Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Arizona Trail Race 750: Part 2 Superior to The Mogollon Rim

Normally, I am not super enthused with the notion of riding long distances on a mountain bike on fire roads, dirt roads or paved roads. I really do love all the rocks, corners, climbs and drops that are essential constituents of my notions of singletrack. Perhaps that is why doing the TD doesn't burn hot in my blood right now...

Regardless, I will openly admit that as I left Picket Post on the AZT, and then  turned onto a big dirt road, I was perfectly fine to 1) not be pushing my bike and 2) be going over 3mph for a change.

The sun was down and my legs were loving the easy spin in the cool air of the night. I knew I had to get some sleep, so I rode on for awhile until I hit the Apache Trail (paved AZ 88). I found a church with a huge lawn that looked pretty comfortable to throw a bivvy out, but it was right on the road and a huge light loomed over everything. Just across the street was a park with a system of trails and some trees. Ahhh, home sweet home for a few hours....

I woke up at daybreak and got moving. Just as I exited the park I saw several signs saying overnight camping was prohibited....uhhhh, oops. I pedaled on for a ways climbing and descending and rolling through some flats until I came to a place called Tortilla Flats near Canyon Lake. The small store wasn't open for another hour and I was pretty hungry. I had some food with me, so I ate a couple of bars and some trail mix. Just as I was leaving some roadies rolled in and said that Beardog was about 5 miles ahead of me and they had talked to him for awhile.

I was pretty stoked to think I was within 5 miles of the closest racer in front of me. The paved Apache trail eventually turned to dirt. Really washboarded in some places but not a bad ride at all.


Chillin' on a dirt road...
Through a series of ups and downs, I passed Apache Lake and soon in the distance I could see someone coming towards me with a full bikepacking setup. Huh? Did Beardog turn around?

As the rider got closer, I could tell it wasn't a racer, but another female.

"Are you Jill?"
"Uhhhh, yeah..."
"Oh my God, I have been tracking you online the whole time!"

Hmmmm, wow. It was cool to know there was enough interest in this race that she knew who I was. We talked for a while and I took notice of her sweet setup.  Her name was Katherine and she was out on an overnight training ride. I complimented her on her frame and seat bag and we chatted for a bit. She took my picture and I was off again.

Photo credit: Katherine Wallace
Also featured in AOS writeup.
My metabolism must have turned up a couple of notches because I was crazy hungry. I ate the rest of the food I had knowing there was a general store on the marina at Roosevelt Lake. I bombed on, climbed the big ascent just before the dam and rolled into the visitor's center pretty ravenous. No food. I grabbed a soda out of the machine, charged my dead cell phone and ipod for a while and pedaled down to the entrance of the ramp to the marina.

Some gruffly voiced shuttle driver tore me a new one for being on my bike on the ramp. I politely asked why there was no sign informing me not to take my bike to the marina and if there was a safe place in which I could leave it. This grumpy dude was on the fight so I threw him a compliment on his shirt in hopes he would relax, hid my bike as best I could and walked down the ramp. Of all the unique, wonderful, kind and interesting people that made up a part of this journey, this guy was the only one who I probably won't wonder about in five years.

The store looked like it had been swarmed by locusts but I managed to find lunch and some good conversation with a couple of old guys who were escaping their wives and RV's  and sneaking in a couple of Foster's. They kept me in stitches with their philosophies on life and their inability to fathom why any sane woman would be doing a race like the 750. They more than made up for the grumpy "no bike rule" enforcer.

I took a cat nap and ate some more before hitting the AZ188 junction and crossing the suspension bridge to Payson. At this point, I could not eat enough food. I could feel my stomach eating itself a mere two hours after I would consume the highest calorie food that appealed to me. I am not a gut bomb burrito eater, but string cheese, jerkey, cup o' noodles, peanut butter, crackers, tuna fish, oranges and SKITTLES (!!) were looking damn tasty at the Punkin Center between Roosevelt and Payson.

When I saw the mileage sign for Payson on 188, I turned my GPS off and never looked at the cue sheet until I got to Rye. Oops. Turns out that I missed FR 184 out of Jake's Corner, which was about 6 miles of dirt road. Dammit.

I did stop at Jake's Corner for a bit. A very intriguing place in and of itself:



I wasn't necessarily motivated to take pictures of the scenery because it really did nothing for me. This above sign made me chuckle. I sat on the bench outside the store for a bit just observing and listening to the conversations of the people coming and going. What a cool, weird little corner of Arizona.

I rolled out and continued onto Rye. The sun was down and it was getting pretty chilly. I had all my layers on and as I came upon a massive bike-part graveyard called All Bikes, I made a mental note that I was going to return someday soon with an entire day to look through this colossal menagerie!

Right next door I saw this:


"Pop" was actually a redneck guy named Stevo who went out of his way to get me pretty much whatever I wanted. He adamantly refused to take a penny and as I shoveled food into my mouth on the picnic table adjacent to his empire, he told me all about his future plans to strike it rich in Rye. I was touched by his passion for his budding business plan which included a bar, a fire pit, live music and camp spaces. I assured him I would someday be back to patronize his upgraded establishment.

I pulled out the cue sheet and turned my GPS back on and saw that I was headed for a dirt road climb into Payson. I know I got off route somewhat and frustration started to mount when I hit a much dreaded "No Outlet" sign. I dropped the F-bomb at the top of my lungs in the middle of the night and two neighborhood dogs responded with incessant barking....Heh, served me right I guess....

I finally rolled into Payson somewhere around 3AM and I was really cold. I saw the angelic, glowing light of a Circle K and pulled in, dying for (surprise, surprise) food and hot chocolate. The store clerk was a 50-something woman whose demeanor absolutely lit up when I opened the door and leaned my bike against the ATM.

"Sweeeeet rig, girl!"

Nice. I smiled at her in complete shock at the sincerity of her greeting. Jackie was her name. She was very curious about the race, what I was doing and told me all about her bike, her hiking adventures and her daily obsession with her longtime goal of thru-hiking the Continental Divide Trail. Her entire countenance glowed as she recounted her hiking trips on the Highline Trail and how hard it was (hmmmmm, some foreshadowing?). I sat for two and a half hours sipping hot chocolate talking with a complete stranger with as much passion for life and adventure as I had ever seen. She briefly alluded to the fact she had overcome cancer but there was never a "poor me" story or one negative thing spoken from her lips. She didn't talk much about it, but I sensed it was a hard fight. But a fighter this woman was and as sleepy as I was, I never got tired of Jackie's enlivening and inspiring spirit.

I finally got in my bag and crashed out by the beer cooler. Three hours later, Jackie woke me up to wish me the best because her shift was done and she was off to ride her bike and hit the gym for a core workout. I lifted my head in a confused, half awake haze and gave her a hug. It was just after sunrise and as I was packing my gear and getting ready to leave, the next woman to come on shift told me that Jackie was literally fighting for her life everyday because her cancer had returned and she was having serious heart problems.

My heart sank to the floor and I felt a lump in my throat.

I will probably never cross paths with Jackie again in my life, but the brilliant light and intense passion that she radiated has stayed with me. There are only a handful of people who have ever touched my heart the way that complete stranger at a Circle K in Payson, AZ did. Despite all her problems, she has found a way to genuinely feel, cherish and experience all the beautiful life that is within this life. Undoubtedly worthy of hero status in my world.....

I headed out of Payson, caught a bit of fast singletrack and then spent a long time climbing and descending FR 209. Rocky and loose and steep in some places, fast and smooth in others. It went on and on and on and on it seemed. I stuffed my backpack and frame bag with food before leaving Payson and I was thankful for every calorie. I finally left FR 209 and saw this sign on the paved road I came to:

Yummy....Me like!!
Just before I dropped off the hill on the road:


The descent was short-lived as the route went through a gated community. I opened the gate and flew down the steep descending gravel road into a really nice, remote community of houses. I signed the trail register and snapped a quick picture of what I hoped would be an excerpt of the 750 finishers' list (and it was!!).


From this point on, life for this girl was rough. The trail became a miserable, steep bastard and it started to destroy my feet. My spirits sunk into the toilet and I bounced from exhausted, to furious, to frustrated and in pain. I don't think I actually rode my bike more than 15 minutes because the trail was wicked steep and loose for even a hiker.

This is a poor representation of the grade of the trail...but believe me, it was far from pleasant
The trail continued upward and the trees and bushes invaded more and more. I kept hoping I would see Oak Spring soon. On and on and on.....Up, up, more up.  Push bushes and branches out of the way....bike through the brush first, then me. Onward, onward, push, push. God, my toes hurt. Ugh that stung. Keep moving, push through the pain. Move. Oak Spring is close. Keep going....

Finally I came to a heavenly oasis teeming with ice cold water:




All the negative, silly and temporary emotions I had oscillated between getting to this point vanished and I drank the perfect, icy water until I couldn't drink anymore. I sat at this sign post for a second and recoiled. My fire burns too hot to ever quit anything, but looking ahead down the trail I knew things were going to get tougher. I had more elevation to gain and the trail was getting  more brushy and more rocky.

Get your head together, Hueckman. Now. This is where you dig deep. Fix your feet. Lower your head, embrace the pain and get your ass to the highway....

This was the trail ahead:

Looks like a great time, huh?
Followed by more...

 I took my shoes off and gave my feet some TLC. I was feeling hot spots and had some open blisters on my heels. I cleaned and covered everything and then  made myself a duct tape "sock" of sorts that really helped. I made myself a new "sock" everyday. The technique evolved into a science and I added moleskin and electrical tape to the masterpiece. It saved me.

Final version (pic taken at finish)

Original version (pic taken later  in Pine)
The trail and climbing got worse from Oak Spring to Highway 87, but I was done with anger and frustration. They quickly turned to humor and sarcasm. I finally topped out, was able to get on my bike and descend down some decent trail. I came to AZ87, threw my bike and gear down and laid flat out on my back and just started laughing. That was really all I could do. WTF did I just push my bike through? I hated it, but absolutely loved it at the same time....

I was hungry, fatigued and ready for a good, hot meal. I called Les and told him all about the last 6 hours of torture. I knew it was time for some real sleep. I also knew the Highline Trail was ahead of me. My decision was made. Hot food. A full night's sleep. My body was trashed. My determination had not wavered, but I knew that it was time to give myself some real rest.

I pedaled into Pine and ordered as much food as I could for $20 at a place called Sidewinders. I took my shoes off, cut the duct tape socks off, took my hair out of a ponytail and just sat and ate. I didn't think. I just stared at the stupid TV in front of me, put my feet on the chair across the table and really didn't have any idea of anything going on around me.

When some life returned, I walked to the bar to get a refill on my soda and noticed there was actually a lot of people around. I asked the woman standing next to me if there was any campgrounds nearby. She said she would ask her husband.

The consensus seemed to be the Pine Trailhead. Sweet. I knew where I was going to be in about 30 minutes. Sound asleep.

I must have been quite a sight, because just as I was getting my things gathered and throwing away my duct tape socks, the lady asked me if I would like a hot shower. I paused. Was this a dream or hallucination? Was this legal? I asked for nothing. No one in the place knew I had been on my bike on the AZT since Mexico.This was trail magic.And this woman was a trail angel I was certain.

I pedaled to her house and took the longest shower of my life. Then I slept from about 9pm til 8am the next morning. My sub 10-day hopes were diminishing and it bothered me, but I felt human again the next morning. I bought food at the store in Pine and pedaled back to where I had left off--the Highline Trail.

Since I finished I have read some discussion on the Highline Trail. Yeah. It sucks. Yeah. I have never been so hungry or pushed and packed my bike for so long. Yeah. It was the hardest sustained physical effort I have ever given. Yeah. It was twice as hard as anything I rode or HAB'd on the Colorado Trail Race. Yeah. My pace slowed to an embarrassing 1.88mph or something like that.

Pine to the Rim beat the living crap out of me. I needed a stronger body to go any faster than I did. I got passed when I was sleeping. I made a pact with myself to burn my Pearl Izumi X-Alps as part of my finish line celebration.

 So, yes, it should absolutely remain part of the route. No way should it be detoured or removed.

Why?

Because the feeling of victory when one gains the top of the Mogollon Rim, completely negates all the pain. Forgotten are the ten million massive boulders one pushes, packs and struggles through. Forgotten are the swollen toes that feel like they are in a vice. Forgotten are the dead legs and exhausted arms. Forgotten is the feeling of the starving stomach cannibalizing itself because one cannot pack enough food from Pine. The temporary hell is over.

It makes the AZTR 750 the AZTR 750.

It typifies the very definition of the word "endure."

When I finally stood at this sign:



I did not care at all that my feet looked like this (actually taken at finish after some healing):


I had overcome this:




I got to experience views like this:




And so many more I cannot put on a blog because the pictures are in my heart and mind...

These miles either make you or break you...And the enticing allure is that its your choice. Here you find out what's inside. You learn what it means to truly and authentically...ENDURE.

No feed stations here. No one cares who your sponsor is or your coach or that you have the top saddle/drivetrain/brakes. Your fancy, pretty kit won't get your bike up and over that rock ledge...

And I wouldn't want it any other way. Would you?


Next up: Mogollon Rim to Utah (I am longwinded, thus this one got a little long. Guess its going to be three parts if you can all stand reading my jibberish)