Wait... Did that just happen!
I am at a loss of words. The fact that I finished the Arizona Trail Race 12 days ago blows me away. My right hand is still numb from nerve damage and I am still having nightmares of falling in the Grand Canyon but other than that I have recovered much faster than I thought I would! But, before I dive into the nitty gritty of life post-race I want to thank those who made the Arizona Trail Race possible and supported me through the hellish 11 days in Arizona. I received financial sponsorship, gear sponsorship, emotional support and logistical support in one form or another from the following amazing people.
Down Wind Sports
Bernard and Betty Gonda
Barb and Barney McGinley
Upper Peninsula Supply Co.
Seeing the names of those who helped kick start my Bikepacking Triple Crown record attempt makes me so unbelievably grateful that I have people in my life who believe in me and are willing to make huge sacrifices in order for me to accomplish my goals. It's something that I don't take lightly and these names were all on the front of my mind during the hardest points of the Arizona Trail. Now I am sure you want to hear about the race and I am so eager to tell you about it!
There is an infinite amount of stories I can share with you, like how I threw up from altitude on a warm up trip right before the race or how I got upwards of 15 bloody noses during the first part of the race. These stories will eventually come out but I wanted to share with y'all my summary of the race along with some pictures before the details slip my memory and I get too wrapped up in the next race to reflect.
The race started at the Mexican border just outside of Coronado National Monument. It was surreal to camp less than a mile away from the border fence. The meadow we started in was unbelievably gorgeous and the fact that a barbed wire fence cut through it was deeply upsetting. Anyways... I camped with a few other racers the night before the start and we shared stories and nervously asked about gear choice, hoping someone would approve of our decision less than 12 hours before we start a 750 mile race.
Day 1: The Race started at 7 a.m. and it was already very warm by the time we got going (the heat was the theme for the first few days). I realized very quickly that this was going to be much harder than the Tour Divide. There wasn’t one thing that lead to this conclusion but more of a combination of the heat, remoteness, lack of resources, and brutal trail conditions. The Arizona Trail is a hiking trail first then a biking trail and as a result the trail was extremely rough and steep in numerous sections. I was walking up and down gullies so much on the first day that I felt like I was in a speed walking competition. Did I mention the heat yet? Holy Cow! I was frying. This Michigan boy came from a place where it was no warmer than 40 degrees for 6 months and now he was racing in 90+. Needless to say the first day didn’t go as planned. I rolled into Patagonia, Arizona around 4 p.m. and fueled up on sandwiches and Gatorades before riding the smooth highway back to the trail. That night I made it to Kentucky Camp, some 70 ish miles into the race, and passed out. It was midnight when I fell asleep, that’s 70 ish miles in 17 hours. Ouch.
Day 2: I left Kentucky Camp as the sun rose. I felt good about the day and was very optimistic. The trail was still kicking my ass but, I had a better idea of where I wanted to end up that night. My goals were already being adjusted which was very frustrating but a good learning opportunity. The day brought intense heat and rough trails but I was learning how to deal with it. Frequent breaks and lots of sunscreen. I got to ride through Saguaro National Park and see the massive cactuses that spotted the landscape. These are the days I forget about the race for a few moments and just wonder at the beauty of the landscape I am suffering in. It takes the edge of a bit. I camped that night on the side of a National Forest road at mile 145 of the race route. Another respectable day but, I was still behind my goal and that was wearing on me mentally. The fact that I was woken every hour by ATVs also wore me out mentally that night.
Day 3: Leaving the Tucson area I was greeted with gorgeous views and fast flowing trails and climbs I could actually ride! That was until I reached the few ridges right before Mt. Lemon. Numerous switch backs and brutally steep sections of trail slowed me down but gave me a few passing glimpse of Gila lizards and vultures waiting to see me fall over. At the base of Mt. Lemon I realized how little water I had left. I have been on numerous trips and should have known better then to pass up the creek some 5 miles earlier but, I get dumb on these bike trips and decided a litter and a half would be plenty for a huge ass road climb and long hike- a-bikes. I was so painfully wrong. After using some iodine to "clean" a small water bottle worth of water I attacked the climb and was sweating gallons almost instantly. The heat was devastating and climbing a paved road on a full loaded mountain bike is painfully slow. After 8 miles of climbing with little to no water I finally got a break at a ranger station near the top of the climb and got recharged for the attack to Summerhaven. I had some vicious hike-a-bikes into the small town of Summerhaven but after getting some food at the very expensive grocery store and charging bike lights in the public bathroom with fellow racer Daniel Dunn I attacked the famed Oracle ridge just after the sun set. This ride was so overgrown with vegetation it was amazing and frustrating at the same time. The downhills were terrifying as you are on a ridge with huge drops and massive rocks in your way. I spent most of the evening walking as the trail was too steep to ride in many sections or to technical for night riding. It may be a race but it’s not worth getting evacuated for. I camped at mile 192 and felt great about accomplishing the ridge till I realized I had only gone 50 ish miles in a day. This was way slower then I wanted to go. But I was at my physical and metal limit so I had to swallow that pill and keep pushing.
Day 4: I rode into the town of Oracle and resupplied at a Circle K before entering one of the more remote sections of the race. I wouldn’t be seeing a resupply opportunity for some 80 miles. Lucky for me and the other racers and thru- hikers there are water resupply points along the trail that include jugs of water and some small candies that are provided by local trail volunteers. A serious life saver in the heat. The trail was still kicking my ass with lots of steep climbs and steeper descents I was getting a workout to say the least. I did notice my legs starting to get used to the heat and climbing a lot better though witch was a welcomed relief. I was still taking lots of breaks from the heat and that slowed me down a bit. I had an amazing sunset decent towards the ridges before the Gila river and had the biggest grin on my face as I ate some food in a dried up river bed with Mike Haas, after I pulled the cactus from his head... That night we did a huge push over Tortilla Mountains and I hit the wall hard. I was nearly out of food and mentally faltering. You can say you are mentally tough all you want but it isn’t till you find yourself needing to push past your perceived limits to push your bike up another 8 switchbacks before you really know. That night up on the top of this mountain I broke. I had never felt so mentally low before on a bike race. I managed to get to the trail head and laid on my sleeping pad contemplating quitting the race. It was day 4 and I had only traveled 257 miles. What the hell was I doing out here?
Day 5: I woke up pissed at myself. I felt like I had tricked myself into thinking I was an elite bikepacker. I thought I could do this race in 8 days. How am I so far behind? Did I not train well enough? Am I mentally weak? What’s wrong? I rode to the Gila River and called both Olivia and my Mom to tell them that I think I am done with the race. It wasn’t my year I told them and that I couldn’t push my mind or body any harder. I knew I could keep going deep inside but mentally I was over getting my ass kicked in a race I wasn’t even in contention to win let alone set my goal time. Looking back I wish I hadn’t called and instead just kept moving but in a moment like that you can’t look back and judge yourself when you are comfortably sitting at home typing away. To their credit both Olivia and my Mom talked me into sticking with the race and riding into the nearest town, some 7 miles of course, to recharge and take a few hours to get my head straight. I owe it to them that I continued and eventually finished the race. They took time out of work and school to comfort me while I wrestled with the hardest race in my life. I am so thankful for them and still upset with myself for causing them unnecessary stress and anguish as I suffered thousands of miles away. Ultra racing is so damn selfish. After recharging I attacked the Gila River Canyons and hiked out of the Alamo Canyon. This was a gorgeous sunset hike that I want to return to so badly. It was absolutely stunning. I think it was the trails reward for me staying in the race. I took a hard night time crash right before Picketpost Trailhead. And had to walk 4 miles to the trail head because I was so shaky and beat up. I ran into a fellow racer, Glen, and he gave me a much needed moral boost with his British accent and we rode into the town of superior where we both ate a Circle k pizza and he let me take a shower in his hotel room and use my sleeping pad on the floor of his room. It was the universe letting me know I needed to finish the damn thing.
Day 6: Leaving Superior it was very apparent that my cassette was coming loose. My chain sounded awful and it could barely shift. Luckily I had some easier miles into the outskirts of Phoenix and was able to ride to a bike shop to get it re tightened. It was a 16 mile round trip detour to the nearest shop but I didn’t have the tool to tighten it and it was border line un-rideable. After getting all sorted I jumped back on the trail and got to ride through a huge thunderstorm on some rough trails. After a nice stint on some smooth pavement I got to ride past some stunning reservoirs and grab a burger with Mike Haas in tortilla flats right before the restaurant shut down for the night. He knew another racer was behind him so he ordered a burger before the kitchen closed! What a guy! I then rode with Mike, Glen, and Daniel for a bit before we all rode at our own pace. I pushed all the way to Theodore Roosevelt Lake and camped on an abandoned road right next to the lake. It was the first day I didn’t beat myself up at night for not being at my goal pace. At this point a lot of people had quit and I was just happy to be pushing myself to my limit while also staying in the race.
Day 7: My goal at this point was to be in the Grand Canyon but that sure as hell wasn't happening yet but, I was at piece with that and knew that all I could do was push myself as hard as I could. This change in attitude made the rest of the race much more enjoyable. Leaving my lake side camping spot I flew through some highway miles and dirt roads with some steep climbs thrown in before landing in the town of Payson. In Payson I resupplied and ate a meal at sonic wayyyy to fast and proceeded to feel very sick and took an hour long nap on a bench along the side of the 4 lane road cutting through town. It was a great nap. After recovering from my stupid binge eating episode I proceeded to ride some rough double track and cut through some private property that allows access for Arizona Trail Users. There were so many no trespassing signs that I thought if I made one wrong turn I would be caught in a trap and never seen from again! Then I had a wicked hike-a-bike as the sun started to set. These hike-a-bikes were getting a bit annoying and more brutal. Lifting your bike up and over huge rocks and massive logs sure testes your mental and physical strength! I finally arrived at the trailhead right outside of Pine and resupplied on water at the public drop and camped one mile from the trailhead. It was a lower mileage day again but at mile 453 I was ticking the miles away! It also seems like I took two photos this day to! Guess I was enjoying the trail too much.
Day 8: Leaving the trailhead early in the morning I began to attack the challenging Highline trail. This trail was beautiful and full of extremely steep descents and climbs with rough trails. Seems like a theme. The highline trail went on forever with the view of the Mogollon Ridge to the north the whole time. This ridge is huge and with every pedal stroke I got closer to the point when I had to crest it. Eventually that point came and it was as hard as I thought it would be. But once I reached the top it was like I was in a whole new world. There were suddenly huge pine trees and a whole different ecosystem. The desert wasn’t behind me but I was beginning to enter the high desert. I cruised through some forest roads and was feeling incredibly good. I was in a new terrain and the road was somewhat smoother! I started the Happy Jack section of the trail and got beat up by the boulder ridden trails. I did this at night for a bit till I couldn’t hold the handle bars anymore and decided to pass out on the side of the trail.
Day 9: Leaving my camping spot I bumbled along the Happy Jack section till I finally got a relief and hit some relatively smoother trail by Mormon Lake. This is when the volcano rocks and baby head rocks along the trail started to get larger and closer to pedal height. I think I struck my pedal, shoe, or crank every 5 seconds! It was incredibly hard riding but I was making great time and feeling good. Until I pedal struck a rock at such force that the resulting crash lead me to believe that I may have broken my arm and foot! A few minutes of swearing and I was soon on my way to Flagstaff. I was extremely hungry when I finally got to a jimmy johns and proceeded to shove my face with real food. I had been living off of cliff bars for a few days so it was a huge joy to get real food. I also ran into Dana Ernst and got a much needed moral boost. After not riding with anyone for a few days at that point it felt great to talk to someone who understood how hard the trail was. After resupplying at the whole food and getting a new headlamp and batteries at the REI I hit the trail with the idea of doing a night push to the Grand Canyon. I was feeling great for the first 10-15 miles before I got very tired and started to fall asleep on the paved reroute on the trail. It wasn't an ideal bivy spot but I pulled over and pulled out the sleeping gear and passed out behind a log. Tomorrow I would get to the Canyon.
Day 10: Leaving my cozy log side sleeping spot I attacked the road with renewed energy. Some paved roads and dirt trails revealed the gorgeous snow packed mountains and aspen groves. The trail then turned to rougher two track with huge vista views of the vacant land between flagstaff and the Grand Canyon. This is where I felt at home. Remote roads and long desert views make my soul happy. I passed lots of thru hikers and felt so happy to be out here suffering. The trail got a bit rougher the closer I got to the canyon but the views were breath taking. It’s pretty damn incredible the power water and wind has on a landscape. After passing a view prescribed burn zones I arrived at Tusayan to resupply and get re-energized before the Grand Canyon. After getting lots of food and recharging my batteries I rode the smooth bike path into the park and found a camp side a quarter of a mile away from the south rim trail head. I disassembled my bike and strapped it to my pack before passing out for a few hours. The wind coming off the canyon was unbelievable and exciting as I drifted off to sleep.
Day 11: I know I will sound like a snob but I figured the Grand Canyon wouldn’t be that amazing. There was something about the hype around it that I didn’t get despite never once seeing it. Little did I know that I was about to be blown away. I entered the canyon at around 5 in the morning. The sun was just starting to rise and the early morning runners and hikers were quickly passing me. It was unsettling and awe-inspiring to see there little headlights bounce down the trail. It was a cool sight but I started to notice just how deep this scar in the Earth was! Many hikers stopped me and asked to take a photo with them or ask what the hell I was doing. I am sure I looked like a fool. The pack wasn’t comfortable and hiking down 5 thousand feet is not fun with a 45 pound bike on your back. The hike down took around 5 hours and it felt like it. I was pretty gassed at the bottom and very nervous for the much harder hike out. Luckily some nice hikers gave me some oranges and gave me a much needed moral boost. Running into fellow racer Andrew Stauffer at the bottom was also a great moral boost. We recharged at the little ranch at the bottom of the canyon, Phantom Ranch, by eating copies amounts of Oreos and drinking what felt like gallons of lemonade. The heat was almost unbearable for me and I knew that I had to keep moving if I wanted to get out of the canyon before it was too dark. Leaving the Canyon I felt like crap. My shoes were falling apart, the pack was extremely uncomfortable and I was exhausted. I knew this would be the deepest I would ever have to push myself. I did just that though. I put my head down and kept taking in one pain full step at a time. The trekking poles I brought helped a lot and the fact that it was starting to get cooler helped me move a lot faster. The North rim was in full bloom and the springs coming off the canyon walls were incredibly loud and beautiful. Eventually the sun started to set but I was still many hours from the north rim. It is around 7000' foot difference between the bottom of the Canyon and the top of the north rim. I tuned on my headlamp and kept trudging along cause that’s all you can do. The North Rim access was still closed meaning no trail work had been done yet so rock slides and down trees were aplenty. I am glad I was exhausted enough to not notice the massive drop offs as I crawled over rock slides a few inches from the edge. I have had many nightmares since the race in which I do fall off, it was that scary. The worst was when I would have to walk under waterfalls formed by the springs. My worn out shoes had little to no grip left and I could feel the meal cleats sliding on the slick sandstone. The worst moment was when I stopped for a quick snack only to check my GPS and see that I was a mile of course. I nearly vomited out of fear and disbelief. How in the hell did I get lost? I instantly started backtracking to try to find where I made this wrong turn. I was so worked that I didn’t think about the fact that GPS Signals are basically garbage in Canyons till I had already walked a quarter of a mile down the trail. With my brain finally on right I pushed onwards. I eventually started to see snow and the temperature dropped dramatically as I reached 9000'. The final switch backs went on for ages but I suddenly found myself in an empty parking lot some 22 miles from where I had started that morning. The time was 11:40 p.m. I had been in the canyon for 18 hours. I was so exhausted I quickly found a semi flat spot by a large pine tree and proceeded to pass out in my Bivy instantly. Three to six foot snow packs were all around me as my body tried desperately to recover from the hell I had just put it through.
Day 12: I slept for three hours before I awoke to another racer exiting the canyon and talking with another racer at a volume I would only describe as a 5 year old screaming on a playground. I could only laugh as I packed up my gear and rebuilt my bike at 3 in the morning. I was only 75 miles away from the finish! It was very cold and I could feel the rain coming in so I got my layers on being sure to leave a few tucked away to stay dry in case it got too wet. I began riding hard and fast. I felt surprisingly good but had little power in the legs. My calf’s were garbage and had no leveraging force. The snow drifts were surprisingly huge as I eft the rim and it was getting windier as the rain clouds drew nearer. Finally the rain started and it was painfully hard and cold. It was 50 degrees and the rain was going sideways. It sure felt like a fitting way to wrap up the hardest mountain bike race in the world. I knew I had to keep riding hard to keep my body temperature up and stay safe. The road to the rim was still closed so I had to jump a few fences. There isn’t any shelter on the road as well so there was no place to hide from the elements. I finally started to get power in the legs and pushed hard to Jacobs Lake where there was a small cafe and store. I quickly ordered two huge cups of coffee and ate a huge pastry. I was cold and wet but a warm fire got me re-energized and excited for the finally 30 ish miles of the race! After warming up a bit and getting semi-dry I got back on the bike and pushed on towards the trail. At this point the snow was all gone but the rain was still spitting. The final 30 miles were fast and downwards trending but the trail was still technical and tricky. I had a few stupid spills that made me shake my head and laugh. I can’t hurt myself this close to the finish! The final miles of any huge race fly by and the sense of relief makes you forget any pain. The last mile was full of switch backs as I approached the Utah border and they took a bit of focus and were kind of tricky. But of course the last mile would be hard! It’s the Arizona Trail Race! I rode into the Stateline Campground and teared up. I had just pushed myself harder than I had ever done before and I had never been prouder then I was at that moment. I took a few photos and then found refuge from the rain under a small pavilion. I called Olivia and my Mom and enjoyed the scope of what I had done. I had just ridden 750 miles in 11 days on some of the hardest and most technical trails in the world. After siting and relaxing for a bit Andrew rolled into the finish and we both laughed about how stupidly hard this race was. A bit later my good family friend Nick George came by and picked me up and that was it, the race was done. I love the fact that the finish was so unceremonious it’s very fitting and felt right. Nick and I drove through the canyon lands of Arizona and the flat lands of New Mexico before arriving in Albuquerque at midnight. The next afternoon I was in my truck driving back to Michigan. Looking back on the race it was the hardest "thing" I had ever done but was the most rewarding by a longshot.
Thank you again to all of those who made this race happen! It was the toughest race I had ever done and it was a great kickoff for the Tour Divide and Colorado Trail Race. If you still want to help me reach my goal of completing the Bikepacking Triple Crown please consider sponsoring me through this sight and if you know of any businesses who would want to sponsor me please let me know! I am still sore but I feel great about knocking out the Tour Divide in 16-18 days!!
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