss and the wet grass was slick but I had no trouble at all. The rocks were also pretty rough so no Icebug problems on them either. The course marking was phenomenal – probably among the best I’ve seen. I told the guys there’s no such thing as over-doing course markings. Flags get trampled and tape can tear, so it’s always better to do more than less. I had zero problems on course with figuring out where I needed to be. There were plenty of friendly volunteers around. I was pleased at the number of water stops – there was never a major worry of running out of water as they were well stocked. They had inspirational music playing as you went up the mountain (I found out later it was the soundtrack to Last of the Mohicans). 10593011_714701918618157_5808865806972281545_nOne part of the course markings that was unique was O2X didn’t do mile markers, they did elevation markers: every 250 feet they posted a sign. In a way that was more frustrating – I was chugging along with my Garmin watch and saw that I was at about a mile and a half or so and saw that we were only at the 500 ft elevation mark. I knew there was 2400+ feet of elevation gain. Oh boy! That last stretch on this course gave me flashbacks to Mt Killington! They were well prepared for the summit and had a fire up there for volunteers and space blankets for all the finishers. With the temp+windchill at 18 degrees, you better believe I appreciated that blanket!

I know there were a few hiccups – the timing company backed out at the 11th hour so they had to scramble to get people out on course for timing checkpoints. So timing may not have been as accurate as they would’ve liked but that was completely out of their control. This was especially critical as they had special awards for the Rock Scramble – male and female fastest times through the scramble. Kudos for how they handled the timing glitch – you didn’t really notice the lack of mats as they really tried to make it totally seamless for the racers.

10671296_10152770025498338_7092028583563710465_nSpeaking of awards, they had AWESOME awards. They had hand crafted awards for the top finishers (male and female) of each age group and also a really neat award called the RiseHigher award. This was given to someone who has fought against some great odds. One of our own got that award for her challenge, which I thought was great. The finishers “medal” was a military grade, fully functional canteen. Now I have tons of medals, both on a rack and under my bed, but you can bet I’ll display this one proudly!! It’s also one you can actually do something with!

One other neat perk was we got to come down off the mountain on the chair lift! It was my first ever experience on a chair lift so that was actually a lot of fun. You had the option to run down the ski slope to base, but most people opted for the ride.

I appreciate the course will be different every single time on every venue, but I know the guys will always find the most challenging routes for the racers to go.

Overall, this race was not just excellent, it was Epic. Epic not just because of a tough course, but in the entire experience. The founders went out of their way to talk to people and make them feel welcome and not just “hey, thanks for your money” like a couple of the national series do. They wanted to form a community – especially with those of us who dared to brave an inaugural event. The guys said something very interesting. As SEALs, they explained that a first time mission was called “owning the plank” – a term used for original crew personnel assigned to ships company during commissioning. Those of us that showed up can now be said to be Plank Owners of O2X. And that, for me, is definitely a point of pride. Not so much my race performance, but to be among the first, one of the ones who had faith and certainly was not disappointed. I look forward to seeing them again for Loon Mountain and to my race calendar next year!

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Featured Review: Benson Bear Challenge #2

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Last time we visited Shale Hill Adventure Farms, the temperatures varied between 3f and 11f and we were planning on doing 8 hours worth of laps of their unique, permanently installed obstacle course.

You can read more about that experience here – and if you have not, please take a few minutes to click through and watch the race footage so you can get a feel for some of the unique and challenging obstacles Shale Hill will offer you.

This time, we were planning on running the second race of the Benson Bear Challenge (it’s a four race series for 2013) – as many of us were already in the neighborhood crewing or volunteering for the Death Race, taking place less than an hour away.

I’m so glad we did! The weather was perfect for us, and while Shale Hill doesn’t attract the kinds of numbers you see at a big name event in a metro area, the course and the welcome you receive are second to none. Normally, I’d have a GoPro video of the course to show you, but at the start line, my camera wouldn’t start – no wonder, the memory card is sitting in the side of my iMac, staring me in the face as I type. Talk about a rookie move!

Still – it’s worth going into what Shale Hill is about.

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Situated in Benson VT, Shale Hill Adventure Farm is the best permanently installed obstacle course you will find anywhere in the country. Currently spanning around 5 miles of trails, with terrain varying from open fields to seriously treacherous and technical slopes – the obstacles have the luxury of being permanent installs, so Rob Butler, the master mind behind the whole thing, can go bigger than anything you’d seen before. Rob has big plans, and I’ve said it before, if anyone can do them, it’s Rob.

We arrived early so Corrine could run in the elite, 8am wave. Parking is right on the site, and no charge. Spectators are free and have full access to the course – with great views of the start and finish line, and several of the final obstacles – Shale Hill is such a friendly event, they would likely put you on the back of an ATV and run you anywhere on the course you wanted to go, if you like – I know Vince, our camera guy, was tailing us the entire time.

The goodie bag we were provided with rivals that of much bigger events – a nice heavy weight T Shirt, a bunch of stickers for your car and other stuff – a dog tag engraved with their designs – for the finishers another fantastic medal (that spins! and can take an iTab!)

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Being a small, friendly event, the waves were small – just a handful of people running the elite devision – Shale Hill sponsored athlete Randy Feely was the winner, with a time of just over an hour, which should tell you how this course compares to something like a Spartan Race or other OCR you may have run before – with finishing times for the meer mortals pushing closer to two hours. One thing was clear, since our run through back in January, Rob had been busy expanding … The remaining Spahtens, and our new friend Matt B Davis (website), ran together later on, with Corrine doing a second lap and ultimately taking third place for the women!

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How do you expand an already great course? In January, we walked over a frozen lake … this weekend we were dunked in it. Every bucket carry and sandbag carry was longer, and the terrain slick and steep. New obstacles were present, including Alcatraz, a 16′, 75 degree wall with ropes that it took us more than a few attempts to get up (if we got up at all!). Familiar obstacles like the abacus ladder were slick with mud – and rather than try going over the metal rod at the top, I popped through the top rung.

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We had just as may hay bales to deal with, but they were falling apart this time (and still smiling at us!) – another new obstacle being the two metal rods held up on tall poles (the Double Up?), with the challenge being to get over the top – I have NO IDEA how to do this solo, it took three of us working together to make this one … climbing the firemans pole to a cargo net and wall slide sucked as much as it did in January too.

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Then you come to the final stretch, and things get tougher — the human sized lincoln logs hanging from ropes, the really awekwardly spaced climbing walls, the goddam monkey bars (and the welcome Chocolate Milk stop at the top), the final tarzan ropes, that were tough enough to begin with, now have an 8′ wall at the end – *thanks* Rob!

Then the home stretch – running through the Anaconda obstacle – something that seems so easy – simply run up and down the banks of a raised road – at the end of this race, it’s exhausting, hard work.

Once the race was done, we hung out and chatted – Rob has some really good ideas coming, including some big ideas that are already underway – look forward to hearing about a family friendly OCR resort (yes, exactly what it sounds like) that will be within easy driving distance for most of us, training weekends, and more.

If you haven’t made the trip to Shale Hill – you are missing a gem. This is an obstacle heavy, challenging course – you won’t be driving to VT to run an easy 5k, thats for sure. If you’re looking to take this sport seriously, and want to learn better techniques, then seriously consider taking the drive for one of the Benson Bear races, or staying up there for one of the training sessions (which include instructors from our own elite ranks – Eric Matta) – and watch your skills at these events improve – we can all build up our running on the roads and trails, but where do you get to improve on a real, complex obstacle course? Shale Hill, thats where.