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Adventures on a bike; sometimes on foot

2013 AZTR 300: Day 3

On day 3 I awoke in in the early morning twilight and packed my things in the receding greyness. I tried to find some enthusiasm to eat the leftover sandwich from last night although chewing seemed like a time waste when all I wanted to do was get moving again. I ate for as long as i could bare to stand still and then headed off into Oracle ridge about 15 minutes behind Max.

Oracle ridge is easy right?

It started with a little bit of HAB. Then some amazing ridge line single track. Then some more HAB. Then some ugly rocky chunk descending. Then some more HAB. Then a little bit more rideable single track. Then a god awful HAB. Then a scree slope masquerading as a fire road. Then some more HAB and then some more fire road.

It was a pretty ugly section but at least Oracle was at the bottom which meant a resupply point so it wasn’t all bad. Somewhere in the middle of all the HAB, Jason Michalak blew past me on a steep push making it look all too easy. I continued to huff and puff and wrestle my bike while he strode off into the distance. Hmph.

Eventually we dropped out of the steepest parts of Oracle ridge and into some great descending single track. It was fairly eroded and featured dozens of steps made from timber boards which were fine for the first 20 but soon became like riding a jack hammer.

I passed Jason with some tyre issues somewhere near a cattle ranch and then proceeded to noodle around in what felt like circles for quite a while before popping out on pavement. Oh sweet pavement. I was ready to become a roadie at that point – even if it meant shaving my legs. Where do I sign up?

Hitting Oracle,  Circle K was the first thing I saw and that’s as far as I got. I wandered around in circles inside trying to figure out what to buy. The heat had already made food look unappealing and I bought some trail mix, some kind of pink iced baked good and a few other random things. I filled up on fluids and despite having 6L with me, still felt a little unprepared.

I couldn’t find anywhere to put the last Litre bottle of Gatorade, then realized my BBD chaff bag could also be used as a ‘Bevvy bucket’. I cleared it out by throwing my broken camera in the bin (I saved the memory card) along with all the other stuff that was littering the bottom of the bag and it was the perfect place to stash that last bit of fluid.

I headed out of town just before Jason. Cjeil Money was just rolling into town and Max Morris appeared from his enormous breakfast at a diner and started chatting to Cjeil. I was riding alone again.

I was actually feeling nervous about this bit of the trail. I realised it was probably the last supply point for 100 miles.  Now that doesn’t sound like that far, but AZT miles are a little different to most other miles. They tick over exceptionally slowly so 100 miles meant carrying a lot of stuff.

Rolling out of town and into the AZT single track again, my bike was a fat pig. The loaded bike sans water weighted about 18kg. Add in 7kg of water and another 1 or 2 Kg of food and things that should have been easy climbs were now pretty tough. I was spending quite a bit of time in the granny ring as the trail crawled across a never ending landscape.

While the ground looks flat enough from the air as you fly over, it isn’t until you are on the ground that you realise that it is much more reminiscent of sand dunes. Yet the ridge lines don’t interconnect so the trail is forced to repeatedly climb up and over again and again. Apparently there is a monsoon season in Arizona and there is evidence of water erosion everywhere. In the bottom of every gully is a sandy wash. A wheel sucking, progress impairing wash and there were dozens of them. Sometimes the trail would just ride along in the wash trying to suck the life out of you. There is little more depressing in the whole world than riding in 35+C heat in a wash hinting at water but being completely dry.

Classic AZT ridgeline trail

I remember at one point hearing a rustle right beside the trail and I looked across to see a small lizard snagged on cholla. F’ing cholla, the most evil plant the world has ever known. Even the local lizards still get caught by it. I stopped and managed to free the little guy from its barbed nemesis and wondered whether I was going to suffer a similar fate in the not too distant future.

I had noticed my knee was starting to get sore along my ITB which has given me trouble in the past and I knew without access to a foam roller to loosen it up, I was going to develop some serious tendinitis issues as the ride progressed. I was feeling down. I was sick of the site of rocks and cactus (Who the hell goes to the desert and expects to see more than rocks and cactus?) and stray thoughts of other things I could be doing with wifey to keep the holiday vibe going were repeating in the back of my mind “We could be hanging out in New York”.  The cough that had been lingering for days was also getting far worse. The stuff I was now coughing up was truly ugly and i figured I was on borrowed time before my body fell in a heap.

In the middle of feeling sorry for myself, I spotted a rider in the distance. As i flew down the ridge line to greet them I realised it was not one, but three people. Three ladies actually. I pulled up to say hi and I recognised Caroline straight away and quickly met Jen and Anna who were out for a bikepacking trip and riding the AZT in reverse chatting to the riders who came through. I’d half lost my voice from the dry desert air so as we chatted, they got more squeeking than sense as I tried to sound more up beat than I felt. They said I was going great and something like 7th although I felt like I was doing anything but riding well. I squeaked that I was thinking about finishing at the end of the 300 and Caroline wisely pointed out I should grab a hotel in Superior and see how I felt the next day.

We soon parted ways and I continued to fly down a long descent into what I believe was bloodsucker wash. Low and behold, there were three guys sitting in ATV’s at the side of the trail watching me ride down the hill.

“We spotted you back up a few ridge lines ago with the binoculars”

“Awesome, nice to meet you” I said as I dragged my bike through the sandy wash and up the steep bank on the other side.

“Do you need anything, maybe some water?” They said

“I won’t say no to that!” I said as my heart leapt at the most perfectly placed trail magic.

To be truthful, i probably didn’t need water, I still had about 5L left but I was gun shy after the terrible dehydration the day before and wasn’t going to pass up a golden opportunity. We chatted for a while about where I’d been and where I was heading.

They asked if i’d seen any game along the trail and I confessed I’d seen nothing but cactus and rocks. At least that explained why they’d been following me with binoculars and I was thankful they held their fire. They handed me an ice cold pepsi and two bottles of water and I greedily gulped down the pepsi and pocketed the two bottles of water before heading off.

I thought I was looking out of the Gilla river. No, no no. You've still got a long long long way to go boy!

As the day wore on and the heat grew more intense, I felt more and more unwell. I knew it was the early signs of heat stroke as the nausea was getting worse and worse. I was taking it easy on the fluids as I didn’t want to run out too soon however at some point I realized I had to play catch up. I tried drinking more and pedalling but i just felt worse and was worried I was going to start throwing up. I looked for shade but everywhere was covered in F’ing chola. I hopped of the bike in the middle of the trail and just sat down for a bit. I drank plain water, ate a little and just stared off into space.

10 minutes went by and then I heard the crunching of tyres on gravel and Jason appeared behind me. We exchanged greetings and then he mentioned Freeman Cache must only be another mile up the road. It sounded like an objective I might be able to manage so i joined him as we rode along in the afternoon heat.

We reached the Cache and I filled my camel back bladder. Again I had a 7 kilos of water on board but I wasn’t chancing anything. I drank some water and generally felt better.

The next 10 miles of trail were some of the sweetest I’d ridden the whole race. It was also the least undulating so it was just a cruisey spin through the late afternoon sun as Jason and I made great time and enjoyed riding something a little different.

I knew we had about 50 or so miles to go to the finish and it was becoming increasingly apparent that there was a nasty looking mountain range guarding the finish line. I hoped it was better than it looked from my perspective but knew that easy miles on the AZT were really just a pipe dream.

As Jason and I bombed along the fire road, I checked my GPS and realized we had gone off route, we’d missed a sneaky single track junction at the crest of the hill. We backtracked and I mentioned to Jason that there were other tyre marks in the last wash so we weren’t the only people to miss the turn.

I have no idea where this is. Lets just guess that it fits in around here somewhere...

We paused at the trail junction and looked back and saw other riders coming back along the trail from where we had just backtracked. It was Luke and Casey – the two other riders from Colarado who had started the race with Jason and he hadn’t seen them since the first night when they parted company. With the band back together, we continued along the trail taking it in turns to open and close gates and enjoying that the cool night air was starting to descend.

I watched as the sun set across a distant ridgeline throwing the perfect silhouette of a saguaro. I thought about stopping to photograph it but didn’t want to stop pedalling. I’d realised that if I was going to pull the pin at the end of the 300, I had a good shot at finishing in under 3 days. For some reason, a sub 3 day time seemed like a good benchmark for me and I was determined to give it my best shot.

Somewhere down the trail near bathtub springs, we bumped into Aaron Denberg. I hadn’t seen Aaron since the very start of the race and was actually quite surprised to see him. He was coated from head to toe in a layer of salt and had obviously been doing it tough in the days heat. The Colarado trio elected to head off route to the spring to fill up on water however I was still lugging the better part of 6L and figured I would chance making it to the end with what I had. I headed off with Aaron and said I’d meet the other guys when they chased me down, figuring i’d see them again in an hour or two since they were all riding faster than me.

Aaron and I pedalled off and were soon in Ripsey wash. Ah Ripsey wash, the equivalent of hitting Burwood beach in the middle of the Big HuRT. Just Nasty. It was a half mile push through soft, soft sand. It was probably rideable if you were wiling to redline yourself but I couldn’t see the benefit for all the effort.

The climb out of Ripsey went on forever. I could see Aarons light high above me after I paused to eat and so I chased him up the hill, trying to maximize my chance of finishing in under 3 days. The trail was rideable in numerous places so there was an on/off/on/off tempo to the climb as I mounted and dismounted.

Eventually we came to the top and I caught Aaron while he paused to eat. We both raced across the ridgeline which was actually pretty awesome trail. I zoomed and darted and dodged it’s way through the darkness before eventually starting to descend down towards the Gilla river. Aaron and I rejoined and were surprised to stumble across the Kelvin water cache. While I hadn’t been willing to backtrack to get more water, it would be foolish to ride off and not take some water from the Kelvin cache when it was right in front of me. I topped up and left before Aaron as we both continued to race down the hill.

I came to a gate and went to open it only to discover that the ‘clicker’ on the latch had broken off which meant it was all but impossible to open the chain. I thought about fiddling with it but was feeling all racey after chasing Aaron for so long so I just threw my bike over the gate (about shoulder height) and clambered over after it. I guess Aaron got held up on that gate as I didn’t see his lights again for quite a while.

I looked back and could see the lights from the Colarado boys descending the ridgeline as I started the run alongside the Gilla. The Gilla river seems to turn up a lot in all manner of blogs and I was really looking forward to the seeing it in the flesh. Unfortunately, it was pitch black so all I can do is describe how it smelt. Dank. Like decaying leaf litter sodden from a flood. It didn’t inspire me to look any closer.

I was now chasing the clock. It was about 10pm and I was struggling to keep moving forward. I needed a second wind. I stopped briefly to eat although I couldn’t find anything in my bag that I really wanted. I’d finished off my last pink iced baked thingo a couple of hours ago and was desperately sorry i hadn’t bought a second pack. In the end I just shoveled in some trail mix, choked it down with water and kept going.

The food did the trick and i was just starting to find a second wind when i stumbled across Neil and Dave who were breaking camp around 11pm. They had  stopped for a quick nap before making the final climb over the ridge to picket post and the finish. I said g’day and then rode off expecting them to chase me down quickly but trying hard to keep them at bay as long as possible. It seemed like something I could focus on as reaching the finish just seemed like such a massive undertaking if those huge hills baring the way in the moonlight were anything to go by.

Eventually the final climb revealed itself. As I pushed up the loose eroded fire trail, I kept looking around trying to figure out how the trail was going to get through without having to go over the huge hills. Eventually the trail went back to single track and it snaked and weaved and switchbacked it’s way around the side of huge hills as all the while I climbed and climbed. I could look back and occasionally see Neil and Dave’s lights shining far below.

I kept pushing but around 3am I was in a bad way. The sleep monster had caught me and without any caffeine, I was toast. I tried to keep going forward but the rapidly approaching lights of Neil and Dave told me I wasn’t making much progress any more. I was getting dangerous, the consequence for failure on some of the parts were quite high and I knew it was time to grab some sleep before finishing. I was disappointed I couldn’t keep going but i’d been on the move for 22 hours and so it shouldn’t have been surprising when my body said enough was enough.

I found a wider part of the trail and pulled on my arm warmers and gillet and fell asleep in the dirt right next to the trail. My camel back as a pillow and the dirt as my mattress. For a 4o minute nap, I didn’t think it was worth getting the mattress or sleeping bag out, just so long as I got to close my eyes.

Neil and Dave rolled on past and I was out and after what felt like a blink, the alarm was going off and I woke dazed and disoriented. I grabbed my bike and started running up the trail with it. I tried to pedal but I was so groggy that I couldn’t keep it pointed in a straight line. Push, push, run, push, pedal, hustle. I kept throwing myself at the trail trying to get over the top before the cursed sun came up and fried me to a crisp again.

Eventually I topped out as the sky began to glow with the impending sunrise. I crossed across a basin and then began descending towards picket post. The descent was awesome. You could hold so much speed and could really chuck the bike around as the trail flicked between obstacles, rocks and holes. There were a couple more climbs that I knew were ineveitable however I was now pretty confident that I was going to beat my 3 day goal since I knew I had set out from Parker Lake around 8am.

I kept charging down the hill, burst through a wash and there it was, the finish!

I rolled across the line all smiles as my aching body sent out endorphins to increase my euphoria. It wasn’t what i set out to do but it felt like one hell of an achievement none the less.

I bumped into Aaron Boatman who was at the front of the 750 group who half heatedly tried to convince me to keep riding with him as he’d spent the better part of the last 3 days alone and was feeling the isolation and boredom that comes with desert solitude. I half thought about it but in my sleep deprived state, I was fixated on my knee pain and was calling it quits.

To rationalize it afterwards, of course my bloody knee was sore. I’d just ridden for 24 hours on a 25 kg bike. Some nurofen, some sleep and a bit of stretch were probably all that was needed to get the body going again but against Caroline’s earlier wisdom, I cracked and  called it quits. I quickly cemented the fact when I bumped into Adam Vaughn who was waiting for the Colarado Trio who gave me a lift into town to get some food and some clothes. With that, my race was done with a AZT300  finish time of 2 days 23 hours 4 minutes

Aaron elected to keep his options open by riding into Apache Junction and getting a hotel room but eventually dropped from the race as he simply wasn’t enjoying himself. That i could relate to.

From there, I spent the rest of the day with the guys from Colorado and I can’t thank them enough for all their help in sorting logistics. I met so many awesome people on this trip and despite putting myself in the hurt box far too often, it was an awesome adventure and I’m looking forward to a rematch in the future.

AZT 1: Ross Nil



Responses (2) to “2013 AZTR 300: Day 3”

  1. Fantastic read Ross!! You put in an incredible effort in spite of the knee issues, well done!! Congrats on the sub 3 day finish!! Hopefully your next attempt will find you at the Utah border and you’ll be able to see the Gila River segment in daylight. Cheers!

    • RossC says:

      I’m not sure I want to see the Gila river section in daylight! Since that means I’ll have to take on the beast of a climb to picket post in full sunlight and I haven’t read a single blog that said that was a good idea 🙂

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