Last Updated on October 26, 2014 by Heather Hart, ACSM EP, CSCS
As the sport of obstacle racing becomes increasingly popular and gains more mainstream attention, athletes are finding themselves looking for more unique and challenging ways to train that go beyond the standard gym. Enter: Shale Hill Adventure Farm. Located in the town of Benson, Vermont, Shale Hill Adventure Farm is both a permanent obstacle course and race training facility at the home of Rob and Jill Butler. Last year I had the pleasure of meeting Rob Butler on our excursion to the inaugural Mud Guts & Glory race. Rob is not only an obstacle racing aficionado, but is a vision behind the sport as a whole. I have been hearing about how amazing Shale Hill was for the last year or so, and how difficult and unique the nick-named “rObstacles” are, yet I hadn’t had the opportunity to get out there and visit.
Lame excuse, considering I live less than 2 hours away.
But this past weekend, Geoff and I finally, FINALLY, made the trip North for the Shale Hill Haunted Halloween Run.
(For those who don’t want the long, rambling, race recap). I was pleasantly surprised, and got my OCR ass kicked. While Shale Hill contains many of your standard obstacles: rope climbs, barbed wire crawls, walls, and heavy carries; it also has a number of incredibly unique and difficult obstacles that will challenge your strength and balance…and grip strength. Climbing up things seems to be Rob’s M.O. Shale Hill embodies what obstacle racing should be: conquering a variety of obstacles, and leaves out the gratuitous mud and mountain climbs that many other races consistently use to fill up their courses and break down athletes. If you are even remotely interested in improving your obstacle racing skills, you need to plan a visit to Shale Hill. If you are serious about racing and improving your skills and you haven’t been here yet: you are wrong.
(OK that’s a little harsh but…you honestly need to see this place.)
Geoff and I foolishly decided to race a local 5K the morning before the Shale Hill race. You see, I had spoken to Rob a handful of times in the weeks prior to this race, and he kept saying that the Halloween race would be a “fun run”, not nearly the degree of difficulty or competitiveness as their normal races. I clearly forgot whom I was speaking with, the man who would likely make a 100 yard long set of monkey bars a requirement in every race if he could. His “difficult” and my “difficult” aren’t even on the same playing field. So I raced my heart out at that 5K…and showed up to Shale Hill depleted and exhausted.
Rob was kind enough to allow Geoff and I to show up a few hours early so we could take pictures of the course, as the race itself would be at night and the GoPro doesn’t do a great job in the dark. After a brief check in with Rob, he told us where to go, and let us head off on our own.
The outdoor course at Shale Hill is spread out across rolling fields and deep Vermont woods. And seemingly everywhere we turned was an obstacle that simultaneously made my jaw drop and my mind think “how in the hell do I DO this?“
We played around on a few of the obstacles for a little bit, and eventually made our way back to the training center to check in for the race. People were starting to show up, most of them in costume, which was both highly entertaining and left me feeling like a jerk, as I assumed my Halloween themed socks would be sufficient. I’m such a party pooper. Jill, fully costumed, was checking people in and handing out the race swag. A gender specific shirt (immediately adds bonus points to my overall race rating, THANK YOU, race directors, from all of the females who get zero use out of their boxy unisex t-shirts. ), stickers, temporary tattoos, and mint chocolate clif builder bar (my FAVORITE.)
The field was small, maybe 40 ish participants. We were given pre-race instructions that included the aforementioned “this is a fun run” reminder, therefore the penalty for every failed obstacle was ONLY 25 spiderman pushups, normally 60 for men and 40 for women. I would learn to hate spiderman pushups before the night was over.
There were two waves that evening: a 5K and a 10K. We were initially registered for the 10K. I casually asked my buddy Paul Jones how long it typically takes him to do the 10K.
“Last time, 6 hours.” He replied
The color must have completely drained from my face.
“But that was because I had a gall-bladder attack”. Ah yes, one of those stories where the details truly DO matter.
“It only took me 3 hours” someone else chimed in. While significantly less daunting than 6 hours, I wasn’t necessarily prepared for 3 hours either. Though there was water on course, I didn’t bring a hydration pack, never mind food. I immediately regretted my decision to run the 10K course, but figured we’d re-evaluate at the 5K/10K split.
We were off.
Down the grassy hills and over the first set of hurdles.
Around the corner to three sets of see-saws, each set increasing in height off of the ground. The first one was fun and easy. The second one slightly daunting. The third one so high off the ground I had to get on my hands and knees and push the plank down, for fear if I kept running I’d just slip right off the other end. These are going to take some practice.
Up the hill to some tire flips. Each tire had a corresponding number, and that was how many flips you were supposed to do. The tire I chose said “15”. I did 8 flips in one direction, and figured I’d do 7 on the way back, when a volunteer/photographer said to me “oh no honey. It’s 15 OUT and 15 BACK.” Of course it is.
Now, just a mere 20 minutes or so into the race, I bonked right here. Yup, that soon. “Now Heather,” I’m sure you are thinking, “Haven’t you been racing long enough to know better than racing your guts out at a 5K in the morning, not hydrating, and only eating half of a Subway sandwich before an insanely difficult OCR later that night?” And the answer would be yes, I absolutely know better.
I just forgot.
So anyway, here’s some pictures of obstacles, in the complete wrong order, and stories about them when I remember:
There were walls and ropes. There were things to climb over and things to climb under. There was a 60 lb sandbag carry that was painfully long. I joked “Is this the sandbag mile?” and come to find out, it was indeed 3/4 of a mile. It went on FOREVER.
Death kept watch of the racers crossing the tyrolean traverse. Literally
This reminds me: to go with the Halloween theme, volunteers were dressed up in costume. But it gets better than that. Other volunteers, dressed in costume, were hiding in the woods patiently waiting for you to run by, so they could scare the living daylights out of you. A few of them got me pretty good.
Anyway, on to the obstacles. There was a sternum checker that Rob talked me through. It’s pretty hilarious how jumping just a few feet from the log you are standing on to log a few feet away and at chest height (all over water, of course) can be somewhat terrifying. At this point in the “race”, Geoff and I stopped “racing” and decided to just have fun with the course. Because a) it was hard, and b) so many of these obstacles were unlike anything we had seen before, and we wanted to play and really enjoy their uniqueness.
So play we did. Most of the obstacles were geared towards balance and climbing, and to be quite honest with you, I failed most of them miserably. Eventually we came to the 5K/10K split. Geoff and I stopped and contemplated what we were going to do next. Both of us were EXHAUSTED from the morning race, and of course tired from the fact that this course was simply hard. So we decided, somewhat reluctantly, to go on the 5K course.
As soon as we hit the next obstacle, Rob came riding up on his 4 wheeler asking what we were doing. I told him we chickened out to the 5K course. He laughed and pretty much told me I *had* to see some of the obstacles on the 10K course, so…I better keep going on the 10K side.
So off to the 10K course we went. MANY obstacles are not mentioned, but here’s what I remember, though have no pictures of:
-a log carry. A very long log carry that went up and over an a-frame structure.
-An obstacle that consisted of a wooden beam hanging length wise from a vertical rope. You had to climb up the beam then up the rope to touch the cross beam at the top. A wonderful volunteer, donned in a “Deliverance“ outfit, complete with a “run if you hear banjos” sign and a real chainsaw, tried to talk me through the obstacle. Then he chased me with his chainsaw.
– the weaver: a very military-esque obstacle where you must weave yourself up, over, and under a series of wooden beams.
– Hay bale-hell. We climbed up and over what felt like a mile of hay bales. Before we got to each one, Geoff ran around and looked behind them. We knew some of those masked volunteers would be waiting somewhere to scare us. (They were at the very last hay bale!)
– The longest set of monkey bars you have ever seen.
– Followed immediately by the longest set of UPHILL monkey bars you have ever seen.
– the “anaconda”, a section of the course where you weaved up, down, in and out of ravines. It was so muddy and slippery, and really fun. Somewhere in here I got a huge batch of burrs caught in my hair that would make the gnarliest dreadlock I have had to date. It took a lot of patience between both Geoff and I to get them out. It was hilarious.
Eventually we made it to the finish line, where we were asked which race we did – 5K or 10K – and I replied “8K-ish”. We were given an awesome medal, custom to that race, and headed inside for some post-race-festivities.
Rob and Jill were awesome enough to keep the indoor training facility open, which allowed the racers a warm place to dry off and change. Further, they had invited everyone to bring a potluck item, and we all feasted on the glorious over abundance of food and drinks.
It has taken me over a week to write this recap, quite honestly because I’m still mind blown by this course and facility. I absolutely cannot wait to go back, GoPro in tow, to get a better review of this course for you guys. In the meantime, don’t wait for me…GO and see for yourself.
While Shale Hill does have a list of upcoming events on the calendar, athletes are also welcome to come train on the course almost anytime, both guided and unguided, for a small fee. Further, Rob and Jill have just put the finishing touches on an apartment on-site that is available for athletes to stay if they would like to come for the weekend, or if you are traveling in from out of state. As mentioned earlier, if you are even remotely interested in improving your obstacle racing skills, you need to plan a visit to Shale Hill. If you are serious about racing and improving your skills and you haven’t been here yet: you need to fix that ASAP.
For more reviews of Shale Hill and this particular race, please check out the following links:
Heather Hart is an ACSM certified Exercise Physiologist, NSCA Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS), UESCA certified Ultrarunning Coach, RRCA certified Running Coach, co-founder of Hart Strength and Endurance Coaching, and creator of this site, Relentless Forward Commotion. She is a mom of two teen boys, and has been running and racing distances of 5K to 100+ miles for over a decade. Heather has been writing and encouraging others to find a love for fitness and movement since 2009.