Montane’s Cheviot Goat – England’s Loneliest Winter Ultra

In most races we do, our friends and family offer encouragement and say things like “good on ya” for trying.  The Cheviot Goat Ultra is not one of those races.  In the lead up to this event, the few times I’d honestly explain what the Cheviot entailed I’d watch facial expressions turn from curiosity to horror.  Then I’d get the exasperated follow up: “why would you do that to yourself?”

 

Well, the Cheviot Goat is billed as England’s Loneliest Winter Ultra.  As the crow flys, it’s an unmarked course that traverses 54 miles along the hills and bogs near Scotland.  By most standards, the individual mountains are fairly small but they collectively manage to gain 9,800 feet.  The weather’s cold, the winds are strong, and the “Bogs of Eternal Misery” are truly awful. The exposure is so real that runners are required to carry a survival bag and GPS tracker with an SOS button.  If people quit anywhere past the halfway point they’ll likely need both to make it long enough for Mountain Rescue to extract them.

 

After reading about this last year, I was so turned on that I flew in from Alaska to join 278 like-minded runners from across the globe last Saturday for the 2019 Cheviot.  Despite jet lag, pre-race insomnia and daily panic attacks leading up to race, when the 3-2-1 start happened all the nerves went to zero.  In almost all of the N+1 challenges I’ve done, once the safety of the starting corral is gone and the body has no other choice but to continue forward the near crippling anxiety and self-doubt invariably stops.

Shortly after the Start

Despite a bazillion false summits, the first five miles of climbing were amazing.  The initial course was muddy and truly sucked (literally and figuratively), but the steady stream of headlamps snaking through the respective elevations was surreal.  When the sun finally started to rise, the early morning lit up the multi-color hills so vividly that it felt like we were running within a work of art.  I lost several places stopping to take in the morning vistas, but didn’t regret the decision one bit.

Views that Validate Months of Training

The first genuine ordeal along the course was navigating the fabled Bogs of Eternal Misery.  They’re hilly and go on for miles!  I’d only read about these bogs, but the descriptions usually involved expletives and fear.  I can testify: the stories are true.  Bogs are crap things to “run” through.  There’s no straight path between them, they can be quite large and it’s anyone’s guess how deep you’ll sink if you fall into their water.  They’re a simple but terrifying thing to negotiate: line up from a tenuous position on one side to a landing spot on the other side you hope is stable enough to support your weight, then jump across several feet of water with the aid of prayer or trekking poles and hope you won’t fall into something that swallows you whole.  Screw it up and you’ll sink to your knees or worse.

The reward for graduating the bogs was climbing to the courses’s highest summit and namesake: The Cheviot. Since there were 80 MPH winds forecast for the evening, the race directors had us run the course in reverse so we’d hit this highest and most exposed peak early in the day.  It was a smart call.  Near the summit, the course marshals were supporting us in truly awful conditions.  The tents they had for shelter were being blown around like rag dolls, it was misty and cold!  I can’t adequately express how much I appreciate them for being out there in that weather to keep us safe.

 

From the start line to the Cheviot Summit, through to the halfway point at Barrowburn, navigation wasn’t really an issue.  The terrain often sucked, but finding the right path was manageable.  There were the treacherous stone slabs along the Pennine Way to guide us or clusters of people to follow.  But once we reunited with our drop bag at the halfway point and night fell, it became a different race altogether.

Luckily for me, I started the back half with a fighting chance because I’d made a friend.  Somewhere around mile 20, a group of us guys stopped to pee (#hydrateordie) and when we started running again I found myself pacing with a cool guy named Tim from Newcastle.  We’d both watched beaucoup navigation tutorials on YouTube, but if our lives came down to orienteering via compass we were as good as dead.  Continuing on like we did at night might have been more an act of faith than smart racing, but sometimes the dice are what you’ve got… At the very least, we felt safe having company.  We went off course a lot, but somehow always managed to find our way back and avoided dying.

 

Once it got colder and dark, it also started to rain and my glasses (which I really, really need to see) became useless for several hours.  The 80 MPH winds showed up a bit later and amplified the rain’s suck factor by a lot.  I was able to follow Tim’s feet and check my GPS for bearings when need be, but only briefly.  At its peak, the wind was so strong it ripped the glasses off my face so many times I had to secure them in my pack.  If it hadn’t have been for Tim’s help here (and elsewhere), I would not have finished this race.  Functional blindness wasn’t a contingency I’d planned for.  Friends matter.

 

The back half took so long that I stopped looking a my watch.  There were bogs, hills, bogs on hills, more bogs and more hills (with bogs). I got depressed, sleepy and started to hallucinate somewhere around mile 45.  Coming down from a hill (through more bogs), there was an unusual amount of glistening green grass that was covering grave markers spaced out through the mud.  I couldn’t figure out why they’d route us through a cemetery until I realized the gravestones I was seeing weren’t real.  Apparently, the 12 hours of sleep (total) in the days leading up to the Cheviot was enough to induce my first ever race day hallucination.  Despite this epiphany, the gravestones wouldn’t go away! For about another mile, I continued watching one gravestone after another pass underfoot without saying a word.

 

When I finally mentioned how sleepy I was feeling, one of the runners (aka Guardian Angel) pulled out a thermos of coffee and Tim handed me a caffeinated gel.  Literally within minutes, I got my mind right.  Over the remaining hours we’d get lost again, climb a bit more and muddle through more bogs, but after 19 hours and 21 minutes we finally ran through to the finish line.  At the close, the staff and race director were waiting to shake our hands, pass out medals and make sure everyone got a finisher pic.

Technically and physically, the course was brutal.  Including screw ups, our route spanned roughly 57 miles with 11,500 feet of gain. It also entailed a lot of time stopping to ask “where the hell are we?” and trying to find our way back to where we were supposed be.  Of the 279 people that started, 237 finished.  One of those finishers was John Kelly (last person to finish the Barkley Marathon) – who finished about 9 hours before we did.  The others?  I’m not sure what the profile was of a representative runner, but at my pace I was chatting with some fairly experienced people with big races under their belt like the Dragon’s Back.  It was a super welcoming crowd, but definitely not the place to make a run at your first ultra distance.

I’m incredibly grateful to the race staff at Cold Brew Events and the North of Tyne Mountain Rescue Team for hosting a truly epic event.  This thing was intense, but the objective dangers were managed so well that I had zero doubt if I needed to push my SOS button someone would have been there to save me.  Happily that wasn’t needed.  If you’re considering a race-cation like this or want to get in on the action for the challenge’s sake, I’d recommend not putting it off.  This was year number 3 for their series and it sold out. My hunch is that it’ll become an increasingly popular event and progressively harder to get into as the years go by – rightly so.

Safety doesn’t Just Happen – They Worked Hard to Make Sure we were Okay

If you’re so inclined, I posted roughly 3 minutes of live footage from the event set to holiday music (from one of America’s great treasures) to my YouTube Channel.

 

Photo Credit: Mari-Ann Secker, Cold Brew Events, Course Marshals

Hammer Race 2018 – Spring – Do I bring a Hammer or Snow Shovel?

Hammer Race Spring 2018 Swag

Location:

Bluff Valley Campground-Zumbro Falls, Minnesota

Race Conditions:

One of my love/hate relationships with OCR is the unpredictability of the weather.  As Hammer Race states, “There Must Be Tests”, and for the 2018 Spring race, this was no exception. The days leading up to the event I was expecting to get an email stating the event was canceled but instead was re-assured by Event Staff that it would not.  As the impending record-setting snowstorm approached; the Staff continued to update racers via social media of the current course conditions, and how they planned to still put on the event; while also taking into the consideration of racer and volunteer’s commute and safety.

Hammer Race Spring 2018 Weather_Update

Any racer that did not show up to the 2018 Spring Hammer Race due to the weather would be allowed to transfer to the fall race.  For a small local event, allowing transfers really highlights the passion and respect the hammer race event team has for its small, but loyal group of race followers.

The Event:

Last year the start line was filled with people in shorts and summer clothing.  The grass was green, it was Spring!   This year, Spring didn’t show up.  The 20-40MPH winds, temperatures in the 20’s, and snowfall upwards of 1” per hour had the race starting indoors with slight course modifications (a bit shorter, and a few less obstacles).  Wave 1 consisted of elite individuals and teams; while wave 2 was the rest of the brave souls who decided to venture into unknown OCR meets blizzard territory.  Donning an 8-10lb sledgehammer in hand, each wave charged out of the building and into the great white wilderness.  I’m glad the Elites stayed on course and blazed a trail through the snow; as I started in the second heat and was happy to have footprints to follow.

Hammer-Race-Spring-2018-Snow.jpg

A fair amount of the event is bushwhacked through unforgiving hilly terrain that the area is known for.  This terrain is what I feel makes the Hammer Race such a special event.  It’s tough running even if dry.  The technical, rocky, steep terrain had you crawling and scraping on hands, knees, and hammer to the top of some climbs; just to send you sprawling down the hill on the backside grabbing for branches and small trees to control your descent.  These conditions made it challenging even for the most seasoned of runners.  The course was just shy of 10 K in distance, similar, but different routing than previous events and slightly shortened due to the weather conditions.

Hammer-Race-Spring-2018-Hill.jpg

Want to make running more challenging?  Carry a Hammer!  That’s not enough?  Add technical terrain.  Still want more?  Here’s a snow storm! Did I mention lots of wind?  How about some sleet to the face? I for one enjoy a suffer fest.  For this, the conditions were epic.

Hammer Race Spring 2018 Finish Approch

The Obstacles:

Hammer Race Spring2018 Crawl

Hammer Race Spring 2018 Roadkill

Hammer-Race-Spring-2018-Final-Wall.jpg

Obstacles generally consisted of the following:  Climbing over, climbing under, carrying, dragging or hitting.  I hope Hammer Race continues to innovate new obstacles that involve the use of a hammer for future races to keep it fresh.

Conclusion:

The way the race directors use the Zumbro Falls terrain may be one of the crown jewels of Hammer Race.  In the case of this past weekend, most events (regardless of type) would have been canceled.  I’m glad Hammer Race was not.  The long relentless Minnesota winter made the race one to remember, and I’m happy I made the drive to experience it.  Until next fall, Hammer’s Up!

If you came to this article to find out ‘What is the Hammer Race?’ (Which I did not explain)  See the link below:  http://obstacleracingmedia.com/race/hammer-race-2017-spring-hammers/

 

Hammer Race Spring 2018 Shovel_or_Hammer

2018 Abominable Snow Race

Adaptation.

The ability to overcome on the fly using the skills you have developed. Some would argue this is the single biggest quality that successful obstacle course racers possess. Maybe you have mastered the ability to adapt to obstacles presented to you during the warm weather races, or maybe you’re still fine-tuning them.

Well, let me throw a monkey wrench into your comfy regime. How about we add freezing temps into the mix, maybe some ice or snow, or maybe even a mixture of them all with some mud thrown in. You love mud right? The kind where you rinse off from a hose at the end of an event while sipping your finishers beer in 80-degree sunshine? Well, this isn’t the same shit.

Winter OCR is here to stay and it’s getting bigger and tougher than ever before. Winter is no longer the offseason for OCR with events popping up all over the country. I had a chance to race in the third annual Abominable Snow Race held last weekend with a few thousand other racers from all over the country at the majestic Grand Geneva Resort in Lake Geneva Wisconsin and I can tell you Winter OCR is here to stay. Held on the grounds of a ski resort you kind of had an idea of what to expect, but ASR chief Bill Wolfe went out of his way to make this race one people would talk about for a while.

Yeti Nation

With morning temps hovering just above freezing my family and I pulled into the Grand Geneva bright and early for packet pickup and were directed to a parking space in a lot right next to the registration tent. Thank you once again, Bill Wolfe for the VIP treatment!

I found most racers were parked in a lot a short distance away and could either walk or take a quick shuttle bus to the registration tents. Now, there were only two stations were athletes could check in making the process somewhat slow, but ASR did provide warm trailers nearby as a changing area which more than made up for the cold wait.

After getting yourself geared up and ready you entered the resort lodge, bathrooms were to your right and food and drink were upstairs. This was your final chance to warm up before leaving the lodge and entering Yeti Nation. The iconic voice of Coach Pain was the first thing you heard upon leaving the lodge, and as you stepped foot on the snow the cold smacked you right in the face as your gaze fell upon the tallest ski slope Grand Geneva had to offer. Food, merchandise, and drink tents surrounded you along with info tents from local races including Frontline, Dirt Runner, and Highlander Assault.

An Epic Adventure

ASR offered 3 different heat choices along with a little Yeti course for the younger racers. The regular Elite and Open classes were offered along with a special Hero Heat for military and first responders. The Open class course offered 22 obstacles along a 4.5-mile course while the Elite class/Hero Heat offered 25 obstacles over a 5.8-mile distance. The little Yeti course was not timed and wasn’t very difficult, but the kids really seemed to enjoy it and they got the same huge medal as the adults did! The main course itself started and ended right out in front of the main lodge offering great views for those brave enough to stay outside or watch from the warmth of the two-story lodge. ASR started off Elites first with the Hero Heat and Open class following. With Coach Pain pumping up athletes for the start I think we all had a feeling that this was going to be an epic adventure!

 

A Tale of Two Shoes

The very first thing I noticed upon starting was that all racers fell into one of two categories. It was basically the have or have nots and it came down to shoe selection. As we climbed up our first hill made of ice those with metal studded shoes moved right along while those without struggled mightily.

The course conditions remained this way throughout the race and served to thin out the crowd right away as we came to our first obstacle, a wooden wall climb named the Ice Breaker. The trail was wide enough for a vehicle during this short stretch of the race and offered the only real chance to pass as the path narrowed to one lane shortly thereafter, but not before an over/under/through obstacle.

An Inverted wall, which ASR called Cold Snap, was the last obstacle before the trail veered into the woods where the terrain turned into a single lane of muddy slush which was chock-full of rocks and tree roots making footing unbelievably slippery. This section of trail was appropriately named The Abominable Forest and lasted well over a mile. Nestled along one of the few clearings along the way ASR set up their Alaskan Oil Rigs, which ended being a type of ladder climb with the rungs set far apart and at a 45-degree angle made slick with all the tracked mud. After tapping the bell on top of the rig it was again off along the slick path and over more of the rocky hills leading to The Winter Weaver.  It was also during this section of the race where ASR threw in a triple set of hurdles and their slip wall.  These hurdles were cut into a diamond shape with a sharp point at the top making athletes regret stopping on top for very long.

 

Sled-Pull

There were a couple different ways ASR made some of their old obstacles tougher and the sled pull was one of these obstacles. In the past, the sleds were filled with snow or a sandbag and pulled along in a snow-covered circle. Now, the only real difficulty doing that was guiding the sled.

This year, ASR filled the men’s sleds with 3 sandbags and the women’s with 2 and the path this year was solid mud making the pull long and gut-wrenching. This also created a bit of a bottleneck due to racers stopping for breaks along the way. After finally getting rid of that damn sled it was back into the forest for more of the sloppy trail run leading to an uphill low crawl.

This wasn’t your normal low crawl either as the ground was made slick with ice, frozen mud, and decomposing leaves. There was no getting around becoming wet and cold after that crawl! Back on the trail now the switchbacks increased making many racers wonder just what direction they were really going. It was along this route ASR placed a 9-foot wall and their Cliff Hanger.

This was a Z type traverse wall with 2×4 pegs along with one section made up of 3 rope loops suspended from the top. The addition of the ropes was another example of ASR making their old obstacles tougher. This marked the halfway point of the course with more fun to come in the form of the Himalayan Climb up one of the snow covered hills with a cargo net climb on top.

Separating Open From Elite

The ride back down might have left you a bruise or two on your rear end as the snow was packed tight and the descent was steep causing many racers to use their backside as a sled. Athletes now followed the trail back out into the woods in a route designed to make racers loop back up one of the higher ski jump hills. ASR had used a giant Earthmover to make snow mounds to cross as a replacement for the normal mud mounds used during the summer.

Once at the top racers made their way down the back side of the slope stopping at one point to pick up a log for the Lumberjack carry. One final loop back into the woods and returning to the festival area was all that was now required. Sounds easy right?

Well not so much for the Elite and Hero Class as obstacle 18 came into view. A slingshot target was set up and a miss required burpees. However, that was for the Open Class only as Elites and Heroes skipped this obstacle and took off down an extended section of trail.

This extended version started off with a long ass low crawl as bungee cord was stretched across the one lane path for what seemed like miles. Then there was the bucket carry. ASR put their own spin on this by filling the buckets with water during the week and allowing them to freeze making them Ice buckets. An athlete certainly knew after the race if during the bucket carry they happened to bump one into their leg. And the length?? It was a long, long, long ass carry.  Many a strong racer could be seen making multiple stops along the way to regrip. The last extra obstacle along the extended route was a set of rising and descending monkey bars with a bell tap finish.

It was at this point where the extended course and main course joined back up as athletes made one last climb up the ski slope and grabbed an innertube for a fast-paced ride back down to the bottom. Now in the festival area, only two obstacles remained starting off with a set of low walls and ending up with a tip of the spear type wall traverse. Three slanted walls were set up side by side with ropes suspended from the tops of each as your only means of getting from one to the other. From there the finish line and that awesome bling was only a few meters away.

Final Thoughts

I found the 2018 version of the ASR to be not only longer and more challenging, but also much better managed. Things seemed to flow smoother and I left with a feeling of accomplishment. The racers I talked to post-race were in agreement that this year’s event far surpassed the previous year’s race.

The only real complaint I heard was that a few of the course marshals were not specific enough regarding obstacle completion during the Elite heat. But when dealing with volunteers you occasionally get these issues. Our sport is volunteer-dependent so it’s just one of the things you live with. My final thought on this event is if you think OCR is only a summer sport, think again and come on out to ASR next year!