The Arizona Trail Race 2014
I've been going downt to Tucson for the last few years as an escape from the dreary Portland winters. While mountain biking on the East side on Chiva Falls and Pistol Hill, I kept seeing signs for the Arizona Trail. From Chiva Falls, it seemed like it climbed towards Mt. Lemmon. From Pistol Hill it seemed like it went south toward the Mexican border. I did a little internet research and found that they run a race every April. There is a 300 mile and a 750 mile version. Pick your poison. The 750 racers have to take their bike apart and carry it across the Grand Canyon rim to rim! The race is entirely self supported, meaning you're on your own to navigate, find food and water, basically get yourself in and out of any situation. There are no aid stations, no cheering fans, just fellow racers, the occasional convenience store, and alot of hard riding. I had been planning to do this race this year–got real close, but I went down to Scott's Camp Tucson 2.0 preview, which involved 3 days of long rides on the AZT. I had a perfect day on Redington Milagrosa, doing my best to keep up with Brian Matter–who was down from Wisco for winer training. That Milagrosa descent is for real. I washed out 15 minutes into Day two's Starr Pass ride and rather than finish the 65-miler with a gaping knee, I wisely pedaled back to trailhead and drove myself to Tucson Medical Center for staples. I also messed up my left shoulder pretty good–something I've been doing PT on ever since. So I realized falling in the Arizona desert has much greater consequences than falling on Oregon's loamy trails, and I realized that I probably still had some backcountry skills to gather before I feel confident attempting the 300. So, this April we went down to Tucson to meet Scott Morris, ask him 20 questions about the race, to photograph the race, which would also serve as recon and a way to learn about the race and what's required. What did I learn–folks, the Arizona Trail Race is no joke. It can be hot in April. The trail is rocky and technical. There have been freak snowstorms on Mt. Lemmon…In short, this is the final exam for endurance racers, maybe not the best choice for a first ultra.
I quickly learned that Scott is not only the creator of the Arizona Trail Race, but also the site bikepacking.net, probably the largest internet hub for bikepacking info, but also runs Trackleaders.com with Matthew Lee. Scott first rode the Arizona Trail in 2004. Right now he and his lady, Eszter (Eszter Horyani ultra endurance champ who holds records on the Tour Divide, AZT, Colorado Trail, Stagecoach 400, and The Iditarod) and are doing the Continental Divide Trail their way, which means South to North, but also strictly on singletrack. They're basically rewriting the book on bikepacking and trailblazing on a daily basis. After speaking with them they're both a bit over doing it at race pace, but they still want to do the hardest trail possible and live on trail for three months straight. He keeps a daily diary, so you can check in on their progress. Eszter's journal is called Zen on Dirt. Sometimes I read both just to compare their perspectives.
I learned that photographing a backcountry race that you're not racing is no simple task. Although shooting a grand tour isn't that simple either, but the basics do apply–show up at the start and find the race route as many times as possible. The 750 racers started down at the Mexican border. I camped out at Parker Canyon Lake and was on hand for the start of the 300. I was able to catch racers at Canelo Hills and then had to fast forward to Molino Basin on Mt. Lemmon. We found Jay P at Molino, having just finished the Bellota Trail. We found Neil B near Summerhaven, where he had just found the store closed and raced on to Oracle Ridge. We found Aaron G on Mt. Lemmon highway. He was having a hard time of it at that moment. He told us he just fell asleep and ran into a guard rail, but he charged straight onto Oracle Ridge. We met Shawn Gregory in Oracle. He had just gotten off of Oracle Ridge, did a little convenience store stop, and we drove next to him to the AZ Trail gate at the end of a dark washboarded road. He seemed in good spirits. After we left Shawn we drove straight to the Copper Mountain Hotel. Apparently there is copper mining near Superior. We weren't so sick of camping per se, but I washed out again riding a bit of loose, sandy corner on Mt. Lemmon and this time my left shoulder spontaneously dislocated aftwerwards, which is incredibly painful and a bit scary, so I guess I needed a decent bed for the night. We woke up, watched the Paris-Roubaix finish on the laptop, chatted with two different sets of touring bikepackers–one a couple from Canada, the other a trio of Germans, both riding the AZT–grabbed breakfast down the street at Los Hermanos, and hustled down the road to Picketpost trailhead to see who was there. We saw Kurt and Aaron laying in the dirt parking lot in a fairly wrecked state, which you'd expect, since Kurt just broke his own record by finishing the 300 in 45 hours and 7 minutes! Aaron rolled in second at 48 hours even. Neil rolled in an hour and twenty minutes after Aaron, for a 49:20. Tori wanted to ride some trail, so she went out solo, while I hiked with my camera, my left arm in a sling. We hung out the rest of the day to greet riders. We got to meet Big Dave Wison, the gregarious Texan behind Nuclear Sunrise Stitchworks, his family, and his friend, Alison Kinsler, who was the first female fininsher of the AZTR this year. There was a good mellow scene at Picketpost, so we decided to do some BLM camping down the road and head North the next day. We vowed to return to ride that stretch of trail when I'm more able-bodied.
AZTR 750 - The Jay P show
The rest of the AZTR became the Jay P show for us. He had a such a solid lead on all the other 750 riders it became impossible to shoot anyone else. We had to make a decision, so we chose to shadow Jay as much as possible. We found Jay near Canyon Lake. He was in full desert mode, with a big Lawrence of Arabia head wrap tucked into his helmet. He was in good spirits and quickly jumped in the Wyatt Earp bathtub, ran inside and bought ice cream and a root beer. He was glad to be off the technical trail for a second and be able to put his head down and click off some miles. You could tell he was in his element–happy to be racing, happy to find a food stop, anxious to put in whatever miles he could. It wouldn't be easy to follow the trail at this point, so we backtracked to into Phoenix to visit our friend Julie, who had relocated from Portland to work at Pivot. She pointed us to The Arizona Wilderness Brewing Co. which just got voted by RateBeer.com as the best new brewery in the world. I didn't necessarily taste that in the beer, but it was a welcome stop after being in the wilderness the past few days. We figured we'd let Jay do his thing for a bit and find him with Trackleaders the next day. We had a great visit with Julie, but were anxious to escape Phoenix's tractor beam, so we loaded up on groceries at Sprouts and hit the road North.
It was fantastic to watch the landscape change as we made our way North. Leaving Phoenix we traded the redrock of Superior for the pines of the Conconino National Forest. Tori was getting restless and wanted to ride some Arizona Trail for herself. Since I was injured we devised a plan where I would drop her off and meet her down the road at Mormon Lake. I wasn't totally in love with the idea of Tori riding a bunch of new trail solo, but she seemed fine with it and had cell reception, so what the hey. I'll see you at the Lake. I made it there in no time and found our agreed upon campsite closed for the season, so I spun a 180 and joined our Canadian bikepacking couple - the same couple from Copper Mountain Hotel in Superior– at the RV Park campground. No Jay P sightings today. Sometimes it works out like that. The next day Tori decided to ride the same bit of trail again while I waited for Jay. We weren't certain he'd stop at Mormon lake, but I had a gut feeling looking at the maps that he'd be lured in by pizza. I had a little wait, but sure enough Jay pops out on the road right by the Mormon Lake Lodge Pizzaria. He ordered a big salad and a large pizza and set to work re-orgainizing his life, checking phone messages, etc. While Jay is checking in with his homelife, I get a call from Tori asking if I can come get her. She fell on some razor sharp rocks, cut her knee and she's pretty sure it requires stitches. So I collect Tori, head back to snap a few more of Jay, we bid him good luck and we head to the Emergency room at Flagstaff Medical Center. Tori has friendly nurses that inform her that knee pads are essential in these parts and they see their fair share of out-of-towners just like her. We settle in to a cheap route 66 hotel and head off to a nice Flagstaff dinner downtown. We need a nice meal to lift the spirits a bit. Jay rolls into Flagstaff pretty late and I go to find him at the Walmart while Tori sleeps. I find him in the aisles in classic resupply mode buying long johns and water. He looks pretty tired. He busies himself in the entryway of the Walmart for a half hour repacking and putting on layers and then is on his way into the night. The next morning we head up to find Jay near Humphrey's Peak, not too far from Snowbowl. It seems like he had a rough, cold night. I can see these ultras are hard even for record-holding veterans like Jay. But Jay has experience with X-terras and he rises to the challenge when it gets hard. He knows how to get out of tough situations and make smart decisions. But even with all of that, I can tell that the AZ Trail Race is a unique challenge even for him. He says as much, but I know quitting is not an option, not till the Utah border. So we take a few photos and send him on his way North again. We won't see him again until the Grand Canyon.
For us, we can't help but play tourist a bit at the Canyon. This is Tori's first visit, so we grab our bikes and pedal the South Rim a bit, stopping to take in new viewpoints, take a few photos. We certainly didn't reserve a hotel, so we find a free BLM land camping spot and settle in for the night. In the morning we track Jay down at an RV park bathroom where he had bivvied overnight (is it still called bivvying if you sleep in a heated bathroom?) Jay is showered and packed and heads to the adjacent convenience store for a breakfast of microwave burritos and chocolate milk. Now that's living! Jay is still in his Walmart long johns as he makes his way towards the trailhead at the South Rim. We find him there and he begins the process of dissasembling his bike, changing clothes, and preparing himself to hike the Canyon South RIm to North Rim. It's not a simple process and it takes a good half hour. Tour buses come and go, tourists stop and gape at this guy with his gear sprawled in the parking lot. Jay has this ability that I appreciate to completely explode the contents of his bags in any public place and have it feel completely normal. It's like he's working and this is his temporary workspace. He takes over for a half hour and then he's gone. I understand that. You have to see what you've got to know where it needs to go. I'm amazed that his bike fits on his Manta 28 pack. It's not really a proper load-bearing backpack, it's just a hydration pack, but he lashes it on with Salsa straps and it seem to make complete sense. And then without missing a beat, Jay's eating an apple and taking selfies on the rim just as happy as anything, ready to begin an adventure within an adventure.
We later find Jay at Jacob Lake Inn and he says how much he enjoyed the hike, since it was the only time in the whole race he was able to look up and enjoy his surrounding and not just being gripped, trying to navigate technical trail on the bike. He eats a burger and fries, buys some cookies–a specialty at the Inn–and heads back outside to pack for the final leg. He's close to the finish now. The sky is threatening and Jay is wearing all of his outerwear. He looks up at the sky while riding road to get a feel for what might happen with the weather. We drive along the pavement for him for a bit, knowing he'll duck into the woods soon to finish the last bit of trail to the Utah border. We'd be there at the border, but the ranger told us not to try the B-roads with any chance of rain. There's a pretty good chance you'll get stuck even with a 4WD vehicle. So we watch him dart into the woods where you can barely make out a trail, but you know he's ready to be done. His wife Tracey has her own ultra to do just north of Jay's finish, and he needs to meet up with her, so he can't linger. All we can do is watch the storm clouds gather and watch Jay's dot on trackleaders until it bounces, letting us know he's made it safely. Nice one Jay! I don't think he broke Kurt's record of 7 days, 6 hours and 35 minutes, but I'm not sure it matters. I'm sure he'll be back…well maybe not…you'd have to ask Jay.