Arizona Trail Race 2018
Martinez Canyon. Two hundred seventy-one miles into this 285-mile mountain bike race. I had just ridden (OK mostly pushed) my 52-pound (dry weight) mountain bike through a 2000 vertical foot ascent up from the Gila River Valley – and was definitely questioning my sanity. Of course, friends/family that knew I was attempting this “race” had started questioning my sanity loooong before that …. Mid-day sun scorched overhead, and I was fully exhausted, sunburned, dehydrated, alone, and basically ready to be done. As with the preceding miles, the desert heat would be stifling, and the last miles of the race exceedingly difficult.
The scene itself was actually beautiful, and typical of much of the rest of this route through the Sonoran Desert of Arizona – high elevation, vast and empty, with brown cactus-studded desert mountains framing canyons bottomed by bone-dry washes. It looked like the desert out of a story-book. Saguaro and myriad other cactus types sat under an omnipresent hot baking desert sun. There was typical desert fauna: lizards, huge-eared jackrabbits, road runners, and rattlesnakes.
Many times during the race it felt like there was no one else out there. Other than fellow racers, I encountered only a handful of Arizona Trail through-hikers. The Arizona Trail spans the state from south to north, running from Mexico all the way to the Utah border. Many times there were uninterrupted views to the horizon in all directions. It was common to travel miles without seeing a soul. Often the only real signs of human influence were ranchers’ barbed wire fences, occasional cattle, and empty dirt jeep tracks.
At that point peering into Martinez Canyon, I was only fourteen miles from the finish. But it would still take several hours to complete the race. Some of the remaining terrain would be fun singletrack riding, but there would also be additional unrideable hike-a-bike. And so it went.
This write-up ultimately afforded a bit of mental closure as I processed what I had put myself through after the race was over. It’s a detailed account for those with a (morbid?) curiosity about the event. Of course, it’s impossible to capture the entire experience – itself a blend of trail, rock, day, night, mountains, desert, people, introspection, and perseverance. Incidentally … race reports like these often come across more than a little self-absorbed (IMO), so please excuse that aspect. In fact, it’s way longer than originally intended, so if you’re not really, really interested in the details ... this is a good place to stop reading.
Let’s just start by acknowledging the whole premise is absurd. Fully insane. Too long, too hard – and potentially dangerous. Not to mention, by many people’s standards – not fun. Nonetheless the concept of an “ultraendurance bikepacking race” bore into my head, and I couldn’t shake it. It progressed from casual observation (stumbling across online race blogs, watching videos on the bike trainer, etc.) to “... wonder what that would actually take?” to “... OK what company can make a quality custom frame bag to fit my full suspension mountain bike.” In other words, it moved into the realm of full-on obsession in rather quick order.
Focus on the Arizona Trail Race (AZT) actually came about through a longer-standing curiosity about another event, the 500-mile Colorado Trail Race (CTR). [The Colorado Trail is an exceptionally beautiful long distance hiking/biking trail traversing the high mountains of the state as it courses on a southwesterly path from the outskirts of Denver down to Durango.] I love the mountains, hiking, exploring, and racing, and, especially more recently, have been spending a lot of time in the woods on my mountain bike -- so these factors were the initial impetus.
In the obscure (to most) niche of bikepack racing, the CO and AZ trail races, and a third even longer/crazier event, the Tour Divide, are considered the “big three”. [The TD is a gravel grinder of sorts, in comparison to the more technical singletrack riding of the other two. It courses through rugged mountain terrain on a winding route from Banff, Canada down across the Continental Divide to Mexico. My long-time riding buddy Marc G. has been threatening a go at it for several years now.] For a few practical reasons -- not the least of which was important family/kid time already planned this summer -- I couldn’t make the late July CTR work. I was bumming about this for a while (kidding, but not kidding) until Mandy at one point exasperatingly said (to her later regret, no doubt) “I’m sure that’s not the only one of those races out there, can’t you just find another one?!” Hmm, you know what, I bet I can find another one ... hence the early April AZT race. So despite any trepidation you may have heard from the wife before the event: it was her idea. Sort of.
But don’t get me wrong: the AZT is second to none in the pecking order of these bikepacking events, having long established itself as a peak experience in this realm. The AZT comes in two flavors: crazy and ubercrazy. Seventy-five riders were split evenly between two different distances. The traditional race (held yearly in April, since 2006) is the AZT 300. It’s actually 285 miles – go figure. The race changes its route slightly each year as new sections of trail are built (though less so now that the formal Arizona Trail was completed in 2011, I think). Perhaps it used to be closer to 300 miles. The “short” race starts at Parker Canyon Lake, way down near the Mexican border. It runs a twisting course north on a combination of (primarily) singletrack trails, dirt ranch or Forest Service roads of varying quality, and three brief sections of pavement (to bypass wilderness areas where no mechanized travel is allowed). It skirts the very eastern edge of Tucson, ascends 8000+ foot Mount Lemmon, and eventually ends at a trailhead called Picketpost Mountain, 40 miles east of Phoenix. Elevation ranges from 1600 to 8150 feet, with a total vertical gain over its course of 45,000 feet. (Ouch). The longer, “just for maniacs” version, held since 2010, is the AZT 750, which runs the entire length of the Arizona Trail from Mexico to Utah borders. Those crazies ride north all the way to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, disassemble and strap their bikes to their backs, hike the 23 rim-to-rim miles in the canyon (no cycling allowed), then reassemble their bikes and ride the rest of the way from the North Rim up to the Utah border. Not normal.
The event is maybe a frivolous pursuit (depending on one’s perspective), but nevertheless seemed right up my alley. I spent an inordinate amount of time preparing. There were more cold weather rides on the road and in the woods this past winter than I care to remember. This was ironic, of course, considering the hot conditions of the race. Swim and run sessions also probably helped with the rigors of the event. But the bigger task in the lead up was actually logistical preparation. Having never attempted anything like this, every aspect of the preparation was new to me (a factor that contributed significantly to my enjoyment of the process).
Bags (see above): Bikepacking-specific bags were required to carry all kids of gear on my Santa Cruz Tallboy. Distinct from traditional side-mounted bike-touring panniers, these are tailored more for rugged off-road riding. Packs on the bike included: 1) a cylindrical bag (Revelate Designs Sweetroll, small) mounted horizontally in front of the handlebars for extra clothing, rain jacket/gloves, etc., 2) two small accessory bags, one mounted to the left of the stem (Revelate Mountain Feedbag, carried a water bottle) and another to the right of the stem (Bedrock Bags Tapeats, for food and phone), 3) small accessory bags on the front of the top tube (Revelate Gas Tank, for food/electrolyte mix) and back of the top tube (Revelate Jerrycan, for bike repair kit, Stan’s, sunblock, shammy cream, chain lube, etc.), 4) a large but surprisingly well-suspended seat bag (Bedrock Bags Coconino, for sleeping bag and bivy sack), and finally 5) a frame bag inside the central triangle (custom Rockgeist Mudlust Fully, for secondary 2 liter water bladder (Platypus), mini pump, spare tubes, printed race cues, iPod, CO2 cartridges). I also carried a hydration backpack (Osprey Raptor 10) containing my primary 3 liter water bladder and other essentials (batteries, water filter, spare glasses, etc).
Navigation: Bar-mounted Garmin GPS (eTrex 30x) to follow the GPX route provided by the race organizer. Printed race cue notes for backup, including turns and other key info like water sources and resupply points. Backup GPS Apps on the phone that displayed the race route and/or the formal AZT trail.
Tracking: A SPOT device, also GPS-based, for rider location info. This was used for real-time tracking of all racers on a central website called Trackleaders [screenshot below, property of Trackleaders/Scott Morris], and also for safety. The SPOT sends a signal (via satellite – no cell service required) every 5 minutes to show where a rider is at any given point. This sucker wouldn’t actually get you out of the wilderness if you had a problem, but would definitely tell your emergency contacts if you were, say, lying motionless in a trailside ditch for hours and needed help.
Nutrition/hydration: I carried tons of rabbit food: Pro Bars, Picky Bars, Clif Bars, protein bars, almonds, raisins, oatmeal, jerky, etc.. At first I thought carrying so much of this from the start might not be worth the weight penalty, but it was actually way easier than trying to replenish at resupply points. (There were hardly any resupply points anyway.) I carried Scratch Labs electrolyte mix packets (of which I should have taken way more – the continuous sugar/electrolyte bomb kept me going at many points along the way). Handful of salt tablets. Carrying capacity for around 6 liters of water.
Clothing: I ended up wearing a single pair of standard bike shorts (bibs) the whole time. Also wore a long sleeve white tech shirt for sun protection almost the entire time, despite the heat. Visor and bandana also helped with sun protection. Lightweight riding gloves. Tights, wool shirt, light puffy jacket, and spare socks, in case of cold. We had to plan for super hot days but also cool desert nights. It ended up not being cold at night, but the main concern was the top of Mt. Lemmon, where I (correctly) assumed I would be spending the second night. That night it only went down to 49 degrees, but some years during the race temperatures go down to freezing up there. Also took a lightweight rain top/bottom. This was laughable in retrospect (since there wasn’t any rain) except that, in an act of desperation, I would end up donning my black Gore Tex rain pants during the heat of the final day to cover my fried legs after running out of sunblock (stupid on many fronts)! Going in I thought the significant altitude of much of the route would ameliorate some of the effects of the desert heat – but that was a robust delusion.
Lighting: Lights for both helmet and handlebar (Ay Up) allowed for continued riding through the dark. In the lead up I eventually got paranoid about getting stuck in the dark in the middle of the desert if one of the lights broke or batteries ran out. So I carried back up lights on both bar (Fenix) and helmet (leftover EagleTac flashlight I had sitting around the house - zip tied it to my helmet next to the Ay up mount). These lights had specialized lithium batteries, and I even carried a spare battery charger box and a ludicrous quantity of spare lithium batteries. Extra lights/batteries ended up being, by far, the biggest “wasted weight” I carried.
Miscellaneous: I ran Maxxis Minion tubeless 2.3 inch reinforced sidewall tires; they almost never flat. Just in case, I took spare Slime tubes (2), a superlight minipump, CO2 cartridges (2), tube patches, tire boots, and small tire plugs. Spare shoe cleats (since miles and miles of hiking is not what bike shoes are made for), spare brake pads, a spare shifter cable, a few spare chain links, even a spare derailleur hanger. I had ordered multiple different types of shoes to see which struck the best balance between stiffness for riding and comfort for hike-a-bike (returning all but the ones I ended up using – thank you Amazon. Giro Terraduro’s worked best for my feet). I installed silicone bar grips (ESI Chunky) in a possibly fruitless attempt at better hand cushioning, and small bar-end handles (Cane Creek Ergo Control) to allow alternate hand positions to reduce hand and forearm pressure/fatigue. Downsized the front chainring on my 1x11 drivetrain from 30-T to 28-T to accommodate the heavier bike/slower climbs. (This ended up being the most important adjustment I made, in retrospect). Changed out my dropper seatpost to a standard one to avoid a potential (albeit unlikely) issue with the hydraulic mechanism. I did my best to improve self-sufficiency in regards to bike maintenance, though I still have a ways to go in that department.
In the end, the bike was way too heavy (50+ pounds, without water weight), but I definitely had what I needed. I erred on the side of taking too much, because it felt safer that way (and, I didn’t know better). Some of the guys had bike setups in the 35-40 pound range, but they omitted seemingly important things like sleeping bags, preferring to either “sleep cold” or not really sleep much at all! And as far as I can figure, some of them subsisted on air rather than actual food or water. The men’s and women’s winners had such minimal equipment at the start that I really don’t know how they did it. (This is not to take anything away from their pure talent and will, of which they clearly have an abundance). Interestingly though, bike handling was fine once you got used to the extra weight, especially on level or rolling ground. Handling on descents was at times a little dicey due to the bike’s extra weight and decreased stopping power. And of course, any uphill grade was a grind.
Finally, I did a ton of reading to prepare. Race blogs, bikepacking sites (yes these exist), and the bikepacking.net ultra racing forum were all very helpful. Interestingly, one of the main contributors to this information is John S. (Queen Creek, AZ), who originally hails from, of all places, Allentown, PA! Among the info on his blog is a sweet picture of him BMX riding in Emmaus, PA in the 80’s. Small world, I guess.
I flew out to Phoenix two days before the race start, having convinced my dad to accompany me out there to be my dropoff, pickup, and (if needed) bail-out guy. (He played golf while I rode). Despite what felt like exhaustive pre-race preparation, I still had a major issue the day before the race. Fortunately I did a longer shake-out ride around Tucson the day after arriving in Arizona. One-and-a-half hours into the ride my front brake clamped down tight to the rotor and wouldn’t stop rubbing. (You could pick up and spin the wheel and it stopped automatically before a single revolution without applying the brakes!). I had had some issues with the brake a couple months before (as my MTB riding partner Steve J. can attest), though none recently, and I thought I had it completely worked out. After an hour-plus sprawled out in the mid-day heat in a Chipotle parking lot doing brake disassembly, cleaning, “bleeding” the oil in the hydraulic cables (twice), I gave up. The brake was shot. I was incensed, having put in extensive prep work on the brakes (i.e. brand new brake pads, fresh oil, several system bleeds) to make sure this kind of last minute issue would not arise.
Fortunately, I got to Broadway Bikes in Tucson, where the fantastic guys there were able to replace the whole front brake (handle to caliper) with a discounted past-year Shimano XT system on the spot. (“Dude, I’ll tell you what ... SRAM makes great stuff. But we stopped running their brakes years ago ... they’re ... finicky.” OK, thanks, good to know the FREAKING DAY BEFORE A MASSIVE RACE WHERE I MIGHT GET STRANDED OUT IN THE WILDERNESS.) This made for a less than relaxing day before the start to say the least, but things ultimately got sorted out. Phew. Rear SRAM brake fortunately had no issues during the race. [I have subsequently replaced the rear brake as well -- and also learned the SRAM brakes spec’ed on my bike were recalled].
We drove down to the small town of Sierra Vista, AZ the night before the race. Solid Mexican food down there (obviously), and more than a few Border Patrol SUV’s. I agonized over last minute packing decisions and then went to sleep.
Day 1 – Thursday, April 5
Woke up at 5 AM and started the 1+ hour drive down to Parker Canyon Lake. It feels remote, the hilly twisting road winding through seemingly endless miles of empty ranch land and general nothingness. Last several miles out to the lake were dirt roads. The start area is a small, completely nondescript dirt circle with a trail leaving out the back. There were few spectators, no start line, no sponsor tents or other typical race-start hoopla. I don’t even remember an actual trailhead sign. I think there were maybe two campervans and a handful of SUVs, and that’s it. A bunch of riders actually catch a shuttle out to the race start the night before and camp out at the trailhead. We pulled up an hour before the start to find a motley crew of racers readying themselves to slay the AZT dragon. It’s hard to describe this lot of athletic freaks. It’s like they’re 20% hipster, 70% racer, and 10% ... nails. Scruffy (in some cases) exterior appearances often belied a steadfast resolve within. These were hard men and women.
[There were only three women in the mix for the 300 race, but two would go on to crush me. One was Rebecca R., a 49-year-old from Ketchum, Idaho – a veritable B-A, multiple-time world champion (in different sports), four-time Leadville MTB winner, and self-described “Queen of Pain” (so says her website). As a side note, my dad abruptly read one of Mandy’s texts out loud at the race start. Something to the effect of, “OMG, R.R. is doing the race?!? Take a picture of her!” Had I not been so preoccupied with my own angst over last details of preparation and quashing my (completely warranted) pre-race fear, the embarrassment might have dwelled longer. I don’t think she or others heard though, so it was funny – in retrospect. PS, as impressive as R.R. is, she finished well behind the other woman, who ended up second overall! Mandy told me I was actually in front of R.R. during the daylight hours of the first day (she must have been sandbagging - ha!), but she rode 36 hours straight (!) before stopping and was well ahead after that. By the way, it was readily apparent I should be afraid of these women from the beginning. I recall that the woman who won, 30-year-old Kaitlyn B. (Prescott, AZ), although diminutive in stature, had a quiet confidence standing at the start line amongst these tough guys. This was, in retrospect, a sign of her grit and apparent unique ability to suffer. I also happened to note her bike was fairly scantily-laden with equipment at the start. The less junk on your bike, I have learned, the harder core you are. Checking the GPS right before race start, photo below.]
There was a brief intro from race organizer Scott Morris, standing atop the back of a pickup truck. [Pictured below. Scott is an endurance athlete/mountain bike explorer, currently with a reddish beard and scraggly longish hair. I don’t know all the history, but he is one of the founding fathers of sorts for these bikepacking events, having made pioneering runs on what are now well-established long-distance off-road race/ride routes – thanks to his and others’ efforts. He has a PhD in Computer Science, and runs a GPS software company (among other online ventures) from the road, touring and adventuring around the U.S. and beyond by vintage camper with his girlfriend Eszter H. (an off-road racing machine in her own right). BTW, in the picture below, eventual race winner Neil B. (I am pretty sure) is the guy in the foreground with yellow bike. The paucity of gear on his bike compared to other riders is hilarious.]
Scott’s words to the assembled racers were few but fateful. “I just suggested this race ... I didn’t say it was a good idea.”
Then we were off, right on schedule, at 8 AM. Just a bunch of riders funneling one-by-one onto a singletrack trail. [Photo above, white shirt. Happened to start right behind Tony B., with whom I would ride two days later]. Of course, even in a 2- to 5-day long race, people were hammering right from the get go, into the first section called the Canelo Hills. I basically haven’t done MTB races (other than a couple of fun Xterra off-road triathlons last year), but it was like boarding a semi-connected train of riders engulfed in a dust cloud moving along as one. My first on-trail snack was some of that dust. A couple of guys crashed (uninjured) right in front of me within that first section. The Canelos are notorious, above all, for bringing the pain right from the start. Seemingly endless ups and downs over one dry scrub tree-lined hill after another. Lots of rideable rocky singletrack, but also lots of steep uphill hike-a-bike. The substantial effort was frequently highlighted by views of the nearby Huachucas Mountains to the east, and the bigger mountains of Mexico further to the south.
Very early in the race I and others were (humorously) ahead of eventual race winner Neil Beltchenko (Crested Butte, CO) – when he stopped briefly for some apparently minor mechanical issue. Shortly thereafter he passed me (and everyone else) right back. I was of course pushing my bike up one of the hills as he rode past. He would eventually go on to finish the route about 1.5 days faster than me. That’s right, days, not hours. I knew about him from his helpful online blog entries, gear packing videos, and interviews about the sport. I also knew he would win once I heard he was racing (though was interested to see at one point well into the race he was trailing the lead woman, who ultimately finished less than four hours behind him). Neil has won the AZT, CTR, Iditarod MTB trail race (think fat tire, middle-of-winter in Alaska kind of thing), and other long races, and he’s set records on several of those courses. He is actually sponsored by Salsa Cycles due to his talent in this format. Complete tough guy, sleeps maybe only an hour at a time during these events, then keeps riding all day and all night until he leaves all pretenders well behind.
After a surprisingly short amount of time, perhaps 1.5 hours into the race, I had my first extended stretch moving solo through the desert hills. It got really hot, really quickly, and I found myself pushing my bike up steep rocky stretches with no one in sight. (“OK, is this definitely the right way??”) The GPS showed me still on track, and I developed a growing trust in following the preloaded race route. It displayed on the Garmin as a continuous red line to follow along the entire route – kind of a comforting security blanket. That is, until the red line inexplicably ended about half way through the race (more on that later).
At mile 14, the route crossed the dirt Canelo Pass Road, an approximate midpoint divider between the Canelo Hills East (and now) West sections. As I had read, trail conditions improved after the road crossing – more rideable and more fun. AZT 750 rider Max M. (Tucson, AZ) passed me just after the road crossing, and I recall him singing out loud as he approached, (“Aaaaall - night - long! ...,” or something like that). I rode behind and briefly chatted with Max before he dropped me a mile or two up the trail. Max was brimming with positive energy and, from what I’ve seen/read, exemplifies the purity of spirit a lot of these guys have.
Shortly thereafter I had my lone crash of the race. I was never fully sprawled out, but did a sort of sideways out-of-control “running dismount” off the bike after coming into a switchback I had evidently approached too quickly with my heavy bike. While I stayed on my feet (barely), unfortunately I ejected through/over a spiky desert bush. Luckily not a cactus, but the encounter left my legs all scratched up and oozing blood.
After several more miles of seeing no other racers, I finally encountered one – coming directly towards me on the trail! What?!? Both confused, we briefly turned in the direction I had been heading, but then turned around when we realized I had been headed the wrong way. The AZT route briefly had main and alternative tracks (either acceptable) that rejoined as one. I had taken the main route but then in a wash where the two rejoined, mistakenly headed the reverse direction up the alternative trail. Thank goodness I ran into that guy, otherwise I might still be out there riding around in circles.
We got back on track, joined by a couple other guys, including one with a long hippie beard. But then once again after a short while I was riding alone. I missed another turn off a woods road onto singletrack, but quickly realized the mistake and got back on route. [While the GPS was always there, it wasn’t exactly like Google Maps on the car dash. No audio prompts, of course. And for battery conservation, the display was by default blank, only showing the map when a button was pressed (not always easy on rugged trails). This resulted in occasional missed turns, but fortunately none were very far off course. Usually you could also follow bike tire tracks in front of you (though more than once I followed the tracks of riders who had made similar navigational errors).]
After 30 miles (5 hours, over those rugged hills), the trail dumped out onto a dirt road that led into the sleepy little village of Patagonia. I rolled into town at a relaxed pace with William S., a fit 58-year-old from Marshfield, MA. He was making his second attempt at the 300, having dropped out about 1/3 of the way through last year. He actually said he had been out in AZ for the past month – not sure if he was an early retiree or had an ability to work remotely. Unfortunately I see on the tracking page he scratched again this year, making it this time to mile 160 – further than last year, but still only just over halfway. Lots of things can derail one’s efforts out there during such a long race.
I had consumed maybe three liters of water already by the time I arrived in Patagonia, so was happy to restock at the small general store. Bought water to refill the hydration bladders, chugged a large Powerade, and bought a small turkey sub and two small frozen burritos to go. [Resupply opportunities were few and far between – especially so in the later stages of the race.] After about 20 minutes at the store resting and resituating, I headed north up the 11-mile gradual paved climb out of town. This road section was required to bypass the Arizona Trail’s course through the Mt. Wrightson Wilderness (no bikes allowed), to the west of Patagonia. On the map the road section seemed like a welcome break from the rough up and down trail miles of the Canelos, but the unrelenting climb (up to the even smaller village of Sonoita) in the peak of mid-day heat proved otherwise. I passed only one rider, with a scruffy red beard, on the road section. He looked like his head was going to explode from the heat. Otherwise I rode that stretch alone.
At a gas station in Sonoita, I again stopped and chugged a large Gatorade. There were 8 or 10 bikes at the gas station. I couldn’t see if those riders were hanging out eating on a side patio around the corner or something, but reminded myself this was sort of a race, and took off again on my own. I actually had no idea how many people were in front of or behind me at the time. The route left Sonoita headed west for the Santa Rita Mountains. It coursed for miles on a series of somewhat rough dirt ranch roads through areas called Hog Canyon and Gardner Canyon, until finally regaining the formal AZT (after the wilderness detour) on a sweet singletrack section called the Flume Trail. I initially shot past the hidden, near-180 degree turn onto this trail as well, but then quickly realized my mistake and got back on track. Again I had been riding for an hour or two alone until rolling into Kentucky Camp (a one-time gold mining site) in the late afternoon. Here there was a collection of several old cabins at which you can camp – though for the most part, other than an old lady and her dog, it seemed deserted. Importantly, there was an outdoor water pump at the camp. I wasn’t entirely sure if the water was safe straight out of the pump, so I used my collapsible Sawyer water filter to top off my hydration packs.
After 10 minutes at K. Camp, I headed back onto a chunky dirt road. At a rancher’s gate just outside of camp, I was joined by Rob W., a 24-year-old from Carbondale, CO (the same guy I had come across riding towards me earlier in the day). We would ride together for the next hour or so through the beautiful Las Colinas (i.e.“the hills”) section.
[The trail passed through innumerable of these ranchers’ gates – maybe 100 or so over the course of the AZT 300 – each of which had to be unlatched, swung open, bike pushed through, and then relatched. Many gates were sturdy, heavy, rust-red steel, with centrally emblazoned Arizona trail placard. Others were merely ramshackle parallel sticks held together with barbed wire. The gates were a constant presence on the trail, and might have seemed more a hindrance to fast travel if not for the terrain itself, which was much more the issue.]
Rob was full of youthful enthusiasm, seemingly at all times. He had definitely been issued his western mountain town stoke card in Colorado. He was psyched about everything from the sunset framing our ride (“Nothing like Arizona sunsets!”) to the trail quality (“No trails like this at home, man!” – umm, fact check: Colorado is full of amazing riding trails as far as I can tell), to just being out in the wild (“So f’ing awesome!”). Anyway, most of his assessments were right on, and his positive vibe helped late in the day when energy was otherwise waning from the continuous effort.
While distracted talking, we rode a half-mile or so (uphill) past a turn onto singletrack. I saw we were off the GPS track, so we turned around, headed back down the jeep road we had been on, and found the turn after not too much delay. There was actually a large AZ trail sign at the turn as I recall, not sure how we missed it the first time. We continued to ride spectacular hilly singletrack as the
evening sky lit up orange and pink over the mountains to the west. We then rode semi-independently, each of us stopping at different points to admire the views or make adjustments -- until at one point he left up the trail ahead for good. I wouldn’t cross paths with Rob again for the rest of the race. [Rob is a little red dot barely visible down the trail in the photo below].
Shortly thereafter, dusk set in. I rode until the trail was barely perceptible without lights, then finally turned them on in the bottom of a quiet, dark, sandy wash covered with low trees (again at a rancher’s gate). Pre-race I had wondered if riding at night would be disconcerting – though I had done test rides with both my primary and backup lights in the night woods at home – and had no issues. [I also have been running on winter mornings in the dark without lights for years. I actually like it for some strange reason. Meditative, sort of.] As soon as I got up and running with the lights though, everything was flowing smoothly. Riding through the now-cool desert night was actually peaceful, and kind of buoyed my resolve for the day. There was definitely an element of embracing the ridiculous nature of the venture. That is – OK, on a normal day I would never do this, but this is the challenge at hand, so let’s see what we can do with it. I mean, all of the races we do are arbitrary acts of will, right? Whether it’s a 5k run, a grueling long distance triathlon, or some obscure mountain bike race in the middle of the desert, the basic premise is the same.
At one point I decided my goal would be to ride until I had traversed 100 miles or reached midnight, whichever came first. [My longest training ride leading up had been 90 miles – once, on the road. I did do innumerable off road rides at home through the winter, most of them in 30-40 degree weather, and a lot of them on snow-covered trails. This was mind-numbing to say the least. But this ride was a whole different prospect. Rough slow trail miles, countless sections of uphill hiking, hot arid weather, unfamiliar terrain, and a heavily loaded bike.]
I proceeded to ride for four hours after dark, alone, through the Las Ciénegas section, a portion of which was buttery smooth, winding, highly enjoyable singletrack. [The ciénega, according to Wikipedia, is an alkaline freshwater spongy wet meadow with shallow-gradient, permanently saturated soil in an otherwise arid landscape that often occupies nearly the entire width of a valley bottom in the American Southwest. Yeah, so, I don’t know what to tell you but, no water. Not even the slightest hint of it. Like the rest of the trail, it was dusty dry here.]
Those miles actually passed easily, making it harder to decide when to stop for the night. The weather had cooled, the trail was exceptionally rideable, and strangely, rolling along in the dark was very enjoyable.
At one of the trailheads at about 10:30 PM I came across Jerry Q., a seventy-year-old (!) from Tucson, AZ who looked like he had the fitness of a guy at least 20 years younger. He had been doing an ITT (individual time trial), having started one day prior to the group start.
[ITT’s are an encouraged part of the bikepacking word I learned, basically doing the exact same course, tracked in the same way, but starting on a different day. They are recorded in the race results but sort of separate from the “Grand Depart,” the time when most riders leave en masse. The ITT, I guess, fully embraces the independent mentality of this sort of endeavor, i.e. go on your own if you want. The bikepacking community prides itself on these races being rather underground, though as many could tell from the tracking site, there are some elements of traditional racing. Distinct from other types of races though, many bikepacking races, including this one, are completely unsupported. “Do – it – yourself,” they say. There are no race-sponsored checkpoints or feed zones. There is no race support if you have a problem. You are not allowed any motorized transport, even if into a town to fix a mechanical. You are not allowed to leave yourself any food or water caches, and you are definitely not allowed any deliveries at trailheads from family or friends. You areallowed to stop for resupply anywhere anyone else has equal access (i.e.stores), and “trail magic” (surprise food, water, etc.) is allowed, presuming it’s unplanned and from absolute strangers. There are limited locations along the AZ trail where gallon jugs of water can be left in public caches, though it generally must be marked ‘Public’ (i.e.not reserved specifically for the race).]
Unfortunately, Jerry had two broken rear spokes, a broken mini pump, and one other mechanical issue I can’t recall, so he was contemplating pulling the plug. His hometown was just up the road. I shared some M&M’s I had stashed in my pack, exchanged pleasantries, and moved on. Perfect singletrack continued as the night wore on. The low lying trees present earlier had long since given way to small cacti and low shrubs.
At one point I became aware of a rider (or two?) behind me, able to sense his presence only by headlight beams and the occasional sound of tires speeding over the dusty earth. For some reason, after 13+ hours of riding I decided it was my job to keep this unknown character behind me. For 30 minutes or so through twisting fairly level grade singletrack he yo-yo’ed back and forth behind me, sometimes closer, sometimes farther away. I was convinced he would pass at a couple of different points, but then ... silence and darkness again. Not sure if or where he stopped, or if he passed me later in the night. [Incidentally, it was very cool to see other riders’ lights off in the distance at night, offering a feeling of connectedness amidst an otherwise vast expanse of darkness – though these sightings were rare.]
At 11:30 PM the sleep monster crept in, and a flat patch on a small hill at mile 91, with the distant lights of Tucson visible to the north, called my name. I basically just set out my sleeping bag and bivy sack, brushed my teeth, and crawled into bed with bike clothes on, too tired to change. Bright stars shined in the clear sky overhead.
[I took both a lightweight sleeping bag and a fully waterproof Outdoor Research mummy-type bivy sac with me. This is quite heavy by bikepack racers’ standards, but I was somewhat paranoid about the possibility of being stuck out in the rain with no access to cover – something that could turn a fun adventure into an unsafe crisis in no amount of time. This was of course laughable in retrospect, as there wasn’t even the suggestion of rain in the 10-day forecast in the middle of this desert while I was there. There was in fact the potential for cold on the top of Mt. Lemmon, where I anticipated I would spend night #2, although the sleeping bag alone would still have been sufficient. Many racers don’t even take a sleeping bag, as they consider it too heavy/bulky to carry. They instead opt for a down puffy jacket and a featherweight SOL emergency bivy or blanket (think reinforced paper with a waterproof coating). They pride themselves on being able to “sleep cold,” not sleep (much), or find a trailhead bathroom to sleep in. Freaks!]
Lying there trying to calm the body’s senses after a long day of forward movement, I was starting to drift to sleep when at about 11:50 PM I heard the familiar faint sound of tire-over-dirt. After a few minutes, a lone rider zinged past, only his headlights distinguishable in the darkness. Well, he’s riding late, I thought. Then, at maybe 12:15 AM ... whoosh, another lighted rider moved by in the dark. 12:30 ... a pair of riders. 12:45 ... 1:15 ... other riders. Finally, 2:30 or 3 AM (I think), yet another rider moved by. Who are these clowns?!?
The night never got that cold, maybe high 50s or so. Incidentally, I never checked the daytime temps throughout the race, but I can tell you the real-feel while constantly riding/hiking one’s bike was a desiccate-your-insides 90 degrees with zero humidity. The only solace was that the desert cools down quickly once the sun sets. Other than the interrupted sleep, it was a nice (albeit short) night out. Fairly comfortable, considering the circumstances.
Day 1 distance: 91.6 miles.
Day 2 – Friday, April 6
At 4 AM I woke up sans alarm – which is sort of easy when you are sleeping in cycling shorts on hard ground with no sleeping pad. I could probably have drifted off to sleep again, but elected to get up and go. Brushed my teeth, got stuff packed up quickly, and was already off riding again by about 4:15 or so.
[It was challenging at times to balance the “adventure” and “race” aspects of the event. At times you’d be compelled to relax and take it all in, but at other times you were cognizant of a ranked finish and a running clock. Most racers, or at least the ones I came across, seemed able to strike a comfortable balance. It felt natural to stop and chat with fellow riders on the limited occasions we crossed paths. On the other hand, competitiveness was an accepted part of the race. One thing is certain: consistent (even if slow) forward movement appeared to be of as much importance as keeping it in the hurt box. For example, slower riders could easily move by during the night if they simply chose not to stop. I was surprised by riders’ ability to keep themselves going all day and night. Though I had been really sore by the end of the first day (legs and back, primarily), I felt OK the morning of the second day. Back soreness was gone and legs were able to keep moving. Even stranger, the legs seemed to get used to the abuse in the later stages of the race. By the fourth morning, it would feel almost like the legs were supposedto be moving along across the desert. At the pointy end of the field, I assume riders were able to ride hard andstop minimally. Mandy (having followed the race tracker) told me that the lead woman had stopped for only 18 minutes total in the first 24 hours – insanity! I also heard from another racer that this rider has a rule for herself: no stopping unless she has three separate compelling reasons to stop. Meaning, it’s not OK to stop simply if nature calls. Rather, “OK I have to pee, refill my water, andapply sunblock lest the desert sun fry me like bacon – now I’ll stop.” The bathroom issue, incidentally, was not nearly as big a deal as you might think. The body seemed to want to hold on to almost any nutrition or water you put into it amidst the constant exertion and dry desert heat. I drank maybe 10 liters of water a day and urinated very little!]
Much of the time cell access was limited, but I checked the Trackleaders site on the second morning (I guess because so many people had passed me during the night). I saw that there were 10 or so riders camped between my spot (mile 91) and mile 106, the location of ‘La Sevilla’ campground, where there was an outdoor water spigot. At that point I made it an objective to try to pass as many of those night riders as I could (to what end, I’m not sure, but it kept me going). I rode until 6 AM on singletrack through the darkness, passing multiple riders camped alone or in pairs along the trailside (think sleeping amongst bushes/cacti rather than at some organized campsite). I didn’t count, but it seemed like I had passed about the same number of riders that had passed me in the night. Others riders were of course already much farther up the trail.
Rolled into La Sevilla camp just as it was getting light. A couple of guys had camped there, and one of them (with full mountain man beard) was in his sleeping bag on an elevated slab under a veranda. He didn’t look too enthused to be awoken when I pulled up, but he was sleeping right near the public spigot everyone had to use for refill. I had a 15-minute stop at the camp, filling hydration packs, removing knee warmers, applying sunblock, etc.. I saw no tents or campervans at this campground, but there were bathrooms, a rarely encountered convenience during the race. I ate some leftover turkey sub before pushing off.
Leaving the campground, I filed onto singletrack right behind Adam M., a cool 36-year-old AZT 750 rider from Vancouver, BC with a short beard. [OK, I know I’ve mentioned the beard thing a lot ... it’s not that I’m jealous I can’t grow one and be all mountain-man rad, I swear .... The 750 riders, by the way, had been given a one-hour head start on the first day to cover the 12 trail miles they would ride from the Mexican border to the starting point for the 300. So riders from both races overlap during the whole race. The fastest 750 riders had moved by me early on the first day. This included Kurt R. (Prescott, AZ), a wickedly fast long distance trail riding legend, and Max M. (Tucson, AZ), who I previously mentioned. These guys passed me without difficulty, even though in total they would have more than twice as many miles to travel. Kurt would eventually go on to win the 750 race in a time of 6 days, 6 hours, and 6 minutes – reclaiming his record time over that distance from Neil B., the winner of this year’s 300 race.]
I’m not sure if Adam (pictured above) had camped at the campground overnight or had caught up with me from behind, but I noticed immediately he was running a singlespeed – B-A alert! This was his first attempt at the 750 version, having completed the AZT 300 on three prior occasions. There are few ways to elevate the difficulty of this race, but riding a singlespeed is definitely one of them. Full style points, but a hard way to roll. While we rode, I picked his brain regarding upcoming trail details (“How’s that section?”, “What’s the longest stretch without water”, etc.) We coursed along smooth singletrack through pristine desert at sunrise, with tiny clouds catching pink light above the high mountain horizon.
We were riding a section of trail just south of Saguaro National Park and the Rincon Mountains. The terrain looked like a cartoon drawing of stereotypical desert. All around were uniformly-spaced giant saguaro cacti, smaller fat barrel cacti, low-slung, branched pancake-style prickly pear, agave plants, and the evil jumping cholla.
[Every plant in this desert was sharp in some way, as far as I could tell. It became important to distinguish those plants you could brush by mostly unscathed from those that would inflict certain pain if you crossed their path. The jumping cholla [see photos below] did maliciously attack me on several occasions when I rode too
close (usually leaning into a turn on singletrack). The cholla has easily detachable balls of spiky needles that enter your legs, shoulders, hands, cycling shoes, or anything that even slightly brushes against them. Their barbed needles tent your skin outward before finally releasing when you try to remove them. Each barb feels like a shot from a medical needle when it releases from your skin. The one problem is the whole ball is covered with needles so it is very difficult to grasp to remove. I had heard about taking a hair comb to remove them, but decided it was not worth carrying – wrong decision. The desert environment was quite beautiful but obviously unforgiving in many ways. This typical desert terrain – with cacti as far as the eye could see, covering brown hills extending out to high, dry mountains under a cloudless sky and blasting hot sun – would persist for most of the rest of the route as it headed north. The one exception was the alpine terrain of Mt. Lemmon, to come later in this second day.]
After an hour plus riding with Adam, we parted ways when he made a routine stop as the trail passed through a gate and ended at a dirt road. This section was part of a second detour off the formal Arizona Trail, this time around Saguaro National Park (no bikes allowed on the AZT as it traversed the park). From 7:30 am to 4 pm that day, I would not see a single other racer. That was of little concern in the vicinity of a major city, but interesting to say the least once back in the remote waterless sections of desert. Dirt road changed to pavement as the bike route skirted between Saguaro NP (to the east) and the very edge of Tucson (to the west). After about 10 miles on a two lane road headed towards Tucson (during which there were exactly zero opportunities for resupply), the route bypassed the town through hills on its eastern edge. This stretch traversed a couple of miles through a residential area, partially on sandy rutted trails, then briefly amidst affluent low-slung single story houses hidden in the foothills outside of town.
Pre-race, I had planned on heading off route a bit into Tucson (2 miles directly west to the nearest stores), as it was one of a very limited number of resupply points. The next trail section was also remote, with no access to food or water. I took inventory of what I had though, and thought I probably had enough to get through without stopping. I had packed a ton of nutrition in my bags from the start, and really hadn’t made a huge dent in it yet. Also, I still had those two mini burritos I had purchased way back in Patagonia. Once I was actually riding, the idea of adding even a little mileage to this already long route seemed unappealing (thought I later would have to do just that). I knew the next section would be hours until the next water resupply. Still pondering what to do about water, I rounded a curve and found that one of the private homes had a large poster board sign out front, reading “AZT racers – free water” (or something to that effect). Under the sign sat about 20 glorious gallon jugs of water. I don’t think the residents of the home had any specific connection with the race. I veered to the opposite side of the road, loaded up, waved at the empty driveway, and continued on.
[Water availability was a constant enough concern to make me (and I’m sure other racers) obsessive about ensuring it’s presence. While there were other less pressing hazards, running out of water could have been disastrous. Perhaps if you ran out of water but stayed on route, someone would eventually come along and scrape you off the trail. But say you got dehydrated, turned around in the desert, and went off route ... that was something I didn’t care to think about. At certain key points there were known water caches (metal boxes that can be filled with jugs of water by altruistic hiker/biker-friendly individuals). These caches were few and far between however, and there was always some uncertainty whether caches had recently been stocked. We also carried a printed list of emergency water sources along the route. These were mostly ranchers’ cattle tanks, either metal or sometimes dirty concrete troughs, usually filled with algae, swarming with bees, and containing greenish water. Another version of these emergency water sources (also for cattle and also, confusingly, referred to as “tanks”), were small man-made dirt-bottomed brown ponds. The tanks were pretty gross, and I only stopped to look at a couple of them. I filtered water only once at a concrete tank; it filtered completely clear, but still smelled like “piss water” (per the description of another rider). Fortunately I didn’t need to use it, as the cache a couple hours down the trail ended up being well-stocked. When in doubt (that is to say, almost always), I just loaded up as much water as I could carry – as much as 6 liters at a time between my two hydration bladders, a standard bike water bottle, and a couple small collapsible flasks I carried in my backpack. Extra water weight of course made any ascending that much more difficult. My daily water consumption was huge.]
Straight out of Tucson the route ascended to Redington Pass on a tortuous steeply graded (10% in parts), switchbacking dirt road up into the mountains. Alternating riding and hike-a-bike quickly yielded sweeping views back over Tucson. Near the top of this road, after an hour-long ascent, the route veered off onto a series of very rough, isolated, rutted jeep roads (for the next 7 miles).
The day was growing hotter (10 AM), and the white crushed gravel surface of these roads seemed to magnify the sun’s intensity. I occasionally looked forward or back as the roads crested hills in front of and behind me, but saw no other racers in this section. No other people, actually – despite the fact that these roads were known to be popular with ATV’ers, off-road jeeps, and Arizona rednecks shooting automatic rifles out into the desert. (Perhaps Friday morning wasn’t the most popular time for those activities). There was absolutely no shade, the roads weren’t super fun to ride, and the scenery of the immediate surroundings was sort of average (though there were nice views of the north side of the Rincon Mountains to the South). There were a bunch of repetitive ups and downs, with lots of rock chunder and some scattered mandatory step-downs over little eroded areas in the road. At about 11 AM I rested for 10 minutes and ate a leftover burrito in the pretend-shade of an ocotillo plant (a non-cactus desert plant with wispy, thin, tentacle-like branches reaching skyward, each topped by a crimson red flower -- an example of which is seen on the right edge of the photo above). The point of these uninspiring jeep roads, for us, was simply to redeliver riders to the Arizona Trail proper after our long detour around the East district of Saguaro National Park.
Finally, the route turned left onto the much nicer, singletrack Italian Spring Trail section of the Arizona Trail. (Yet again I missed this turn initially, heading first across a fairly wide sandy wash in which I followed the tracks of several other riders who had evidently made the same error). This was an isolated, narrow, enjoyable, slightly rocky trail trending uphill in the direction of the Santa Catalina Mountains northeast of Tucson. At one point I encountered a couple of exceedingly rare, shallow, clear pools. These were tiny algae-lined remnants of a small creek that presumably runs briefly, only after rains. I took a short break to filter some water, though I didn’t actually need to. I think it was more the novelty of the presence of water that convinced me to stop -- and an excuse to take a break.
[The AZT crosses hundreds of sandy washes over the course of the bike route. Most are small but a few are quite large. All of them (OK, 99.9%) were completely dry. Riding across these washes was often fun: a slight drop down into the sand, a kind of half-controlled float across the sandy wash, then just enough speed to pop up the opposite side. There were a handful of major washes, however, that required a minute or two of hike-a-bike across soft, unforgiving sand. A couple of these looked like wide swaths of white beach sand coursing like a ribbon through the otherwise brown desert.]
At a trailhead two miles later, (junction of the Italian Spring and Bellota Trail sections of the the AZT, I believe), I found that I had ridden off of my Garmin’s GPS track. I turned back, thinking I had ridden off route, but then another look at the Garmin revealed that the red line of the race route (which I had been following the entire time) actually just abruptly ended. There was a little checkered flag on the GPS route, saying “End”. Hmmm. This was about mile 129 (of 285) for the race. I still don’t know how this happened, since pre-race I had fiddled with the Garmin a lot, making sure I was familiar with how to follow the route while out in the wild.
I tried various things to rectify the problem (reloaded the track, installed new batteries, restarted the system) – to no avail. I guess in retrospect the file must have incompletely loaded into the Garmin and I had never noticed, though I can’t say why. Another rider I later encountered had a similar problem. And one other rider’s Garmin completely malfunctioned, reporting only a “Distance to Land,” as if he were stranded in the middle of the ocean or something. Oh well, technology has its limits I guess.
Fortunately, I had multiple backups, including the complete race route loaded onto a free App I had downloaded on my phone. The strange thing is I had used the identical GPX file to load the route into both the Garmin and this App’s display, and the track in the App was complete – so who knows. I also had the official AZT hiking route in another App, and also separate printed race cues. Further, the formal Arizona trail (i.e. not the pre-loaded race route) was usually visible as a smaller (and much more difficult to follow) line on the Garmin device. Except for one more paved detour section, the race followed the Arizona Trail the rest of the time. Getting lost was not so much the issue, rather it was just harder to reference the track to follow, requiring a lot more stops. Once you were following the race route, the Garmin would auto-center your position (a la Google Maps in the car) and didn’t require regularly stopping the bike to ensure you were on the right route. I no longer had that convenience. There was also the secondary concern about the phone battery running low from extra use. In the end it was more of an annoyance than a safety issue.
The trail continued, mostly as singletrack, for another 10.5 miles before intersecting the Catalina Highway (a two lane paved road up Mt. Lemmon, east of Tucson). The trail section before getting to the road was brutally hot in the mid-day sun. The pinnacle of this section was an insane uphill stomp up Molino Ridge, a 1000-vertical-foot obstacle separating me from the paved road. It required full hike-a-bike, and was much tougher (IMO), than the notorious Oracle Ridge the following morning. (That could be in part due to the fact I was ascending it in the mid-afternoon heat). I briefly stopped to talk to a couple who was hiking the same uphill section. One of them was even holding an umbrella to protect himself from the sun. [I had been wearing a light bandana under my helmet during the hottest parts of the day to protect my face/neck from the sun. The only clouds during my
several days’ time out there were a thin cover only around sunrise and sunset. Otherwise there were bluebird skies the entire time.] At some points during this ascent, I had to stop to study the boulders in front of me to see just how I could huck my heavy bike up and over. I finally reached the top of that climb, collected some water from a cache someone had graciously delivered to the top of the ridge, then made the quick descent down to and across the paved road by about 4 PM. I had seen no other racers for the past 8.5 hours.
There sat Molino Campground, which had bathrooms but no public water or food. A few mountain bikers (not in the race) mulled around, having driven the four miles up the mountain to this point to ride surrounding trails. I resituated things, used the bathroom, and rested for longer than I had in a while (30 minutes or so). The remaining objective for the day was the 3000-foot vertical ascent of 9,175 ft. Mt. Lemmon (max road elevation 8,150 ft.). I had read many times about Tucson roadies and triathletes using the Mt. Lemmon climb as a training ride, with its quaint Cookie Cabin at the top. I also knew, unfortunately, that the timing would not work to get any real food at the top of the mountain, since the Cookie Cabin, General Store, and a restaurant all closed by 6 pm (and wouldn’t reopen until 9 or 10 the next morning – too late to hang around before starting the next day’s efforts).
Another rider, 47-year-old Bill A. from Flagstaff, AZ pulled up to join me. He was just returning to the race route after technical issues – a snapped rear axle. His race status had officially been changed to “Alternated from race route,” since the day prior he had no choice but to track back out to Sonoita (no bike shop), hitch a ride to Tucson, get a new axle, then ride the first four road miles up the Catalina Rd. to this point. He was determined to complete the best version of this adventure possible (given the circumstances), and I was impressed with his persistence. Bill was an explant from the Finger Lakes region of NY (years prior), and was now living in Flagstaff. Bill was friendly and talkative, with strong legs and an iron will to match. Also had a short beard, of course. I would ride with him for a large part of the next 24 hours. Right before we were about to take off up the mountain, one of the “spot stalkers” (fans of the race who follow the racers’ spots on the tracking page) pulled up in a car. He asked if we needed any water. “No.” I said ... “...electrolyte mix if you’ve got any.” With that he proceeded to pull out a pre-loaded plastic baggie of Nuun tabs – and a CHEESEBURGER. I almost fell off my bike! [This aid was allowable per the race rules, as far as I could tell, as he was a complete stranger and was prepared to hand stuff to any rider that came along.] I thanked him profusely before leaving up the mountain.
There were 2.5 more uphill trail miles (the Molino Basin section) before the route once again rejoined and this time followed the paved road, for 18 miles, all the way to the top of Mt. Lemmon. I ascended the trail alone, at first missed the correct turnoff back to the road, then tracked back and rejoined Bill for the paved climb up the mountain. We took it veryslowly, stopping frequently for various reasons (adding warmer clothes, setting up lights, general fatigue, etc). It had been 14 some hours since I first started pedaling that morning, and I was, you know, tired. I also had no intention of starting the rugged hike-a-bike route off the back of the mountain that night, as it was known to be a rough spot even during daylight hours.
Bill and I shared stories. He’s a landscaper. We learned we both had 8- and 10-year-old kids. And it seems he is fully plugged in to the desert riding scene in Arizona. At one point well up the mountain, we stopped roadside with Paul S. (Denver, CO), originally from England but now an American citizen. He had ridden up from behind and was passing us. [Paul’s progress had earlier been delayed by a broken chain that he had to fix trailside. He otherwise would have already been well ahead of us, as he was moving much faster. I see from his website that he has done monster rides including a continuous traverse of the U.S. from north to south and west to east. He also apparently once rode the entire length of the UK from south to north (880 miles) in under four days!] The three of us stood and admired the last light of the sun setting over distant mountains and the sprawling lights of Tucson (see below), now 4500 feet below us. The terrain had become alpine, with tall pines and big rocky cliffs offering a stark contrast from the desert scenery of the rest of the race. Paul subsequently rode up ahead and we never saw him again.
Bill and I arrived at the top of Mt. Lemmon at a little village called Summerhaven, a few tenths of a mile downhill off the race route, at 9:45 PM. (We had taken it reaaaally slowly up the climb). I spent a little time poking around the village in the dark, checking the general store and restaurant’s hours – both were deserted and neither opened early the next morning. (I actually knew that already but was hoping against hope). I never saw the Cookie Cabin. I think it might have been a little farther down the hill, though it was a bit hard to make things out in the dark.
Bill was carrying no sleeping bag, so was happy to find one of the heated public bathrooms at the top of the mountain unoccupied; he slept in there for the night. I slept comfortably in my sleeping bag/bivy sac, just off the roadside amongst some small trees (having been directed to that location by a local guy with dogs named Buddy and Mey). “Just off the roadside” is sort of a euphemism for “in a roadside ditch,” but regardless it was comfortable. [My family later forwarded a news article about black bear and mountain lion sightings in and around Summerhaven – fortunately I didn’t encounter any. I did intentionally stash my bike and packed food a hundred or so yards away from me so as to not encounter any hungry animals during the night!]
Day 2 distance: 80.4 miles. Cumulative distance: 172 miles.
Day 3 – Saturday, April 7
I awoke slightly chilled once during the night at maybe 3 AM, but then woke up around 5 AM feeling toasty warm in my bag. (I must have been pretty darn comfortable because I slept too long this night!) It had only gotten down to 49 degrees I think, and was not as windy as it can sometimes be up there. Feeling somewhat reluctant to get out of the bag (and noticing I had cell service), I called Mandy before getting going. Conversation summary: Mandy: “You’re doing great. And also, you’re crazy.” Me: “Thanks.”
Bill had departed the bathroom by the time I went in to use it in the morning. It took a while to get rolling, but eventually I started back uphill to rejoin the race route. Next up was the mixed terrain of Oracle Ridge, a prominent fin extending off the northern flank of Mt. Lemmon. Oracle Ridge has a notoriously rough, rocky hike-a-bike [see photo below] that lasts a couple of miles. I was joined on the ridge after about a half-hour by Tony B., a 49-years-old-but-seems-younger rider who had started early (3 AM), having ascended most of the paved Mt. Lemmon climb that morning. Tony was a solid guy with a quiet intensity but supportive nature, a bike/backcountry ski shop owner from Palmer, AK (outside Anchorage). Though his hometown was clearly more ... exotic than mine, we noted they both sat at the
same low elevation, 400 feet above sea level. [Altitude may have represented an additional challenge of the the race. In reality though, it was hard to distinguish any altitude effect from the general rigors of the terrain and elements.] During the initial part of this early morning traverse there was some fleeting thin cloud cover; this would shortly give way to the standard clear skies and blazing sun.
Tony and I cat-and-moused along the ridge for an hour or so before settling in to a pace together. He was a better technical rider (especially on sketchy downhill sections) and I was hike-a-biking a bit faster. Ridge-top hiking eventually gave way to a rapid and variable descent off the back of the mountain – via alternating rocky singletrack and steep rocky jeep track. Like many other areas, these trails/roads were devoid of any other humans. Tony flew past me on one of the rocky roads; I was actually walking down the steep road at that moment, not wanting to ride the loose rocky pitch with a loaded-down bike. But he then seemed to ride a bit more conservatively after wiping out on a loose rocky section (out of my view at the time).
The trail descended for what seemed like forever (3000 vertical feet) until passing through the American Flag Trailhead at a dirt road (namesake a nearby ranch). No cars and no people were there. After a bit more descending, the trail then continued on flattish to rolling singletrack on the AZT’s path through Oracle State Park. The label of state park seemed to designate ownership (public) rather than any distinct geologic feature, as the terrain and scenery was more of the same we had been traveling through for miles (dirt, cactus, hills, sun). The trails were very rideable though, and a definite improvement from the ridge-top slog higher up. The desert was again starting to heat up. At one point in the park, Bill rode up to join us from behind. [Bill had left Mt. Lemmon and traversed Oracle Ridge a bit earlier in the morning than Tony and me, but we had unknowingly passed him when he briefly detoured to an off-trail water source at a place called Hijinks Ranch]. There were a handful of day hikers/riders in the park, a few of whom we stopped to talk to.
After riding for five miles through the State Park, the trail finally intersected Route 77, a paved road that offered resupply in the nearby town of Oracle. Alas, the town was three miles west of the trail, off route, up a relentless paved road climb. We knew we had to take the detour into Oracle for some real food prior to the next long uninterrupted stretch of desert – the most remote on the whole route.
Leaving the race route, we headed up the climb into town. We initially stopped at but then had to bypass the tasty-looking BBQ restaurant closest to the trailhead (having been beaten to the lunch rush by a 30-some-strong biker gang). We instead continued on to the considerably less glamorous Circle K convenience store which, while much less attractive an option, was actually more appropriate for the type of resupply we needed. [It is a running joke that gas station food is a staple of bikepackers’ diets in many of these races]. We were joined in town by Nick A., a 38-year-old rider from Hesperus, CO (thick but well-trimmed beard, of course). At the Circle K I loaded up with two big Gatorades, jugs of water for the hydration packs, two hot dogs, Pringles, an ice cream bar, and M&Ms. The body was definitely craving salt and fat. [Photo below is accumulated leg damage/dirt while sitting at the Circle K.] I also grabbed two sausage/egg breakfast sandwiches to eat at some point down the trail. And a way-too-large burrito that I would later jettison due to its excessive weight. That thing was nothing short of a refried bean anchor.
Nick left the store a few minutes before the rest of us. Feeling much better now and loaded down with food/water, Tony, Bill, and I flew back downhill on the 3 mile paved road to rejoin the trail. Left onto the route for one-and-a-half miles on unpaved Tiger Mine Road brought us to a trailhead for the singletrack Black Hills section. Here began the most remote segment of the bike route. It was 27 miles through open Sonoran desert during the now hottest part of the day. The next intersection of any significance was the graded dirt Freeman Road. I was happy to be riding this remote section with others, though Tony and I almost immediately dropped Bill for some reason. (Perhaps he had stopped for some equipment adjustment; he would catch up with us an hour or two down the trail). [Tony (left) and Bill (right) in this picture]
The hilly, rocky, winding, up-and-down singletrack of this area took several hours to traverse. Again there was endless rolling desert scenery as far as the eye could see, with distant mountains on the horizon. Eighteen miles in to this remote section we crossed the extremely wide, beach-like but ominously named Bloodsucker Wash, a swath of sand that flowed like a broad dry river across the trail. The wash required a couple of minutes of hike-a-bike through soft white sand [photo below]. We actually saw a few hikers in that remote section, a couple of whom were camped in tents under rare green leafy trees in the middle of Bloodsucker. They waved as we passed, looking quite content to be camped out miles from any hint of civilization. By this time we had settled in to a pace of steady forward progress, and I was really enjoying the experience. The only objective was, simply, to keep riding.
Continuing through the Black Hills, as evening approached, we stopped to check conditions at Beehive Well, one of the emergency cattle tank water supplies. We were unsure whether a key water cache would be stocked at Freeman Road, still eight miles up the trail. We each had plenty of water for the time being. As was frequently the case though, the concern was not so much arriving at the next resupply point before water ran out, but rather having enough for the next, extended waterless section beyond that (if no water was available at the cache). Beehive was typical of other such cattle tanks – an algae-filled concrete basin full of green, malodorous water, and buzzing with bees [photo below]. There was a float
valve you could activate to get “fresh” water out of a spigot; it looked slightly clearer but was no less funky. I filtered a small amount, yielding completely clear but still very stinky water, so I opted not to even sample it unless I really had to use it. Dusk was coming again to the desert, so we prepped helmet/bike lights before setting off after an unnecessarily long delay.
The twilight conditions, slightly cooler and more comfortable, must have rejuvenated me a bit, as soon I was riding alone, having ridden off from my two riding companions. The guys were not far behind. But as nice as it was to ride with others, it was also easy to occasionally fall into a contemplative solo stretch of riding. Darkness then slowly began to descend all around, until visual input was reduced to nothing more than the narrow beam of light in front of me, and the mountain skyline beyond, barely silhouetted against a midnight blue sky. It was cool to see Bill and Tony’s headlamps a little ways off in the desert as we meandered along the trail’s twisting course. Riding along in the dark one would occasionally encounter strange little black desert birds with beady eyes that would rest right in the center of the trail (only at night). Their eyes would glow in our headlamps’ lights, appearing to stare at us motionless until seemingly the last possible moment before being smashed by our wheels -- then they would fly off. Interestingly, this would occur over and over again.
A young couple camped at a rancher’s gate saw my headlights approaching and provided gate service as I passed. I told them two more were coming behind, but at this time saw no evidence of the guys when I looked back. They redirected me as I almost missed a sharp right turn onto singletrack just after passing through the gate.
Eventually after several more miles of riding alone through the darkness I dumped out onto the dirt Freeman Road, excited to check out the anticipated cache. I searched all around the intersection, however, and found no evidence of a cache at all. I checked my GPS, yes this was in fact Freeman Rd. Looked around again – no cache. I sat down to eat a cold egg sandwich and ponder the situation. The desert was extremely quiet once you stopped riding. Despite the fact this was a “major” graded dirt road, there was no one around, and the desert felt very dark, quiet, and isolating. There was definitely the opportunity to be freaked out – but also the chance to soak in the serenity of the moment.
I knew the guys would be coming along in a short while, having no other reason to stop before this point, so I briefly decided to just wait for them. But then I checked my phone App one more time and noticed that the trail in fact crossed Freeman Rd. once, continued on for another ½ mile, then swung back to the road just up over a rise, where the trailhead and cache would be located. Relieved, I proceeded up the trail to the actual trailhead, where I arrived to find not only a cache, but also a few campers mulling around. They had even hung two small
inflatable LED lights from a tree, illuminating the cache area a festive blue-green. Tony and Bill arrived a few minutes later. Compared to the lonely silent desert of a few minutes prior, this was a veritable party.
We topped off water at the cache as we chatted with a couple who had driven out to this remote spot at least in part to talk to any AZT racers that might happen to pass through. Bill shared some pre-cooked bacon he had packed in, and the salt/fat/protein combo tasted divine. It was 9 PM – too early to go to sleep – which meant too early to stop riding. We could have elected to stop for the night, but the race, of course, had an endpoint, and any less riding today meant more riding tomorrow. The weather was great (we actually put on warmer clothes) and the upcoming singletrack was very rideable in the dark, without much elevation gain or loss. We shoved off from the trailhead and headed back into the blackness of the desert night.
Three miles or so after leaving the trailhead we flew by Nick, who was bedding down under a tree in a small depression. He called out imperceptibly as we passed (“Get after it!” or something similar). We rolled along on supremely enjoyable, twisting, fairly level singletrack through the desert, our lights and instincts guiding the way. At times I felt like I was on autopilot due to the repetitive nature of the task, accumulated fatigue, and the sensory deprivation of the darkness. Through this section I had a sense that somehow we were riding on the edge of the desert, that to the left of us just beyond the reach of our headlamps’ illumination was ... something else. I’m not sure what. Some other terrain feature. But of course that was a mental fabrication created by the narrowness of our scope of vision as we passed through the lighted tunnel we ourselves were creating. [One time we did turn off course as the trail briefly fanned out into braids. We momentarily got stuck in some thick sharp bushes that were clearly not part of the main trail. I believe that was around the location of an off-trail water tank, to which multiple faint paths headed. The tank was, however, invisible in the pitch black night.]
After multiple more miles riding through the dark, we finally came to a rough uphill jeep road under a powerline that required some brief hike-a-bike. We paused, looked at each other, and decided to call it a night, heading back down the trail a couple hundred yards to a small open patch of flat loamy soil we had just passed. Ironically, after miles through that empty desert expanse, we laid out our sleeping bags close enough to large overhead powerlines to hear the faint white-noise sizzle of electricity overhead. Bright stars were again out as we drifted off to sleep at 11:30 PM. This was the darkest sky of the three nights, as the site was remote from the lights of Tucson, Phoenix, or even any small town. Being crazy people, we agreed to set alarms for 4 AM.
Day 3 distance traveled: 65.1 miles (including 6 mile resupply detour into Oracle). Cumulative race distance: 231.1 miles.
Day 4 – Sunday, April 8
I lapsed into a sleep-coma until 3:50 am, at which point I heard Bill up and rustling around. He slept the lightest (I think), as he didn’t have a sleeping bag and was evidently a bit chilled. [One perverted thought some of these bikepackers have is that if they are too cold to sleep at night it will help them want to sleep less, and hence ride more – yikes]. I called over to Tony, and we all started packing up our gear. Grabbed a small bite to eat, brushed teeth, and were off riding before 4:30 AM.
We headed out again into pre-dawn gloom over challenging but fun jeep roads and singletrack until the sky eventually began to brighten. We rode a nice stretch of ridge-top singletrack as the sun started to crest the mountains on the
horizon, a quarter moon still hanging in the morning sky. Eventually we came to Ripsey Wash, another large dry sandy stretch. The trail went right up the wash for maybe a quarter mile of soft sand walking until coming to the “Big Hill.” I’m not sure why this one had a specific name, as there were innumerable big hills. Regardless, this was a long, switchbacking hike-a-bike ride/walk combo that ascended what looked like a maroon red and black cinder cone peak.
I think we were all feeling a bit tired that morning, traveling slightly slower with maybe a comfort-of-the-herd mentality. At any given time there were opportunities for three different people to decide to stop, especially given our accumulated fatigue – no bueno. We had all agreed we didn’t want to spend more than three nights out, but still had a very long day ahead of us. Though I had immensely enjoyed riding with these guys, I had a growing desire to just be done with the route and out of the desert heat. I marched up the climb, mounted my bike once again, and pressed onward alone. I would not see Tony or Bill again.
Bathed in the fresh light of a new day, I scooted along high ridgeline singletrack in the Tortilla Mountains, admiring expansive views while making sure not to fall off the trail to either side. This ridge top section of trail was primo riding … “wow is this real?!” Having exited the company of my erstwhile riding companions, I settled into a hard but sustainable pace for the next objective, the Kelvin Road trailhead. First was a seemingly endless rocky descent with innumerable tricky switchbacks off the back of the same red-black mountain. At the bottom I came across a lone through-hiker who told me she was headed all the way north to the Utah border. She remarked at how AZT riders had been racing past her campsite at all hours of the night, “... but it doesn’t bother me ‘cause I know what you’re doing...” I read between the lines on that one, clearly understanding her to mean, “you guys are all f#%$ing crazy.”
At the base of the descent off the mountain was more flowing singletrack, eventually leading to the very large and completely empty Kelvin Road trailhead, where I was surprised to find a water cache. I quickly topped off my water (although this was wasted time) and continued on another few miles up and down a hilly area to the Gila River crossing. Here the trail dumped out right before crossing the river on a paved bridge near a large service area for the Arizona DOT. There is a public water spigot along a fence outside the facility, a couple of tenths of a mile off trail. I rode up pavement to the well-signed faucet, where I loaded up my water bladders to full capacity (for what I mistakenly thought would be the last time before I was done the race). The day’s heat was ramping up to full throttle by that point, and I applied the precious last bit of sunblock I could find (not enough), threw my bandana under my helmet to protect face and neck, ate something, and headed back onto the trail. I was still moving expeditiously, partly because I simply wanted to be done, but also because I had been warned about the intense mid-day heat of the area I was about to enter to the west – the Gila River Canyons.
I checked the GPS, thinking/hoping I was getting towards the final stretch of the route. The map indicated a solid 30 miles left though, so I settled in on the path into the canyon, briefly ascending a dirt road and then moving again onto singletrack. Having seen this area on the map pre-race, I was deluded into thinking that perhaps since this portion was down near the river it would be relatively flat and not as taxing. But of course that wouldn’t be the AZT 300. The trail ascended on curving singletrack several hundred vertical feet up into the undulating canyons above the river, hugging canyon walls with at times somewhat steep drop-offs to
the left of the trail. Nothing real dangerous, but a fall off the trail in this area would definitely be regrettable. The
sun accelerated its bake cycle, making me feel like I was being cooked in an oven (despite the fact that it was only 9 AM at that point). [One rider later reported that his Garmin registered 104.5 degrees in the Gila Canyons. I don’t know if that was accurate or not, but anyway that’s how hot it felt.]
The trail alternately ascended up into the north side of the canyon and then dropped back down to the river, the lower stretches traversing sandy but rideable soft paths under actual trees in the river basin. Several times I missed turns in this segment, having to check my GPS to return to the route. There were jeep roads heading off in different directions at various points. I did some back and forth walking through soft sand to the river at one point (after inadvertently having followed bike tracks there off route). I wasted some time at the river at that point trying to decide whether or not to filter water. Again I encountered no humans during this 16-mile stretch by the river.
[Nor did I see much wildlife in the area. One of the racers reported seeing “mountain lion tracks on top of cycling shoe prints” in the Gila Canyons. I didn’t see that, though I wasn’t specifically looking. Another wildlife encounter I read about involved one of the riders (Bill’s friend Dana, from Flag), who reported he woke up from a nap in the middle of the night in the Black Hills section to find four coyotes standing around him! Guessing they smelled the food he had stashed on his bike? (Or perhaps he smelled like fresh carrion after a couple days’ riding effort!) Needless to say, he left the area immediately. I also saw no scorpions or gila monsters –- though others reported they did. There were also apparently myriad wolf spiders visible at night, recognizable by their eyes reflecting riders’ headlamp lights. If I saw these, I’m glad I didn’t know what I was looking at!]
I finally reached the point where the trail departed the river on its final run north, making a 90 degree turn to the right up an extremely steep jeep road, ascending to Martinez Canyon. I had read that this segment out from the river basin was also brutal, so I paused to reflect and check the GPS. Still some 20 miles to the finish, and no more reliable water sources, from what I could tell. I decided I needed to start this last section at full water-carrying capacity. The trail had demonstrated its ability to lay down a boat load of punishment over that distance. And all I could see ahead was “up.” I knew it would take hours more.
Before starting the climb I did several disorganized back-and-forths, with and without my bike, as I tried to find the fastest way to the river (only about 150 yards away at the time, although not visible from where I was standing). I rode part of the way down a jeep “road” (more like a jumble of rocks and sand), but then decided that wasn’t right and came back to the trail junction. I briefly left my bike trying to walk a more direct course to the river through tangled low-lying bushes. I quickly abandoned that idea as I got caught up in the low branches. Then my cell phone (i.e.map) briefly shut off (from the heat?). I walked back to my bike, got the phone working again, checked the map, then headed off again further down the rough jeep road this time, finding the river a couple of hundred yards off the trail. I sat down and spent about 20 minutes filtering the muddy water of the Gila River to top off my supply. It was actually calm sitting there next to the flowing river, and just slightly cooler. The water filtered clear and tasted good. The Gila was one of precious few naturally flowing water sources we encountered along the entire 285-mile course of the race, and I ended up needing almost all of the 5.5 liters of water I filtered there for the remaining portion of the race.
I then returned to the trail and commenced a 2000 vertical foot slog, riding some but mostly hiking, to the top of Martinez Canyon. Once there, it was super hot and I was feeling totally spent. I wanted to believe the rest was downhill to the finish line trailhead, but knew better. (This is when I temporarily donned my black rain pants to protect my sunburned legs. Seems silly in retrospect, I guess. But I recall my calves looked like they were glowing red at the time, and I had run out of sunblock – or so I thought – I would find an unopened sample pack stashed in my bags the next day).
Once reaching the top of the canyon, the trail maintained altitude, tracking horizontally northeast across the upper reaches of the mountains lining the canyon, with some of the steepest trailside drop-offs I had encountered during the race. Nothing I would call remotely dangerous at hiking pace, but also not something I felt comfortable riding in my fatigued state (in some parts). There was some limited riding in the area, but still a lot more uphill hiking. I rode where I could, as it was obviously much faster than pushing the bike. This section was mentally the toughest of the whole race for me. The body kept having to follow the trail uphill, while the mind wanted to be done. [One of the riders, third place finisher Dana E., later described the section this way, “... what I wasn’t expecting was to get to a high point, descend, and then go back uphill over and over again. [Tied for third place rider] Dion and I wondered if we were going in circles or experiencing groundhog day.”] Many riders noted the difficulty of the heat in the Gila River/Martinez Canyon section, and a few reported serious issues with dehydration here. I saw no other people in Martinez Canyon.
Finally, finally I reached a twisting, turning singletrack exit from the back of Martinez Canyon, descending down to Forest Rd. 4 (a tiny rough dirt road that barely seemed deserving of an official designation). There was a water cache there but no public water – only a couple of half-empty jugs of privately stashed water (i.e.hands off) for a couple of through hikers, one of whom was “Sweetpea.” [I would later encounter Sweetpea and her ZZ Top-bearded hiking companion 1.5 miles before my final trailhead exit – hippies through-and-through. They asked if I was in first place (hilarious – not by a long stretch I said) and asked for a photo] Fortunately, I still had enough water at that point to last through the finish, having filtered 5+ liters worth back at the Gila River.
Checked the map – 7.5 miles left, through Alamo Canyon. OK – I can do this. I followed a slowly coursing singletrack, generally down but of course with some ascending, rocky and rougher than my body felt like dealing with any longer. Through several more small sandy and rocky washes and tracking across hillsides, the last section was less brutal but still not easy. With five miles left I was riding singletrack on autopilot when all of a sudden just off the trail to my right, “HISSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS” accompanied by a distinctive creepy rattle. Rattlesnake! “Sorry buddy...” I said as I scooted past, “...just passing through.” Then two miles later as I stopped to hump my bike up a rock I was too tired to ride over, again, “HISSSSSSSSSSSS” and a rattle, just to the right of my front wheel. I watched as the little guy eyed me, mad as all get out, staring me down as he scooted smoothly backwards under a rock. Yeah, OK, so ... time to be done.
Three more trail miles. A five-minute stop to talk to the hippies. Then finally the last trailhead – and the end of the adventure – came into view. The trailhead itself was large and scenic, with a classic desert view of saguaros and other cacti marching up the side of freestanding Picketpost Mountain (pictured below) in the background. I finished as the sun was sinking low in the sky, just before 6 PM.
Day 4 distance traveled: 54 miles. Total race distance: 285.1 miles.
I snapped an obligatory finish photo at the trailhead sign, then collapsed at the car, my dad having recently arrived after following progress on the race tracking site (assisted by Mandy, who helped ensure the old guy got there on time!). Exhausted, I at first struggled with simple tasks like extracting myself from my bike shoes and socks. Legs were fully coated in dirt and scratched from top to bottom by cactus needles. I was sunburned and achy all over. I had put forth what felt like a full effort, both physically and mentally. There were no other riders at the finish area … no other people actually. And no finishing banner or any fanfare of course. Just empty hikers’ cars at the trailhead. Other racers have described these finishes as anticlimactic, so I was prepared for that feeling. But the solitude at the finish was consistent with the feel of the rest of the adventure.
I inhaled potato chips as we followed dirt roads out to the highway, headed towards Phoenix. I emailed the race director Scott, as requested, confirming my finish time: 3 days, 9 hours, 56 minutes. Within two hours of finishing I had consumed three cheeseburgers, fries, a large milkshake, and four Klondike bars. A shower and a comfortable hotel bed, and I collapsed into a deep sleep. [Post-race depletion pictured below. I had swapped out my long sleeve shirt for short sleeves during the hot part of the final day. Having run out of sunblock that wasn’t the best decision …)
According to the Trackleaders site, I was 12th of 22 riders who finished the 300 race, though five of the riders continuing on for the whole 750 ride also passed through Picketpost before me. One of those 750 riders was Adam, the Vancouverite I had briefly ridden with outside Tucson on Friday morning; he had passed through three hours ahead of me (and would eventually go on to successfully complete the whole 750 race at the Utah border). Nick (the fourth guy at the Circle K detour in Oracle) and Rob (the Coloradan from the first day) finished together 2.5 hours after me, and Tony B. (the Alaskan I rode with most of the third day) was a ½ hour behind them. Bill S. (with whom I ascended Mt. Lemmon and rode with the third day) also finished around that time. [A few weeks after the race I would get in touch with Tony and Bill online to rehash things a bit. Shared adventure (and suffering) in races like these has a unique way of bringing people together.] Of note, 31 of 75 riders (between the 300 and 750 races) are listed as “scratched,” having dropped out somewhere along the route due to mechanical issues, fatigue, or possibly just having come to their senses! [Every year there are numerous non-finishers, a testament to the difficulty of the event. Prior to the start, I had fully processed the idea that I might not finish].
I can’t claim any great revelation or self-discovery from having done the race, though I definitely got what I went out in that desert for – a big adventure. In a lot of ways the theme was similar to that of many other races: set a challenge, prepare for the anticipated rigors, and put forth a big effort from start to finish. But there was definitely special satisfaction in the unique elements of environment, distance, isolation, and exposure associated with this race. Further, I got a glimpse into a beautiful subculture. The bikepacking community has developed a rich collection of races/experiences with which to fuel the soul’s desire for adventure – the AZT being one of many. And the guys I met out there, while diverse in their backgrounds, seemed to share a similar untamed spirit. Much fulfillment can be gained through purpose-driven adventures such as these. So, some have asked if I’m happy I did the race – absolutely!
Being a husband and father, it’s not lost on me that there were a few “borderline” issues in terms of safety. Dehydration was an inherent risk. Injuries or falls were of course possible. Mechanicals could have left a rider stranded miles from nowhere. On two of the days I rode solo for 9 or 10 hours without seeing another racer. But a substantial portion of the gratification I got from the race related to the challenge of extended time going it solo.
And regarding whether I would do it again? That’s a tough one. At this point, I’m still in recovery mode. It was definitely hard on the body. Inexplicably, I developed no blisters whatsoever – but there are several other lingering aches. As I finish writing this just over a week after completing the race, my forearms, wrists, and hands are still tight/weak from gripping the bars for so long over the rugged terrain (this would last for weeks). Right ring finger is still slightly bent in a “bar holding” kind of way – weird. I have innumerable healing scratches from cactus needles, a few of which have decided to remain embedded under my skin. I did pull a big thorn out of the side of my right foot several days after the race. One bugger I couldn’t get to caused a little infection in my right middle finger. I still have some mild but persistent aching/tingling in the toes. And of course there’s the usual assortment of saddle sores, muscle fatigue, and general recovery from the big effort. But the body heals …
(Some photos above courtesy Bill Akens - thanks Bill !)