By Evan Johnson
BENSON — At the Shale Hill Adventure Farm in Benson, a group of weary runners attempt to cross a 20-yard-wide pond using thick ropes strung six feet above the water.
Some hang like monkeys, gripping with their hands and ankles; some drag themselves along the top of the rope — others prefer to just jump in and swim. After making it onto the muddy bank – some soggier than others — they take off toward the next obstacle along the six-mile course that is hailed as one of the toughest in the Northeast.
Shale Hill is a training center for obstacle course racing known among the initiated simply as “OCR.” The course is an important part of a fast-growing sport with hundreds of races held each year all around the world.
Michelle Forkey and John Leclerc are members of Team Burgh, an OCR team based in Plattsburgh, N.Y. and regularly train at Shale Hill. The team competes in the world-renowned Spartan Races and Tough Mudders all over the United States, where runners take off from the starting line in heats of as many as 200. The team members have to stay in top shape for a solid finish – and that requires constant practice.
“It’s all about repetition,” says Leclerc. “When we come here, we’ll run the course and when we find something that gives us a hard time, we’ll stop and work on it.”
“As you practice, it only gets better,” adds Forkey. “Coming to work on a course as tough as this keeps us on track.”
While participation in obstacle racing has been on the rise, Rob Butler, founder and owner of Shale Hill, says the development of OCR skipped a step.
“The whole phenomenon of obstacle racing started on the second floor,” he says. “It started out as a weekend warrior type of race. People would blast through it, go home and train on their own.”
What the sport needed, he says, was a foundation, a place for athletes to start. So he build Shale Hill Adventure Farm for athletes to begin, practice and train. Butler says that unlike obstacle course races that vary by location, a fixed course standardizes the experience for athletes, giving them the ability to see improvement.
“At races, you can’t gauge your progress so you have no idea if you’re getting better,” he says. “Here, you know. It becomes a gauge and a good tool.”
Rob Butler competed in his first obstacle race in 2009. Inspired, he went home and designed and constructed a few of the first obstacle features that are now on his farm property so he’d be better prepared for his next race. Today, Shale Hill has two loops with more obstacles in half the distance as some of the most popular races. The full course is 6.3 miles long and is rated among the hardest in the country by “Obstacle Race Magazine,” an accolade Butler says is warranted due to the frequency and intensity of the obstacles.
“On this course, you don’t have to be the fastest runner,” he says. “You’ve got to be a universal athlete. You’ve got to be able to pull and push, tug and use every part of your body in order to succeed.”
Becoming that “universal athlete” also takes place outside of courses or gyms.
Up in Essex, Vt., John and Sheila Stawinski manage Injury to Excellence, which specializes in fitness classes geared toward obstacle course races.
The Stawinskis trains some 30 to 50 people every year in his classes for races like the World Championship Spartan Beast held Sept. 20 at Killington Resort.
“Most of these people will go up and over a wall and see a figure of their self several months ago who may have been too hesitant to get over,” John Stawinski says. “They can see how far they’ve come and can get right over. It gives them quite a sense of accomplishment.”
Injury to Excellence operates obstacle course training classes on a local network of trails at Mount Mansfield Union High School and in an indoor gym with all the features normally found on a course, including rope climbs, cargo nets, tunnels and more.
“On the indoor course, it’s a technical environment that we’re able to control,” he says. “We’re able to develop techniques to bring outside. When you’re outside, the challenge becomes having the grit and determination to push through the mud and the natural conditions you’re presented with.”
Skye Nacel, a personal trainer in the Burlington area, is certified through the MovNat style, which emphasizes the rudiments of human movement — running, jumping, climbing, throwing, carrying heavy objects like sand bags, balance and swimming, among other natural activities.
Nacel says his well-rounded athletic ability is what prepared him for races like the Spartan Beast at Killington and the Death Race at nearby Amee Farm in Pittsfield. For his first obstacle course race, he didn’t need to alter his training regimen.
“It wasn’t like I needed to train specifically for it,” he says. “I was already training for it. I was kind of made for it.”
The combination of cardiovascular endurance and physical power requires skills that are not easily built in a conventional gym setting, Nacel says.
Jen Grant, of Lyndonville, says she was “scared as heck” when Nacel encouraged her to go for her first 13-mile Spartan Beast race. Standing 5-foot-4, Grant says her largest obstacle was summoning the mental strength to go up against some of the more intimidating obstacles, like a three-foot high wall of fire or crossing a pond suspended by a rope.
“I’m someone who always feels nervous on race day, but I felt great,” Grant said reflecting on her experience. “A common complaint of the people that train in your standard gyms was there was no way to prepare for the hills, but I felt the exact opposite.”
In the world of obstacle races, participants are penalized for failure to complete a challenge (like not being able to get over a 10-foot-high wall) – usually by having to do burpees. In order to avoid penalties, racers need to be comfortable and confident doing the obstacles with hands that are numb with cold or while doing obstacles in shin-deep mud.
Developing that gritty determination is what Nacel, Stawinski and Butler all emphasize. The key to OCR, they all emphasize, is building physical and mental toughness by completing challenges similar to those of the races regardless of weather or season.
But the benefits of such training and of obstacle course racing go far beyond just getting in great physical shape.
Stawinski says the allure of the obstacle race is something more elemental, a reminder of a simpler time.
“The attraction is that it makes you feel like a kid again,” he says. “You’re doing things that most people haven’t done for years… and it feels really fun. You’re never bored and there’s always something around the corner waiting to challenge you.”