My AZT Experience. April 5, 2018
Start of the AZT 300. Parker Canyon Lake trailhead.
Bike Setup. Apidura all 'round.
My AZT started when my Mom dropped me off at the start area right at sunset. I had barely enough time to unload and setup camp before it was pitch black. I was drinking too much water and had a terrible sleep. Waking up every hour to pee and the nerves of the unknown and uncertain race ahead only let me get about 4 hours sleep. 6am and it was time to get ready. It was already getting warm in the sun. Fortunately the start is elevated and it wasn't super hot. Scott Morris, the organizer, talked about the race and after a 10 second countdown it was 8am and we were off.
I see why the first hill is called gear check hill. It was super loose with sharp jagged rocks everywhere. I did my best to play it safe on most of the descents the first day to be sure I wouldn't push it too hard and also try to avoid gashes and sidewall cuts. The trail to Patagonia was a lot of fun but also quite rough in spots. I think it would be a blast to ride without all of my gear on my bike. The first half to Patagonia there was a lot of jockeying going on, myself included, as everyone tried to find a good pace. I was most impressed by a young lady who was moderate on the climbs but crushing the descents. We went back and forth for a while until there was a long descent and she took off. I later found out that it was Kaitlyn Boyle who went without sleep and finished second overall. After Kaitlyn took off I found myself riding at a similar pace as a guy with pink socks. We started chatting up each other and we had an amazing amount in common as well as our race plans. I was more than happy to have someone to ride into the unknown with. This riding buddy was Dana Ernst. Into Patagonia we arrived and Dana went to grab some water or food. I needed to get some air in my tires after riding the Canelo Hills with about 25psi as we had a good chunk of road and double track next. We made a 5 min. stop the whole time watching for any other riders around us to see where we were in the crowd of 39 riders "racing" the 300 mile version. Onto the road to Sonoita and the wind was blowing perfectly at our backs so we could blast. I tagged another rider on the road who said his name was Chad when we talked with him in Sonoita. I am not sure he had a tracker but he definitely had the gear and was setting a good pace on his 2.8's. A quick resupply on Sonoita for Dana and I and we were back on the pedals. Perhaps a bit too quick for me as I did not get enough food and would pay the price later that night. The ride in Kentucky Camp was a bunch of double track but there were some gems of smooth flowy singletrack mixed in there that had both Dana and I in big smiles. Kentucky camp came and went as we did a quick resupply. Passed a thru hiker that was wearing some thin leather sandals. Dana and I were amazed.
Dana and I would always talk with the people along the trail and ask how many riders were in front of us and most would say two or three. Dana and I were really happy that we were doing so well. Eventually our curiosity got the better of us and we checked Trackleaders and saw that in fact were were 4th and 5th behind Neil, Kurt and Kaitlyn. This was well ahead of my goal of finishing top 10 and finishing under 3 days. We kept on knocking off miles and just as the sun was setting I needed a break and sat down and forced down a bar as my gut was starting to not be too happy with the liquid diet so far. I needed to get some food and not bars.
On went the lights and I was worried about my untested dynamo/k-lite setup. I thought it was going to be brighter and it had troubles lighting the way. Dana had a very bright Sinewave Beacon with headlamp combo that had me really impressed. He was outshining my light unless I was descending at speed. I eventually put on my Fenix BC21R light that I had rigged up to run on my helmet and that helped brighten everything up quite a bit.
The Santa Rita's seemed to go on forever and ever. Passing hikers and watching the trail go from semi-arid to desert the lower we descended. Seeing the highway then nothing then finally we hit the Sahuarita road/Hwy83 cache and there were two older people there. One a bikepacker that was setting up for the night and they were excited to see us and give us splits to the riders ahead of us. We grabbed a bit of water and set off into the darkness. One thing that was interesting was just how dark it was in the desert. There was some glow from Tucson but for most of the evenings it was pitch black until the moon came up at around 1-2am.
Under the interstate we went and spirits were high as it actually felt like we were progressing on the trail unlike the previous section. We had planned to keep going until we couldn't go any further so we pushed ourselves and our bikes along the trail. We were getting tired and it was 9 or so by the time we had made it to La Selvilla camp but I didn't know where the spigot was and we just decided to keep pedaling. My stomach was quite unhappy with me now and I was feeling the effects of riding. I needed food. We thought we might be able to get to Saguaro Corners restaurant before closing and that was enough motivation for me to keep going. We finally made it to the double track after Hope Camp and enjoyed the change of trail. After a while we finally came to a parking lot and knew that we had made it to the road into Tucson. I was relieved to be out of the desert and looking forward to finally getting some food in me. It felt like Dana was hammering the road and I was struggling with a lack of energy and a sore stomach. Dana had planned to load up on water at Saguaro Park office as he was racing on a liquid diet but the gates were locked so we decided to ride on and drop into Tucson for water and food. A little ways up the road Dana spotted a trail into the park and he was going to get water and I was going to continue into Tucson as I needed something to eat. We thanked each other for the company and did not know if we would see each other again. I took it easy after we parted ways and cruised into Tucson to the Safeway. Everything was closed. I used my phone to find a Jack-in-the-Box but they were closing up as it was near 1am. I circled back... to the CircleK and finally got some food into me. I ate and rested for about an hour after which I felt great and headed back to the course and had decided to pedal until I was really sleepy. The moon had come up now and I could see around a bit better. The trail through East Tucson was quite sandy as far as I remember. I hit Reddington and up I went. I was getting tired going up the switchbacks and began looking for a place to sleep but every turn out had a vehicle or two. Passed some possibly drunk guy coming down the hill driving 10km/h or slower. He asked what hell I was doing riding my bike at almost 4 in the morning up this back road. I said I was racing and he said oh yeah I saw some other guys about an hour ago. I finally found a sandy washout near the top and setup camp and was in the bag at 4am.
I awoke to the sound of a car coming up the hill. The headlights hit my tent and I checked my phone. 5am. Uggh. I am awake so I might as well get riding again. The sun was barely coming up but the sky had lightened up enough for me to ride without lights. Onto the "Italian Trap" section. Not sure why it is called that but I think the trap has to do with the super rocky Jeep type of trail it was. It could definitely trap your vehicle if you were not careful. I later found out that Dana had found his water at the park and had kept riding and actually did the Italian Trap section in the dark. That must have been very difficult as I had troubles in the light. I missed a turn but didn't get too far before I realized my mistake. The doubletrack eventually met back up with the AZT and back into the fun riding I went. Crossed back over Reddington and towards Molina HAB. Some fun singletrack riding before Molina. The weather had been cool and cloudy but once I made it to the bottom of Molina the clouds had cleared the sun was shining brightly and the heat was on. Up and up over the pass and a very technical ride down the other side in the rocks then through the campground and up beside the highway on more singletrack. Off and on the bike to the shoulder then a quick drop to Prison camp?? Not sure if that is what it is called. It was nice to get onto the smooth highway. Seemed like lots of cars and cyclists were going by me as I tried to keep a steady pace up the hill. I started using the cyclists to push myself a bit seeing how long I could stay on their wheels. The heat was on but the elevation change going from 5000feet to 8000feet and the nice breeze helped keep me cool.
Finally into Summerhaven I was looking forward to a big greasy burger and fries and received just that at the restaurant across from the visitor centre. Relaxed and tried to each as much as I could but I just couldn't finish. Once finished eating I headed down to the store and loaded up on water and powerade. I also grabbed some food as I did not think there was much in the way of stores to the end of the race. In hindsight I should have grabbed more as this was the last food stop in the race. While heading out the wind started to blow pretty strongly and I was headed out on Oracle ridge. A notorious section of rough downhill hike a bike. The start of the ridge wasn't that bad. Some fun technical tidbits here and there but it became worse and worse. On and off and back on repeated for a while. Doing the ridge at night would be a serious challenge as there were some good drop offs beside the trail and one wrong move could cause some hurt.... actually, that is really the case for a lot of this trail. Down and down, some high speed sections, some super loose double track, then back onto rocky singletrack. Once I made down into Oracle state park the trail became a lot of fun beside the water bars on every switch back. Down below Flagg Ranch until the highway underpass was a lot of fun. Some great singletrack and new singletrack trail. Topped up my water at the Underpass cache and made my way up the road to Tiger Mine trailhead. As I was coming up to the trailhead I saw a rider at the entrance to the AZT. A rider in pink. It was Dana and he had been waiting for me as he was not feeling all that well and had decided to rest at trailhead so he could ride with me at night. I was more than happy to have the company again. We yakked for a bit then hit the trail. The sun was dropping down below the horizon and we hit our lights. Dana told me about his day and that he was not feeling well at all. We took it easy on the climbs and saved our energy. About an hour or so in Dana said he had to rest for a bit and had a lay down while I checked in with trackleaders to see where everyone was. I contemplated going on without Dana but I was happy to rest my legs a bit. I rested for maybe 15 min in the dark before telling Dana that I wanted to get moving again. Dana agreed and we pushed on for about another 30 or so minutes before Dana said he had to lie down again. This time I told Dana I would push on and try to make Freeman Cache before sleeping. Riding along in the desert on the AZT at night was very nice as you could just focus on the trail in front of you but the trade-off is you couldn't see the spectacular area you were riding in. Around midnight I was starting to get loopy. The AZT signs had reflective markers on them but my brain was thinking they were something else and I felt like I was shopping going from marker to marker. I finally had to stop and see how much further I needed to go. I think my phone said 6 miles. Those were the longest 6 miles in the race. I finally hit the Freeman road, crossed over, looped back around to the trailhead, setup camp and was asleep a little after 2:20. I was out quick and only woke up when I finally heard Dana roll up. I asked him what time it was and he said about 4:20. He setup camp beside me and I dozed off for another 40min. until my alarm went off at 5am. My body said sleep but my mind said go. We struggled to get packed up and moved over to the cache where we topped up our water and readied ourselves for the push to the finish.
Riding north from Freeman Trailhead was a lot of fun and both Dana and I were in high spirits. Dana talked about his night in the desert. He said after I left him he was surrounded by coyotes yipping and he thought they were coming for him, he had also thrown up and catnapped through the night to catch up to me. I was happy to get some actual riding in as we moved north from singletrack to double track and then back to singletrack as we dropped into the Ripsey wash which is a huge sandy drainage to the Gila river. It was really starting to get hot and Dana and I were feeling it but we continued on up to Ripsey ridge in the blazing sun. The trail up to the ridge is mostly hike-a-bike but once up on the ridge the riding was a blast. We could see the big mine at Kelvin from the top and Dana had mentioned that we could order pizza from the top and get them to meet us at the bridge/ADOT yard in Kelvin. I checked on my phone and the pizza place did not open until 11 and it was only 10. So we didn't order and kept riding. The descent off of Ripsey was some fun technical riding with a bunch of switch backs and smooth stuff thrown in. I had though the trail ended at the bridge but we were only at the Kelvin trailhead and still had a ways to go to the Kelvin bridge. The section of singletrack cooked us and we were very glad to hit the water at the ADOT yard. It was so hot out and not even 11am. We decided to try and call the pizza place even though it was 10:45 and amazingly enough they answered the phone and after talking with the owner/manager the large pizza and four cans of coke were ordered. Dana and I took the time to try to chill in the shade and drink a bunch of water that the ADOT yard supplied to Arizona Trail users. The pizza arrived as she said 45 min. later and we inhaled three slices each and then used the foil and baggie Lorraine had sent with the pizza to stash that last slice in our bags with the second coke. As we were getting ready to leave Dana had checked his Garmin and it said 104.8F. It was now damn hot. I even told Dana, "Dangerously hot." We loaded up with as much water as possible and started the slow push to the finish.
It was so hot and there was nowhere to hide on the first section riding along the Gila. We finally found some shade but it was not enough and we were baking. We went from somewhat shady spot to somewhat shady spot. We finally found a good spot where some boulders completely blocked out the sun on the trail and rested a good 30 min. We kept thinking if we could get access to the Gila we could cool ourselves down in the river as it looked enticing from the trail. Little did we know that the Gila was very tough to get to from the trail. The closer you were to the river the more overgrown the plants were or there were barb wire fences or a go 100 foot drop to the river. Shade, bike, shade for a long while before we finally were able to see the river from the trail. We slipped under the fence and down the bank to the river. The river that looked enticing from afar was gross close up. Murky brown water with cow patties all over....at least it was somewhat cold and we were able to cool down a little even though by the time we were back out our bikes we were hot again. Oh well. A little further up the trail we came across two rattlers tangled up. It looked like it was two males wrestling as they were standing up quite high. Dana and I stayed back and cut the trail to go around them as they were right in the middle of the trail in the fading sunlight. We finally made it to the turn up to Picketpost and we ate our last pizza slice and took a look at our water situation. I was down past half and I think Dana had about half as well and we had a huge mountain to go over. Fortunately for us the sun was going down and the valley we went up was mostly shaded by the mountains.
It was very scenic on the hike up but about halfway up darkness had fallen and I think Dana and I missed a lot of the scenery. Dana was struggling with his lights for quite a while this evening as it was not or did not charge properly during the day and was flickering away at hiking speed. He was hiking mostly with his bright headlight. The hike, ride, hike repeated for what felt like forever. Then the trail would drop down and get your hopes up that you hit the top only to go back up again. This cycle would repeat many times and Dana and I were totally disoriented but kept following the trail in front of us. I was saving my can of coke for the top so I had a quick shot of energy for the descent and I finally was frustrated with the up and down and cracked the can and chugged the warm coke. Shortly after I was hiking up a short section and I finally felt the blister pop on my big toe. There was so much hiking that a huge blister had formed. Ouch! By now my water was pretty much gone and it was a very long descent down to the finish. I do not know when we finally summited as there was nothing marking the top of the trail but we did see some other trails and an AZT trail marker. We finally had some good descending sections but the fatigue and lack of water was taking its toll and I was getting sloppy on some of the rock sections. I slowed myself down and focused on the finish now as I had messaged my wife and asked her to bring water, coke and food to the finish and that is all that I was thinking about. About halfway down I had the last drops from my water bottles and sucked every drop out of my Osprey bladder. I was parched for the rest of the ride. It hurt to swallow and my mouth and throat were very dry. Down across a wash and hike up the other side, again and again. It was so dark you couldn't see anything around you so we really had no idea if we were close or not, other than the magenta line eventually ending somewhere ahead in the darkness. It was near the end that Dana seemed to really start struggling (edit from Dana "He was absolutely shattered") . I think he had bashed his chain/bike on a rock and the chain had loosened. He fixed it and I just wanted to finish now and pushed the pace. There were more trails appearing and we were getting close until I came around a corner and could see vehicles and the trail marker. We were done! There were so many vehicles in the parking lot I was not sure where my wife was as it was so dark. I turned back to congratulate Dana on a great ride. We found my wife and downed a lot of water, coke and food.
I rode 478km in 2 days 15hours 13 minutes. Adventure goal accomplished and very happy considering this is my second bikepacking race and first attempt at the AZT. Still learning lots about my body and ultra racing.
Avoid Prickly Pears. Their spines can penetrate hard leather shoes.
Eat more food and less bars/*ades
SPF50 Sunscreen for my Canadian winter whiteness.
Better stop plans.
Kelvin "bridge" pizza is a life saver.
Pack more food in Summerhaven.
If I were to do this again I would use a Hiking/Cycling hybrid shoe that the 750 riders use. My XC racing shoes are not good to hike miles and miles in.
Saw three rattlers, coral snake, scorpion, mini owls that would sit on the trail and fly off at the last second, death wish cottontails and big hares. Oh and lots of suicidal kangaroo rats. I think I hit one or he hit me. Dana saw the aftermath.
The Finish! Good riding with you Dana.