Blizzard Blast Race Review

January obstacle course races are hard to come by in New England. Enter Blizzard Blast, a five mile winter-themed race that takes place in January at Four Oaks Country Club in Dracut, Massachusetts, put on by SmithFest Events. Blizzard Blast does a good job of filling a niche – the affordable entry-level winter race. At between $40 and $70, it provides good value.

Four Oaks Country Club is a nice place to have a winter race. The entire club is open for post-race meals and as a pre- and post-race hangout. There is ample room for storing your bag and changing. Post-race, there is free chili or soup, and though selection was limited and you had to wait in a line, the price was right. The one big minus to the location is that parking, which costs $10, is offsite and about a 10 minute bus ride away. Getting to the race went smoothly; however, on the return trip, the wait for the bus was almost 20 minutes. Other than that, logistics were pretty effortless. Check-in was a cinch.

Blizzard Blast Tree Carry

The course was 5.5 miles of rolling hills. This year was void of snow and lots of the running was on the concrete golf cart paths around the club. The course also integrated some trails that were in wooded areas adjacent to the golf course. The one real downside to the course was the obstacle placement. Blizzard Blast is advertised as being a 5K race; however, last year it clocked in at 5.8 miles and this year it clocked in at 5.5 miles. The first 2.5 miles of the race contained only one set of obstacles – an over and under wall. The vast majority of the obstacles were jumbled together at the end. I would love to see this race as a more obstacle-dense 5K.

Blizzard Blast Hoist

Blizzard Blast had around a dozen and a half obstacles. The obstacles were in keeping with the race’s winter theme and featured a pine tree carry, a holiday lights crawl (instead of a barbed wire crawl), and a hot chocolate stop mid-race. The race is sponsored by a beer company and kegs proliferated. There were two styles of keg hoists and a keg carry. The featured obstacle of Blizzard Blast is Keg Kingdom. This obstacle is made up of suspended kegs that the racer must swing from, followed by a set of monkey bars. Swinging from kegs is tricky (they move in unpredictable ways!) but also fun and unique.

Blizzard Blast Keg Kingdom

The swag from Blizzard Blast includes a long-sleeved cotton t-shirt and a really nice finishers medal. For those who like to collect medals, this one would make an excellent addition to your collection.

Blizzard Blast Medal

Bottom line: Even with its faults, I’ll keep going to Blizzard Blast because it’s a race during a time of year when there are very few things on my calendar OCR-wise. It’s a good opportunity to play outside in the winter and a great opportunity to get to see friends that I see less often than I wish during the colder months. If this race was instead in a busy month like May or July or very far away from my house, I might skip it. That being said, I like how the obstacles are different from what I see elsewhere and have an entertaining twist that adds up to a good time.

Have I signed up for the 2017 Blizzard Blast yet? No. Will I? Very likely, yes. It’s fun. It’s a race anyone can do, and with all the miles of running without an obstacle, friends are key to the experience. So, yes, 2017, I’ll be there.

(Photo credits: Blizzard Blast and  Caley McGuane Photography)

F.I.T. Challenge Race Review

This November marked the fifth F.I.T. Challenge, a local obstacle course race held at Diamond Hill State Park in Cumberland, Rhode Island. F.I.T. Challenge highlights the great value that smaller local races can bring to the obstacle racing community. Ideally, local races can provide innovation, a community-feel, and give racers great value. F.I.T. Challenge epitomizes the best that local racing has to offer.

F.I.T. Challenge has a lot of bang for your buck. Parking is onsite and only $10, family and friends can attend at no cost, finisher t-shirts and medals are given out, and the event allows participants to run multiple laps (for free if you agree to be untimed for any lap after your first). F.I.T. is also an OCR World Championships qualifier.

F.I.T.Challenge medal

Diamond Hill offers the opportunity for surprisingly rocky and hilly terrain, making for a challenging course. This fall’s F.I.T. clocked in at just over 5K in distance, and the park was well-used. The course layout made racers tackle a lot of hills early on, which did a great job spacing out the pack.

The F.I.T. obstacles were numerous, interesting, and a good balance between challenging and do-able. The F.I.T. team gets top points for an interesting course with a good use of Diamond Hill’s elevation, well-spaced obstacles, and obstacle quality. An example of the smart course design could be seen in the juxtaposition of a peg board climb and a rope climb. Both of those obstacles are tough on their own. Back to back they are devious — wonderfully so!

A couple of the obstacles jump out as immediate highlights. The first was an obstacle called The Destroyer, an inverted wall that transitioned to a straight wall on top. Switching between the inverted and straight wall while hanging up in the air was a big challenge. The Destroyer had only a pair of grips to aid that transition, and they were spaced far apart, which increased the difficulty factor.

F.I.T. Challenge The Destroyer

Another excellent obstacle was a floating wall. This obstacle was a wall suspended on ropes between two trees. The wall was not fixed to the ground and, thus, swung when you tried to climb it. This definitely gave some added interest to an obstacle most people would usually consider standard.

F.I.T. Challenge Inverted Wall

There was also a very good Rig, which consisted of monkey bars to a horizontal bar, to a pair of monkey bars to a cargo net climb. This Rig was manageable for newer racers and fun for more experienced ones.

F.I.T. Challenge Rig

Running in the open wave, there were a couple of short back-up, but nothing that added more than a few minutes onto anyone’s race time. Lots of the back-up issues from last April’s race were complete resolved at the November F.I.T. Challenge.

F.I.T. is a highlight of what local racing should be. If you live anywhere in New England and can make it to the next F.I.T. event in April, it comes highly recommended.

(Note: Photo credits NE Spahtens — Daniel Parker and Vince Rhee)

Icebug Zeal OLX In-Depth Review

Icebug Zeal OLX
4 / 5 Overall
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Icebug has become synonymous with obstacle course racing footwear. The new Zeal OLX has been designed with OCR in mind and arrived on the scene with a bit of hype. In terms of traction, you cannot do much better. Overall, how does it stack up? Fairly well.

Zeal overview

Icebug Zeal OLX Features

Fit – The Zeal has a wider fit than many racing shoes, allowing more room in the front of the toe box for toes to spread. Though the shoe is not wide by any means, people who have trouble fitting into the Icebug Spirits will likely be happier with the Zeal.

The foot is kept fairly snug through the midfoot, in part because of the cradle which extends along the shoe from front to back and comes very high up on the midfoot instep. This might create friction for some users. On the plus side, in addition to helping keep the foot in place, the cradle does a great job protecting your foot on rope climbs.

The collar around the ankle is on the looser side, a minus to be sure, as it means that small rocks can enter the shoe this way. Wrapping your ankles is a good solution if this is a big problem for you.

Zeal upper

Sole – Icebug states that the shoe offers both stability and a flexible midsole. The shoe clocks in at a light 8.5 oz with a 6” drop making it more on the side of minimalist, though still a traditional stability shoe, sufficient for the average runner. As someone who enjoys a more flexible shoe, I found the Icebug comfortable to run in.

The excellent traction that is the hallmark of Icebug is here in the sole of the shoe. The Zeal OLX, features the redesigned OLX   sole, which has significantly prominent lugs and 16 carbide tip studs for traction. It would be hard to overstate the difference that the OLX tread can made in obstacle course racing. Your feet will almost stick to walls. You will not slip on hills. The stud on the middle of the shoe will be invaluable during rope climbs. This is a shoe that you can trust to give you all the traction that you need.

To the eye, the new OLX does not have as aggressive of a tread as the older OLX sole; however, the performance of both seems fairly similar. I might get a little more traction on hills with the larger lugs on my Spirit2 OLX’s; however, the better fit of the Zeal more than makes up for that difference.

Zeal sole

Upper – The upper on the Zeal is a definite upgrade over some of the older Icebug models. The quick dry mesh nylon does what it says – it dries quickly. This means that you are not bogged down with moisture after you run through your first puddle.

The insole of the shoe features a nonabsorbent foot bed, which does a good job of pulling water out of the inside of the shoe. While the water does not drain instantly, like it might do in a shoe that has drainage holes, the material of the upper and the inside does a good job at keeping the shoe light.

The tongue and lacing system, while fairly simple, lies flat between the shoe and the foot. In my older Spirit2’s, I often got small rocks and mud that would get into my shoes through the laces. This problem has been completely resolved with the Zeals.

Zeal instep

Icebug Zeal OLX Usage

This is a shoe that you will want to use for all your obstacle course racing. The studs mean that these are not shoes for the road. They could also be useful for trail running, though you’ll want to avoid rocky terrain, as the studs don’t do as well on rocks.

The upper and insole clean well, so you will be able to keep these shoes in good shape from race to race.

Icebug Zeal OLX Durability

The Zeal’s durability is my one item of contention. After around twenty hours of racing and training, there is a distinct separation between the upper of the shoe and the cradle that extends along the instep of the foot. The rubber has not separated so far from the shoe as to cause a problem yet, but any splitting on a fairly newer shoe is always disappointing. This type of problem has been reported by other wearers, some of whom have gotten their shoes replaced. Time will tell how much of a problem this ends up being across the board for the Zeals.

The upper and the sole seem to be wearing well, consistent with my other Icebugs, which have always been extremely reliable and long-lasting footwear.

Pros and Cons:


  • Fantastic grip, especially when climbing ropes and walls
  • Does not absorb water weight
  • Flexible and light
  • Wider than other racing shoes


  • Issues of durability
  • Midsole cradle might create friction for some users

 Icebug Zeal OLX Verdict

The Zeal may well be the shoe of the year for obstacle course racers. At $184.95, they are certainly an investment; however, they are a worthwhile one. The sole of the Zeal is a game changer – you will see a difference in your performance and a noted ease on wall and rope climbs. The shoe handles wet conditions well and will become a go-to for race day.

Read additional ORM shoe and gear reviews here.

Shale Hill Benson Bear Race Review

If you’ve been involved in obstacle racing for long enough, chances are that you’ve heard of Shale Hill, the 6.5 mile 65 obstacle fixed course up in Benson, Vermont. It is considered a mecca for obstacle course racers and no wonder; the course is fun, challenging, and packed with diverse obstacles. Shale Hill’s cornerstone race is the Benson Bear Race, a timed run through the course.

The Shale Hill Benson Bear Race offers multiple options. You can run the full 10K course or select to do the shorter 5K option. There are elite (10K only), open, and journeyman divisions. Elite and open divisions have prize options for men, women, masters (50+), and youth (14 – 18). The non-competitive journeyman division provides an option for racers who want to test themselves on the course but not have to worry about doing the 25 spiderman push-ups penalty for failed obstacles.

Rob and Jill Butler, the owners of Shale Hill, have created a wonderful community among the people who race and train there. Here’s a place where the race director knows your name and where you can go up to him after a race and says, “I’ve been having trouble with the parallel bars,” and get a quick training tip to prepare for next time. Shale Hill also promotes a welcoming environment by encouraging spectators who can attend almost all of their races for free. Finally, Shale Hill never charges you extra for things like parking or food. Onsite parking is free. A hamburger and beer are provided post-race. All racers received a great goodie bag with stickers, bracelets and coupons, in addition to a t-shirt and medal for finishing the race. The devil is in the details and Shale Hill has them nailed.


The Benson Bear Race started at 9:00 a.m., with registration opening at 7:30 a.m., and a racers meeting about 15 minutes prior to the start of the race. The turnout for the race was around 100 people, and the well-organized registration was a breeze. The pre-race meeting covered the penalty system for the race, provided some exposition about some of the more complicated obstacles at Shale Hill for people new to the course, and served to announce wave times.

The course is obstacle dense – 65 obstacles over 6.5 miles – so your upper body and grip strength will be challenged. The course does not feature any giant climbs, you will be tackling some up and down over rocky terrain in the woods. Footwear with good traction is key. (Note: Shale Hill is an Icebug test center and has sample shoes for you to try on course.) With 65 obstacles, I’m going to avoid doing a complete obstacle by obstacle breakdown of the run. (Note: If you are interested in reading a full outline of the Shale Hill course, this write-up from last summer includes all but the newest obstacles.)


I do want to include a few highlights though to give people the idea of what the course is like, including some of the newer obstacles.

Zigzag of Awesomeness: The Zigzag (named by Rob and Jill’s son) is a new obstacle and an example of how Rob is always adding to the course. The obstacle requires you to use your hands to move your way up an angled 2” metal pipe suspended from chains above the ground. You then have to transition to a second pipe before finally transitioning to a rope to climb down.

Zigzag of Awesomeness

Pond Traverse: This obstacle is a 90’ rope traverse across the pond at Shale Hill. As a bonus, one of the ropes has a metal ring, called Heaven’s Gate, which you have to navigate under while doing the traverse. Heaven’s Gate is optional but highly recommended if you’re good at traverse ropes and looking for a fun challenge.

Pond traverse

Rope Ramp: Climb up a rope and then transition to a platform at the top before running down a ramp on the other side. Good rope climbing technique (using the s-hook or j-hook) is essential for transferring from the rope to the platform.

Cliff Jumper: For this obstacle you must climb a wall with a platform above it. You then grab a loop behind you and a rope above you to pull yourself to a platform above before climbing down on the other side.

The Great Wall: Shale Hill has a five panel traverse wall. You transition from one panel to the another either across a balance beam or by walking your fingertips along an overhead beam.

Fireman’s Tower: This obstacle is the first you see from the road when you’re approaching Shale Hill. You have to climb to a platform via the fireman’s pole or (for 5K and journeyman racers, if desired) a cargo net on the side. You then roll across a cargo net to another platform and take the ramp down. This is a fun one.

The Loom: This obstacle is set up with a half dozen rungs at a 45-degree angle to the ground. You weave your body over and under each rung as your climb upward. At the top, you have to do a rope traverse. You then go down the other side again weaving yourself over and under the rungs.

Tarzan Ropes: The Tarzan Ropes at Shale Hill are long ropes, instead of the shorter ones that you might see at other obstacle course races. The goal is to swing from rope to rope across a dozen ropes and to then use the last rope to pull yourself over a wall.


Shale Hill is a challenging course, but the friendly environment makes this challenge seem manageable. There are always a handful of athletes that train at Shale Hill (including members of Shale Hill’s Team Sinergy), are experienced on the course, and are almost always willing to demonstrate technique on an obstacle. I have done a lot of obstacle course racing at this point, and, hands down, Shale Hill is my favorite place to race. It’s a must-visit for any obstacle course racing enthusiast!

Shale Hill offers per diem training and guided runs of their course for $35 (and $25 on special deal days). First time visitors must first participate in a guided run for $50. They also offer weekend training camps during the summer.

(Note: NE Spahtens and Shale Hill branded photos courtesy of Paul Jones and Jennifer Paquette Eaton, respectively.)

Altra Lone Peak 1.5 In-Depth Review

Altra Lone Peak 1.5
3.4 / 5 Overall
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Altra, the company famous for the non-traditional zero drop foot-shaped sneaker, has created a shoe that might be of interest to obstacle racers.


The Altra Lone Peak 1.5 is a shoe designed for all the off-road training that leads up to race day. The Lone Peak 1.5 is perfect for trail running and hiking. Its wide toe box is designed to accommodate individuals with wider feet but still has enough fit through the midfoot and heel to keep the shoe snug. The underside of the shoe features traction that is good for hitting the trails but might be less than what you need for a more rugged obstacle course race.

Altra Lone Peak 1.5 Features

Fit – Altras stand out from other sneakers because of their unique fit. The front is wide, so wide that it almost has a clown shoe type of appearance. Aesthetics aside, this is the main advantage of Altras. If you are someone with wide feet, Altras are guaranteed to be a top pick; having a wide toe box will help alleviate problems with blisters that can crop up in other shoes that fit more tightly.


Despite the wide toe box, the Altra Lone Peak 1.5 is not loose on the foot. The midfoot section and heel are much more fitted, which keeps the sneaker from moving around. You might get a light back and forward motion when going down steep hills, so having your laces done up appropriately will be key. The sneaker is also fairly light, weighing around 10 oz. This makes it easier to run in than a traditional hiking boot, so the Lone Peak is a good pick if you want to get one product for hiking and trail running.

The collar of the shoe around the ankle is low, as befitting sneaker. This allows for small rocks to get around the ankle (and get trapped in your socks depending on what you wear). It also means that the ankle is free to roll. Call this a pro or a con. If you want to strengthen your ankles – great this will help. If, on the other hand, you want some ankle support, the Lone Peak might not be the shoe for you.


Sole – All Altras feature a zero drop, meaning that the front and the back of the shoe are exactly even. Naturally, the Lone Peak is no different. Zero drop is a matter of preference. Those in favor, say that it supports a more natural gait and strengthens the foot. Others prefer a bit more balance and support under the foot. The Lone Peaks are a neutral shoe with limited stability control. This is perfect for anyone wanting something slightly more minimalist (the shoe’s sole clocks in at at around 22 mm) and “natural” feeling. The footbed features Altras more firm “mountain” insole with an optional plusher insole included in the box.


The Lone Peak is not hefty feeling underfoot, but it’s protective, sturdy, and holds up well over time. It’s thick enough to protect you from feeling rocks and branches, but you will have a good sense of the ground underneath your feet. These are not trail running shoes with a pillowy ride. Instead, they are a flexible shoe leaning towards minimalism.

The Lugs –  The lugs on the underside of the Lone Peak are good for moderate trail running and hiking. They will give you traction, but not the same traction as a more aggressive tread, like on an Icebug sneaker or heavy hiking boots. The Lone Peaks are, and always will be, sneakers. As such, they are light on the feet. They feel fantastic for a trail run and can handle an average hike. Your footing will feel secure on trails; however, three may be the occasional sliding since the lugs are on the small side, meaning the traction is less robust. On the flip side, this means running is a bit more comfortable, especially on well groomed trails. Road running in the Lone Peak is not recommended since the lugs do not have a good feel on the road.

Upper – The upper of the Lone Peak 1.5 is fairly standard of sneakers. It dries at an average rate and is flexible, breathable, and comfortable. It is untreated for water resistance and will not protect you from wet snow or intensive water. The gusseted tongue does a great job at keeping rocks out. The front of the shoe is protected meaning that you won’t have to worry about hurting your toes if you happen to trip over a branch on your run through the woods. The heel of the shoe comes up a bit high, meaning that you’re going to want to wear socks that come up past your ankles to avoid any chaffing when wearing these sneakers. The rear of the shoe includes a gaiter trap.


Altra Lone Peak 1.5 Usage

The Lone Peak 1.5 is the perfect shoe for all of the off-road training necessary to be successful at obstacle course racing. They are rugged enough for any weekend long hike or ruck on a well-groomed to moderately rugged trail. 99% of your hiking and trail running needs will be met by this shoe. They stay comfortable throughout the day.

Altra Lone Peak 1.5 Durability

The Lone Peak 1.5 is one ruddy shoe! It stands up to miles of trails and holds firm. After a year and a half of trail running and hiking, the shoes are holding up well. The tread is still effective and the upper is maintaining shape. It would be hard to overstate how well these shoes maintain over time. They are a sound investment.

Pros and Cons


  • Excellent for people with wider feet
  • Lightweight and comfortable
  • Highly durable
  • Versatile for both trail running and hiking; ideal for training


  • Tread is not aggressive enough for the most challenge trails
  • Not water resistant or designed for drainage
  • The heel of the sneaker comes up high, which might irritate some users

Altra Lone Peak 1.5 Verdict

For anyone interested in a versatile training sneaker for trail running and hiking, the Altra Lone Peak 1.5 is a sound investment. They retail for anywhere from $60 to $115. (Note: This is because Altra has released a new model of Lone Peaks, the 2.5.) While good for training, these shoes are not designed to perform well when wet and have only a moderately aggressive tread and, thus, would not be ideal for race day. However, for comfort and durability, the Altra Lone Peak 1.5 is the way to go for trail running sneakers.