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2017 Arizona Trail Race 750

Arizona Trail Race 2017

“How was your Spring Break?” asked a fellow middle school teacher?  “Epic” was my simple response.  The ice pack on my shin and bags under my eyes gave away that my body was not as fully energized as my colleagues, despite 10 days of spring break away from the classroom and my 7th and 8th graders.  With this being said, my mind was clear and the endorphins were still pumping. The buzz from it all lasted another 10 days.

Now that it has been two weeks, the numbness in my fingertips and the color in my skin is returning enough to sit down and write a race report.
Last year I did my first bikepacking race, the Stagecoach 400 (SC400) in Southern California and after 66 hours and nearly 400 miles, I was hooked. I loved the simplicity, the freedom, and of course covering so much beautiful landscape while challenging the body and mind. Bikepacking is a blend of backpacking and mountain biking, two of my favorite things, and the rules are simple… “Do it yourself.”  There is no outside support, no aid stations, and no finishing banner.  After two fellas I rode with for a bit on the SC400 took on the Arizona Trail Race 750 last year, I began to eye the trail.  When I discovered that the grand depart aligned with my spring break, there was no turning back.
The past 6 months have been spent doing the occasional reading of blogs, ensuring that logistics were as squared away as possible, and of course spending lots of time on the saddle.  I had a friend, Jason Shearer, who I met at Stagecoach last year, also commit to racing so having someone to ask questions and get stoked with was awesome.

Devils Drop, Anza Borrego Desert, SC400

I did the SC400 again this March, this time as an Individual Time Trial (ITT) the week before the race to ensure I had a full month to recover. Those few weeks flew by fast and I still barely had enough time to tune up the bike and get things in order.

I flew Southwest into Tucson, and after lots of deliberation I decided to ship my bike with bikeflights.com. This turned out to be sweet. Not only was it $25 cheaper than flying but so easy as they pick it up and it was at Bill’s house when I arrived. Bill and his wife hosted us in Anchorage two summers ago after my wife, Melissa, and I rode our bikes from Seattle up there. They were so hospitable and it was so cool that they rode down from Alaska and bought a house in Tucson.  I spent the night there and the next morning, I put my bike together and rallied with Jason to meet the shuttle.  Homegrown MTB Shuttle
Lots of excitement as we rolled down the dusty roads to the Mexico border. We dropped off the 300 mile distance riders first and then it was our turn. We arrived around 5:30am and we found a flat spot in a corral to post up just a mile or so from the border. We had heard that border patrol cruises the border, so better to camp a ways away to not be woken up.Jason in our nest for the night
I grew up swimming and went on to swim in college, then made the transition to triathlon, with my last race being Ironman World Championships in Kona in 2014. I also had my fair share of swim meets growing up, with the normal pre-race anticipation butterflies as I cued up with 3 dozen or so riders.  For this morning, we had the pleasure of having bikepacking legend Kurt to send us off.  He basically said, “the road is open on Mt Lemmon after the fire, ride hard, be safe, and have fun… Ready go.”  Let's do this... at Mexico BorderThat was it, no national anthem, no count down, no race announcer, no plugging sponsors… and so we were off. I was excited to finally be rolling.  2017 AZT 750 Start
Just after passing the 300 start, just 15 miles in, I rounded a turn and KABOOM, my rear tire ripped open and slime spewed everywhere. I was the first one to tear open the sidewall just an hour into the fun. I was bummed, my heart sank, I knew I would lose my riding buddies and my fear was I wouldn’t see anyone again.  Jason rode by and said, “Don’t worry dude, you will be ok.”  I appreciated that in the moment, and took a deep breath and went to work.  I had watched a youtube video and ensured I had all the necessary stuff for this exact situation. I pulled out the gorilla tape, floss, and upholstery needle.  Sew up jobI put the tape on the inside, and began sewing it up.  It took a CO2 to reseat the tubeless, and within a half-hour (guesstimate) I was rolling along again.  Little did I know what lay ahead. The Canelos were tough with lots of hiking and a nice introduction to what Arizona has to offer. The Canelos Hot and dry I sucked down liquids and ended up passing some 300 folks. Popping out onto pavement was a nice reprieve and the Patagonia market was welcome with open arms. Two slices of pizza from next door, lots of fluids, some potato chips and conversations with other overheated riders including the legendary John Schilling. I was soon off with a smile and I knew the tire would hold up on the asphalt headed to Sonoita. I kept the legs spinning as I hit the dirt roads into Kentucky Camp where I bumped into Jason, he had taken a spill and bruised his hip.  Many of us sat around mowing down some grub before Jason and I pedaled off.  Up and down, up and down, the darkness carried us to a road where we turned in around midnight.

We awoke at 4 am and packed up before heading off. I remember missing the burritos we had been talking about for 2 or 3 hours, but Tucson was approaching and that would make up for it.  My first mission was to get a new rear tire. I called ahead and planned to meet Jason back at the Safeway after doing the extra 2.5 miles or so each way to the bike shop. On the way, I snagged a delicious sandwich to eat while the tire was being changed. Major shout out to the dudes at Broadway bikes who did an awesome job!
After some more chill time at Safeway we took off up the infamous Reddington road headed for Mt. Lemmon.


This was wild country, it felt so remote, and as I sipped my fluids I became a little worried until we found a nice pond to refill.  Reddington RoadThis was a gateway to Mt Lemmon and hours and hours later we would found ourselves on pavement heading for the summit. Jason mentioned that if you turn the Mt Lemmon profile upside down, it will fit in the elevation profile of the Grand Canyon. Needless to say, it was a legit climb.  Darkness drew and we summited around midnight. The wind was ripping and I knew that Summerhaven had a community center with bathrooms that I read thru-hikers often catch some sleep in to get out of the cold. Upon entering the small room, it turned out there were probably 50 firefigthers or so in the neighboring room, who would occasionally awake and walk to the restroom through the walkway. This wasn’t going to work. Jason and I rode back to the summit and found a three sided structure that would do the trick and serve as a windblock. Unfortunately, something rattled for the 4 hours we slept. We awoke and still had wind as we started down the infamous Oracle ridge. Just a mile or so into it, the wind just stopped… we had talked about getting out on the ridge but my fear was that it would be more exposed and hard to find a place to crash.  We happened to pass another cyclist who had done just this, and probably avoided 4 hours of metal rattling in the wind.

Oracle Ridge

 We descended and ended up in the town of Oracle. I dropped nearly $50 at Circle K and then polished off with some serious food at the delicious deli/restaurant.  Jason and I both talked to our wives and we set off to some more remote territory.

Food= smiles. Jason Shearer grubbing in Oracle- AZTR Oracle Cafe- AZTR
Jason had come out in December and rode the upcoming miles so he told me a little bit about what was ahead. We passed a thru-hiker who I shared some gatorade with, and it dawned on me how brutal it must be to have to travel slower and carry so much more water.
Purple choya cactus
We zipped across that cactus covered desert and I loved the monster saguaros. We had the same plan of crashing around midnight, and ended up somewhere before Ripsey wash. The next morning, we had some hiking to do and I ended up getting ahead of Jason.  After descending I bumped into Dan and Jeff (El Freako) at a water cache. They said they were leading the race… seriously, I thought?!  I hadn’t checked trackleaders and had no idea that I now was with the race leaders.  I got excited but had to check myself as I knew there were hundreds of miles still until Utah. I made a quick stop and dip in the Gila River before a monster climb and hike up to Picketpost. It was hot and I was nursing my fluids, there was no way I was going to hang with El Freako who was putting the hammer down. I was happy there was a cache where I grabbed two liters to get me the final 10 miles to Picketpost, the end of the 300 race.



Awesomeness
I had reached a milestone, and John Schilling was there to congratulate me. His spirit and enthusiasm are contagious and I was so jazzed to grab some grub. I rolled into the market and chatted with El Freako while he had his brakes repaired by a mobile bike van. We grubbed and waited for Dan and Jason.  After about two hours, I decided if I didn’t keep moving I was going to fall asleep in the plastic chair. The Hungryman TV dinner was making me drowsy and so I pedaled out. I knew I would see the others the next morning at Bashas market at 6 am. I slept soundly in a residential neighborhood and awoke to buy two breakfast burritos at Bashas. These things were monsters! and they were cheap!
Jacob's Crossing AZTR
The miles flew by as there was lots of pavement, and awesome vistas. I stopped and took a dip in the lake and then did some more grubbing in the Tonto Basin.  I called ahead and paid for some shammy cream to scoop up in Payson as the heat was making the bum sore.
I arrived around 9 and was stoked to find the shammy cream and some electrolight tabs.  Major thanks for your support!
Rosevelt Dam- AZTR
I stocked up at Walmart and polished off a subway footlong before heading out towards Pine.  I rode again until around midnight and turned in. It was colder now, and after waking there was a hiking section before Pine. I was meandering through the bush and lost the trail for a second when I heard some talking. I located the trail and low and behold it was Dan and Jeff.  I asked them how things were and they commented that they hadn’t slept.  Wow I thought, I just got 4 hours. This was a major shot of adrenaline and I asked if they were ready for some breakfast in Pine.  They said that they were planning to go straight through… what!? I thought. Well I was still game for bacon and eggs. Indeed the breakfast sandwich I got was delicious, I even made mention on my MTB cast call in.
Highline Trail AZTR Highline Trail The highline trail included plenty of hiking as I was prepared for and from this point on, I didn’t see anyone until sunset when I saw two forest service guys who had stocked an ice chest with cold gatorades for us racers. I thanked them immensely and one of the guys mentioned he had followed my Stagecoach 400 ITT the week before he came out and raced.
Gatorade on ice... AZTR
I rode into the night and loved the Blue Ridge area. At some point, I reached out to John Schilling again asking about the snow detours ahead. He said if the trails look good then go for it. I camped right at the junction of the first detour and wowzers it was colder than the night before. I awoke and set out on the trail. Somehow, I missed the turn for some grub at Mormon Lake and so Flagstaff was my next stop. I was so excited! I hit the REI and bought some new shoes, ate lots at Whole Foods, and chatted with Melissa who had started her drive out to scoop me up.
Old vs new Arizona eats up shoes
 I left Flagstaff and began climbing. Patches of snow, lots of water, and some mud slowed things down, and I was told to definitely take the second snow detour. There was so much snow!
SNOW! AZTR
 I rode into the night and ended up on the Coconino rim. This place felt like an endless treadmill on the gravel road.  At one point the sleep monsters started attacking me and I was swerving a bit, I swear I thought I saw a tree across the road and I slammed on my brakes to avoid hitting it. I laughed when I realized it was my imagination and I continued to pedal into the darkness. I knew that Jeff was a racer and after being in the lead for a while now, I felt that I would shorten the sleep. I slept just 2 hours and was excited to be headed to the rim of the Grand Canyon. I stopped in Tuscayan and spent $25 at McDonalds on breakfast sandwiches and some oatmeal. I went to the market as well and bought trail mix, bars, candies, chips, and an ice cream bar. Upon reaching the South Rim I was buzzing with excitement. I strapped on the bike and headed in around 10 am. Heaps of people tourists were all descending and I found myself calling “On your left.” quite a bit as slowing the inertia of a 60 pound bike on your back is tough. My left shin immediately felt tight as I had felt some twinges early on from so much hike-a-bike (HAB).
AZTR Grand Canyon
 As I descended deeper and deeper, I made the occasional stop for a photo. Usually it was one of the canyon and one of me from an interested onlooker. I was eventually greeted by Hannah. She was commuting to work or rather returning home. She lives and works at Phantom Ranch. What an awesome place to call home. She gave me some local knowledge and was kind enough not to laugh when I face-planted at one point with the bike just bowling over the top of me. We reached the the gorgeous green Colorado River and all I could think about was soaking my sore shin.  I relaxed and said goodbye and thank you for the company. I again saw her at the ranch when I sent some post cards to the family.
AZTR- Grand Canyon
 Foolishly I forgot to fill my bladder and with 7 miles until Cottonwood, I had to make a stop and filter from the silty river.  Mistake number 2 came as I got my socks wet.  I had to make a few more stops, and remove the bike pack (major pain in the neck and back … literally) to put some tape on my feet as I felt some hot spots forming from my wet and dirty socks.
UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_9ca
I reached Cottonwood and chatted with some folks and ate my turkey sandwich.  This is where things got interesting…
I drank a bottles worth and took off as the sun was setting on the canyon walls. I started doing some math and began to get worried that I might not make the 8 am trail closure further up near the North Rim. I also wondered how far back El Freako was as I thought, boy it would get interesting if I get passed just miles before the finish.  As I ascended I passed three Southbound cyclists, and they said there was no water from there until the top except for a few trickles off the rocks. I thought for some reason that there was 14 miles to the trailhead, so I headed down a side trail to Roaring Springs about 1/2 mile down. I was able to set my bike down, but getting it back on after this extra mile without it really stunk. I later found out that as I left my SPOT tracker at the junction, Melissa became increasingly worried. She has a natural intuition and an incredible gut feeling.  This ride really tested her as much as it did me. I’m not sure I could have done it without her positive calls and excited spirit.
After filling my bladder, I tossed in a few aquamira and was back on track.  Up ahead I saw two lights descending and crossed paths again with two rim-to-rim-to-rim (R2R2R) runners.  They told me my math sucked, from Cottonwood it wasn’t 14 miles but just under 8, with just over 4200 vertical feet. I knew it was going to be tough and my mental strength was buzzing as I was harnessing the mental strength Melissa and I developed on the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) passes we faced on our thru-hike in 2010 in the Sierra Nevada.
The switchbacks continued and eventually the moon rose which illuminated the cliffside. I wasn’t sure where the top was, but I knew I had to just keep it together and if I removed the pack it was just that much harder… “Inertia,” I said aloud, “anything in motion prefers to stay in motion.”  At one point, I remember feeling like someone was ahead of me encouraging me, and I would take a handful of steps, stopped and bobbled around a bit, and then continued on. The one fortunate thing was I wasn’t feeling the pain in my shins.
I slept for two hours in the bathrooms at the top, and woke up to put on all my clothes in the frigid morning air.  There was 3 feet of snow or so outside and the temps were low 30s at best.  It was around 3:30 am and with my leg warmers, wool top, down jacket, rain coat, rain knickers, and 2 pairs of wool socks, with bags over my feet… I headed out. I began to follow the track and tromped through the snow. I did not see tire tracks from the three previous southbounders. I got on the road and then regained the track about a half mile up. As I was marching through the snow, I punched about ankle deep through some ice and soaked my feet. A lightbulb went off in my sleep deprived state and I realized I had forgotten to load the snow detour track. “DUHHHH!” I thought. This was the detour that was the major talk as there had been concern it wouldn’t be plowed.  After returning to the road with my tail between my legs, I was now pedaling, after probably waisting an hour going in circles.
I was a bit scared as my shoes were beginning to freeze and constrict my feet. My toes were beginning to get really cold, and I had no other dry socks. I rode for a half hour or so and the sun wasn’t close to coming up. I knew I would need to do something. The road was closed so I knew I wasn’t going to see anyone so I pulled out some TP and grabbed some dry grass to build a small fire. I sat down and was so exited until I could not find my lighter!! Ahhhhhh.
I managed to battle my shoes, tugging and pulling to get the laces untied (previous experience with frozen laces on the John Muir section of the PCT in 2010) and rubbed my toes for warmth.  The wind just nabbed any heat I was giving them, I decided to layer the socks and bags, and so I had a sock, a baggie, my shoe, then another wool sock, and another grocery bag.  This worked!  I pedaled in my moon shoes until the sun came up and I eventually reached Jacob’s Lake.
I ate some awful french toast and bought 2 cookies for the road along the final stretch. I pedaled hard, and kept shouting for my wife “I am coming!” I knew she was waiting, I had no cell signal and figured she didn’t either, and for some reason I thought I was late. After hitting some single track, I snapped my cable on my rear derailleur. Seriously?! I thought I would tough it out and go single speed, and after 5 minutes of pedaling in a high gear, my mind was changed. I pulled off my seat and grabbed out a cable that I had stashed in the post.
I took apart the shifter and replaced it. In a rush the shifter got wacky and so it wasn’t working.  I took it apart again, and this time managed to get about 4 gears mid-cluster. This would work.
I pedaled and pedaled, oh and did some pushing (HAB even up to the very end) and eventually came the final switchbacks that ripped down to the stateline. I hollered and heard my wife shouting. I crossed the homemade toilet paper finish line and was greeted with a massive hug and smiles from her and our friend Katherine who Melissa had brought along.

IMG_2318

I was so stoked to finish.  8 days, 5 hours, and 15 minutes to cover just over 800 miles.
Massive thank you to everyone who makes this race possible and my family and friends for all the support.  Appreciations to Ron Salvatori for your investigative recon and a huge special thanks to my awesome wife and Katherine for the post race fun and trip through Zion.
IMG_2362
Melissa in Zion

4 Responses so far.

  1. Scott Morris says:

    Thanks for the report, I enjoyed it. Impressive the way you rolled with the punches that the AZT inevitably throws, keeping a positive attitude and staying quick, as an AZTR rookie. Congratulations — thanks for pulling off the win in style.

  2. Way to go Sir. Great job on the finish.
    -Derrick

  3. Zach Allen says:

    Congrats on the win!!! Was nice to meet you on the van ride down!

  4. whitney smith says:

    Justin,
    Always proud of your commitment and persistence. You are truly remarkable. Enjoyed the story and video footage.
    Continue to explore and enjoy,
    love pops

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