Winter and obstacle racing in my experience have been two opposite things until this past weekend. After a life spent searching out winter, the change of searching out summer has been a welcome change. Last week I made the trek back to the east coast for the Shale Hill 8-Hour Polar Bear Challenge, my first winter obstacle race. I have bantered back and forth with Paul Jones of New England Spahtens for years about taking time in the winter for an off-season to which he always responds, “there is not off-season.” So last week I found myself leaving the sunny 60+ degree weather of Utah to head to snowy sub-zero temps in New York and Vermont.
The first thing the east coast welcomed me with was a raging cold after a day of travel. Not a great start to a trip but it’s winter and it happens. From Thursday on I was on a special Theraflu cocktail making the prospect of running the 8-hour race extra special. I arrived at Shale Hill Friday morning after just over a day to get use to the freezing temps. One thing must be said about Rob and Jill Butler is they are incredible hosts.
Shale Hill, as I wrote before as the “Field of Dreams of Obstacle Racing” for about.com is a permanent obstacle course in Benson, Vermont off Route 22a. The 100-acre farm has been transformed into an obstacle playground for all levels. Jill Butler had the dream of turning the farm into a horse eventing center, but Rob’s dream of a permanent obstacle race training facility won out, although Jill has three horses on the property and a few jumps of her own.
When I arrived at Shale Hill preparations were well underway for the race. The course was being remarked after yet another snowstorm buried the markers and goodies bags were being stuffed. I was welcomed with open arms and fed some venison chili one of the volunteers had made. Jill had set aside the guest bedroom in the house for me to stay and I dumped my stuff then waited for afternoon registration to start. Registration was a mixture of “old home week” as many familiar faces streamed in, many from the New England Spahtens, whom I would dine with that night at the local and only restaurant in the town, The Wheel.
Saturday morning came early and still feeling under the weather, and honestly doped up on cold meds, I made the switch from Elite Heat to Journeyman Division. Journeyman Division is a new division for the “just for fun group” and I found myself enjoying a day with Paul Jones of New England Spahtens. Our heat was the last one to go off for the day at 8:30am. The race would conclude around 3:00 in the afternoon.
The course was a just under 7-mile loop in which the goal was to do as many loops as possible in the 8-hours. Within less than a quarter mile I knew for me it would be a one loop day and decided to enjoy my time on the course. Paul and I BS’d around a lot of the race, chatted and took a comfortable pace, it became quickly apparent hiking in the soft new snow would be just as fast as attempting to run. The obstacles at Shale Hill are known for their difficulty. While many were challenging, it was also rewarding to complete a few that at first glance seemed impossible.
As we trudged along we found ourselves helping many other racers, chatting, laughing and moving one step in front of the other. Some of the highlights of the day came from not succeeding at the obstacles ourselves but helping those around us, like the guy we helped climb a rope who had been struggling for almost a half hour, or teaching half a dozen racers how to complete “the loom” similar to “the weaver” obstacle at Mud, Guts and Glory or the new Spartan Weaver. While we didn’t have to complete or try any obstacles in the Journeyman division all I watched were giving as much effort if not more than those in the elite division, the only difference is we didn’t have any penalties at the end.
While we didn’t have to do any penalties in the journeyman division the penalties for the race were unlike any other. Butler designed them not to be soul crushing but instead to be time consuming and a little fun. Instead of doing penalties at each obstacle like most races. At the Polar Bear Challenge all penalties are incurred at the end of the course. Each obstacle you fail during the loop you are given a chip, green, blue, or red. They indicate the difficulty of the obstacle you failed. Once at the start/finish you walked up to a table and handed over your chips, then rolled the dice and did the penalty based on the number you rolled. Which were sledding, eating saltines, pole flips, board walks, superman burpees, or pushups with Butlers creation “pups”. Depending on the number of chips and their color the penalties could be vastly different. One woman we talked to had to do 50 sleds down a small hill. Fun at first then tedious. Luckily at all times people were there to encourage one another.
It took us over 4 hours to complete one loop, the winning male would complete 3 loops and the winning female 2 loops for the day on the loose snow. We finished and headed into the barn/garage for a hot meal with a variety of food, then swapped stories.
Shale Hill once again was a great experience and the Polar Bear Challenge is the essence of what racing and obstacle racing can and should be. The race is small and intimate. It is everything that is great about Vermont and New England wrapped into one race. Winter obstacle racing can be really fun. Also along the way picked up a few tips to help you with your own winter race: 5 Tips for Running a Winter Obstacle Race