Endurance athletes spend most of our time training - racing is just the cherry on top. Rob Steger gives us a race report from the cherry that is Palmer Lake Death Race.
Palmer Lake Death Race/Fun Run Race Report by Rob Steger AKA TrainingForUltra
Palmer Lake is situated about equidistant from my home trails in southern Denver, Colorado, and Pikes Peak in Manitou Springs. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to check out this local race, a small “fat ass”-style event (Editor’s note: What is a fat ass race, you might ask? See here). The timing could not have been more perfect since it gave me enough time to recover from my DNF at Antelope Island 100 miler but still gave some cushioning before the birth of our second child, due mid-May.
The looped death race around Palmer Lake sits at an altitude of 7,244 feet, about a mile off the southern Front Range of the Rocky Mountains. The views are impressive, and the 0.82 mile groomed dirt loop borders the lake all the way around. The soft texture and burnt orange hue of the trail were comforting since I’ve become accustomed to running on these surfaces along the front range over the past year.
The simplicity of this race was what drew me in – spend 24 hours lapping a short trail loop to see how far I could run. Although I was not sure how the altitude would affect me, a lot of ultra running variables would be much more controlled within this race environment. No big climbs, no congo lines, and no aid stations made this race a different beast. This last detail didn’t really hit me until packing for the race. A quick grocery stop specifically for aid station-type foods, drinks, and gear made me confident that everything I needed was at hand.
Morning of the race, I was surprised to see that some snow had accumulated on my car. I arrived early to the Palmer Lake parking lot and made sure to get a good parking spot since my car would become my aid station. Part of my pre-race strategy was to focus on increasing efficiency; the goal was to complete 122 loops (100.04 miles) over the next 24 hours. Every second I could shave from a loop would add up.
Most ultramarathons are a sufferfest. I’ve concluded that it doesn’t matter who you are, or how much training you have completed, everyone suffers at some point during an ultra. Most of the true sufferfests that I’ve experienced are self-inflicted and occur late into a race, just when pain begins to peak its head from its dark cave.
The “ultra” repetitive nature of Palmer Lake would test me in ways I’d never experienced before. This small loop, 0.82 miles, would become boring. I’ve done races that have gone late into the night, deep into the woods, and really pushed my limits, but I had never thought to test myself in such a simplistic way. Could I stay engaged enough to keep running, but not so engaged that I got mentally exhausted?
A friend of mine mentioned to me that he wasn’t sure how I could go about doing a race without a finish line. My response was that there is a finish line, and I had to cross it 122 times before 24 hours had passed. So there I found myself getting hit with the cold breeze coming off the Front Range in those early hours at the start line. My aid station ( the trunk of my car) was set up with a camping chair by its side. It was Go Time. In those first steps, I tried to turn my brain off, think as little as possible, and just run.
I started easy, reminding myself of the old saying that I’d heard several times from experienced ultra runners: “it’s not about who goes the fastest, but who doesn’t slow down the most”. I began to see a trend as I settled into my “run forever” pace – everyone wanted to keep their feet dry from the mud as the light snow came down, which meant that everyone wanted the same sections of trail. At first, it was not an issue, but as I kept my focus on the other runners, I lost track of my loops. I began to worry that my whole race could come into question if my watch battery were to die.
Loop after loop, small adjustments were made. Between the quick stops to refuel, change gear, and pop blisters, I felt like a racecar coming in for a quick tire change. Even with the excessive aid-station stops at my car, I was on pace for a new 50K PR. I slowed down. In order to achieve my goal, I needed to pace myself, not push it.
The next several miles were fun. I was joined by a friend from a local running group, several people asked about the podcast, and my mood lifted as I chatted with the runners around me. We switched directions every four hours, and although each loop only had 14 feet of elevation gain, I found myself preferring one side over the other. It was more mental than anything, but I was surprised to notice that the direction of my running made an impact on how my racing progressed.
I hit the 50-mile mark with a new PR. Loops and loops later, I again hit a 100K PR. I was in the zone. As I ran, I moved closer to the inside and almost took out the lead racer — by which I mean I almost physically knocked him over. I wasn’t pacing well, and the continuous circles began to grow monotonous. As with most races, my body hit the wall right around the 100K mark. I stopped to take a lot of fuel and let my body reset.
Each runner was to use paper and markers to note down their loops, so I began to work this into the loop. Run, walk into the tent, mark the loop, get back out. Loop and mark. Loop and mark. We had the option of marking one loop at a time or waiting and marking more, but as it got later and each loop ran into the next, I began to mark each one. I wanted to avoid wondering if I had just run one loop or two, or did I remember to mark the last loop? Luckily, my watch still had juice – as did my legs.
I was feeling as good as I could during those later miles, and I didn’t notice the temperatures began to drop as I kept working hard, zeroing in on my goal. My fear of finishing 98 miles in 24 hours and missing my goal drove me forward as it became increasingly likely. The sufferfest was in full swing around mile 70, but I’d been there before. I reminded myself to just keep moving forward, it was as simple as that.
I planned one last 5-minute break to eat and drink some hot coffee. My next stop would be at mile 85 for the same thing, and I knew the sunrise would help get me towards the finish line. I pulled over to my aid station and sat down for a hot cup of coffee and some pizza. It was around 1:00 am, and I had just completed mile 73. My headlamp illuminated the steam from Yeti rambler as I poured myself another cup. I knew it would be cold during this race, and these 36 ounces of hot coffee was the secret weapon I’d waited all day for. As I sipped the coffee from my tin camping cup, could feel the freezing wind blow right through me.
Maybe I was too tired to realize what was happening at the time, but I began shivering uncontrollably. My plan had backfired – by not moving, I actually had lost too much body heat for the hot drink to fix. The shaking got worse, so I jumped into my car and cranked on the heat.
I waited, hoping my body temperature would get back to normal, but I kept shaking. Twenty minutes passed and my teeth continued to chatter, so I took off my bib and made my way to the finish line to call it – 17 hours into the race. I knew I had been running in the top ten, maybe even the top five, but I let those thoughts go. Stopping at the 73-mile mark left me in 18th place overall and 11th place male, which felt good enough.
This 24-hour race was an epic sufferfest. The mental toll was equally as painful as the physical. Add in the snow, mud, and frigid cold temperatures, and it lived up to the “death race” name. The hardest part was knowing when to call it quits, rather than having a crew to make the call for me. I’d worked hard on hydration all day since trying to gauge electrolyte replenishment rates in cold gear is not easy. Experience has taught me when to push through and when to call it a day, and having perspective in these moments has prevented me from pushing my personal limits to the breaking point.
Looking beyond this race, I’m excited about many things. With an addition to the family this May, the month will be light and allow for some much needed down time with the family. I always have a future race goal to shoot towards to motivate my training and keep my diet in check. The Leadville Marathon in mid-June will build into my attempt at the epic challenge of Silver King in July. A few weeks later I have the Never Summer 100K, and my “A” race of 2018, CCC, is in August.
Endurance athletes spend most of our time training – racing is just the cherry on top. It can be hard to remember that we choose these mental and physical tests, and how fortunate we are to experience this grit, especially when we’re deep into the late miles of a sufferfest. I remind myself that a sufferfest is only one point in the race – the body is amazing and can be pulled out of those moments, turning them into fond memories down the road. Go out and find that race that stokes your training fire.
PS: Check out some other amazing Palmer Lake Death Race Reports: