Palmerton, PA what does that mean? To most people they have no clue where Palmerton, PA is. However, if you race OCR you know that it is a must do for any real OCR athlete. This venue/course breaks many people not only mentally but physically and why is that? Most people only get to experience Palmerton once maybe 2 times a year. I was raised in Allentown, PA and now live only 7 miles away from the Palmerton venue. I train there all year round and have been on that mountain since I was 8 years old. I have a ton of experience on that mountain and it’s time I share some of my knowledge with everyone to better prepare folks for this race. Many of my teammates joke around with me and have given me the nickname of “The Mayor of Palmerton” however that is far from the truth. I’m not in politics. The knowledge I am going to give folks is based off the terrain mostly and how to attack it and what to watch out for. I have been racing at Palmerton since 2015 and have experienced many changes in the courses along with the same areas of the course. So many people hear Palmerton and are immediately intimidated simply from what they hear. I truly believe if you have an idea about the terrain and trails and what to except those fears and concerns may go away. Don’t get me wrong even though I train at Palmerton it is still a beast of a mountain even though the elevation isn’t anywhere close to that of Killington or Tahoe. Palmerton breaks people with its steepness and weather. No matter what you can expect heat, dehydration, and some mental games. Now let’s get to it.
There a bunch of trails on this mountain that Spartan always uses and will always use. So, we are going to start with those. I am going to breakdown each trail that Spartan uses or has used and there will be a photo of each trail via a trail map, so everyone knows just exactly where on the mountain I am talking about. I know what some of you are thinking the Super is different from the Sprint and uses more of the mountain than the Sprint. We will cover everything, this way if any changes are made to the courses everyone will understand what to expect. An overall of the mountain is simple and easy to explain. You will face steep open unshaded ski trails along with some extremely technical wooded terrain. There are some flatter areas on the mountain but that is the minority of the terrain. All trail names will be named from the ski trail map.
The first trail I want to talk about is Tut’s Lane. Tut’s Lane is the trail that runs across the top of the mountain in an East to West fashion. This is the trail that is the closest to the Appalachian Trail. Each year Spartan and Blue have the Quad Lift going. If you have taken the lift to the top once you get off the lift and look to the left that is Tut’s Lane. This trail towards the lift has a nice gradual decrease in elevation to it. From this vantage point the right side of the trail is grass. The left side of the trail is dirt and rocks. The reason for this is it is used as an access road for the mountain staff to access other points of the mountain. If utilizing the grass area be very aware of the drainage runoffs and gopher holes. These could be a race ender. When I run Tut’s Lane in either races or training I try to stick to the access road. The reason for this is in the morning the grass tends to be very dewy and slick. Depending on when the grass was cut last it can be hard to see the run offs and gopher holes and traction can be iffy at times. By staying on the access road, you have a much better visualization as well as the runoffs are much shallower and smaller in width. A good portion of Tut’s Lane’s access road has no runoffs allow for a simple dirt road run either up or an amazing opportunity to bomb the downhill.
Since I started at the top let’s discuss the next two trails that many of you love to hate. The infamous Sandbag Carry area. The Sandbag carry is always the same as it is a staple of Palmerton. This is the part of the course that will break many people physically and mentally. Especially if you are racing Elite or Age Group you get to carry two sandbags. The trails that these are on are Nightmare and Razor’s Edge. I mean with names like that it has to be easy right? Well most people know that’s wrong. This is hands down the most brutal Sandbag Carry out there. I would love for someone to try and argue with me on this one. You start on the downhill which is Nightmare. Some people including myself tend to run the downhill with the sandbags. This does make the sandbag carry quicker however there is one major aspect that many people need to watch out for. Most times it is very dry at Palmerton and the grass and dirt are very slick. Traction is a big issue a lot of people. I have seen many people lose their grip and go down and some go down hard.
So, lean back and head down the slope. If you think this part of the carry was difficult then God Bless your sole once you turn the corner onto Razor’s Edge. Once you get down Nightmare you will make a left and head down a bit further. There is a small incline right before you make a left onto Razor’s Edge. Just before that left there is a very small patch of woods that does offer some shade. On race day you will see a ton of people stopping there. So, you made it down Nightmare and the small incline you make the left and you look up. What you see is soul crushing and demoralizing to the eye. One of the steepest climbs you are ever going to make. You can hear the groans, the curse words. You can see the anguish in peoples faces it simply sucks. From a terrain aspect you want to stay to the left. Yes, it is a little steeper and rocky, but the runoffs are not there. If you go to the right you will encounter many runoffs, high grass and genuinely a longer carry as you will be trying to dodge many people sitting down. I don’t care how much it hurts do not put that sandbag down. If you need to rest place the sandbag on your legs and lean into the mountain. It is much easier to get a sandbag off of your legs than it is to pick it up off the ground. Razor’s Edge is an extremely steep grade as it is a double black diamond. Remember hug the tree line and stay to the left.
Typically, once you get to the top of the sandbag carry you are met with another obstacle. I have seen, 7ft wall, Herc Hoist, Spearman, Monkey Bars. After that obstacle you will do either one of two things. You will head into the woods and follow a mountain bike trail, or you will head down Sidewinder. If you head into the woods the mountain bike path isn’t very long as to where it is maintained. You will come into some thick technical terrain however the elevation drop isn’t very significant. There are a lot of roots exposed in this area, so footing is key. This is an area that good downhill runners can bomb however it is usually backed up with people coming off the sandbag and walking simply due to exhaustion. If you head down Sidewinder it is an open area and exactly the ski trail. Normally you head down the trail and the trail makes a small left turn and you go with that turn before entering the woods. Sidewinder is a great place to let momentum carry you down. The runoffs on this trail are deep and wide. Please keep this in mind so that you don’t roll an ankle. When coming down this trail always keep your head up and looking ahead. This trail is a very steep decline and if you are not used to running downhill it can be an issue as gravity forces you to speed up. Right before and right after the slight right turn on the trail are two very deep runoffs. Making sure that you stride is proper so you can simply jump right over them will be a huge benefit to all racers regardless of wave.
So, time to head back up the mountain for a bit and discuss one of my favorite trails on the mountain to run. For a perspective point let me explain this. You take the Quad lift to the top of the mountain and get off the lift. If you look forward and slightly left, you will see an opening in the trees. In 2018 Spartan utilized this part of the mountain and it was probably one of the best decisions they have ever made when it comes to utilizing all that Palmerton has to offer. That small opening is another access road. My team and I call this the Alley, that is the unofficial trail name as it has no name. We call it the alley cause the trees over hang and all you can see forward is the dirt road. When you come to the very end of the road you will make a left and come to another opening going downhill. This is a mountain bike trail called Night Train. If you like downhill runs this is an amazing experience. I pray we don’t go up it as it simply can be a bitch. This trail from the bottom of the mountain to the top is 1.1 miles. This is most likely the most technical terrain you will encounter on this mountain. Also, if you are going to see a bear this is the area you will see one. I have seen bears or bear marks here twice already in the last year. This trail has a few switchbacks in it. It’s not a very steep in any place when it comes to decline or incline but regardless of which way the trail is utilized it is tough. The terrain is dirt, rocks, stumps and leaves. The leaves in this area are slick as it is typically dry. This is something you will want to watch out for. The rocks also have there own table tops. However, there is a good portion towards the top of this trail that is very runnable and a ton of fun. For anyone who did the 2018 Super you were on this trail, but they took you off it. The section that we went off is full of ferns and again slick. It is still very runnable. Watch out for low hanging branches and logs across the trail. Many logs that are across the trail are rotten and you could go right through. In 2018 we branched off this trail and went back up into a boulder field along with in 2016. This boulder field will no longer be as challenging as Blue Mountain has now cut in a new Ski Trail which will be finished soon. While building the course in 2018 I was graced to see a roughly 500-pound black bear watching us clear trails. While it was unnerving having a bear watch me it was also amazing to see this animal it its natural habitat. If you are in the boulder field, it is easier to navigate if jogging or running down the hill than it is walking and going slow. I know this sounds weird but trust me. Night Train is one of the most beautiful trails on this mountain and I can only hope that Spartan utilizes this trail again in 2019.
Ok, for the time being we are going to head down to the bottom of the mountain and talk about the tubing area. This is an area that Spartan loves to use year in and year out. I know by hearing tubing lanes most people aren’t to concerned. Do not let this fool you, we have started here many years and many people are walking by the time they get ¾ of the way up the hill. These tubing lanes are long and in spots steep. This is typically where the bucket carry and barbed wire crawls are and to put it simply the suck. The bucket carry starts at the top of the tubing lane and goes all the way to the bottom and sometimes into the spectator area and then back up. During our training runs we still find rocks from years past of people dumping or emptying buckets. This area is notorious for rolled ankles as it is very difficult to see the runoffs. Please watch your footing and look ahead, this again could be a race ender. The bucket carry in this area is meant to break you mentally. The barbed wire is normally an up and back with the slip wall to break it up and sometimes the slip wall isn’t there. This area is grassy to start but is quickly worn down to dirt and rocks and visible runoffs. The ground in this area meaning not just the mountain is very full of shale and rocks. The barbed wire crawl hurts as you simply can’t go around the rocks. They are everywhere and some of the rocks are large. In years past the log carry has also been incorporated into this area. Last year the rope climb was there during the super. Nothing like doing a bucket carry and barbed wire crawl right into a god old rope climb. At the top of the tubing lanes it is relatively flat, and Spartan has been known to put obstacles there like Herc Hoist and Tire Flip. This area is usually slick due the grass be trampled down and dry.
Just above the tubing lanes within the area of the two lakes is where we are going next. Just above the big lake is where Rolling Mud is every year. Watch for rocks here the are small rocks but can be sharp. When getting to the lake they typically drain the water down know so its not as deep. Last year we did an out and back in the lake but most years we have gone across the lake. When exiting the left side of the lake it gets muddy and sketchy quick. There are many downed trees and branches to navigate over. This trail is in the woods and has no name. There is a small left and some downed trees prior to getting to a stone trail. This is where the downed trees are. It has a small elevation gain but nothing to crazy. The stone trail is a nice break from the bushwhacking you have done all day, but it doesn’t last long. You will go over a bridge or two and be careful as they are extremely slick!!! Typically, you go back into the woods from some single-track trail running for a bit before making a left onto another access road and into an open area. This area is usually filled with 3 obstacles the last being Ape Hanger. This is one of the few times folks will face this obstacle as it is a permanent structure. This has a gradual downhill, but no real terrain features to really worry about. The smaller lake will be on your left now. When you come into Ape Hanger keep your hands up high and try to keep them as dry as possible as you are going to need grip strength to complete this obstacle. As soon as you exit Ape Hanger to either do burpees or just exit you are going to encounter and short but steep downhill. This area can be very sketchy as it is wet and slick. You will go downhill and then immediately uphill, this is also short but steep. Once at the top there is a rocky dirt trail you will follow which goes downhill onto a road. You will be seeing cars coming into the venue and will most likely hear a few horns honking.
So, we just discussed the lower eastern side of the mountain now we are going to discuss the lower west side of the mountain. This is an area of the mountain that has been used in a ton of different ways and has a bunch of different terrain. At the very bottom of the mountain you have these trails Central Park, Terrain Run, Valley School East, Valley School West and Burma Road. I am sure that those trail names don’t mean much to most of you. Park, Terrain and School East and West are mostly usually grass covered. If going uphill or downhill on Valley East or West in the middle where the lift is there is a dirt access road. If you can use this road do it as it is much easier terrain to navigate. School East and West do not have much steepness to them. This is also where Plate Drag normally is. The most dangerous side of this mountain is Burma Road and the area to the west of Burma Road. Most years we come down this area however last year we went up it. Spartan does use some parts of Burma Road. This trail has some steep sections and some not so steep sections. There are A TON of runoffs and gopher holes. Watch where you are running here. There is an access road that runs allthe way up Burma Road. This is dirt and rocks and may be an easier way up or down. I try to stay out of the grasses anytime I can. The area to the west of Burma is all woods. There is a lot of single-track trails in here. Going up or down is very treacherous as it is dirt, loose rocks, tree stumps, low hanging branches. Going up is simply a grind and watching those feet. Coming down can be sketchy as hell if you are not used to the trail. Towards the top of this trail there are rocks and timing the footing can be tricky. This is one of my favorite areas on the mountain to run down, however that’s because I know where to step and where to go. This is a good area to switchback if going downhill. If you are going up this section of the mountain bear crawling, and scrambling are your best bet. Lean into the mountain to make it easier on you. This area also causes a lot of bottlenecks regardless of direction. At the top there is a small creek bed if possible, try to utilize this area as I have found its easier to navigate than the worn-down trail.
The central part of the mountain which is where the first climb normally takes place is just brutal. I am talking about where Burma Chair lift is, Lower Main St, Chute, Midway and Widow Maker. That last name sounds fun doesn’t it. You can see by the skiing difficulty that these trails are not easy. These are steep offer no protection from the sun and are a grind. Due to the steepness you will see a bunch of runoffs in this area as well. There are a few access roads that run parallel to the trails as well as some mountain bike trails. I have found that sticking to the left on these trails make it easier to complete as well as make it the shortest route. Most folks will be power hiking here due to the steepness, again lean into the mountain and keep grinding. Chute and Midway have previously had the Sandbag Carry and Bucket Carry for the sprint. If coming down Chute be very careful as it is very steep and very slick. The grass is high and dry and the more it gets trampled down the slicker it becomes. This is also an area where snakes like to hang out, sooooo yeah there is that as well. Burma Chair is a chair lift. A few years back we climbed up a good part of the mountain underneath the chair lift. The first hill under the lift is very steep and has a ton of loose rocks. I would suggest doing a scramble here.
This is Palmerton and the courses in a nutshell. I truly hope this sheds some light and offers some help as how to tackle Palmerton. It is an amazing venue and hands down my favorite as it is home to me. Palmerton is intimidating but can be conquered even if it is your first race. If you are mentally tough you will finish the race.