OCR season is beginning all over the nation again, and although other races may have been run prior, the Northeast OCR season doesn’t truly begin to me until the 8 hour Polar Bear Challenge at Shale Hill. Shale Hill is consistently ranked as the best permanent obstacle facility in the United States, and it has attracted international OCR attention in years past and with sponsors. Title sponsor IceBug and new sponsor Bleggmitt helped to bring one of the most memorable events of the year back to the frigid town of Benson, Vermont.
On the nearly 6 hour drive to the rolling hills of Shale Hill Adventure, I had a lot of time to consider the rough time leading up to this week. Besides the hours of driving, a 70 hour work week and stress about several personal issues certainly aren’t a perfect lead-up to any event, but I felt confident regardless. I was determined to improve upon my 6th place performance from the year before.
Arriving the night before and grabbing my packet, I was happy to see that Jill and Rob Butler were still just as efficient as ever with their operations. The staff was kind enough to let me grab bib #19 (my number from The Selection) when I saw that the next bib on top was 14, and that made my weekend right there. The bibs were a new type and material, almost plastic with the back made of a tape like adhesive. Also new this year was a system of identifying what type of racer everyone ones by red, blue, and green fabric bands tied around onto the person. Red were for elite, and I am uncertain the rest of the colors. With good vibes and spirits, I drove over an hour back to where I was crashing for the night and headed right to bed.
4:30 a.m. came too soon, but the excitement made it easy to get up and hit the road at 5. Conditions: about 0 degrees Fahrenheit upon departure, and I was wearing flip flops. Delays on the road took away the time that I had planned to change into proper race and footwear before the racer’s meeting at 6:30 a.m., so I ran the quarter mile from parking to the barn in flip flops and a light jacket, drawing a myriad of confused looks. Even more looks came on the way back, and I brought my race box to the designation space indoors and changed into my Newbsanity top, cold gear, and lined up at the start on the hill.
For those who are unfamiliar with Shale Hill, it is a roughly 6.5 mile loop that packs a whopping 75+ obstacles per lap. The course record in the summertime for this course is still approaching 70 minutes, so for their endurance events like this, it is wise to plan carefully which penalties you can afford to take, and which obstacles you should make sure you complete. Some of the more unique and challenging obstacles on the course, just to give you an idea of what the level of difficulty here is, include rope traverse over a frozen lake, two sternum checkers, Larry Cooper’s full version “Destroyer”, and that’s all within a half mile of each other! Further on in the course is a five stage traverse wall, 45 degree uphill, spinning monkey bars, a rig, a weaver, a warped wall ninja style, and Tarzan ropes. New this year was a take on devil’s stairs/stairway to heaven, with the stairs much steeper and more narrow than I have been used to before (think skipping a stair between layers at the OCRWC), and a heavy carry that was a 45 pound plate and cement block attached to a homemade wheelbarrow like contraption with fat pole handles.
The first lap started much fast than I remembered, although maybe it was subconscious to try to keep warm in the 8 degree morning. Everything was going to plan, except for breaking my vest and water bottles on the first sternum checker, leaving me a little cold, wet, and dehydrated. I felt confident and pretty good early, taking penalties only at the balance gauntlet (which I will every time), the last few walls of the traverse, the stairs, and the uphill monkey bars. I also failed the Tarzan ropes one too many times for me to feel that retrying was worth it. I could have completed the obstacle, but I didn’t want to waste any more time as I was cutting it awful close to my 1:50 minute goal per lap. I finished the lap in 5th place, with a steady pace and only minutes out of higher places. The second lap however, I finally felt the results of all of the adversity of the past few weeks.
The combination of excessive work hours, lack of sleep, and mental/emotional stress was first noticed on lap two when I got to the first wall obstacle, “pick your poison”. As I went to roll over the wall, I realized that unlike most races where my grip or legs would tire out first, my biceps and back were completely devoid of all strength. It was very abnormal, and as I wound through the woods I realized something else bizarre for myself; I was shivering. The second lap slowed significantly, and my penalties went up dramatically. The lap left me walking to the finish, well off of my goal pace, looking forward to my penalties to get warm again. I finished my penalties and the lap after over 2.5 hours, and in bad shape. I headed into the barn to try to save my day.
Shivering and exhausted, I knew calories and trapping some body heat was a must. I had the old windbreaker I used at WTM 2017, and after I threw it on, I switched my hat to a dry one, and force a blueberry bagel (my race favorite) into my system before packing some caffeinated Clif Bloks for the final lap. Time-wise, my last lap was slower than my second, but I actually took the same number of penalties, and felt much better. My heart rate and body temperature began to return to appropriate levels halfway into the lap, and my body felt nice from the calories of the bagel. At this point however, I had given up on catching anyone in front of me, and without knowing where the 6th place male was, my goal became to not get passed. I managed to do this successfully until the very end of the lap, where male winner Vincent Larochelle finished his fourth lap at essentially the same time I finished my third (and he was the only 4 lap finisher of the event for the second year in a row). 5th place overall for myself this year.
Rounding out the podium for the males were twins Travis and Jared Rawson, and for the females it was Marcia Coelho, followed by Danielle Ryzer and Kristen Mann. The race had some great competition, but one of the best things about this event is that it isn’t just about the race at the front, but the challenge all the way through. Shale Hill draws numerous individuals to all of their events, because the entire thing top to bottom is spectacular. From Rob and Jill, to the location, the obstacles, and the atmosphere, and especially that all day warm food buffet and that amazing local chocolate milk, the day is about as pleasant of an experience as you can have with hundreds of strangers in sub-freezing temperatures. With the conclusion of the 5th annual Polar bear, OCR has now arrived for 2017 in the Northeast, and if the events continue in this fashion it will be a great year! Next year I will give this event more focus, and better prep leading into it for sure. Third time’s the charm! 5/5
All photo credit belongs to VT Grit and Grace as found at https://vtgraceandgrit.smugmug.com/Shale-Hill-Adventure-Farm/PolarBear2017/