February 1st 2014 was the date of the 2nd annual Polar Bear Challenge at Shale Hill in Benson VT. An 8 hour race, as many laps of a 6 mile course as possible. The race started at 7am sharp. There was quite a crowd of racers gathered at 6am all enjoying the free all-you-can-eat buffet and looking nervously out the window out onto the snow covered course. Rob Butler, the mastermind behind this permanent obstacle course, had set expectations high with the level of difficulty of his obstacles. I was excited to see the course.
The temperature was 18 degrees Fahrenheit when the race began. It was cold, but compared to the 5 degree Fahrenheit of 2013’s race this felt pretty good! The first obstacle was some logs of different levels that you jumped/stepped over. Kind of like jump the horse jumps over during the Grand National (British reference). Next were the see-saws. Planks of wood that you had to walk up, then it would tip over and you would walk/run down. These got steeper and steeper. And they had a lovely coating of ice and snow. They were fun though. Then came the tire flip. Various types/sizes of tire with a number spray painted on them. The number corresponded to how many times you flipped them out and back. I picked a “10” tire, so flipped it 10 times up a slope, then 10 times down. It was so icy and snowy that the tires slid as you tried to flip them.
There were a couple of logs to jump over, a 7ft wall, a sort of inverted wall, and then a 4ft wall. These were pretty much one after the other. At this point I waited for my husband Ben. I’d had a couple of slips in the ice and decided I needed to take it easy. I wasn’t here to “race” and that was what I had to keep telling myself. So me and Ben took off together. We joined a group of our friends and the then I realized how much fun I was having with everyone. It was nice.
So after slipping down an icy hill, the group of us got to the sandbag/slosh pipe carry. There were 2 items to choose from, a sandbag or a slosh pipe, and then you completed the loop carrying them. Seemed easy enough. I chose the slosh pipe. Off we went. This was the worlds longest sandbag/slosh pipe carry. We carried our objects over walls, up and down steep slopes, and over ice. I couldn’t believe this carry was so far! The slosh pipe definitely made things fun. I slipped down a slope and the pipe resembled a missile shooting down at a crazy speed. Just missed Sean of the NE Spahtens. Mercedes (also from the NE Spahtens) slipped on the ice and took a fall with a 40-50lb sandbag landing on her head. This was definitely challenging.
After finally finishing the carry we encountered the Rob Butler version of the Tyrolean Traverse. It crossed a pond, but it was frozen over. This was probably the longest Tyrolean traverse I’d seen. The rope was also suspended 6ft off the ground with no way to climb on top of it. Ben had to put me on his shoulders so I could get on top of the rope to do the Navy Seal technique (I don’t know the official name of it).
After the Tyrolean traverse we hit the “gut check”. A horizontal log at waist height, and then a log probably 7-8ft off the ground. You had to jump from the smaller log to the larger log. The tire drag was immediately after and it was pretty easy. The tires slid nicely over the snow and ice.
Some of the larger “main” obstacles were things I had never seen before. A15ft rope onto a platform which looks easy but it is so difficult to climb a rope and then somehow get yourself over the platform. It took me 2 tries to figure out the proper technique. The traverse wall is unlike any traverse wall I’ve ever seen. It is 6 regular sized traverse walls joined together with either a balance beam or a plank of wood you hang from and shimmy yourself across. The totally length of this is 130′ and it’s been dubbed the “great wall”. An appropriate name. Another of the main features is a fireman pole racers climb up, then roll across a suspended cargo next and then slide down a ramp, back to the ground. I could not figure out how to climb this pole without the help of several NE Spahtens. I’ve seen racers climb this alone, but I have no idea how it’s done. The obstacle that I thought was the most fun and challenging was the “loom” I believe it’s called. It is a series of horizontal planks getting higher off the ground and then the same planks bringing you back to ground, with a length of rope between these sets of “stairs”. On each plank it either said “over” or “under”. The objective being to go over the “over” ones (easy peasy) and then go under the “under” ones without touching the ground. This was a lot more difficult. My technique was to lay on the plank on my stomach, then swing underneath and hanging, moving one leg to the plank and sore of pulling/pushing myself up with arms/legs/shoulders/head. This was probably my favourite obstacle of the day. Super creative. There were also the usual obstacles, barbed wire, balance beam, a incredibly difficult rope climb (it’s towards the end of the course so your arms are spent), a bucket carry, and hay bales to climb/jump over. The monkey bars are also worth a special mention as they are long, and then include a sections that’s at a 45 degree angle up a hill.
What if you miss an obstacle? Well Rob had thought of that. The harder obstacles had a cup next to them which contained a color chip. If you couldn’t complete an obstacle you grabbed a chip. If there was no cup at the obstacle then it was mandatory, it must he completed. When you returned to the start/finish after gathering chips you turned them over and rolled a dice. The number on the dice and the different colors of the chips correlated with different exercises on the “penalty box” board. These varied from jumping jacks, to rope climbs, a tire hoist, lunges with a log, and climbing over a 10ft wall. You had to do as many reps of whatever exercises the board stated. All this had to be completed before you could go out on your next lap.
The music was playing and spirits were high when I arrived back to the barn after my first lap. The food was still out and had been changed to lunch food as opposed to breakfast food. Staff and volunteers at Shale Hill were amazing. So nice and helpful. Rob spent the majority of his day on a snow mobile out on the course checking on racers. It was a very intimate environment. It’s amazing to be a part of an event like this.
After one lap I decided to stop. I felt great, but with Fuego Y Agua less than 4 days after I couldn’t really risk any injury. Deanna Blegg took first place (overall I believe). She completed 3 laps. I watched her doing her penalties after her second lap. Doing each rep and each exercise, not skipping anything. It was largely based on honor system, so it was easy for racers to skip some of their penalties. But it was amazing to see Deanna complete everything. A true role model for the sport.
All in all, this was a great event. Spectator friendly too, which was a bonus. The obstacles are hard. Harder than any other OCR I’ve done. I highly recommend going to an event at Shale Hill, or even just going and running the course on a Saturday morning. It’s definitely worth the trip.