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Testing Out a Spartan Training Ground at an Obstacle-Course Wedding

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The race bib said it all: "A wedding so badass you have to sign a death waiver to attend."

Rob Butler had popped the question in July: Would I be interested in checking out the obstacle-course training and racing center he had built at Shale Hill Adventure Farm in Benson?

I said yes. But not before Butler really hooked me by proposing that I attend, cover and participate in an obstacle-race wedding. He would serve not only as the race director but as officiant for the nuptials of Heather Powell and Jason Moss.

This Saturday and Sunday, September 6 and 7, my CrossFit TT coach and friend Tyler Barnes and I will compete in the Endeavor Team Challenge. The 30-plus-hour wilderness adventure race in Bear Valley, Calif., includes military-style obstacles, from monkey rings and elevated "spider webs" of ropes to slick walls and balance beams. So Butler's 10-kilometer course, riddled with 70-plus obstacles, sounded like it would be a good practice run.

"Who are these people?" my husband, Carlton, asked as we made the hour-long drive to Benson for the wedding on August 16.

"No idea," I said, still foggy from some festivities the night before. "Hopefully slow and old."

Hoo-boy, was I wrong. Techno music was thumping through loudspeakers as we arrived at Shale Hill Adventure Farm, where several dozen hard-core athletes had gathered in a field. The hardest-core were the bride and groom, standing atop a makeshift altar of two monster-truck tires.

Powell sported tattoos and a black minidress; Moss wore a smile as wide as his biceps and black compression gear. As I would later learn, they're dedicated obstacle-course racers who met through their obsession with hay bales, barbed wire, uphill monkey bars and running through fire.

Sparks flew between the Pennsylvania-based pair while they practiced at Shale Hill, which Butler, a contractor who also hails from Pennsylvania, began building in 2010 as his own training ground. His timing was spot-on: Obstacle-course racing is now one of the hottest sports in the nation, with races like Tough Mudder, Spartan Race and Warrior Dash staged in every corner of the U.S. (Spartan's cofounders live in Vermont, too.)

By 2011, Butler was sharing Shale Hill with fellow competitors, offering a first-of-its-kind fixed training facility, which today also has an indoor gym. A little digging on Facebook reveals that many elite athletes nationwide deem it the hardest course in the country.

To Butler's knowledge, this was also the first-ever obstacle-course wedding. Instead of cake, there were Clif bars and bananas at the starting line. And once the couple had officially gotten hitched, we were let loose on our choice of a 10K or 5K loop through Shale Hill.

Inspired by Moss and Powell's vows, I later wrote my own dos and don'ts for experiencing Shale Hill.

Do: Hydrate — with something other than bourbon the night before. Shale Hill spans more than 150 acres, and it takes about two hours to tackle the 6.2 miles. Butler has done it in one hour, 11 minutes. "My course demands a lot of your entire body," he told me afterward. "But what sets this one apart is the need to have amazing grip strength and upper-body strength."

Don't: Worry if a mohawked 6-year-old named Cody and his pigtailed sister, Liberty, pass you on the easy opening teeter-totters. They've been practicing on playgrounds. "We're seeing more and more kids, school groups and families not only come and train, but come and race," Butler reported.

Do: Scoot as quickly as possible along the Tyrolean traverse, a 90-foot-long rope suspended over a green-scum-covered pond. This requires, yep, good upper-body strength and fast feet as you slide along upside down. It also requires the fortitude to ignore shouts of "You go, girl!" from dry land as you ponder the murky depths beneath you. Linger too long and your forearms, like mine, will protest too much, leaving you no choice but to drop into the scummy pond.

Don't: Carry anything you can't get wet.

Do: Stay humble as your husband, or whomever you've dragged with you, proceeds to school your supposedly trained butt in the Abacus — a 17-foot-high mesh of ropes that must be climbed up and over — the swinging Linkin Logs (another climbing obstacle) and the tire flip. You'll need his help as the two of you attempt the Ravine Crossing, the Double Up and the Cliff Jumper. You'll also need him to drive your muddy, wet self home when you've forgotten to bring a change of clothes.

Don't: Listen to the jokers who assure you that the 60-pound sandbag carry is just a short jaunt through the woods. Sure, it's only a half mile, but, hello, 60-pound sandbag!

Don't: Confuse the Great Wall of Shale Hill with the Great Wall of China. Sure, by the time you get across the thing — five walls studded with torturous handholds and footholds, as well as balance beams and overhead hanging beams for a total of 130 feet — it'll feel just as long. But there are no photo ops, and you're not even halfway through the course yet. You can still look forward to two barbed-wire crawls, the Hay Bales from Hell, the Tarzan Ropes, and the final vaults and walls on the steep, snaking Anaconda dash to the finish.

Do: Appreciate the sound body — and mind — that comes from a seemingly insane undertaking. "Obstacle-race training is complete," explained Butler. "It does it all — sprinting, distance, core, arms, glutes, hand strength, mental stability and quick-twitch muscles." It also fosters mental toughness, problem-solving abilities, teamwork and relationship building.

Don't: Worry if you can't complete some of the notoriously difficult "Robstacles," the nickname for the obstacles peppering Shale Hill's woods and meadows. Butler has designed this place with the philosophy of "train harder than you race," but he's also designed it to be safe.

Do: Expect one heckuva good time — if you enjoy sadistic fun — and plenty more surprises in 2015, including nine new sponsored Robstacles (to advertise companies and bring in extra cash for the dashes), Butler said.

Don't: Expect to see Heather and Jason Moss at Shale Hill if you go. They're spending their honeymoon competing in Spartan races.

The original print version of this article was headlined "The Course of True Love?"

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