Photo courtesy OCR Nation
A competitor reaches for a rope at Shale Hill for the last race Saturday, Feb. 2.
By Katy Savage
BENSON— Andrew Cassidy came to Shale Hill at the lowest point in his life.
Cassidy, then 15, was battling anxiety and depression. Most days, Cassidy didn’t want to get out of bed or go out in public.
“I felt like I was useless and wasted space,” he said. “I didn’t have a purpose.”
Cassidy was a sophomore at Fair Haven High School when he thought of committing suicide. That year, he tried an obstacle course race at Shale Hill for the first time at the encouragement of a friend.
Shale Hill, a 6 ½-mile course in Benson with 70 obstacles, has been dubbed the hardest course in the world. Competitors carry heavy logs, lift themselves up with ropes and swing from monkey bars.
Shale Hill changed Cassidy’s life.
“I remember those people were all so welcoming,” said Cassidy, who is now 19 and works as a ski patroller at Killington Resort. “Everyone is cheering you on. Everybody’s supporting you. We’re all here for the same reason – to finish the race. To beat this obstacle.”
Shale Hill held its last race Saturday, Feb. 2.
Owner Rob Butler and his wife Jill are selling their property for personal reasons after eight years.
“This is a hard day for me,” Butler said as he stood on a ladder speaking before a room of competitors in his garage on Saturday. “I love it. I’m going to miss you more than you can imagine.”
Butler, a competitive obstacle course racer, built his own course on his 130 acres in Benson so he could practice whenever he wanted. He soon opened it up to the public.
Shale Hill has grown every year. The course has gotten bigger and harder. The community has gotten stronger.
Shale Hill races offer the ultimate fitness challenge. It’s not enough to be strong and fast to complete them. “You need to be able to run, grip, lift and hold,” said competitor Eric Scios from Montreal.
The race has attracted professional athletes from around the world and locals who, like Cassidy, test their weaknesses, strength and resilience on the course.
“That’s what it’s about for me,” Butler said. “It’s about people finding something in themselves…challenging themselves beyond what’s normal and what’s comfortable.”
Racers shed tears on Saturday as they sat around tables in a heated garage with a buffet of comfort food – squash, pasta, chili. About 170 people shared hugs and memories.
Like Cassidy, the racers are walking away from Shale Hill with a deeper understanding of themselves and each other.
Sandy Rhee of Nashua, New Hampshire, came to Shale Hill anxious and stressed out.
Rhee tested her abilities one summer when she lived at Shale Hill for 30 days in an apartment with four other athletes.
Rhee ran the course at 5 a.m. every morning before completing a second workout 12 hours later for Shale Hill’s 30-Day Challenge.
By the fifth day, Rhee said she was so weak she couldn’t pick up a fork, but she kept going.
“There’s a resilience you don’t realize you have until you go try to do something like that,” Rhee said. “Everytime you come back you keep doing something that you couldn’t before.
“I can’t imagine it not being here,” Rhee said, with tears in her eyes. “This has been a huge part of my life for eight years.”
Geoffrey Miller from Connecticut said he was an overweight child. “I don’t think I would have gotten into somewhat decent shape if it wasn’t for you guys,” he said.
Justin Coleman from Texas, who was diagnosed with Autism in 2013 “learned more about myself and my weaknesses,” he said.
Butler has tested different races over the years. He’s held 24-hour races, In Shale Hill’s last race, called the Polar Bear 8, competitors run as many laps as possible in eight hours. The person who completes the most laps is the winner.
Recent snow and ice storms made the last race one of the most difficult, but the difficulty made the memories stronger.
The competitors reminisced about Butler’s tough race course, which upped the ante each year.
“Rob and Jill created a place where people could discover new things about themselves with support and friendship,” said Colleen Coar, Butler’s sister who volunteers every year. “They created a home away from home for a lot of people. It’s unlike any other course.”
The Shale Hill property is for sale. Several people, including the owners of Kinder Cafe in Fair Haven have expressed interest in purchasing it.
“Even though this is the end of Shale Hill, we’re all still going to be a family,” Cassidy said. “You can’t take that away from us.”
Jill wasn’t worried about staying in touch. “We’ll be friends forever,” she told the crowd.
Jill is an event manager at Green Mountain Horse Association. As for Butler’s next step, he has some ideas, but he’s not ready to share them. Jill predicted whatever Butler does will be bigger than the last.
“The thing about Rob is bigger, better, stronger,” Jill said.