Arizona Trail Race 750, Day One

Arizona Trail Magic

“Just try me.”

“Please, I’m begging you, just try me and see how far I will drive this truck up your [butt]!”

Mallory is making quick, little movements with her fingers on the steering wheel, egging on the driver whose rear bumper is less than a bike length away from our SUV’s front end. We are in the HOV lane on the I-10 freeway heading east; the three of us: Mallory, Jared and I. The driver so rudely blocking our path is alone, well, physically alone. They may have felt that the ethereal presence of the person they were talking to on their cell phone qualified them for the 2-persons or more lane. Who knows? But, Mallory is having none of it.

Jared is a friend that I met racing the Tour Divide in 2016. It is he who arranged for Mallory to drive us to the start of the AZT 750. She is the first of many trail angels we will encounter throughout this adventure, although her wings are a bit rough around the edges. We are indebted to her kindness and grateful for her generosity.

Mallory is speeding us away from Phoenix, Arizona to Tucson where we will meet up with my friend from Boise, Norb, and collect our bikes where they were shipped to, and re-assembled by the outstanding Arizona Cyclist staff. Jared is getting a new shifter, and I am putting the bags on my bike when Norb arrives.

After introductions all around, we head down the street for a well-reviewed Mexican restaurant, and are soon back on the road, this time however, we are making for the US/Mexican border in our rented, shiny black Yukon SUV. 

Nothing suspicious about that. 

Not at all.


Three bikes? No problem

Prior to getting into the vehicle in Tucson, I had warned Norb regarding what he was about to experience, but I am not sure my words had a firm enough impact; it likely didn’t matter, however, because once we left the pavement south of Sierra Vista—blasting by two Border Patrol SUVs parked along the road—the fear factor and excitement pretty much went off the charts. Driving at speeds appropriate for paved roads, Mallory guided our 4-ton roll cage filled with souls and gear along a narrow, winding, mountain road, notably missing anything resembling a guardrail on the cliff side. 
Did I mention that there was a cliff side?

Adding to the drama of the moment was the fact that Mallory insisted on taking photos of the road ahead of her while trying to keep the vehicle on that same road, usually when it was at its most Holy crap! Look at that road! situation—like a steep grade downward, ended by a sharp turn heading into the inky darkness. One day I would like to see those photos; but, I will NOT let my wife or kids see them. Jared later told me that he kept telling Mallory, "Michael has kids back home"; It was a nice gesture. I can only imagine what the trip would have been like without such an admonition.

Despite following a GPS unit’s commands to the start of the AZT 750, we managed to speed by the final turn, not once, but twice. Finally convincing ourselves that the eye in the sky knew better than our own best judgment, Mallory eased the behemoth off the edge of the road onto what looked like a creek bed, and we were soon barreling down the only stretch of straight road we had seen in the past hour. Outside the windows we could see people camping in the fields on both sides of the car, telling us that we must be close to our destination: the Mexican border.

Skidding to a stop next to a small group of men wearing headlamps and holding bottles in their hands not 20-feet from the international frontier, Mallory rolled down her window and yelled through the billowing dust and into the darkness and surprised faces, “Where can I turn this [thing] around and drop off all of this [stuff] and get rid of these smelly boys?

Her feigned desperation broke the tension of the moment and the men’s headlamps bobbed and swooped as they fell into peals of laughter at her well-timed entrance to the starting area of the 2017 AZT 750 Trail Race.


The start area of the AZT 750

Later that night, we got a chance to meet some of our fellow racers as everyone seemed to be in a genuinely good-natured mood. I was introduced to Brett Stepanik, who is a bit of a minor bike packing celebrity, and I was, I have to admit, a bit star-struck to make his acquaintance, as silly as that sounds. 

We were soon falling asleep while being serenaded by a local band of coyotes—the four-legged ones—although, I would imagine that the two-legged version could sing a tune or three as well.

The next morning, standing on the starting line, listening to Kurt Refsnider’s pre-race remarks about snow closures up north and various other housekeeping issues, I was suddenly caught up in the reality of was happening: This was it. I was about to start a race on my mountain bike, unsupported, on the Arizona Trail from Mexico to the Utah border. An entire winter of training and preparation had come down to this moment. 

It was beautiful.


The border fence

Because the AZT 750 starts at almost 6,000 feet of elevation, it is important to remember that it is a marathon, not a sprint, as Norb says; but, race starts are always hard for me and I found myself having to hold back so as not to blow this entire adventure in the first 5 minutes.

Within a short span of time we found ourselves speeding along the road we had all driven in on the night before—a nice, wide dirt and gravel road, on a bike, not so much in a car. At about the 5-mile mark, I was approaching another rider as we both descended down a winding section of road that became a sharp switchback turn as it continued its downhill trend. Negotiating the rocky surface at speed was dicey at best, and just as the turn approached its apex the rider in front of me lost traction in his front wheel, or maybe he hit a rock, it is hard to say, but not nearly as hard as his impact with the ground. BOOM, he slammed his left side against the rocky ground and was immediately enveloped in a cloud of dust that I did my best to speed through cleanly. I could envision a NASCAR-type pileup ending both or our races before they began.

At about the one hour mark, we had made it to the start of the 300-mile version of the race and were cheered on by a rather large group of enthusiastic supporters yelling and shaking cowbells. 

It was awesome.


The Canelo Hills present the first major obstacle on the AZT and we were told at the start that fully twenty percent of us would drop out in these first 50 miles. I had this covered: looking around, I had seen a rider within my immediate surroundings that looked to be a bit more out of shape than me, and had sacrificially deemed him to be the twenty percent in my sample. Poor guy.

At one point I found myself riding just behind a racer who introduced himself as Evan. When I told him that I was from Boise, he said, “Oh, I am moving to Boise very soon.” I thought that was a bit odd, so I asked him what was prompting this move. “I am going to be getting my MFA degree at Boise State University.” Well, sure. That makes sense. Aren't all bike pack racers artsy-fartsy types? He asked about the riding scene in Boise and I told him how great it was, but that he should probably keep that to himself, you know, so the trails don’t get too crowded.

I also got the chance to meet a long-lost friend on the trail. Well, sort-of. Kailtyn and I had been Facebook friends for a few years and I had always been impressed with her tenacity and drive. I got to see both of these first hand as she caught, passed and dropped me in about two minutes flat. “Have an awesome adventure, Michael!”, she yelled over her shoulder as she disappeared over a steep drop.

Wonderful advice.


Some products just aren't cut out for the AZT

For me, the Canelos were like a first date: kinda fun, kinda exciting, way too much work, and in the end leaving you to wonder, What just happened there? Suffice to say, I was pretty shot, but still nauseously coherent upon arriving in Patagonia after some seven hours of struggling up hill and down dale. Not that there weren’t bright spots in this torturous first leg—not by a long shot.

At one point, I had stopped to get some water from a solar-powered pump in the middle of nowhere, when arriving at the faucet, I was met by a middle-aged couple filling their own bottles. We started up a brief conversation, and I learned that they too were from Idaho—from Ketchum, Chris and Deb—and were just riding the AZT route for fun. At the time this sounded completely reasonable; later, I came to question this use of their precious time on this earth.

It was crazy.


Many, many, many of these on day one

Arriving in Patagonia a little before 2 PM, I was feeling pretty nauseated from the heat—it was in the low 90s—and the day’s efforts thus far. I was riding along the main street looking for a likely place for a fast meal, so as to not get too caught up in what I refer to as ‘town-suck’, when I noticed an older couple sitting on rocking chairs on the balcony of what looked like an old house of ill-repute.

“Need sumpthin?”, the man asked, rocking forward and resting both forearms on the edge of the railing. 

“Yeah, where can I get a quick bite to eat?”

He paused, thoughtfully. “I dunno, the Wagon Wheel, I ‘spose. It’s across the street.”

I thanked him and turned across the park dividing the two main drags in Patagonia. I rode up and down the street, but for the life of me could not find the Wagon Wheel restaurant. I even asked some locals, but one pointed north and the other south, so I returned to my original guide. “I think I need you to be more specific,” I yelled up to the second-story lair. “Just keep going down the street, it is over there somewhere.”

Being in a pretty weak negotiating position and now in desperate need of food, I returned to the opposite side of the street and began riding in what was now an off-route direction. I did locate the Wagon Wheel however, but it was a bar, which wasn’t exactly ideal. I was thinking of seeking other options while looking for a place to lean my bike on the small front porch area when the bar door opened and a man popped his head out looking in my direction. 

“You can place your bike against mine, if you would like.” It was Dave Wicks, a well-known bike pack racer from New Zealand, now living in Australia. I joined Dave at the bar where he proceeded to tell me about his attempt to yo-yo the AZT, by starting at the Utah border, riding the route south to Mexico and then returning with the rest of the racers back to the Utah line. He had been stymied, however, by snow on the road to the north rim of the Grand Canyon. “The highway department was beginning to clear the road, but didn’t want me anywhere near the machines that were doing the work,” he told me. “And having seen the ferociousness of those machines…I didn’t want to be anywhere near them, either.”

He had ridden a circuitous route to join us at the start, but was now feeling the effects of the arduous journey. “This is my second pint,” he said pointing to a near empty glass on the bar. “The first one went down like water. It is just so hot out there.” This was saying something for someone who had just lived through an Australian summer season.

Our take-away burgers came and we parted ways. “I am sure that I won’t see you again, so have a good race,” I told him. “Aw, you never know in this sport, do you? Things can change like that,” he said snapping his fingers. And, with that, he disappeared up the street.

I decided not to carry more water than I needed up the 17 miles of paved road to Sonoita, so I stopped at a small grocery store and drank a few Gatorades before heading north. Standing on the porch downing my last bottle, I was joined by a racer that appeared to be in his 70s. He was an AZT veteran, having completed four previous attempts. His name was Mike and he had more stories about the AZT than he had teeth, and as such was quite entertaining.

We ended up riding within eyesight of each other most of the way to Sonoita, where I stopped to re-supply for the long, barren stretch to Tucson. I leaned my bike up against a storefront near three little boys sitting at a table. “Can I ask you fellas to make sure that no one touches my bike while I am in the store?”, I asked. “Yes,” the older boy answered. “Thanks. What kind of candy do you guys like?”, I added. “We’re good,” the middle boy replied. “Ok then,” and I stepped into the small store—but I was not alone. Somehow, I had acquired a shadow in the form of the youngest boy, who seemed to be about 5-years old. As I walked around the store gathering items, he told me about fishing trips with his dad and all about his dog and his own bicycle.

“You seem to have found a new best friend,” smiled the lady at the counter. “He has really taken a shine to you.”

“He is a cute little guy, but I can’t keep up with everything he is telling me.” We both laughed and she told me how he had been born in the fire station across the street when his mom, who owned the attached curios store went into early labor.

“The town kinda feels a special connection to him ever since,” she added.

Just then a man walked up to me and gently grabbed my left arm and shook my hand. “I don’t know if you really want to do that, I am pretty disgustingly gross,” I protested.

“No, you guys are all heroes in my book, so I don’t mind a bit.” His name was Steve and he told me that normally he takes off work the day of the AZT start, so he can get out and support the riders, some years even following them to Kentucky Camp.

Packing my things into my bags, I looked up to see a pleasant-looking woman standing near me in the open doorway of the curio shop. “I heard you offer my kids candy to watch your bike earlier.” Uh-oh, I thought. “The reason they turned you down is ‘cause another racer made them the same offer earlier and they already had their fill of candy.” Whew. Just for a moment I saw myself as some creepy old man who offers candy to strangers’ kids. Yikes! I was glad she understood the situation. 

“I was a bit surprised that they turned me down,” I added, trying not to sound too relieved. “Aw, they’re good boys, they know when to not take advantage of a situation.”

Wow.


My security team, Sonoita, Arizona

Heading towards my destination for the night, Kentucky Camp, across a broad, open plain that reminded me of so many of the roads on the Tour Divide route, I noticed some racers sitting along the right side of the road in the dirt. As I passed, I nodded and smiled, and the three of them returned the gestures. I couldn’t quite make out what they were doing, but one whiff made it very clear: they must have all three been glaucoma patients and were taking their daily medication to ease their discomfort. I laughed to myself and continued on.

Soon after this encounter, I saw an odd form of another racer riding towards me, back towards Sonoita. Odd, not only because of the direction he was traveling, but because he was pedaling with only his right leg, his left leg dangling limply at his side. It was Dave Wicks. What he was up to I had no idea, but suffice to say, the entire encounter posed more questions than it answered.

About twenty-five minutes later, as the sun was setting, the course navigation got a bit tricky, and I was trying to make sure that I did not make an error, when the three herbalists rode up behind me. “It is just down this road a bit,” the tall, bearded one offered. We bounced along a pleasant little jeep track that dove into the forest where a camper had a fire burning and it smelled like a Disney movie. Abruptly, the route turned off of the two-track and onto a single-track that descended towards a creek on our right.

We slowed to make the turn, and as we did the other three racers stopped. “Do you want to do another bowl before the single-track?”, one of them asked. Sure, was the general consensus. So, I dove onto the trail myself, enjoying the twisty nature of the route. 

Soon, I was aware of the impending approach of the roach brothers by their headlights shining onto the trail ahead of me. But, as we came to another creek crossing, they once again stopped. “What do you say, one more bowl before we head into Kentucky?”

I shook my head. It hadn’t been an hour since I first saw these guys beside the road and already they had consumed a month’s worth of Grandma’s glaucoma medicine.

Arriving in Kentucky Camp, I quickly filled my water bottles and found a place at the end of the three-quarters wrap around porch which encompassed the main hostel building. My thinking was I didn’t want to be in a place where other arriving racers would have to step over me and my gear to find a place to sleep.

It was genius.

And then, it wasn’t.


Near Kentucky Camp

Mike, the older AZT veteran had pulled into Kentucky Camp soon after me and had set up shop near the sink and water faucet not thirty feet from my sleeping spot. By ‘set up shop’ I do not mean that he had put out his sleep kit and was settling in, oh no, he was acting as purser, or local guide, whichever better suits your tastes. He was a wealth of questions and knowledge about the ins and outs of Kentucky Camp and the race route in general, which was fine, well if the rest of us were not trying to sleep. Even with earplugs, I, and everyone else was made a part of each completely superfluous conversation from a guy who just really likes to engage people, wherever and whenever.

I hated to be such a grump—hadn’t I been the beneficiary of Mike’s friendliness earlier in the day?—but, there comes a time….

“Mike, are you planning on staying here tonight?”, I asked.

“Yeah,” he paused. “I guess I had better stop yakkin’ and go to bed, huh?”

Glad he thought of it.


It was peaceful.


More to come....

Comments


  1. Great writeup.

    I like your pictures of where the trail just drops off into the wash in the Canelos. I couldn't capture it from above, but your shot nailed it!

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    Replies
    1. Thanks! I love that photo as well. So glad I stopped to take it!

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