Thursday, April 21, 2011

AZT 300 Race Report

I opened my eyes last Friday morning and peeked out from under my sleeping bag to see four cows bedded down under the tree only twenty feet away. My night’s slumber with my new bovine friends was a bit windy and maybe a bit too brief, but I excitedly sat up and began repacking my gear onto my bike. I watched two other racers wake up across the road and start packing their bikes to begin the 300 mile journey to Picketpost Trailhead. Soon, car loads of bikers and bikes rolled up poured out into the parking lot.

I was a bit nervous, but mostly just ready to set out on the race for which, over the past four months I had been planning, training and preparing. I set out confidently and was feeling good.

The start

The sun was beating down, but not unbearable. Hills, rocks, climbs, descents. I found my pace about a mile in. I wanted to push harder but resisted, knowing the tough miles that lie ahead. I settled into a sweet rhythm.
PSSSSSSHHHHHH!! What the…?!! Seriously? I saw white tire slime (Stan’s) spraying out of my back tire and heard the air escaping rapidly. Why now? I had ridden this section and about 100 miles of the AZ trail over the course of the past month and a half and never even had a thorn in these tires, much less the torn sidewall I was now cussing. I looked at my GPS which read 5.5 miles. I cussed some more. Really?
I found my tire boot and my slime tube not happy at all with the fact I was going to be down one tube and one boot only 5.5 miles into the race. I began taking my back tire off, not doing a very good job because I was instead thinking about all the time I was losing. I wanted to be rolling along in my sweet, rhythmic pace, not changing a flat with a tire that now has a huge slash in the sidewall.  Ok, stop your whining and get to it, Jill.
I heard a bike coming up behind me and saw that it was my friend, Erick. He graciously and calmly helped me break the bead and I used a spare sock to dry the area around the tear as much as I could. There was a ton of Stan’s to wipe away and dump out and it took a while. Booting the tear, inflating the slime tube and getting back and running seemed like an eternity. I was out of my groove but happy to be rolling again. The hike-a-bike hills began and it started to get hotter. Up, down, up, down. I came to Canelo Pass, climbed some more and then bombed down a wide, fast double-track road. I saw an AZ trail sign pointing to the  leftand followed it, doing about Mach 9, not looking at the red line on my GPS. More road went by, and more. Ugh. Silly rookie. You have been on this trail before. This isn’t right. I looked up and saw about 4 or 5 bikers way back where I should have been watching my GPS and turned the wrong way. 2.5 miles later and after meeting up with someone else who followed the same road, I rejoined the course. I quickly caught all who had passed me and finished the Canelo Hills section with my two favorite North Carolinans, Brad and Matt. I turned right on the paved road into Patagonia and not 2 minutes later I felt my back tire lose about 85% of its air. I limped into the store in Patagonia by stopping to air up twice. By the time I was on the front porch of the store, my back tire had no air at all. Emotions flared and I wanted to kick the ice machine in front of me. The hole in the sidewall was bigger and the slime tube I was running on was shot. I got something to drink and thought about my options. Across the street was a gas station and I walked over and took the back tire off. Brad helped me rig a duct tape and cardboard boot that would need to hold until Tucson. I used my last slime tube, hit play on my ipod and hammered into Sonoita. Hard. I had renewed energy and the fire was burning hot. If I had another flat I would find myself with a real dilemma because the next opportunity to buy tubes was at a bike shop in Tucson. I rolled up to Sonoita, grabbed a Gatorade and headed off into the sunset. I didn’t stop again for more than about 10 minutes until just before I-10.
Stopped for a minute while grabbing a drink out of the sink at Kentucky Camp

Just as the sun was coming up, I could feel myself getting groggy as I missed the singletrack I was supposed to take and turned left on the road. I slept for about 45 minutes to an hour until the sun came up. Lying in my sleeping bag, I called Steve to get information about bike shops close to the route on the east side of Tucson and got a text saying I was currently 6 miles behind Lynda. I bombed on nonstop to Rincon Valley Store.
The closest bike shop, Uno Bicycle Studio was my best option even though the side trip was going to add 10 miles and lose more time. I had precise directions and I called and made sure there was a tire available. I looked back at my Kenda Small Block 8 that was held together with cardboard and duct tape. It had gotten me through everything from Patagonia to Tucson.
The cardboard and duct tape boot that held from Patagonia to Tucson

I sat on the porch of the Rincon store and stretched my back. The last thing I wanted to do was spend half a day in Tucson making no progress and losing even more ground. Could I chance it? Every illogical and emotional thought told me to tear up Reddington Pass and push on. Every logical, sane thought told me to get my ass to the bike shop and get a new tire and some tubes.
I followed Old Spanish Trail to Houghton Road and was treated to a blazing downhill to the shop. I truly must have been a sight as I rolled in sweaty, dirty and anxious to get a new tire and get moving. I threw down my packs and gear and leaked half my water onto the floor. Oops. Sorry.
I really wanted to go tubeless but I had left the necessary valve somewhere north of Parker Canyon Lake and the shop didn’t have any in stock. So another slime tube it was. My Bontrager rims wanted absolutely no part of the particular tire and tube combination for some reason and it took a long time for them to finally seat.

Uno Bicycle Studio
Bruce, the owner,  is a super chill, super cool singlespeeder. He got me rolling again with a new tire and hooked me up with some nutrition. Huge shout out to Uno Bicycle Studio! If you are in Tucson, definitely go check it out. Thank you, thank you, thank you, my friend.
I stopped at the Quick Mart for more food, water and Gatorade. I knew I had a long haul ahead of me and had to be prepared. I had checked trackleaders while at the store and knew I was still ahead of a lot of people and a little down about the fact I had lost so much time but more than ready to charge on to Summerhaven. I rolled out of Tucson, grumbled all through the sandy wash just before Reddington Road and passed Brad M. chilling in the shade talking to his girlfriend. It was hot, but I was on a mission, so I kept on.
He caught me and we trudged up the road. It was nice to chat with him, as I had ridden solo for a long time. I was starting to feel the heat for the first time and decided to kick it in the shade for about 15 minutes. Brad pushed on and I didn’t see him again until he was bivvied up late that night.
I began the endless maze of 4WD roads and found a decent pace. Definitely not my favorite riding. I was  jonesing for some singletrack when I heard my back tire again leaking serious air. I closed my eyes and shook my head. I wanted to cry, I wanted to scream and I wanted to throw my bike. Was there a voodoo doll somewhere in the shape of my tires into which someone was poking pins? Settle down, rookie. Change this bitch. It’s a long race. Relax. Take a breather. At least it wasn’t a sidewall again.
I got a new tube into my new tire and rode off. Note: I didn’t keep my old tube with the hole in it. Nope, it is still lying along the AZ Trail. Fatal, mindless mistake, rookie. I could have busted out my finely-honed McGyver skills and patched it with the repair kit I had in my frame bag. What the hell was I thinking? Baaaad move.
My bad luck with tires was starting to get to me psychologically. I had just lost more time and was letting frustration affect me. I rolled on for about another 15 minutes and my attitude was getting worse. I knew that sleep would cure this temporary garbage. I set my alarm for an hour and ended up being stopped for about 2-2.5 hours I think.

The moon just before a quick nap

I woke up, ate, drank and found that my legs felt very refreshed. Sweet! Game on again. I felt great and got into some nice singletrack. The descents were fast in the light of the full moon and I was crushing the small climbs interspersed between. As mentioned before I passed Brad M bivvied up and he advised me of the upcoming hike-a-bike section just before the Catalina Highway. He also said he just saw Erick pass. This lifted my spirits even more, because the last time I saw him was in Patagonia and he was fighting some serious cramping.
I passed Erick about 15 minutes later and he was also bivvied up for the night. Not even 20 more minutes down the trail I hear my current, most-hated sound in the world: PSSSHHHHH! I got hit in the face with Stan’s as my front tire sunk about halfway to the rim. This time, I literally yelled at the top of my lungs “NO! Not again! Enough with the flats!”
I stopped and found that my beloved Nevegal (that everyone gives me crap about being so heavy) was, in fact, still holding some air. The Stan’s seemed to have plugged the hole. I reinflated what air had been lost and asked the night sky to please stop the tire voodoo. I was over this game. No longer fun and amusing to keep repairing tires. I had resorted to sarcasm at this point.
I licked my lips at the sight of a sick descent just before the big hill up to the Catalina Highway. I double checked both tires. Good and good. Yeeeehaaaaaw! Down I went, faster and faster. Shredding it in the brilliant light of the full moon. The coolness of the night caressed my dirty, salty face. I leaned back a little further and bombed down some fun, technical rocks.
I entered that place where I can authentically experience my existence. I can smell, taste and drink life in. Mountains have always brought me to this place time and time again, but when I sat on a mountain bike a year and a half ago for the first time, I knew I had learned how to find this place through an additional means.  Here, in this realm, personal struggles, demons and fears lose their power to hinder me ever again.
PSSSHHHHH! I immediately returned from my downhill trance. I started laughing out loud. This absolutely could not be happening. I must be bivvied up and in the middle of a fatigue-induced nightmare, right? Ummm, yah. WRONG! I moved closer and shined my light directly on a nasty, ugly tear in the sidewall of my front tire. I almost lost it, but my stubbornness refused to acknowledge that I had indeed TORN ANOTHER SIDEWALL! Nope. Not happening.
I was at the bottom of the descent and knew I had to start a long hike-a-bike. So I just began pushing up the rock steps ahead of me. I pushed on harder and faster until my quads were burning. I stubbornly pushed on. I finally wore myself out from literally charging up as hard as I could. It was either this or burst into tears. I stopped on a wide switch-back with some room to lay my bike down. I put my head in my hands and I cried. My shoulders shook and I gasped for air between sobs. I finally cried out all the tears I had in my eyes. I then stood up, picked up the biggest rock I could find and crushed it into pieces on the huge boulder I had just walked my bike up. “Fuck you, Arizona. I hate your ugly, goddamned cactus!”
The reality of the situation had just hit me, but I chose to sleep on it first. I woke before the sun was up. I had no more tubes. My front tire was holding some air, but wouldn’t reliably hold it for long. I had made a MAJOR error by leaving my old tube behind. I had duct tape and part of my old rubber tube from Patagonia to boot any additional sidewall tears. There were no bike shops anywhere further along the route. Returning to Tucson on the Catalina Highway was my only option. Another trip to a Tucson bike shop was an absolute minimum of 20 miles off-course. I would lose the greater part of a day again.

My final campsite just before Catalina Highway
I was done. I was heartbroken and defeated. I called it at Mulino Campground. I saw Max who had just eaten and was reenergized. He made me smile and I gave him my food and wished him the best. I descended into Tucson stopping to air up my front tire a couple of times. I found a Subway, ordered a sandwich and waited for Steve to come and get me.
With some time to reflect and think and after a long talk with my friend Erick at the airport (Congrats on the big finish!! WOOHOO!!), I realized where the hole in my game was. I went into this race unprepared to deal with tire and mechanical issues that can and will arise. I really lack knowledge and confidence in my “bike mechanic” skills. My reference to McGyver earlier was a total joke, because in reality I am exceptionally bad at that kind of stuff when it comes to bikes. I have pulled the “girl-card” far too long and it bit me in the ass.  My “girl-card” term is in reference to the fact that I will gladly let anyone fix flats, boot tires, bleed brakes and maintain my bike for me. I watch and get the general idea, but I have no certainty or faith in my ability to do it correctly.
I should have clearly, calmly and logically planned better when I left Tucson. I should have NOT left that tube behind. I should have had two more tire boots when I left Uno Bicycle Studio and one more tube. As a last resort, I should have been confident in my ability to get out my sewing kit and duct tape and make that front tire hold air out in the middle of nowhere, if that’s what it would take to finish.
The AZ Trail voids the “girl-card.” It laughs at it. The bottom line is that my weakness ultimately destroyed me. I went in with a false notion that because I had no problems with flats or mechanicals in all the pre-riding I did, it would be the same in the race. I considered the possibility that I may have a flat and I carried all the right stuff from the start, but I didn’t go in EXPECTING and planning ways to deal with all the problems that plagued me. And I should have. Do I blame luck? Nah..not really my style to lay blame outside myself. Excuses are bullshit. In fact, I can’t remember the last time I blamed anyone other than myself. I cannot control when or if I tear sidewalls or flat and undoubtedly, I would love to have seen how the race would have been different  had I not lost hours and hours repairing and buying new tires, but my inability to efficiently and effectively manage tire issues is solely my fault.
So, upon my return to Colorado, I am now the new slave of a local Denver bike shop. My wage? Knowledge. The payoff? I can burn my “girl-card” because I will never need it again.
I will be back on the line at Parker Canyon. Guaranteed.

More pics. I didn't take my normal 16GB worth this time, but here are a couple:

Thursday before the race in Tucson
Parker Canyon Trailhead
Canello Hills (pre tire problems)


  1. Amazing read Jill!!!! Very honest and human, thanks for sharing it that way. The AZT isn't done with you yet!

  2. Enjoyed the read. It is amazing how high the highs are and how low the lows are is it not? And sometimes they are only seconds apart.

  3. It was a harsh (but typical) introduction to self-supported racing. Despite all the prep, study, reading of forums and advice from others etc etc, sooner or later each of us winds up own our own, in the middle of nowhere, considering our ‘options’. Imo one of the key gratifications of self supported racing is learning to deal with the variety of issues and problems that can come at you out on the route.

    Some never come back for more; your write-up tells shows you have squarely faced what went wrong and will be better prepared for the next one.


  4. Thanks for the great writeup, I really enjoyed reading it. It seems to me you were totally immersed and rocking the race, and that the tire difficulties were at least partly or mostly bad luck. Slicing a SB8 I can see, but not a Nevegal -- wow, just wow.

    But I applaud your attitude of owning it (even the luck) and learning from it. I really, really hope to see you come back next year and put it all together.

    Oh and I had no idea about the Uno shop! Much closer to the route than Broadway Bikes. Will have to add that to the cues.


  5. Tony-so, so true!

    Thanks all who read and commented on my experience. I really appreciate the insight and wisdom and use it to grow. It is nice to be involved with a community who understands and thrives on this obsession. I will be back next year and am certainly not finished for this year. The hook is deeply set!

  6. Awesome write-up Jill. Thanks for sharing the nitty gritty details of tire failure. I always thought Stans rendered tires unflattable, but I guess rips and tears will happen. Cool that you are inspired to get more bike fixing experience. I know how hot it was last weekend and I'm impressed that you persevered as long as you did! Will we see you next year on the AZ 300?

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  8. Jill, If you can ride as well as you write, damn, you are gonna rip that AZ Trail to shreds next year! : ) I will follow All Things Epic and look forward to new entries! Stay in touch and I am serious about some sort of Sponsorship. rock and it was a pleasure meeting you!

  9. Wow glad to be a follower of you blog! Nice writing and great effort on the AZ. You inspire me.