Ready to go, cheeseburger in hand.
The way the race was progressing seemed all too familiar. Dark skies over Mount Lemmon and the Rincon Mountains to the south began to open up, and we could suddenly see grey shafts of rain and sleet coming down where we had been just a few hours earlier. Aaron Gulley, with whom I had been riding for the better part of 24 hours now, and I took a quick break from the hike-a-bike climb up the saddle above Molino Basin to survey the dreary sky. Just minutes ago, an orange sliver of sun had slipped past a razor thin gap in the clouds out on the horizon, and we optimistically thought that was a good sign. There wasn’t much to be said, but I think we both were hoping for a bit of luck with the weather.
Max Morris filling up on water at Kentucky Camp on day 1
Aaron Gulley riding toward the sinking sun on day 1
Not more than two switchbacks higher, a gust of wind brought with it a shower of sleet and big, cold raindrops. Aaron and I both dropped our bikes and rummaged through our bags to pull out our rain gear as quickly as possible. The temperature had been steadily dropping, so neither of us wanted to get too wet. I pushed on, hoping to get to the shelter of one of the bathrooms on the other side of the saddle in the campground. The normally treacherous descent down the other side was even more challenging with the rocks now being wet, so I scrambled down most of the drops instead of risking crashing trying to ride them.
As I crossed the highway and made a beeline for the dry patch of concrete beneath the bathroom entrance, my mind flashed back to 2009, my first go at the Arizona Trail 300. Foul weather moved in during the first night, and upon reaching this same point on the course, Chris Plesko, Stefan Griebel, and I were all cold, wet, and happy to find a place to get out of the rain. Only that year, there were cars coming down from higher on Mount Lemmon that were covered in a few inches of fresh snow.
I went in the bathroom and started delayering so I could put on some more warm clothing. Just 15 minutes in the cold rain had already chilled me to the bone. Aaron came in a couple minutes later looking rather nervous. We chatted a bit as I forced down some figs and an oatmeal cream pie. It turns out Aaron didn’t bring any rain pants along, so he was already rather wet. He sat down against the wall with a defeated look on his face. I remember similar expressions on Chris and Stefan’s faces as the rain fell audibly harder on the roof.
Pulling on my booties, I decided that it was time to get moving, and Aaron and I wished each other the best of luck. The first 24 hours of the race had gone almost flawlessly for me, and Aaron was looking very strong, and his annoyance at having sliced a sidewall a mere 2.5 miles into the race seemed to be diminishing. But now we had the weather to worry about.
The few miles of steep singletrack climbing above the campground went by pretty quickly, and I warmed right up from the effort and had to take off a couple layers. Rain showers continued to move through, and by the time I turned onto the highway to begin the 19-mile climb to Summerhaven, the rain was falling steadily.
Then a car came around the bend in front of me, covered in several inches of snow. My heart sank. How could this be a complete repeat of the 2009 race, when we had to battle 4” of snow and subfreezing temperatures high on Lemmon? April in southern Arizona, eh?
Two hours later, I found myself crunching up a climb covered by 5” of snow. There were only a few car tracks to follow, and the gusty winds would periodically blow me to the side and reduce visibility to zero. My face burned, my toes were numb, and my fingers could barely hold onto the bars. So much for my new “waterproof” gloves being anywhere near waterproof. I finally stopped to put on my warmer lobster gloves, but that simple task took several minutes since the zipper on my backpack was literally frozen shut. I also put on all my layers beneath my raincoat, which was now covered in ice on both the outside and the inside.
I pedaled on, my bike reduced to three working gears, then two, and then finally only one. Summerhaven was getting close, but I was getting colder and colder. I was hoping that I’d be able to spend a short while in either the general store or the fire station warming up before tackling Oracle Ridge. When I finally hit the Summerhaven turn, I breathed a sigh of relief and began shivering. I skittered down the hill, and in my haze, I saw a car stop in the road up ahead.
“Are you Kurt?” the driver yelled?
I mumbled something in return. I didn’t think there was anyone else riding around in the snow, anyway, so I was a bit confused by the question. Or maybe Aaron had decided to push up anyway?
“Meet us at the store!” the man yelled as they spun around behind me.
Max Morris, who had been riding with me until late the first night, said that the owners of the general store watched the online tracking of the race. I assumed that’s who was in the car. Briefly I wondered how Max was faring in the storm. He had been looking incredibly strong the day before.
Defrosting in Summerhaven and sort of smiling. Photo by Carol Mack.
Sure enough, the owners of the store and their son hopped out of the car and ran inside just as I rolled up. I leaned my bike on the wall, marveled at how much ice there was covering every part of it, and then went inside and began shivering uncontrollably for quite some time. They said it was 24 degrees outside, colder than in 2009. And it was definitely snowier than 2009. I was impressed.
I spent the next nearly two hours in there, warming up, drinking coffee, eating Hot Pockets, and chatting with Phil and Carol about the race. Conditions outside slowly improved, and after loading up on calories for the rest of the route and buying an extra fleece shirt, I headed out. But my bike had gone from a single-speed to a no speed while I was inside, requiring almost ten minutes of chipping ice off the drivetrain with my multi-tool.
Thinking the worst of the race was behind me, I climbed out of town and dropped over to the beginning of the AZT on Oracle Ridge. Then my jaw dropped…
Not what I wanted to see on Oracle Ridge.
The world ahead of me was a winter wonderland, blanketed in white down nearly to the town of Oracle, some 3,000 feet below me. And Oracle Ridge is barely rideable when it’s dry, which meant I had hours of hiking ahead of me. The sun was peeking out now, but the wind continued to howl, creating 15” deep drifts on the narrow bit of tread that exists on the side of the ridge.
Needless to say, I managed to make it down, although it took a couple hours longer than it would have in dry conditions. But at least I didn’t crash out descending this section like I did last year. The wind and sun dried my clothes out and melted the ice off my bike, and my morale improved.
The rest of the ride went more or less as I had predicted. I continued to ride well until after dark, but then my focus and strength began to wane. A quick nap made no discernable difference, and the new trail southeast of Antelope Peak was agonizingly slow and difficult to follow. I eventually succumbed to weakness in the wee hours, called Caroline, and told her that I’d probably want to be picked up at Freeman Road in the morning.
Antelope Peak, once again
My mind said I was done. For the second year in a row, I was going to bail from the front of the race.
Caroline thought otherwise.
“Why don’t you just try sleeping for a few hours, stupid? You’ve been riding for what, 40 hours?” Those weren’t her exact words, but they were pretty close.
I was too tired to argue, so I ended the conversation, rode to the next wash, and stretched out on the soft sand and slept for 2.5 hours. I awoke to the first hint of light in the sky, packed up, and started pedaling.
Wow. My legs felt good. My knees felt better. My mind felt better. Huh. Imagine that…sleep helps! It amazes me how muddy one’s thinking gets in the depth of these events. Sometimes it really takes someone else to knock some sense into you.
From that point on, I was able to hammer. Not just ride, or push a steady pace. My legs wanted to push hard. I didn’t know how long they’d last, so I held back a bit, but I got to Ripsey in what felt like no time, and soon I was pedaling along spectacular new AZT singletrack above the Gila River. The valley bottom was lush and green, the trail was amazingly constructed, and I could taste the finish. I pushed harder and harder, known that during my other two finishes of the 300, my legs arguably felt their strongest in the last 25 miles.
The Gila in White Canyon
Impressively, by the pass at the head of the canyon, one looks down on the summit of this pinnacle
The mind-bending singletrack continued as it snaked up and away from the Gila through a side canyon carved beneath monolithic peaks. I couldn’t believe the scenery, and I couldn’t believe how I was able to stand up and push as hard as I could for so long at a time. Up and up and up the trail went, over a saddle and into yet another breathtaking canyon. I could finally see where the new trail hit the old trail, signaling the beginning of the final descent. Pushing even harder, I drank the last of my water and sped on. The trail down to Picketpost worked me over, and by the bottom, my arms and hands barely had the strength to hold onto the bars. But Caroline was there a mile or so from the finish, camera in hand. Then I saw the parking lot, and right at the end of the trail, stood John Schilling, with a cold chocolate milk at the ready.
Fun, albeit slow, riding above the banks of the Gila
Climbing and climbing north of the Gila
I couldn’t really say much right then. And I couldn’t really stand too well, either. I had left pretty much everything I had out there. Somehow, despite the conditions, I beat my time from two years prior by nearly an hour, but as usual, I was left with the strong feeling that hours more should come off the record.
At the finish. Standing hurt. Sitting hurt. Simply being hurt. But the Cheez-Its and chocolate milk made things a little better.
It was sad to hear that Aaron was forced to bail. And Max. And a host of others that weren’t prepared for the cold, rain, and snow. But better to bail safely than get into a bad situation. I was undoubtedly pushing the line on that one, but knowing that there was a tiny town at the top of Mount Lemmon minimized the risk in my mind. Whether it was wise to do is another question entirely.
It’s been impressive to see the record times drop as the route becomes more difficult. Not more than two days after I finished, Scott Morris blitzed the route in nearly ideal conditions with a stellar ride, knocking yet another three hours off the record. We’ll see what next year brings . . .