Multiday race reports, Trip Reports » Sun, Snow and Sun: The ’09 AZT-300
Finally, after 2 years of watching from the sidelines and trying to figure out how to solve the puzzle, the pieces clicked into place and I was off to Tucson for a loooong weekend of riding the AZT-300. In the week leading up to the race, the forecast held steady for rain and cold temperatures on Saturday, the 2nd day of the race. The day I figured I would be going up and over the high point of Mt. Lemmon. Even the night before the start, the forecast remained the same. I thought it highly unusual that meteorologists could go a whole week without changing their tune, but it only made the prediction even more foreboding. And yet for some reason I still can’t figure out, I refused to heed the warning and only packed a single pair of socks and a rain jacket – no warm booties or insulating layers. But for good measure, I did throw in 3 sets of chemical toe-warmers just in case; I ended up using all 3 and my feet still froze…
My bike arrived in Tucson via Fed-ex, and Sebastian helped me put the wheels on while staying at Colin’s (my step-brother’s) pad.
We all had an early dinner at a great Pizza place a few blocks from Colin’s and hit the sack early since we’d have to get up at 5:30 to make it to the start on time. Sebastian was having even more trouble sleeping than me, and eventually I ended up on the couch in the living room while Sheryl heroically rocked and held Seb to sleep in the wee hours of the morning. Surprisingly, when 5:30 rolled around, I felt quite rested and ready to ride. We picked up Marshal at his motel and made it to the start with plenty of time to pack bags and do a final check of the bike and gear.
A bit of socializing and meeting the other riders ensued before we were off at 9:03 AM.
I had never ridden a lick of the AZT, but Scott summed it up pretty well on the race webpage:
HIKE-A-BIKE WARNING: You will not be able to stay on your bike the entire race. You will walk/push/pull/drag your bike. A lot. You may sometimes wonder why you even have your bike. If you can’t tolerate hike-a-bike, this is not your race. If you’re willing to accept this additional challenge, you will be rewarded with some of the sweetest, rarely ridden singletrack in the state.
Yes, there were times that I wondered why I even had my bike, but there were far more instances of railing singletrack turns while swooping around every manner of thorny plant you can imagine for hours at a time. Within the first several miles, I found myself in the company of Chris Plesko, Scott Morris, and Kurt Refsnider.
These would be the only racers I would see for the rest of the trip! The Canelo hills actually proved a bit disappointing in the hike-a-bike department – a ton of trailwork has been done recently in this area, and we were able to stay mounted for long periods of time. Eventually, Kurt pulled away and even had time to make dozens of these smiley faces in the middle of the trail…
They certainly made me smile as I rode to the side of them, trying to preserve the sentiment for the next riders.
The smiles remained large and frequent as the flawless day of riding progressed.
Beyond Patagonia, the wind blasted us up jeep roads past all kinds of old cars that had been blasted by more than just the wind…
Eventually, we turned onto some fantastic singletrack in the Elephant Head area and spent the golden hour of the evening railing through turns and flowing along a heavenly piece of trail with the wind still at our backs.
Not only was the riding terrific, there also appears to be some nice looking rocks to climb nearby!
My legs were finally getting warmed up as the sunlight faded, and it felt great to hammer in the last few miles of singletrack to Madera Canyon in my middle ring. A few sandy sections and some rocky bits to roll over made me grin as I powered through singlespeed style. It was such a perfect night to be out riding that I had almost forgotten I’d been pedaling for 10 hours already! The four of us regrouped at Madera creek for water and dinner (Chipotle, Yum!), and I was stoked to have brought my filter as the water spigot was surprisingly shut off. Kurt was definitely still wide awake…
After dinner, a fast paved descent chilled us down, but we easily warmed up climbing dirt for an hour or more. Kurt and I slowly pulled away from Scott and Chris and hit the singletrack together. The next couple of hours were what we all dream night rides could be like. Endless downhill singletrack swooping around hills and twisting through valleys! Just incredible riding!
Although immensely enjoyable, the trail only had half of my attention; the other half was pondering the best strategy for the night and next day in light (full moonlight, that is!) of the building storm clouds. The weather forecasters were proving spot on. So, would it be better to ride all night and try to get as high on Mt. Lemmon, maybe even up and over (Ha! In retrospect, that is downright laughable…) before the weather blew in completely, or was it smarter to bivy for a few hours while it was still nice out and then ride through the storm? By the time Kurt and I rolled into the Sevilla Picnic Area, I had made up my mind and told him I planned on bivying for a couple hours. He was still undecided as I pulled out my sleeping bag, but by the time I got settled in he had decided to sleep for a couple of hours too. 20 minutes later, I was still wide awake. The only sound in the night was Kurt’s snoring. 45 minutes later, I was still wide awake. The sound of Kurt’s snoring had been joined by the pitter-patter of raindrops. Another 15 minutes went by, and Chris rolled in and joined us, taking minimal shelter under another picnic table. I don’t know why I can’t shut my brain off and get some sleep in these situations, but it can be so frustrating for me. My Dad is an ER doc, and can fall asleep in 30 seconds. Seriously. So, at least I know it’s not hereditary. Oh yay, that really helps. It’s like I start thinking about how I really need to get some sleep, and how I’m not sleeping, and how I really need to get some sleep, but I’m not sleeping right now, but I really should be. Why aren’t I drifting off? Oh, wait a minute. I was almost asleep there. Try again. Getting close… almost there. Arggh! Apparently, I just wasn’t sleep deprived enough!
Eventually, I just got up and started packing. Kurt and Chris joined me, and we hit the trail in short order. Less than an hour later, I could barely hold my eyes open! WTF?! I let Chris and Kurt go and laid down in the dirt for 10 minutes. Ahhh, sleep. Crazy, but just enough to feel recharged for the push into Tucson. I caught back up along the pavement, and hit Basha’s with a huge hole in my stomach ready to be filled.
Mmmm, bacon and egg breakfast burrito! Wish I had a picture…
I think the rain and chilly temps kept us in the grocery store longer than any of us intended, but soon enough we rolled out into the misty dawn ready for battle. Mt. Lemmon was foreboding. Completely socked in, a giant grey and black monster beckoning us into its lair. Foolishly, willingly and stubbornly we pedaled into the trap.
The occasional burst of sun lured us onward like moths to a dancing flame.
And to think we were so worried about finding water along the AZT. Instead, it found us. More than once.
By the time we got to the Molina campground, I was more beaten down than a stray dog. My hands and feet, although warm while moving, were completely soaked and quickly going numb as we took shelter from a passing hail storm. Reports of heinous conditions higher on the mountain were on the lips of everyone we asked: A foot of snow at the top. $300 tickets for non-4WD vehicles past mile marker 14, and we needed to go to mm 26. Cars were coming down with 4″ of snow on them.
That was it. I was done. If I had continued in those conditions, I would have died. No kidding. Riding in snow and slush for 6-8 more hours when already soaked with no feeling in my hands and feet? It was unthinkable! Yet that was about the time that Kurt pulled on his booties and down jacket and said, “I think I’m gonna head out.” Kurt really is going nuts! Not only was I done, Kurt was gonna 1-up us all and continue in these Colorado conditions. Where does he think he’s from?! I gotta hand it to him though, he nailed the prep and was able to forge on through the worst Arizona could offer up.
I was still ready to quit, and would have taken a ride back to Tucson in a heartbeat. However, Chris Plesko never showed a glimmer of giving up and didn’t seem to be miserable at all. He calmly reasoned that it was foolish to continue in full-on conditions, but it would be no big deal to wait it out. The next day’s forecast was for more sun, so why quit when we had come so far already? His solid mental fortitude totally pulled my bacon off the fire. Well, maybe that’s not a good metaphor since we didn’t have any bacon (dammit!), and we certainly didn’t have a fire (double-dammit!) either… In any case, had it not been for Chris convincing me to just bivy for awhile and warm up – we can always get a ride down – I might’ve only ridden the AZT-150. I pulled out my sleeping bag and crawled in, shivering and wet, and somehow drifted off for an hour or so. I certainly needed it! I ended up waking up because my face was hot. Hot?! Sun! The sun peeked out for about 30 minutes. Just enough for us to dry out our soaked gear and sodden spirits.
We were both still cold, but the sun had definitely lifted our spirits, and we concocted a plan to start at just the right hour to put us on Oracle ridge in the morning sun. We figured if there was a foot of snow on the ridge, we’d need the sun’s light and warmth just to survive it! Sleep came and went for several hours with the rain, and out of sheer luck, when the final sleep went, so did the rain! We packed up and started pedaling under starry skies in the crisp morning air. The higher we got, the crisper the air became. Soon enough, the roadway was a sheet of ice in the middle and frozen slush on the sides. Kurt’s lone track a dinosaur footprint frozen in time.
The ride up the pavement was a surreal trip to Tel’aran’rhiod. Starry skies and sparkling city lights of Tucson were replaced by a swirling fog that engulfed us completely. Even the full, bright moon was shut out, yet an eerie light seemed to glow all around. It was the sort of fuzzy limbo where your imagination thrives, the intangible becomes tangible, and whatever you’re dreaming about might just step out of your misty dream and materialize into reality in front of your unbelieving eyes. And then suddenly we were elevated out of our lofty cloud prison as the wind began to blow snow out of the trees and into our faces.
Wearing all my layers, I alternated between walking and riding in a futile attempt to keep my still-wet feet warm. At the high point of 8000′, it was bitter cold and the trees were coated with rime. I put in chemical toe heaters and hand warmers, but my extremities were still tingling and numb. It became a challenge just to stay upright on the slippery road, and apparently 4 wheels don’t necessarily fare better than two!
Finally, we hit the control road and the start of Oracle Ridge. At first light, just as planned, but we were shocked to find a 2nd set of tracks in the fresh snow! After some sleuthing, we determined the shoe didn’t have a cleat which meant it had to be Jefe! Very impressive, but not surprising. Jefe has the ability to tolerate discomfort and lousy weather better than anyone I’ve ever met, and I dimly remembered another biker rolling into the Molino campground after dark while I was fading in and out of slumber.
Oracle ridge was practically devoid of snow compared to the other upper reaches of Mt. Lemmon, and Chris and I were not only making great time, but were also warming up nicely with the combination of riding and drag-a-bike.
Perhaps the lack of snow on Oracle ridge was because it was all blown off as soon as it hit the ground! Hard to imagine finding your way through here at night in the middle of a raging storm. Evidence of freezing rain and wind was all around.
Once through the super magic gate ending the traverse-o-death, the trail was once again ridable and we descended with gusto into the sunshine and warmer temps.
A blissful section of the AZT known as the Cody Trail broadened our smiles further and made the nightmare of freezing temperatures and uncomfortable, damp concrete-pad bivying seem a lifetime away.
Still 8 or 10 miles from Oracle, I slurped down the last of my water. Even though there had been water all around, until now the last thing on my mind had been being thirsty. Our last refill had been in Tucson well over 24 hours ago, and with the sunshine and warmer temperatures, I was getting parched. I began looking for puddles or a tank I could filter from when, lo and behold, a gallon jug appeared beneath a tree. Maybe this really was Tel’aran’rhiod! There was just enough left in the jug to fill one bike bottle, and that was gone by the time I arrived at the Kannaly Ranch house where a trailer labeled “drinking water” beckoned me over.
As I sat in the warm late-morning sun refilling bottles I began to realize how sharp my mind felt and also how my legs were yearning to keep turning over the pedals. I started to ponder where Kurt might be and if it was possible to catch him; he had left Molino campground about 11 hours before us, but I knew the paved climb and descending Oracle Ridge in the storm and darkness must have taken him significantly longer. Also, he probably bivied up someplace for at least a few hours of sleep. So, accounting for a couple hours longer on the bike plus a 4-6 hour bivy, my best guess put him between 3 and 5 hours ahead. A tremendous lead. And I knew first hand from riding a 100-miler with Kurt in Moab two weeks prior just how incredibly strong of a rider he was. There were still 90+ miles of riding left, but if he was feeling as good and focused as I was, there was no way I would make up any ground on him, let alone actually catch him. On the other hand, if he was sleepy and running on autopilot, there was a slim chance…
But alas, I still needed to go into Oracle and resupply for the final stretch and that would surely kill another 30 minutes and any chance I had of catching Kurt. Chris and I had planned on getting some lunch together, and he must’ve already rolled past the ranch house without seeing me. Turns out, he actually ran into Jefe in Oracle while expecting me to be right behind him. Instead, I was digging into my bag and starting to count calories. Almost a pound (!!) of Perpetuem that I had carried from the start, some fig newtons, a few Milano cookies, a handful of Chex mix, and 1 package of caffeinated cola clif-shot blocks. Hmmm, maybe 2500 calories? It just might be enough! Nothing very hearty or satisfying but enough to risk skipping Oracle!
As I turned right on the pavement, away from town, I could feel the commitment settling onto my shoulders and into my body and mind, yet I was determined to ramp it up and spin fast all the way to the finish. Several miles of great singletrack kept up my psyche, and blasting some tunes helped me blast through the ups-and-downs of the long gasline road towards Antelope Peak.
I stopped only briefly to filter some water at a tank by this old windmill alongside the trail, and then ramped it right back up. I was eating and drinking well on the bike, the tunes were cranking and I generally felt unstoppable for hours on end.
Sun, sweat, sand and cactus were the motifs of the day.
Occasionally, I’d come ripping around a corner only to find a neat pile of Cholla balls in the middle of the trail. Twice, I rode straight through them, unable to swerve around in time. Several pieces would stick to my front tire, comically rotating around and holding on tightly until I could get stopped and pick them out. Each time I was both flabbergasted and relieved that these chundering Cholla chunks weren’t accompanied by a hiss of air. Unbelievably, I didn’t get a single flat for the entire ride!
Once past the high ridge near Antelope Peak, more stellar singletrack led me down, down, down through the Boulders and towards the Gila river in glorious evening light.
At dusk, just after I had stopped to change lenses and mix up another bottle of Perpetuem, I had to unclip and hike through a sandy wash and up the other side following Kurt’s ever-present tracks. Much to my amazement, where his toes had dug into the soft sand, there was still some darker, moist sand showing through! It had been warm, dry and sunny all day long, and the sun had just barely slipped behind the horizon, so I knew that these tracks had to be less than an hour old. Maybe even closer to 15 or 30 minutes! I maintained my pace up through the Box Canyon where I went by some beer-drinking ATVers and Jeepers playing on some gnarly rock steps. They told me I was crazy to be out here alone, and I asked if they had seen anyone else. “Yeah!”, they replied. “Maybe 20 minutes ago.” Holy Cow! Was I really getting that close?
It was time to start thinking out of the Box, so I ratcheted it up a notch and gave the climb out all I had. I flipped my light onto high and roared down the steep descent only to climb again. This time steeper. And Steeper. And STEEPER! So steep that I was forced to dismount. Traction was good, but granny just wasn’t low enough. Numerous times I would head up a rocky wash that I thought was the route, only to backtrack or bushwack back to the jeep road losing precious minutes on my hunted quarry. By the time I turned onto the final singletrack, I hadn’t even caught a glimpse of Kurt’s light and I knew it was a lost cause. Still, I had a blast riding and railing the newly built trail all the way to the finish. Yet another stellar piece of singletrack on the AZT and a hell of a way to end the race!
Kurt had been at the finish for 40 minutes, and he was already getting cold and a bit loopy from lack of sleep. At the Gila river, he had talked to his SO and realized I was hot on his tail, and thus hammered out the last 25 miles putting 20 minutes on me from the river. We exchanged congrats and high-fives, and since it was still before midnight, I convinced him to ride into Superior and get a motel for the rest of the night. Halfway to town, I ate my last bite of food, trading the rest of my Chex mix for one of Kurt’s Odwalla bars. We scarfed down some more food at the Circle-K, then rolled up to the only motel in town only to find out it was closed. There was an after-hours number on the door, so I called it and could hear the phone ringing just inside. Even as tired and delirious as we were, it was still funny! Or at least it is now…
So, we ended up bivying in the town park, and then joining Jefe and Chris for a greasy breakfast across the street in the early morning hours before Sheryl arrived to shuttle us all back to Tucson. With the help of some pink shoelaces bought at the Circle-K, we managed to somehow secure all the bikes and wheels to the roof, and then all piled in.
Sebastian was thrilled to have so much company in the backseat, even if it was smelly and grimey guys that he didn’t even know!
Wow, if you hadn’t realized it yet, the AZT-300 is one hell of an event. Shorter than the Grand Loop, with far, far better riding, it still felt as hard or harder. Posting my GPS-recorded elevation profile vs. time will certainly raise a few eyebrows, but I think this event has been run enough times that already anyone can figure out what their splits need to be to challenge the course record with just a little digging. Now, you know exactly where to bivy for 12 hours!
Geeez, that big flat spot just kills me… The other flat spots you can identify are Madera Canyon at 10 hours, Sevilla Picnic area from 17-20 hours, Tucson at 22 hours, and the Kannally ranch house right around 2 days and 1 hour. Every time I look at this plot, I keep telling myself, “Dang, I coulda done it 6 hours faster for sure!” But realistically, could I have? It’s just impossible to say how much faster I was able to go for the last day after such a good, long rest, but still… An 8 hour bivy would have been loads, 12 was just plain silly! Ah, the clarity of hindsight. Nonetheless, it was a fantastic ride with great company, and I’m already looking forward to the opportunity to challenge myself on the route again!
But for now, sleep is still heavenly.