Spartan Race – Palmerton Super/Sprint Weekend 2017

Spartan Race U.S. Championships Series – Blue Mountain Challenge

Ask any Spartan Racer what the most grueling event they’ve done in their racing tenure, and Palmerton is sure to be high on that list. After Killington and Tahoe, I’ve heard plenty of stories of racers dropping out during the dreaded double-sandbag carry Palmerton is famous for or succumbing to the heat on what has proven to be a very formidable mountain.

Palmerton, PA also just happens to be the 3rd stop in the Spartan Race US Championship Series – dubbed The Blue Mountain Challenge, which meant the stakes were higher than ever. If you came to watch the best athletes in this sport, you weren’t disappointed. Atkins, Call, Boone, Webster, Kolbl, Killian were all on site. Spartan Race continues to drive amazing live footage, along with an onslaught of social media presence around these big name races – something the OCR enthusiast in me truly can’t get enough of.

For myself, and thousands of other racers, this was simply a chance to experience a championship caliber course on a mountain that has proven it’s worthy of mention in conversations about the toughest Spartan Race venue.

Spartan Up Your Friday Night

Select Spartan courses have also been offering an Open House the Friday before an event weekend. Spartan also offered racers an option to “Spartan Up” their Friday night, which gave the public the perfect opportunity to come enjoy the festival, learn obstacle and training secrets of top coaches, and maybe even meet a few Spartan Pro’s. New obstacles like Twister and Olympus were available to try out, which helps runners get a valuable chance at trying an obstacle before they see it on race day. We also saw a “prototype” rope wall obstacle Spartan was trying out that didn’t make its way into the race itself but gave us a possible look at what may be coming next.

Ape Hanger was another obstacle that has only been seen in one other location – Lake Tahoe, for the 2016 Spartan Race World Championships. Combine the old school rope climb from the water, with a monkey bars / slash rig type feeling, and you’ve got the Ape Hanger. Here is hoping Ape Hanger finds its way to more events because it was an absolute blast.

Spartan continued the assault on racers bodies by building two of the most grueling carries seen so far this year. A double sandbag carry (mandatory to Elite & Competitive racers) down an aptly named ski trail dubbed “Nightmare” and a Bucket Carry that was so long, it extended into the festival area, where onlookers could cheer on runners, and share in the pain that is the Bucket Carry.

All in total, Palmerton saw 25+ obstacles over 6000+ feet of elevation change across the Super course and didn’t skimp at all on the Sprint course the following day. After completing both events on consecutive days, I’m starting to understand the groans I have heard from fellow racers any time the word “Palmerton” is mentioned. When you combine the presence of the obstacle course racing elite, NBC and Spartan Facebook Live coverage, with a course like this, it’s a recipe for success. I’ll be adding Blue Mountain to my list of must-do events going forward.

Photo Credit: Josh Chace

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Montreal Sprint/Super Weekend Canada

After having my ass handed to me last year, I returned to Mont Owl’s Head this past weekend looking to take a far more cautious approach to a mountain that defeated over 90% of Ultra Beasters in 2016. Thankfully, Spartan Race Canada took mercy on us as well, moving this weekend to a Sprint/Super combination – opting to push their Ultra Beast event further north to Quebec City, in August – want to join me there? Register with Code: ORM15 for 15% off!

If you’ve avoided travelling outside of the US for a Spartan Race – The “Montreal” event is a great way to dip your toes into the Great White North. It really could be called the Northern Vermont Sprint/Super because by the time you’ve put your passport away after passing through customs, you’re arriving at Mont Owl’s Head. Also, if you’re familiar with the peaks of Vermont, or New Hampshire’s White Mountains, then you’ll be right at home here. Owl’s Head has a small base but steep climbs comparable to mountains twice its size.

“Though she be but little, she is fierce”

Owl’s Head totes one of the steepest climbs I’ve experienced in my OCR days and we couldn’t escape that climb, even on the Sprint course. About two miles in, after hitting a brutal combination of Olympus, Monkey Bars, a Platinum Rig, and a grueling Bucket Carry where racers were filling their buckets with dirt and rocks, we were tortured with a slow climb to the top of the mountain – about a 1,700 foot climb all in. The reward for climbing the mountain, and subsequent descent, is a view like no other – A gorgeous lake spanning for miles and the Appalachian’s in all their glory. You had plenty of time to drink it in, as you navigated the Tractor Pull through a slick and muddy path atop the mountain. You also had some time to really open up your legs on the back half of the Sprint – something that was severely missing in last year’s event. Long winding downhills made for some nice speed before bringing you into a finishing gauntlet made up of the Spear Throw, Rope Climb, Hoist, Barbed Wire Crawl, Rolling Mud, Dunk Wall, and A-Frame Cargo Net – all within 100m of the finish line.

Combined, the Sprint and Super had approximately 5,000 competitors and the venue handled them well. Small lines at registration were quickly moved through and Spartan made it a point to bring in far more bathrooms than last year, a common gripe among attendees. Finisher shirts seem to have gone universal in North America as there’s no Canadian flag or indicator that you’ve done a Canada Spartan.

All in all, I really enjoyed this weekend, especially getting back to short course racing where you can really test your lungs and legs. It’s been some time for me since I’ve started running longer distance events, and it was refreshing to cross the finish line while it was still light out.

Were you back at Montreal for redemption after last year? I’d love to hear about it – leave us a comment below!

HESCO BoneFrog Challenge Championship 2016 – Charlemont, MA

BoneFrog Championships - StartEarlier this year, Bone Frog Challenge announced that they would be putting on their first “Championship” series event where they would invite top finishers from their regional events, to compete in a “winner take all” event in the place where Bone Frog was born – Charlemont, MA. With entry numbers dwindling, the brass at Bone Frog walked back that announcement and transitioned back to a full featured event that all could register for. Could they put together an event on par with their past performance? Let’s find out.

Bone Frog grew to half a dozen events in 2016 – while other races were dwindling, Bone Frog is growing. For a race that does their obstacles and venues right, this is only good news for the OCR community. Finisher numbers don’t seem to be knocking socks off this year but with an improved social media presence combined with the signing of OCR UberNerd Dustin Dorough to emcee their events, they were positioned to make a splash up and down the east coast.

The year finished for Bone Frog right where it began – in Charlemont, MA. If you’re lucky, New England in October can be beautiful, colorful, and comfortably warm. We weren’t quite that lucky on this last weekend of the month. Temperatures barely tickled 40 degrees at starting time, which may be ok for some racers but that’s before you start plunging folks into ice cold waters.

Snow littered a brand new course for runners – each step, an adventure in balance and agility. Each obstacle, that much more difficult when your fingers don’t want to work. For the 66-ish runners lucky enough to choose the Tier 1 Race option, that means they’d be on both the 9-mile Challenge course before heading back out onto the 5K Sprint option – each with it’s own unique path throughout the day. Both of these distances pack a strong amount of obstacles in, many exclusive to this event – and both made sure that racers were waist deep in freezing cold waters early on, and then atop Berkshire East you were wading through chunks of ice as you navigated a second tormentingly cold pond.

The course did struggle at times to find itself. Figuratively and literally. Markings through the woods were few and far between which did lead to several lost racers during the day, myself included. One advantage to running in the snow? You quickly realize you’re off course because you don’t see anyone’s footprints in the fluffy white stuff as you forge ahead.

BoneFrog Championships - Course MapBoneFrog Championships - Black Ops

While it would appear that the draw of a Bone Frog “Championship” was not quite there this year, with under 700 racers attending this event, Bone Frog does everything right when it comes to their events. Adding details like identifying bands for Elites, to great swag, and a phenomenal home venue, there’s no reason you shouldn’t be looking to sign up for a 2017 race. They’ve debuted a new website, and next years brings even more new events in Washington DC, Texas, and Buffalo, NY.

BoneFrog Championships - Celebratory CupcakeBoneFrog Championships - Bling and Burgers

Personal Note: Nobody likes getting older. However, I was fortunate enough to celebrate my 37th birthday this weekend with some of the best people in the world – OCR people. Cheers to you all for being the best community around. PS. cupcakes at the finish line are as good as they sound.

Spartan Race: 2016 Killington Ultra Beast – Redemption

Everyone has that one event they look forward to all year. Kids look forward to Christmas. Matt B. Davis looks forward to Waffle House’s All You Can Eat Hashbrown Day and if you’re a Spartan Race enthusiast looking to cap your trifecta off, the Killington Beast is the pinnacle of your racing season.

If you were in Vermont last year, you know that the Beast of the East deserved far more pomp and circumstance than was delivered. For those that weren’t there, read my review of the 2015 Killington “Founders Race” here. Racers felt like they deserved better. Spartan made sure they delivered on that promise, with course designer Jason Barnes telling me “after last year, we owed it to you all”. With other big name races going under, it’s important that events listen to their customers’ feedback, and adjust course when necessary.

Photo Credit: Spartan Race Facebook Page
Photo Credit: Spartan Race Facebook Page

For the Ultra Beast runners, the weekend started on Friday with packet pickup. Early packet pickup is a simple convenience that should be offered to all racers. I received my pre-race email well before the event which included all details necessary to have a great weekend of racing. After hearing a lot of chatter on the course this weekend saying there was no communication about logistics beforehand, it deserves to be noted that Spartan did reach out to racers with plenty of time to prepare. There is always room for improvement in race logistics but the onus has to also in part be on the racers. Ultra Beast events have strict time hacks that must be made. This information was delivered beforehand and racers were told again at the start line before waves went off. Point, Spartan.

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The swim @ Killington was almost twice as long as years past Photo Credit: Dan Parker, NES

Course Design is Key

loved this course. Loved it. My biggest gripe with mountain-style Spartan courses is that they’re simply turned into a Man vs. Mountain style event, with obstacles as the second class citizen. See: Spartan Race Montreal Ultra Beast 2016. This years Killington Beast was artfully designed, weaving technical climbs in between previously unseen sections of the mountain. The balance between runnable course and climbing was perfectly done, making sure obstacles were evenly spread out throughout the mountain.

The Spartan Death March is a tradition at Killington The Spartan Death March – Photo Credit: Dan Parker, NES

Time is a Valuable Thing

My goal this race was to beat Spartan’s time hacks. This meant that racers had to complete their first lap of the Beast course by 2:30pm. It gave Elite racers 8 hours to do so, and competitive/open a bit less. The course would then close at 9:30pm sharp, which meant for most, lap 2 would have to be even faster than lap 1. Looking at the results, this was most racers undoing. With a DNF rate of what appeared to be almost 50%, the strict time cutoffs proved more insurmountable than the mountain itself.

Takeaways

PROS
After 2015, Spartan Race completely honored what the Killington Beast should be. The mix of course design, obstacle balance (including a very lengthy swim through Lake Killington) ensured that all style of racer enjoyed the event.

Hydration. There were NINE water stops on the course, including two dedicated pack refilling stations. There was even a water table BEFORE the start line. After #Watergate last year, Joe D said they would get it right this year, and they did. Water was never a concern.

CONS
Time contraints. Again, Spartan did a great job of communicating the times that racers would need to be at certain checkpoints as well as being off the course completely. Racers were told in the Athlete’s Guide that the course closes at 9:30pm and that they would be pulled without question – and they were. By the hundreds. The 9:30pm cutoff is earlier than past years and unfortunately with start times going until 2pm, many racers were not given a fair chance to conquer this event. Some left the course angry, others crying. The Beast, especially at Killington, should not have start times after 12pm if you’re going to cut off the event at 9:30pm. That’s my two cents.

Volunteer abuse continues to also be an upsetting trend. I watched a racer verbally assault two volunteers after they told her she needed to keep her pack on for the Rope Climb. “Who made that rule up?! It’s never been that way at the other events!” Listen – volunteers are there to make this event happen. Some are giving up their own free time so that you can enjoy your event. They’re following instructions. You need to do the same. Stop giving them a hard time for it.

Summary

This event was a complete 180 from last years. If there was a model for effective course design, efficient communications combined with the perfect venue, this was it. Hands down my favorite Spartan Race this year. Having never been to Tahoe for the newer World Championships, I still think Killington is where it should reside.

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Tough Mudder Half – Northeast: A Tough Mudder Virgin No More

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Back in November of 2015, Tough Mudder announced the creation of the ‘Tough Mudder Half’. As described on the Tough Mudder website, the Half is “designed to test teamwork and grit on a 5-mile obstacle course without fire, ice or electricity. It’s all the mud with half the distance and the first step to joining a community of 2 million strong around the world.” Tough Mudder understands that there is a segment of racers out there that may not be ready for a full 10 – 12 mile event and thus, the Half was born – and it’s Northeast debut is where I found myself this past Saturday morning.

Until this summer, I was a Tough Mudder virgin. I’ve been running OCR’s since the summer of 2012, but in full disclosure, the thought of electrocuting myself, willingly, wasn’t quite as appealing as jumping over walls or conquering a rope climb. Over time however, I began to see the appeal – overcoming your fears in an effort to explore the true appreciation of the life we live. My only regret is that it took me this long to jump on the Tough Mudder bandwagon.

Tough Mudder isn’t concerned with how long it takes you to finish, but it is made very clear that they care that you DO finish.

For those who have not experienced Tough Mudder, it is difficult to describe the appeal of this event, but I think it can be narrowed down to a few simple things: teamwork. camaraderie. conquering your fears, and of course, physical achievement. Tough Mudder isn’t a Spartan Race. It’s not a Savage Race or Battle Frog. There is no timing chip.   Other races would rather see you defeated (See my Montreal Ultra Beast review);  however, Tough Mudder wants to see you succeed. I’m guessing the brass at Tough Mudder doesn’t care about saving a few bucks on swag that they don’t have to issue out for folks that DNF. Quite the opposite. Tough Mudder has you swimming in swag from the moment you enter the festival area.TM NE Full and HalfCheck in is simple. Show your confirmation code, email, or phone number and you’re assigned a bib on the spot. No packets to be stuffed, no bib numbers to look up. Bag check is a very affordable $5 USD, which comes with a huge covered, secured tent that is manned all day by members of “Mudder Nation”. Your path to the start line isn’t without encouragement, that’s for sure. You’re given the choice of pre-workout drinks by Cellucor, one of Tough Mudder’s premier sponsors, and another sponsor, Merrell, is also onsite in case you pull a “me” and forget your shoes on race day. You’re taken then into a starting corral where you’re warmed up by the Tough Mudder deejay – a good way to get your blood flowing and get yourself amped up for an awesome day of conquering obstacles.

From the shoot of Tough Mudder Northeast, you were met with a few simple flats to get the nerves out, before heading into a few mud crawls and inverted walls. Again, the main theme of Tough Mudder being teamwork ensures you’re not going to run into many “hotshots” who want to blow past you in order to hurdle an obstacle with speed and precision. I’d consider it more a “You go, I go” mindset. I quickly learned that, before I got myself over any obstacle, it was my duty as a newly indoctrinated Mudder to get someone else over the obstacle first. It started simple with 10-fingers at the walls, to letting folks stand on my shoulder to get over the Mud Mile. It got better and better as the course went on. Tough Mudder’s obstacles are amazing enough to conquer solo but even more rewarding when you see others do them by your side. At one point, I found myself hanging upside down, my feet being held by two girls I had never met before, just so I could help one Matt B. Davis get up Pyramid Scheme – a slick wall requiring teamwork in order to scale its face. That favor was then returned as other Mudders helped haul my ass up Everest 2.0 – a signature obstacle for Tough Mudder. It was shortly after Everest that the Half course broke off onto its own track towards the finish line. You had a real sense of achievement in the obstacles you conquered during the Half without having to completely overcome those fears that may have kept you from registering for a Full – however, I can’t imagine anyone finishing this race and not immediately wanting to sign up for another event, especially since they tease you with views of Electroshock Therapy and other great obstacles as you cross the finish line.

Tough Mudder Great Northeast Pyramid Scheme with Josh Chase

I had the chance to interview finishers of the Half, and the common theme was quite prevalent: “Awesome.”, “So much fun!”, “The camaraderie on the course was amazing!” Look for the video here on ORM, coming soon but don’t wait that long to register for the next Tough Mudder Half in your area – the list of upcoming events can be found here.

If you’re still on the fence, know this: Tough Mudder takes care of its racers. There was never a concern that I would be without hydration on the course. Five to six water stops were intelligently placed throughout the Half and Full courses, complete with huge buckets of water that could easily serve 12 – 15 racers simultaneously. If you needed energy to continue, there was also Cellucor Aminos, bananas and fit bars to get you through to your complimentary beer the end. Other events could stand to take a few pages out of Tough Mudder’s book when it comes to on-course nutrition and hydration.
SUMMARY
Overall, the Tough Mudder Half Northeast was an amazing race. The racers I spoke with on Saturday shared in my enthusiasm for this particular event, and Tough Mudder as a series. I’ll absolutely be back.

To hear more on my Tough Mudder experience, check out the New England Spahtens Show podcast, where myself, Paul Jones and 21-time Mudder finisher Sandy Rhee discuss this weekend’s race and all things OCR.

Spartan Race Montreal Ultra Beast 2016

Spartan Race Montreal StartTwo hours east of Montreal, towering above Lac Memphrémagog, in Mansonville Quebec, lies Mont Owl’s Head. A relatively humble resort in a small town just north of the US and Canadian border. The challenge this giant presented however, was anything but humble, as plenty of would-be Ultra Beasters would find out this past weekend.

Spartan Race Canada is not part of the US-based Spartan experience that I’ve become so accustomed to. Sure the premise is the same: Sprint, Super, Beast, Ultra Beast, etc., but there are variations of the brand that you will only see in the Great White North. First, the Platinum Rig is the premier obstacle partner of Spartan Race Canada. If you ran the last Spartan World Championship Race in Killington, VT back in 2014 or the highly-toted OCR World Championships, chances are you’re familiar with the Platinum Rig. For those who are not, it’s an interchangeable rig design that often includes rings, hanging ropes, monkey bars, cargo nets and any combination there of, sure to give even the vets no choice but to work on their burpee form 30-times over. Platinum Rig also had other obstacles on site that I had not seen in any US-based race.

Second, the sign-in process is a hair different. You bring your receipt info (or mobile-based QR code) to a table, they assign you a bib and timing chip on the spot. No needing to hunt down your bib number online beforehand. Simply show up 90 minutes before your wave, and voila. The timing chips they use, provided by UK-based Trumin Sports, are attached to your shoes, as opposed to those awkward wrist band devices we have grown accustomed to in the States.

…the all-too-common trend nowadays is the predictable fight between Spartan Racer and the terrain: not the obstacles.

Festival entertainment, sprawling vendor alleyways, and start-line traditions all remained the same.

While each Spartan Race course is different, the all-too-common trend nowadays is the predictable fight between Spartan Racer and the terrain; not the obstacles. Their apparent recipe for success? Find a mountain. Hack a course up and down it in relentless fashion, and pack the obstacles into the last leg of the course for a truly cramp-inducing sufferfest. Mont Owl’s Head reaches 2,480 feet above sea level (or 756m if you’re doing as the Canadian’s do). The goal for Spartan this weekend was to punish you straight out of the gate, that much was clear. From the gun, racers were met with an 800ft climb up one of Owl Head’s ski slopes. Turning the corner and hopping a few 4-foot walls took you back down that same 800ft slope, before turning right back around and going back up – the only change of scenery being the racers behind you following in your footsteps as you walk beside them, on the other side of the Spartan Race trail tape. We did this again and again throughout the day. In the first 5km of the course, you were exposed to approximately 2,800ft of elevation change and three laughable obstacles – 4ft walls, hay bails, and two walls that you were supposed to jump over without touching. No challenge there. Once you came down again, you had an inverted Platinum Rig waiting for you at the bottom of the slope.

elevation profile for Ultra Beast course

Elevation Profile for Ultra Beast

The Ultra Beast racers was treated to a 2km loop off of the regular Beast course that did have a Platinum Rig Weaver-style device. If these names sound obscure it’s because there was no course map in the festival area, so I am shooting from the hip on the names. This, in my opinion, was the most innovative obstacle of the day. You had to “weave” under and over bars and logs, as you scaled up the Rig. Hard to visualize and equally hard to complete. From there we had an ammo box carry that led us into the woods into a winding trail of switch backs – a place where seasoned veterans could truly excel.

After that short relatively flat section of the Ultra Beast loop, it was back into climbing and descending mode. Between miles 5 and 10 of the course you were simply hiking up or down the mountain with nothing more than a military-style camouflaged cargo net crawl thrown in to break up the monotony. It wasn’t until you were back down near the festival area that you were met by obstacles such as the Hercules Hoist and Rope Climb. Carry’s found their way into the latter half of the course in the form of the Spartan “Waffle”, a slosh pipe, tire flip, drag, and carry. Once again, staples of the Spartan Race we known and love, but woefully unoriginal – even less so, considering they were simply tossed in towards the end of the race to “break” perspective finishers. And break them, it did. Of the quoted “750 registered racers” in the athlete’s guide, only 125 of those finished the Ultra Beast.

Spartan Race Montreal Climb        Spartan Race Montreal Running Spartan Race Montreal Rig       Spartan Race Montreal Robe Climb
The latter half of the race housed another Platinum Rig obstacle with vertical bars/logs that you needed to grip onto and traverse without touching the ground. Another Canada specific obstacle that surely bested the unfamiliar racer. Monkey bars, a balance beam, and one final traditional Platinum Rig style obstacle stood in the way of the finish line.All in all the mountain was truly the obstacle to conquer this weekend. If you need any more proof of that, you simply need only to look at the finishing times of the Super , held on Saturday. Jesse Bruce finished in a time just over 2 hours 12 mins- a mark that is rarely seen for a 9-mile Spartan Race.

The trend of simply throwing in an obstacle between miles of climbing has become an all too easy excuse for Spartan to justify a resist in innovation. Want a harder race? Find a bigger mountain! Can’t find a bigger mountain? Let’s find more ways to send racers up and down this one! While I was unimpressed with this common theme, I was impressed with the adversity racers continue to put up against the course designers. I continue to watch in awe as competitors meet these challenges head on and with incomparable success. Jesse Bruce for instance took not only the podium at the Super on Saturday but also for the Ultra Beast on Sunday. Bravo.

Myself? I DNF’d the course around Mile 15. My first ‘Did Not Finish’. The mountain won this battle. I just hope the next Ultra Beast I try (I’m looking at you Killington) will challenge my obstacle prowess as much as it does my ability (or inclination) to simply walk up and down a mountain repeatedly. You can do better, Spartan.

Spartan Race Montreal Josh ChaceIt looked so easy from behind the Start Line

Photo Credit: Josh Chace