The sun rose as I was just about to the Mount Lemmon Scenic Highway, and I spent the first part of the morning slogging up the long, paved climb, usually pushing into a stiff, cold headwind. By 9 am, I passed Summerhaven and headed directly out onto the now infamous Oracle Ridge. But the trail down (and sometimes up) the ridge crest is unimaginably better than it was 4 years ago thanks to maintenance by Fritz and Tim. I was amazed at how marginally rideable many sections are now when the trail was barely passable just a few years ago. Note that “marginally rideable” is a very good thing in this context.
The cool wind gusted strongly over the ridge, but the intense sun was already warming the air dramatically. By the time I hit the plains below, the heat was stifling. I detoured into Oracle to resupply at the little market and then headed north into the lowlands of the route. These last 90 miles I know better than any other part of the course, and despite their difficulty, I was excited for those miles.
My pace slowed a bit under the hot afternoon sun. I figured I only had to endure the heat for six hours before nightfall, and my sole goal for that time was to make it close to Antelope Peak and beyond the tough-to-follow segment of trail between me and the stubby little red peak. That segment of trail was where my world temporarily collapsed last year.
The Freeman water cache, which I found with 40 empties and just 3 gallons of actual water. I topped off my trail karma on the drive home by dropping off 15 gallons and hauling off all the empties.
But despite the heat, I found myself watching the sun set behind Antelope Peak as it loomed large on the skyline. And that little peak only ever looks big when you are immediately below it. I flipped on my bright lights and pushed on, dodging cholla bombs and moths that were excitedly attacking the lights. The sliver of a crescent moon set behind the peak, closely chasing the sun, and the stars grew more and more intense. The second night is always the toughest for me in this race, and I was apprehensive about how I would fare.
These nerves, combined with some unsettling pain deep in my left quad, made me do something unprecedented: I stopped for an hour-long nap at 10 pm. I never stop and sleep that early, usually opting to stubbornly pedal until the wee hours of the morning. This nap, however, was magical, and after rousing and regaining a friendly light tailwind, I moved rapidly toward Ripsey Hill and the mountains beyond. The awkard singletrack leading to the Ripsey climb kept me pleasantly entertained, but the descent down to Gila was particularly painful on my hands and feet.
Passing Kelvin in the dark felt like a huge coup, and I let out hoot or three while doing so. A lone dog barked softly in an understated reply. My tires dug into the loose granite grus of the White Canyon trail, and the first light of morning would soon be appearing over the cliffs high above. Birds were already excitedly and vocally going about their morning business as I labored on. For the first time in the entire ride, I became frustrated with my seemingly slow progress on the winding trail.
White Canyon in long shadows.
Before long, I found myself in some sort of a dream state. I was pedaling through the switchbacks and tight turns, concerned about who was in charge of my steering. And I questioned who was responsible for maintaining traction. Who would be in charge of eating? I assume this all was related to a faculty retreat I had just been through where one of our discussions related to how tasks would be divided among the new dean positions at the college. I obviously was not sleeping, but my brain sure was somewhere else during that last hour of the night.
I eventually became more alert as the landscape brightened. Soon I checked the time: 5:20 am. I did the math. I would start the final climb around 7 am. That was later than I had hoped for, but it was still record pace and far ahead of my previous fastest time. The sun popped over the canyon rim and I cut across the long shadows of tall saguaros. The already-warm air would be approaching my boiling point in just a few hours, and that had me seriously concerned. The early morning light on the cliffs above was spectacular, but I opted to ride sans camera this time. The minutes ticked by. I ate a Slim Jim and some dried peaches on a short section of jeep trail before diving back into more sandy singletrack.
Gila Canyons, back in March.
At 6:59 am, the trail turned uphill and began climbing steeply. This was it, the final push, and I was wide awake. I quickly stopped to dump 900 calories of honey waffle crackers into my top tube bag and then dug into the 1800’ climb. The warm morning air already had me sweating and drinking water at an alarming rate. I had ambitiously hoped to cover this final section in just over 3 hours, and with some reserves still apparently in my legs, I was able to push hard. The stunning scenery and an ambling tortoise distracted me from the pain of the effort. I bounced through the entertainingly technical trail over the divide and pressed on, smelling the scent of the final long downhill.
Then I heard cheers, and after not seeing a soul on the entire trail, I was caught off guard. It was Alexis, who was my lift back to Tucson! I passed her as she ran back to her bike and gave chase. But after 49 hours on my bike, I was descending as well as I ever do, and I was soon alone again, carving through turn after turn on the windy trail.
10:00 am came and went. It was hot. My gloves were encrusted in a thick layer of salt.
10:10 am passed. I pleaded with the trail to just let me be done. The rough, rocky sections of trail made my feet throb.
Soon I could see the outhouse at the trailhead. I crossed the last two drainages and coasted into the parking lot.
10:21 am. Finished. 50 hours and 20 minutes since I dove into the Canelo Hills. I found a pocket of shade and cowered from the sun. The temperature was already in the 90s, and I could not have been more relieved to be done.
Finished, and still feeling surprisingly alive.
What a ride it was this year. I feel like through all my struggles on the trail in past years, I must have been due for a large bounty of good luck. And that is just what I was given. Never before have I done an ultra that went this smoothly, in which my legs felt so consistently good, and during which my mind remained so steadfastly focused. Apparently the fifth time as the charm for me on the AZT. For better or for worse, though, the next step in the experiment is to see what happens when I start pushing harder far earlier than at the Gila River. Next time may well be an all or nothing approach, but for now, I’m still catching up on my sleep.