Monday, 23 April 2012

Sleepless Arizona Trail Race

Circa 300 miles of Arizona Trail is a long distance considering mountain biking race but on the other hand the distance is not long enough for epic expedition. This time I wanted to feel a taste of a race, having fun on the trail at the same time. However, nothing is as it seems. This race, as summarized by Steve Wilkinson, has teeth; I would say that it has thorns not only in metaphoric sense but also literally. Thorns, which caused that I almost did not finish.

Friday 3:45 am, I knock to a door of Steve’s room, who selected the same hotel in Phoenix as me. I didn’t fall asleep this night, previous as well. Supposedly everything is prepared but I feel nervous. Jeff Butler organized transportation to the start line (thanks Jeff!). We arrived on time. It is chilly, I’m glad that I bring additional long sleeve shirt. Somehow I have trouble eating subway sandwich. A little bit of contemplation and study of participant’s gear and at 9:00 am fast start.

Loose, sharp rocks run away from wheels, I had too high air pleasure in my tires. I’ve read many stories about slicing tires on this very first section to Patagonia that I’m riding very carefully. I’m slowing down too much followers so I let them pass. It is heavy ride for me due to 5L of water (It turned out lately that It was not necessary to carry such amount of water but this is a desert and water gambling is not worthy to risk). I don’t feel confident riding fully loaded hardtail on downhill, stones and gravel are unpleasant. Derailleur doesn’t work properly, UPS during shipment of my bike to Phoenix bent horizontal dropouts to the extent that I was not able to fit my wheel. Temporary fix in the hotel by using rock turns out to be partially successful. I feel disappointed of my ride so far, everyone overtakes me, even girls. But it is unimportant, I’m going to realize my strategy of slow, careful ride on the beginning of this race.

Not far miles away I see unusual defect. Smiling girl, Jen, with whom I shuffled a little bit on the route, is not smiling anymore. She sliced rear brake hose on a rock. Brake fluid has spilled over the ground so not much could be done.

My stomach don’t want to digest. Chocolate milk in Patagonia helps. It is possible to speed up on the road. Next is gravel road and terrible wind. Jeff who stopped in Sonoita catch me. His pace is too fast for me, especially that I have a plan to ride at night and must to watch my heart beating. Flume trail is flow ride, fast, smooth singletrack, very distinct in comparison to previous section.

I reach Kentucky Camp still during the day light. Due to problems with not eating food I decide to use alcohol stove and prepare freeze dried meal. Next participants catch up with me, they also take a break. Warm dinner helps. Nightfall. I ride together with Forest Baker, who lives in Sunnyvale (near Stanford), for a while but I’m losing him fast. I catch second, then third breath. It begins good ride to me.

During the night is diversely, once faster, once slower but I’m pressing forward all the time. The night is considerably warm. I overtake some girl. Finally descent between cactuses up to road underpass. It is pleasant ride, the slope is minimal, many turns so it is necessary to pay attention and avoid collision with cactuses. I arrive to La Sevilla Camp. I’m looking for a water but I see only sleeping racers. I still have water from previous camp so I give up  with looking for spigot. I arrange my bivy and sleeping bag on a table made out of stone and take a nap (if that can be called a nap). Rain droplets wake me up. A storm was in forecast for the morning in Tucson. How looks like the storm in Arizona? Will it be a short rain? I’m riding, knowing that I will be able to eat something warm in Tucson.

Mountains can be seen in distant with a grey curtain of rain. At higher elevations I see snow. Beautiful storm. It doesn’t look good. Singletrack between cactuses is over. After entering asphalt rain and sleet start. My cheeks are freezing. I don’t have waterproof pants, only jacket.

I arrive to Tucson frozen and soaked. Soup, next hot chocolate and nice talk with a guy who is clearly interested about the race. He inform me that I’m at sixth place (not bad!). Finally they open Quiznos. Their sandwiches are delicious. Somebody told me that the weather should clear around the noon. I decided to wait through because a local bike shop don’t have waterproof pants. The result from my calculations is that I’ll need about 20 hours to get through mountain range, which means that I will be at highest mountains in the middle of the night. It’s not good. Somewhere around the peak, a little bit off route, is Summerhaven and I delude myself that I will be able to get there and find accommodation at B&B.

Before the uphill to Summerhaven (mostly on asphalt), the trail is winding along jeep road and next among meadows in the interval fashion up-down, finally reaching the point, where vertical rocky walls can be seen. It is not bad, the bike can be pushed most of the time, in Colorado was more carrying of the bike. Scott called this section “ascent of death”. On the other side downhill was very difficult at some points and I dismounted several times to avoid risk of a crash.

Molino Camp, it is dark, it still left a little bit of singletrack and I will be on a highway. With the momentum I forget to turn in the road direction and I have to trackback. I see a light in distant – somebody is chasing me. Catalina Highway means very long, boring uphill. Jeff caught me. It is too late for whatever open in Summerhaven. Jeff has even less warm clothes than me, the perspective of cold sleep doesn’t suit his imagination, he told me that he would like to go over the mountains to the next city – Oracle, it is mostly downhill from the top. I have remembered from the map that it doesn’t look so good as Jeff described it and seeing the snow on a roadside I realize that it is not good idea. It is getting colder, I put on a jacket. Jeff is escaping me. My eyes are closing automatically, I begin falling asleep riding a bike. I decide to go down to Rose Canyon Camp. I thought about sleeping in a restroom building (it was clean) at the beginning but laying out on a concrete floor without a mat sounds unpleasant enough. I find a fire place, a little bit of wood covered  by snow. I’m directing my lamp to a forest, collect some branches and conifer needles. I’m fighting with a lighter which  doesn’t want to start a fire, my body start shivering due to the cold, everything around is covered by snow or ice, it is easy to get hypothermia. Finally I succeed and make a big fire, it is pleasant. I’m boiling a water and warming up by eating freeze dried meal. I’m spending few hours by camp fire, but I’m not able to fight with a sleep anymore. I put my bivy and sleeping bag on a bench with water bladder under my head and waiting for a dawn. It is freaking cold.

I’m packing fast at daybreak and pedal because it is the only way to warm up. Frost bite on my fingertips. The sun is raising and it is warming up. I hear psss sound on the rear. It turns out that the thorn sticking in the tire had been pushed into inside. Fast reaction, turn of the wheel and Stan’s fluid seals the hole; I still need to pump the wheel with numb hands. Taking the opportunity I put on trash bags sandwiched between socks knowing that the march through snow is ahead of me. I don’t ride down to Summerhaven, it is early and I don’t want to loose altitude.

Traverse through snow it is like pushing a bike mostly. Only on lower elevation the snow starts melting and it is possible to ride. Some sections are steep. Traversing takes me more time than I expected. I slice the tire sidewall on downhill, luckily the cut is not big and Stan’s fluid do the job. From time to time I have to pump the air. Finally it is dry, I have willingness for normal food but the city is still far away. The trail is winding among picturesque boulders and hills. I’m checking the tire, it holds the air, Pete is catching me. His powerful riding on singlespeed amaze me. I don’t have a chance to keep up with him. Soon, I see Steve behind me. We caught Pete when he made a brake for eating. I arrive to Oracle few minutes behind Pete and Steve joining them in Steakhouse. I don’t know what to buy in general store, what kind of food will taste good to me? Pete and Steve disappear fast. I have to do something with the tire because cut is growing. I’m trying to sew the sidewall but a needle breaks. I put a patch on a tire and zip tie, it should hold for a while. Many participants have gathered around the store in the meantime.

It is late, about 4 pm, luckily it is not hot. I filled up with 5L of water, the most dry part of the trail is ahead of me and probably it is most representative desert. Hilly landscape surprisingly green with bigger mountains in background. Fully loaded ride is tough at the beginning but I’m trying to hold good pace. Sometimes it is difficult to follow the trail – it is not well marked. The monotony of landscape makes me feel boring. It is getting dark, I take third breath and cut through desert. It seems like I’m riding 19 miles/h, in reality gps shows only 12 miles/h. Slalom among cactuses, ride through a wash, bush with thorns, switchback and the same again and again. The desert lives it’s own life, fuming amazing fragrance, hares and fieldmouses are cutting through my way. It happens that I hook my glove on cactus, thorns drive in deeply and don’t want to detach. Finally I see Pete and Steve on a flat spot. Steve rise, I say “hi” and rush further away. I didn’t realize that I missed water cache. However, I had enough water with elete mineral salts which at night decrease not very fast.

Phantom of sleep overtakes me again. I make a longer brake, eat next warm freeze dried meal. Next is fast singletrack alternating by double tracks under power line with many u-shaped ride – impetus, rumble down and ride to the top with the power of momentum. Ripsey hill is ahead of me. I’m deciding to eat dessert before climb on Ripsey. It is quite easy, many switchbacks it is ride-able. I see two lights from the top – is it true that Steve and Pete are chasing me? Downhill from Ripsey has some technical sections, narrow switchbacks on the edge of cliff are interesting. I am almost in the valley, psss, oh no! This time it is serious sidewall cut, Stan’s fluid is not able to seal it. I decided to wait for sunrise and put a tube. I am angry about myself that I bring such delicate Racing Ralph tires. Pete and Steve overtake me. Setting up the tube takes forever, the tire doesn’t want to jump on rim.

Finally back on the route, I’m entering Gila river region, amazing landscape, vegetation in direct neighborhood of the river have different hue of green – lighter, full of saguaros, red rocks in distant. I feel strong flowing through new singletrack. After some time psss – I rode over portion of fallen cactus. The tube is going to trash. It left me last one. I should bring slime tubes! I’m looking carefully at the tire and remove every thorn. It left about 20 miles to finish including mountain climbing, I don’t want to walk this distance. Infernal heat starts. It is not the heat which I know from Salzkammergut which actually didn’t make me harm, here the humidity is much lower, lips begins to crack. I have to tank up water – the only possibility is dirty Gila river. Water filter which was a death mass so far come in useful at last. Climbing is alternate pushing and slow riding. Sand drops in shoes. I don’t have motivation for fast riding, I’m taking photos, David overtakes me.

I’m riding on low pressure because the tube is going out of cut in sidewall. I’m looking from the level of handlebar at everything with thorns. Finally at the top. I’m riding down very carefully – it is probably the slowest downhill in my life. Unfortunately air escaped again. I put a patch on. A little bit further away the situation repeats. It is very hot, there is no shade and I have to fix a flat again. This time is better, the tube holds air, I speed up and bum! I scrape my rear triangle on a rock, loose balance and land on cactus. Nothing serious, though. 3 miles to finish, I’ll manage. Finally on finish line! 3 days 9 h 24 minutes almost without sleep. David offers me water. Not much air left in the tire but somehow I arrive to Superior dreaming only about shower.

Amazing route, amazing participants, lifetime adventure which strongly impress a stamp on me. I’m less tired than after finishing Colorado Trail Race, but the CTR was much longer. Maybe in future I will go for AZT 750 along with Grand Canyon hike. On such a long distance the landscape is more diverse which adds attraction to the route. Until now I need to sleep off. 

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