There’s some good news and some bad news about the Palmerton Spartan Super last Saturday. The good news is that I will only write one more cliché. Here it comes. The following picture tells a thousand words. This picture told me everything I needed to know about this race. It was my fourth time on this mountain. Three previous Sprints going back to 2013 plus this, my first Super gave me all the mental pictures needed to know what to expect at this race. I didn’t need pictures of the obstacles. Nothing new there.
But before I go any further, I offer this apology to you newcomers to OCR. Like me, maybe Palmerton was your first OCR. Or perhaps you have not raced yet, and you are thinking like so many of us that next year you will start and Palmerton will be your first. Go ahead. Just no pictures from me this time. Nothing to ruin the mystique of that mountain. Nothing to try to explain the power of its draw. Pictures alone cannot say the thousands of words muttered by the innocent after their baptism by fire on Blue Mountain.
I looked at the course map, and right away I knew. This will be a runner’s race. After the second mile, I changed my mind. This was a climber’s race. The course design was brilliant. I loved it. Two massive climbs and two dizzying descents across the entire face and ridge of the mountain. That followed by a final mile of thirteen obstacles packed across the base TMX-style. Most athletes agree that this is the toughest OCR course on the circuit and the true pinnacle of the Spartan Mountain Series.
Perhaps that familiarity had a good side and a bad. Good because I knew all about the brutal one-mile climb to start the race. That followed immediately by the sandbag carry down and up the infamous double black diamond slopes. If those did not break your heart, the bad was about to come. A trail I had never been on before. A trail reserved for the Super. Sprint racers were spared that second ascent on the far side of the mountain coming up the back side of the resort area. I’d never seen or experienced anything like it. I was not alone.
This single-track trail buried deep in the woods just went straight up the spine of the Lehigh Ridge, and it never ended. No picture could have captured the magnitude of that climb. Mostly what you would have seen were Spartans littered across the trail, sprawled on all fours, leaning against trees, pawing their way up, glancing occasionally for the summit only to have another wave of rock, tree, and dirt crash upon their hopes.
And all the while I smiled and loved it and kept thinking to myself how utterly simple and brilliant this course was. Upon reaching the top, I had a chance meeting with one of the course designers. She shook her head expressing her dismay in how much harder it was to run the course than to lay down the marker tape the day before. Then she confessed about the bucket brigade still to come in another five miles. “I was the one responsible for making it 0.2 instead of 0.18 miles. I wanted the nice round number. Please don’t kill me.” We didn’t need to. The mountain would do it for us.
The mountain and the sun combined for a brutal morning. When I ran in 2013, my start time was 2:30 pm. I never vowed again. It was 100 degrees that day. Thankfully the course was really short that year. By 10 am this year, the temp was already in the mid 80’s with high humidity coming in. A strong storm on Sunday sadly canceled the Sprint. Despite being well hydrated and fueled throughout the race, the heat exposure kept my core temp dangerously high. That slowed me way down. Personally, that was my only disappointment with the race.
I came in with high expectations for placing well in my age group. In 2013 I placed 9th of 83. In 2014 I was 10th of 123. In 2015 I was 15th of 97. My target was top ten again. I also knew that my pace was typically double that of the elites. So I figured about three hours on the mountain. When my buddy and I reached the end, recovered with an Oh so delicious cold Coors, and walked over to check our times, I got the bad news. The leaderboard showed Robert Killian took first at 1:24. Faye Stenning grabbed tops with 1:45. I, however, was on that mountain for four and a half hours and my placement was near the bottom for AG.
But I didn’t care. I had a blast. I love that mountain, and I will go back again next year. What could be the draw you wonder? Everyone has a reason. I look at those elite times, and I am just staggered. How can they be so fast? How can they climb that fast on those slopes that sometimes averaged 45-degrees for a mile? How can they descend that fast on loose rock and scree slopes? I want to watch, learn, and train harder. Not to be elite, but to keep feeling more alive out there each time. I love the mountains, and I love the fact that the hardest mountain in all of OCR is only two hours from my home.
Pictures can’t tell a thousand words for anyone to tell you why they love that mountain, that race, that inauguration into OCR. Although I must confess my favorite word picture that I often hear from athletes is that Palmerton is where they got their OCR cherry popped. In my humble opinion, there’s no better place on earth to experience OCR for the first time than Blue Mountain. It’s not the obstacles. It’s just a bunch of knuckleheads out there on that mountain finding out who they are deep inside.
The cold beer and fire extinguisher next to me finally helped bring down my core temperature so I could enjoy a fantastic festival area. Team Spartan 4-0 won the largest team. The Air Force put on an excellent precision drill demonstration. There was plenty of food, drink, and vendors. Just wish there were more shady spots to sit and cool off.
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