Sunday, January 13, 2013

You only get out of life what you put into it. -Ethel Merman

Spartan Shape-Up, Day 543:

With the smell of Tiger Balm (Ultra!), wafting from my stiff, creaky shoulders, I had to take a moment, BlogLand, to tell you how I find myself this way. And by "this way" I mean, dotted all over in little purple bruises, feeling the need to stretch every few minutes, but awesome and energized. Wait... it sounds familiar, doesn't it? Much like what I have to say on a Sunday afternoon, after I've finished a race weekend.... Hmm. Well, BlogLand, that is because yesterday, I spent a few hours running the most interesting, challenging, 5 mile obstacle course I have run to date (including all the Spartan Sprints), over at ORTC Vermont. (One of my partners-in-crime, Stacey, writes about her experience here...)

The Obstacle Race Training Center (ORTC) at Shale Hill Adventure is the brain child of Rob Butler and the first public training center of it's kind. All you Obstacle Racers, it's time to sit up and take note: if you're in reasonable distance of Benson, VT - which happens to be just a hop, skip and a jump (or maybe a burpee?) away from Pittsfield, the home of Spartan Race - you no longer need to create makeshift vertical walls in your back yard, or try and figure out if you can suspend a climbing rope from that precarious tree branch. Rob has got you covered... and then some (honestly, the rumors of future projects that he's got rattling around in his brain have my T-Rex arms sore in anticipation!).

As we turned up the road to Shale Hill, we passed a few rolls of hay in a field, and could see some sort of tower, looming in the field, mostly hidden by the fog. "This doesn't seem so bad." I thought to myself, as we approached what I anticipated being an easy, home-grown, make-shift obstacle course.

BlogLand, I admit freely and publicly, I WAS SO WRONG.

Stepping out of the car, I found myself surrounded with an immediately sociable group of people, ready to get out on the course. I changed up my layering plan a bit (45 degrees, so said the weather channel, didn't feel so warm with the heavy fog and early morning...), donned my Inov-8 Orocs, and announced my readiness. Our group was the last to arrive, so after signing the inevitable "You May Die." sort of waivers, we set off down a farm trail at a light jog to warm up.

While the temperatures have warmed up, here in VT, making it a pleasant ambient temperature for outdoor activities, what that doesn't help is the snow. As we jogged down the path, trying to wake our legs up and get our bodies moving, it was challenging to control the slip-slide through the slushy, heavy snow. I'm convinced Rob somehow talked to the weather gods to make this happen, just to make sure we were challenged to the limits of our capacity. I drifted back and forth between following the footsteps of the Beastly troupe of regulars that went first, and making my own footsteps through the 6 inches of snow. Sometimes, breaking the snow seemed easier... sometimes, the preset footsteps seemed more solid. In 3 minutes, as my breathing started picking up, I suddenly was struck with a little concern - was I going to be able to hack it with this group? Rob had said we had mixed abilities among us, but so far, the troupe of regulars ahead of me seemed to be plowing ahead with good speed and no hesitation, despite the snow. What the HELL kind of 5 miles had I signed up for? But, with an open mind and a smile on my face, I continued to plow forward, listening to Rob describe some of the plans he had for the place, and the obstacles coming up in front of us.

In short order, I found myself up and over some log hurdles, a wall in the woods and up some small hills. So far, so good... I knew how to handle this kind of obstacle and I was starting to warm up a bit. I raised my eyebrow in a little concern as Rob explained that he had constructed the course with a lot of thought - this first part was meant to be "easy" and warm you up, the course getting progressively harder as you went on. A great concept, allowing you to get in the groove, get your confidence up.... hmm..... I trotted on.

The group chatted and laughed, trading OCR stories, training issues and jokes about Rob's ever-developing course, as we climbed our first real hill of the morning. At the top, we found ourselves in front of a huge pile of sandbags - 60 pounds for the men, and a variety of options for the ladies (choose what you're comfortable with). Rob warned us we would be married to this sandbag for about half a mile, through obstacles, so Stacey and I elected to press on empty handed, already feeling the burn in our legs from the snow traversing.

I'm not going to chronicle the Obstacles for you in their entirely, BlogLand, as I really feel like that ruins the experience. However, I will say they are jam-packed into that 5 mile run (totaling 35+, I understand). We never ran long before we were confronted with a challenge. Read on for the highlights...

So, Rob has designed a course that will challenge even the fittest, most seasoned OCR racer. I determined this as we came up to one of the first big obstacles, a rope climb tower. First, you must climb this particularly long rope climb (no knots, folks) and THEN, when you reach the top, get up and over the ledge, so that you can come down the steep ramp on the other side. Yeah. Picture that in your head. How good are your rope climbs? As I stood in awe of this obstacle, I watched several ORTC regulars get up and over, but with a hearty amount of effort. I was very happy to see that even the ladies we were running with made it up and over; in my experience, women tend to struggle with these kinds of obstacles and this one looked particularly ugly. Thanks to the ladies on our run for giving me hope that SOMEday, I'll be up the rope and over the ledge, too!

After some more snow-running (good god my legs were feeling the training hiatus I'm coming off of!), we entered a wooded section with some up hill runs, down hill slides (there was some talk of some sort of plastic molded butt protection, to navigate these slidy downhills in the future...) and then a whole bunch of climb-related obstacles.

One of the most unique, that I was anxious to try, was this telephone pole sized log, suspended from about 3-4 feet of rope. The log had some notches in it, and the task was to climb up the log/notches, onto the rope it swung from and touch the support beam at the top. How hard could that be? To my relief, I found it easier than a straight-up rope climb, because I had notches to grip (YAY Rock Climbing Training!), but challenging in a much different way: it was all mental. I got to a point in the log where I certainly could've kept going, I can say that now. I could've finished this obstacle and made it to the top and touched the beam. However, nerves got the better of me. You see, with my 200+ pound body clinging to one side of this log and climbing up it, you start to swing and sway and you're not really holding on to that much. I found my thunder thighs (term of endearment) hugging that log for all they were worth, while wondering to myself, "HOW AM I GOING TO GET DOWN?!" as down climbing looked to be a feat in and of itself. Always looking to push out of my comfort zone, I went up one more notch and declared that enough of a victory for today, electing to slide, shimmy, death-grip, down the pole to the ground. An awesome, but totally doable - even for those of us without the giant upper body - to get done. I do have to take this moment to note that as I, and my fellow newcomers attempted all these crazy contraptions, we were surrounded by a group of encouraging, cheering, helpful people; an exact representation of why I love OCR people. Everyone is there to help you overcome the Things You Think You Cannot Do, in a positive way.

More hills, more tired legs, more sweat dripping into my face (I totally over estimated the layers I'd need...damn. Live and learn!) and more obstacles, I found myself at the Traverse Wall. Now, sure, anyone who's done an OCR has probably encountered a Traverse Wall....but, I don't care who you are, you have NOT experienced a traverse wall like this. Take your typical Spartan Race sized traverse wall, multiply it by 5 and bend it into a zig zag shape. Crazy Rob's traverse wall is something like 130 ft, 90-130 holds (depending on what side you choose), and some of the sections are interesting transfer challenges. For instance, after you finish the first section of typical traversing, you must transfer to the next section by shimming across two beams, hanging from just your arms.... then, get onto another section of traditional traverse wall. I am not ashamed to say that I didn't make it the whole length, THIS TIME. I did attempt all the sections and did a reasonably good job, but man oh man, BlogLand, this is the stuff of Obstacle Race nightmares. If you could finish Rob's wall without incident, I feel that that should be a special prize in and of itself. Little did I know it was just a preview of the unique challenges I would find later on in the course.

This is not to say that Rob didn't provide us some of the traditional obstacles to tackle. At some point in the course, I found myself shlepping heavy stuff, doing a Hercules Hoist, climbing a rope ladder, navigating a modified vertical cargo net, jumping short walls and even flat on my belly, doing a barbed wire crawl in the snow. Interesting though, it was the most common of objects that was to be my Achilles heel of the day: a round hay bale.

At my first meeting with Round Hay Bale from Hell, I ran up confidently, jumped, scrambled and promptly slid to the ground unsuccessfully. A little more of a running start brought me closer to success, as I tried to stick the steel-studded shoes into the bale for grip, but still, I slid back down to start. 2-3 more times I tried, but over and over the damn bale kept forcing me back down to the ground. In short order, Rob, busting with helpful tips and positivity as ever, was by my side coaching me through some proven techniques in getting over these bales. After a few thousand more tries, I did manage to get myself to the top of Round Hay Bale from Hell, but it was not pretty, nor graceful, and I was certainly feeling the efforts of the day. With that tiny success, I elected out of the next two bales in the series, in favor of rejoining the group and pressing on (later, Stacey and I decided we might have to conquer these as a partner venture... one boosts, one pulls you up from the top... Perhaps a better solution for those of us who are vertical-jump challenged?). I thought for sure that this was probably the last we'd see of the round hay bales...... until later in the course when we rounded into a field that housed probably 8-10 of them, in a row. I died inside a little, but vowed that the NEXT time I tackled Shale Hill's Hay Bales of Death, I wouldn't be trotting around them, like I was today. You wait, Hay Bale. You just wait.

The next in the crazy train of obstacles that I need to tell you about is the Monkey Bars. I know that I can conquer a set of straight monkey bars - in fact, I've done this at a ton of races, in practice... I didn't anticipate any problems here. Until I saw Rob's version of monkey bars. The "straight" piece of monkey bars, that I was hoping I'd be able to handle was particularly long. And the bars rotated (Rob says this doesn't happen so much in the summer...). 3 rungs in was a drop down to the slush below, for me, sadly. However, I watched in absolute amazement as several of the group tackled the behemoth of the obstacles - Monkey Bars, Part Two: THE INCLINE. Yeah, so following Rob's straight section of Monkey Bars comes a long section of monkey bars that follows up a steep incline. Adding to the challenge, they aren't particularly level. Looking at them, I was sure they were impossible, but I was quickly proven wrong by Rob and a couple of our other run-mates, who (still with some effort, because damn that's hard!) busted up to the top, hand over hand. Subsequently, my arms were crying, just thinking about it. If you successfully navigate these bars, BlogLand, I promise to by you a beer for your sheer badassery.

Later in the course found us at a neat take on a Tarzan Swing. Rob's was, of course, a little longer than I'd seen prior, but a serious of ropes hung so that you were to swing from one, grab the next, swing on, grab the next, etc. There is clearly some technique to this too. For today, I was happy that I managed to even swing and grab the next rope a few times, even though my T-Rex arms had NO HOPE of making that transfer and continuing through the series of about 15 ropes.

BlogLand, I have to touch on The Tower. Remember how I told you I had seen it poking out of the fog, in our early-morning drive up? It is way more intimidating in person. If you were to navigate it, as intended, you would climb UP a fireman's pole to a deck above, climb over a horizontal cargo net (8 feet off the ground?) to another deck, where you would then make your way down a steep wooden ramp to the ground below. Let's think about what I just said. UP a fireman's pole. Rob would challenge you to shimmy-climb your way up a smooth metal pole. Somehow. That wasn't in my cards either, today (this is definitely one of those group-effort obstacles you'll find at a race, with a lot of helping hands and boosting going on, I think.), but Rob told me to do it backwards, so I could get the feel of the top of the structure.

Coming around to the other side of the obstacle - the steep ramp - I wasn't sure how he thought I was going to do that. There was no rope, only the side of the ramp to hold on to. However, not to be completely unsuccessful at The Tower, I set about giving it a go. Right foot, left foot, gripping the side with my left hand... I suddenly remembered something awesome. Remember when I told you that I thought I could walk up vertical walls in my new Inov-8 Orocs? Well, this proved to be a truer statement than I thought. As I put one foot in front of the other, and stabilized myself with one hand on the side of the ramp, I literally felt the studs dig into the wood. I was leaving tracks in the ramp, where the studs had dug in, but I could just walk right up the ramp. OH yeah, Inov-8 Orocs. I walked up a near vertical wall, with your help.

Finally, I feel that any obstacle with a name, particularly one like The Anaconda, deserves mention. Picture this, you're in the homestretch. You can see the barn at the end. Your legs are cooked, your arms are tired, you feel victorious for surviving these challenges, but suddenly, you are given one more. In full view of the END of your run the whole time, The Anaconda dares you to tackle it. It's a raised road (so, flat surface in the middle), but The Anaconda is the snaking running track that is a series of s-curves back and forth across it... with a few obstacles in the middle. To begin (remember, your legs are cooked), you run up the incline and meet a roll-under obstacle at the top. Now, run down the other side, turn back and run up the incline. Meet another small obstacle at the top on the flat. Run down the other side. Turn back, run up the incline.... are you seeing the evil? At ANY TIME, when you hit that flat top, you could quit, opt out, admit defeat and just run the flat "road" straight for the finish.... but the Anaconda bets that you can't complete it at mile almost-5, running up and down a countless number of little inclines to the finish. The question is, will you persevere, or will you quit in the jaws of The Anaconda?

After completing (slowly...) about 3/4 of The Anaconda, my legs made their emptiness known and I had to surrender, heading straight to the finish. However, with Rob in tow and my buddy-in-craziness, Stacey close behind, I declared a strong finish, and we all put in a good short actual run to the end.

Munching on refueling almonds and water, clad in fuzzy, warm dry clothes, I had to reflect a little on the day. It was everything that Rob had promised. 5 challenging miles, 35+ of interesting, varied obstacles and there was nothing amateurish about them. If anything, I found that Rob's course challenged my body in ways that many obstacle courses do not - it was extremely upper body heavy (although Rob says he's planning to add in some more leg-specific obstacles) and forced you to think beyond the "standard" obstacles and work out at plan of attack on his creative tasks. It did also lead you through a nice progression.. a little warm up on some "easy" obstacles, closing out your day with seemingly Herculean tasks.

Let me tell you, I can't WAIT to revisit Shale Hill in the summer; as Rob gave us the tour, he pointed out a lot of the obstacles that were closed for the winter season - water crossings, unique mud features, etc. There's some spectacular terrain and Rob is finding a way to challenge each runner by using every square inch of it.

Here's what you need to know, BlogLand: You NEED to get to the ORTC at Shale Hill. If you think you've challenged yourself before... you ain't seen nothing yet.

First, join me and SIGN UP for the Polar Bear Challenge. On January 26th, you have 8 hours to do as many laps of Rob's course as you can. Between each lap, you'll be given a once over by a medic, time to take your failed obstacle penalties (not just Burpees at Shale Hill!)  and the opportunity to warm up, change clothes and re-fuel in the barn - outfitted with a buffet (rumored to have Bacon!) for all your munching needs. Come for one lap, gun for 6... Whatever your speed, this event is not to be missed. Long sleeve T-shirts, a medal, a sticker... all the swag you could want, food, friendly people and most of all - a KILLER COURSE. So, I ask you, BlogLand.... who's going to come find me on the Polar Bear Challenge course?

Further, check out their Events Page for info on some great events coming up if winter is not your thing... Maybe the Grizzly Bear Triathalon (a different take, with a 5 mile Obstacle Course section!), or  -where you'll find me!- the Benson Bear, 4 race series of Obstacle Course Races, spread nicely through the warmer months. I'm thinking these might be EXCELLENT training progression indicators, as well as a chance for an overall prize.

Overall, for anyone in the Northeast (or those of you who don't mind travelling for adventure!), Shale Hill is a must for anyone that loves Obstacle Course Racing. You can come to race, train for the day, whatever you're in for. Personally, since my last OCR was Spartan Race's Beast in September,  it was great to have a place to go to get my OCR on, when there was no other relatively local way for me to do that.

Today, I'm doing a little active-recovery yoga (hello, climb-related arm muscles...) and assessing my strategies for the upcoming Polar Bear race. I'm shooting for 3 solid laps, planning some different layering strategies, and working out how I'm going to take on some of the obstacles that eluded me in this trial run (HAY BALE!!! I own you!!).

I have to give ORTC Vermont at Shale Hill 5 stars of awesome, for overall OCR badassness. There's no way around it. Rob's a cool guy, inviting, friendly and never made my non-rope climbing butt feel bad about what I couldn't do. Further, he's got big ideas (that said, someone should maybe be in charge of monitoring what he's working on in "The Shop"...) that I think could have a lot of cool features for us Mud Junkies in the future....

So, I STFU and got my winter obstacle training on this weekend.... what did YOU DO? (there's never a better time than today...!)


  1. Can't WAIT! What are the failed obstacle penalties?

  2. Great review of the course - the regulars are proud of it and Rob is a mad scientist! Hope you had fun at the Polar Bear!! - Dave C.