Last Updated on September 27, 2019 by Heather Hart, ACSM EP
“It’s not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves.” – Sir Edmund Hillary
Initially I had wanted to return from my adventures this weekend and boast about how amazing the inaugural O2X Summit Challenge was. But now I don’t want to. Not because the race wasn’t everything I hoped it would be, but because I selfishly want to keep the “awesome” all to myself. A race where the directors did absolutely everything right…it was that good.
But, not sharing the details for fear of future crowded mountains is simply not fair to both the amazing race directors and the endurance community as a whole (all of which need to experience this race series), so here you go: O2X Summit Challenge at Sugarbush’s Mt. Ellen was not only the best inaugural event I’ve ever attended, but one of the best races I’ve been to…ever. The course was gorgeous, impeccably marked, and brutally hard.
I wrote a much longer preview post (read that here) a few months back, but to sum up O2X Summit Challenges: they are authentic, original, environmentally conscious base-to-peak mountain-running races with naturally occurring obstacles, all designed to push your limits. And they did not disappoint.
Spectators: free (and the chairlifts were running for them to spectate at the summit)
Food: A- (tasty, slightly pricey)
Event Execution: A++
Summary: Do this race.
Geoff and I arrive at the Mt. Ellen portion of the Sugarbush resort somewhere around 5 pm. A friendly volunteer pointed us in the direction of the camping area: it was on the side of a ski slope. I had no idea what I was expecting, but apparently camping on the side of a ski slope wasn’t it. I laughed, it was perfect…and conveniently close to the starting line. We instantly found the New England Spahten section and set up camp.
Next we headed down to the festival area. Though the race wasn’t until the next morning, the venue was already jumping with music, food, beer, and athletes roaming around. We headed over to registration where I finally got to meet Craig Coffey, one of the 4 four founders of O2X that I had been speaking with prior to the race. Speaking of the founders, all four of them were there mingling with athletes the entire weekend, making sure we were all having a good time.
Swag: Killer. O2X bag. Super soft (jersey style) O2X t shirt (fitted option for women). Lululemon shorts (mens or women’s.) Juti bar (gluten free, organic, made in Vermont energy bar). Some sort of meat stick or jerky or something (sorry, vegetarian here, I immediately handed it over to one of my paleo pals.)
After chatting outside with friends and meeting some of the other directors, we headed into the Mt. Ellen lodge to gorge ourselves on good food. For $15 you got an all you can eat buffet of local fresh food: chili (vegan options available!) mac and cheese, corn bread, salad, tortilla chips, brownies, Gatorade. And then of course there was the beer: Sam Adams & Naragansett Lager. Not only was it delicious, but Geoff tapped out after one serving. He was full. This NEVER happens.
After dinner and lots of laughs, we all gathered around the campfire to hear the four founders of O2X speak about their journey so far, and why they decided to start up the O2X event series. They talked about how they wanted to create an experience, not just a race, that included everything from training, to the event festival, to the race itself. It was a really intimate setting that truly made you feel like you were part of a family, not just entries and bib numbers in a sea of anonymous racers, or even worse, simply money in the race directors pocket. Next accomplished endurance athlete Frank Fumich gave us a really great motivational speech that included a story about the time he took a wrong turn during an ultra marathon in Romania and ended up drinking 25 year old Romanian moonshine. And how he trained for an intense cycling event by riding hundreds of miles on a bike with no seat, ensuring he would never sit down. Both hilarious and awe inspiring; I can’t get enough of this crazy endurance community and their insane adventures.
Finally it was time to sneak away to our tents and get some much needed rest before the race. It was freezing that night, and that is no exaggeration: the thermometer dropped below 32 degrees. Geoff and I had just bought a new sleeping bag for cold weather adventures, and we were excited…and nervous…to try it out. Conclusion? The Grizzly 2 Person 0 Degree Canvas Sleeping Bag ranks as one of our best purchases of all time. I slept like a baby in a warm cocoon, while I awoke to a bunch of teammates who slept miserably as they shivered through the night. For me to be the one who wasn’t frozen was a true testament to the sleeping bag!
Somewhere around 7:00 am there was a loud wake-up call from a bullhorn. I couldn’t quite understand what was being said, other than something about “It’s time to get up, you have a mountain to run!” I felt like I was at sleepover camp, it was such a fun (and appreciated) touch! The only thing missing was the horns playing reveille. As much as I didn’t want to drag myself out of the warm sleeping bag, I took comfort in knowing there was a toasty warm lodge and real bathrooms to get ready in. The lodge was offering breakfast: hot coffee, pancakes, breakfast sandwiches. I shamefully will admit I ate a brownie about the size of my face for breakfast; a left over treat from last nights dinner. Breakfast of champions!
The first wave of the day started at 8:00 am, and waves went off every 30 minutes. There was a great pre-race stretching session led for every single wave. Our group had opted for the 9:00 am wave. We had all chosen to race the double diamond option: a 2,000+ net elevation gain over 5-7 miles. There was also a single diamond option, which is a 1,000+ elevation gain over 3-5 mile course.
The race started right on time to loud music and cheering, and an announcer that kept urging us to “run while you can, because there will be plenty of times on the course where you simply can’t run”. The course started with an immediate loop to the left, down a hill, and back up a long road that brought you through the festival area and well up into the camping area. It was a gradual climb enough to get your legs and lungs burning, except you didn’t dare stop and walk because spectators lined this section of the course cheering you on.
Once past the campsite, we took a sharp left and headed into the woods. Now, anyone can design a mountain race by sending the course up pre-blazed ski trails. Instead, O2X courses are designed to take you to remote parts of the mountain you might otherwise never see. I’d say that 90% of the course covered newly blazed trails; it was absolutely gorgeous. And the trail marking was absolutely flawless. There was some sort of flag or tape quite literally every 3 -6 feet. It was nearly impossible to get lost.
*Side note*: we had a little camera experiment snafu. We used the GoPro without a mount. Don’t ever use the GoPro without a mount. Most of my pictures came out pretty blurry, so I want to give a massive thanks to my Spahten family for allowing me to share their photos as well as my own.
We immediately hit our first rocky section and water crossing. I somehow managed to get myself caught in course marking tape, because I tend to be clumsy like that. The water crossing wasn’t nearly as painful (read: cold) as I imagined: if you were careful, rock hopping was absolutely a possibility.
I often struggle with the minute by minute details of a course like this; basically we went up a mountain. It was hard, 95% of the time, just as you would expect mountain running to be. The entire course was a combination of do-able running immediately followed by hands-on-the-ground-impossible-to-run-scrambling, the course was that steep. Throw in downed trees and massive boulders you had to scramble up, and you have O2X. While O2X has advertised as a more “natural” obstacle course, they truly kept their word that they would not disturb the mountain nor bring in any many made obstacles. That said, the course certainly wound it’s way through all of nature’s very own obstacles.
-Scramble sections: timed portions of the course that were nothing short of all CLIMBING. Think of time trials in the middle of the course. At these sections, there were remote speakers blasting music to get you moving. But unlike typical races that would be blasting some sort of top 40 hip-hop or pop song, we got some serious mountain climbing music care of the Last of the Mohicans soundtrack.
-Massive boulders: I used Geoff’s shoulder on many of them to get a boost, similar to a wall at a traditional OCR course.
– No mile markers: instead there were markers letting you know how many feet of elevation you had gained at that point.
-Volunteers: Every single one had a smile on their face. It makes SUCH a difference when the volunteers act like they want to be there. Sadly, I’ve attended many a race where the vibe from the volunteers is that we are more of a hindrance to their morning.
-This flag and that view:
Eventually the course split at an aide station; single diamonds continued on up ahead and double diamonds took a sharp right immediately back up a steep hill. We hit a second scramble section, followed by a water station, then a pretty easy flat road. But the flat wouldn’t last for long, we turned a corner and tackled the toughest stretch of the race: about a 600 foot elevation gain over less than half a mile.
The last climb was nothing short of brutal. However, I could hear the music at the finish line, which made the climb significantly more bearable. Geoff and I crossed the finish line hand in hand, and of course I had a huge smile on my face. Running up mountains NEVER gets old.
Despite the fact that I had been pretty comfortable (if not a little too warm in my fleece) during the race, once we reached the summit it was a scramble to get warm, ASAP. Rumor was the temperature at the summit was 18 degrees with the windchill. A volunteer handed me an amazing finishers medal – a canteen on a lanyard full of water (we were hoping for whiskey!) and then wrapped a space/survival blanket around my arms. I stripped my wet shirts off, threw on warm layers, put the wet ones over the top, and wrapped myself in the space blanket like it was my job. We posed for a picture and immediately got moving again.
We had to walk about a mile with nearly a 1,000 foot elevation loss down to the finish line of the single diamond course. It was a welcome walk, as it helped stretch the legs out AND keep us warm. There was a separate, less steep path to take down, and this was also impeccably marked. Once we reached the single diamond finish, we were able to hop on the chairlift to ride the rest of the way down.
Getting OFF the chairlift might have been the most hilarious moment of the day…my legs had completely forgotten how to work when I finally stood up and tried to move fast enough to not catch a ride back to the top. Once we reached the festival area, there was a frosty free beer waiting for all participants, as well as samples of a local distillery’s whiskey and maple flavored rum. Those warmed us up quickly! A $12 veggie burger (ouch) and chips filled my stomach and put a smile on my face. It was a fantastic way to end the race.
My time was 1:43:10 , which put me 5/14 in the 18-34 year old female group, 140/181 overall Double Diamond finishers, and shows that I kind of took my sweet ass time out there. But I enjoyed every minute of it!
Summary: the only single complaint I have about this race, and many of my friends agreed, is that they didn’t offer sweatshirts for sale at the merchandise tent. Seriously, it was freezing cold and I totally would have bought one!
The inaugural O2X Summit Challenge was executed flawlessly. The course was challenging, fun, original, and well marked. The swag was top notch. The race directors were friendly and caring, and the festival and overall atmosphere was down to earth and enjoyable. It reminded me of how much I truly enjoy the endurance community, and how much I love what I am able to do in this sport. With advanced registration beginning at $80, the combination of the course, the whole event experience, and the killer swag (hello, Lululemon shorts?) made the event well worth the expense. Being the first event of four this year, and hopefully many more next year (they hope to eventually expand to the Wet Coast) I can only see this series improving from here. And regardless of what I said in the first paragraph…I truly hope to see this series thrive.
I personally wouldn’t categorize O2X in the obstacle racing world. I wouldn’t categorize it in the trail running world either. It was in a class of it’s own, with features that will leave any endurance athlete feeling accomplished once they reached the summit. It was a unique experience, and something I hope to do more of in the future.
A massive thank you to the guys from O2X as well as my endurance racing family for a fantastic weekend. Hope to see you all at Loon Mountain!