Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Arizona Trail Race 750: Part 1 Mexico to Superior

So I got bored one day at work while trying to act interested in someone rambling on about an episode of some TV show I neither knew nor cared enough about to successfully maintain even the courtesy "nod and blink." Sensing no upcoming pauses, I cut into the mind-numbing chatter with an abrupt question of my own:

"Have you ever driven from Mexico to Utah?"

"Are you joking? That's like 500 miles....way too far to drive."

I just smiled in complete agreement because, yes, that IS much too far to drive. In fact, Google's longest given driving route from the Mexican border at Coronado National Memorial to Big Water, UT is 570 miles. Considering that Big Water is 24 miles from Stateline Campground (the Arizona Trail's official northern terminus), if one  were to check the odometer on the car, it would read close to 546 miles upon arrival in Utah. And since one could argue that gasoline is the single biggest rip off in the United States priced near or above $4 per gallon:

Or....way above $4 at Jake's Corner

I had a far better method of getting to Utah:

Bikepack it--border to border.

My obsession with this feat had been simmering since early summer 2011.It was something that never really left my daily thoughts starting in early January 2012. I was going to finish


Mexico To Utah

Longest singletrack bike race in the world 

Mandatory 24 mile portage across the Grand Canyon 

Tack on 204 miles to the mileage of the driving route, ride (or hike-a-bike) singletrack whenever possible, strap a two-wheeled apparatus to an already tired body and angry feet, lug it from the north rim to the south rim of the Grand Canyon, and then haul ass until you see the sweet, sweet sight of hills made of red rocks.

And that is the Arizona Trail Race. A race that only had four male finishers listed from 2005-2011.

Definitely time for a girl to break onto that list, eh?

April 12, 2012

The Colorado Chapter of AZT competitors came in the form of a Chevrolet truck loaded with four racers, my black lab, the best shuttle driver on the planet and about 30 grand worth of bikes and gear on a rack. We dropped Wendy and Mark off at Parker Canyon Lake, the start line of the 300 mile version of the race around 4pm. But first we submitted our best imitation of a Toyota commercial from the 1980's:

Take 1

Take 2

And finally settled for the customary group shot in front of the trail sign

After unloading two racers, bikes and gear, Les, Kevin and I made a run for the Mexican border. Although Les was doing the 300 mile version, he opted to start at the border with all the 750 racers in order to make logistics work (and, true to his energetic nature, did not mind 14 "bonus miles" and a 6:30AM start).

My first time in Mexico with our campsite in the background

Not necessarily the most scenic portion of the program

I fidgeted with my frame pack and repacked and rechecked everything before I hit the hay at our lovely border-fence campsite. Surprisingly, my nerves weren't really too frazzled. Maybe because I had a year of riding and racing under my belt. Or maybe I was confident I had done the needed prep work for months. I knew I had brought the right tires this year (Racing Ralph Evo Snakeskin on the front and Panaracer Rampage on the back). My gear was solid.

I felt a quiet, unspoken but very present confidence (not arrogance) that this year I was getting across that finish line. I would have to say that it was born from my increased awareness of what was ahead of me and my stubborn determination to finish. I had a few unsettling thoughts about mechanical issues but I decided not to dwell on it.

As I downed some calories, and then laid down to sleep, I couldn't help but think back to the eve of last year's race and how different my mindset was this year. Yeah, I had some demons to slay here in the desert. Tire demons, rookie demons, DNF demons, but I pushed worry and fear aside. I remember thinking to myself that both entities will crush dreams if allowed and there was no place for either of them with me this year. Because I was going to finish.

I slept like a log.

April 13, 2012

BRRRRRR! It was 5:15AM and it was cold. I was at the southernmost point I had ever been in the northern hemisphere and I was wearing my kit and a huge down jacket. Wait. AZ is always cold when I visit (think 2011 Dawn to Dusk race)....

The rest of the 750 kids began showing up and in no time we were lined up at the fence ready to take a trip to Utah.

Brad, Marshal, David, Mark, Kurt, Me, Les (300) and Matt (late starters Aaron and Arno unfortunately are not pictured)

After some introductions, hellos and a bit of small talk, I kissed the Mexican border and we were off on dirt roads to Parker Canyon Lake where the start of the AZT 300 was located

Cruising along in no particular hurry:

Many, many miles ahead

We got to Parker Canyon Lake in about an hour and a half and the 300 racers were milling around for the 9AM start. I looked for my friend, Erick Lord, but he wasn't at the start line yet. I didn't see his wife, Jen, either and I was bummed I didn't get to say hi. They recently moved to Ventura and I hadn't seen them since early fall.

A quick pose shot with Les (who would catch me about 20 miles later) before his start with the other 300 racers:

And I was headed north again:

As I rounded the corner and passed the trailhead sign I thought a lot about last year and how different a rider I was now. This wasn't an XC race to hammer out to Patagonia, this was the first few miles of a long journey northward. I settled into a really conservative, easy pace and just cruised through Canelo Hills. I am, however, pretty convinced this same cow was standing in the same spot as last year.

I was caught by Kurt R. and Max and a couple other guys on a long, steep HAB (hike-a-bike) section and shortly after that face planted over the handle bars on a loose descent. I hit pretty hard and cut my upper lip and split my lower lip. Nice one, Jill.

I was afraid I had cut myself pretty badly judging by the amount of blood I was wiping off my face and spitting on the ground. I took a few sips of water, washed the dirt and blood out of my teeth and took off. I rode for another 45 minutes or so and looked just below me at the bottom of a hill and recognized the white sleeves of the Boulder Trek Store kits. It was Les. He and Erick were riding together and came upon me. I stopped, forewarned them of my bloody mouth and then began to laugh at Erick's comment:

"Ah, that ain't nothin', I have seen so much worse!"

I snickered at the memory of my last face plant that happened while descending with him and another friend that resulted in me spitting my front teeth into my hand and a nice trip to the emergency room. Les quickly confirmed it was just an abrasion. Sweet. No stitches this time. That would have seriously put a dark cloud over my 750 hopes.

The blood stopped and before I knew it I was in Patagonia. I felt good and really had no need to stop because I knew there were no public bathrooms in the general store. I did want some ice for my water, so I quickly filled up my hydration bladder, added some ice, chugged half a soda and was on my way to Sonoita. The 13 paved miles go quickly and I was passed by a racer named Justin. I got to the junction in Sonoita and went into the Shell station where I knew there were restrooms and cleaned up the blood and dirt off my face. I grabbed something cold to drink and chatted with Ray and Justin for a bit before heading out. Justin was just ahead of me on the pavement and pointed out an enormous tan colored snake on the right hand side of the road. I am not sure if it was a rattle snake or not because I swung out way wide.

Apparently, I had just missed Les and Erick who were at the store across the street and took off just before me. It would have been fun to ride with them some, but their pace was a bit faster than mine and I probably would have gotten dropped quickly. The wind was insane and blowing me off the dirt roads on the way to Kentucky Camp. I was getting a bit grumpy, but the awesome riding into and just out of KC elevated my mood significantly. I had one small thorn in my front tire that sprayed some Stan's in my face, but it was able to seal itself when I rotated the puncture downward. I was pretty relieved to not have to run a tube this early.

The first picture I actually took with my camera (most photography credit Les Handy) was at KC while I was getting water. I took it mainly because last year I rolled into the water spigot at dark after spending hours and hours in Patagonia fixing a slashed sidewall.

2012 arrival: 4pm  2011 arrival: 10pm...good to see it in the  light 

From Kentucky Camp I pressed on til sunset, stopped to put on leg warmers and was in total go-mode to Rincon Valley Store. I hoped to bivvy on the front porch for a bit, grab breakfast and take off up Reddington Road by 8 am. As I was nearing I-10 I saw a Superfly 100 just like mine alongside the trail and stopped to pester Les who was bivvied up but not asleep. I hung out for 15 minutes but was still pretty energized and had heard some weather was possible on Lemmon. Thinking it was coming far later in the day than it actually did, I had a flickering hope of being in the Summerhaven store where it was warm. Thus, my ambition to get farther than I probably needed to be was predominantly to avoid being frozen and soaked---two things I really hate. I have good rain gear and my core stays warm but anything I put on my hands do not keep them warm on a bike. Not kidding. Unfortunately.

I slept for about an hour or so (I think) just outside a gate after I crossed under I-10. The sleep monster creeps up on me. One second I am fine and feel like charging on and the next I am swerving on the trail because my eyes are falling closed. After a quick nap, I bombed on to La Sevilla Campground where I stopped to fill water and saw Justin again who had slept in the bathrooms. Just as I was leaving, Brad and Matt pulled in. It had begun to lightly sprinkle and I was hungry, so I took off with notions of some hot chocolate and hot food from a microwave for breakfast.

The riding is fast and fun just before the X9 ranch road. I must have been having too much fun because I blew the turn to put me on X9 road then to Old Spanish Trail to the store.


I rode clear to the wilderness boundary and then turned around and backtracked. Stupid mistake. Especially since the storm had arrived much earlier than I expected to see it. I was getting pelted in the face with freezing rain, bone-chilling wind and my hands were beginning to become completely non functional. I popped out on Old Spanish Trail and was soon unable to shift even with my palm. I couldn't even pull the brake. I stopped three times to warm my hands and saw some roadies suffering through a race in far less clothing than what I had. They looked absolutely miserable like me and I heard the race was canceled when people were starting to get hypothermic. Yep, that's how cold it was in Tucson. I can only imagine what it was like for Kurt R up on Lemmon.

Rincon Valley Store was the most beautiful sight I had seen in a long time. I was there warming up and drying out for about an hour when Brad, Matt, Les, Forest and some other racers rolled in looking as cold and miserable as I was an hour ago.

Brad and Matt smiling at the fact they were inside and now warm
Les rolled in shivering and unable to move his purple hands, but soon ate, warmed up and bivvied for a while

Well....minus the actual bivvy 
I made my little spread and slept for a few hours. All I heard were reports of 22 degree temps, snow closing the Catalina Highway and freezing racers ahead of me

The weather began to break and a bunch of once lifeless bikepackers started to get restless, load gear and head out for the Reddington climb. Looking back, I wish I had just toughened up and left when they did, but I had myself convinced I was going to freeze all night and the best thing to do was wait longer. Erick and Jen came to the store after Les, Brad and Matt had taken off and I got a chance to talk with them for awhile. I was bummed to hear Erick had to scratch due to a broken shifter.

I then got a text from Les saying "The road is dry, the sun is blazing. Get on your bike, its time to move forward..."

I came alive. Game on.

I rode with Aaron Boatman up Reddington but he soon dropped me on the rocky jeep roads heading to Molino Basin. I rode all night. Sometime in the wee hours of the morning as I was pushing my bike up the hill to the Catalina Highway, I stopped for a moment to reflect on last year's race at the spot on the switchbacks were I slept and quit with three slashed sidewalls. My mind instantly put me back one year and I remembered all the emotion and disappointment and tears I shed in that spot. Wow. A lot was different in many ways now.

I got to Prison Camp a couple hours before sun up and bivvied where I saw Matt and Brad sleeping. I must have been like cryptonite or really noisy because as soon as I was in my bag and just about asleep, I heard them take off for the Lemmon climb. I slept for probably an hour and a half and was packing my stuff when I heard someone rolling into Prison Camp. The familiar bell told me it was Les from a distance. He had slept in the bathroom at the ranger station on the Catalina Highway the night before.

I love this picture, because it pretty much encompasses just what bikepacking is sometimes--finding warm shelter, even if its underneath a campground toilet---is like a penthouse suite with fluffy pillows and a jacuzzi. Everything is in perspective...

Good morning, Prison Camp! I was a sight for sore eyes indeed...busted up lip and all...

I was stoked to climb the road up to Summerhaven with my partner in crime. One of the memories that will always make me smile is that we both kept crossing the road to get to the sunny, warm spots and out of the cold morning shadows.

I held pace for a while, but Les took off and was at the Summerhaven store downing Hot Pockets and I was about 2 miles back. I stopped a few times on the way up to warm my hands and I saw this built as a tribute to the spring blizzard 24 hours earlier:

Summerhaven General Store has the best owners of any place on the route. Thank you so much for your kind hospitality and friendly, warm smiles. I will remember so many of the people on this journey forever and they are definitely two unforgettable souls.

Les rolled out about 20-30 minutes before I did to tackle Oracle Ridge.

The trail had a good track through the snow from racers going through prior but it was a looooooong HAB up, up, up, over huge boulders, through bushes, across ridges and more up. I just lowered my head, turned my ipod to the max and sang while I surged through to the big, rocky descents.

Eric Foster and David or "Beardog" both caught and passed me just before Oracle State Park and I rode the remaining miles to the Oracle store with Brad Mattingly. It was awesome to have the chance to see him and visit a bit since I had met him last year and stole two Cokes out of his cooler at 24HITEF!

We met back up with Eric and Beardog at the Oracle Store and cleaned them out of whatever food we could get them to part with 45 minutes before closing time.

I went to the Circle K for a few minutes to switch bibs, dump some garbage and wrappers, fill water and clean the mud out of my drivetrain before heading out to Tiger Mine Rd. I left Oracle with the intention of sleeping at the Freeman Cache, but the sleep monster attacked. I passed Beardog bivvied up out of frustration with the super vague trail (which I completely felt the same at times) and then awoke to him passing me where I crashed alongside the trail. I rode on and saw him and a couple of thru-hikers at the Freeman Cache. I filled up and headed on to the super awesome Boulders Section. Pure sugary sweet riding before the hot, long Ripsey section.

I trudged through the Ripsey Wash, up the switchbacks and down to the Kelvin Highway. Not particularly my favorite but those miles were behind me and after a bit of short singletrack I was at the Gila River about 2 hours before sunset. I needed water and was about to filter out of the river (Ugh! not my ideal choice) when an old man named Dalton asked me if I wanted to use the spigot at his house up the road. My ears perked up and I pedaled about a quarter of a mile and refilled with non-Gila water.

The first question everyone ALWAYS asks me is if I am scared riding all alone and, sure enough,  Dalton followed suit...

Ummmm, hell no, I am not scared. I love the solitude.

He went on to tell me all about the big cats that were seen between the Gila and Superior and how one got a nine year old girl a while back. Yadda, yadda, yadda, I was getting ancy to get moving up the road to the brand new trail everyone was raving about before dark. I thanked him kindly for the water and made my exit.

I was pretty tired by this time and my legs were feeling a deep burn I wasn't able to push through very well. I had 33 miles to Picket Post and they proved to be the longest miles of the first 300. I pushed on and on through the night time becoming very tired. I remember crashing on a turn and the next thing I knew I woke up in the middle of the trail. No joke, I had fallen asleep right where I crashed. All my lights were still on and I was in my kit, coat and gloves, sound asleep underneath my bike. I would kill for a picture of that! Priceless.

I got going just after sunrise and struggled through the last miles to Picket Post. It pretty much all looked like this:

The highlight was coming around a corner right on top of three javelinas and watching them scatter in utter terror. Pretty amusing creatures! It was really hot and even though I had plenty of water, I wasn't staying very cool and was kind of feeling nauseous. Seven miles from the PP trailhead, Scott, on his blazing fast ITT, caught me. I remember loving the fact that the trail was now trending downward, but I was not handling the heat well. I usually have no real problems staying cool but my body was pissed off and ready to be in some shade. I really did not have any fun on the sweet, flowing trail at the end of the 300. Instead I lost the contents of my stomach three times. Ick! But I pushed on slowly, knowing there was shade near the restrooms just a few miles ahead.

Soon I was there. The endpoint for the AZT 300. The destination I had failed to make one year prior. And, now, here I was.
Lovin life again!

The second woman to finish the AZT 300. The shitty 33 miles I had just come had me longing for the big snowy peaks of my SW Colorado home. I was tired and hot, but I had 300 miles down. And I was glad to see some shade and Les and Scott who were both there.

Scott had just destroyed the AZT 300 record with little sleep. So while we all chowed down at the arboretum nearby, Scott struggled to overcome the looming sleep giant:

How anyone can ride those 300 hundred miles that fast completely amazes and inspires me! Wow, Scott! Congrats. I am still in awe!

I tried to get a little sleep, and attempted to bivvy in the early evening behind a concrete wall outside the arboretum fence, but I was way too anxious to embark upon the next leg of the journey.

A really unflattering picture, but a look at a failed sleep attempt and my typical "camp"
I still had hope of a sub 10 day finish. I was tired but absolutely stoked to see what was ahead of me in the next 450 miles. There would be no more leapfrogging racers and seeing familiar faces at stores and gas stations. It was me, my bike and my unrelenting will to get to Utah. I had 100 miles or so of wilderness detour directly ahead of me. I was looking forward to gaining some ground, so I said goodbye to Les and Scott, rode back to Picket Post to catch the AZT where I had left off and was on my way to Apache Junction.

Get it. Get it. Get it. I remember thinking to myself as I spun through the night. I felt free. Alive. Alone. Strong. I had kicked the DNF demon in the face from last year. Getting that fat monkey off my back was like being released from shackles. I had 300 miles down and was ready to see what was ahead. My mind was clear and focused. I never once thought about quitting. Not one time.

Sub 10? I wanted it. BAD.I fully believed in myself and the possibility of it. And I think that if I go back and do this again, knowing what I know now and changing a few things,  I am very capable of it....

But as I spun into AJ on that crisp, cool night, little did I know that in a matter of a day Payson to the Mogollon (pronounced "mogi-on," I learned from locals) Rim was going to throw me down and punch me square in the gut more than once......

Part 1 done.

Part 2: Superior to Utah should be up in a couple days


  1. Jill- amazing reflection. I cannot wait to read part 2. You are an amazing woman!!!

  2. Keep it coming girl. Loving your story.

  3. Awesome ride and equally as good write up Jill. Blogs like yours, Scott M's etc have convinced me I want to have a crack at this year. I've been waiting for your write up so I could drool over sweet AZ sniggle. I'm really looking forward to part 2

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  5. Awesome story...wow...I'm on to part 2 now!

  6. nice posting.. thanks for sharing.

  7. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.