Wednesday, April 20, 2011
The Arizona Trail holds a unique charm that isn't really found anywhere in my home state of Colorado. Two years ago, I headed down to race the AZT300 for the first time, spending 2.5 days battling a strong contingent of Colorado racers, some awful winter weather, and a string of flats like I'd never had before. In the end, I somehow beat Stefan G. by a minuscule margin and simultaneously did enough damage to my knee that I was out for a month after the race. Last year I succumbed to Scott M's challenge of racing the full AZT to Utah. I time trialed the course, starting alone alone and used the race as a venue to really push the limits of sleep deprivation and my physical stamina. Again, things turned out unexpectedly well with two new records in the books, but this time I walked away with a severely damaged Achilles tendon.
This year, I decided to give the AZT300 another go, but for fun and training this time. The race wasn't one of my main goals for the season, so I went in with no pressure. This time, inspired by Jefe's huge ride there last year, I decided to try to push the sleep deprivation a little farther to the point of seeing if I could simply forgo sleeping. This would work to my advantage in keeping me either up high or in the dark in place of battling the high forecasted temperatures at key times.
So as usual, I had a little cheat sheet with distances and time goals between different places. There were a few major course changes for this year which helped my timing, but still, Patagonia in 5 hours? Tucson by 2 am? Summerhaven by noon? This seemed just a little outlandish.
After driving down to the finish in Superior, we met Dave and Lynda to help them with shuttling, the primary logistical challenge of the AZT. Lynda was primed and ready to go. And not unsurprisingly, she went on to finish in an incredible time, thriving in the searing heat and actually winning outright! Dave was looking to enjoy a few days on the bike, but some horrendous blisters on his heals knocked him out early.
At the start, a crew of brave riders anxiously lashed, taped, and strapped gear to their bikes before the group rolled out at 9 am. I quickly found myself in the company of young gun Taylor Lideen, Salsa teammate Joe Meiser, and Aaron Gulley, who I raced with a couple weeks back in New Mexico. All three were riding strong in the Canelo Hills, and Joe was particularly impressive on his first day of riding singletrack this year. My legs felt great, and I set a comfortable pace that brought us to Patagonia in just a bit over 4 hours! I questioned the seemingly high pace a bit, but pushed on to Sonoita for some ice cream.
After picking up a few extra calories and a couple liters of liquid, Aaron and I set off for Kentucky Camp and beyond. I struggled up the gradual climb toward the base of the Santa Rita mountains after sending a thousand gas station calories into my stomach. My legs also felt like bricks, worrying me a bit. They gradually improved as I digested my food, and fortunately, that was the worst they would feel over the 190 miles I rode. Aaron struggled with leg cramps but continued to push a strong pace, and after floating through some great singletrack built on an old flume, we arrived at Kentucky Camp and stopped briefly to eat and fill up on water.
The sun was still high, but I wanted to push on to get as far into the windy, hilly singletrack south of I10 as possible. I recalled my struggles on that section last year - no power in the legs, sleep on the mind, and the inability to navigate the steep ravines. By dark, Aaron and I were well into this section, and armed with a second light this year, I hammered through this section, only briefly delayed by a broken chain. A quick stop for some food after this section saw Aaron, Joe, and me regroup before heading north toward the rocky limestone trail through the Colossal Cave area. Joe took the lead, and almost instantly, the tiniest shard of rock jumped up from the trail and sliced by sidewall. I managed to plug the hole and was moving again in a few minutes, but Aaron never passed me. It turns out his GPS failed, and he soon bailed due to that.
I pushed on through the warm night, swooping in and out of turns cut between prickly pairs and the first saguaros of the AZT. These tall figures stood as desert sentinels faintly lit by the nearly-full moon. But there were more pressing matters on the mind, so I didn't take the time to fully appreciate the changing flora. Joe and I tackled the technical trails through these rugged hills just outside of Tucson. My legs in past years were dead by this point, and sleep was the only solution. We whisked past both spots I'd camped, and before I knew it, we were on the pavement into town. The roads were deserted, and I was secretly hoping for a soda machine somewhere in the near future. My dream came true as we stopped for water and found a vending machine full of 29-degree cans of pop (or so the sign claimed). I drank one can, shoved two in my pack, and we headed off toward the climb up Redington Road.
The night was cruising right on by, and I was wide awake. Joe's company helped keep me going, but neither of us had a lot to say. Darkness still filled the entire sky when we reached the turn onto a series of gnarly jeep roads, but the murky silhouette of Mount Lemmon towered above. I was uneasy of how near it was, but I tried to keep my mind on the local terrain. We cautiously bounced over the rough and rocky track before rejoining the AZT.
"There it is!" I shouted to Joe, waving toward the east. "The first daylight!" Joe whooped with delight. Before long, we were chasing our shadows toward the Mount Lemmon highway on singletrack that I had never before really enjoyed.
On the steep hike-a-bike climb out of that valley, the sun, still very low in the sky, already baked us. It was going to feel good to get up high on Lemmon. One last steep section of singletrack stood between us and the pavement, and Joe succumbed to hunger and fatigue and stopped a few times to get some more calories down. I stopped once, but I was anxious to continue going. A bit higher, I pushed my bike up a steep series of switchbacks. A group of four guys on came ripping down from above, so I stepped off the trail to let them by.
"Chad?" the first guy asked.
"Oh, Scott then?" he asked again.
"Nope, I'm Kurt."
"Oh. I'm Dylan. Have a good one!" And with that, he was gone. I chuckled. Chad and Scott's bikepacking reputations precede them.
I soon found myself chatting with some roadies on the smooth pavement. They were in disbelief that I had been riding for 25 hours straight. I was, too. I also couldn't believe how strong my legs felt. I stood up for a few minutes and passed a couple more roadies. They gave me a strange look, so I didn't slow down to say anything more than good morning.
Cool air swept down the highway, and I relished the feeling. Last year I was blown all over the place by winds topping 40 mph. Two years ago, I was riding through several inches of fresh snow and sub-freezing temperatures. I'd take this to those past years any day.
I stocked up on food in Summerhaven, stopped briefly to talk to some downhillers that were getting set to ride, and then nervously dropped down onto Oracle Ridge. The AZT here degrades to a place where bikes aren't welcome. Foot travel is challenging enough on this steep, overgrown ridgeline. The sun baked the west-facing slope I had to traverse, and there was little wind to cool me off. It wasn't long before the briar, loose rocks, and continuously unrideable terrain got me frustrated, but right around that point, Tim and Fritz emerged on their way up from doing some much-appreciated trail work. We conversed for a few minutes, and then I was back at it, battling Oracle Ridge.
I made good progress, and soon I was riding more than I was walking. But overeager to ride as much as I could, I suddenly found felt my front wheel sliding sideways on some loose cobbles, and I was sent to the ground. I wasn't going more than walking speed, but I managed to knock my left kneecap right on a rock. It didn't even break the skin, but I instantly realized that I had hit the exact spot where I've dealt with inflammation off and on over the past few years.
With that, I made the decision to call the race right there. For once, I saw no point in pushing on and doing more damage to my knee. So I sat down, ate some food, drank the two cans of Red Bull that were in my pack, arranged for a pickup that would arrive to a road below me in a few hours (thank you Caroline and Tim!), and then went to sleep.
After a nice nap, I stood up and discovered that my knee had tightened up so much that I could barely walk, and pedaling was out of the question. What a response to a minor fall! So I coasted the downhills, limped the uphills, and extracted myself from the lower slopes of Oracle Ridge without too much difficulty. I even had time to chase around a little horned toad for a few minutes. I had never seen one of these cute critters before, so that had me smiling again.
Obviously, this wasn't the ending I had had in mind for the AZT this year. My legs felt like they had many, many hours left in them, and I only had 90 miles to go, though those included some heinous jeep road climbs toward the end. My Spearfish was running flawlessly save the flat and broken chain, and I was slightly ahead of my ambitious plan. I'm not sure if I could have held sleep completely off for a second night, but it sure wasn't out of the question. So I walked away more confident than ever in my fitness, as well as the fact that several more hours minimum should come off the course record. We'll see when that happens. I was sure Joe was going to do it, but he bailed the following day. Only 4 of 22 starters finished, attesting to both the tough course, high temperatures, and the fact that riders must be prepared for a variety of gear failures.
Once again, thanks to Scott for organizing this little event, and a huge congrats to Lynda on the win, props to the other tough finishers, and some virtual encouragement to Max M. who is the sole rider pushing on toward Payson as I write this. He's traveling light, incorporated a lot of running into his training, and is in a great position to make it all the way to Utah, especially with the cooler weather in store.