Arizona Trail, Desert Southwest (CO,AZ,UT,NM), Trip Reports » 2009 AZT 300, lessons learned


by wookieone

So there I was mid-winter in Gunnsion, CO. the ground covered in snow, the temps cold, spring riding month(s) away. I was surfing the net during lunch and stumbled onto some of MikeC’s amazing pics from the 2008 AZT 300, they pulled me in. After my awful attempt at getting down here, I was very reluctant to get in a car, much less drive the 15 hours to get here, so I had convinced myself that it wasn’t gonna happen. But those images wouldn’t leave my head, along with the mantra drumming through my head, ‘life is for living damn it!’ So I bought plane tickets, I was commited. So if you know anything about Gunnison, it is cold. So you ski, maybe you ride your trainer, get out of town when Fruita, GJ or Moab dry out, maybe if the days are nice, some road miles. I am active no matter what, but enough to do 300 miles self supported? Meanwhile I was working alot, putting some new bags together for the race and trying to keep my life in order, not an easy task for me! So to say the least I felt a bit underprepared, a bit nervious about blowing up in the desert heat, worried my poor butt was gonna get destroyed. But I was commited, I was gonna get down there and I was gonna finish unless I broke myself or my bike. So there, right?

  So I made it down, my bike made it down, we all made it to Parker lake for the start, a huge smile wouldn’t leave my face, this is gonna be cool, the sky, the wind, the hawk soaring above all pointed to this, good things awaited out there. The leaders took off quickly, disappearing into the Canelo Hills and it’s wicked steep hike a bike trails. Within minutes my new seat post bag was coming loose and falling into my rear wheel, over and over, so much for my engineering! It took many tries to get it to stay put for more than a few minutes of actual riding on the rough trails. Although it was only about 75 degrees out, it felt hot, I felt heavy and slow. But I was still smiling, I was so happy to be here, in southern AZ, mere miles from Mexico, everything I needed for a few days, except water, on my back and on my bike. Miles and miles of unknown trails and adventures before me and a whole week before I had to deal with the dreaded four letter word, Work.

  After Patagonia, I managed to go off trail a few times, I had a bomber GPS track to follow, but you have to pay attention, that satelite won’t turn your bike for you. Even riding miles of unwanted out and back I kept smiling, I made fun of myself and joked about how much of an idiot I was and deserved to put in extra miles. I stopped on the Elephant Head MTB route before the ‘devil’s cash box’ to bivy. I put on all my clothes, and crawled into my space bivy, only to see that the aged material I carried all these years was partially shredded, hmmmm? Still I was plenty warm and I tried to sleep, no dice, I just lay there, listening to the wind, staring at the sweet sweet stars. Still not bad…

  I awoke, got loaded and rolled on, within minutes the moon disappeared and the snow flakes began to fall. After loosing some elevation, snow turned to rain, cold wind driven rain, the kind of weather that soaks you to the bone and leaves you feeling small and flimsy. On and on up Box Canyon I rolled, still getting pummeled by the storm. I missed a turn onto singletrack and had to bogey back to make myself feel better about the lost time. Then things went to hell. This section of trail had soaked up a lot of rain and had turned to the worst kind of mud, peanut butter like goo that sticks to your tires, then your frame and fork and within minutes the bike no longer rolls, the wheels simply won’t turn. I had no choice but to pick up the front wheel and drag the rear wheel along behind me. My loaded bike was now like a loaded downhill bike with the brakes locked tight, so so heavy. My shoulders ached, my head spun, my heart ached for the waste of time and energy this was causing, bad timing. I couldn’t stop to wait for the soil to dry, I was cold. Moving was all that was keeping me warm, my clothes were wet, my bivy in shreds, what have I done? I considered hiking out to the highway and DNF. No not gonna do it. So I just kept going, stop and breath, keep hoisting and dragging. Eventually the trail does hit the highway and I was rolling along at speed watching the sun slowly emerge from the clouds. Next came some really fun flowing singletrack, some of the best trail carving to be had, nice work here trail folks, good stuff. To top it off the sky was still sputtering a few scattered rain drops and the sun was peaking out through the hills and clouds. “Rainbow weather” I muttered to myself, and there it was a big fat rainbow, all that awful mud pushing faded as I railed sweet trail with that gorgeous sight over my shoulder. This section of awesome new trail took me all the way to La Sevilla campground where I got water, took a break, dried some clothes in the inermitten sunshine and took stock of my food supply. Tucson was only a couple hours away and I wanted to be sure to get what I needed to finish this adventure.

  After another rain spell on the Old Spanish Trail, I got to Tucson, spent 60 bucks at Bashars, got a 4 shot americano and ate and ate food. Stuffing the rest into my pack and bags, filling up my water and eventually rolling out of the safety of town into the dark clouded unknown that lay ahead. Up Reddington I climbed, getting almost run over by half crazed four wheelers, past the Tucson Militia training grounds eventually dropping down Chiva Falls and strangely heading away from the Catalinas. At first I though that Scott was just some sort of sick puppy sending us all out far away from where we needed to go. I began to get a bit crazy wondering why so far, down rolling jeep trails, “but the catalinas are that way” I kept insisting to myself. Then we hit the AZT again and I felt better, then the trail begain to climb through the most gorgeous landscape of grey rock slabs jutting out of waving hillsides of pink dotting thistles and tall rain drop laden grass all glowing in the weird light of evening sun breaking through the storm clouds. So pretty, I saw the bouncing gallop of deer, hawks on a wing all in that golden glow. Eventually the sun set and I began the hike a bike out and over the ridge to Molina basin. There were glowing eyes watching from the sidelines in the grass, owls hooting me on and even some stars beaming down at me. Somehow it made the super steep and chunky hike a bike less painful to my weary shoulders and tired head as it was about a 20 hour day by the time I rolled into the campground across the Catalina Highway. There I saw that Stephan had taken up camp in the awning of a campground bathroom, dry atleast, it looked like another nylon mummy was next to him but wasn’t sure. It was the first time I had seen any other racer since the night before and many many miles ago. I crashed a campground site and tried and tried in vain to start a fire. I was cold, wet, my clothes soaked and apparently so was any and all fuel I could find. So after wasting too much time in my tired state, I crawled into a couple garbage bags, stuffed my shredded bivy inside for some amount of thermal protection and fell asleep.

  The human body never fails to amaze me, both in it’s reslience and fragility, somehow I slept while so cold. I awoke with my teeth chattering uncontrolably, my whole body shivered and shuddered. I was up before my alarm went off, packed up with my shaking hands and started moving, thankfully uphill. Soon I was on the Catalina Highway and starting the epic climb up to Oracle Ridge. Now I knew this was gonna be a long push, but after 4 miles I saw the first sign, “Summerhaven 13 miles” Yikes, 3000 vertical, 17 miles, I guess it was a mellow grade, at least. Even so I had to walk every half hour for a minute, my legs felt hollow, my ass hurt like someone scrubbed it raw with some steel wool ( I told you I didn’t have many miles). The wild thing was watching the world change as I climbed, the trees got bigger and thicker, the snow got deeper, the air got very very cold. By the top I was freezing, cold cold cold. My hands and feet were numb, tingling, even with the plastic produce bags I put my feet in they were done. On the brief Downhill to Summerhaven the bike and I went down on the black ice, tires just slipped out from under me and I slapped my hand on the pavement and it went completely numb. I am used to being cold, I do live in Gunnison, CO. But this was just plain scary, I was begging for an uphill, I was just too cold and had no source for heat of more clothes to keep it in. Still I laughed at myself and the stituation. Here I was in southern Arizona in April, here to escape the cold wet spring in Colorado and I was bordering on hypothermia, at least I was still laughing! All suffering ends eventually and I did hit the control road and began Oracle Ridge. Even when I got to ride parts of it the going was slow and I stopped being frozen, soon it was all hike a bike and I was now feeling my feet and hands and the ache of my shoulders from the rough narrow trails insistance that you lift your bike up and over, up and over. Here is where I was also able to difininively see that it was just Kurt who was in front of me, (one advantage of being a bike geek is I memorized everyone’s tires at the start)

  About half way down the ridge, or the traverse of death as it is called, the sun began to poke through the clouds and the lower hillsides could be seen to be glowing gold with the morning sun, it looked magnificient, warm and sunny. Still the clouds swirled and clung to the ridge, updrafting swiftly, it was pretty damn cool. The trail then meanders off the ridge and tacks east and back north, then west again and drops you close to Oracle. I rode into town to get some water and some food I wasn’t carrying and eating for over two days already. That is when I realized how fast I had been able to travel so far. There was about 90 miles left and it had been just over two days by the time I hit the Circle K in Oracle and wolfed down some 2000 calories right there in front of the store.

   As I was about to leave Chris Plesko rolled up, after days of suffering alone it is so cool to see someone, especially someone out suffering the same thing as you. We talked about who was in front, behind, I learned that it was Chris and Stephan camped out at the Molina bathroom bivvy, and that Stephan was supposedly heading into Oracle as well. That the three of them, Chris, Kurt and Stephan hit Molina together and that the weather was so bad that they stopped, but Kurt was ready, he had enough winter clothing and the balls to heaad out and into the heart of the storm all by himself, leaving the other two to wait for 12 hours for a decent window to carry forth. So I ended up waiting for Chris to get set and we rode together out Tiger MIne Road, to the gasline section, talking, strategizing, I spoke up that it would be nice to get to the drop to the Gila River before dark, Chris thought it was possible, but said no more. Now Chris was on a rigid singlespeed, yet he is also one fast kid! So when I dwelved deep into myself and realized I still felt good, in fact the best I felt so far in the whole race, I decided to really try to throw down on this last section. So when I looked back after jamming out some of those gasline hills I really did expect to see him close behind me, yet I saw nothing. The crazy thing is I just kept hammering, now I am not that fast, persistent, resilient, stubborn and tough, yes, but fast, not really. But I was cruising, not stopping for anything, except pulling cholla balls out of my flesh, OUCH! I was eating on the bike, pushing those pedals with all I had and I still had lots in my gas tank. It was so fun, there is some more of that sweet singletrack out there, especially the Boulders Segment, wow, imagine very new, seldom traved trail that is almost hard to follow just carving these awesome turns through crazy forrests of Cholla and prickly pear, pretty much full speed trail riding. It was so so damn fun, again nice work trail folks, very nice!

  After many more miles of trail, roads, one confused GPS track follower and a gorgeous red/orange sunset I made it to the Gila River, I was till cruising, but getting very tired, my back was getting super tight and it hurt to crank hard. But I refused to stop moving, it would be all over and although it was warm out I had no intentions of sleeping out on course one more night. Plus I was hoping to catch Stephan, maybe Kurt and try to stay ahead of Chris. Although to clarify; it is a race, we are trying to out do one another, but it really is a different sort of competitive spirit, more of using the challenge of the other racers to keep yourself moving, not trying to ‘beat’ someone else, hard to explain. I really like these guys and I am so very stokeed for what they are pulling off, I really do wish them the best of luck even when I am trying so hard to catch them.

  So after crossing the Gila comes the Box Canyon, the second such named place, this one was rummored to be “brutal”. After all the crazy climbs I was mentally trying to be ready, well the “Box” wasn’t so bad. I pedaled almost the whole thing even pulling up over some slickrock benches and everything, much to my amazement and amusement. Yet that was not the true crux, that ended up being the crazy tangle of old jeep roads that goes on and on and on. I walked and walked and walked, my brain was swimming inside my head, my body wanted to just stop moving, my eyes were blurred and unfocused. As I kept telling myself, “all suffering ends” and “you will get there if you just keep moving” but it was so hard to overcome in my exhausted sleep deprived state. Eventually I hit the singletrack, this meant I really was only 5-6 miles from the trailhead finish, but I was numb to any excitement, the wonderful positive vibe that pulsed through me was gone, I was bent on the end, there was no joy in the final trail, only the reality of surviving the near misses of hitting rocks, going off trail, tossing myself over the handlebars. Then it was done, I rode around the trailhead parking lot, hoping desperately to see signs of the others, of someone’s significant other, something. I knew better than to expect a welcoming, a throng of spectators, it was 2:30 in the AM, yet it felt so odd to push so hard, to go way beyond my own limits. After hammering for 25+ hours without much of a break and no sleep, and here I was and I had no idea what to do. I was confused, I rode the trail to the highway, I hiked up and started towards Superior, then realized it was so early, I didn’t know if there would be any place to go, at least here in the woods I could curl up and sleep, so I rode back to the trail head, rode in circles, where to sleep, hoping that someone would find me so I could get back to Tucson, I curled up on the ground with all my still wet clothes and slept. No glory here!!!

Comments (12)

Karlos Aka Naked IndianApril 17th, 2009 at 8:02 am


ScottMApril 17th, 2009 at 10:07 am

The 300 is reaching its potential as an event and an experience, and this writeup is clear evidence why. I got goosebumps reading it. Thanks Jefe.

SlowerthensnotApril 18th, 2009 at 6:19 am

Dang some pretty words there!

Thanks for sharing!

Stefan_GApril 18th, 2009 at 8:26 pm

Fantastic story, Jefe! You have the ability (gift?) to tolerate suffering unlike anyone else I know. Damn fine ride of the AZT-300 and way to put the hammer down at the end. So odd how we missed eachother at Molino, and then again at Oracle.

BrendanApril 18th, 2009 at 8:57 pm

“The human body never fails to amaze me, both in it’s reslience and fragility…”

I like that. Good story, thanks.

Dave HarrisApril 19th, 2009 at 6:16 am

Whoa! Jefe I think you captured everything about multi-day racing that is so appealing – and frightening. That is one amazing ride you put down. Glad to see you it didn’t cost you your hands 🙂

This part is nail on the head:

“it really is a different sort of competitive spirit, more of using the challenge of the other racers to keep yourself moving, not trying to ‘beat’ someone else, hard to explain. I really like these guys and I am so very stokeed for what they are pulling off, I really do wish them the best of luck even when I am trying so hard to catch them”

wookieoneApril 19th, 2009 at 9:49 am

Hello everyone, so glad you all seem to like the AZT write up, I kind of threw it together before leaving Tucson. I hope it starts to explain why it is we are so drawn to such suffering, for what most would see as no benefit. And you all are such an inspiration for it all as well, seeing what human’s can pull off never fails to get me excited, gets the hair on the back of my neck to stand up, truly awesome. From the unbelievebly fast to the slower folks who still grunt through it, it is all great stuff, keep up the good work folks and keep reveling to the rest of the world what is possible with this human machine we are given. Thanks and Peace Jefe ps thanks for forgiving my poor spelling and grammar!!!

B WillsApril 20th, 2009 at 2:52 pm

way to go nephew!

BarbieApril 22nd, 2009 at 8:57 am

Your words were stirring throughout the whole story. I can’t wait to see you in person again so I can get in your head about why you do such things. This is the story of an amazing trek to someone who may or may not take a daily walk for 10 minutes…I stand in awe! Way to go, way to go, what a way to go.

TonyJune 10th, 2009 at 12:14 pm

OK you’ve convinced me! Way to go.

TonyJune 10th, 2009 at 6:01 pm

That convinced I’ve gone and got a bike

DerekpJune 24th, 2009 at 10:55 am

I think i’ve seen this somewhere before…but it’s not bad at all

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