It’s fairly common knowledge that the world of obstacle course racing is competitive, and races – most especially the entry level “easy 5k” races are busy canibalizing each others business to the point that they are starting to go bankrupt and fail, or having to reschedule their events to get more numbers.
So, when Sunny Hill Golf Resort in the Catskills of New York wanted to put an obstacle course on their property – they were smart to try something different to the pack – and I am very happy that they did.
The Venue – Sunny Hill is very unique place. It’s not hard to find, 3 hours from my home, and just a little way off i90 as it goes through New York state. Their usual business is golf – and they provide a great resort for people who want to get out into the mountains and swing a club. But, golfers don’t like to go off green – and it’s rare for them to step into the woods – and Sunny Hill has lots of woods and trails – so the owners decided they really wanted to add something new – and an obstacle course was born.
As a resort – Sunny Hill is pretty much the perfect place to have an obstacle course race. You can be in your rooms in a hot shower minutes after crossing the finish line. Your kids can be in a daycare and entertained while you race (and Dylan was waiting at the finish line for us too!). You get to sit down at a dinner table with your fellow racers in the evening and catch up on life, the race and anything else you want. The meals are included, the food was fantastic (they were able to cater for Beths gluten issues too!) and there is so much more to do – at night we rode in the back of a humvee on the trails – or in the cab of a monster truck – and around the roads on a train – they have fireworks, music, plenty of play parks and gazebo’s if you want to do your own thing.
If the race was only “ok”, I think the venue alone would be enough for us to give this a hearty recommendation – especially for anyone with family in tow. I’m very happy to report back that the race was more than “ok” - it was excellent.
The course itself weighed in at close to 5 miles – and what it lacks in elevation change, it makes up in challenges. Rob Butler, one of our favorite evil geniuses of OCR designed the obstacles and course – and while there are a few familiar obstacles to anyone who has spent time at Shale Hill Adventure Farms – there are also unique obstacles. In keeping with the Viking theme – they all have Norse names and themes to them.
So – a challenging obstacle course of a safe and secure design, on a beautiful venue, with childcare, meals, accommodation and entertainment included?
We started the race on the side of the lake (which has a viking ship in it) – a very low drama affair, with waves going out every 20mins, and tens of people per wave – I heard they had a couple of hundred participants for their first event, which is pretty good, considering the course isn’t going anywhere – we were launched with an air horn blast and right into the woods.
The Viking Challenge was on. This was a pretty obstacle heavy course – with some of our Shale Hill favorites in attendance – but there were several very cool unique obstacles too. Because the venue is new, there are still some wide open spots for runners to get their legs stretched – but despite being “only” 5 miles, it still took the elites the best part of an hour to make it through – us mere mortals were considerably longer.
Penalties were 25 burpees per obstacle – and the elite wave in the AM was enforcing this – with at least one leader being DQd for leaving his burpee penalty early – this is something that we’ve seen people complain about at the bigger events, and it was fantastic to see that even a smaller, first time event was upholding these standards and enforcing them. For the non competitive runners, you were welcome to modify as needed – with several people opting for air squats or walking lunges to save on smoked or injured shoulders.
The obstacles were relentless. Walls were usually in sets – 4′, 5′, 6′. The over and unders were typically logs, making the “overs” a little tougher.
If you’re interested in an obstacle walk through – check out the video below – 8 minutes, and many of the smaller obstacles and chains of walls had to be cut … this is an obstacle heavy course, folks!
Lets cover some of the standout obstacles, the order is from memory, so I may be out of sync.
Loki’s Ladders – these are a familiar item to me – a rope ladder, with wooden steps. A welcome modification is that these are tied down with a bungee, so they still swing freely, but not so bad you can’t stay on. When I reached the top, I had such a death grip on the rope, I had to headbutt the bell!
Odins Tables – Steep wooden climbs to a rope down. If you have good rope climbing technique, these were pretty cool to do – if you fall off ropes, don’t try it Two of these in a row.
Cargo Net – This was huge, and solid. The rope wasn’t moving at all, and the entire structure was rock steady. Really enjoyed that, over the more typical wobbly frame and loose netting that bites your fingers!
10′ walls – Ten feet, straight up with a rope. My Icebugs gave me TONS of grip to get to the top, but I couldn’t make the transition – first burpees of the day for me.
Asgard Skywalk – A balance obstacle with a difference! Three really long tree trunks to balance on – before a transition to a tyrolean traverse – then a drop down onto a last final balance log. Really really awesome.
The Norse Poles – Known as human Lincoln Logs at Shale Hill, these are climbs up a beam of wood – before a short rope climb to ring a bell.
The Hull – A combo obstacle! Starting with an inverse wall (with no beams to put your feet on), you slid down the back of it to a slightly leaning wooden ladder wall that took you pretty high, then the climb down was leaning backwards slightly. Nice and challenging to get your butt up the wall!
Tree Bob – a fairly straight forward balance obstacle on logs. Except the logs were underwater. No problem for Icebugs, but sneaker wearers were screwed
Traverse Wall – Shale Hill is known for it’s evil traverse wall – and a similar variation on it appears here – you have three wall segments to navigate, before a balance beam to a fourth segment, before a hand over hand shuffle to the last segment – for the first time, I nailed this one – it was a big help having a TON of grip, and not being covered in mud
Frigg – a 16 foot, maybe more, sloping wall to get up, with a rope for aid. We all made this one – again, inhuman amounts of grip from my shoes helped massively here. Ladder to get down the other side.
Dragons Tooth – a set of killer monkey bars with a large uphill/downhill section in the middle. Not as evil as the ones at Shale Hill, but I still came off these and back to burpees.
Old Futz Xing – Tyrolean Traverse over a lake. Rather than try and secure the rope with steaks – they simply tied them off to some of the old army transport vehicles, and backed them up until the rope was tight – made for an awesome sight, and you KNEW you weren’t getting dunked in the lake!
21′ ropes – The longest rope climb I’ve seen, and by this point, my arms were toast and I had no grip. I think the ropes were narrower than we usually deal with too – as I could get NO grip on the damn things. First rope climb I’ve burpee’d on in a couple of years!
More photos to come when the official photos are released
Of course – in the middle of all of these were countless walls, natural obstacles like ponds, streams, crawls, pipes (uphill!), boulders and balances – with 33 official obstacles in total.
One of the most impressive things for me was the volunteer staff. This is where most first time races fall flat on their faces. If you don’t have enough volunteers, you don’t have a good, safe race. Sunny Hill had a volunteer at every single obstacle, and everyone of them was engaged, encouraging and motivating. They also knew to enforce penalties and which number obstacle they were at. There were two water stops that I recall – both had plenty of water and people – with one water stop providing some cheerleading to keep you going Twice on the course, a medic on a gator pulled by to ask if we needed anything – bandaids, wounds cleaning – and talking to the race director after, they had a great system in place for every volunteer to be able to reach a central co-ordinator who could dispatch a repair crew, medic or simply aid anywhere on the course.
This sounds so simple, but it’s one of the big tripping points for many new races – a solid volunteer plan and staff is essential. Sunny Hill proved that, with a flawless event (although, I’m sure if you ask the RD she’ll tell you all the little niggly things that didn’t go as planned – they never showed).
Course markings were great – although a couple more barriers and arrows in key spots would have helped keep us on the course when it veered off the road or trail we were on.
After the race finished – there was fantastic food in a pavilion nearby, right on the lake front – with a free (good) beer provided also. Kids had yet another playpark to be entertained with, while the adults caught up and hung out in the shade. Schwag as a nice T Shirt, with a sponsor list on the back – and a really unique wooden medal. T Shirts with no sponsor listings (in a different color) were also available in their resort gift shop for $15, and we bought those too.
Should Sunny Hill have put on an easy race, that was accessible to 99% of people? No. They did right by putting on an event that is challenging, even if some people will be turned off by it. By putting on a challenge, they guarantee that people will come back. I’ve only ever done one Warrior Dash, because frankly, it’s not worth my money. Yet, I’ve driven 3.5 hours to run at Shale Hill three times in the past year alone – and I still can’t wait to go back. By providing a challenging course, they have made certain that we will always keep them on our race calendar, and always come back to do better, or faster. Smart move.
Clearly, we had a great time, as did our four year old. For as much fun as local races offer, and as good a time we have when a traveling race series passes through our region annually, we are lucky that we’ve got access to some of the best outdoor, permanent installations in the country – from Shale Hills constantly evolving challenge, to the Sunny Hill experience on a fantastic resort – even indoor facilities in Rhode Island at Unleashed – New England is one of the best places to be an OCR fan.
Sunny Hill is planning a 2014 event, early in the Spring before their main business of being a golf retreat kicks off – and I am planning on being there, with the entire family – watch this space for dates.
The scary bit – the price tag – I’m here to report that if you wanted to show up and race on race day, with none of the frills of the resort, you had to pay the grand total of $50.
Wait, what? $50 for a race of this quality is a STEAL. Try and find race day sign up for ANY regional OCR in that price range. With free parking. No spectator fee. Awesome wood medal.
Of course, you *can* add the resort experience onto it. You get accommodation, three meals, child care, all the entertainment your little ones can handle – and the race is included in the package price – we worked it out to approximately $150 per adult, per night if you shared – which I firmly believe is ALSO a steal, considering some races have price tags close to that just to race.
Thank you, to both Tinker and the Sunny Hill crew, and Rob Butler and the Shale Hill crew – we had a blast, we will be back.