Punkin Center to Payson. The long walk.
Thanks Biking Viking for the San Tan beer and the encouragement!
And John Schilling‘s photos:
The start (nervous!):
Punkin Center to Payson. The long walk.
Thanks Biking Viking for the San Tan beer and the encouragement!
And John Schilling‘s photos:
The start (nervous!):
Day 10 – Flagstaff to Rabbit Canyon
I woke around 8:30. It was Sunday, and I knew the restaurants would be crowded for Sunday brunch. I ordered food over the phone from Country Host restaurant – Belgian waffles, homemade cinnamon roll, pancakes, vegetarian omelette. (When you’re in town, you go to town!) By the time I crossed the street to pick up the food, it was just about ready. (This part of my morning is weirdly blurred in my memory, feeling so much like my morning in Payson.)
Nico Barraza – a photographer for Bikepacker’s Magazine – had FB messaged me, hoping to maybe get some photos of me at Aspen Meadow in Snowbowl. He had predicted (in print) that I would finish, which was definitely a confidence boost. The meadow sounded enticing. What would it look like? With all of today’s talk about discipline, will power, passion, perseverance, “grit” and the like, sometimes we underestimate the driving force of curiosity – the attitude that gives pulse to the others.
By the time I’d “slept in”, resupplied and eaten, it was 10 or after. Following the urban trail to Buffalo Park, I spotted a Starbucks, where I stopped to resupply on a key item – my VIA packets. My coffee addiction started when I was 15 (right around when I started sneaking into the teachers’ lounge for coffee) and has gone unabated ever since. The packets of instant coffee are the only thing that works. I chase a packet with a gulp of water; sometimes the bitterness makes me cough. But it works immediately.
I’m not sure why my next interaction sticks out in my memory, maybe because the woman was so beautiful – the kind of beauty you do not run into at Starbucks – or anywhere else for that matter! She was fiercely attentive and looked as though she wanted to tell me everything, whatever “everything” is. But instead she asked about my endeavor, and when she commended me, she really meant it. I interpreted her intense interest as expressive of her own desire to challenge herself. She said she had been biking to school, but now she had a car, so she would drive. She paused, “But I really like biking.” I didn’t say it, but I’m sure my expression communicated my regret. With that, I guzzled my espresso and gifted half of my packets (to save weight).
The trails from Buffalo Park were steep and technical in places, but for the most part I was riding, which felt great. The day was warm, and many mountain bikers were out. Some knew of the race and cheered me on. One pedaled up to me to tell me that John Schilling (the San Tan Valley racer I’d met while pushing my crankless bike) was just ahead (at Snowbowl). I helped an older rider fix his front axle (and my own!), which had become loose on the rocky trails. The man was a retired school teacher – and surprisingly fast for just taking up the sport. Sometimes I think mountain biking is inaccessible, but then I meet people like him.
The trail to Snowbowl was covered in gigantic, downed trees. The trunks were waist-high or higher. The equestrians made short work of it; for a horse, the trunks were twigs (and I an ant!).
In what seemed like a very long time (but was actually only a few hours) I reached Snowbowl. It was even better than I had imagined. There was snow, meadows, aspens and breathtaking views. Now at around 9,000 feet, it literally was breath-taking. The descent through thin air and aspens was otherworldly, gold leaves lighting the way.
Not before long I was on ranch roads, which I rode into the dusk and the evening, skirting cattle. The place filled me with a joy that literally stopped me in my tracks. I’m not sure why.
I camped near a tank in Rabbit Canyon. I found a spot on an elevated plateau above some rocks and below a tree. I actually wanted to camp there that night, with the cattle. I hung my clothing to dry on my bike and climbed into my bags, falling asleep around 10 pm.
Day 11 – Rabbit Canyon to Tusayan/South Rim
I awoke around dawn, waiting for the sun to illuminate my way to the water tank, which I found with the help of the Arizona Trail app. I walked over to the trough of water, carefully filtering some water, my fingers numb in the morning cold. I heard a strange sound, which grew louder and louder. It sounded like zombies. When I turned around, I saw two cows approaching the trough, their “mooo’s” gaining volume. How strange for cows to approach me so boldly; they normally scatter as I approach. Just then I received text from my dad, “Call me. It’s about your grandma.” My heart sank.
My grandmother, Ruth Jansen, had lived the last few years with my dad’s family, and in that time she had thrived. We all expected her to exceed 100 years. Was this an injury … or death? “Moooo!” the cows were now descending on the trough, about to dip their fat pink lips into the water. In Leslie Marmon Silko’s memoir/ode to the Sonoran Desert – “The Turquoise Ledge” – she recounts her interactions with spirits of the recently deceased. Whenever a relative or close friend would die, she would notice an animal acting strangely. She interpreted this behavior as an expression of the spirit of the deceased. When my grandmother’s husband – my grandfather – died five years ago, I closely observed every animal in my life. Nothing. This pained me, because my grandfather and I had a special connection. He was always the only person who could soothe me, and – sensing this – he showered me with affection, in the form of stories, lessons, gifts and hugs. While I did not believe that my grandmother’s spirit was animating these bold bovines, I did not disbelieve it, either. I wondered. Recently my grandmother – an orphan who always put us before herself – learned to throw her own weight around a bit, to say something outrageous, to laugh. These cattle were doing exactly that: this is MY water; now SCOOT!
I ran away from the tank, scared. I pedaled those thoughts away until I reached the single-track, where I found reception. I called my dad, who immediately said, “your grandma passed”. She had fallen, breaking her tailbone, which caused a blood clot that ultimately killed her at 4 am. The fall had happened in the bathroom I was sharing with her. We had a joke; whenever I would use the bathroom, my grandmother would come knocking at the door, “Sarah, I need to use the bathroom!” Knock knock knock. “Saraaaah!!!” I could count on her needing to use the bathroom whenever I was in it. She was finally claiming HER space, after 90 years of making space for everyone else. Her intrusions always made me smile, then shake my head. I thought again about the cows and their water, and then I started crying. And I could not stop – the riding or the crying. I rode/cried for many miles on the Coconino Rim Trail. Eventually the sky cried too, first with snow, then hail. The world went white. My glasses fogged over, and I was forced to slip contacts into my eyes. I put on every available piece of clothing. I was riding to the South Rim in a veritable blizzard, agonizing over the fact that I had no more time left with my grandmother. The time was up. She was gone, just like that. I have known for a long time that I undervalued the woman who was mother to me. I assumed I had time to somehow set that right, but I was wrong. All I could do now was make the rest of my ride a tribute to her, whatever that was worth.
Eleven miles from Tusayan I encountered a sedan in the middle of the trail. Odd. Even odder – a woman was peeing on the trail. A man waved me toward him. The woman yanked up her pants and ran to the sedan, sliding inside. I saw children’s heads bob up and down in the car. In broken English the Frenchman explained that his family was stranded and needed help. “My wife … she speak better English! Talk to her?” I agreed, relieved that I wouldn’t have to try out my high school French on them.
The couple had erroneously followed their iPhone GPS to this random spot, and, when they discovered their error, it was too late: they could not drive back up the hill they had senselessly driven down. What’s more, they had no reception. “Should I hike out?” the woman asked. “No!” I responded. “You have to stay put; you don’t have the proper gear for this weather!” I was already getting way too emotionally involved. “I’ll ride to Tusayan and get help,” I assured her. She looked me straight in the eyes, surprised or distrustful (I couldn’t tell which), “Are you American?” What did THAT have to do with anything?! “Can we try your phone,” she pleaded. My phone was dead, but she had a charger. My heart pounded as the phone slowly regained charge. I had a bar or two, so I made the 911 call. What ensued was one of the most baffling and infuriating conversations I have ever had; the responder asked a million completely irrelevant questions, only to ultimately transfer us to another office, at which point we lost the call altogether. Sensing that I was more upset and invested than she, the Frenchwoman had calmed. “You will get help in town?” “Yes,” I promised, “I will go straight to the ranger’s station, BUT PLEASE STAY PUT.” She nodded.
I pedalled like hell to Tusayan, straight to the ranger’s station, which I should have called in the first place. I burst inside, communicating the details of the situation and nailing down the family’s precise location on the maps. “Well, we’re still not sure exactly where they are … but this happens all the time. They all follow their GPS and get stuck,” a female ranger remarked, a little too flippantly, I thought. “But there are KIDS out there!!” I cried. “Nobody has died yet,” the female ranger responded, “they can turn their car on and blast the heater to stay warm; if they are coming here from France, they are rich.” I felt my furry resurging – does anybody FUCKING CARE? Just then the police chief texted to say they were sending an officer out that way, in order to get the couple to sign off on a tow truck. They had LOST all the detailed location information I had communicated over the phone and wanted me to come to the station. I re-texted the information and chastised the officer – no, I would not be going to the station, and how on earth could they lose that kind of information? The officer then assured me that they could recover it, if they went back through their records. So, basically, he wanted me to go to the station just to save him the trouble of doing his job? Maybe the Frenchwoman was right to distrust us Americans. Even if the family was not technically in any danger, it had to be terrifying to be stranded out there like that, with no assurance of rescue.
But I had to let go. I did everything I could, and I was spent. Maybe I was overreacting; it wouldn’t be the first time!I I checked into a motel. It was only 2 pm, but there was no way I was going into the Grand Canyon in that weather. I would rather leave at dawn fully prepared for the Grand Canyon, with the aim of hiking out just after dark.
That afternoon/night was sorrowful. I was not able to call my family. I had no reception. I ate a huge Mexican meal, resupplied, padded my backpack straps, sealed the holes in my air mattress and emergency sleeping bag and threw away all non-essential gear (e.g., first aid stuff, toiletries, sunscreen, etc.), lightening my load. I felt tremendously unsure about my ability to perform the hardest part of the race under the present conditions. At no point I had a really wrapped my head around hiking through the Grand Canyon in one day with a bike + gear on my back. I’d just figured I would do it, because I would have to.
Day 12 – Tusayan to North Rim
It was too cold to leave at dawn. For the first time, I really needed cycling tights. I had only brought rain pants. By the time I approached the South Rim, it was 8 am. Finally, this native Arizonan beheld the Grand Canyon!
Already, vans full of tourists were pulling up to the South Kaibab trailhead. I hoped nobody would look as I clumsily disassembled my bike and strapped it to my backpack. I had stubbornly refused to practice this BEFORE embarking on my journey, so I had no clue how to do it. (For me, part of the entire point of bikepacking is to encounter challenges as they come – to figure stuff out as I go.)
The single thing people had asked me most about (“how are you going to carry your bike?” and “have you practiced carrying your bike?”) turned out to be relatively easy. I’m glad I did not waste any time practicing and agonizing beforehand, because I did not need to.
As I started to descend down the well-groomed trail in the morning cold, I eavesdropped on a tour guide telling his group that there was nowhere to pee out of plain sight. He looked at the women and chucked. I could hear my spokes, so I asked him to readjust my helmet, which was clipped to my rear wheel (positioned behind and above my head). I also had to re-zip and re-fasten my main backpack zipper.
I became an instant spectacle, which is a very strange human experience. The tourists took hundreds of photos of me. They marvelled. I have never seen that before. I collected their comments into two main reactions – “You are amazing and superhuman; go girl! and “you are crazy; maybe you should stop?” Of course, people’s reactions said much more about them than about me. It was like becoming a mirror for people’s fundamental perspective on life. I was reminded of one of my favorite short stories, Kalfka’s A Hunger Artist. But of course, I am no hunger artist, because I do not resent the spectator. When I watch you watch me, I learn something fundamental about you – and therein lies the interest.
Some mules passed, and I was ordered off the trail, lest I scare the mules. I hid behind a rock, waiting for them to pass. The riders shouted out questions to me. I’m still not sure why bike tires aren’t permitted to touch the dirt, but mule hooves are!
By now I was passing most of the hikers, but a wiry older man gained on me. He was eager to get to Phantom Ranch, where he had scored a bunk, after a man cancelled his reservation due to a triple bypass. Much of the Grand Canyon amenities are going to rich, out-of-shape tourists. Do we really need a restaurant in the Grand Canyon? Really? Maybe the Grand Canyon itself is the real Hunger Artist – exploited, mis-appreciated and ultimately abandoned. That sounded about right.
“I can’t wait to add your bike to my collection!” a voice called from behind me. What the hell? He had a beautiful, uncommon Mexican name, but, for the life of me, I cannot remember it. “When you start riding your bike, I’m going to take it away and SELL it; I’d get at least 500 bucks!!” He grinned. Never quick to get a joke, I protested, “I wouldn’t do that, and besides, you could get way more for this bike.” I smiled.
Thus began my only sustained conversation in the Grand Canyon, as we speed walked the second half of the descent to Phantom Ranch/the Colorado River together. The man worked at the water treatment plant, where his job was to treat sewage water and recycle it for use at Phantom Ranch. “I am a steward of the Grand Canyon,” he explained, “I have been doing this all of my life, hiking into the canyon and spending a week there every other week; my uncle and grandfather did this work, too.” He was headed to train some new young bucks, who “never lasted.” He sighed. “They think they know what they are getting into, and then reality hits, especially in the winter when it’s cold.” He paused, staring at the Colorado River, now a brilliant emerald snake below us. Then he swung around, looking me straight in the eyes, dead serious “I have given up everything I love for this canyon.” I believed it. He started walking again, fast. I ran clumsily behind, forgetting about the BIKE on my back. “Some people never find that something worth losing everything else for,” I said, “but you have.” Maybe he was the Hunger Artist. Either way, he was in good spirits upon reaching the water treatment plant. He introduced me to the “young bucks” (who, admittedly, did look maybe a little naive), and I hurried to the Phantom Ranch snack bar for snacks and a short recovery.
At Phantom Ranch only the lodge patrons can purchase proper meals (of course), so I bought drinks and snacks. I ate a bagel with peanut butter and a candy bar. I wasn’t that hungry. It was getting hot, so I also drank and purchased soda. I had about 9 miles of canyon “floor” ahead before the 6-mile ascent up North Rim. It was midday, and I’d hiked 7 miles so far. I felt tired but good.
Still, it felt way too amazing to have that pack off my back, so I knew I could not linger long, lest I get used to the feel of my free back. Getting in and out of these “shackles” was no easy task. A couple stared at me as climbed back underneath and into my pack, which I had left on a picnic table.
While I liked the desert landscape at the canyon floor, I did not enjoy hiking in that afternoon heat. I was tired, and the trail undulated. The straps cut into my shoulders, breaking my skin. I was learning how to grip my frame and slide it up my back, so as to take some weight off my lower back. With my arms outstretched over my frame, I could not banish the thought of cross-bearing. You should probably never compare yourself to Christ, but – given the circumstance – it was hard to help it. Despite the pain and discomfort, I carried on; I did not want to have too many night hours in the canyon – but more than anything, I did not want to have to maneuver in and out of the “shackles” again. It was just too hard to set the back down on anything, without risking damaging the bike.
At around 5 pm I reached Cottonwood, the final campsite. I again used a picnic table to maneuver out of the pack. I used the compost toilets and filled up on water. A young trail running couple promised me North Rim was “amazing.”
My ascent up North Rim at dusk started out wonderfully. I kissed the billion+ year-old granite, caressed the 500 million-year-old shale (imagining trilobites swimming in the sea that had been here), looked forward to the sandstone and limestone. I stopped to read the placards – a tour through geological time. “Trilobite” sounded so nice.
The geological time travel prompted my own mental time travel. I ranged over memories of my grandmother. There were millions, but I focused on what she taught me. Reading music and sewing came to mind first. But what did she really teach me? Maybe that remains to be seen. She always wanted me to be a better person. I could never impress her with my academic honors and prizes. Nor was she impressed by my athletic undertakings. No, my grandmother’s scorecard was completely different. Are you grateful? Are you respectful? Are you kind? In her own subtle way, she let you know when you were falling short in these regards. Her own moral center remained fixed and immovable, even though she wasn’t a religious woman. She could just see right and wrong better than the rest of us, and that made all the difference.
As the sun started to set, the canyon walls closed in on me. My wheel hit the wall, bouncing me off my line and close to the perilous drop into the canyon below. Too much living left to do – be careful Sarah!
By nightfall I had only a few miles left; I figured I was home free. It wasn’t that bad. But the cold got colder, and the dark got darker, and the steep got steeper – gradually, then suddenly. And in my haste, I was not taking precautions – i.e., putting more clothing on, eating more food, resting, etc. I just kept trucking, determined to get there. The straps started to hurt again; they were agonizing now, the weight unbearable. At every switchback I would lean over, my head swinging between my knees, delirious with pain. This is how people get heart attacks. I felt faint. I got slower, then even slower. I cried. It was as if the entire day’s hike was finally catching up to me, registering in my body all at once, a cruel joke. I had managed to outwit the pain for only so long. Once again, shit was getting serious; I HAD to get to North Rim and find some kind of shelter, because I was physically broken down. Although North Rim was closed until May 15, I figured I could find an empty restroom or dumpster somewhere. You can count on humans to shelter their waste.
The final two miles seemed as long as the previous twenty. No kidding. But to my great relief, the restroom at the top was unlocked! I ripped the door open and promptly collapsed on the cement floor. To my horror, I realized that I could not stand up again. I couldn’t even sit up. I was in a fetal position, shivering uncontrollably, my teeth chattering in my dizzy head. I did not feel safe, not yet. I realized that I was probably at risk for hypothermia. It was freezing or below, as evidenced by my misty exhales and frozen water nozzle. Although I could barely move (every inch of me hurt; my bones screamed), I put on every piece of my clothing. I got into both my bags. Then I set to work eating (a lot) and hydrating. I did all of this at a painstakingly slow pace. It took every ounce of effort to accomplish these simple tasks.
I had no intention of staying there the entire night. It was nearly 10:30 pm. (Hiking the canyon had taken 14 hours.) It took a full hour for the shivering spasms to stop. After that, I half slept for two hours, “awaking” at 2 am.
Day 13 – North Rim to Stateline Campground
I stared at my pack in that cold, dark bathroom. The task of freeing my bike from the pack seemed monumental. Just start Sarah – one movement at a time. Very slowly I retrieved my slim pocket knife from my pack pocket. My hands shaking, I slowly cut through the tape on my shoulder straps. (I had ripped up an old base layer, using it as extra padding for the shoulder straps.) Finally finishing this insignificant task, I set out to tackle the more important tasks – removing the ski straps that held my frame, wheels and pack together (the straps seemed like a complicated maze or puzzle); putting the front wheel back on and tightening the thru-axle; putting a pedal back on, trashing my emergency sleeping bag, along with junk food wrappers and tape and straps. A strange thing happened in those pre-dawn moments; my body started to make more heat, distributing it soothingly through the pockets of pain. As I did that work, my confidence and my will strengthened. Throwing away so many items, freeing my bike and dismantling the “shackles” was really cathartic – a casting off, as it were. I was still alive and kicking and only growing stronger by the millisecond. Where does it come from? This energy and this will.
It is a strange thing emerging from a bathroom at 3 am to a completely silent, uninhabited world. Even stranger is having a highway completely to yourself. The North Rim (including the highway) was closed, but the highway is part of the AZT – i.e., the route bikers and thru-hikers take when the trail is covered with snow (like now).
My water was still frozen. I sipped futilely. My iPhone shut down from the sheer cold. I passed closed down businesses and empty campsites. I found an outdoor socket at a gas station and tried to revive my phone. No luck. It was apocalyptic. I ate and pedaled hard to stay warm. I still had all my clothing on.
As I got closer to Jacob Lake, I encountered schools of deer and elk. My gaze followed them and the windy trail version of the AZT paralleling the highway. I could see patches of snow.
It wasn’t until I had pedaled 45 miles on that highway and entered Jacob Lake Lodge (around 8 am) that it registered that I had this. There would be no more challenges. This was it. I had narrowly escaped. I ordered eggs and pancakes and coffee at the lodge restaurant and called my dad. He was shocked to hear that I was now only 30 trail miles from the finish; I could reach Stateline Campground in four hours. Although I had assured my dad I would get to Stateline in the afternoon, he once again (characteristically!) underestimated my speed. “We’re packing up the kids right now and should be there around 5,” my dad assured me. I told him about my “narrowly exiting” the North Rim. I do know a thing or two about hypothermia (having taken several courses in Minnesota, in order to prepare myself for winter biking), and I felt like I’d come close. My voice sounded tired and hoarse, as I recounted these travails to my dad. The restaurant patrons stared at me, as my skin was badly burned (because I had ditched my sunscreen to save weight). But I was here. I was here.
I both did and did not want to finish. After 90 minutes at the lodge, I felt energized and excited to ride the final passages and to behold Utah. But also, I did not want it to be over. I didn’t know when my next outdoor adventure will be, but I sensed it would be a long time off. And also I now had to return to a world without my grandmother in it – a family without my grandmother in it.
Some of the best riding of the entire AZT greeted me, a sweet reward. My favorite kind of riding is swoopy high desert single-track with wide open mesas and sprawling views. And that is what I got, the red rocks of Utah shimmering in the distance, suggesting other adventures. The miles literally flew by. I wanted them to slow down. So this is it? The end?
As I descended to Stateline campground it began to drizzle. The moist air also held beautiful music, which wafted from the campground. When I finally set my bike down at the restrooms (one of my shelters for the next few rainy hours), I felt a sad happiness, which is maybe the only kind of genuine happiness, because in every gain there is a loss.
At 6 pm I spotted my RAV 4 approaching. I ran up to car’s rear left door, swinging it open. To my surprise, my three-and-a-half year old brother stared back at me, all grins. (The kids were supposed to stay at the hotel in Page, since these dirt roads were badly eroded!) “Did you come from the mowtaans?” he crooned softly. I kissed him, “yes, William, and we will find a little mountain for you, too.” His face lit up. I had been promising for some time to take him to the mountains. He has an adventurous spirit, even at 3. Where does it come from? This will, this energy. I do not know; it is just as surprising in myself as it is in him. A couple of weeks hence I would watch him grit his teeth through the pain of the final mile of a 4-mile hike in 97 degree temperatures in the San Tan mountains. He refused to be held. He ran in sandals on the trail, joyously. Where does it come from? I don’t know.
With that, we drove those precarious dirt roads to Page, Arizona – the place in the photograph. We no longer had grandmother Ruth, but we still had the love that had sustained her so much in her final years.
Prelude – “Adventure”
As I sit down in Northfield, Minnesota (I’m back home!) to write about the penultimate part of my Arizona “adventure”, I feel grateful that I am finally recovered, both physically and mentally. I suppose any genuine adventure takes something out of you, and maybe sometimes what is lost cannot be fully recovered. But – for the time being – I have my energy back, and I have taken to trail running with zeal, in preparation for my first – and likely last – ultra run, 40+ miles in a Ragnar relay race.
AZTR has taught me to never take my energy for granted; energy is a limited resource, and although I often feel boundless energy, my energy is in fact bounded. Why spend so much energy on these kinds of adventures?
Well, what do we mean when we say someone is “adventurous”? For me (because I refer everything back to Plato!), the term conjures up the “Lovers of Sights and Sounds” in the Republic. These exuberant souls chase novel sights and sounds; in their frenzy to flood their senses with various tokens of beauty, they miss the essence of things – that single, transcendent beauty embedded in all of their disparate experiences. They see with the senses, not with the soul, and so a vision of “true beauty” eludes them. This is a tragic situation, if ever there was one: to spend your life energy on the pursuit of something that entirely eludes you, because you cannot “see” it. When we pejoratively call someone “adventure-seeking”, I think we have something like this in mind: the senses seek novelty, because the soul is blind.
I am not sure where, exactly, I am going with this, but it is something I think about when I think about spending energy on adventures, especially in the wake of AZTR, which exacted so much.
DAY 8 – Highline to Blue Ridge Campground
I left the bed and breakfast at dawn, skipping the “breakfast” part of the B & B experience. I wasn’t expecting anything to be open, but I lucked out: the general store opened early (the only thing to open early in Pine!). I marched in with a smile: “you have saved me from starvation”, I announced. The sales clerk did not miss a beat: “I’ve seen about ten of you in the last couple of days!” I am pretty sure she rolled her eyes. By now, I was getting used to this remark, each time feeling compelled to explain why I was “behind the pack”. It’s not because I’m the woman; it’s because my cranks broke! By now, Sara Dallman was the only other woman in the race, and she was 2-3 days behind me.
Pedaling out of town, I hit Highline almost immediately. It was hard to follow the trail, which was badly eroded and strewn with trees and boulders.
But, well, it was a beautiful dawn, and I found myself enjoying the bike – hike-a-bike – bike – hike-a-bike rhythm I was getting into. On. Off. On. Off. Of course, I was crawling – right around 2 miles an hour, which I had expected, having read a former female finisher’s blog. Since I was expecting it to be terrible, it wasn’t all that terrible (at least to start).
After a few hours I encountered two backpackers, sporting huge packs. “We’re hurtin’!” a friendly, Marine-sized man admitted. “We packed way too much! I wish I had a bike; that must be easier!” He grinned. To be sure, I was packing a lot less, and I did not envy them. I replied cheerily, “it actually does help to have the bike to lean on as you hike this stuff!” To my surprise, I was finding that I liked hike-a-biking much more than hiking. “Hiking” irks me, because I’d rather be trail running. But you can’t break into a run when you’re pushing a bike, so you’re forced to slow down. And then there’s always that hope that soon – oh so soon – you’ll be able to ride something, anything!
I wished them “good luck” and carried on ahead. The trail has a reputation for being a really hard hiking trail, let alone a biking trail. I would not see another soul for the next 7 hours. A mere 18 miles would take me ten hours to hike+bike.
A few miles from the top I started to mentally break down. This always happens when I get close. I know to expect it, but knowing my psychological weaknesses does not lessen their effect, unfortunately! The cue sheets permitted us racers to take “Powerline Trail” – a “short cut” to Mogollon Rim – as in “this is straight UP, whereas the AZT switchbacks slowly up”. Since patience was never my virtue, I of course took Powerline, which I immediately regretted, because, as it turns out, “too steep” does exist. I almost turned back several times, just because I found it nearly impossible to push my bike up over the pointy rocks poised like pitchforks below that majestic powerline. I cried, the increasing cold and wind only framing my folly for me. Right about then I was thinking about how I’d basically been hiking for three days now. I am soooo over this! Funny how quickly your tune can change! It must have taken an hour to do that final mile.
Finally at Mogollon Rim, I encountered a placard recounting a battle that had taken place there in 1882 – the “Battle of Big Dry Wash”, the bloody culmination of a series of “altercations” between the Apaches and US Troops along the Arizona Trail.
As the wind whipped me, I felt ghosts of the past. I shivered. I will never understand how men can kill men for property, maybe because life and inanimate objects seem to be to be completely incommensurable. With that thought, I invaded General Springs cabin, an historic cabin. (I wasn’t sure whether I was permitted inside, having missed the “no use” portion of the placard [below]! Sorry!) I needed refuge from the wind, and I needed to nurse my own physical and emotional exhaustion. I sprawled out on the creaky wooden floor, staring at the wind-beaten windows. Cobwebs dusted my skin. The cold wind howled. I could smell the age of the place, while I mechanically munched through two bags of Chex mix, my favorite “savory” trail food. I desperately wanted to fall asleep there, but I only allowed myself thirty minutes.
My plan was to get to Blue Ridge campground, where I might be able to avoid the cold by sleeping in the restrooms. On my Arizona Trail app backpackers had commented that the restrooms weren’t yet open, but that was ten days ago. I had a sliver of hope that they might be unlocked now. One problem with doing the Arizona Trail in mid-April is that a lot of campsites are still closed for the winter.
Given my state of exhaustion, the remainder to Blue Ridge was difficult, especially since the trail dropped down to a creek and then climbed back out. Some HAB was required. In my haste to get to the campsite, I forwent water, even though the creek had ample water. That was a mistake, because – when I arrived at Blue Ridge – I learned that the water was still off. BUT! BUT! The restrooms were open – newly opened, in fact. They were clean and warm. Moreover, there was more than one, so I wouldn’t have to worry about the campers needing to use it. Yes, I slept like a baby that night! I had completed one of the major hurdles on the Arizona Trail – Highline.
DAY 9 – Blue Ridge Campground to Flagstaff
The next morning I was off around 7 am. I scanned the Arizona Trail app for water sources. Although a ranger’s station was nearby, I’d have to ride a mile off trail. I decided to filter water at a tank. As I rode along, I scanned the trail for a metal tank. Instead I saw a dirty pond. Expecting a metal tank, I passed the pond.
It was Saturday, so I started to encounter hikers on the trail. As the miles ticked on, I started to worry about water – no tanks! I queried some seniors about water; the conversation revealed my own ignorance about “tanks”. A water tank often IS just a puddle in the ground! Moreover, many of them are actually a little off trail. By now these hiking seniors were very concerned, since apparently I had no idea what I was doing. I thanked them but refused their offers of water. I’d find something – surely! Next up I encountered not water but another mountain biker, Holly. Holly was riding the Arizona Trail north to south, planning to take 2-3 weeks. She promised me that a “puddle” was not far ahead; she had just filtered water herself. I told her about Highline, and she told me about the Grand Canyon: “my advice to you is to lose as much gear as you can; I took way too much into the canyon and ended up having to camp there!” I knew she had just given a real gem of advice to me. I hadn’t considered getting rid of gear before the Grand Canyon, but it made good sense. After all, after GC it was only a day’s ride, if that! Eager to find water, I bade her farewell and good luck.
I rode on. And on. The trail was dirt road – fast. But still – no water! Nothing. My thirst grew and grew (and with it my panic). Shit was getting serious, as temperatures were rising. More than anything, I was frustrated by my own idiocy. In my haste, I’d skipped the creek water last night and the ranger’s water and pond water this morning. Finally I encountered a pair of hikers (probably my parents’ age). I started to ask them about water, then broke down crying. These were kind souls, and they immediately insisted I drink some of their water. I guzzled an entire 20 ounce bottle of water on the spot, while the pair stared incredulously. They were clearly worried. “Why don’t you stop in Mormon Lake? Rest for the night?” the man, an army vet, suggested. Did I look THAT tired? Reluctantly, I told them about the race, and how I was the female leader. I could not exactly “take it easy”. To my surprise, they seemed to understand. (Later, after the race, I would discover the kind words of encouragement they left on my SPOT tracker page. After our encounter, they followed the race!) I’d found trail magic in the form of trail parents.
Energized by the water and interaction, I hightailed it to Mormon Lake, where I would eat a real meal (in a restaurant!) and resupply. The trail became single-track again, and it was really fun. Fast and flowy trail had eluded me the past few days, and I was ready for it to be back. Enthralled in my trail dance, I got a little lost. Where was Mormon Lake?! I had no clue, so I decided to backtrack a couple miles on the trail and take Lake Mary Road to get there, since I knew the road would hit Mormon Lake. Six-seven windy, up-and-down miles later, I was there. I was pretty sure I’d made a mistake, but I figured that once I recharged my iPhone I could use the Arizona Trail app to sort myself out.
Motorcycles and ATV’s flooded the town. Some sort of bike festival was happening. The buffet at the dimly lit restaurant was not vegetarian-friendly, so the staff special made me a veggie burger, which I devoured with sides – potato salad, onion rings, fries, etc. I charged my devices and studied the Arizona Trail app, figuring that if I took a dirt ATV road out of town I’d rejoin the Arizona Trail right around where I got off it. There was a risk that I’d miss some trail, but I’d already backtracked 2-3 miles on the trail, in order to take Lake Mary Road to town. I’d take my chances. (Later, I would report this possible deviation to Scott Morris, who confirmed it and listed it in the results – three trail miles missed, six-seven highway miles added!)
I was determined to get to Flag that night. I wanted a motel room. I would “sleep in” and take two days to bike the 100 miles to South Rim. That way, I’d be well rested for the Grand Canyon. To be sure, I was not exactly thinking in “racer terms” at this point. But with my strong lead in the women’s race and my chances at a record completely dashed, it made sense to focus on finishing. I knew the Grand Canyon would test me. I just did not know how much!
Riding with ATV’s out of town was a nightmare. I ride “offroad” to AVOID motorized traffic. ATV’s assault the ears with their noise and the eyes with their dust. I found myself using my buff a lot. Equestrians, hikers and bicyclists inhabit the trails; ATV’s dominate the trails. Or so it seemed to me.
I finally reached Airplane Tank and more amazing single-track, which only continued, well into the night. I had heard that the trails in and around Flagstaff were amazing, and they did not disappoint.
Later evening was not fun. In addition to the cold, the downed trees obscured the trail. I had to slow down a lot to follow my GPS. I could not shake the feeling that I was a character in the Blair Witch Project. Spooky!
And things got only spookier. Just 3-4 short miles from Flagstaff, I smelled smoke and heard helicopters. Then I encountered a red pentagon sign reading “fire burn area”. I did not know what to do. For starters, what, exactly, was this sign communicating? Was this a controlled burn, or a live forest fire? Was I supposed to turn around? Was the sign communicating “stop”? Signs taken out of context tell us nothing. I was going to have to make my own decision, with very little information.
I reasoned that I should at least try to suss out the situation, in order to get more information. The night was still (little wind), so the fire could not travel fast. I would get off my bike and walk. (Once again, going the slow way was the only available way. !!) My worry was that, in riding into it, I’d suffer smoke inhalation before even realizing it; I’d be too deep in, with no possibility of getting out.
As I walked slowly into that smoky dark, I felt feelings I have never felt. Was this a death march? The only other option would be to CAMP near the fire, which was surely unwise. It would be better to take my chances walking through the burn area than risk sleeping near it!! My legs felt like jelly underneath me. So this is sort of like what facing death feels like. Grim. We all die (of course), but I wasn’t ready to die yet. I still had a lot of living left to do.
The smoke got worse before it got better. But it did get better. Finally, I got back on my bike. I put new batteries in my lights, so I had better light, which made the final couple of night miles much better and faster.
I breathed such sweet relief when I reached the “urban trail” in Flagstaff! Safety. Security. Civilization. I booked a room at the first motel I saw – a stylish motel 6 or 8. The adjacent McDonald’s refused to serve me, because they were only taking drive through customers, and I lacked a car. Underneath the floodlight, I stared at the ground, “I’m just so hungry … do you know where in this town I can get real food?” Sensing my desperation, the man at the window immediately served me, even throwing in several FREE apple pies! I am not sure exactly what I do such that people heap such kindness on me. I certainly do not deserve it. I just hope one day to repay the favors – lots more living to do! 🙂
Sometime around 8 am, I rolled out of bed, staring at the little brick room. Where am I? Ah, that’s right – the mining town of Superior! Copper Mountain Motel. I checked my phone. My dad, who was astutely examining the course, had sent a series of cautionary texts about riding the steep and rocky Gila River Canyons in the dark. He was planning to “drive by me” that day, as I navigated the final wilderness detour (Superstition, Four Peaks and Mazatzal Wilderness). I wasn’t sure his visit would not violate the race rules, but I also knew my dad would invariably underestimate my time and thus miss me. Predictable! (Though my dad and I are very close and share a passion for biking, we are diametrically opposed in the following sense: I see what is going to go right, and he sees what is going to go wrong!)
Collecting my laundry, I briefly chatted to the motel owner, who mentioned his plans to expand his business to accommodate AZT thru-hikers. (The Arizona Trail only recently became a national scenic trail , and my conversations with business owners only confirm my suspicion that both backpacking and bikepacking the Arizona Trail will explode.)
It took me a good 90 minutes to do my resupply thing. I lingered at the c-store, munching on coffee and maple doughnuts, my grandmother’s favorite. Normally I eat vegan (yes, I get enough protein!), but when bikepack racing I eat vegetarian. This gives me the opportunity to eat some of the yummy foods I have a hard time finding in vegan form. As usual, I felt guilty for “sleeping in” and lingering, but, at the same time, I knew I needed this rest and regroup to prepare me for what was to come.
At around 9:30, I set out on dirt roads and highway to Payson, about 120 miles away. FINALLY my 29-er carbon hardtail was an asset rather than a handicap. I was flying – or rather, I felt like I was flying. Not before long I was past the stretch of the 60 my dad had planned to find me on.
Next I headed up and into the Superstitions (Tonto National Forest), circling around a beautiful lake (Canyon Lake), one of the lakes formed by the damming of Salt River. I spent most of the time thinking about how much my half siblings/my dad’s kids (William, 3.5 years and Christina, 8.5 years) would love the tourist attractions – e.g., Superstition Mountain Museum and Goldfield Ghost Town. There is a lot of mining folklore having to do with the Superstitions, and so I couldn’t resist stopping at the tourist trap “Tortilla Flat”. (Also, by this time I was overheating; it was hot.) A mechanical miner emitted a mining ditty as I approached the soda machine. Not enough cash – ugh! I stared dumbly at the machine, feeling out the circumference of my fatigue. I don’t stop much, because I usually only feel my tiredness once I have stopped. A couple from Utah took pity on me and bought me a soda. Trail magic! 🙂 I bought several more sodas (and ice cream) in the shop. Nothing satiates me the way soda does. I suppose I must have been a sorry sight, staring listlessly at that soda machine … . Even the kids commented that it was “too hot to ride”. For some reason, I found this profoundly hilarious, and I could not stop chuckling. Maybe the sun was baking my brain.
After my break, I returned to the road with even more enthusiasm for a road climb. After so much SLOW single-track riding, it does feel amazing to really move – or rather, to feel like you’re really moving! One reason I do not see myself backpacking is that I would miss that sense of traversing so much space in a relatively short time. As humbling as mountain biking can be, it can be an incredibly empowering experience – especially attacking a giant climb, standing up and cranking on the pedals as hard as you can, and having that translate into forward momentum. The physical sense of “climbing” is palpable. It is the fastest human powered way to climb a mountain.
I stopped twice to down sodas. Motorists honked at me, cheering me on. Of course, they had no clue about the race, so I figured it must be this hot effort of mine. I smiled back. How wonderful to be out!
By late afternoon I started biking along Salt River, one of the most beautiful sights on the entire Arizona Trail. I could not divert my eyes (and almost crashed a few times as a result!).
Finally I reached Roosevelt Dam, Roosevelt lake and my turnoff for the 188.
Hungry, I plopped onto the overpass railing just before the suspension bridge. I leaned back, then realized it was a 100 foot fall to the ground below! Had I seriously just done something that stupid? Right then I promised myself I would be more careful and more aware. I jumped back onto the overpass, sitting myself down on solid ground. Now stopped, I realized once again that I was tired.
Soon I was pedaling hard in the dwindling light, flying above the fatigue and feeling great. I started crunching the numbers. I’d be in Payson around 10 or 10:30. I would be 420 miles and 4.5 days into the course, which meant I had a decent shot at the women’s record. Wow. I started daydreaming, losing myself in calculation after calculation. I was, in effect, hatching a plan to surpass Alice Drobna’s record of 9.5 days. My imagination went wild. !! Alice is one of the toughest women I have ever met. (We traded places a bit during Tour Divide, and I still am not sure she feels pain.) I knew surpassing her time would require a Herculean effort on my part, but in those fine twilight moments I was feeling my own “dunamis” (power/ability). I can do this.
And that’s when the unthinkable happened. I shot my left foot down, only to have it slide off the pedal. When I stopped to examine the situation (figuring it was only the pedal or cleats), the crank arm literally came off in my hands. The spindle on my cranks had cracked straight through! Just like that, I was completely stopped, the dream dead.
I sat there on the side of the moonlit highway in utter disbelief. Crank spindles do not break, especially if you weigh 120 lbs. That does not happen. It is the ONE PART of the bike that cannot fail. It would have made more sense for my frame to crack open.
Looking back, I suppose I had a strange response. I was disappointed, yes. But I could see the benefits – now I get to rest. Now I do not have to go on. Now I get to go home. It felt a little like a “get out of jail free” card (at least to the part of me that was deeply fatigued). Right then, I made the decision to scratch. I called my dad, asking him to pick me up at the (nearby) Punkin Center bar. Later I reported my scratch to race organizer Scott Morris. I even announced my scratch on Facebook and MTB Cast. I really did not see a way out of that situation. The nearest Specialized dealer was 80 miles away (in Scottsdale), and race rules forbid hitchhiking. I had zero options, so I did not feel ashamed about quitting. Tough luck, right? There was nothing I could do about it; the world had decided for me.
The Punkin Center bar locals did not know what to make of me. Who was this exhausted, giddy woman so excited in spite of being utterly stranded? We all joked that my bike was worth more than our cars … AND YET … AND YET THE DAMN CRANKS HAD BROKEN! Hilarious. As you may have guessed, by now I had had a beer, and that single beer had made me drunk. I chased it with an entire pizza. I was happy. I was done. But under the mirth, another emotion simmered – a feeling of great loss and disappointment.
Right around then my dad called to say he was too tired to pick me up that night – could I stay at a motel? The barwoman promptly got me a room at her motel (next door).
I went back to my room, another small brick room. I stared at the white bricks, imagining my framed photograph of Paige superimposed on the wall. This was not supposed to happen. I could not get why this was happening. I was supposed to finish. I had this horrible feeling – a sense that quitting now would not be a finish at all. I’d just be stuck in the canyons that much longer. Granted, the mixture of beer and fatigue and extraordinary circumstances were undoubtedly making me emotional, but those are the thoughts I went to sleep with that night.
At around 7 am I rolled out of bed and opened my door. To my surprise, another racer – Dave Wicks – loitered on our shared porch. I followed his gaze, which was focused longingly at the motel restaurant. “They are supposed to open at 6, and they still haven’t opened their doors!” he remarked in his New Zealand accent. Dave and I had corresponded a little on bikepacking.net, and he had helped me in Tour Divide. In Whitefish, Montana I had arrived at the bike shop utterly sleighed and halfway non-cognizant. I needed to remount some of my devices, and he had taken it upon himself to fix my setup a little. In the end, Dave finished Tour Divide just behind me, and my dad I cheered him on as we drove some of the course back. Later he would tell me that that moral support meant a lot to him. While I cannot quite put my finger on how or why he seems different from a lot of the other racers, he does. I think it may be his extreme joyousness and outward focus.
Anyway, right about then, the doors to the diner swung open, and we decided to get breakfast together. I told Dave about my woes, and then he told me about his. He had struggled with serious respiratory problems right around Picketpost (where he was just an hour or two behind me). Now he was feeling better, having received antibiotics for his bronchitis. I suddenly felt very lucky that I do not struggle with respiratory issues (like so many racers). Maybe I do not push hard enough, or maybe being from the desert helps. No, breathing is not a problem for me. If I just had an operational bike …
As we chowed down on pancakes, omelettes and french toast, Dave pitched me an idea: why not hike/walk the 32 miles to Payson? Payson has a bike shop. I could have new cranks put on there. My mind swirled with objections, some of which I voiced – what if they can’t fix it, and now I’ve walked all that way? What about all the time I will lose? Dave wasn’t having it. “You’re not going to get the record – so what? You can still be in the race. Just take a ton of calories, fuel well and you can make it to Payson and sort this all out”. I resisted and resisted, but the idea slowly grew on me. I’m not sure it was so much the content of what he was saying as much as his own zeal and enthusiasm. He was so excited to continue racing. It made me feel like I would be missing so much, if I were to quit.
Back in my motel room, I re-prioritized. The record was certainly out of sight, but I could still finish the race in under two weeks and maybe even win it. I made many phone calls, both to Certified Bicycles (in Payson) and to Specialized. I sent pictures of the cranks. Specialized agreed (no questions asked!) to overnight a new carbon crankset (with bottom bracket and rings) to Certified Bicycles, free of charge. (Normally warranties are processed through Specialized dealers, so Specialized made an exception. Only a few months prior Specialized had also [for free!] replaced my 2011 frame, upgrading it to a 2014 frame.) Most importantly, Mick, the owner of Certified Bicycles, agreed to drop everything he was doing to tend to my bike. He suggested several ideas for speeding up the process. I called MTB Cast to report that I would be rejoining the race. I told my dad to stay home; I was continuing on.
Even though I was frustrated about my bike, I had to admit to myself that my bike – a 2014 Specialized S-Works 29-er hardtail – was definitely not built for adventure racing. It is a cross-country race bike. The new flood of “adventure bikes” on the bike market is a response to the demand for sturdier bikepacking bikes. In other words, I was using a sports car when what I needed was a jeep. !!
By late morning I was going again, only this time by foot. I tied my cranks to my backpack (in case Mick needed parts …) and my chain to my frame. The highway was flat enough that I could not coast at all. I just walked. Ironically, what was supposed to be the very fastest miles of the course were turning out to be the very slowest. My only goal was to get to Jake’s Center, a gas station/general store 12 miles away. This half marathon would be a warm up. I could “recover” on this long hike. At some level I knew this to be an optimistic lie, but without optimism, I would not be able to push my bike 32 miles in one day.
Riley and Rod passed me. They stopped to talk, and both were really encouraging. Normally I hate being passed by other racers, but seeing as there wasn’t anything I could do about it, I had to enjoy their company for a moment and then let them go. Still, it is hard to lose places in a race, when you have worked so hard to gain those places.
Mountain bike racing (especially the ultra endurance varieties) is very different from other sports, in that men and women compete alongside each other. None of we women see ourselves as only racing women. We women and men all leave at the same time, and we are on the same course. We are all racing each other, male or female. I have experienced far more sexism in my (much loved!) professional academic life (where everyone is supposed to be “enlightened”, but really a number of biases run around unchecked, made way worse by the false presumption that people are enlightened) than I have in mountain bike racing – a sport whose participants hail from all socioeconomic levels and educational backgrounds. For me, bike racing is a place where I am accepted for the tomboy I am. I chose to savor those moments walking, because I knew that – in some ways – the really hard work would have to be done in other spheres.
I arrived at Jake’s Corner, where I ate chile relleno burritos, washed down with soda and Gatorade. Too good. Living in Minnesota, I miss Mexican food. I met a mountain biker from San Diego, who offered me a ride. Nope, no rides for me!
Once on the fireroad heading toward highway 87, I encountered more racers. John Shilling introduced himself as from San Tan Valley (where my dad lives), and a Danish rider (not racer) offered us San Tan Valley beer. Trail magic! He had made a special trip out to bring us cold beer. I hadn’t even realized there was a microbrewery in San Tan Valley; there isn’t much there at all (other than the San Tan “mountains”). It was so nice to enjoy an afternoon beer, having walked almost 20 miles, nearly a marathon. The pair both took pictures of me. Despite my misfortune, I was glad that I could, at the very least, be inspiring to others. I did not (yet) see what the big deal was. It was just a very long walk, after all.
In those final 10 miles, things got harder. The sun went down. The terrain got steep and rocky. My feet swelled and burned and itched. I think my barefoot running (a pastime of mine) saved me from blisters. Coasting down the hills proved very difficult. It turns out that it is very hard to get on a bike when you have no cranks. What is more, it is even harder to stay on said bike!! Whereas the daylight hours had flown by, the night hours stretched out. It got colder and colder as I hiked up a final pass. All I wanted to do was hop on my bike and make those final few miles disappear. But the bike was disabled.
Finally I rejoined the highway (or rather, a dirt road paralleling the highway). Lights twinkled in the distance. I knew I was looking for a casino, which would signal my entry into Payson. And finally I saw it, along with a Sonic Burger, which would close in a half hour (at 11 pm).
I walked my bike through the Sonic drive-thru. With a disabled bike, I knew I would not be able to pedal to my restaurant of choice. I had better just eat here. The surprised employees immediately took pity on me (by then, I must have looked exhausted), and they whipped up a vegetarian meal for me, only charging me for a kid’s meal (since I was removing the meat). The tiredness was creeping into every part of my body. No, this had not exactly been the “recovery” I had envisaged.
I coasted a mile down the road and bought a room at Knight’s Inn. Right upon entering my room, I fell onto the floor, motionless. I sat slumped against the front door. It took some effort to consume my food. At least I would be able to sleep a full night. The cranks would not arrive in the early morning, so I could sleep until 8 at least. This is what it had taken to keep me in the race, and it was totally worth it. Once some energy had seeped back into me, I made some efforts at recovery – a hot bath and elevating my legs for the night.
I woke up feeling rested. I ordered a bunch of food at a nearby diner, munching on the substantial leftovers throughout the morning. Eggs and pastries are my go-to, just because they are a rich source of (simple + complex) carbs and proteins. I actually hate eggs. I was finding it hard to eat in the evenings and mornings, due to nausea. I ate anyway. Even in a short space of time, I could feel my body hardening. My muscles needed constant energy. The eating part of bikepack racing is not always fun. In fact, most of the time it is not fun. It’s a chore.
I walked to Certified Bicycles, where Mick and his dogs greeted me outside. Mick had been following the tracker, so he knew I had made it. Payson caters mostly to ATV tourism, but Mick was increasingly seeing Arizona Trail bikers, in addition to some of his wealthy Payson clientele. Mick knew how to service nice bikes – a knowledge one cannot expect at any old bike shop in any old town. (Before Payson, Mick’s outdoorsy family had been living in a motor home in Alaska. Even his toddlers backpack!)
I immediately rattled off a list of things that needed doing on the bike – brake bleed, wheel true, seat post greasing, brake pad check, etc. My new Fox fork was leaking a little, but short of a complete rebuild, there wasn’t much that could be (quickly) done about that. I wasn’t getting a lot of out of the brakes, and adjusting the brake levers helped with that (in addition to a quick bleed). Anyway, Mick made quick work of it all, while I ate some more. I bought another light, and Mick sold me one of his own (very nice) lightweight 40 degree sleeping bags. We talked excitedly about the future of bikepacking.
At 11, the crankset arrived. I will spare the reader all the technical details, but it took us a few hours to install the new cranks. Fortunately, the folks at Specialized walked us through the process. Part of the problem was that we did not – and could not acquire – the right epoxy to stick the bottom bracket into the frame. And the crank cap would not screw on, because it needed some re-threading. The install was not perfect, and so I just had to hope that nothing would go wrong out in the middle of nowhere. !! A loose bottom bracket could get annoying, but it wouldn’t stop me.
I set out from Payson that afternoon, feeling very tired. Being stopped for that long had not so much ameliorated my fatigue as allowed it to catch up with me. Mick outside his bike shop:
I was not expecting the “riding” that came next! After 20 road miles, I was back on the AZT, right around Oak Springs. There was a LOT of HAB to the tiny town of Pine. I started to worry. I knew that I would be going up Highline to Mogollon Rim after Pine, and I knew this would be one of the hardest sections of the course. Already I was tired and getting more tired. I hadn’t planned to spend the night in Pine, but it was starting to make sense. In Pine I could get a room and more rest. Yes, it sucked that I was only going to get 25 miles, after only going 32 the previous day. That really sucked. At the same time, I was winning the women’s race, and it made more sense to do everything possible to stack the deck in favor of my finishing, rather than push on and risk body or bike breakage on the technical and eroded Highline Trail. Just last year, a racer riding Highline at night had ruptured his spleen and had to be airlifted out. Or at least – that’s what Mick told me!
As I got closer to Pine, I became really tired and frustrated. Once in Pine, I found only a bed and breakfast, where I ultimately decided to stay for the night, just because it was literally the only place in town. My room was a small palace. I felt ridiculous. I think the owner felt bad (I had just wanted a cheap motel), so he cut me a deal and also fed me a bunch of hearty, homemade vegan bread. The luxury of the room contrasted sharply with my own circumstances. Also, the only other patrons were couples, so I felt my own singleness acutely and longed for that other person. Being single for three years has been really interesting. (The last time I was single for that long I was 12!) It’s given me the time and resources to develop other enriching and valuable relationships – with people, with my community, with nature, with my work, etc. I’m not sure coupledom makes sense for every period of one’s life. Even so, I think most of us have an innate longing to have that one special person in our lives. I did not linger long on these thoughts, as sleep stole me away.
Well, I made it. Of the 40 or so racers who started AZTR 750, about half reached the “finish line” at Stateline Campground. Two Sarah’s (I and three-time Tour Divide finisher Sara Dallman) are now the fifth and sixth women to complete Scott Morris’ self-supported “Arizona Trail Race 750” – the longest single-track bike race in the world, stretching the full length of Arizona. Sara and I rode a bit of the last stretch of Tour Divide 2015 together, so it was a real treat to see her finish.
I have a lot to say, and I cannot say it all here. My 12 days on the Arizona Trail were packed with experiences and reflections that would require a book to recount. But within the space and time I have, I will do my best to recreate the experience (in two parts). This will be largely unedited, so, apologies for the roughness. To anybody reading this, I urge you to experience the Arizona Trail for yourself. The Arizona Trail Association has great resources, especially the AZT app. Also, for more about the race, check out this excellent REI video and Nico Barraza’s lovely photo journal.
BEFORE THE RACE
Where to begin? Two years ago I did my first bikepacking trip – Denver to Silverton on the Colorado Trail (in 9 days). I had never even backpacked before. It was a solo mission, fraught with nauseating elevation, endless lightening storms and my own foolish unpreparedness. Even though I only rode in the daylight hours, I had trauma symptoms for weeks afterward! The following summer I raced the Tour Divide 2015, where I came into my own, learning to ride an average of 12 hours/day for three weeks. I made good use of the evening hours, but I stayed mostly in hotels, setting aside time for recovery. I simply wasn’t ready to really rough it.
The Arizona Trail would be the culminating challenge – a 750-mile course comprised of spectacularly difficult backpacking trails (almost no roads), requiring substantial hike-a-bike (HAB), evening trail riding and sleeping in a “plastic bag”. Recovery time would be the very minimum (for me), as I would ride an average of 16 hours out of every 24-hour period. A typical “day” would begin at 6 or 7 am and end between 10 pm and 1 am.
However, despite this formidable “race aspect”, something in me had changed. I’ve raced mountain bikes on and off now for a decade (in disciplines as diverse as ultra endurance to downhill, from novice to pro), but as I went into this race my mind was not so much on the race. My mind was on the Arizona Trail. You see, I was born in Tucson. As a little kid, I eagerly awaited trips to Mount Lemmon. When my parents divorced a quarter century ago, my mother moved us to Southern California. Even though my little sister and I spent every summer with our dad in scorching Tucson (even doing some schooling there), sanitized Orange County always made me homesick. I longed for that vast expanse that is the Sonoran Desert – home of the giant saguaro cactus, towering mountains, neon sunsets and warm, dry air carrying creosote+sage scent and cactus wren song. The landscape is truly exotic and original.
Sometime in February (while visiting the University of British Columbia) I got to seriously thinking about the Arizona Trail, and I realized that – with where I see my life going in the next few years – now would be the time to do it. Already, my desire to race was drying up. So, somewhat ill-prepared, I seized this opportunity. Amid a demanding spring work schedule, I pursued a haphazard program of “emergency training”, appealing to my sponsor, Millltown, for help with gear purchases. Mostly I hoped to ride the wave of my Tour Divide 2015 fitness.
To my surprise, I gained muscle mass really quickly. A few days before AZTR I could literally feel (with my hands) the muscle growth. The human body is truly amazing, especially the mysterious relationship between conscious intention and physical body. Or so it seemed to me. In any case, I had packed on some serious muscle mass, and I was glad for this! And in the nick of time … .
Even though spring was chaotic, I felt certain I was making the right choice. A few years ago I bought a framed photograph of Antelope Canyon at the Minneapolis Uptown Art Fair. It was an impulse buy – highly unlike me. I hung it in my living room, where it would suck me in over and over again. I would sit down in front of it, staring. The pale yellow fangs of Antelope Canyon biting into the clear blue Arizona sky produced a strange emotion in me – a kind of fear mixed with reverence mixed with hope. As I would sit there I would inarticulately feel (more than think) about the way out of that canyon and about the peaceful place beyond it. This is before I had ever heard about the Arizona Trail or the Arizona Trail Race. I had never even seen Antelope Canyon (or the Grand Canyon, for that matter!). I was shocked to discover that the Arizona Trail ends right next to Antelope Canyon. Though humility – and good sense! – demanded that I remain uncertain about finishing, secretly I felt convinced that I would make it to Utah.
Because I had not planned on doing AZTR 750, I had accepted invitations to do philosophy colloquium talks at Northern Arizona University (the night before the race, Flagstaff) and the University of Arizona (April 29, Tucson). In other words, I had two weeks maximum to do this race. My dad (bless his soul!) drove me from Phoenix to Sierra Vista after my NAU talk (and my 3+ hour drive from Flagstaff). I slept two hours in the Sierra Vista Travelodge, and then I drove us (and 5th-place 300 finisher, South African Alex Harris) on precarious mountain roads to the Mexican boarder. As the sun rose that morning, the Huachuca Mountains and San Rafael Valley made their grand appearance, dazzling us all and allaying some of my guilt over involving my dad in this pre-endurance event endurance event. After peppering Alex with questions (especially, “wait, how are you riding 300 miles without sleeping”?), we dropped him off at Montezuma Pass, where he then pedaled to the 300 start at Parker Canyon Lake. At the restrooms I bumped into Sara Dallman, and we quickly embraced, recalling Tour Divide. Discovering myself lost, I consulted a boarder patrol officer, who helped me locate the race start line, where we arrived a mere 30 minutes before the race! The pre-endurance event endurance event was over. Now I just hoped I could find my way on the actual trail!
Me at Montezuma Pass, pre-race:
Dad with bike and RAV 4 (at the race start at the boarder):
It was hard to fight the feelings of insecurity I felt milling about at the boarder, even when my Tour Divide friends Brett Stepanik and vegan Patrick Dowd said “hello”. To begin with, there were four women, including me. And secondly, the vast array of different gear choices always makes you second guess your own choices. Bikepacking is new enough that people are still improvising a ton. One setup can look very different from another setup. Was my 37-lb rig way too heavy? Did I really need dust goggles? My frame pack zipper is broken – oh shit! The mental static is no fun.
Fortunately, I only had a half hour to torture myself. We started unceremoniously at 7 am; buoyed on my nervous energy, I stayed with the front pack for a few miles, worrying about my dad’s offroading abilities. (When he passed me in the RAV 4, I fought the urge to chase the car down and bail on the race right then!) We began on fireroads, the first passage being off limits to bikes. Mountain biking is a very young sport, so when the 1964 Wilderness Act passed, bikes were excluded (in the absence of mountain biking advocates). Hopefully, the situation will change in the future, but for now parts of the AZT remain off limits to bikes. 😦
After a little while I dropped back, settling into a nice, sane pace. Kaitlyn Boyle caught me, and we chitchatted and traded places for a while, until she zoomed way ahead on a downhill portion, and I missed the turnoff to the Arizona Trail. Typical! Lost twice in two hours. Kaitlyn, who teaches outdoor education at Prescott College (when not bike touring around the world with her partner), seemed a million times more prepared for this race. I could not keep my eyes off her beautiful Salsa bike and minimalist gear, expertly selected. Right then I accepted that I would not win this race. It would be Kaitlyn. It had to be Kaitlyn. Just last year, the 28-year-old had finished the 300 in a blazing fast time. I felt a little like a charlatan, but I reminded myself that racing really wasn’t the point. I just needed to finish in under two weeks.
Soon I found the unassuming turnoff to the Canelo Hills section of the AZT. I still felt awkward with all my gear bouncing about (had it always been THIS heavy?), but I got better and better at riding the technical bits, which were really engrossing. Before I knew it, I was at Parker Canyon Lake; it wasn’t even 9 yet. I met and thanked race organizer Scott Morris and finally got to meet (in the flesh!) his partner, Eszter Horanyi, who set all kinds of crazy bikepack racing records and still holds the AZTR 300 female record. I thanked Eszter for promising (to me) that I could finish this race in under two weeks. If Eszter says I can do it, I can do it. Her endorsement mattered to me.
Nico Barraza’s photo of me at Parker Canyon Lake, about 20 miles into the race:
The loose rocks and steep climbs created a decent amount of HAB, which some racers bemoaned. It was hot, too. Stopping in the shade to replace my SPOT batteries, I stole a moment with fellow Minnesotan Mark Seaburg, who had shepherded me through the start of Tour Divide. The heat and HAB were wearing on him, especially since he has a bad ankle; he had switched from running to biking for this very reason. Still, I thought it really cool that Midwesterners were into this race. (After all, I don’t see my desert-loving self fatbike racing anytime soon!) Mark had road tripped to Sierra Vista with AZTR 300 female winner (and racing sensation) Tracey Petervary. Tracey is a legend back home. I would never see her.
As you can see, the race was very populated at the start. Even as I rolled up to the general store in Patagonia (now about 50 miles in), a few racers were congregated outside. I was covered head to toe in dust. I was thirsty. I was tired and hungry. Everyone remarked that that first section was brutal. Simply brutal. As I sat down to consume a ton of (vegetarian) calories and fluids, a man named Brian plopped down next to me. Like a lot of the racers (especially the 300 racers), this race represented a major milestone in his life. His positive attitude was infectious, and soon I could feel the energy seeping back into me. The calories also probably helped. 🙂
After an hour, I reluctantly rode away. I suppose it was a good sign that I was catching the 300 racers. But at this point I was mostly thinking about my rear wheel. We had another (short) wilderness detour, and so I was on the highway for a brief bit. I could hear my rear tire brushing my frame. I had had my wheels rebuilt at Bikes Direct before the race, and I worried that the dish was off. Then I reminded myself that the techs had complained about the tire itself – i.e., that my beefy Maxxis Ardent tire had a wobble in it. I assured myself that the Arizona Trail would soon eat some of the protruding tread, eliminating the drag. Still, it was a drag to be dragging so early in the race. My legs were also cramping. And my legs never cramp. It had to be the heat and lack of electrolytes. So, before hitting the trail again, I stopped (again) in Sonoita to buy and consume pickle juice and Gatorade. A very awkward moment ensued, wherein I was gulping and gurgling pickle juice while a recreational mountain biker approached and praised me for riding a section of trail he and his mates were hiking.
The afternoon was starting to glow as I headed out on fireroads to the beautiful Santa Rita mountains. I always come alive at dusk (I get freakishly strong), so I didn’t even mind the hard wind. Plus, the pickle cure had worked. Soon I joined three Tucsonan 300 racers – Casey (who donned a brilliant Arizona flag patch on his frame bag), Jeff and Mike. This was the first and only racer group I would see. The trio had been regularly doing the race for some time. As it grew dark, I stuck with them, our shared lights setting the trail aglow. We delighted in the trails to Kentucky Camp, which were SO FUN! But after a while I had to jet, so as to make it past Kentucky Camp, an old mining camp. After getting faucet water in the dark at KC, I embarked on a fireroad climb into the rolling foothills of the Santa Rita’s. I knew that in the dark I was missing the spectacular views, but, alas, weary night riding is an inescapable part of bikepack racing. Soon I found myself on rolling single-track. I was enjoying the warm, high desert evening, but I could feel the tiredness invading. I had hoped to get 90-100 miles in, but I stopped around mile 85. I found a grass-free (I’m allergic to grass) spot under a big tree/bush, which provided good wind protection. Just a few feet from the trail, I crawled into my .66-lb emergency sleeping bag – basically a really hot trash bag. Combined with my sleeping pad and warm clothes, I felt comfortable, falling asleep immediately. First day down!
I awoke just before dawn, to the sound and sight of racers riding in the pre-dawn hours. I lay there for a while, packing up not-too efficiently. By around 7 am I was off.
Rincon Valley (south of Tucson) proved to be some of my favorite riding on the whole trail. The red, hard packed dirt was fast, winding through saguaro cacti. On the way to the valley, I passed 4-5 racers, which made me think that the people my pace had probably pushed farther the night prior (or else they had gotten up earlier!). I had a minor scare later in the morning, as my Garmin eTrex GPS fell off my bike, and I had to retrace my steps to find it. By now I was getting the hang of dismounting for the many cattle fences, some of which were nearly impossible to close again (constructed, as they were, with sticks and barbed wire).
View in the morning hours:
Best single-track! Check out those prickly pears!
Anyway, there I was, swooping along on world-class Southern Arizona single-track when a guy my age on a Yeti passed me like I was at a standstill. He wore strange attire – khaki shorts and a solar panel on his backpack. I wasn’t sure he was in the race. Later (once the trail started climbing) I would pass him getting water at a park. Throughout this race, I would struggle to drink 100 ounces a day, which is insane, given the initial temperatures. But I was not dehydrated. As a kid, I would spend entire days outside in 100+ degree heat. How many crayons melted in my dad’s car? How many lunches did I “sun cook”? How many times did I burn my feet on the pavement or my hands on the handlebars? How many times did I seek refuge in a tiny corner of shade? Extreme heat and extreme cold share a lot in common: the circumscribing of your normal activities!
Before the Rincon mountains (and after passing some equestrians) the course plopped me out onto a fireroad – another short wilderness detour to Tucson. I wasn’t sure I was going the right way, so I waited and asked Yeti guy. “Are you in the race?” I asked. He nodded. “Is this the right way?” He was following the AZT app on his iPhone, which he was powering with his solar panel. “Yup! We’re right on track.” He introduced himself as Matthew Mueller of Fallbrook, California. We started pedaling to Tucson together. We had a lot to talk about, between Southern California trail riding and philosophy. A lifelong Christian who had married his middle school sweetheart, Matt had recently started reading a lot of philosophy. He was especially interested in – of all things! – ancient Greek cosmology, which is what I have been working on this year. On our way into Tucson, I got a little distracted talking to another vegan racer, and I lost Matt.
Soon we all reconvened at the new Safeway on Broadway, where I met two 300 women racers – Shannon Marshall and Katharina Merchant, who offered to watch my bike while I got groceries. I thought it was really cool that they were riding together. I knew that as soon as the 300 race was over, I’d be on my own. Shannon and Katharina were planning to ride up Mount Lemmon that night (to a campground not far from the top). Wow. I had to remind myself that I was not racing the 300; whereas the 300 racers can go without sleep, the 750 racers absolutely cannot. Either way, Shannon and Katharina looked hardcore. I was suddenly very glad that I was doing the 750 instead of the 300. I queried Shannon (a Tucsonan) for knowledge about Mount Lemmon restrooms. I wanted to sleep in a “shelter” that night, because I knew Mount Lemmon would be cold; my bag might not cut it. Matt interjected, “here, use my fork; you don’t have to eat that pasta salad with your hands!” This was Matt’s first bikepacking excursion, and he had prepared like a backpacker. He had everything, including good camping gear. In his mind, sleeping in an outhouse was crazy. But in my mind, sleeping in an outhouse was like sleeping in a luxury suite. I did accept the fork, though. 🙂
Matt and the others went ahead. My dollar store USB chargers had failed, so I went to Walgreens in search of replacements. No luck! I would not be able to recharge my backup GPS or my main light. Fortunately, I had prepared for this situation: my Garmin eTrex and my other (more dim) lights were all battery-powered. So long as I stocked up on AA and AAA batteries, I would be okay. Maybe I should have gone with a solar panel! (It worked for Matt for the 300, but in the trees in Northern Arizona it would probably falter.)
Stocked up, I continued on the wilderness detour to and through Redington – a popular spot for ATV’s. The climb was steep and chunky and loooong, but the dusk once again made me freakishly energetic. I hammered through the jeep/ATV dust and the chewed up slick rock, skating down the gnar. Passing Shannon and Katharina (who – after a long day and a big meal – were hiking), I knew this weird energy I get at dusk is indeed weird. I joke sometimes that I am – like deer – “crepuscular” – i.e., active at twilight (dawn and dusk). The flip side is that I experience energy losses at night and in the afternoons. In any case, I was eager to ride this energy wave, so I didn’t slow down – even when I met a local woman mountain biker, who was following the race and had come out to join us. (Now a health professor, she had majored in philosophy.)
As the sun was setting, I caught Matt, who, once again, saved me from going the wrong way, commenting on my climbing speed. We decided to ride together to whatever Lemmon campground we could make it to. There was some disagreement about distances, and of course Matt was right. Navigation was never my strong suit, and, quite frankly, if it weren’t for GPS units, I’m not sure I would be able to do this stuff.
After the jeep roads, the trail turned into technical single-track, and as my energy waned in the moonlight, Matt’s energy increased. Moreover, like most AZT racers, Matt had (unlike me) a full-suspension bike with 650b wheels and a gravity dropper post – the new standards in mountain biking. (I still ride a 29-er hard tail, my post locked in.) The combination of the bike and Matt’s mountain biking skills (he’d been mountain biking since he was a little kid) meant that I had to work hard to keep up. And Matt was talking philosophy, so I wanted to stay close to hear what he was saying. Our conversation ranged widely – over Leibniz’s, Aquinas’s and Aristotle’s cosmological arguments for the existence of God, to the foundations of (objective) ethics to the mysteries of consciousness to divine hiddenness (if God exists, why would God hide?). I seriously could not believe I was having these conversations in this situation. I am always excited to meet people who read philosophy just because they want to. Matt is invested in these ideas, and it shows. But I wondered about him – why were these arguments so important? He was born and raised Christian (and still extremely active in his church). So, I had to hazard a more personal question: “Don’t you just know God exists from experience, feeling and maybe revelation? What good are these arguments to you? What do they add?” “I want to know intellectually, not just emotionally”, Matt answered.
There was a lot for me to think about in our conversation, but as the days passed, I came back to thinking about the kind of certainty Matt was after. A feeling can give you certainty, but only in that moment – only so long as you are feeling that feeling. Those who feel God do not feel God all the time. And that is where argument comes in. I told Matt that I am not convinced by these cosmological arguments. To me, a new avenue suggested by secular philosopher Thomas Nagel is somewhat tantalizing. The core of Nagel’s argument is this: our current scientific theories cannot explain the emergence of consciousness; so consciousness – in some form or another – must be the “final cause” or end of the cosmos – i.e., that toward which the cosmos is developing (where this final cause is non-reducible to material processes, but rather a genuine causal principle over and above material processes). Maybe all religions are various descriptions (and misdescriptions) of this consciousness. Matt seemed open to these admittedly vague ideas, and I admired his openness. For me, philosophy was an escape from my own experiences with dogmatism and the self-serving twisting of religious concepts (especially ‘faith’, ‘sacrifice’, and ‘forgiveness’). There are far scarier things than being alone at night in the mountains.
Before the Redington Pass HAB Matt and I stopped to eat. For the first time on the trail, I felt that deep, searing hunger. I inhaled a bagel and maple doughnut greedily, then took off before Matt, who was riding way quicker on the technical terrain. As we hiked up to Molino Basin, we both started losing motivation. I tripped and sliced my knee open. At one point we had to lift our bikes up over rocks. All I could think about was the restroom – would the Molino Basin campground have one?! Finally the trail started to trend down, but to my dismay, most of it was too technical for me to ride, especially in the dark. Matt was able to ride most of it, so he called his family while waiting for me at the bottom. At around 10:30 pm we finally reached the highway at Molino Basin, only a few trail miles from the 22-mile highway climb to Summerhaven (at about 8,000 feet).
Upon seeing the campground, I sprinted to the restrooms – unlocked! Yes! Matt seemed utterly baffled by my excitement and elected to go find a proper camping spot just outside the campground, where he wouldn’t have to pay a fine for not paying the fee (the fee collector was gone). I blew up my pad and jumped into my bag, immediately falling into a nice, WARM sleep.
I awoke again a little before dawn. Shortly thereafter, a woman came in to use the adjacent stall. I felt good and relatively rested. I wondered whether I’d see Matt. I stumbled out of the restrooms into the dawn sunlight, scarfing down a bagel for breakfast. Matt greeted me, having just woken up himself. Just then David Goldberg approached, introducing himself as the 55-year-old man who had invented the Triple Crown of Bikepacking. “Do I know you from Tour Divide?” he addressed Matt. “No”, said Matt, “this is my first bikepacking race”. “You may know me”, I interjected, “I did Tour Divide, and in fact I was just thinking yesterday about how crazy the inventor of the triple crown must be”. I grinned. He probably thought I was joking, but as a matter of fact, I had been thinking this very thought. Who would WANT to do Tour Divide, AZTR 750 and the Colorado Trail Race in a single year?! David ignored this remark but praised my adroit use of the restroom for sleeping. He would have done the same thing himself, if he had not feared the wrath of the ranger.
David left in a hurry, and Matt and I took our time on the few miles of single-track leading to the highway. The trail was beautiful in the morning glow. I felt good, but Matt had not tapped into his energy yet. Once on the highway, we caught David, although it felt more like him catching us. Thus began my favorite road climb, with David Goldberg roaring into our midst, interrupting the continuation of our sedate philosophy conversation. “Tour Divide is an easy race!” he announced, unprovoked. I vehemently disagreed. Matt remained mostly silent as David and I talked bikepacking and bikepack racing. I surprised myself with the knowledge I had amassed; I knew the races, and I knew the people. In two short years I was more on the inside than on the outside. How did this happen? David spoke about his many exploits, complaining bitterly about his older age. “Then why do you keep doing it? Why do you keep racing?” By his own admission, the racing was wearing him down. “Why not just tour? I’m 31, and I feel ready to tour!” I added. “I just toured Switzerland with my wife!” David said, just to let us know he had that box ticked too.
These (rather fun) wranglings mutated into a conversation about the spirit and rules of bikepack racing. David insisted that riding alone and supporting oneself (and only oneself) were completely essential. And that’s when I couldn’t help but saying … “I started doing these races because – as a single person – I didn’t want to tour alone. Why not make the races ‘group sufficient’ such that racers are allowed to help and support racers???” David played with the idea, and – in spite of his boisterous, opinionated self – I strongly suspect he found it attractive. Even now as I write this I have to smile, because I actually really liked David. He is a personality, to be sure, but he loves the sport. Still, he was off and ahead of us in no time, at which point Matt commented, “just so you know, I think the moral support we offered each other last night really does matter”. Classic.
As we climbed, sprawling Tucson receded into the distance, and the warm high desert transformed into cool forest. (The full highway climb extends from 2,000 feet to 9,000 feet, leaving you with the feeling of leaving the world behind.) I talked up the Summerhaven Cookie Cabin to Matt, and it did not disappoint.
The pizza, cookie and coffee hit the spot, but the joy was soon overshadowed. Flicking on my phone, I learned that my (pregnant) little sister was in the hospital. I had enough reception to get the text, but not enough to call her. I said “goodbye” to Matt, encouraging him to go ahead on (extremely technical) Oracle Ridge. I would call my sister once I got reception. For a while I’d been irrationally worried about someone dying in my family. Before my race, I’d made an effort to communicate my love to my family members. I felt sick.
Before leaving Summerhaven, I had to stock up at the general store. Phil, the owner, sold me a cheap fleece sleeping bag to slip inside my emergency sleeping bag, which (though advertised as a multi-use bag) was springing multiple holes. I also bought duct tape to seal the holes. Finally, I managed to secure my frame bag with a spare strap, since the zipper had only gotten worse. At least the rear tire wasn’t rubbing anymore … .
Oracle Ridge and the control road down was a 13-mile nightmare. I think that might be all I want to say about it. It wasn’t just the HAB, and it wasn’t just the heat. Perhaps the most annoying element was the bushwhacking. Had anybody EVER even WALKED this darn trail? As desert plants ripped into my skin, drawing blood, I just hoped it would be over soon.
And it was. Or rather, by late afternoon and dusk I was in a better place – 8 miles of grassy ridges and washes dotted with shrubs, yucca, prickly pear and cholla. I asked another racer to snap a quick photo of me:
Those 8 miles of trail gave me a chance to unwind before calling my sister. I got reception at a highway underpass, near a thru-hiker water cache. “Hello?” my sister Dani sounded surprised. After all, I was supposed to be in this bike race thing. “What is going on?!” Already I was relieved, because she sounded strong. Dani explained that she had gone into contractions early, and she was now on forced bed rest for two months. But she and the baby (Lola) were fine. I sighed a long sigh of relief. Nobody was going to die. Everything was fine. We talked and laughed for a little while. “So, Dani, moral dilemma – do I take this water marked for thru-hikers?” Dani reasoned that, since I was hiking a lot, I counted as a thru-hiker. I sincerely agreed with her, but I did not take the water.
At this point, my memory is fuzzy. Oracle Ridge had sapped my energy. I rode another 30 or so miles (into the night), stopping close to Beeline Tank. Even though I was tired, I loved the feeling of the high desert at night. I always do. I wanted to go a little farther, but my lungs stopped me. When I started drawing raspy breaths and struggled to keep my eyes open, I dropped my bike right there and camped (moving a little, upon discovering I was positioned on an anthill!). Respiratory issues cause many “scratches” (i.e., quits), and I was not about to push my fragile luck. I quickly stripped down and wiped all the dirt and dust off my body and hair, so that I would not be breathing it in in my bag. Even with the fleece bag, I was cold. I made a mental note – must get warmer bag. And then, under dazzling stars, I drifted into a soft sleep, feeling cradled in the vast desert.
I woke up at 4 am and headed to Beeline Tank for water. I noticed a tent behind the tank; I bet he hadn’t been foiled by breathing difficulties! BUT I was awake and riding. 🙂 It is a little weird to approach a giant, metal tank in the middle of the desert. I climbed up the ladder and folded my body over the lip of it, scooping my bladder into the dark, leaf-laced waters. It was an awkward job, but I got it done. I squirted purifying droplets into the bladder and sipped the water. It tasted great, even with all the bugs and grit floating in it.
The ride to Gila River proved to be very difficult. It was the only point in the race where the heat really got to me. I felt baked, and this baking augmented my existing tiredness. Even the descent to the Gila River was annoying, with all its sunny switchbacks. I just wanted the sun to go away and come back some other day.
At this point, you probably shouldn’t trust most of what I say about the trail. I was run down, and so everything seemed harder than it really is. I entered the Gila River Canyons at dusk and marveled at them at first.
But then they got medieval on me. Riding skinny, exposed trails in canyons can be fun, but it isn’t much fun when it is (a) very dark and (b) you are exhausted and (c) you are going in circles. There is a d, e, and f here, but I will save the reader my complaints. Suffice it to say, I was not very happy. Someday, I am going to ride out there again, in daylight. By now, I was relying on my Walmart headlamp to illuminate the trail. I walked a lot. My goal was to not fall over the edge – hopefully not too lofty of a goal. I laughed maniacally when I realized I was not going anywhere. Basically, the trail was going in circles up the canyons, rather than moving in a straight line to the 300 finish, near Superior, Arizona (where I had reserved a hotel room – my first). Ironically, that sun I had so cursed I now desperately wanted.
The hotel room kept me going. It was so, so dark, an occasional bike light punctuating the dark. I realized that I hate being in canyons in the dark. I resolved to not do this in the Grand Canyon.
In what seemed like an eternity, I finally reached a sort of apex, near a cattle fence and water cache. I robotically filled my water. Twelve miles left. Heading toward Picketpost …
My Walmart headlamp was bright, but it wasn’t quite capturing the depth of the trail, and so I had two close calls with prickly pear cacti – as in, I crashed, and I magically managed to scoot myself away from the cacti. It’s not like I’ve never landed in a cactus before, but – at this point – I was simply too tired to sit there pulling thorns out of my body. These encounters were eliciting tears. I’m sure being close to the 300 finish was responsible for much of the psychological drama. When I know I have much farther to go, I toughen up. As I inched closer to the “finish”, I softened. Why does this happen?
Still, after escaping those strange canyons, I was enjoying the Picketpost trail, a relatively new trail. I promised myself I would come and ride it again. I guess this is a big difference between Tour Divide and the Arizona Trail. The sheer fun of the AZT mountain bike trails can pull you out of whatever personal hell you might find yourself in.
Toward the Picketpost trail head (the 300 finish) I found some 300 racers enjoying a final meal before the finish. Only in a bikepacking race! I plopped down next to them, wolfing down the little food I had left. I finally understood the urge to linger at the end. And judging by how energized I felt after that little powwow, I think my fatigue may have been compounded by riding alone for 1.5 days. The human interaction lit me up, and I pedaled hard to the finish, realizing that, from hereon out, I would be alone. With most of the field now finished, we racers would be spread out over the next 450 miles. It would be just me and the trail.
I flew fast on the highway to Superior, only to discover, upon arriving at 1:15 am, that my room had *not* been reserved. Fortunately, the severely sleep-deprived manager was able to throw something together. Better yet, I was able to use the laundry facilities, even though a police car almost stopped me as I walked in my towel from the outdoor washer/dryer to my brick room. I also availed myself of the 24-hour c-store, forcing some food down. After 4 days on the trail, I felt incredibly relieved to be in a hotel. My head hit the pillow at 3 am, and I fell into a deep sleep. With my 3.5-day finish, I was the second woman to finish the 300, even though I was racing the 750. Of course, at the time, I did not know this. I refuse to observe the tracker. I prefer not knowing how I’m doing. After all, what is the point? I rode my best.
I snapped some quick photos of my setup. I’m sorry this is so quick!
I was hoping I could hike without taking a wheel (or both wheels) off (given the smallness of my frame), but I’ve been dissuaded. In any case, the 37-lb rig (that’s right – it’s not as light as I had hoped!) felt okay on my back. (This was without food or water, which will add weight.) I’ve never hiked this way or hiked the Grand Canyon (for that matter), so I’m sure I’m in for a tough stretch. Maybe by the time I hit the rim I’ll feel in good shape. Or maybe not. Or maybe I’ll run out of time altogether. Honestly, I’m just excited to be riding the Arizona Trail!
I went with double strapping my saddle bag rather than running a rack. See straps (3rd and 4th pictures).
I’m running two AAA-bat powered lights and two Garmin units in my cockpit. I also have a helmet light and a headlamp. Electronics and I do not get along, so I’m all about the backups. I have a giant bag full of lithium ion batteries. I like to run simple, battery-powered stuff, when possible.
I have goggles and a buff, in addition to A LOT of allergy medication (prescription nasal spray, prescription drops, prescription pills, shot, etc.). Seeing an allergy specialist was a great move, even if it did take half a day and lots of painful testing. (The doctor I saw is a backpacker and Grand Canyon enthusiast. She did a little research and reported that, given my particular allergies, I should be fine on the trail right now. Ironically, my worst allergy is olive trees, and my dad happens to live next to an olive grove. So, basically, I just need to leave home!)
My strategy with the Osprey pack is to stash things I use a lot in it (as well as strap my bike to it). I also have two 100 ounce bladders inside, plus filtration drops – the kind that takes five minutes to purify your water. Finding water sources is a big deal on the Arizona Trail. I’m using cue sheets and the Arizona Trail Association iPhone app for locating water. Fortunately, I do well in really hot conditions and do not need a ton of water. Still, I need to be conscientious about hydration, reminding myself to drink a lot more than I would normally want to.
In my handlebar bag I have just my emergency sleeping bag and sleeping pad. The bag + sleeping system weighs under 2 lbs. Fortunately, the weather is looking good, at least to start. But the bag is blizzard proof, and I’ve tested it in well below freezing temps. (Those tests convinced me I need the pad, because the ground can get really frickin’ cold.)
I keep all clothing in my seat bag, so as to keep the seat bag light. I have ample rain gear and three base layers, plus my big beloved (red) primaloft jacket. I’m using my new Milltown kit (love it!), in addition to white sun sleeves and Arizona state flag socks. 🙂 I feel like Arizona-themed socks are a must – arguably the most important item.
I put the heavy stuff (two small dry sacks with my maintenance kit and first aid/toiletries kit) in my frame pack, where I also stash my pump, lube and drivetrain brush (and extra food, if needed). I also have room for extra food in my handlebar bag and backpack. Dried mangoes and cashews are my backup food.
Food I want to eat immediately goes in the my feed bag (on my top tube, in the “cockpit”). My little sister Christina and I went food and battery shopping this evening; I think she prefers My Littlest Pet Shop to lithium ion batteries. 🙂 One big motivation to actually finish this thing is that my family is planning to meet me at the end and go see the Grand Canyon.
Alright, I’m pooped (if you can’t already tell from this post), and I have my NAU talk in Flagstaff tomorrow. Off to bed. Let me know if you have any last minute suggestions! There’s not much I can alter at this point, but I can always worry more than I am already worrying. To be honest, I’m more excited than worried. I’ve never been so excited to ride a trail. Desert riding has always been my absolute favorite! Signing off …
Huge thanks to my dad, who, recovering from surgery, is still insisting on dropping me off at the boarder Friday morning. Love you dad!
Finishing El Tour de Tuscon (111-mile road race) together five years ago (dad was 65!):