Friday, April 24

AZT 300 - Commitment

It's difficult for me to begin any race report without first looking backwards though a full retrospective will have to wait for a future manuscript. Where riding a bike has led me the past few years is down a road I never could have predicted. Perhaps my father would disagree. And while I'm grateful for every success along the way, the road has certainly been lined with more than a few cobbles that have bounced me, at least temporarily, from the path I at least thought I desired. From that perspective the Arizona Trail 300 is no different. When I first learned about the race I was pretty green to the sport as a whole. I was inspired and intimidated by the event, especially Scott's warning clearly posted on the race's homepage:

HIKE-A-BIKE WARNING: You will not be able to stay on your bike the entire race. You will walk/push/pull/drag your bike. A lot. You may sometimes wonder why you even have your bike. If you can't tolerate hike-a-bike, this is not your race. If you're willing to accept this additional challenge, you will be rewarded with some of the sweetest, rarely ridden singletrack in the state.

That first year the event was run, the course was very green as well. Trails were overgrown or not completed, fences were more common than gates and GPS navigation was new to almost all the racers. Yet Scott managed to take his home field advantage and blaze a course record that would be untouched for several years while my coworker Kevin Gillest would be the race's only other finisher. Kevin told me when he finished he just threw his tires in the trash. Kevin's riding partner for most of the trail threatened to kill Scott after the race. Whether truly a serious threat or not, the mystique was created and with sections like the "Traverse of Death" on Oracle Ridge, the AZT 300 was not something to be taken lightly.

The following year no one truly raced the course and I continued to watch from afar. My experience was growing but I was still quite lacking in many ways and some epic failures ensued. I read more reports, likely vowed to Marni that I would not race this event (classic foreshadowing) and somehow managed to keep it out of my mind for a while. Yet by early 2008 I couldn't resist the temptation, the challenge, the unknown of how bad is it really? I wrangled a few extra days off from work and somehow found myself headed to Arizona with Jefe, another very experienced ultra racer. Some mental miscalculations and an unfortunate accident lead to the crash.

Instead of racing I was dealing with a totaled Element and then later rushing Jefe to the ER. Luckily everyone was okay in the end and returning home alone in a UHaul box truck upset but uninjured was bittersweet. Without Jefe and I at the starting line, the AZT 300 would wait another year for a true race.

I was able to move on from the accident and put the AZT 300 behind me for a while. Summer and early fall are far to hot to make a solo trip down there so instead I focused on an unsuccessful GDMBR attempt followed by a personal breakout singlespeed CTR ride. By the time fall rolled around I was cooked and spent a lot of time solo in the Indian Peaks wilderness near our house, hiking, scrambling and thinking. I rolled slowly into training for 2009 but knew that the AZT 300 would be one of my big focuses. It seemed 2009 was "the year" for many as soon there were at least four very experienced racers just from Colorado with Kurt, Stefan, Jefe and I all headed to the desert for a crack at this beast. The racer and race creator Scott Morris graciously put Kurt, Jefe and I up at his house and solicited local help from Jobe and Max to drive us to the starting line. Huge thanks to all involved. All the prep done, all the debate and worry about a terrible day 2 weather forecast pushed temporarily to the backs of our minds, all the emergency hand warmers packed or left behind, we drove off towards the US/Mexico border to our start at Parker Lake.
Along the way a suspiciously familiar van appeared in our path and soon a pass confirmed that Fred W himself was making a return trip to the AZT 300. Chatting before the race was a reunion of sorts and we found ourselves with 11 racers amped to take the starting line. The start was some 3000 feet in elevation above Tucson and the wind blew a cool breeze as I stood around waiting to start. I knew I'd be hot once I started riding so instead of a jacket, a few lame jokes kept me warm.

"I can see Mexico from my house!"
Soon 9am rolled around and we posed for 11 sets of pictures, chatted nervously and rolled out behind Scott for the start of the race. I pushed the start button on my watch, flipped it back to the clock and rolled on down the trail behind Scott.
The trail was immediately quite rocky and the week before Chad had sliced a sidewall less than 5 miles in, losing his tubeless setup in the front tire. While that's a bummer for those riding more traditional mountain bikes, losing tubeless in the front tire is a huge setback for those of us riding rigid singlespeeds. After the CTR last year, I knew how much tubeless helped to save my hands and wrists from the beating of hundreds of miles and thousands of feet of descending with no suspension. I rode cautiously from the gun and let several people pass on each downhill. Kurt and Scott were immediately up the trail. A few minutes later I rode by Stefan who already had his chain apart in his hands, not good I thought. Luckily the repair was very minor and he caught me quickly. Quite rapidly we were all alone. Hiking up the steepest parts of the Canelo Hills gave me some time for pictures at least and I made sure to snap as many as I could with the new camera.
Before the race I told myself that in addition to finishing, I wanted to enjoy myself. For me that meant two things were important. The first was stopping to take some pictures so I could share the race with Marni afterwords and perhaps entice her to come back and tour the route some day. Secondly I needed to stop and eat and drink as I have a tendency to just push on endlessly until a calories deficit induced low moment forces me off my bike and to shove sustenance down the hatch. For the first issue I hung the camera around my neck, keeping it accessible and for the second I set my watch to beep every 15 minutes, the "GU Police" as Stefan calls it.
I was walking, riding, taking pictures and generally enjoying a brilliantly sunny morning. Some new trailwork had rendered previous fall line sections now rideable and my pace felt quite relaxed and easy. My hike-a-bike shoes were marvelous compared to the Sidi's I wore on the Colorado Trail. Even my GPS smiled at me with news of an excellent pace which bumped my mood up another notch. I kept waiting for the trail to become ridiculously hard and destroying a tire remained a worry but miles clicked by and nothing went wrong. Sometime later even Scott and Kurt appeared in front of us and the group of two became a group of four.
We were enjoying ourselves, no one really wanting to push too hard so early and at least for me, the miles on one of the harder sections were flying by.
Unfortunately for Scott, Lady Luck is a cruel mistress and he attempted a move he probably shouldn't have, had a minor fall and a sharp rock destroyed the sidewall of his front tire. "Oh no, did you burp?" I asked as I rolled up a few seconds after the fall. Soon we found out it was much worse than a burp and Scott set about booting a massive slash. We all took the opportunity to strip some clothes and eat. I finished off a delicious apple from my jersey pocket but then we said our goodbyes, temporarily I hoped, to Scott.
Scott knows this course very well and while it is a race, the last reason I wanted to get ahead of him was fixing a stupid mechanical. Besides it was nice following his lead around the Canelo Hills so I could enjoy the scenery instead of keeping one eye glued to the line on my GPS screen.
With 12 miles and two hours behind us, the group of four became a group of three and Kurt, Stefan and I disappeared off onto more of the Arizona Trail. The riding was spectacular and a tailwind kept us from ever really roasting despite warmer temperatures than I'd been in all year.
While there were occasionally difficult hills, we were able to stay on our bikes far more than I expected prior to the race.
There was some occasional hike-a-bike and wash walking, but it was seldom very long.
Towards the end of the segment I had a bit of an altercation with a White Thorn bush. It took me a moment to untangle myself without any more pricks and cuts that I already had endured and with that the group split up. Kurt dangled off the front by a minute or two, Stefan was usually in sight just ahead of me and I bounced my rigid fork through the rocks behind them trying to keep in contact on any uphills. Just as the last throes of the Canelo Hills were starting to wear me down we descended to the pavement and a dozen rock smiley faces appeared to keep my spirits up.
A few spun out minutes on the pave brought us to Patagonia and in great time to boot. Scott caught us as we were resupplying and I was happy to see him again. Getting knocked out of a race by a mechanical is such a disappointment and I was glad to see it wasn't the case. I knocked back a huge raspberry iced tea and some candy, grabbed a sandwich for later and refilled my water for the next push to Madera Canyon another 40 miles up the road.
We rolled out of the store somewhat disjointedly feeling racer-ish perhaps but soon Kurt, Scott and I regrouped on the Salero road. Stefan was somewhere behind us having went off in search of a restroom.
Salero was supposed to be a good climb but a tailwind made it feel all too easy. Somehow I spun ahead of Kurt and Scott and they disappeared behind me for a while. My legs felt great. It was warm, I was popping Endurolytes like candy and for a moment felt that perhaps I didn't bring enough along. I only had 24 and in the heat they disappeared quickly to keep my hands from cramping. I figured I could make due down the road if I ran out and just took what I needed.
Up and up I climbed, pushed by a great tailwind and I focused on shoving more food down my throat. I squeaked the land whale on my bars whenever a short downhill combined with the tailwind rocketed me along. The mojo was running high.
Before long a shape appeared behind me, materializing into a person who I recognized as Kurt. I soft pedaled a bit as I felt no reason to ride separated by a short distance and he caught up to me as we passed a border patrol truck parked in the middle of the road. He said Scott was somewhere behind him and we assumed Stefan to be as well.
Salero became Bull Springs and from what I could remember from Scott's 2006 race report, we seemed to be flying. The shot out and destroyed cars and trucks were odd but somewhat comforting too as I recognized the scenes from past race reports.
We topped out on another big climb with the sun still blazing. Scott and Stefan were now visible below us, not far behind but still with some climbing to do themselves. Before me stretched another downhill and I quickly fell behind Kurt as he rocketed away down the slope.
Once again though, the rocketing downhill did not pay off as Kurt managed to pinch his tubeless rear tire, a reasonably beefy XDX. The rocks on day 1 of the AZT 300 are everywhere and pretty damn sharp. I felt wise in my descending caution but didn't really know if it was luck, speed or some combination of both that was keeping my tires in one piece. Scott and Stefan caught up as Kurt double booted the tire and I quickly said good bye to the three of them. There was a long way to descend still and I was by far the slowest of the four of us.
After quite a bit more very rough and rocky trail, we popped off the main road onto a smaller trail. I noticed the squiggle on the GPS screen but still missed the turn and it was so faint that I missed it again coming back the other way. Finally I was back on track and it didn't take long until Stefan and Scott appeared too. Kurt was still fixing the tire but they said he'd be along shortly.
The next section led us to the Elephant Head mountain bike trail which is really neat. The sun began to drop lower in the sky and while it was plenty bright out, the shadows were starting to lengthen. I hurried along the trail, eager to make Madera canyon by dark. If I could, I'd be at least 2 hours ahead of Scott's 2006 pace. Very promising for my percived level of effort.
Scott turned off to get water at the Smithsonian visitors center but I had plenty and just kept rolling. Stefan and I rode near each other for most of this section although rarely were we together. He would disappear on every downhill and I'd somehow find my way back as we climbed up or he stopped.
Despite the rough trail in spots, it was really well built and tons of fun. I was probably being overly cautious.
The scenery was awesome too and Stefan and I scoped rock formation after rock formation that are probably full of new climbing routes.
The trail got flatter, sandier and the sun dropped lower.
I was starting to get anxious to get to Madera. I wanted to get off my bike for a bit and eat that sandwich I'd been hauling from Patagonia.
A Javelina in the brush kept me occupied for a short while after which I drifted off of Stefan's pace a bit until sure enough, Kurt caught back up.
We rode towards Madera together, arriving at dusk to find Stefan searching for the water spigot that was supposed to be turned on. Chad had found it on just last week but after all three of us tried two different spigots, no easy water was to be had. Bummed we rolled back to the creek where at least we could filter water.
Not long after we got back to Madera creek Scott showed up, incredulous that the water was off. He went to go see for himself, thinking perhaps we had found the wrong spigot. I think we all secretly hoped so too but sure enough he returned and joined the filtering party. I dragged my bladder through a deep spot in the creek and dropped in a couple tabs. Since Stefan was sharing his filter I did put a bit in my bottle to have some extra "ready now" water as well.
The four of us demolished our dinners, Kurt even firing up his stove to make some pasta. I remember killing the sandwich, a king size Snickers, some Fritos, more Endurolytes and who knows what else.
It didn't take too long sitting near the creek to get cold and with a paved descent coming up we all donned some warmer clothes.
Bombing down the road with a wide variety of lights was pretty interesting. Since I couldn't draft the other guys (rules) I got left behind a bit, but not too far to see Kurt and then Scott almost hit some black cows hanging out in the road! I think Kurt swerved at the last moment and it was just in time. We then turned off the pavement and began another long but easy dirt road climb. Instantly hot in my shell, I resisted taking it off for a bit. Finally I couldn't take it and stripped most of my warm stuff back off. At this point the group split into two for a while. Stefan and Kurt spun off up the road and I rode with Scott. We chatted for a while, time and miles passing so quickly that we missed the turn off back onto the AZT proper. Luckily I was watching my GPS closely and we didn't ride much bonus mileage. Back on the trail we rolled up and down for a bit. The wind now was making me cold and the rising moon began to highlight the storm front moving in. While not yet upon us, I knew outrunning it was impossible and my mind flipped back to the fact that our current pace was going to deposit us in the worst possible location at the worst possible time. I tried to come up with a strategy but nothing sounded great. Instead I just kept pushing, wide awake and moving quickly. I figured being a few hours ahead of "schedule" would at least give me some options later. Eventually Scott got hungry and stopped to eat. I scarfed a bar but was cold standing around so I said goodbye and headed off in search of Kurt and Stefan.
Stefan described the next section of trail as "how we all dream night riding could be." I'm pretty sure he's got that right as I've rarely ridden so much seemingly endless swoopy, turny and somehow almost all downhill singletrack in my life. Aside from a short piece of connecting highway, I flew along singletrack for several hours, winding through the desert towards Tucson in the distance and running from the storm building larger behind me. Several times I thought I saw other lights but I could never be sure. When I finally crossed under the culvert at I-10 it seemed like an important milestone. There was no time to celebrate though as shortly thereafter the rain started. I stopped to put fresh batteries in my lights, don my waterproofs and just kept on pedaling towards La Sevilla picnic area, my next planned water stop. The lights of Colossal Cave were tempting, especially since Scott mentioned the chance of ice cream there but I was still eager to find Kurt and Stefan and I wasn't tired yet so I pushed on. Finally I descended down towards the picnic spot and sure enough, there were Kurt and Stefan, holed up in their bivies. I got some water and decided I'd lie down there for a bit myself. At first I got out my sleeping bag but it was still raining so instead I decided to "save it" from getting super wet and instead crawled under a concrete picnic table and got in just my bivy sack. I tried to eat and drink a bit first, then lie down and close my eyes. I was warm and reasonably comfortable but I couldn't sleep. Still it felt good to be off the bike and I laid there in piece, listening to the rain and trying to doze off. It turns out Stefan couldn't sleep either and after listening to Kurt sawing logs for a bit, he got up and decided to keep going. When I heard him get up I felt surprisingly awake and decided to go with him though I'd been there less than 90 minutes. Kurt packed up as well and all 3 of us rolled out to more intermittent rain.
As we hit dawn on the Old Spanish Trail, we began to see snow on Mt.Lemmon, at least when we could see it at all through the clouds. Stefan took a brief power nap and Kurt and I rolled on towards Tucson. Eventually we hit pavement which shot me and my spun out self to the back of the group and I cursed their gears for the few extra minutes it took them to reach breakfast before me. Soon enough I hit the Safeway and called Marni. I was pretty tired and looking at the mountain on my way in did not lift my spirits. I was fine but I knew that what was coming up was not going to be good or easy. Marni tried to tell me the forecast was better. I didn't know if she was telling the truth or not, it looked bad from where I stood. It was nice to hear her voice though and I was doing well other than being a bit tired and worried about the weather. Eventually I said goodbye and that I'd call her sometime down the road and set about getting some food. We killed an hour almost at the Safeway, eating candy, breakfast burritos and coffee. I added a few more items to my pack for a "dinner", filled up my water and then the three amigos once more rolled out of town.
We were a motley crew leaving Tucson, heading up Reddington road, a wall of water not far behind us. Kurt could barely stay awake, Stefan was pedaling along in in his biggest gear and I was trying to spin fast enough down the road to keep up. It felt good to hit dirt again and start climbing up and back to the AZT trail itself. Of course before we could ever get that far, the rain slammed into us again and waterproofs went back on, making us choose between being hot or excessively wet.
Eventually we turned off the road and onto some trails. I knew this next section was really tough and pushed right into it, bad weather all around us. Some Jeeps initially provided another obstacle but at least they were nice. One driver commented on my "stiff fork" and seemed to appreciate what that meant out here. The recognition temporarily lifted my spirits. Kurt and Stefan spun up the steep spots and I tried hard to keep up. Every time I had to walk they'd get ahead but I kept the hammer down and climbed quite a few steep hills to stay in contact.
Of course it wasn't all rideable. There was plenty of pushing and walking. We felt like we were moving pretty slowly through here but it was all we could do to go for an hour or so and then stop to eat.
Luckily for us, every time we stopped to eat the rain would dump on us and we'd get off our collective butts and keep riding or walking through it. Several times the trail disappeared in a cloud that we knew was just a wall of water and wind but we soldiered on anyway. Don't I look so happy?
Finally we reached a spot just below the Molino Saddle. When we were all off our bikes pushing, I realized that this was the 45 minute hike-a-bike that Chad had warned us of. It was one tough hike with next to zero riding or coasting but eventually we reached the top. Of course greeting us at the top was an ugly sight. What we could see of the top of the mountain was socked in with black clouds, thundering and lightning perhaps every 10 seconds. When we descended to the road we saw cars driving down with inches of snow on them and were regaled with stories of police ticketing non chained or 4wd vehicles going up the road barely higher than our current position. Not exactly what you want to hear when you have to go up another 3500 feet in elevation and over a gnarly ridge.
We headed for the bathroom overhang and tried to decide what to do. Kurt was prepared with full on winter booties, a stove, insulated parka and both leg warmers and full rain pants. After an hour he bravely headed up the trail, up the snowy road and eventually across Oracle Ridge. I was impressed and jealous but I could not follow. I was soaked, all my gear was soaked and I was cold at 4500 feet. Going to 8000+ feet in my current condition with the information we had, especially in the face of doing Oracle Ridge in the dark was not a good idea. At best it was very slow, at worse it was dangerous and would force me out of the race. Of course I didn't really like any of my other options either. It was only 2pm when we first got to the bathroom which meant darkness was a long way away. I figured I could bivy where I was, trying to warm up and dry out or I could ride up the last singletrack section to the road, then detour to Tucson to get a room at a hotel. Option two would mean I would have to re-ride the entire road back to my high point and then continue on the course. Finally I knew I had to make a decision and stick with it. Bailing was easy but I just did not want to quit. We were so far ahead and so far in the race that even a long stop was better than quitting. I decided to bivy here until the middle of the night and then wake up and continue on, reaching the top of the mountain and Oracle Ridge at first light. It would be cold but at least I'd have all day to traverse the ridge if the snow was as bad as we'd heard. Stefan decided to do the same thing and we tried to dry out our wettest items and then crawled into our sleeping bags for a nap. An hour later the sun came out and we woke up. Stefan hurried to lay all his stuff out in the sun to dry and I did the same.
We made a junk show of the bathroom area and parking lot but no one seemed to care. Either they're used to thru hikers or they thought we were nuts for being up there in that weather. Nevertheless the sun stayed out for maybe an hour and I got most of my stuff dry. Stefan almost took off up the mountain right then but I thought we were in for another round of rain and didn't want to surrender my dry gear just yet. Sure enough more rain bombed in and we scrambled to tuck most of our dry gear away somewhere safe.
The long bivy was boring and frustrating. I wanted to ride but I knew my plan was solid though whether or not it was the best idea is debatable. Stefan almost went for a ride just for the hell of it. He managed to get a text message from his family and I was jealous. It would have been nice to talk to Marni to pass the time. Instead I ate, drank, took care of everything I could like battery replacement, trash disposal and finally the sun went down enough to try to sleep. I slept fitfully, waking up at least every hour, checking on the weather and my watch. We had agreed to leave at 2am but by 1:30 I couldn't take it any more so I ate some more, packed up and we rolled out at 2am sharp.
My oh so awesome concrete bivy spot...for 12 hours.
The restart of the ride was amazing. Reasonably dry except for my gloves and shoes and well rested, we made quick work of the singletrack section. It was very nice and rideable, even uphill in the dark. When we popped out on the pavement and started heading up I thought perhaps I screwed up and we should have started earlier. But then we climbed higher. First bits of snow appeared on the side of the road. We passed upper Bug Springs and it got colder around every switchback. Clothing gradually went on as I shoved more and more food down, trying to keep warm. We rode through crazy clouds where Tucson was visible one minute and the next you could barely see 20 feet in front of you. Higher and higher we climbed, more and more clothing going on. Then we started alternating riding and running. My feet were cold in my wet shoes and if I didn't run to warm them up they were going numb. Stefan's seemed even worse. Finally by the time we hit 7000 feet my core was starting to chill. I knew I had only one good option left if I wanted to keep racing so I stopped, peeled off my jacket and put my MicroPuff vest on underneath it. Once I was moving again I was wearing ever single piece of clothing I had, my only reserves being my sleeping bag, foam pad and my chemical heaters which I was saving for absolutely emergency use only. We had over 1000 feet more to climb, I hoped I could stay warm enough.
Luckily the climbing and the vest were enough. I wasn't toasty warm but at least my core was warm enough to keep hypothermia at bay which is all that mattered. Cold toes and hands were dealt with through more running, swinging and shaking and it got me to the top. Of course this high up there was still snow and ice on the road and I had to ride my brakes while pedaling downhill to keep warm enough while somehow not crashing. People the day before hadn't been so lucky but we saw Kurt's tracks in the snow and were happy that he'd at least made it this far and hopefully was safe.
The snow was pretty deep at the top, still at least 6 inches off the road and maybe more. We were nervous about Oracle ridge but when we passed the firehouse I wanted to dive right into the challenge. Stefan was cold but I reasoned all the hiking would warm us up and I wasn't eager to sit around any more. I hoped I was right. Sure enough I was and soon we saw a 2nd set of tracks! After figuring out they had no cleat, with Kurt's booty/cleat track also clearly visible, I knew it was Jefe. As we learned after the fact, he closed the 7.5 hour gap while we were stuck in the bathroom and left an hour before us that morning! Motivated to see what the "Traverse of Death" looked like and chasing two people now, I flew into the ridge proper.
The terrain itself was beautiful with all the snow and in the daylight we were riding where Kurt and Jefe hadn't been able. I kept tabs on the GPS and was encouraged by our pace.
In the middle of the ridge there is quite a bit of climbing. In fact we dropped below the snowline then climbed back into it. Luckily this side of the mountain had received less snow than the other side and while it was an added challenge it was by no means impassible as I had feared. And damn was it pretty!
Of course it wasn't all fun and games. I warmed up and I stripped layers only to start being attacked by sharp plants again. My legs were already quite sore from constant nicks and cuts and each new one felt like an insult. Sorry legs, you have to keep riding and I'm going to cut you repeatedly too. Deal with it. Yelling and cursing is now allowed.
Near the top of the ridge I tried to take some more pictures and my camera started making some ugly noises. Great, brand new camera already busted. I turned it back off and buried it away for the time being. More hiking and brush bashing and one by one these continued to turn up, rattling on the trees in the wind.
Eventually we popped out at the "magic gate" and I knew the hardest part was over! The snow was almost all gone and from here it was 4WD road descending to the Cody trail, rumored to be awesome riding.
The Cody trail was awesome. Though not all easy riding, it was very fast compared to Oracle Ridge and time flew by. We dropped further and further and I warmed back up, stripping off my rain layers finally. Stefan stopped at one point when he found a small water cache and then again at the ranch house to fill up from their tank. He was planning to go into Oracle so I continued on, expecting just to meet him at the gas station. I pedaled into a headwind towards Oracle and when I rolled up to the CircleK, who was there but Jefe himself! We chatted a bit while I loaded up on water for the last mostly dry section. I scarfed a couple roller dogs, ate my easter candy surprise from Marni and bought some candy, snacks, a sandwich and a coffee for the final push to the end. Stefan still hadn't shown up by the time I got off the phone with Marni so I figured that he must have decided to skip town and keep on trucking. I also learned that Kurt wasn't very far ahead, a few hours at most and with that Jefe and I rolled out onto the Antelope peak section.
After some initially fun singletrack riding (with the exception of me accidentally kicking a cactus and having a needle go directly through both my shoe and toenail!) we got to the gasline. This long straight section rolls up and down until you near Antelope peak where you skirt around it to the east through a long sandy wash. Jefe pulled away here as I frequently walked the tops of the steep rollers and soon I was all alone again.
I stopped at some point to eat a bit more and put on some music for the first time all race. The tunes helped me drown out the wind and I focused on pedaling one section at a time. After all I knew that once I reached the Boulders segment I had a long fun section ahead of me.
Those next few hours were hard, probably the hardest part of the race for me. Marginally rideable sections meant walking on the singlespeed and I felt like I was crawling. I enjoyed the scenery but I was looking forward to some fast riding and this wasn't it. I did get one nice wake up call where riding down the steep spine of one gasline segment I got going way too fast but the trail was so narrow and sloped away on both sides that I couldn't brake. I G'd out at the bottom of the hill and used all my energy to keep the bike upright. With my adrenaline pumping, at least the next few hills were rideable. Finally after running over plenty of cholla and praying my tires would continue to hold air, I reached Freeman road. I was elated to start moving fast again.
I stopped at the water cache and topped up my main bladder. I still had lots of water left but I wanted to make sure I had enough to get me to the end without another stop. I ate a piece of lemon cake I had bought from the gas station, turned up the tunes and blasted off. I was all alone but I knew this section would start to speed up and thought maybe Jefe was just ahead.
Besides, the sun was starting to set and I knew I had a long way to drop to the Gila. I wanted to make the most of my fast daylight speed and get as far as I could.
The Boulders was promised to be fast and it does not disappoint. It may be some of the finest riding on the AZT that it appears no one ever rides. The trail is almost non existent due to overgrowth but it's open, well marked and FAST. Plus you weave through some awesome huge boulders in the middle of no where that would be great to climb on. I wonder if anyone ever has? Probably not as they're way out there.
I reached the end of the Boulders before sundown and climbed up towards the next set of ranch roads. Sunlight was holding out so I continued to pedal hard. Down down down I dropped but somehow my elevation was still far from the 1600 feet of the Gila River.
Finally the sun's last gasp was here. It was beautiful and I sat down all alone to have dinner. I hoped this would be my last real stop of any sort. I ate my giant "trucker" ham sandwich and some corn nuts, a little candy and sucked down lots of water. I changed my batteries to be ready for the night and put on my shell. It was totally dark when I got up and got moving, now dropping by headlamp towards the Gila. A few uphills were mixed in here and there but I rode ranch roads, then several large graded roads and then finally more sandy ATV trails. The river had to be close but I didn't know quite where. I jumped from sandy track to sandy track, 3 other prints ahead of me some unknown distance. Finally I reached the bridge over the Gila. I couldn't see the water but I stopped to shine my light over the edge to get a glimpse. I shoved more corn nuts down and continued on towards the Box.
Expecting the Box to be a bit strange at night, I stopped just before it and prepared for the final push. I knew I was close now though not without some hard miles ahead. I downed my coffee and another piece of well preserved cake. I had plenty of water so I dumped a bit out of one of my bladders to save weight. I cleaned and lubed my chain, put in a final set of batteries in my headlamp and got ready to hammer. Up the Box I climbed, finding it not as bad as expected. Even climbing out of the box was reasonable on the singlespeed and I could ride some and walk some. But the final punishment was waiting for me, the climb called Orphan Boy. Perhaps it was the fact that I'd been going for my 2nd 24 hour plus push or perhaps it was just fatigue from riding a singlespeed for almost 300 miles. Perhaps the climb is just that steep. For me, it was at my limit. I pushed my bike up almost the entire thing, at times having to count 100 steps at a time before allowing myself to rest my head on my handlebars. I knew there was singletrack, glorious contoured singletrack, if I could only somehow finish this section and get there. Of course the dozens of intersecting mining roads and trails didn't make it any easier, frequently bushwhacking and backtracking to stay on route. It seemed like an eternity that I pushed for, zoning out to my headphones. At one point I found the old Arizona Trail, finally a marker from my cue sheets that told me where I was. Lights down below me taunted me that a town was close, just not close enough.

I was in final push mode after I stopped before the Box and as such I was rarely drinking and not really eating anything. My only goal was forward progress, nothing else mattered. When I reached the singletrack it was almost 3 am and I was ready to get this thing done. I set myself a goal, get down in 1 hour. I had no idea if that was even reasonable. Plenty of rideable singletrack on this route had reduced me to half that pace. But I was determined to somehow get down by 4am. My watch would beep every 15 minutes and I would only check my distance then I told myself. I launched into the trail, powering up everything I could possibly climb. I'd never make it in an hour if I stopped to walk. I descended nearly out of control, using "the force" to somehow stay upright and on the trail. Several times I had close calls, nearly crashing into the dark abyss that ended somewhere below me with no idea how far. Adreneline flowed, my watched beeped once, then again and I was somehow on pace. It beeped once more, 15 minutes left. I railed turn after turn, slammed through rocks I wouldn't have dreamed of on day 1. My tires twanged but never gave up their precious air.

And then just like that, it was all over. I passed the finish "hiker" sign and couldn't believe it. I thought I had a mile to go. I thought maybe someone would be there. I was done? For real? I was in such shock I followed the GPS line back to the sign, thinking maybe somehow I had stopped short but no, I was there. Riding around the trailhead with no cars in sight I looked for another rider. Apparently I rode right by Jefe twice but never saw him asleep on the ground. Alone and unsure of what to do I decided I better get to town. I rode the AZT further (ha!) until it crossed under the highway before dragging my bike under the fence and up the side of the culvert. At first I tried to hitch into town but no one was going to pick up a crazy looking biker in the dark at 4am. I put on my shell and rain pants since I was quite cold now and resigned myself to a slow ride into town. When I got there I called Marni, quite incoherently, and asked where everyone was. She had been worried as my SPOT stopped tracking several hours earlier. In the haze of my final 26 hour push I had forgot to reset it. She told me she didn't know much and to find somewhere to sleep for a bit. I tried to find the hotel but it was closed and no bikes in sight. With no one around I finally wandered back through town to Los Hermanos as they had just opened for breakfast. Eventually Jefe rolled into town and found me, then Kurt and Stefan who were sleeping on the other side of the highway woke up and saw our bikes. Three breakfasts later (for me anyway), I was feeling more normal again. I emailed Marni through Stefan's phone (MAGIC!) to tell her that I was now okay and with people. We eventually left the restaurant for the rest area and sat about calling people and trying to arrange our ride back to Tucson.
My legs post race and they were actually far worse than even the pictures shows them. Keep in mind I never really crashed...
Sheryl arrived and somehow awesomely agreed to drive us all back 2 hours to Tucson. We fit 4 racers plus Sheryl, Sebastian and all our gear in and on the car with the help of some velcro and pink shoe laces from the gas station. We did stop at a Sonic on the way back for more food.
Headed back to Tucson.
The AZT 300 is quite the event. In the past it's been blasted as terrible hike-a-bike, fence hoping and endless spikey plants. And in some ways that's not totally untrue. However there is also some amazingly awesome singletrack throughout the race that's somehow sprinkled in *just* when you need it. Just when you're sick of hiking and draging your bike or climbing endlessly you get some ripping, windy, downhills that are to die for. So for Scott to create this course and also keep improving it every year, thanks!

As for my own post race evaluation I have to say it went amazingly well, even better than I might have expected. My tires and bike performed beautifully with no major issues outside of the occasional clean, tighten and lube the chain. I never even added air to the tires! My riding plan was spot on and in general I did well eating and drinking compared to events in the past. My legs felt awesome almost the whole time. But what I'm most pleased with is my commitment. Commitment is what the little piece of paper taped to my handlebars said at the beginning of the ride. Though now faded by rain and sun, it was still barely readable at the finish. To me that's what this race was personally about. I wanted to give myself to the race so that there was no bailing, even in the face of terrible weather, even in the face of a time that was slower than I know that I could do with ideal conditions. I wanted to have fun, see the whole trail and do whatever it took to get to the end if possible. Records are fun but they're not why I'm out there. Marni told me before the AZT this year, "remember was it felt like to finish the CTR" and she even wrote a great blog about my wings. Well I know she's right and something did change out there for me on the CTR. It doesn't mean that I don't have hard times or feel like quiting now and then, I think that's normal. But I have a new well of patience, desire and strength that lets me really get into the trail and enjoy it beyond seeing it as only a race. And when you're loving being out there, worries about your pace or finish time are so much easier to forget. I've learned a huge amount about myself from riding my bike these past few years and I feel like I've learned even more in the past year. I feel so lucky that I have a wife who supports that and let's me keep on learning.

I guess you just have to remember, if you think you've got it all wired, well you just might be wrong. Stay flexible, look around, have fun.

Until next time...

Numbers detail:
307 miles - 37,000 feet elevation gain - 66:52:32 total time - 32x20 gearing

14 comments:

Jason Hilimire said...

Should send this over to the new XXC mag, would be cool. Gotta bookmark this one to read, might take a few days ;)

Looks killer, hoping to do my own NY style deathmarches, though they'll top out at 100-120 miles...

Kurt said...

Damn. Everyone has written up their race reports but me. And here I am staring at equations and making big messy spreadsheets in Excel...

Marshal said...

Enjoyed your write up, lot of emotional "resonance" for me in your write up.

It always amazes me to see what others 'ride' as I walk and study the 'tracks' and to ride some of that on a SS...amazzzinggg

Marni said...

Great job and great write-up. You did so great and I am very proud of you. Sweet patience young grasshopper.

Cellarrat said...

awesome!

Fonk said...

Wow, sounds like the weather made the race even more of an epic than you bargained for. Great job, and nice write-up!

Scott said...

You killed it Chris! It's so inspiring to see you continue to improve year after year!

Stefan said...

Really enjoyed reading and reliving, Chris. And thanks a ton for your *commitment* - doubtful I would have finished without it! :-)

ScottM said...

Wow, thanks for the detailed report, Chris. I enjoyed every last detail.

Your commitment was impressive -- preparation, experience and strength, too. The route has never seen such caliber of riders.

I'm really glad you made it down this year. Congrats again on the amazing finish, despite the 12 hour layover...

Carney said...

Awesome write up - Contrats!!

Dave Harris said...

What a bell ringer of a ride. You have come a looong ways the past few years, huge congrats.

Karlos said...

I have never read your Blog, but I loved your write up and I am very inspired by it. I am hoping as a good shakedown to come out there next year and give this thing a shot.

Thanks so much for sharing, your a beast!

sue said...
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