These words from the AZT steward I met about 9.5 miles from Washington Park on the Highline Trail kept echoing in my head during the final push up the Tunnel Trail.
The riding was indeed euphoric the moment I set foot on top of the Rim. I was going in a direction I hadn't experienced in a while....downward. Nothing hurt anymore and I had a big cheesy grin on my face as I ripped past General Springs Cabin and soon came upon a female thru-hiker just before East Clear Creek. She was clearly not doing well and I wondered if the Highline Trail got a few good punches in on her as well. I stopped for a bit to make sure she was ok. She commented on the difficulty of the trail but also said she picked up some sort of parasite after leaving Pine and it wreaked havoc on her digestive tract. She told me today was the best day of the last three and gave the "Go Away" vibe, so I wished her the best and started descending into East Clear Creek. I had plenty of water, so I crossed and began the HAB up the other side.
I rode on and came across two huge groups of Boy Scouts alongside the trail.Of course it had to be lunchtime and there was food everywhere. Sandwiches, jerkey, cookies, rice crispy treats, Clif Bars, candy, you name it and those kids were eating it. I had eaten the last of my food early that morning.and I can only imagine the drool that was running down the side of my face as I passed the first group. The second group was directly in the middle of the trail so I had to stop and the leader commented on my bike. He was a fellow mountain biker and was pretty interested in my setup, so a decent conversation ensued.
Again it was like a buffet table of food all over the trail. I tried not to stare and drool. I was swinging my leg over the saddle to leave when the scout leader's wife handed me a rice crispy treat saying it was extra.
YES! GOD BLESS THAT WOMAN. I hope karma sends the winning lottery numbers her way.
I rolled on and stopped at Blue Ridge Campground for water. For a good bit after, the riding was smooth and fast. I was hungry enough to eat my own hand at this point but wasn't going to detour to Happy Jack. Mormon Lake was the next food option and it was a ways off.
Up next was my favorite cue on the cue sheet. It reads like this:
"AZT crosses a rocky meadow with no trail constructed. Just keep going."
I can provide complete confirmation of the accuracy of this cue. There was absolutely no sign of any sort of trail. But the small brown AZT signs on every other tree were a lifesaver. Glad the sun was still up.
I continued on into the night, saw several wild turkeys and met several turkey hunters. Miles and miles went by until I was too sleepy to keep my bike on the trail. I stopped and slept until sunrise. I woke up dreaming about a humongous veggie breakfast burrito from Durango Doughworks, but I settled for a big swig of water and the other half of my precious rice crispy treat. My SPOT batteries were toast so I put the last three alkaline AAA's I had in.
Looks like I would be buying more than lunch at Mormon Lake. I rode for a couple more hours, thinking of nothing but food. The water cue sheet from the AZT discussion forum (very kindly put together by AZTripper--thank you!!) mentioned the quickest way to Mormon Lake Lodge being the Apache Spring trail.
|Oops! Wrong tribe, right trail....|
But I didn't care which tribe's trail it was, I just knew that in 1.1 miles, my stomach was going to be happy again. I was definitely hungry but the riding was much easier than Highline, so I didn't feel the starvation effect nearly as much. I rolled into the general store and like the one at Roosevelt Lake, it was bare bones. Bare bones and highway robbery as far as prices. No regular soda. No fruit. Just hot dogs, a few bags of chips and cookies but not much else. No lithium AAA batteries.
Arno (a fellow racer) and I had a hilarious conversation at the finish line about this little store. We shared the same hunger and expectations when we got to Mormon Lake, and thus the same gripes. It was really one of those "you had to be there" stories, but bikepacking allowed myself and a German guy I knew for 30 minutes to totally relate our stories of utter disappointment as we walked in the door. We were able to laugh for a long time about this and other shared experiences on the trail. Priceless.
I stayed at Mormon Lake longer than I should have. I ate a hot meal at the "steakhouse" (saloon) next to the store and then lounged in the grass for a while. Once I finally got going, I had a mile's worth of HAB back to rejoin the AZT.
From here, I felt so energized and alive on my bike. Flagstaff was the next stop and I was on a mission. I was way behind pace for my goal and it was time to step it up. I felt like I had been lazy and a bit demotivated to get going from Mormon Lake. The riding was awesome for miles and miles. My camera battery was getting really low, but I couldn't resist taking pictures of one of the warmest, most beautiful and peaceful nights of my entire journey.
|This sunset south of Flagstaff brought me to my knees....|
|I just sat, motionless, trailside, in awe of the sky before me|
I was at the Ace Hardware in Flagstaff (the first place in town to buy SPOT batteries) and I got in my bag and slept under a tree in the soft grass. I woke to an Ace employee asking if I was ok. I just giggled and assured her that I was fine, but I think she thought I was sleeping off a hard night of drinking.
I got batteries and food and cut off the daily duct tape sock off. Ugh! My feet blew up. My ankles were double their normal size and my big toes were like balloons. Not what I wanted to see at all. I elevated, retaped and got going later than I had hoped for once again.
Just as I was about to turn into Buffalo Park, I saw Eric Foster sitting on a rock. Sweet! He worked in the building right next to the entrance and came out to say hi to all the racers passing by. Great guy and its going to be awesome watching him go big in the TD and CTR this summer. Get it, EF!!
Just out of Buffalo Park is some pretty technical riding. I didn't ride this well at all and I mentally beat up on myself for it. After that it became smoother and my pace quickened a bit. I crossed Snowbowl Road and was able to scrounge enough battery out of my dead camera to get an ok shot of the light through the trees.
This is my last picture I was able to take (no camera charger came on the trip=no pics of my own of the Grand Canyon=FAIL):
|Note: Do not pass up Bismark Lake for water if you are running low....Russel Tank is a loooooong 70 miles from Flag. This was the only time in the race I was a bit worried about the water situation and luckily, there were other full tanks closer...|
The next 11.5 miles to FR 418 as noted on the signpost are something I am definitely going back to see in the daylight. The feel of the land and the trail reminded me of Durango with a central Oregon flare to it as I climbed into the stars. I came to a surreal alpine meadow with mileage signs. This was the first time I saw "Utah" and "Mexico" actually written out together. I smirked a bit thinking how nice it was to see Utah with a much smaller mileage number next to it than Mexico. I tried the turn-on-really-fast-and-snap a picture technique to eek out the last teaspoon full of battery, but my camera was done taking pictures. Darn. Would have made cool refrigerator decor/blog fodder.
The night was unusually warm and as much as I wanted to get to Tusayan, I had to stop and grab a few stars out of a mesmerizing night sky. They seemed inches from my face and I just stared into the night, feeling the connection with the energy of this almost magical place.
I looked over at my "escape vehicle" covered in hundreds of miles of Arizona dirt laying on its side about two feet away and began to think about all the places over the last year it had taken me. My mind instantly took me to the top of Marshall Pass last August, to the rocky switchbacks coming off Kennebec Pass to Durango in the dark, it went to the top of the podium in Moab, the tearful road ride into Bend after Marathon Nats. It took me to the parking lot of the Trek Store in Boulder on Black Friday, then right to that Thursday night ride where I finally cleaned all of Apex trail then danced in the parking lot to celebrate, to clocking out of a long Friday night at work, loading my bike in the wee hours of Saturday morning and sleeping on the way to many an MSC race hoping to be fast. I went back to Christmas on Devil's Backbone with my best friend....
As I laid completely alone somewhere south of the Grand Canyon, I felt a huge wave of gratitude and contentment for my life on two wheels that allows me to escape a mainstream society that I have never bought/fit into. I have begun to really thrive and flourish. My inner strength grows, my fire for adventure and authenticity rages and my insecurities start to perish. I no longer succumb to prescribed expectations or feel pressure to maintain relationships (or hardly even conversations anymore) that are superficial. Instead, I have found and cultivated authentic relationships with those who ( I have noticed) tend to be on the same path.
Can all this be credited to a mountain bike? Long answer, but, in short, probably not. Either way, it sure is a fun getaway rig that takes me to some cool places...
Ok, End digression. Resume race report now.
After the "meadow of mainstream outcast epiphany" came some descending through snowdrifts and onto the Babbit Ranch Passage. Dirt roads took me almost to the Kaibab National Forest Boundary. I stopped and slept 3 or 4 hours alongside the road until the sun came up. I got going again, left the dirt road, joined up with some bumpy singletrack and soon found myself at the sign for Moqui Stage Stop. I was just getting ready to answer nature's call behind a tree just off the trail when someone walked up from the adjoining trail that led to the actual Moqui Stage Stop.
It startled me at first, because I didn't expect to see anyone until Tusayan. The person was a thru-hiker nicknamed "Papa Bear" who had to abort mission due to contracting shingles. He had a sign in his hand that said "Trail Magic" and he inquired about a hiker named Paul for whom he had food, water, soda and beer. I hadn't seen anyone on the trail that day or the night before, so I wasn't much help.
"You are on that big 750 bike race, huh?"
"Do you want some food, a Coke, a beer? I know you can't request outside aid, but I read the rules, knowing I would most likely see some racers, and Trail Magic is ok, right?"
Was I dreaming?
I took a short 1/4 mile detour to a minivan parked in the shade stuffed to the brim with every type of cookie, cracker and granola bar one could imagine. Plus a cooler full of ice water, cold soda and Tecate to boot.
I hadn't completely convinced myself this smorgasbord was not, in fact, a desert mirage. But slowly began to believe it was real as I ate a four-pack of Oreos and sat in the shade. "Papa Bear" offered me as much food as I could eat and pack into my backpack. I wasn't crazy hungry but took what I could. We tried my cell phone in hopes of getting adequate service to contact his friend, but no luck. We swapped a few trail stories and he said he would look for me in Tusayan and I was on my way.
I came to Russell Tank in no time, crossed Coconino Rim Road and began the Coconino Rim Trail. Wow. Trails like this will give you fresh legs again no matter how many miles you have behind you. I was able to rip through the "No Bicycle" descent, quickly (yes, you read that correctly) HAB up to some of the fastest riding I did on the AZT. I found my big ring and my quads again.
My first glimpses of the canyon came a few miles before the Grandview Lookout Tower. This may sound odd, but the view from here, to me, was more breathtaking and beautiful than at South Kaibab Trailhead.
After the lookout tower, the AZT continued another 14 miles into Tusayan on what was also called the Tusayan bike path. Normally, one thinks of a bike path as a paved double-track width course that winds around a city beneath roads and through culverts. Not this one. Tusayan residents apparently like their dirt roads and singletrack, because that's what this was---14 miles of BLAZING fast trail that put me at the pizza joint in town no time.
I planned on going four more miles to Grand Canyon Village and sleeping on the steps of the post office where my pack, some food, running tights, shorts and hiking shoes were waiting for me
|Taken in Durango just before mailing|
but I found a McDonald's with a couch that was open until midnight. It was pretty comfortable so I made friends with all the workers so I wouldn't get kicked out and set my alarm for 11:30pm. Once closing time came around, I pedaled down the street a little ways and bivvied up for the rest of the night under a tree on the lawn of the Best Western.
Morning came around and I woke to a gigantic bull elk in the velvet looking at me in disgust. He was a mere 30-40 feet away and I was in his favorite grazing spot. The construction workers just behind me were taking pictures and I looked around in a semi-sleepy haze to see three more smaller bulls a bit further away. I couldn't believe how close he was! My bivvy spot must have been some prime grazing. He acted a bit perturbed that I was delaying his breakfast and when I got up to gather my gear and load my bike, he ran over to where his buddies were grazing. I smiled and then looked down at my arms.
I rolled into Grand Canyon Village, and ended up getting a little turned around on the myriad of bike trails and paths amongst the trees that were supposed to lead to the post office and began to get flustered. I think it was a bit of nervousness as I look back. It wasn't a conscious, overt feeling of nervousness, (a kind I know all too well before XC races) but more a nagging, fleeting feeling that came and went.
I stood in line at the post office, waited 15 minutes for them to FIND my package, changed clothes, gear, shoes, packs, bought food and headed to the South Kaibab Trailhead.to begin my descent to the Colorado River with my bike on my back.
A condensed explanation for those scratching their head right now: bicycles are prohibited in Wilderness Areas and, according to the NPS website as well, specifically in the canyon. Carrying bicycles across wilderness areas, however has been allowed and we were able to employ this method of transport for this race as long as the bike is not pushed or ridden anywhere inside the canyon.
The South Kaibab shuttle left and departed a mere five feet from where I was disassembling (removing front tire in my case) my bike and strapping it to my snowboarding pack I had tweaked with extra padding on the shoulder straps. At one point there were twenty people in a circle around me asking questions and taking pictures. I gave my email to at least 8 people who promised to send me the picture and thankfully, one kind lady followed through.
After the shuttle left and the questions stopped, I started walking to where the descent began. I felt a twinge of fear for the first and only time on this race.
Gulp. I am now committed to packing my bike to the north rim. Packing it. Meaning the wheels are not touching the ground for 24 miles. This realization came flooding into my brain. I stopped for a second to experience the new emotion of fear. I waited for a moment and took a deep breath....
I looked at the ground, I looked at the sky. I shook my head and started to laugh. What was there to be afraid of? This is the EPIC adventure part of the race! The part I crave, love, have thought about nonstop for months.
Has there been a woman tote her bike across this ditch ever before? I had no idea but suspected very few, if any. Has there been one who had even made it this far in the AZTR 750? No.
And as quickly as the fear had crept into my head, it was gone. Stoked to experience the Grand Canyon, I began my descent--still sans camera--so I stole (with permission from the BPR Founding Father of course) the next three pictures taken on his phatpacking trip on the South Kaibab a few days before:
|Switchbacking DOWN to the Colorado River|
|The first of many bridges I would cross en route to the North Rim|
My feet felt great in my "normal" shoes. Actually, the pair I used are my normal Asics running shoes. Foot pain/swelling were never an issue once in the canyon. I made good time to Phantom Ranch. I stopped right at the information sign to eat a granola bar and rest for a minute. Someone asked me if I was a ranger. Trying to make the connection I asked him why he thought that. Apparently, the rangers ride bikes in the canyon near Phantom Ranch.
The sun was just starting to go down as I passed Bright Angel Camp and the Ranger Station. The going wasn't too tough and I continued to steamroll down the trail turning down offers to camp with a couple of different groups. I was really hoping to be on the north rim before sunrise. No permit. No stopping. Just go.
My pace slowed as the night wore on. My legs were starting to feel the miles as I passed Cottonwood and the trail (now North Kaibab) began to ascend. I trudged on for another couple of miles, stopping a lot more frequently to bend over and relieve the pressure on my shoulders.
I knew the batteries in my headlamp were low and it began to dim and flicker. I had enough cash for food or batteries in GC Village but not both. Knowing I had two fresh AA's for the headlamp and only one more night, I opted for the calories. I was beginning to slow down and saw a wide spot just before the bridge that started the climb to Roaring Springs. I passed by thinking it looked like a good napping spot and crossed the bridge. Two steps off the bridge my light died. I turned around with no contemplation, crossed the bridge and stopped at the wide spot I had been eyeing. I wasn't overly motivated to change the batteries because I knew I was going to rest before the big climb started. I gave myself an hour and a half to rest. It was a really warm night so I just used my pack as a headrest and soon drifted off into my short cat nap. I woke before the sun was fully up and there was just enough light to see.The pack was a struggle to get back on because I was tired and it was getting really heavy and awkward. Honestly, a video of the ordeal would have been hilarious.
I began to climb. I knew I had roughly 5.5 miles to the top of the north rim. The going was slow and my legs and shoulders were fatigued. I climbed on and on, switchback after switchback...stair step after stair step. I had to stop a lot and bend over to relieve the pressure from the weight of the bike and pack. For a mile or so I played the 50-steps and rest game. It was a hard 5.5 miles. It took forever it seemed and I kept watching a storm moving in. I finally came to the Supai Tunnel and knew it was only 2 miles to the end. It started to sprinkle, and I pushed on. I kept looking up wondering when the switchback nightmare would end. Finally. Finally, I heard a work crew and saw the long, straight section I knew was the end. I chatted for about 5 minutes with one of the workers and proceeded to the info sign and flat ground.
Yes! I took my pack off and just lied down in the rain, flat on my back and didn't move for about 5 minutes. My muscles were definitely fatigued and it felt good to NOT be climbing, but nothing (namely my feet) hurt and the trail wasn't nearly as bad as the Highline Trail. The route through the canyon was wide, perfectly manicured double track. It was a huge physical effort for me getting the bike through, but really only 5.5 miles of serious ascending.The canyon effort did not hold a candle to the beating I took on the Highline Trail. I will take the canyon route anyday over the climb to the Mogollon Rim.
I rode about a mile to the backcountry permit office where I knew there was a spigot. The closer I got to a shelter, the more the storm grew. I was layered up and had my rain gear on and it was getting really cold. Just as the sky opened up and began dumping buckets of rain, I rolled in and got underneath the awning near the bathroom. It was early in the day (probably 8:30-9) and I was planning to finish up that evening. My plan was fading as watched it rain harder and felt the temperature drop quickly.I went inside to get a forecast from the receptionist: Low 30's (F) and snow today. Sunny and high 50's (F) tomorrow.
Ugh! The memory of freezing rain and near frostbitten hands in Tucson played a huge part of my decision to bivvy in the bathroom. Nothing was open at the north rim or anywhere before Jacob Lake (45 miles away). This meant no opportunities for warming up. So much for finishing tonight. But there was no way I was headed out in freezing temperatures, pouring rain and forecasted snow. Just not happening.
The receptionist saw me curled up on the bathroom floor and told me of a yurt about 2 miles away that was vacant and I was welcome to stay the night and wait out the storm. The last thing I wanted to do was hang out on the north rim any longer, but the yurt was an upgrade from the bathroom floor and two miles closer to Jacob Lake. I really hoped that the forecast was wrong and the weather was going to break like in Tucson. I kept a close eye on the sky, hoping to be on my way down Highway 89 soon, but the rain kept coming and the temperature dropped as the day wore on. The wind howled and it was miserable in every way. So I smoked myself out of the yurt twice during the night trying to get a decent fire going in a crappy stove with a chimney opening far too narrow to let hardly any smoke escape. Ahhhh, so that's why there was a thick layer of soot covering everything when I first walked in the door.
Arno came out of the canyon after me that evening and headed for Jacob Lake while I was in the yurt. Later at the finish line, he told me he was so miserably cold he had to finally stop somewhere in the middle of the night along Highway 89, get into his bag and bivvy and wait it out shivering most of the night.
I woke the next morning later than I hoped, cruised into Jacob Lake and bought a chocolate chip cookie to take with me to celebrate the finish in Utah.I left the paved highway and started the last section of singletrack to the finish. The trail was fast and the sunshine was perfect. I was all smiles.
Leaving Jacob Lake, I anticipated a highly emotional ride. This was it. This was the last few miles leading up to a moment I had wanted to experience for so long--to be the first woman to finish the AZTR 750. In the movies, this is where the music gets really loud and epic and we see the heroine in slow motion slaying all the dragons or charging through the finish line ribbon with the crowds cheering.
Ironically, this section felt the most anticlimactic. I pedaled along really not thinking about much. The feeling of quiet confidence much like that I felt at the Mexican border had returned. The extreme highs and lows of the race that elicited the most emotion and created the story I just recounted were now history. The fight had been fought and won.
But....the path to the finish seemed almost too easy. Why was my mind convinced I needed another obstacle to overcome to make this real? Why was I internally berating myself for not finishing 5 days earlier?
All this negative chatter within ceased when I caught glimpse of these:
| Seeing Utah this close, I felt both the joy of achievement and|
bittersweet sadness for a journey that was ending..
|A moment of reflection...|
|A short HAB a few miles prior...|
|And, yeah.... a few tears...|
|Arno says it all with this one!|
|"If you are going to doubt something, doubt your limits" -Don Ward|
I am no one special or overly talented. I just bought a cool bike 2 years ago and decided I wanted to race it last April. My life was set on fire again and I began to fiercely believe in the beauty of my dreams and eradicate fear and doubt from my vocabulary.
I decided it was time to live big, go big and jump at challenges. Standing on podiums and raising my hands in the air for the camera is nothing compared to the feeling I experienced first at Junction Creek last August and then again at the Utah border last Friday. Self-supported bikepacking has taken ahold of me and given me a way to chase adventure, push my limits, embrace pain and savor the amazing places my bike takes me. And finally, it gives me freedom from a life spent going through the motions, unsatisfied, half-alive, owned by my things.
* * * *
Is "THE END" an appropriate closing to this? Hell no. I am in for CTR 2012 and I will go back in to AZ in 2014 to either better my record, or, hopefully, go after another woman's record. 14 days is pretty soft, girls! Someone better go get it!
More coming on lessons learned, thoughts on my gear, feet, strategy, thank-yous, etc. So check back if you find this whole escapade interesting, entertaining, inspiring (I hope) or just a good laugh!
Also, check out this awesome podcast hosted by Ben Welnak,. He has a really great interview style and has spoken with many different mtb racers/riders. I was honored to share my experience in words.
Click to have a listen:
Mountain Bike Race Minute