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.
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.
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.)