Saturday, April 30, 2011

My Personal Hell: 300 miles in the Arizona Desert

I had never heard of the Arizona Trail Race up until early February, when  on a long winter training ride with my good friend, training partner, and 24 hour teammate, Jill proclaimed her ambitious goal of racing to be the first female to finish.  Naturally, she urged me to join her.  Naturally I declined, citing various reasons most of which had to do with work related commitments and PTO issues.

During the next two month I received near constant winks and smiles from Jill every time the AZTR came up in conversations, though each time I dug in firm to my previous excuses not ride.  On March 21st, all those excuses, the lack of PTO, the obligations for work, and so on, came to a fiery end when I was laid off, leaving me entirely exposed to the reality of what could be.

With my reasons not to ride 300 miles dwindling, I took a week to let life sink in and make a determination about my fate.  On March 30th I bought a plane ticket, making the commitment to the ride, and sealing my fate for the pinnacle of tests of my fitness and endurance.  With a text message to Jill the irreversible plan was set into full motion.

My goal would be to ride in support of Jill’s effort, striving only to finish…at least in time to catch my flight home Tuesday.  The outcome was far from certain and only I stood in the way of my own success.  From this moment on, the race to me became a metaphor for life.  

When we arrived in Tucson late Wednesday we got to the hotel and crashed for the night.  A lazy Thursday, let us assemble the bikes and pack the boxes in the car for Jill’s brother Steve to run them up to a friend’s place in Phoenix.  The down time in the afternoon allowed us to ride to nearby, for some last minute nutrition, the grocery store for drinks and dinner, and to Subway for a calorie laden foot long tuna sub. 

Back at the hotel room we did a final gear check, and when Steve returned from Phoenix with the car we made one last trip to Trisports to grab a few more calories and a bike tool to replace the one that had mysteriously disappeared from Jill’s bag.  From there we parted ways, Jill to head down to camp at the trailhead, me to spend another night at the hotel where I could sleep in a bed and fix my own food.

Final gear check.

The alarm went off nice and early and as I got rolling I went down to await my arranged shuttle.   Vern, a Tucson local who was not riding, had offered to take folks down to the start.  Rolling up right on time in his green X-terra with two bikes already on the back, I loaded my bike and hopped in to join Joe and Aleck both AZT 300 racers themselves.  

The usual small talk provided a bit of a reality check when I found out that Joe was a veteran of the 2700 mile Tour Divide mountain bike race, having finished in a very respectable 21 days, and Aleck had ridden coast to coast on the 4,286 mile Northern Tier, the longest of the standard coast to coast routes, in nine weeks.  My longest ride to date was a two day 114 mile trip on the Colorado Trail.

When we arrived to the trailhead my apprehensions didn’t ease.  I quickly found myself surrounded by the course record holder Kurt Refsnider, a 24 hour national champion, Lynda Wallenfels, a handful of lycra clad racers with bikes worth more than my car, and in general a bunch of people who seemed to know exactly what they were getting themselves into.

Getting ready at the start.  Photo by Jill Hueckman

Not having a job for the two weeks prior to the race gave me the luxury of spending every waking hour studying the route, dialing my gear, and perfecting my strategy.  Though having already sliced two sidewalls this year, I lost sleep over tire selection, and looked around at the different tires at the trailhead thinking I made the wrong choice.  Seconds after convincing myself that my tires would be fine, I hear reports of somebody wiping out the course track from their GPS.  Having only purchased my GPS a week earlier, and having no real understanding on how the functions worked, I was immediately worried that I now had something else to worry about.

Finally gathering for a group picture and the mass start, riders set out on course at 9:04am.   I eased my way in, but found myself passing a few people right from the start.  My legs felt great and I was ready to get the infamous Canello Hills behind me, sooner than later.  That didn’t last long, as a couple hours into the race the heat of the day took its toll.

Grand departure with me on the far right. Photo by Tim (AZTripper)

I’ve never managed the heat well, as my body just seems to reject sudden changes in temperature.  Since I was a kid I’ve suffered with shortness of breath, severe stomach/bowel issues, and a general feeling of lethargy when being plucked from a mild climate and dropped into viciously hot temps.  The first few days of numerous tropical spring breaks and even a trip to the Philippine Islands were characterized by a burning desire to go back to the freezing Midwest.  Once again I was in the middle of a heat induced suffer-fest.

I continued to drink plentifully, though the water, seemingly not absorbed by my system, only sloshed around in my stomach.  My legs were strong and wanting to pedal, but my body simply shut down.  I pushed on, sufferingly watching as numerous people passed me by.

At mile 21 my worst nightmare played out.  I sliced yet another sidewall, my third for the year.  It lost air, but seemed to hold when the sealant found the hole, so I continued to ride into Patagonia stopping to put air in the tire once on the way in.

As I rolled into town I was surprised to see so many people still at the Market.  Feeling I had trailed the pack by hours not minutes, it was a rather uplifting feeling.  Unfortunately as I was rolling in, most of them were rolling out, and I was in no condition to follow.  For the next two hours I laid in the shade, contemplating my sanity, formulating a heat management strategy, and generally trying figure out what to do next.  

As I loaded up my camelback and bottle with ice, I realized I was the only one left in town.  I hit the road to Sonoita with rested legs, a renewed vigor, and a persistent feeling that I was not going to let the heat get the better of me.  

On the road to Sonoita, I was able to chase down and pass another rider.  I was feeling great, and it finally dawned on me why I was having a hard time recovering in the Canello Hills.  There was never any consistency.  It was up, then down, then left, then off the bike, then back on the bike, and so on for 30 miles.  I was never able to sink into a rhythm and just pedal.

With the exception of hysterically funny cramps that attacked by locking my leg fully extended when I was pedaling out of the saddle, I found my rhythm on Highway 82.  I fixed the cramping problem in Sonoita with bananas, Gatorade, and V8, and headed out to watch the sunset over the Santa Ritas.

I hammered up the highway and down the graded road making good time toward Kentucky camp.  I passed Aleck who had called it an early day then further down the road ran into Max and Yuri, who had a blazing fire going at 7:30.  I opted to push on relishing the cool night air.

I swung into Kentucky camp in the middle of the night and easily located the water spigot.  I topped off my Camelbak and my bottle, grabbed a bite to eat, then saw a couple of concrete blocks that looked like the perfect invitation for a calf stretch.  With my toes on the edge and my hells dropped to the ground, out of nowhere the block under my left foot flipped up with force and brought it’s perfectly shaped square edge right into the middle of my shin. 

Shin bloodied, I let out a silent scream, not wanting to wake the caretaker 100 feet away.  Of all things I encountered in this race, it was a 6” by 12” concrete block that inflicted the most damage and caused the most pain.  What a shitty first day this had become.

Back on the bike I made good time moving along the singletrack, stopping a few times to put air in my back tire.  Once while stopped, I grabbed a tuna fish sandwich out of my bag, and after two bites, swore I heard whispers nearby.  I stood there, took another bite…more whispers.  I was sure of it this time.

I love riding at night because it removes all the other distracting elements, it truly becomes just me, my bike and the trail, but at this moment, having passed a handful of signs warning of illegal trafficking, I got the overwhelming sense that it was no longer just me, my bike and the trail, but also a handful of either drug traffickers or illegal immigrants, neither of which I wanted anything to do with so with a half eaten tuna sandwich hanging out of my mouth, I booked it out of there.

Making my way out of the trees and into the world of three foot cacti the moon shined so bright that I barely needed a light to make my way down the trail.  Realizing that my hopes of making it to Colossal Cave by 2:30 had been dashed by the heat in the Canello Hills and the recovery in Patagonia, I began scouting a campsite.

I rolled past Brad M camped in a prime spot.  It was actually the first time I saw him since the start of the race, so it gave me hope that I had ridden back into the middle of the pack overnight.  I then found a site suitable for myself and crashed hard for the night. 

Slow to get going, Brad M passed me in the early twilight as I was gathering my stuff on the bike.  I hopped on the bike and hit the trail enjoying some nice down grade singletrack all the way to the Highway 83 box culvert.  

Not wanting to waste precious nighttime air sitting idle problem solving a sliced sidewall I opted to ride out my squishy back tire as long as it would keep going at night.   It was here, in the box culvert, that I opted to take a break from the sun and diagnose and fix the problem.  In the shade with a nice breeze, I laid out all of my tools and developed a plan.

First was to capture the sealant that remained in the tire, to which I found a trail mix wrapper that was suitable for the job.  Second was to transfer that sealant into one of the superlight tubes I was carrying.   Easy enough, as the tubes have removable valves.  Third was to check the tire for debris, clean out the remaining sealant, and boot the sliced sidewall.  Done, done and done, although to my dismay I found 2 more slices in the outer casing that did not make it through the inner wall.  I prayed they would hold.

Bike all back together, back tire holding pressure, I started making good progress toward Colossal Cave.  Along here I thought about the changing landscape.  We started in grasslands, moved to a wooded area, spilled out into a land of cactus, and now on the trail I am getting my first glimpse of saguaro cacti.  All of this and I was only one third of the way through the race. 

Over the last hour I had been re-thinking my race strategy, trying to determine if it was better to ride late into the night or stop early and wake up well before dawn to take advantage of the coolest hours of the day.  Additionally I had decided that stops in the shade where there was food and water were not wasting time, but conserving energy for the late night/early morning efforts, and thus decided to bail off route to grab some grub and more ice at the colossal cave visitors center.

A couple of Gatorades, water, an order of supreme nachos, and some well needed rest in the shade, drew the attention of the employees, some asking if I was OK, another asking me to sign their trail travelers guestbook, and another wondering if I had any way to phone for help if something were to happen.  I assured them all that I was well and simply soaking in the shade to avoid the high sun.

Back on the trail, I made good time to the Rincon store where I was faced with a reality that I did not particularly enjoy.  From mile 31 to mile 117 or so I had been keeping cool by filling my bottles with ice. That would provide me with eight or so hours of cool refreshment, which was definitely needed to keep me going in the heat.  From here though I was faced with 20+ hours until the next store and over 8,000 feet of elevation gain.  That meant a huge effort with hot water.

I walked into the Rincon store weighing my options.  In Sonoita I saw frozen bottles of water for sale, which would have been perfect here, but there were none to be found.  Finally I stumbled across a 64 ounce insulated travel mug, with a sealed lid.  This was it, my savior.  I bought a handful of things, this and a bag of ice included.  I stuffed my Camelbak, water bottle, and my new travel mug full of ice.  I filled the Camelbak with water and the bottle full of Gatorade.  I shoved the stuffed travel mug into my bag with food and a two additional bottles of water I purchased. 

In the midst of my madness, Max rolled into the store.  I had rode 5 hours beyond where I saw him camped the previous night, we started at the same time, yet he managed to catch me.  Apparently the heat didn’t affect him so bad, as he was in great spirits and looking to bust out more daytime miles and camp soon after the sun went down.

We exchanged words, then I mounted my bike and rolled up the highway, looking like a drunken camel, top heavy, and loaded for the long haul.

A short distance out of town I turn a corner and was instantly staring at a handful of switchbacks, a ways off, up valley.  Double checking the GPS, I was sure that’s where I was heading, though nothing about them made me look longingly.  Reddington Road quickly climbs up and over Reddington Pass, on a relentless grade.  Under normal circumstances I would have been swearing the route and been suffering like a dog, but for some reason I cruised. 

In retrospect I think it was one of the handful of places on the route that you can find a rhythm and go.  And with the exception of a few brief stops in the shade, that rhythm had me hauling up Reddington Pass with a gallon and a half of water and a half gallon of ice.  This camel had regained his stride.

Topping out on the pass, I turned off and began a crazy descent on 4WD roads.  These aren’t just plain old 4WD roads, but the kind that make stock Jeep Wranglers tremble with fear.  As I was riding them I was thinking that these roads could be graded for rock climbing.  In which case I cleaned the 5.6 on the front side no problem, but the V7 on the back, that was stupid hard.

The rough roads smoothed out about the time the sun was setting and I turned back onto the trail where some ups and downs lead to a long wash, where I found Brad M once again, this time making camp.  I stopped and chatted to find that Jill, who I hadn’t seen since she rolled out ahead me in Patagonia was behind me.  He warned of a hellacious hike a bike section coming up and said he didn’t recommend it at night.  I told him I was planning on soldering on into the night, and parted ways.

About a half an hour down the trail, tired, and hoping to get an earlier start on the day I decided to call it a day at 11:30pm, setting my watch for 3:30am.

I reset my watch twice in the morning not wanting to get out of bed, ultimately waking up at 5:30.  Once again Brad M rolled past me as I was prepping the bike for the day.  He stopped for water and I pressed on by, I stopped to shed layers and apply sunscreen and he moved ahead.  Then something completely unexpected happened.  As I was pushing my bike up and over the mad hike a bike, I heard a female voice from above talking to a runner on the trail. 

I was sure it was Jill, and soon enough I was able to push my bike up to her only to see her completely resigned to her fate.  Carl, her carbon fiber stallion, was askew in a little opening and stuff was strewn about.  She said she was out!  I quickly recognized that no amount of encouragement, suggestions, or pressure would get her moving again.  She was done.

I was aware that she too had torn a sidewall in the Canello Hills, but her fate just didn’t work out quite like mine.  Her tire boot didn’t hold, and she manufactured one in Patagonia to limp into Tucson.  In Tucson she got a new tire but not a new tube.  She flatted the rear wheel putting in her last tube on the gnarly 4WD roads, but ditched the old tube.  Soon after passing me camped in the middle of the night she tore the sidewall in her front tire, and with no tubes, had no way to continue on.  Only three miles from the halfway point, she was done.

I left her there to continue with my race, topping out on the hike a bike and descending to the road crossing.  The trail crossed but continued a ways through more hike a bike before finally dumping out onto the paved road up Mt. Lemmon.  This was it.  I had reached the point on the route that I had felt would be my biggest challenge: the long sustained climb up and over Mt Lemmon.  I pulled out on to the road and quickly found a shade spot to get my iPod and headphones out.  I started riding up the road.

There was a constant reminder of my slow progress as mile markers lined highway at one mile intervals.  I was keenly aware of exactly how much further I had to go mostly in thanks to the mileage signs reading distances to the various points on the road.  If the seemingly never ending slog up the road wasn’t bad enough, I happened to be there on Sunday morning, which had the road loaded with road cyclists, none of which I could keep up with.

As I climbed up the road many thoughts went through my head.  One was that the primary reason for me riding the AZT 300 was gone.  She dropped, and I was trying hard to get my head wrapped around that fact.  Another was that I was beyond the halfway point, and ahead of schedule to finish in under four days, this was an extremely gratifying prospect considering my commitment to the race came only two weeks earlier.

About the time I came to the realization that this climb wasn’t as bad as I imagined, likely again due to the fact that I was able to find a rhythm and go, and that I was actually managing to ride the climb fully loaded in my middle chaining, compared to a similar ride seven months ago where I had to granny gear up a similar road, I got passed by a road biker.  On his way by he said, “Enduro.  Awesome!”

A few miles later the same guy came ripping down the road, and this time as he went by I heard, “Dude, you rock!”  Now I’m not sure exactly what happened in my head here, whether it was the fact that some perfect stranger was offering support, that I was actually on pace to break four days, that my friend had dropped, or that this climb wasn’t as bad as I thought it was, but almost instantly, upon hearing this random cyclist offer encouragement to me, an anonymous rider, my eyes unleashed a fury of uncontrollable tears.

The next five minutes were spent wiping tears from my eyes as I continued pedaling.  Additionally I had ever so slightly increased the pace, feeling lifted by this random guy, which also made me think of the dozens of people back at home watching my blue dot move down the trail.  They all believed I could do it, and finally for the first time my trepidations eased and I believed too.

I rolled into the Butterfly trailhead to find that I had caught Brad M and Matt F on the climb.  They rolled out just ahead of me and after filling my camelback I jumped on the bike and easily caught Matt F before reaching Summerhaven, where we had all decided to indulge in pizza at the only restaurant in town.

Each eating half a pizza and taking the other half for the road, we went down the road to the general store where once again I loaded up on ice before heading out onto the famed Oracle Ridge.  Starting down the ridge with Matt F and Brad M, Matt and I quickly made some distance on Brad.  A small slip of the front tire off the edge of the trail caused me to lose balance and fall over and off the trail about five feet.  As I was getting back on the trail, I realized the pocket with my chain lube was open and while I could find the other contents of the pocket, the lube was nowhere to be found.

Popping out of single track and onto some rocky road, descending fast, a water bottle bounced out of my backpack.  Matt F went by as I hiked back up to grab the bottle and quickly gapped me.  I pushed to try and catch up with him, thinking it would be fun to run the entire ridge with somebody else, but to my dismay I flatted my rear tire.

Taking the time to thoroughly inspect my rear tire, I was unable to find any leaks in the tube, nor any objects in the tire so I remounted the tire and set off down the ridge once more.

Covering some singletrack that again spilled out on to a double track road, I found myself bombing down the road at mach 10, when I soon realized that I was off route.  Steep, rocky, and extremely loose I had to push the bike some 200 yards back up the road to discover the gate back onto the single track that I had blown by.

Back on the single track I made good time down the remainder of the ridge, onto the double track roads, onto some more single track, then finally into Oracle State Park.  I had pushed to try and make Oracle by dark and I rolled up to the Oracle Market as the last glimmer of orange sky faded to black.
As I arrived Matt F was rolling out.  A quick chat confirmed his suspicions that I had flatted on the trail, as apparently I was close enough to him that he heard the expletives I shouted as I realized my rim was rolling on the ground.   He set off into the dark and I ran in to fuel up at the last pit stop for the remaining 110 miles of the race.

After getting a handful of food items, water, a fountain soda, and a bag of ice, Max rolled up looking for food and drink.  We sat at a table out front, chatted, and talked to my wife Jen on speakerphone getting updates on the race, which indicated that Joe had dropped, Brad K and Lynda were out front, and Matt F had just left Oracle, which I already knew.  She also informed us that Brad M turned around on Oracle ridge, apparently for GPS troubles.  That was it she said. There were only six of us left.

Max left to go bivy behind the Circle K, so he could wake up early and get coffee, and I set out down the road out of town looking for a place to sleep once I hit the trail.  I was asleep by 10pm, setting the alarm for 2:30am hoping to get a good jump on the heat of the day.

The alarm went off and I was up and moving quickly.  Amped to cover some ground in the dark, I finished the singletrack, then hit the gas line.  After a few ups and downs I was rudely interrupted by the sound of air hissing out of my rear tire.  I pushed to the top of the next climb only to find that I had a huge hole in the sidewall of my rear tire.  

I set up a small shop in the middle of the road with all of my tools and emergency supplies laid out in an orderly fashion.  Pulling off the back wheel and pulling out the tube revealed that the hole in the sidewall and the flat were unrelated.  I had one boot left, and instead of using the entire thing I cut it in half to ensure that I had at least 1 boot for the last 100 miles.  The hole was so big that there was a flap of rubber on the outside of the sidewall that was begging to be ripped off, so I scrubbed the outer wall to clean it off then applied duct tape to help hold things together.

The flat tire was caused by a pinch flat, where the rim hits a rock with so much force that it cuts the tube in two places.  I tried patching the tube, but because of the location of one of the cuts, I couldn’t get the patch to hold.  It kept getting disrupted by the uneven edges of my Bontrager rim strip.  Several tries yielded no good results, so I did what I vowed not to do and pulled out my last and only good tube. 

This time I had no sealant to fill it with.  I would be running the superlight racing tube dry though a desert filled with razor rock, cacti, and bushes with evil thorns all around.  Moments after getting it all back together, I checked my phone, saw that I had service, and let my wife know that I was unsure if luck would allow me to finish.  I told her that if I was done and couldn’t get signal I would send a message using the Spot GPS.  Later she would say that she could hear how defeated I was feeling over the phone and was worried about the rest of the race.

While I was fabricating the fix for the tire and replacing the tube, an energetic Max rolled past stopping for a second to chat and letting me know he was going to camp at the artesian well.  He wished me luck without having more sealant out there then rolled out.  That was the last racer I saw for the duration of the race.  The remaining 100 miles and 27 hours were truly a solo effort.

Losing about an hour and a half of cool pre-dawn temps, I got back on the trail as the sun was rising.  Cautiously descending and checking my speed on the downhills to avoid a race ending catastrophic flat tire, I found myself picking meticulous lines and slowing down my pace.

An hour after getting back on the bike I was descending the final gas line hill before turning on to Bloodsucker Wash when I felt my speed was much too high for the rocky road.  Not too high that I was uncomfortable descending, but higher than I was willing to risk on my dry tubed back tire.  I checked my speed midway down the hill and found that instantly went from floating over loose rocks to having my front tire sink down into them.

Instantaneously my front wheel stopped in its tracks and I went flying over the bars landing on my left shoulder, arm, and hip.  My pack took a load of the force as well, so I was surprised to stand up and though I found myself bloody all down my left side, I felt no pains from the crash at all.  Knowing that I was OK, my next thought was to the GPS.

Somewhere on Oracle ridge the sensor for my cycle computer got ripped off, of course I still had the cue sheets, but without the GPS at this point I would be virtually flying blind.  Worried that the crash would have wrecked the GPS, I was relieved, shocked almost, to find that it was completely unharmed, yet the much smaller and less prominent light and cycle computer were smashed up pretty good.

I was fine, the GPS was fine, the bike was fine.  Bruised and bloodied, the race went on.

At the bottom of the hill I turned right following a sandy track bearing the name Bloodsucker Wash.  It was downhill, though the sand was so deep at times, for the first time in my life I found myself using my granny gear to make any forward progress DOWNHILL!

Though it felt like forever, I moved through it pretty quick, then past the Beehive well with an old windmill and a water tank.  I made my way up and over some hills, and pushed on making steady progress.  Constantly worried about my back tire, I dodged cholla balls everywhere I looked. 
Cholla balls are pieces of a cholla cactus that are released from the cactus plant itself.  Covered in dozens of inch long spines, they are sharp and once they latch on they are nearly impossible to get off.  The last thing I wanted was one in my back tire.

Soon after swerving to avoid a rock in the trail, which caused my hand to collide with a cholla, leaving me with a dozen or so spines sticking out of the back of my fingers, I started seeing the Arizona desert painted with a different brush.  I’m not sure if it was this evil cactus, the heat of the day, the fatigue, the anger of the back tire problems, or all four, but when I looked around I no longer saw beautiful peaks and colorful plant life.  Everywhere I looked I saw pure evil.  

Dry and lifeless, the landscape resembled death.  Every last plant on the trail had some sort vicious mutation that scarred anything that made contact.  The evolutionary process in the desert must have favored thorns, spines, spikes, and the like, as even the most innocent looking plants had menacing characteristics.  At the time I could not find one thing to like about it.  Plain and simple, the Arizona desert was my hell.

Unable to escape, I kept turning my pedals.  Finally approaching Freeman Road, where there was a supposed water cache, I was confused by some new signage and trails that differed from the GPS track. In the end I followed the track, but was not able to locate the water cache.  I kept my eyes out for it, but never saw a thing, and am still quite baffled that others seem to have found it without problems. 

A few miles later the trail mellowed out and I was moving along a relatively flat section in the mid day heat.  Looking around I could see tall trees with broad arbors, casting magnificent shadows 200 yards off the trail, much too far to bushwhack.  I questioned what was going through the heads of the trail builders, when they cut a track through the desert and decided to bypass the only thing that casts a decent shadow for as far as one could see.  It just seemed like a huge trail design failure.  I mean…come on…seriously…

Opting to huddle in  the mid day shade of a tree not much taller than I am, I took a break to move ice into my Camelbak, and double check how much water I had left in all of my bottles combined.  I found that after leaving Oracle with nearly two gallons of water, I was down to about two liters of water, half a liter of Gatorade, and about half a liter worth of ice.  I had been loosely counting on the freeman road water cache for a resupply, and when it wasn’t there I had rework the plan.

I didn’t feel I had enough to make it to the artesian well with water to spare, but I was close.  So I opted to put the rest of my water and ice into my Camelbak, drink the Gatorade, then pray I could make it.  Then the unthinkable happened.  After pouring my bottles into my Camelbak, I reached for the mug.  As I began to pour the ice water out of the spout into my camelback, the top came off and ice spilled all over the ground.

Jumping at the lost ice, I squeezed my legs together, which were holding my Camelbak upright, causing it to overflow.  Water poured all over me and the ground, quickly soaking into the dry earth.  All said and done, I spilled a liter of water and half my ice.  Catastrophe!  Devastated by the loss I began to calculate a new strategy, which meant I would need to go off route to find water, as up to this point all of the possible water sources on route had been dry.  

I left the shade with more hate than ever for the Arizona desert, and as I gained some momentum in the Boulders segment, evil incarnate lashed out at me.  As I flew into a tight turn, I heard a rattle, a hiss, and before I knew it I saw a rattle snake about 4 feet off the outside of the turn sent his head and fangs flying in my direction.  By the time he had extended, which wouldn’t have been far enough to get me anyway, I had already flown by.   200 yards down the trail, I was still shaking my head about the rattle snake, when an 18 inch long Gila monster sitting idly by the trail hissed at me as I rolled by.

As if getting mauled by evil plants wasn’t enough, my hell now included venomous trailside reptiles, who were by no means happy to see me invade their heinous land.

Miles down the road I found the turn off to the cattle trough waypointed in the race files.  A quick ride down the road provided me with cooler than room temperature, though by no means cold, water to refill my bottles.  Little did I know at the time, this jaunt caused some worry for friends and family at home unfamiliar with the marked waypoints.   Apparently word spread incredibly fast I was off route.  Worried that my tire had failed, Jen was even making arrangements for someone to pick me up out there!

Filled full, I rolled out and into the start of the Ripsey segment, where I passed 3 hikers, appearing to be thru-hiking the Arizona Trail.  Come to find out, upon reaching the trailhead, and speaking to another member of the group, one of those 3 was blind and was well on his way to becoming the first blind person hike the entire AZT. I chuckled at this, as I had a brief conversation with the three hikers, and had not the slightest idea that one of them was blind.

Nothing like a little perspective to put you in your place.  Still, I couldn’t help but sheepishly think, “If only he could see the hell he was in!”

The “big hill” certainly lived up to its name.  Just like Reddington Road, there is one corner you come around and you can see the switchbacks going up the peak in the distance.  Slowly but surely you make your way closer and closer until finally you are climbing those switchbacks you saw 30 minutes before.   A good portion was ridable, though some of the loose trail wasn’t.  

The sun was finally low enough to start casting some decent shadows, and it was here that the majesty of the saguaros finally came to light.  As the only cactus to stand high in the desert, the saguaros lacked the menacing evilness of the other cacti I encountered.  Sure they had spikes, but their spikes seemed entirely defensive, as they stood in solitary, distanced from the trail.  On top of this, they cast a perfectly useful shadow.  If only wide enough to stand behind sideways they still offered respite from an otherwise unrelenting sun.

Seeing the saguaros in a positive light signaled a change in overall view of the desert and the race in general.  My back tire had developed a slow leak to which I had to stop every now and again and add air, yet I wasn’t overly concerned. I was getting so close to the end of the race, my entire outlook changed.

Overall I made good time hauling up the big hill, and enjoyed every second of the ride along the ridge and down the back side.  Another encounter with a Gila monster, this time laid entirely across the trail with no way for me to get around, slowed me for a minute.  I stomped, banged the bike tire, shouted at it, but it was in no hurry to get out of the way.  Once he moved I bombed down to the Gila River to find a full cache of water. 

If I hadn’t gone off route, this surely wouldn’t have been there, but because I took a 40 minute detour, of course it was here, though I needed none of it.  That was just my luck.

I cruised up the road to Highway 177, and again found my rhythm flying up the asphalt to Battle Axe Road before the sun set.  I called Jen to get a final update, to find that what I had expected had been the case.  Lynda and Brad had already finished, Max and Matt F were just ahead of me.  Knowing that Max was going to camp around the artesian well I flew down the road to the well, but was not able to find him.

I took a break at the well, mixing up the last of my Perpetuem and taking on some food.  I set off up the climb out from the well riding when I could, but pushing a good portion.  I had noticed that during the evening, clouds had floated overhead, and now seemed to be trapping the heat of the day.  That, combined with the humidity from the Gila River, effectively stymied the cool off I had anticipated. 
Upon reaching the top of the hill between the well and the drop back down to the river, I looked at the descent down the road and felt I should grab an hour of sleep to help rejuvenate me for the final push.  Wanting to do the last stretch in a single effort, overnight, to avoid the heat of the day, I set my alarm for 11, and was asleep by 9:30pm.

I opened my eyes to the bright moon, feeling something wasn’t right.  I looked at my watch and saw that it was 1:30am.  I had overslept by two and half hours!  Baffled how I could have slept through the three alarms my watch lets me set, I hurriedly gathered my things loaded the bike and bombed the descent down to the Gila River.  

Making good time down the road, I noticed that the clouds had cleared.  Low in the valley, for the first time in over four days, I felt crispness in the air.  Cool, slightly humid, and otherworldly for what I had experienced the last three days, I was happy to be slightly chilled…finally.  

Rolling along the river, under the cover of a broad canopy of trees, it was dark, really dark.  The timing of the race coincided with the full moon so on the open stretches the moon threw enough light to actually cast a strong shadow.  Here, the light of the moon was barred from sight by the tree cover.   It gave the ride along the river an overly eerie mystique.

Leaving the River and heading up hill, following monstrous 4WD roads, feeling good that I only had 30 or so miles to the finish, I rode whenever possible, pushed when I had to, but never stopped making forward progress.

After a few dismounts to push, I jumped back on the bike to pedal, when suddenly the pedals locked up.  Frozen, unable to turn, the chain had failed to disengage from the front chain ring on the bottom and had been pulled back up into the system where, overlapping itself, the drive train came to a grinding halt.  I was experiencing chain suck.  It indeed sucked.

Diagnosing the problem, which is impossibly difficult to do on the trail, I saw a quite clean chain, especially considering it was on mile 270, the spring in the derailleur seemed to be working fine, and the chain ring was free of debris.  That left me with sinking reminder that my chain lube dropped out of my pack 100 miles earlier.

The lack of moisture riding through the desert kept the chain working fine as the dust gathered in the links, but to my best guess, the humidity in the air in the previous hours had seeped into the chain and gummed up the dust that had accumulated.  Now, with no lube, the gummed up dust was giving the chain a mind of its own.

Pushing on I was resigned to, well, pushing.
Pushing up the steep roads and dropping back down the other side, was mind numbing at best.  Expecting the hills to be tortuous, I was simply happy to be making steady progress, even if it was off the bike.  

Rolling into Box canyon gave me some relief from the push, as I was able to ride in the middle chain ring, avoiding the chain suck that had plagued my small front ring.  As soon as I turned into the canyon, I noticed a funny smell in the air.  I pedaled for the next 20 minutes trying to figure out why the canyon smelled so different than everything else.  A little smoky, a little like a barbeque, a little like, well I just couldn’t put my finger on it.

Somewhere midway up the canyon, I got a reflection of light in the inside of my glasses from behind. Having read about encounters with Jeeps in the canyon, I naturally assumed that a vehicle was making its way up the canyon behind me, so I moved to the side of the road.  After not hearing a vehicle or seeing the light again, I looked over my shoulder to find that I had been tricked by the beaming light of the near full moon.  

As I neared the end of the canyon I see a blazing fire burning 50 or so feet from the road, finally revealing what the mysterious smell was.  As I approached, I was welcomed with a clearly drunk, semi slurred, shout of, “Are you the same guy that rode though yesterday?”

“Nope!” I replied.

“Oh…do you know what time it is?” they shouted back.  I stopped to check my clock for the first time since I woke up late.

“4:48”I called out.  “Do you know if anybody else had ridden though tonight?”

“Just one guy came through yesterday, that’s it, I think.”  Offering thanks, I made my way out of the top of the canyon pondering my place in the race.

Having been somewhat amused from the start of the race at the ever diminishing number of tire tracks I saw as I progressed along the course, climbing out of Box canyon was the first time that I started to only see two distinct tracks in front of me.  Sure that Max had set up camp at the artesian well, I began to wonder if I had managed to pass Matt F camped somewhere along the trail as well.

The prospect of riding into third place was alluring, but my ultimate drive at this point was to ensure that the time listed next to my name on the website started with a 3.  A 4 was simply unacceptable.

I pushed on, literally, climbing up to the summit of the Box Canyon road one step at a time.  Upon reaching the summit I was rewarded with a fantastic bomb down a rough road, that didn’t last nearly as long as I had hoped, though I was simply thankful to be on the bike riding, as this is a bike race, and not a foot race.

About halfway down the decent, I noticed that the road felt bumpier that it should.  I was getting jarred with every big rock I hit and rattled by every small rock I rolled over.  I quickly reached down to check my front shock lockout only to find that the lever had rattled loose and was now wedged in the lockout position against the fork crown.  The lever wouldn’t budge.  All hope of a smooth ride to the finish was lost.
At the bottom of the descent, a virtual U turn sent me climbing right back up another long 4WD road that seemed to infinitely climb.  I rode as far as I could in the middle chain ring then succumbed to pushing once again up and over this massive hill. 

I passed the time and helped convince myself I was making good time by picking out a distant object, then guessing how long it would take to get there pushing.  I bet eight minutes on a distant saguaro, and was upper amped to have reached it in under four.  I then looked up the trail linking one feature to the next which ultimately brought me to counting time to a set of swtichbacks, that once I got close enough to, I realized they weren’t even part of the route.

On route or not, from the switchback vantage I could see the top, the end of the final climb before a big descent to the finish.  I pushed to the top, mounted the bike and set off anticipating a rip roaring ride to the trailhead.  As I blazed down the road with the biggest, and possibly only, smile on my face for the entire race, I realized I had missed a turn on to what must have been single track.

Backpedaling about 200 feet I found the missed turn, and set off down the trail.  Only eight miles from the finish, with over an hour and a half to make the four day cutoff, I was riding a high.  

Having convinced myself I had ridden into third overnight, my sureness quickly faded when I saw 4 distinct sets of tire tracks on the trail.  Still poised to finish the race in four days, I was devastated that I allowed myself to be convinced I was in third so easily, and even more so that I was now likely riding into fifth place.

Lacking the smile I had only minutes earlier I was now faced with an additional reality, one that proved the eight miles of singletrack down to the finish, wasn’t actually all downhill.  As a matter of fact, there was a fair amount of climbing needed just to get to the descent, which isn’t a continuous descent, seeing that every few hundred yards there was a nice 50 foot climb thrown.

I love Colorado trails for a handful of reasons, but at that moment, I was especially longing for a true Colorado style descent.  Arizona seemed to lack the lung busting hellacious climbs that lead to eye watering miles long descents, instead they opted for a stair stepped, up some, then down, up some more, then down approach that drove me crazy.  It had been this way the entire trail, and I didn’t get it at all.  I had killed myself for 295 miles, and just climbed up two of the most hellacious climbs of the race.  I earned a killer downhill ride and it just wasn’t there.

Climbing in the middle chain ring was no longer an option, as a nagging knee pain flared with the higher resistance of the middle ring.  I was forced to bump down the descents with my rigid front fork, only to be thrust into a short but steep climb where ultimately my drive train would lock up 10 pedal strokes in, killing all the momentum I had.  

I dismounted, pushed to the top, and repeated the process a dozen or more times on the way down.  Weary of the clock that continuously ticked as I engaged in my maddeningly torturous cycle, I began to seriously worry that I wouldn’t be able to sneak in under the 4 day mark if I had to keep pushing all the way to the finish.

I was over the desert, over the bike, over the race, and thought of one and only one thing all the way to the finish.  I wanted out of Arizona.  I came out to test myself, and now I was sure I would succeed.  The challenge was gone.  At this point, it was just annoying and I didn’t want anything to do with it.  I had convinced myself I had lost third, and now I thought I was losing the 4 day finish.  My flight out was at 5:34 that evening and as far as I was concerned, 5:34 couldn’t come soon enough.

Pushing up a climb and rounding a corner, the trailhead came into sight.  I was ecstatic to be able to see a parking lot with an outhouse, and relieved to see a black SUV, meaning that hopefully my friends were at the trailhead to get me the hell out of there as fast as possible.

Though over a mile away still I could actually see the trail down and finally, it was all downhill!  I ripped it, amped to be done.  Even more amped, I was sure I would roll in with a sub 4 day finish.  Denying myself the pleasure of relishing the final mile, I just pushed to be done.

100 yards before the finish the trail drops to cross a wash.  I carried speed across, and as tried to make quick work of the 5 foot bank out the other side, I hammered out of the saddle only to fully lock up the drive train causing me to fall to the side.  It was Arizona’s last dig. I couldn’t even roll to the finish with a smile on my face without one final reminder of living my personal hell.  I got up, pushed the bike to the top, and slowly rolled the final stretch to the finish, where Jill, Steve, pizza, Sobe, Gatorade, and cold water were waiting.

I passed the signpost, marking the finish, dropped my bike on the ground, drank half a sobe, half a bottle of water, half a Gatorade, ate two pieces of pizza, took some pictures, then conferred with Jill and Steve about who was still out on trail.

At the finish

They weren’t certain who was still in the race, but indicated that two racers were at the trailhead when they arrived, feeling that I was in fifth place, as I had suspected earlier in the day.  Thinking I was the last person on the trail, I couldn’t load the bike fast enough, and start making progress to my ultimate goal of leaving Arizona.

Miles down the road on the way back to the hotel I picked up the phone to call Jen.  I was greeted with a huge congrats on getting third place.  Confused, about what had happened, she informed me that Matt F had dropped after the Gila River crossing, and that Max had been chasing me all day.  Bummed that I left the trailhead only 20 minutes or so before Max would have arrived, I still felt victorious.  I had accomplished my goal and in the process I rolled into third place!

Back at the hotel, after showering, I started packing up the bike, when my alarm started going off.  Confused, I looked at my watch to find that I had not actually overslept because I missed my alarm, but because I had set the alarm for 11am, instead of 11pm.  Shaking my head in disbelief, I turned the alarm off and smiled.  It all worked out in the end. 

I rode a wave of excitement for the remainder of the day, getting out of Arizona and back to Colorado that evening, never once feeling tired or wanting sleep.  

For the next 3 days I was dead to the world.  I tried driving and felt as if I was drunk at the wheel. I holed up at home, eating, resting, and enjoying the cool weather and uncharacteristic rain that Colorado was offering.  In stark contrast to the Arizona desert, Colorado was unequivocally my heaven, and I had never been happier to be home.

On Thursday, still slightly out of it though bored, I unpacked and reassembled the bike.  To my surprise, the back tire, the one that had failed at mile 200 where I placed a dry superlight racing tube in, the one that instigated my wreck, the one that needed pumped up every now and then for the last 60 miles, the one that lasted all the way to the finish…wouldn’t even hold 10lbs of pressure.

Duct taped tire and dry tube that endured the final 100 miles.

Riding on the wings of all the believers who stood behind me for 300 miles, this tube carried me to the finish.  Like me, it refused to give up, damaged and defeated, it kept going, only to collapse after crossing the line.  When I revealed this to Jill, who abandoned at mile 150 for tire related issues, her words were, “No way, you were meant to finish!”

Whether it was destiny or fate, divine intervention or refusing to fail, I, like that tube, didn’t give up.  I attempted something with a less than certain outcome, found a way around every obstacle thrown in my path, and finished victorious.  As a metaphor for life, this race proves there is nothing standing in my way except for myself.  Moving forward, it is without question that reflecting on this experience will help me reach new heights in life, by shrinking mountains, and melting away roadblocks.  There is no doubt in my mind that given any challenge I can be victorious.

On this front my newest challenge is convincing my wife that the 64 ounce insulated travel mug I acquired on course, most suitable for the dashboard of a semi, is a legitimate trophy of my accomplishment and deserves to be prominently displayed in plain sight.

Wish me luck!


  1. Nice writeup Eric! I had many of the same problems last year, I also couldn't find the water cache at Freeman road, and finished with the slowest ever time after tube and tire problems galore... I don't think I quite experienced the lows you mentioned, but my state of mind was heading there some of the time, and I was more scared/excited about gila monsters and rattlers than worried about them being evil incarnate :-)

  2. Awesome post! Congrats on a well earned third place finish!

  3. enjoyed the write up--congrats on 3rd and sub 4!!

  4. Great read and great effort. It emboldens me to set in stone an effort for next year. It seems to me the mere thought of the evil desert brought out the rattler and gila monster. Nature is strange like that. And congrats on third place! I was watching the blue dot as well. Great show! Its great to overcome all obstacles and survive, even if it is just barely.

  5. Great story Erick! You inspire me. Reminds me of my first running marathon only yours is like 12 marathons in the desert. Makes a father proud!