Thursday, May 8, 2014

2014 AZTR 750: A New and Highly Unexpected Record

The conclusion of Episode One of the AZTR 750 found this bi-wheeled, traveling shit show renewed and reenergized, with brain (of course) stronger than body, leaving Sonoita, AZ with the sunrise. I no longer hated the miles I knew lie ahead and I was again friends with my bike (thanks to the small miracles of sleep and food). Before I knew it, I was at Kentucky Camp. The 'Ascent of Death' that soon followed was not as hard as I remembered from past years, as it was not Friday evening, but rather Sunday morning. My Rampages seemed to love the trail again. My legs were slower and sluggish and my stomach demanded food pretty much every 60-90 minutes but I felt like a completely different person than the day before when I was hovering at my lowest point in many years.

The miles on this section are some of the best mountain biking miles (along with the Boulders section, the descent from my magic meadow near the Snowbowl, the Coconino Rim Trail and the last 28 miles to the northern terminus) on the entire Arizona Trail. Yes, there is fantastic riding during this race and sometimes its hard to remember that when my little human brain is thinking about how bad my (feet, legs. arms, neck, back) need a rest, or how my gear list should have included a powersaw or machete to cut my way through the Highline Trail.

I arrived at Highway 83 around 3 or 4pm. I knew my current pace would not put me at my next adequate resupply point, Rincon Store, before closing time, especially on a Sunday night, so I detoured into Vail. I needed ice water and a good meal. I had a ton of trail food in my packs and was planning to get to the top of Reddington Road and sleep. Climbing in the cool night was much more appealing than in the heat (which I did in 2011 with Flagstaff badass Brad Mattingly--the first ever SOBO finisher this year!), so I bailed off the trail for 4 miles to a steakhouse of all places. I ate them out of every cooked and raw vegetable they had (insert slight hyperbole acknowledegment here) and still felt hungry, but knew I had the food to get me to Summerhaven by evening time on Monday.

Back on the trail, I rolled through the cool of the evening with Eric Church in my ears and a silly grin on my face. Memories of my first, exploratory rides in 2011 and the 2012 edition of this perfect, yet awful race were like a movie playing in my mind. I kind of floated through these miles, appreciating the foreign plants and just breathing the desert air. The moon was big and hazy from the clouds and I felt untouchable. If someone were to ask me why I do this crazy crap, I would have to refer to the above paragraph, more specifically, the word "untouchable." A bike and a horse are the only two places I attain this feeling--free, wild, alive, aware--as if I have never felt the drain of negative people, places and things, as if I have never fretted over my own perceived flaws, bad choices, harsh words spoken, relationships broken, big plans and dreams never pursued.

This went on for miles, interrupted by the growl of my very persistant stomach. I stopped to eat quickly and got back on the trail. Just above the horse ranch place (I forget the name) where I have seen blog pictures of ice cream and other goodies, my front tire abruptly stuffed itself between two rocks. I immediately responded by struggling to unclip my left foot to avoid crashing.


My left cleat, completely unbeknownst to me, had lost a screw and rotated to the point I had to take my entire shoe off to get free of the behemoth bikepacking rig that I was now underneath. The full force of impact was unequally divided between the outside of my upper, left leg and left elbow. The brunt of the fall occurred (as my amazing luck would have it) directly on a nasty, pointy rock directly on the upper part of my  left leg, but my elbow and forearm were now also cut to hell, full of tiny rocks and dirt, bleeding all over the trail. My bony hip had a sweet little patch of road rash as well and I am fairly certain I provided a nice cushion for my bike to escape a single scratch. There's a resume builder--Jill Hueckman professional mountain bike crash cushion, specializing in Arizona singletrack. Go me.

My first reaction was a painful groan, followed by a few choice words when I realized I could not get out from under my bike because unclipping was not happening. A couple more words followed when I realized how much pain was in my leg just as I removed my shoe and tried to get up. My next reaction, I don't fully understand even as I sit here today, but I just started laughing.

Yeah, laughter.

I think I was most likely laughing at the past two days and the highs and lows and the fact that I really should have predicted something more was in store. Or laughing at the fact that I have never before lost a screw from my cleat, or the fact that there happened to be the nastiest rock directly below my left leg. I laughed because I pretty much wanted to cry. And there is no crying in bikepacking....with the caveat that happy tears don't count.

I removed the cleat, limped on to Rincon Valley Store and knew that I had to get a new cleat tomorrow in Tucson at Broadway Bikes. (Big mistake on my part. I had a masterlink, a derailleur hanger and every other little dinky thing in my repair Ziploc EXCEPT cleat screws. Dumb. Don't ask me why, just a dumb mistake on my part made out of haste I suppose. Lesson learned!). And the barrel adjuster on my rear shifter was broken. Oh, and that pesky left leg was excruciatingly painful and almost twice the size it was pre-crash...

So, instead of turning right, I turned left at Broadway and cruised into civilization. The first thing open was a convenience store, so I stopped in and chatted up the attendant. Generally, they are pretty good conversation at 3am because: 1) they are bored and 2) a beat up, bloody, female bikepacker is usually not the normal clientele. By this time, I couldn't bear any weight on my left leg but was too stubborn or maybe employing the old "out of sight, out of mind" strategy to actually look at the bruise I knew was forming. It really hurt, but true to my nature, when things really hurt, I go into an uber-calm avoidance of the obvious and spent the next ten minutes sprawled out in the middle of the floor in front of the soda machine, looking for the closest (and hopefully cheapest) motel.

Shit! The Hilton? Seriously? 

Not on a Hilton budget by any means, I remembered my old trick of bivvying up in the comfy grass near the Best Western in Tusayan in 2012 and I instantly knew where I would be sleeping in about 15 minutes.

Trackleaders, however, gave me the rooftop hot tub suite as pictured here:

Humor credit: Michael Bowen...thanks! 

I got up the next morning with my left lower extremity not functioning and my rocky, bloody elbow and forearm in need of attention. I walked into the lobby and just out of curiosity asked about a room. The woman at the front desk shot me a quick look and assured me she would be with me in a minute. I almost just left and continued pedaling down Broadway to look for a cheapo, but she came back out and told me the rate was going to be $169.


I thanked her kindly and began to walk out.

"Hold on, though," she said.

I noticed the man beside me had walked away.

"I can get you a room tonight for $59."

I just stood there for a second.

"I have the liberty to do that once in a while, I just couldn't say it while that gentleman was standing there."

No freaking way! I couldn't believe this was happening. 

But then I thought about the rollercoaster of highs and lows this journey had already been and just decided to roll with it. I handed her my card and after a million thank-yous, headed up to my room to pick rocks and gravel out of my arm and ice and elevate the balloon leg I was dragging. And take a shower. A glorious shower....

Over the next 20 hours, in weird, small world stories, I had one doctor look me in the eyes after hearing my story of the Canelo Hills nightmare and looking at my leg and tell me to book a flight home to Denver and another, who was also a cyclist and thus shared the same brain, help me out as much as possible, knowing there was no quit in my vocabulary. I also got new (and SPARE) cleat screws and got the barrel adjuster fixed at Broadway Bikes. Good guys there. Support them if in Tucson!

As Monday wore on, the swelling was down, the pain was down and I was ready to start anew, YET AGAIN in the morning. I hit a Sprouts market, filled my bags with as much food as I could carry (lessons learned from 2012!) and rolled out at 4am on Tuesday morning. Reddington Road in the cool air was amazing. The entire way to the colossal hike-a-bike out of Molino Basin did not suck. I was in the middle of a Pima County Sherrif Department manhunt, as there were choppers, trucks and people all over the area. I didn't stop to ask what was going on and no one stopped me, so I rode on in ignorant bliss actually enjoying trail I had never seen in full daylight before.

I met my first Gila Monster
It was starting to get hot by the time I was pushing my bike up the Molino Switchbacks, but my leg, although sore, felt much better. I came out at Catalina Highway for the first time, climbed up and descended into Prison Camp and started the road ascent up Catalina Highway hoping for water at Palisades (little did I know at the time, but the spigot was broken!).

On the way to Prison Camp
Smiling at all that has gone down the past few days and at being the caboose of the 750 train...
(photo credit: Jesse Morse-Brady)

About 9 miles from the top, a black Sprinter passed me and slowed up. Around a couple more corners, I saw it stopped and as I pedaled by I heard a voice:

"Are you Jill H from Durango?"

It was one-half of my favorite grocery store owner team on the planet! In 2012, he and his wife graciously sold me hot food and let me warm up in their store in Summerhaven after the cold ride up Mt. Lemmon after the blizzard. The people I have met and will meet on these insane adventures stay near and dear to my heart. I am so blessed to have met so many fantastic people in such random ways. I rolled on to Summerhaven and stopped in to the store to see and visit with them before bivvying up for the night. HUGE shout out to Phil, Carol and Tanner and I hope to see you guys somehow as you are passing through Colorado!

Climbing the pavement in the cool evening sun....

Wednesday morning was a daybreak departure and Oracle Ridge. 2012 was a complete ass-kicking, but this year was a different story. I can't even believe I am writing this, but I think it was #2 on the 'Most Enjoyable' section list this year. No snow, not as many downed trees as I was prepared for, and my body was starting to feel pretty damn good (ha, amazing what a little rest and food will do in that department).

Early morning Oracle Ridge...
Remainders of someone's meal at the Dan Saddle.....ick!

A guy named Wolfgang and his friends headed for the southern border...

I grabbed food in Oracle and chatted with the store owner who informed me his biggest profit days are those of the AZTR 300 and 750:

"Yeah, you guys come in, buy two sandwiches to eat here, one or two to take and every bag of chips in here....could you make this a bi-annual event? Best days of the year!"

Heh...That one definitely makes the priceless quotation list on so many levels.

I then set out for, honestly, my very least favorite section. The crappy ride from Oracle to Freeman cache is just that. Crappy. I can't say I enjoyed it. I can't say I hated it. I just wanted the miles over, so my drill seargeant brain said go. Go all night while its cool and sleep at Freeman Cache. I knew Aaron Boatman wasn't too far behind me and I hoped he would catch me for someone to trade sarcastic, humorous jokes and make fun of our mental state in deciding to undertake this bitch again.

A minute of rest with the moon.....really wanting this section over

Daylight came just as I was approaching Freeman Cache and I found the closest thing to comfortable underneath a bush I could to catch a few hours of sleep. I was pretty sleepy and stupid slow as I pushed my bike through the large majority of the god foresaken terrain around Antelope Peak and let out an audible hoot when I saw the water cabinet.

Aaron rolled up a few hours later with a wicked gash on his knee. It was awesome to see him again and I was bummed that he couldn't continue on. We chatted about Durango which always lifts spirits and stokes the fire of motivation.

I rolled through Ripsey in the midday heat, but water-soaked cool sleeves and beanie were a complete game-changer that allowed me to have a pretty good ride through this section after the giggle-inducing Boulder section.

Extreme fun on the AZT! 
A ways to go yet...
I was happier than this picture portrays, probably just a little overheated, although the cool breeze in this section was a very fond memory I took from this year's race...

My bike has been photographed here more than a few times...

The gatekeeper at the bottom of the Ripsey switchbacks making sure all who leave pay their toll......Yipe!
A public water cache I had not seen before.....there was about 1/2 gallon of water left even!
Farewell to Sir Ripsey for a while....
I hit Kelvin just before dark and found a spigot in a trailer park. Yummy, non-Gila River water ran down my dry throat and I didn't realize how thirsty I was until I stood up, completely water-logged.

Water logged, yet energized and determined to get the first 300 miles done, I made the choice to attack (well, that word is a bit aggressive, but hey...) the last 30-some miles to Superior at night. This decision was largely a result of the heat memories from 2012 my brain was conjuring up and partly because I still had an absurd and silly notion I could make up some of the time I had lost. So I tortured myself through to Superior. Riding what I could, HABing what I couldn't and using my iPod (the only electronic device with any power left) to pass the hours and miles. I do regret not seeing some of this section again, as there are some very beautiful areas, but I just wanted to be out of the cacti and gain ground in the northward direction. I bivvied up twice, setting my alarm for 30 minutes and 1 hour respectively, and if you asked me, I could not tell you at what point along the trail I did so. I was completely checked out, in head-down-just-fucking-go mode. Oddly, there is a strength or serenity or something I can't put words to that result from this state. Whatever it was, I was exhausted, yet elated to see Picket Post Trailhead.
Actually taken later that afternoon, after a nap in a weed patch in town and before I rolled out to finish the next 450 miles

300 of the hardest miles I have ridden to date. Big highs, low lows, good trail, bad trail, hot, cold, elation, pain, extreme comfort in a hot shower and soft bed, extreme discomfort in the Canelo Hills and just outside Tucson. All a part of this crazy, beautiful race and a perfect analogy to my crazy, beautiful life.

I must conclude Episode Two by announcing my new record. A record I only learned about while perusing the forums after the race. With tongue-in-cheek pride and joy, I leave you with Ian's post that had me rolling with laughter:

"Oh no, it looks like my all time wooden spoon record on the AZT300 has just been broken! Massive congratulations to JillH on her finish, I know exactly what she went through - total body shutdown in the first few days, hotel recuperation, flats, major mechanicals, weather, detours, food and water issues, already being in the negative energy zone by the time you get to the 300 start after riding to and from the border etc etc etc. If it was anything like my attempt she will look back on it as something like a coming of age ritual too! So many awesome experiences and memories mixed in with the frustrating...

Here's hoping you go further than the trails on the north side of Flagstaff I managed on the AZT 750, Jill. Ran out of time after my slooow 300, had to fly home to Europe. Watching the blue dot and sending you good vibes all the way to the border!"

Ian Corfe, (Reply #193) 2010 AZT300 finisher and all time slowest completion until yesterday!

Thank you, Ian, and I, uhhhhhh, graciously accept and may even wield this wooden spoon and hope, that for the sake of all my fellow bikepacking friends, I hold onto it for a long time. May your future travels through the first 300 miles be smoother than my 2014 WoodenSpoon Ride!

**Upcoming Episode Three: Onto the final 450!!