AZTR 750: Flagstaff to Utah

In Flag, I had a decision to make. I had mailed my Grand Canyon hiking gear to the post office at the South Rim, so I was at the mercy of their operating hours.  I could either wake up super early (like 1am) to give myself enough time to ride the 105ish miles from Flag to the South Rim to make it to the post office before they close at 4pm on Friday, or I could sleep in, take it a bit easier, and hit the post office when they open at 11am on Saturday. I really wanted to start the GC hike at dawn so I could see the whole canyon during the day, so I was mighty tempted to push it hard and try to make it there by 4pm. But after taking stock of my state of being, I realized that would be very, very difficult, trying to ride over a hundred dirt miles on 3 hours of sleep in my battered state. Huge bummer to accept the fact I'd be hiking half the Grand Canyon in the dark, but I didn't have it in me to get there sooner.

Heading out of Flagstaff, towards Humphreys Peak

Now that I had a day and a half to get to the South Rim, I took a deliciously leisurely morning in Flag, stuffing my face at the hotel's continental breakfast and pedaling my way slowly through town. The day's main obstacle was up first - a 2,000 ft. ascent traversing around Humphreys Peak.

And wow, it was a treat. The trails were nicely built, smooth undulating singletrack, the gradient mellow. Hardly anyone out except for several groups of bikepackers - ran into a couple from Anchorage just touring the AZT for fun, as well as Eszter Horanyi and some buddies touring the Coconino Loop. Fun to chat with them and hear about their journeys.

Halfway up Humphreys. I look tired! Photo by Eszter Horanyi.

I made it over the high point in what seemed like no time, starting to feel the pressure of Mike P. breathing down my neck a few miles back. Ain't no way I'm getting passed today! I was feeling good and starting to regret not getting up early and pushing for the South Rim.

Oh man, the trails descending off the back of Humphreys were perhaps the best of the trip. Fast, smooth, tacky dirt threading through groves of aspens, reminiscent of the Colorado Trail, the flow only broken by the annoying amount of downed trees I had to awkwardly climb over.

Looking back towards Humphreys Peak.

20 miles later, the descent ended and I found myself pedaling along dirt roads and doubletrack through rolling hills and farmland. I felt way, way out there - the only signs of human activity were the roads, fences, and cows everywhere, just hanging out, often blocking the road - it never fails to amuse me how fast a spooked cow can move!

Burrito break

The day wore on and I realized I made the right choice by taking the extra rest and not rushing to get to the canyon - it was slow going, motivation was waning thanks to uninspiring terrain, a headwind whipped up, and I kept getting sprinkles of rain. The dirt roads gave way to singletrack, which I was both thankful for and annoyed by, since the roads were faster. My goal was to get to the Grandview lookout by dark, and then bomb down into Tusayan for dinner.

Darkness fell and I was still several miles from the lookout. Exhaustion was taking hold, I was desperate to end the suffering and almost decided to just stop and camp. No! Hot meals awaited in town and pulled me forward. For some reason my water cues were incorrect, leading me to believe Grandview had water, so I skipped Russell Tank and was crestfallen to find only an outhouse at the lookout. I was parched, but it was all downhill to Tusayan. I wish I could say I enjoyed the Tusayan bike trails but I was so tired and desperate that I just wanted it to be over. Finally - finally! - the lights of Tusayan appeared through the trees, around 10pm, and I rolled into town and collapsed on the sidewalk just outside a fancy steakhouse, prompting two employees to rush out and make sure I was ok (they thought I had crashed, haha). It was a bit surreal to suddenly be surrounded by $500-a-night hotels and fast food joints after such a desolate, long day. McDonalds was the only thing open but I didn't care, I inhaled 2 Bigmacs straight to my face. It was raining again, turning into snow as temps were right at freezing. I went to the cheapest looking hotel expecting astronomical prices, but the lady gave me a pretty decent rate for what turned out to be literally the last hotel room in town. Woohoo, time to rest up for the big final push!

Unpacking my hiking gear at the South Rim post office

Saturday morning was spent battling the hoards of tourists at the post office and general store in the South Rim village. I've never seen anything like it, the place was a zoo. I waited in long lines, finally got my package, got enough food to get me through the next 2 days to the finish, and got the hell out of there.

GOPR9689.jpg

I got to the South Rim 2 hours later than planned thanks to the tourist delays, and converted my bike and gear into hiking mode while being pelted by hail and rain. Great. I couldn't even see down into the canyon because of the clouds. As I started hiking around 2pm, the clouds suddenly dissipated and the sun came out, revealing the views and scenery that had been my main motivation for doing this race in the first place. Wow. Unbelievable, I can't believe I'm actually hiking across the Grand Canyon with a damn bike on my back!


And neither could everyone else. The first few miles of the trail were clogged with tourists, each one gawking at me: "oh my GOD is that a bicycle? On your back? Why aren't you riding it? Can I take a picture?" Smile, nod, keep moving.

After a couple miles the herds of tourists thinned out and I had some peace and quiet to enjoy the scenery. The trail was steep, dropping 5,000 feet to the Colorado river over 6 miles, something my twiggy cycling legs weren't so happy about.

Crossing the Colorado River

I crossed the river and reached Phantom Ranch around 6pm. Woah, this place is a village! Ranger stations, a general store, cabins, tons of camping spots, people everywhere. Kinda spoiled the adventure aspect but also made me want to come back and stay here someday - it was gorgeous. Chatted with a ranger for a while, who warned me that they had a water pipe break and none of the spigots worked at the North Rim - good to know, that would have sucked to get up there late at night and have no water. It also meant I'd have to carry even more weight than I was carrying - oh well.

Now began the long hike out - 14 miles, 6000 ft. towards the sky. The first 7 miles went quickly, relatively easy grades and smooth trail. Darkness fell and my world retreated into the small bubble of light of my headlamp, but I could sense the enormity of the canyons surrounding me. If only I could see it!

Topped off my water at the Roaring Springs ranger station, adding another 6 lbs to my 50lb load - ouch. And then the real struggles began. My stomach had been feeling a bit funny, and as the grades steepened for the final push to the rim, the intestinal situation went South...literally. Let me tell you, having to stop every 5 minutes, with an awkward heavy bike strapped to my pack, freezing cold wind, at 2am, along a narrow trail cut into a cliff face, to do my business.....zero fun. Not to mention the handful of solo rim-to-rim-to-rim crazies that kept passing me during the most inopportune moments...made for some hilarious encounters. Progress was slow, but I began to feel much better as I neared the rim.

My goal was topping out by 4am, and precisely at 4am, I made it! Bone chilling wind meant I needed shelter fast, and I beelined it for the parking lot outhouse. Never been so excited to sleep on a mouse turd covered bathroom floor in my life.

Hour nap, assemble bike, hit the road to Jacob Lake at sunup. Even with every piece of clothing on, rarely have I ever been that cold in my life. A couple miles of teeth chattering downhill led to a gradual climb, and I could finally generate some warmth. But something was wrong - I couldn't stand up in the pedals. My calves literally wouldn't fire, they were so fried from the canyon hike. It was all I could do to hit 10mph on flat pavement. Luckily the 41 miles to Jacob Lake were mostly downhill, otherwise I would have been in trouble - I've never felt anything like that sort of muscle fatigue and soreness.

Jacob Lake finally arrived around noon, and I was desperate for some coffee and food. Despite the soreness, I was elated - only 30 miles left! A BLT and 20 minute nap in the gift shop revived me a bit, and I got back on the trail with earnest. The elevation profile looked favorable, mostly downhill, and for once, it was actually correct! The last 30 miles of the Arizona Trail were awesome, quite a treat to end this huge journey on such fine trail. It ended with a 1,000 ft bomber descent, the red hills of Utah stretching out for miles and miles ahead. It was an emotional last couple miles, feelings of exhaustion, gratitude, excitement at being done and getting to see Megan, and a bit of sadness to be ending the journey and going back to real life.

I SEE UTAH!!

I rolled into the Stateline Campground parking lot at precisely 5pm after 9 days, 10 hours on the Arizona Trail. The best part of the journey was seeing my girlfriend Megan and dog Mowgli waiting for me there - Meg, your love and support have been incredible, I couldn't have done this without you, thank you so much for everything you do and driving out from the Bay Area to find me in the desert!

Such incredible feelings of relief, accomplishment, and gratitude for my body letting me do things like this, for all of those who made this event possible, and for everyone in my life who supported me through the hardest thing I've ever done - Megan, my family, and my friends cheering me on. I love you all!

Now, a month after the race, my body is recovered, and I couldn't be more stoked to ride. I miss being out there and can't wait to strap those bags back onto my bike. Not sure what the next adventure will be but there are plenty more bikepacking races to suffer through! Thanks for reading!

AZTR 750: Apache Junction to Flagstaff

Day 5: Apache Junction to Payson

Today almost felt like a rest day compared to the previous 4 days - 100 miles of dirt roads and pavement from Apache Junction to Payson. No trail, no rocks, no hike-a-bike. A 4am start guided by a blazing full moon got me to Roosevelt Lake by late morning. The Apache Trail (not really a trail but a well maintained dirt road) was great, pretty hilly but scenic. For some reason I didn't take any pictures before the lake, guess I was too busy riding.

Approaching Roosevelt Lake

Roosevelt Lake

Not much to report for the rest of the day - just easy, fast road riding along the lake, the miles passing by incredibly quickly.

Lunch at Jake's Corner Bar - that place has personality! Kept waiting for some nutjob locals to come in for some entertainment but I had the place to myself. Left with a belly full of burgers, baked beans, and coffee, yum.

I stopped at the bike shop in Payson, 87 Cyclery - I can't remember his name, but the guy there was awesome, he'd been following the race and sat me down with a cold beverage while he worked his magic on my bike. Grabbed dinner and headed out into the beautiful evening towards Pine, bedding down for the evening about halfway there. It was warm, I slept like a baby.

Another damn fine evening on the trail, somewhere between Payson and Pine

Day 6: Pine to the Mogollon Rim

Some fun singletrack just before Pine

I got moving around 4am again, hoping to get to Pine at 6am when the local supermarket opened to stock up for the long push to Flagstaff. Didn't actually get to Pine until 7:30 - those final miles before Pine were tough! Bushy, loose hike-a-bike, a nice little preview of what awaited me.....

Came across Brad Mattingly, the sole Southbound racer, just before Pine - fun chatting with him, he was not at all amused by Highline, which he hike/stumbled his way down the day before. He warned of frigid nights ahead!

Pine wins for best breakfast. I think I got more excited about huge, syrupy breakfasts than anything else on this trip.....

Not wanting to repeat my earlier bouts of starvation riding, I bought an absurd amount of food in Pine. No more going hungry, even if it means dragging a boat anchor of a bike up Highline.

Oh Highline. In some ways, it was every bit as bad as everyone had said - hours and hours of hiking and bushwhacking through horrible prickly bushes that tore up exposed flesh and spandex. Trail often so narrow that awkwardly pushing the bike ahead of you and following it was the only option. Making matters worse, after my huge breakfast, my stomach shut down entirely, and eating anything made me incredibly nauseous. Zero calories consumed during the 9 hours from Pine to the Rim. All this heavy food and I couldn't eat any of it! Luckily, water and electrolytes weren't a problem.

Blister care

Shoes were toast. No more tread, walking directly on the cleat. No bueno

BUT - it was also incredibly beautiful. The Mogollon Rim itself loomed large and rugged, while views of the valley to the South kept the mind occupied.

There's the Mogollon Rim. We go there.

Typical bushiness

No riding here

It got more rideable as I neared the final climb to the Rim

The final hike up to the rim. 1000+ feet straight up bouldery slabs and chunky loose trail.

I gained the rim around 6pm and decided I was done for the day. Not being able to eat took its toll, and I found a nice spot in the trees and crawled into my bivy. Asleep by 7:30, only to be woken up around midnight to some loud hoots and hollers - great, some AZ rednecks out for a backcountry joyride, please don't shoot your guns in my direction - oh wait, it's Mike P. and Elliot! They caught me! My competitive side told me to get up and ride! Don't give up 2nd place! But about 3 seconds later I was fast asleep, knowing they had a long, hard day and would probably sleep for a long time, whereas I had a 3am start planned.

BRRR! Woke up to water bottles full of ice! Got moving and warmed up pretty quickly, it was nice to be riding again! And I could eat! And the sunrise was amazing! Today was gonna be a good day.

The morning singletrack buzz eventually wore off, and the trail became somewhat tiresome - featureless terrain through a sparse pine forest,  badly rutted dirt roads alternating with singletrack, not really climbing much nor descending. Mormon Lake couldn't come soon enough.

Finally. Mormon Lake. It was mid-afternoon, still 4 or so hours till Flagstaff, and I debated skipping the detour down to the little town and just pushing on, but the call of hot pizza was too powerful to ignore. Ran into Jeff Hemperley heading down to the town, was good to meet him, his enthusiasm was infectious!

Chowed down a whole pizza and salad. That was dumb - yep, felt like crap climbing back up to the Arizona Trail. Luckily it was fun, fairly easy riding to Flagstaff, and after a couple road detours due to logging and a forest fire, I rolled into Flag around 8pm. Those two brutal days combined with caloric deficit took their toll, and it was all I could do to ride in a straight line. Grabbed a cheap hotel room, excited to have made it this far and knowing that I'd be at the main event, the Grand Canyon, tomorrow night!

Magic. Awesome dirt and insane evening light, heading down into Flag

AZTR 750: The first 300 miles

It's been 2.5 weeks since I dragged my dirty, blown out body and bike across the Utah border, and oh man, recovery's been awesome. Sit on couch, destroy all food in sight, drink beer, repeat. Glorious. Actually, I've been back on my bike quite a bit more than I expected, even though I am still feeling abnormally fatigued - that race got me super motivated to keep riding and I can't stop! I've been bouncing the experiences and memories from those 9.5 days on the trail around and around in my head, so I guess it's time to get some things down on paper.  Too much happened to do a play-by-play recap, so here's a photo essay of the memories that stuck with me.

And we're off! People seem more nervous than excited - should I be more nervous? Answer - yes.

Canelo Hills - AZT doesn't waste any time telling you who's boss

Aaron G, Neil B, and Kurt R blow by me like I'm standing still, on their way to record-breaking AZT300 runs.

Patagonia's out there somewhere...

Should've gotten some fudge

Patagonia. The greatest root beer float of my life. 6 hours into the race and I feel like I've been racing for days. The Canelo Hills blindsided many of us, the Arizona Trail's cruel and sudden wake up call. I was expecting a relatively easy start to the race, to ease into race mode - HA! Alright, game on.

Almost to Kentucky Camp - body is finally coming around, time to fly. Photo by Sean Allen.

Southern AZ desert

Southern AZ desert

WOWZA. Somewhere past Kentucky Camp, the AZT atoned for its earlier brutality by giving us one hell of a sunset. Some of the greatest twilight riding I can remember, and the singletrack kept getting sweeter and sweeter.

Magic hour

ZOOM

Can't let the mind wander too much here

Breakfast at the Rincon store with Paul

Breakfast at the Rincon store with Paul

Early pre-dawn shred-fest coming into Tucson - man that trail was fun. An empty belly pushed me along towards breakfast at the Rincon market. Long gone were the memories of yesterday's struggles. Oh, if I only knew what was coming....

Climbing away from Tucson on Reddington Rd.

Struggle....

Near the top of the Molino hike-a-bike. Photo by Jesse Morse-Brady.

The first BIG obstacle of the route - Mt. Lemmon and it's evil side kick, Oracle Ridge. After a slap-in-the-face 1,000 ft. hike-a-bike to gain access to the Mt. Lemmon road, we faced a 15 mile, 4,000 ft ascent up Mt. Lemmon. It started off horribly, my water cues were incorrect and I ran out of water at the base of the climb, only to be saved by miraculously finding a tiny pool just off the highway.

The rest of the climb was delightful - sunset, cool temps, beautiful scenery. I crested the top around 9pm, donned many layers to face the bone-chilling wind at 8,200ft, and began the so-called traverse of death, Oracle Ridge.

I actually enjoyed Oracle Ridge quite a bit. Despite a chilly, horse-poop infested bivy a couple miles into the ridge (how do horses even get up here??), I had a blast scrambling my way along the ridge as the sunrise presented itself. I didn't think it was nearly as bad as people make it out to be - tough, yes, but I had much tougher moments out there. The descent off the ridge was grin-inducing crazy steep and loose jeep roads and singletrack, finally mellowing out into happy winding desert trails as we approached the town of Oracle.

How I love you Oracle Patio Cafe

Stuff yer face

Then shit got real. The heat came back with a vengeance, accompanied by some nasty crosswinds. Progress after Oracle slowed to a crawl - heavy bike (6L of water!), relentless steep ups and downs, getting blown off-trail by the winds - it took 6 or 7 hours (!) to make it to the Freeman cache, only 35 miles from Oracle.

Cholla forests - beautiful

First rattler sighting

My goal was reaching the Gila River that evening, but I hugely underestimated how long it would take me to get there, which resulted in me not packing nearly enough food in Oracle. Fighting the Ripley climb through the darkness, still many miles from the river, water and food dwindling, an uneasiness crept over me like I hadn't experienced before, and the mental demons had me in their grasp. My self confidence was shaken, I was pissed at myself for making such a rookie mistake about the food. What the hell am I doing out here, alone in the middle of the night in the freaking desert? Thoughts of ending my race after the 300 mile mark began to take hold.

Yet another ridiculous sunset

Of course, these thoughts were absurd - I wasn't in any danger, and I was doing exactly what I wanted to be doing, and I'm a bit annoyed with myself for letting those thoughts affect me like they did. But this race was taking me to depths of fatigue I hadn't experienced before, which did a number on my mental state that evening.

I did finally reach the river at midnight, immediately filtered several liters of water to quench my thirst, and devoured the rest of my food. Tomorrow's gonna suck, I thought as I dug into my sleeping bag on the soft river bank, and fell asleep instantly to the soothing sound of the river.

My alarm was drowned out by the river, so I awoke to daylight. And man, the Gila is stunning. The beauty of the morning banished the negativity from my head, and I rode along in awe.

Sometimes riding......

Other times pushing.

The 6 hours it took me to escape the Gila without any food weren't bad at all. Slow and steady, body in fat-burning mode, I simply pedaled forth, climbing out of the canyon and taking it all in.

Mr. Boatman fills me in on the upcoming challenges

Picketpost. Finally. I was still debating in my head if I should continue, still a bit shaken by my errors of judgement, and completely exhausted by the unexpected difficulties of the first 300 miles. Thankfully I was able to push past the doubts; some fun conversations with fellow racers, a bit of rest in the shade, and some sorely needed bike maintenance got my motivation stoked up, and before long I was off towards Apache Junction, my mind on only one thing: FOOD.

Apache Junction did not disappoint. Easy miles on dirt roads and paved highways got me to restaurants and hotels in no time. Initially I felt guilty about getting a hotel - during CTR, I never even considered the possibility of getting one, and I didn't expect to want to stay in any hotels during this race. I always considered staying in hotels kind of contrary to the spirit of the race, but I also didn't expect to feel as bad as I felt after only 4 days. I realized, this is my vacation, and I'm here to enjoy myself and see Arizona in the best way possible, not worry about whether I should stay in a damn hotel or not. If it means getting a hotel so I could recover to continue enjoying the race, who cares.

And damn, did that bed feel good. Next up - central AZ and the dreaded Highline Trail to the Mogollon Rim.