After a marathon drive and a scant few hours of sleep in a dirt parking lot, I found myself lining up at 3 am for my first race of the year. A strange sequence of events presented me with the opportunity for some more racing on the Arizona Trail. Chad and Scott put on a neat race called the Antelope Peak Challenge, which involves either a 65- or 115-mile singletrack-rich route with the option of climbing to the top of Antelope Peak along the way. I've raced this section of the AZT twice before, both in the middle of much longer endeavors, but the 115-mile route includes a new section of AZT that has been spoken very highly of. How could I pass this up?
At 3 am, five of us rolled out for the long event, not particularly talkative given the early hour. I was aboard my new Salsa Spearfish frame that I've only had for a couple weeks, so I was a little nervous about how it would treat me on this day. We rode the first 15 'neutral' miles at a moderate pace and then blasted into the AZT singletrack. In reality, we were moving rather slowly on the windy, overgrown, rocky singletrack crossed by countless cattle paths, but in the dark, it felt fast enough because I felt like I was bouncing off everything in sight. We gradually spread out, and I ended up riding the steep climbs and descents of the gasline road with Max as we complained about how much our feet were hurting in the cold early morning hours.
I found myself alone as I mashed a big gear through the rutted sand of Bloodsucker Wash, trying in vain to find a slightly firmer line. The first hint of light appeared in the southeastern skies, but I was too focused on the challenge at hand to really notice. By the bottom, I caught sight of Neil, who had ridden into the lead on the Gasline hills. I soon switched off my light and negotiated the trail as it crossed the steep valleys on the east side of Antelope Peak. Occasionally I'd hear Max hollering behind me as he cleaned a switchback (or maybe as he got whacked in the leg by yet another cactus...).
Antelope Peak itself is only a short trot above the AZT, so I stashed my bike in a ravine and scurried up to the top. Just below the summit, Neil popped over the other side of the ridge, also headed up. We chatted for a minute, took in the view, and then headed down opposite sides. He was looking strong and riding well, so I was expecting a challenge.
Back on my bike, I followed Max's lone tire tracks out onto the fast and sinuous Boulders Segment. The miles flew by, but I tried to maintain a reasonable pace without pushing too hard. The upcoming Ripsey Segment included a ton of climbing, and then the trip back south had far more up than down. I finally hit the Ripsey loop and found myself on loose, steep singletrack descending a remote canyon before starting a long sequence of impressively-built steep switchbacks up Ripsey Hill. My tire choice was doing me no favors here, forcing me to ride far more cautiously than I generally enjoy doing.
I saw Max up ahead, pushing his bike, and caught him before too long. He was in good spirits, and we stopped for a couple minutes at the top to take in the view and eat some food. Eating on this course is a huge challenge, but after 8 hours of riding, this was my first actual pause to eat.
Neil caught us at that point, and I took off after him as we dove into the long, switchback-filled descent into the valley far below. I passed Neil as he missed a turn, he passed me back as I overshot one soon after, I passed him as he missed another, and then I was suddenly alone. By the bottom of the descent, my hands were aching from the hard braking, and I genuinely welcomed the sight of a graded dirt road, even if it did climb 1500'.
This was the lowest point in the course, as well as the farthest point from the start. The road wrapped around to the south, and with my legs still feeling fantastic, I finally let the reigns loose. I wasn't sure if I could make it the last 40+ miles pushing hard, but one of the reasons I was there was to test such limits.
From there on, everything is a bit of a blur. I pushed the pace a bit up that first climb and then increased my effort a bit more on the shorter climbs beyond that. Turning back onto the singletrack, I felt like I was going just as fast as I had been earlier, but this time it was a gradual climb that stretched on for 10 miles. The miles flew by, and my legs continued to put out as much as I dared ask from them. This was a completely new sensation for me after 10+ hours of riding.
Before I knew it, I steered onto a dirt road that signaled 15 miles to go and kicked up the tempo even more. Choking down food and liquid was becoming nearly impossible despite the smooth dirt roads, but bonking was not far of at all, so I took in all I could bear. 65-mile racers appeared on the road ahead, and could barely even croak a greeting to them as I passed. These last miles began to hurt more and more - burning quads, exhausted arms, parched lips, and sweat burning the catclaw-inflicted wounds all over my legs. Eventually, with the sun still high in the sky, I rolled into the trailhead parking lot as Scott snapped a couple photos (like the one below, stolen from his blog). My total time was just under 12.5 hours, and I managed to keep the non-moving time to only about 20 minutes.
I was completely spent. But my legs dished out more than I thought they had in them, the new bike outperformed anything I've previously raced on this sort of terrain, and I had enjoyed yet another long day on the AZT. What more can one ask for? Neil and Max came in a bit over an hour later, and Jonesy slogged it out and finished in 19 hours.
Caroline, in her first mountain bike race, rolled into the finish just after dark and was all smiles despite a long day and having to skip the final few miles of faint singletrack after the sun set. She even got to experience the pleasures of pulling cholla out of her leg mid-race. Pretty impressive...
Now we're up in Sedona, slowly recovering from the efforts and trying to explore the amazing landscape and trails surrounding us. Yesterday we rode for 4 hours, and covering 20 miles in that time was asking a lot from my tired body.
10+ hours of sleep later, today's ride felt like far less of a chore. We explored a 50-mile loop of entirely unknown territory, and it turned out to be a fantastic ride with a bit of everything (except other cyclists...we saw only 2, one of whom immediately asked me how I got my hands on a Spearfish already!).
The rain showers managed to steer around us, and by late afternoon, the skies cleared up and made for some of the most astounding lighting I've seen on desert rock formations in quite a while. This is why I'm never bothered when I realize that I'm not going to be home by dark...