Finding the Breaking Point

Finding the Breaking Point

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.
— Theodore Roosevelt

Over the past few years, I have sort of been building up to harder and harder bikepacking routes finishing Trans North Georgia twice and finishing really well at Stagecoach last year.  Riding in the Anza Borrego desert in Southern California absolutely drew me into the high desert allure and I knew that I had to have more.  This could really only mean one thing......the Arizona Trail.  Last year I had planned on doing the 300 mile version of the route after Stagecoach but with the reschedule and work commitments I just couldn't make it work.  This year I really wanted to go for the whole enchilada but had never put tires on Arizona dirt.  To remedy that, last December I made a 3-day solo trip from Oracle back to Phoenix to get a little exposure.  This was a fantastic trip that gave me a lot of confidence on the route.

Fast forward four months that included a lot of riding, gear selection, and mental preparation I found myself in Tuscon the evening of April 4th a few days before the Friday start of the 2017 Arizona Trail Race.  This gave me a few days to get acclimated to the dry air and to have plenty of time to get my bike together and take care of anything that may come up.  My Santa Cruz Tallboy went together with no problems and I had time to get a couple of shakedown rides in just to make sure everything was all good.  I packed everything I wouldn't be taking with my for the journey into my bike box and sent it to St George.  Totally in self-supported mode now, umbilical cut.

On Thursday afternoon, my buddy Justin Smith whom I had met at Stagecoach last year rolled over to the hotel and we made our way down to the Safeway a few miles away from where the Homegrown MTB shuttles were waiting.  We ran into the grocery to grab any last minute foodstuff and I went across the street to have a good taco lunch at a little Mexican restaurant also ordering a big burrito to go for dinner that night.

The ride down to Parker Canyon lake was pretty uneventful and chill.  I was in a big van with about a dozen people and chatted it up with Phil our shuttle driver most of the way.  We stopped at the lake to drop off the 300 riders then resituated bikes and gear to get the few of us 750 riders down to the border.  Back in the van, we followed the dusty dirt road we would pedal back up the next morning.  It was starting to get real.  Very remote, no services…..just a bunch of dudes with their bikes.  We pedaled the last couple of miles down to the border just to check it out and talk to other riders who were camping next to the wire.

Justin and I had decided that wouldn’t camp at the border as there was a higher chance of border patrol drive-bys through the night making sleeping more difficult.  We found a really chill old cattle corral just up the road that was out of the wind and really quiet.  Both of us sat and at our dinner mostly in silence taking in the first of many incredible sunsets over the Huachuca mountains that formed part of the invisible line between Mexico and the States.  We set up our sleep kits and bedded down in the corral just before the light went out setting alarms for around 5am.  I slept like a rock.

 

Day 1 - Border to Twin Tanks

Rise and shine!  I mixed up some cold instant coffee and packed my sleet kit back into it’s cuben dry bag that fit oh so perfectly into my Revelate Pika seatbag.  Clothes that would be worn for the rest of the route were donned smelling nice a fresh for the last time for a while.  After finishing a breakfast of banana bread and an avocado we rolled back down the road to the border where there were more riders than I expected milling around the area.  Not sure on the exact count but there had to be 30 to 40 of us down there.  Lots of small talk and a little bit of nervous energy.  To my surprise, I didn’t have the jitters and butterflies I had had in previous routes.  Just ready to get rolling into the first of many long days.  Just before 7am Kurt Refsnider said a few words about reroutes that were in play, an update on the Molino fire at the base of Mt Lemmon, and finally a few minutes of silence for Mike Hall who had passed just a week earlier during the Pacific Wheel Race in Australia.

As with most of these races, the start was called with very little fanfare and we were off on a gentle 16 mile gravel road to to Parker Canyon Lake.  Just a few miles in those of us in the front were rolled up on by a couple of vehicles who had dropped riders at the start.  These guys were kicking up so much dust and couldn’t figure out whether then wanted to go fast or slow.  Miles and miles just choking on the haze I was at least happy I had decided to wear a buff to pull up over my face to filter some of the gunk out.  Wendi and I had discovered the simple, multifunctional band of cloth a few years ago in Argentina for the exact same reason.  Dry, dusty gravel roads.  It worked well.

We reached Parker Canyon Lake right at 8:15am only about 15 minutes after the 300s had rolled out.  Lots of cheering and high-fives from Scott Morris and other folks that remained at the start of the shorter route.  Now it was on!  We headed into Canellos East which lived up to its notorious amount of hike-a-bike (HAB) and I quickly caught back up to Justin who had cut his tire about a mile in.  I asked if he had all he needed and he insisted yes so I rolled on.  I knew he’d get it patched up and push back up to the lead group.  After a couple of hours the ups and downs of the East section gave way to a parking lot and trailhead that began the Canellos West passage which was super rideable and had a lot of fun sections.  Sitting a the trailhead was the legendary John Schilling who was having a rough start suffering from the hot day and a little dehydration.  This reminded me to drink early and often.

A little while later the trail opened up to road signifying our first city stop of our route, Patagonia.  I was feeling pretty good so I just stopped long enough to suck down some water and a root beer as the cold Coke’s had been snatched by the quick 300 riders already passing through this section.  I bought one more root beer to fill up my water bottle for the ride to Sonoita then back on the road after chatting a bit with Garrett and others.  About half way to Sonoita both of my abductors start to cramp a little.  What the hell?  This is way too early for this nonsense!  I stopped and added a few Nuun tabs to my bladder and sucked it down while slow pedaling the rest of the east pavement miles into the next town.  I had this exact same problem on Stagecoach last year on the first day.  Abductors on Black Canyon Road…..treated with more electrolytes and never had a single cramp work its way in the rest of the 400 mile route.  Let’s hope this is the same.

Getting to Sonoita I immediately started looking for food.  I found a general store that had plenty of options and piled a bunch of food on the counter over multiple trips and ate a sit down meal with Jeff & Dan.  I put a dill pickle down for extra cramp insurance and then packed up my food and headed out the door.

Heading out of Sonoita you are almost immediate on Santa Rita Road which is a big gravel road heading directly towards Mt Wrightson.  Eventually the gravel cut back onto singletrack which I think was called the Flume trail.  I was blazing down the narrow trail with high grass on both sides having a really good time and then BANG!  My right pedal hit a rock and catapulted me through the air with my right hip finding a rock to land on completely knocking the wind out of me.  I hopped up quick to check myself out.  Nothing major broken, check.  Hip really sore…..yea.  The apple I had in the mesh pocket in my Wingnut pack had completely exploded probably absorbing a good bit of the impact.  Peeked inside of my bibs and there was a good gush of blood coming from my hip.  Looking a little closer it was a pretty deep cut about a half inch wide.  Not fatal, merely a flesh wound.  My handlebars were cocked a good bit so I dug my multitool out from my fix kit and got them straightened out.   Threw my leg over the bike and back onto the trail I went.  I learned long ago to not linger too much in a crash if all critical systems check out.  Get back on the bike.

Not too many miles later I was at Kentucky camp which was a nice stop to grab some water and eat something.  I ran into Jared Harris who told me he was an Army medic and he gave me a little confidence that my hip laceration wasn’t stitch worthy.  Neosporin and bandaids was his prescription.  As I was loading back up a few riders rolled into camp.  There was an unmistakable, upbeat voice in the crowd that could only be Justin.  A bunch of us chatted for a while then Justin and I hit the trail agreeing that the goal tonight was just to make it to wherever midnight took us.  The riding over the next twenty some miles was easy ups and downs into the Santa Rita foothills.  We ended bedding down on the side of the trail just past Twin Tanks.

 

Day 2 - Twin Tanks to Summerhaven

Alarm set for 4am…..up and at em!  The first night of exhausted, restless sleep was pretty bizarre.  Not sure I really slept but I woke up feeling pretty rested and ready to go.  My hip was pretty sort and I could feel it every time I threw my leg over the saddle but didn’t really think much of it.  The morning consisted of really chill desert riding with lots of road crossings.

We stopped in at Colossal Cave to grab some water.  All morning we were craving breakfast burritos and even smelled some bacon rolling through a campground.  There was legend of one of the campground in this section having food but we didn’t find it.  Pressing on into Tucson skirting the Saguaro National Park we went off route to the Safeway to resupply.  Justin rolled a little further into town to get a new rear tire.

I grabbed a shopping basket and started going aisle to aisle shopping for food.  As soon as I walked in I saw Team El Freako (Dan & Jeff) at the registers.  I knew that given our pace we probably wouldn’t hit open services until Oracle so I was planning on packing a pretty heavy food load.  I picked up some peroxide, Neosporin and bandaids and headed to the bathroom to get things cleaned up and patched up.  Sitting in the stall getting down to public bathroom surgery, a voice with authority belted out “Sir, you cannot take a bath in the Safeway bathroom.  We are calling security to have you removed.”  What the fuck?  I pleaded that I was not taking a bath in the stall but just using the restroom.  The voice said the same thing over again.  I looked over the stall door to see my buddy Hart Robinson grinning at me from ear to ear.  What a jerk!  We chatted for a while as I cleaned up talking about his race and having to scratch due to a broken frame which was a total bummer as he was making great time.  I headed outside to eat my lunch of chicken noodle soup and a big sandwich while unpackaging food and repacking it into my backpack.  Justin rolled up with a fresh tire and headed inside to do his shopping.  We chilled for a bit to let food digest and then hit the road.

The next section right out of town was called Reddington Road.  A lot of people said it sucked but I thought it was pretty entertaining on a few fronts.  There were a lot of people out there hiking, riding ATVs and generally having a good time.  It mostly consisted of well graded gravel/dirt roads to the top of the climb.  Towards the top you could see the scarring from the recent Reddington fire which was caused by people shooting guns in the desert.  Evidently the very dry conditions and ricochets are a bad combination in the desert.  It was also a little ironic that there were tons of signs warning people not to shoot given these conditions but there were folks popping off rifles and handguns all the way up the road.  Once we turned off the road onto the Chiva Falls trail the going was pretty chill.  Looping around Italian Trap and the Bellota trails before crossing a small stream and heading up a mile of steep HAB and then hiking down the other side into Molino campground.

Now we knew we were getting close to Lemmon.  We stopped at the entrance to the campground and ate some food chatting with another rider named Keith Tomei who gave us some good intel on the next section of trail.  Once you head into the Molino campground you are right back on singletrack which turned out to be mostly a 2 mile hike before dropping into the Gordon Hirabayshi campground and dumping out onto Catalina Hwy for the long 13 mile paved grind to the Palisades.  Not crazy steep but a consistent 6% grade late into the night.  I stopped in at the Bigelow trailhead to see if there was water at the spigot that was reported broken and to my surprise it was fixed and working!  It was getting cold once I hit around 7500’ and I layered up and down a few times.  I expected the climb to top out at Summerhaven but it felt like mostly a descent into the sleeping city!  The community center bathroom was a nice spot to top off on water and warm up for a few minutes.  A bunch of volunteer firefighters were sleeping there so we tried to keep it quiet.

It was about 1am so Justin and I decided to stay in Summerhaven rather than pushing down Oracle ridge in the dark.  We rolled out of Summerhaven down towards the Oracle Ridge trailhead to look for some shelter from the insanely strong and cold wind pushing over the mountain.  Checked behind a few buildings……really windy.  Finally found a fire department storage shed that was protected from the wind and setup camp.  Really loud night of sleeping but stayed warm and out of the wind plus there was a fire truck in there that somehow made it feel really safe.

 

Day 3 - Oracle Ridge to Ripsey

We woke up early, ate a burrito and hit the infamous Oracle Ridge which consisted of really sketchy rock sections, massive deadfall and overgrowth to push through was the recipe for the morning.  A few miles in we saw Garrett bivvied literally on the side of the trail and immediately noted that there was zero wind here and wished we would have known the same!

It took us about 2.5 hours to net 6 miles of this HAB section with limited riding but finally yielded to much more rideable singletrack and the American Flag trailhead.  I knew we were getting close to Oracle!  Around 2pm we rolled into Oracle just a couple of miles off route for a big resupply at Circle K to push past Picketpost and a much deserved late breakfast.  The folks at Oracle Patio Cafe were so welcoming to all of the stinky bikepackers that made there way through that day.  Incredible food and lots of to-go options.

Back on trail I immediately remembered the fun of the Black Hills passage starting from the Tiger Mine trailhead.  Fantastic high desert riding!  We hit Freeman Road which is a big mental boost on this segment around 10:30p.  Grabbed some water, read the Hewitt Station Rd reroute and got back on the trail.  The next 15 miles was pretty easy riding heading towards Ripsey Wash.  We decided to push till around 1am making camp just short of the wash and the Big Hill.  It would be nice to hit this section fresh in the morning.

 

Day 4 - Ripsey to Gold Canyon

The alarm came early and I was very slow to get started this morning.  Could have really used an extra hour of sleep.  It was great at this point to have an accountability partner to force me out of my bivy.  A little more downward trending wash riding to start the day before pushing up The Big Hill (AKA Ripsey……I think).  Somewhere on the way up Justin pulled away from me but I was so stoked to get to the top of the ridge and take in all of the awesome riding in this section.  Fast, flowy ridge riding at its best!

The Florence/Kelvin trailhead came up and I got a little turned around looking for the route but made my way to another short section that lead to the bridge that crossed the Gila.  From the trip last December I knew there was the maintenance yard just off route that had a nice freshwater spigot.  This was very welcome as it was starting to heat up and I knew what was in front of me.  The Gila River section of trail was as much fun as I remember it but also much looser than it was after fresh rain in my scouting trip last winter.  Many more miles in the legs also meant more HAB.  This was the section where I realized that a smaller ring up front would probably be a better idea.

It really started to get hot towards the end of the Gila section and I knew I would need a lot of water to get up Alamo Canyon so I pulled 2 liters out of the river and treated with a few aquamira tablets and some Nuun to cut the dirty flavor.  The cool, fast flowing water was also a good invitation to take my socks and shoes off and wash off my filthy feet.  I remembered there being a cache just past the fence at the top of the mountain but also knew that it was very unreliable.  Just about the time the trail turned dead north towards Alamo Canyon, I ran into Mike DeBernardo and we chatted a bit about water sources and the next segment.

Up very steep, loose grades with mostly HAB for the next 10 miles taking about 4 hours into Alamo Canyon was just what I remembered it only much, much hotter.  My Garmin read in excess of 100F on a few occasions.  The surroundings were stunning and made you feel very small.  Winding trail through endless inner canyons finally pushing over a saddle which felt like it opened up to the outside.  Somewhere in the canyon I caught up to Dan Holmes who was hurting for water but was pulling and filtering from stock tanks and cow ponds.

Once I hit the gate where I had a nice lunch last year I knew the hardest of this segment was behind me.  Only about 12 miles of mostly downhill to Picketpost!  The cache box under the shady tree was gone and I was relieved that I didn’t bank on getting water from it.  Doing some quick math I realized that I would not make it to the Fitz Stop in Queen Valley before they closed.  This was really the only services before getting into the shopping center after Gold Canyon.  I called the store and asked if they would take an order over the phone and the nice lady was very happy to help out.  Gatoraid and frozen burritos were now my motivation!

The push into Picketpost was much longer, harder and technical than I had remembered…..I was excited to get there but was really fading fast.  Dan and Mike passed me but I kept pushing.  I could see cars on US60 but the trailhead seemed to still be so far away.  It sort of sneaks up on you though…..before I knew it I was there and John Schilling was there to greet me and snap a very exhausted photo.  I happily took a cold Coke from Arturo and headed to the pit toilet to warm up and put on a few layers for the push to Gold Canyon.  I hung around for a while to rest and chat with a few other finishing racers before taking the Option #2 detour around Hewitt Station Rd……not sure if anyone took Option #1.

Lots of relieving, fast asphalt carried me into Queen Valley where I was so stoked to see my care package sitting on a bench outside of the Fitz Stop.  I loaded up water, Gatorade, burritos and a few bars then continued to push on into Gold Canyon.  All of these roads were very familiar including the “No Trespassing” gate at the Land Trust boundary that made me nervous about being shot or arrested last December.  This time I was very confident and armed with a land trust permit.  These roads were easy miles but I decided to camp just after midnight rather than pushing into the Gold Canyon singletrack.  Justin and I texted back and forth a few times and was miles ahead of me.  We were going to try and catch up in the AM but I knew that I needed a little more sleep than I had gotten in previous nights.

 

Day 5 - Gold Canyon to Payson

I took almost 6 hours of sleep in Gold Canyon and woke up feeling great!  Packed up, chatted with a couple walking their dog and headed out on the mostly untraveled gravel roads.  A five mile warm-up lead into a section of singletrack that was a little difficult to find but so, so worth it.  A great way to start the morning on fun, flowy and not terribly challenging desert trail that dumped into high-end suburbia telling me I was close to a much needed resupply.

I resupplied at Basha’s with enough food to get me to Payson then headed over to Gold Canyon Cafe to have a big breakfast and a chat with Mike as he was heading out.  I spent some time looking at the day ahead of me over a big breakfast burrito and an order of biscuits & gravy.  Lots of road on tap for today.

Soft pedaling out to town to allow my food to digest I came upon a trailhead that I didn’t really expect.  5 miles of the Jacob’s Crosscut trail that skirted the western edge of Flatiron mountain started out pretty damn frustrating with lots of big rocks and boulders to negotiate but once you found the groove it was actually a very fun section of trail.  Exiting the Crosscut trail system onto road I had my first unsolicited blue dot stalker moment.  A little white car was rolling towards me and stopped asking if I was Jason.  I uncomfortably said yes and they nice couple explained that they were locals tracking the race.  We chatted for a few minutes, they took a picture and I thanked them for supporting the racers.  Such a strange but cool interaction!

This lead out onto Apache Trail which was a nice rolling asphalt road passing the first of a few lakes before running into a funky little western town looking roadside called Tortilla Flat.  The day was really starting to heat up so I stopped here to eat some ice cream and a soda while loading up both of my 2.5L bladders with ice, water, and Gatorade to try and keep things cool.

Apache Trail turned to beautifully wide graded gravel roads with more rollers and awesome lake view vistas.  I made quite a few stops to cool off and eat along the way.  My right IT band was starting to get tight on some of the bigger climbs so I took the opportunity to stretch and take my icy bladder out of my backpack to cool it down.  Finally, in the last bend in the road, the backside of the Roosevelt Dam was in plain sight and the gravel turned back to tarmac.  Climbing a quick switchback to an overlook I stopped to go to the bathroom and eat a small meal.  A really nice couple vacationing from the UK offered my a few bottles of cold water which I happily took.

Looking at the time I started to wonder whether anything would be open in Tonto Basin.  I knew there were a few restaurants that way but knew it would be pretty tight.  I called Wendi to check in and Justin had sent me a message saying that there was a bar with great burgers in Tonto.  I called the place to check hours and they said the kitchen would be open till 8pm.....no problem.  Once over the bridge and cruising along Roosevelt the going was pretty easy.  A flat 18 mile time trial got me into Punkin Center Bar with time to spare.  I ordered a burger with double fries and a chocolate milk which disappeared pretty quickly.  I grabbed two big pancakes for the road and loaded back up to push into Payson.

10 miles continuing 188 on asphalt wasn’t all that bad but then the route headed off on a horrible gravel road for 8 miles and before crossing Hwy 87 near Rye and heading up another tough section of gravel with a lot of hiking.  Back on 87 for a while, one more gravel stretch, a casino and then finally the city of Payson which turned out to be a really tough 30 mile stretch that absolutely gutted me.  I found a Budget Inn that was in the same parking lot as a 24 hour Denny’s and my body was telling me that I needed to get some real sleep.  I grabbed a Grand Slam to go, took a shower, rinsed my clothes in the sink, and passed out at about 2am.

 

Day 6 - Payson to Pine

I woke up at 6am and went back to sleep for two hours.  Woke again and felt pretty horrible but got dressed and packed my bike.  I walked over to Denny’s and got a table to eat a big breakfast.  I took a picture of my face to send to my wife and was surprised to see it totally blown out swollen.  What the hell happened to my body?  Everything was swollen and tight.  Legs, arms, face, fingers.  Not good.  I ate my eggs, hash browns, bacon and pancakes……then ordered a second order of pancakes.

I stopped by a local bike shop and grabbed a few tubes of Nuun and rolled north out of town in a complete haze heading towards Pine.

Less than a 30 mile ride from Payson to Pine……no problem, right?  I had zero energy heading into this segment and quite frankly do no remember much of it other than a very pretty trail that wound through some sort of forest neighborhood past a private gate.  Oak Springs trail maybe?  Following the trail was a little tough at times and there were some very overgrown sections.  Lots and lots of HAB on this segment where I basically left all of my emotions on the trail.  It was a very tough and discouraging day.

My right knee was screaming all day long and it was a relief to finally hit pavement after 6.5 hours of very, very slow going.  Less than a mile into Pine I saw the infamous That Brewery on the left and I was in need of some food.  I ordered some mac & cheese, chili and a beer.  While sitting there contemplating life and what I needed to do to try to get this train back on the tracks I initially thought it was a hallucination but it turned out to be Dan Holmes rolling towards the brewery patio towards me.  It was great to see another racer but a bummer to hear that he was dropping after losing a pivot bolt in his rear triangle.

I spent a good bit of time talking to Wendi about the status of my deteriorating knee and the inability to make power on the bike regardless of how much food I put in my body. We decided that I needed a really good night sleep to try and get this swelling down and some glycogen replenishment.  Pine did not have any hotels but there were some nice B&Bs.  We found a room at the Beeline Guest House and I made my way down the hill to meet up with Patrick the innkeeper.  I got checked in, cleaned up, ate a Mountain House meal I had been lugging around as emergency food and got to bed by 9pm.  The plan was to sleep as long as I could.

 

Day 7 - Pine to the Rim

I woke up at 8am actually feeling pretty good.  Packed up, got dressed and headed downstairs for a very fine breakfast with other guests of the house.  It was nice to talk to some other people and tell the story of the AZT.  I asked Patrick if I could pack a few leftovers from breakfast and made my way out the door to resupply.  On the way out of town, I hit up the Ponderosa Market and bought around 4000 calories which was what I calculated as my need to get to Mormon Lake.  I knew that the next section was the infamous 19 mile section of the Highline Trail which I sort of reconciled as a 100% hike to level-set my expectations.

Riding back up the road towards the trail my knee was already starting to scream at me but it was great to be outside in the sunshine getting a relatively late start to the day.  Getting to the Pine Trailhead there was a great description and history of the Highline Trail.  It stated that the trail was 50 miles long……wait, what?  Checked cue and maps.  Realized that the AZT only follows part of the Highline before shooting north to the rim just above Washington Park.  Relief.

Early on it appeared that there was a lot of work being done on the trail.  Nice new singletrack headed north just a mile or so in so I followed it.  Off Course.  Doubled back to try and find the AZT and I couldn’t find it.  Headed back up the new single track thinking maybe it was a new reroute or the GPX file was off.  A mile up the new dirt and nope…..no way this could be it.  Made my way back down to where I came back across the track and looked around.  Off in the scrub on the side of the trail, I saw a wooden sign.  Got it!  After pushing through some brush the trail picked right back up.

Highline was a whole lot of hiking as advertised with rideable sections here and there.  My knee was hurting with every step but it was a pretty day and the weather was quite a bit cooler.  About half way into the passage I hit Webber Creek which was blanketed on both sides with Periwinkle and a very welcome sight.  I pulled my shoes and socks off and knelt in the shallow creek to ice my knee.  I refilled my water bottle, treated with an aquamira tab, and ate some food.

The next section was about the same pushing and riding to Washington Park.  Once I turned up on the powerline things got a little confusing but I managed to find my way up the steep grades eventually making it to a sign marking the Tunnel Trail which was spelled out on the cues as the final rocky switchback push to get up to the rim.  Crazy step ledges finally gave way to a road and a very cold breeze.

Once at the top I gave Wendi a call and chatted with Jeff Zee for a bit.  He was planning on camping next to a cabin down the road but I wanted to push a few more miles into the trail.  Things were very well marked with carsonite signs but the trail was not well worn and very difficult to follow in the very dark night.  At around 7500 feet in dense pine forest it wasn’t surprising to see a couple of patches of snow here and there.  After just a few miles of pushing I got tired of losing the trail and pushing around deadfall and decided to just bed down for the night next to the trail behind an old fallen tree.  It was pretty cold but I slept warm and well.

 

Day 8 - Rim to Happy Jack

I woke up just before daybreak to a throbbing knee but the goal today was just to get to Mormon Lake to resupply…..only like 50 miles, no problem.  Honestly, the rest of the day was just pretty miserable with a lot of emotional low points.  I ate constantly trying to build some energy but was working into the bottom of my food.  I budgeted enough food for a pace I wasn’t able to keep.  I pushed a lot, the forest roads were just rocks and rocks…..very demoralizing in my current state.  I made the decision to take the Happy Jack snow reroute hoping that spending some time spinning on the road would do some good for my knee and energy but it just wasn’t getting any better.

I talked to Wendi and decided to lay down on the side of Lake Mary Road to contemplate life, regain some energy and think about whether or not I could realistically finish in my current state.  After dosing for a while I got back on the road heading north to Flagstaff and started hitchhiking.  Within about 30 minutes I really nice guy named Terrance picked me up on his way into the city.  I called Wendi and had her find me a room in town.  Terrance dropped me off at the Courtyard and offered to drag me back out to Lake Mary in the morning I’d like.

I got cleaned up, ordered some food, and thought long and hard about the past eight days.  At the pace I was able to maintain for the past three days it would take me about another week which I didn’t have, to finish the route.  I was not very confident at all that I would be able to hike the Grand Canyon with my swollen knee so Wendi and I decided that this was just not going to be the year.  I called Lynda to chat it over and talk about the week.  Immediately a weight was lifted off of my shoulders.  I hated Arizona and never wanted to return.

 

After

The next day I grabbed some clothes at REI then spent the day eating and sleeping.  So tired and so hungry.  I would get winded just walking up a flight of stairs.  On Easter Sunday I rented a car and headed up to St George to pick Wendi up from the airport.  The original extrication plan was for her to rent a car and come pick me up at the border. I had to stop a few times on the drive north around the canyon to take naps but the surrounding were so incredible.  Big valleys and painted stacks of red mountains.

Seeing Wendi at the airport was awesome.  It was crazy to think it was almost two weeks since I had seen her.  We hopped in the car and headed towards Zion for some rest and adventure.  Great meal in Springdale and an awesome night sleep.  The next day we headed into Zion to do some exploring and light hiking up to the emerald pools.  I was still getting winded pretty quick on the ascents and my knee was still pretty painful but now at least supported with a brace.  We had another nice meal in Springdale and once again I slept about 10 hours.

On Tuesday we ate breakfast, loaded up and headed back over to St George to stop by Lynda’s house to pack up my bike and grab some lunch.  It was great to finally meet and spend some time with the coach I had been working with for the past couple of years.  We talked a little about the race and a lot about life.  After lunch we headed south for a quick trip to the Grand Canyon.  The drive took us through Jacob Lake which, of course, is on the route and we drove over to the AZT where it picks up north of town.  It was nice to take Wendi to a little section of trail.  We continued south stopping by Marble Canyon to throw some rocks off the bridge before making our way to the Grand Canyon.  We stopped in the village to grab some sandwiches for dinner and to do a little recon on the services that were available before heading down to the South Kaibab trailhead.  Putting foot on this trail was a little emotional as it was the route I was supposed to be hiking.  We hiked a few miles down the well worn and absolutely incredibly architected trail.  It was very painful confirmation that I made the right decision.  Every step down hurt and the walk back up completely gassed me.  No way I could have done it with another 50 pounds on my back.  I was grateful for being able to spend time with Wendi in this beautiful place for the first time even though it wasn’t the original plan.

After a lot of thinking, many conversations and writing over the subsequent weeks, I have the two problems mostly decoded.  The knee issue was likely aggravated by the crash I had on the first day.  The spot on my hip that took the brunt of the fall and busted wide open is right where your IT band attaches on the iliac crest.  The swelling in that area likely caused the band to tighten up and cause the infamous rubbing on the outside of the knee that feels like a knife being stabbed into your leg.  This irritation caused swelling that moved medial which started causing my patella to run off track adding to the pain and swelling.  Ice helped temporarily but two weeks later there is still a little swelling left but the pain has subsided.

The second issue I faced was the whole body swelling which was likely caused by underfeeding.  Before AZTR I had only done races in the 3 day range where you can dig yourself into a pretty deep nutritional hole but not feel the effects of it.  Longer format races do not offer you that much buffer.  For the first four days I was eating pretty close to plan during the day (~250/cal/hr) but was not filling the tank enough in the evenings or during resupply stops.  There were also a few really hot days like Alamo Canyon and Apache Trail that I just didn’t eat enough due to lack of appetite and palate fatigue.  I was also craving a lot of sweets and having a tough time eating salty foods which drove me into a sodium deficiency.

So……next year.  Yes, next year…..I will basically follow the same plan with a few tweaks including a much more prescriptive and aggressive nutrition plan.  It will also help to have some first hand knowledge of the route (which is all downhill, flowy and fun, BTW) and the resupplies along the way.

AZTR Pack List - Cockpit / Lighting / Backpack

AZTR Pack List - Cockpit / Lighting / Backpack

Here is what my overall setup for the AZTR looked like with some details on cockpit, electronics and the Wingnut pack I used.  Looking back it was a pretty dialed setup having no problems at all.  I actually ended up using the bladder capacity in my pack much, much more than I anticipated to get me through some pretty hot, dry sections like Apache Trail and Alamo Canyon.

Full race report will be posted in the next week!

AZTR Pack List - Hygiene Kit

AZTR Pack List - Hygiene Kit

When talking to another cyclist about bikepacking multi-day routes one of the first questions that typically comes up is "How many extra sets of bibs do you take?" or "Where do you take a shower?". For most of us, the answer is "none" and "when I get back home".  Dirtbag life for sure but this doesn't mean that we are able to neglect basic hygiene and most importantly taint maintenance.  Things can go wrong pretty quick if you let bacteria take hold in your nether regions.

Here is what is my typical hygiene kit which is beefed up a bit for the Arizona trail.

Once again.....I try to keep all similar things in the same location as I talked about in the first post.  For my hygiene kit I use a Revelate Designs Jerrycan which mounts at the intersection of the top tube and seat tube.....right below the region which it supports.

Clockwise from the top left:

  • Jerrycan previously mentioned
  • Ziplock with single use toothbrushes.  I think they are called Wisps.  Also a little packet of Chamois Butter for variety.
  • Small microfiber towel for cleaning glasses and other stuff.
  • Packet of sunscreen.  Packs really small.
  • One of the little tubs has Skin Sake which is my most favorite chamois cream.  The is really thick, full of zinc oxide and stays where you put it.  I really only use a cream if there is a lot of moisture either from rain or heavy sweating.
  • The second tub has Noxema cream in it.  I normally get weird looks and comments when I share this but I find that this is a miracle salve for keeping bacteria at bay.  Wipe a little on your sensitive bits before you bed down for some sleep and you will wake up feeling fresh and clean.  It is also good to clean up a dirty chamois and of course to wash your face if getting a little crusty.
  • Visine to help out dry or itchy eyes.
  • Advil to help with any aches and pains that flare up.  I am going to start playing with turmeric/curcumin as a more liver/kidney-friendly option.
  • Lanacane for when shit gets really bad.  This stuff will numb the pain associated with extreme chaffing and bad saddle sores.  A must have in any bikepackers kit.
  • Packet of wet wipes to clean up after the morning constitutional.  Keeping it clean is key to keeping the red ass at bay.

All of this weighs in at around 3/4 of a pound.  Not bad to ensure an enjoyable ride.

What do you keep in your hygiene kit?

AZTR Pack List - Fix Kit

AZTR Pack List - Fix Kit

When venturing into the backcountry, you stop measuring the distance from civilization in miles but rather days.  Given the remote nature of the long routes some of us choose to undertake it becomes not just a matter of a good finish time but survival to have the skills and kit to get yourself out of a sticky situation.

Below is really what I would really consider my standard fix kit for going on long, multi-day rides.  I have sort of curated it from ideas gathered talking to a lot of other bikepackers and touring cyclists as well as supplementing over time with little bits that would have helped me out of a tough spot.  I can say that I have used every single piece of kit in this list in some form or fashion.

For the longest time I just crammed all of my fix kit into the far reaches of a frame bag but over the past year I have been working to try and keep things in their tidy little places.  Like I mentioned in the first installation of this series, it saves so much time if you know right where something is rather than having to pull everything thing out of every bag to get to that one little piece.  Fix kit stuff is not all that fragile and doesn't really mind getting a little damp.  I envisioned being able to put it somewhere low and out of the way.  I finally stumbled on a bag made by Rogue Panda out of Flagstaff called the Oracle that was designed just for this need.  Attached to the downtube and sized just perfectly for my needs.

It has two straps that cinch around the frame, a horseshoe zipper that opens it wide and a thirds strap that secures the contents.

Inside I keep most of this stuff:

  • 2oz Stans bottle filled with Orange Seal.  Can use this to either top off a tire that has blown through some sealant when filling a puncture or to fill up one of those tubes that I keep in my seat bag if things really go sideways.  It should be noted that this is a very important reason to carry tubes that have a removable valve core.
  • Tire levers.  Pedros are nice and durable.
  • A rag for wiping down your chain and a 1/2oz eye drop bottle filled with Pro Gold Extreme.
  • Zipties because you can never have too many zipties.
  • A standard tube repair kit with a spare derailleur hanger and a pack of glueless patches.
  • Crank Bros multitool with chainbreak and spoke wrench.  Note on this.  Make sure your multitool works on all of the fasteners on your bike.  Test it, then test it again.
  • FiberFix Spoke.  This little kevlar emergency spoke.  I have not had to use this but have heard good things about it.  I have had a pretty bad run on spokes in the past year and this seemed prudent.
  • An old brake pad box with lots of goodies that I will detail below.
  • Bontrager AirSupport HV pump.  I love this pump and I have put more strokes into it than I care to admit.  I choose not to carry any CO2 inflator stuff with me because they hold a finite amount of air.  A pump will work until your arm gives out.  I also keep a few yards of duct tape wrapped around the shaft of the pump.  Note that I keep this in my backpack, not in the downtube bag.

Inside that little brake pad box (which just happens to be the perfect size) is all this stuff:

  • Shift cable.
  • 3x 12 speed quick links.
  • Heavy curved upholstery needle and some light braided cord.  I keep this in a little fold of cardboard taped up to keep it from poking me or something else.
  • Lots of little bits back up at the top right.  Bolts for all kinds of things, a replacement valve core, chainring bolts and an extra Time ATAC cleat.
  • A couple of 2032 batteries.  Fits my power meter, heart rate monitor and a few of my blinkies.
  • A length of 12 speed chain.
  • Two sets of Shimano brake pads.
  • Valve core removal tool.
  • Genuine Innovations plug kit.  Priceless when you have a cut that is proving tough to fix with sealant but not quite big enough to require sewing.
  • Park Tire Boot

I have also recently started stashing some spare spokes (2x of each length) in my seatpost.  I either saw this posted somewhere or had a dream about it.  In the past I had just taped them to the top tube on my Ti hardtail but since getting this fine carbon Santa Cruz Tallboy I wasn't to excited about metal on carbon.  To pull off the seatpost trick I just cut down a few pieces of foam and jammed them in the seatpost then stabbed the spokes through the foam.  This past weekend I rode 180 miles of pretty rough trails and they did not budge.

I get asked a lot about the tire sewing thing.  Before racing Dirty Kanza a few years ago, my friend John Karrasch recommended that I put a needle and thread in my fix kit to be able to sew up a tire if it were to be cut by the sharp rocks that the Flint Hills are notorious for.  I thought he was crazy.  2015 Kanza was a little muddy so I decided to run a narrower but unarmored tire in the rear which I ended up slicing around mile 35 which completely blew my race plan but let me limp the tire along to the first checkpoint in Madison at mile 70 to get a fresh wheel.  Last December on an Arizona Trail recon trip I sliced an Ikon dragging my rear wheel over a sharp rock on the first day of a three-day trip.  No problems getting that repaired casing through the next 100+ miles.

Kurt Refsnider also just recently wrote a great article over on Bike that is definitely worth a read.  http://www.bikemag.com/fully-loaded-bikepacking/backcountry-bike-repair

Bottom line....learn how to fix your bike.  Are there things you carry in you fix kit that you wouldn't leave home without?  I am always interested in hearing others stories of overcoming backcounty odds.

My most favorite and ingenious story is my friend Brendan Collier using two tent stakes, some tape and paracord to keep his crankset together on the Baja Divide this year.  Brilliant!

Next up I will cover my AZTR cockpit including water, food and hygiene.

AZTR Pack List - Sleep Kit

AZTR Pack List - Sleep Kit

For anyone that has gotten into long format racing understands the importance of having a very dialed kit.  There are many factors to this including:

  • Weight - The scale is your friend when it comes to making decisions about what stays and what goes.  Grams add up to pounds but gear gets exponentially more expensive as the weight drops.  Personal budget and personal comfort play a big part into this equation.  Do you need three pairs of gloves for different conditions or can you get away with two?  Do you need a toothbrush and toothpaste?  All personal decisions that affect the overall weight of your rig.  Just remember that you have to pedal those pounds up climb after climb.
  • Balance - Handlebar bags, seat bags, frame bags.....oh my!  The cool thing about rolling up to the start of a bikepacking race is that every single bike looks and is set up differently.  I personally like to keep as much of my weight low in a frame bag (EG - water is heavy) and most of the weight tipped towards the rear of the bike to improve descending performance.
  • Location - Always put everything in the same place.  Again.....always put everything in the same place.  Get in a good routine when you are setting your bike up and you will never guess where you stuck that wool beanie or headlamp.  You will conserve so much time and stress if you start to develop muscle memory around locating gear while on the bike.

The sleep kit I am rolling is a bit different for the Arizona Trail Race than other races I have done like TNGA or Stagecoach given the length of the race and the wildly swinging conditions.  Previous routes I have done were relatively short finishing in three days or less.  You can push pretty deep into lack of sleep or comfort for a couple of days.  AZTR is a different beast.  I am shooting for a 8-10 day finish which I believe will require quality albeit short sleeps every night to finish the route.

I am using my good old Pika seat bag to pack my sleep kit.  This is the smaller of the two seat bags made by Revelate and it is just the right size for my gear on this trip.

Weighing in at just over 6 lbs fully loaded it is a very dense pack.  The little pocket on top is what Revelate calls their Sprocket.  It is a nice little mesh bag where I keep my Spot tracker and my plastic baggie with cash & credit cards.  I have read countless stories where people have lost their Spots and this give me some peace of mind knowing that it is secure and I can see those little blinky lights.  It is also in a good position to get satellite reception.

Inside there is just a bit more than just my sleep kit.  Bottom to top the pack goes like this:

  • First aid kit - Pretty minimal.  Bandaids, moleskin, paracord & quickclot.
  • 2x 29er tubes  with removable cores.
  • Thin lined running shorts and a Craft base layer.  I really like having a light pair of shorts to sleep in and the base layer probably won't make it's way out till the North Rim.
  • Cuben stuff sack with sleep kit.
  • Alpkit down jacket.

    Inside that waterproof cuben bag you will find:

    • Mountain Laurel Designs Superlight Bivy.  I really love this bag.  Super lightweight (7.5oz), fairly breathable, water resistant (NOT waterproof), dries really fast and has a little shock cord that you can tie up to keep the bivy off your face.  The other cool thing is that the owner Ron Bell is happy to customize your bag to your liking.
    • Klymit Intertia Ozone pad.  Blows up in 5 breaths, super comfortable for a side sleeper and a built in pillow.  I have tried a few different inflatable pads and I sleep like a rock on this thing.  It is also very affordable compared to other nice pads.
    • Zpaks 30F down bag.  I actually just picked this bag up to stay warm for the AZT.  This past weekend I slept in it on an overnighter and stayed toasty wearing just those thin running shorts and a base layer.  Pretty sure you could easily sleep down to 20F adding a few layers or clothes.

    That is a LOT of stuff in a pretty small bag.  I have unpacked and repacked this kit and haven't had a problem piecing it all together.  Note that as I mentioned above.....location is key.  The order of the gear going into the bag is well thought out.  My down jacket will go in last on the top of the bag.  That is to make it easy to get to if things get cold.  I will also have a secondary location to stuff this jacket in my Wingnut pack.  Next is the sleep kit.  When I get into camp this will be the first thing that comes out and gets setup letting the down feathers fluff up a bit.    Next is that baggie with my shorts and baselayer.  I will get into those clothes after my sleep kit is setup.  The first aid kit and tubes go into the nose of the bag in hopes that they will never come out.

    Next week I will break apart the Rouge Panda Oracle downtube bag that I stash all of my fix kit into.  Thanks for reading along.  Let me know if you have any questions or suggestions!

    Winter Rehab Warmer

    Winter Rehab Warmer

    Over the past couple of years, I have become a big fan of mixing up a few scoops of CarboRocket Rehab with some whole milk or almond milk to get some calories and protein in my body after a hard workout.  Brad and team have made a great product that mixes very easy and tastes awesome.  Two scoops give you 16g protein plus 5g L-Glutamine and 4g of BCAAs.  Glutamine is great amino acid for muscular recovery as well as documented benefits to help bolster the immune system after long, intense efforts.

    This winter I came up with an awesome way to get these nutrients in your body on a cold day.  Wendi and I love our coffee which seemed to be a perfect delivery vehicle.  Mixing two scoops of Rehab into a doubleshot of espresso and topping in a big mug with steamed milk produces the best mocha you've ever had.  I have also substituted standard drip or french pressed coffee with essentially the same effect.

    If you want to give it a try, Brad over at CarboRocket has offered a 20% discount to you guys.  Just use the code 'REHAB20' at checkout.

    Enjoy!

    3 Nights in the Desert

    3 Nights in the Desert

    In 2017 I have decided that I am going to focus on just a couple of big events and probably pepper in a few others for fun.  The first big thing for this year is the Arizona Trail Race.  For those that have never heard of it, there are two versions.  One is around 300 miles and runs from just north of the Mexico border and ends east of Phoenix.  The other is somewhere between 750 and 800 miles starting right on the Mexico border and ending at the Utah border.  I am doing the latter.

    Final route up the AZT

    Final route up the AZT

    Having no more experience with desert riding that what I was exposed to at Stagecoach last year, Lynda and I thought it would be a good idea to get an easy recon ride in before we started buckling down into training mode.  She recommended riding from Oracle to Picketpost which would amount to about 100 miles of trail.  For a few months, I wrestled with different options to make logistics as simple as possible.  First I thought I would ride a loop starting from Phoenix taking highways down to Oracle then head back on on the AZT racking.  Then I thought I would go big flying into Tucson and riding to Phoenix.  Both of these options were 200+ miles and would take way more time than I had available for a scouting trip.  I finally decided to just fly into Phoenix, shuttle to Oracle and ride back up on the trail racking up around 140 miles total.

     

    Preparation

    From the reading I have done I found that most folks are riding full suspension bikes on the big route.  I have never owned a FS bike but had been doing a good bit of research and test riding over the past couple of years.  Back in November I picked up a Santa Cruz Tallboy after demoing it at the factory in California and only had the chance to get a few local rides on it before throwing it in a box and shipping it to Jones Two Wheel in Gilbert, AZ.  My goal with this 100 mile stretch was to break it up into about three days at a super mellow pace taking all the food I would need to get by without going off route.  I have backpacked with a stove and real food before but have never taken these luxuries on a bikepacking trip.  Calculating calorie requirements is something I have gotten somewhat proficient with over the past few of years of multiday trips and actually really enjoy nerding out on.  For this trip I put a lot of focus on eating real food and minimizing robot food.

    Number games

    Number games

    The only other missing link in planning this trip was getting from the hotel in Gilbert down to Oracle.  Worst case I had planned on summoning an unsuspecting Uber driver to haul me and my bike 100 miles southeast.  As fate would have it, a local friend of mine named Robert Lee was actually wrapping up a visit with family in the Phoenix area as I was arriving in town.  He graciously offered to dump me at a gas station in Oracle on his way to Tucson.  This was such a huge stress relief.  Now all I had to do was ride and eat.  A week out from my departure and my bike was en route, bags packed, ready to roll.

     

    Day -1

    Early AM flight out of Jackson to Phoenix on Thursday, December 15th.  I was super relieved to see that my bike had made it to the shop and gave them a call to confirm on my layover in Atlanta.  Getting into Phoenix I took an Uber to the hotel in Gilbert, grabbed a bite to eat and walked down to the bike shop to get things put together.  Ray and the guys at Jones Two Wheel were super awesome.  They gave me a little corner to put things together and we swapped some stories.  Robert met me there and we piled my bike into the back of his truck to get back to the hotel.  Eat, sleep, wake-up.

     

    Day 1

    Great night sleep.  Ate, put on the clothes I'd be wearing for a few days then loaded back into the truck.  Driving down to Oracle I was super relaxed and enjoyed easy conversation with Robert.  About halfway there I realized I had forgotten my cheese in the hotel fridge.  I had daydreamed about lunching on crackers, cheese and sausage.  Totally shattered.

    We cruised through the tiny town of Oracle which rested in the shadows of Mt Lemmon looking for a good place to dump me.  I was interested looking for replacement cheese and maybe eating a second breakfast before heading out.  Circle K right across from a tiny Mexican restaurant open for breakfast.  Perfect.  Cheese was secured and all was right in the world.  Robert and I said our goodbyes then I headed across the street to eat the best chorizo breakfast burrito EVAR.  So good.  Hopefully the grease bomb wouldn't explode a few miles into trail.  I waited until Wendi landed in NYC on a business trip so I could talk to her before heading out for a few days of possibly no cell coverage.

    This isn't how you do it

    This isn't how you do it

    I pedaled out of town towards the Tiger Mine trailhead which was the southern terminus of the Black Hills Passage.  Drive train was acting super clunky doing a weird ghost shift every couple of pedal rotations.  I thought maybe it just needed a little adjustment so I turned the barrel to the extent both ways with no improvement.  I pulled off the side of the road to try to diagnose.  The group I had picked out for this bike was SRAMs new 12 speed Eagle setup which I had really liked on the few rides I had gotten in before this trip.  Totally frustrated not being able to figure out the problem I finally noticed something as I was running my hand across the chain.  The new 12 speed quicklink which holds the two ends of the chain together has an arc in it presumably to give it a better ride over the tiny 10 tooth small cog on the cassette.  Given its shape, you can only properly install it in one direction.  I didn't do that.  I tried separating the link with a pair of leatherman pliers but ended up having to push the pin out and replacing with a new quicklink in the correct orientation.  Back on the road, no more clunking.

    In just a few miles I arrived at the Tiger Mine trailhead.  It was a large parking lot and there was no mistaking where the trail began.  Super excited and a little nervous, I pushed my bike over the rail and pedaled into the unknown.  This afternoon I was sort of treating like a bonus day.  I had given myself all day to get here in case there were some delays or unexpected setbacks so I was really stoked to be on the trail.  The goal today was to make it to the Freeman Road trailhead which was about 27 miles to the north.  Desert trail was so much different than what I was accustom to in the southeast.  No dirt, just rocks.  Big rocks, little rocks and pumice sand in the washes.  Following trail was pretty easy as it was well worn and very well marked with both standard brown carsonite signs as well as man-made cairns which sometimes were stacked every couple hundred feet.  The Arizona trail has 43 passages in total each ranging from 10 to 36 miles.  Black Hills was passage #14 and I had planned on riding through passage #17.  Each section sort of has its own personality.

    Getting better at this than I care to admit

    Getting better at this than I care to admit

    The Black Hills sort of gently went up and down giving a good intro to riding desert rock.  Around mile 16 the trail dropped into a big wash that was pretty easy to find your through following the tire tracks of others.  For those not familiar with the term "wash", it essentially a dry creek bed typically filled with pumice sand.  Although they are normally dry, this is where all of the runoff from rain typically flows and you can see old striations through the wash where water has once run.  Climbing out of the wash I made my way up another set of hills and then down a few steep drops with sharp rocks.  On this descent I heard that sound of air escaping a tire.....a sound you really never want to hear.  I stopped and checked it out.  Big cut in the sidewall of my rear tire.  Luckily I have been here before and knew how to handle it.  I found a shady spot and proceeded to put a few stitches into a nice half inch cut.  Threw a tube in it and was on my way.  It was a very windy afternoon which had throw bits of cholla cactus all over the trail.  This made me a little nervous given the freshly tubed rear tire lacking any sort of sealant to protect these little punctures.

    Sun setting over the desert hills

    Sun setting over the desert hills

    The sun was starting to set but I knew I had to be getting close to the Freeman Road trailhead.  Just as I turned my lights on I had come to a road that was marked with the same name as the trailhead displayed on my Garmin.  Crossing the road and continuing on trail for another half mile I ran right into the well signed outpost.  Tons of bottled water sitting on a resupply box was a mental boost and I made quick work of setting up camp as the wind was picking up.  The forecast for the weekend had changed a few times over the past couple of days so I didn't really know what to expect.  As opposed to a lightweight race mode sleep kit, I decided to bring a full tent with me on this trip.  I knew it was going to be a little chilly and I also wanted to embrace the pleasure cruise mode of this trip.  I changed into camp clothes and started cooking up a hot meal.  After eating I review the maps for tomorrow and tucked in pretty early trying to ignore the howling wind outside the tent.  Around 11pm I heard the drip drop of rain and the wind was really starting to pick up.  Waves of  40+ mph gusts would momentarily collapse the sidewall of my tent.  The rain picked up into a downpour.  I knew that I was at fairly high ground and didn't need to worry about being in danger of a flash flood.  All night it went like this.....waves of storms rolling through.  Tent stakes evidently do not hold into wet sand very well and I had to get out a few times and resecure them but I was super happy to be bone dry inside of my Nemo Blaze tent.  I would nod off a here and there but didn't get a great night sleep.  Sometime in the wee hours the rain stopped and I feel asleep not waking till the sun peeked through nylon folds.

    The numbers:

    • Only around 850 calories on the bike.  Chalking this up to that huge second breakfast and a mellow pace.
    • 1K calories at dinner
    • 7 hours & 38 minutes of riding (5hr 28m moving time)
    • 34.3 miles - 4.49 mph average (6.3mph moving)
    • 5229' vertical gain (didn't feel like that much)
    • Strava activity here:  https://www.strava.com/activities/806546985

     

    Day 2  

    Eating a hot breakfast of oatmeal and coffee I started packing up and noticed a van in the trailhead parking lot.  I went out to check it out and met a really nice local named Ira whom I convinced to sell me a spare tube.  I had a second on me but felt much better picking up a third given the cut tire and the flat rear tire I had woken up to.  The cholla had presumably poked some holes in it causing a slow leak.  Ira gave me some pointers on the section of trail I would be riding today and I headed into passage 15 which is named the Tortilla Mountains.  It was a chilly morning so I kept my rain pants and down jacket on as I set out on the flowy trail.  One thing I immediately noticed was that the rain did a great job of washing the cholla grenades clear of the trail.  Much less dodging and swerving to avoid them today.  My rear tire was most definitely getting a little soft and I had to stop and put air in it every couple of hours.  This passage was mostly downward trending for the first 18 miles on nice flowing single and double track.  Looking at maps I knew that there was a feature called the "Big Hill" which looked more like a mountain in the distance.  This was the first big feature I faced and the lack of vegetation made it very easy to see where the trail was etched into the mountain side.  There were times where it disappeared behind a rise or a relief but typically came right back into view.

    Great vista atop the Big Hill

    Great vista atop the Big Hill

    One distinct technical feature that I had to learn how to ride were the steep and extremely sharp switchbacks.  The rocks were always very loose in these areas which made the turn all the more difficult.  Some of them had a large rock at the apex that you could throw your inside foot onto as a pivot.  This is going to be an area of skill development I will be spending a lot of time as I felt it killed my momentum ascending and descending these sections.  I seemed to have a more difficult time with right handers versus left.  Once topping the Big Hill, the descent towards Kelvin was relatively easy riding.  I went slightly off-route after hitting pavement crossing the Gila River to refill on water at the Pinal County maintenance yard.  Easy to find spigot of fresh, cool water.

    I turned back down the hill and headed into passage #16.....the Gila River Canyons as it was getting into mid-afternoon.  I wasn't planning on riding into the dark so I was on the lookout for a good spot to camp.  This section was easily my favorite.  The trail dipped down towards the river and then would shoot back up a hillside which gave a lot of variety in terrain.  Closer to the river would give way to actual dirt and trees and then you would shoot back up to rocky outcropping with prickly pear and saguros.  The riding was fun, fast and flowy.  Around 10 miles into this passage on a piece of trail that rose over the Gila about 100 feet, I saw a flat little outcropping that would make for a perfect campsite.

    Fire is always good for the soul

    Fire is always good for the soul

    The weather was nice and calm this day and there wasn't a cloud in the sky.  Camp once again setup very quickly and I put on water for dinner.  While my insta-meal was simmering in its bag I gathered up some firewood consisting of mostly dead cholla and sagebrush.  I built a little ring of rocks and sparked up a nice fire that warmed up the cool night.  Eating dinner next to the orange flames and looking up was such a peaceful and spiritual feeling.  Middle of nowhere, sky so full of stars it seems like you could touch them.  I tucked in and easily drifted off to a hard sleep.

    There were a couple of things I wrote down this evening that I need to make sure I bring for the race in April.

    • Slime tubes or tubes that have removable cores that can be filled with sealant.
    • Some sort of quick link tool.  Maybe print this one:  http://www.thingiverse.com/thing:1405895
    • Need to label my kLite bar switch (lights vs. USB)
    • Water treatment.  I kept going back and forth in my head on this.  Filter or aquamira.  So many of the sources that need to be filtered are so nasty that they are going to clog a filter quickly.  Chemical treatment is probably the best bet.

    Day 2 numbers:

    • Oatmeal & coffee for breakfast.  Sausage, cheese and crackers for lunch.  Didn't eat a ton on the bike.....trail mix, bobo bar, stroopwafel and a probar. 
    • 1K calories at dinner
    • 8 hours & 16 minutes of riding (6hr 32m moving time)
    • 38.5 miles - 4.65 mph average (5.9mph moving)
    • 3815' vertical gain
    • Strava activity here:  https://www.strava.com/activities/806546314

     

    Day 3

    I woke up to a pretty awesome sunrise over the Gila but was freezing.  There was a layer of frost over all of the bags on my bike and my 45F bag was not going to cut it in these conditions but I managed to stay pretty toasty wearing all of my camp clothes, thick wools socks and a down jacket.  Today I would need to ride about 14 miles to knock out the Gila River passage then another 11 to descend into Picketpost.  The elevation profile for the rest of this passage was a little intimidating but the morning started out pretty awesome continuing along the river.  I decided to just start out with my normal cool weather clothes knowing that the temps would come up quick with the sun.  This consisted of a craft base layer, bibs and Twin Six jersey adding on thin knee warmers and arm warmers.  Handup Gloves for grip and protection from the pointy, pricky things of the desert worked great.

    Seven miles in and the trail ran into Red Mountain Road and the route headed due north away from the comfort of the Gila River.  Things got steep and very rocky very quickly.  Big chunky fire road and double track lead to switchback after switchback heading up canyons giving way to some of the best views I had seen.  Expansive vistas of ridge lines stacked up as far as you could see.  Huge stands of saguro forests piled into the ravines.  It was interesting to see dead or burnt saguros that revealed their woody internal skeleton.  It was easy to see how they are just a kind of easily expanding bladder to hold onto the scarce water of the desert.  The greenness of the desert actually really surprised me.  Previously when I thought of the desert I just thought of wasteland but this is far from it.  There is so much life here.....just not what we are accustom to in the eastern United States.

    Making my way up into the mountains towards Tonto National Forest

    Making my way up into the mountains towards Tonto National Forest

    Finally topping out the big climbs around midday at the gate that divided passage 16 & 17 was welcome relief.  There was a supply box that was flush with bottled water shaded by a tree.  It was a nice place to take in some lunch and relax a bit.  I also replaced that rear tube that had started leaking faster and faster.  It was comforting to find the remains of the thorn that had caused a puncture pulling it out with leatherman pliers which I would call a required tool on this route.

    Great caches on the sections I rode.

    Great caches on the sections I rode.

    Passage 17 descending eleven miles into the Picketpost trailhead was a whole lot of awesome.  Mostly downward trending with a few technical sections gave me another good dose of switchbacks.  Down into washes then back up onto trail.  Reflecting on the torn tire I think I figured out how it happened.  I have a bad habit of excessively dragging my rear wheel when braking down steep descents.  I am pretty confident that I did this over a sharp rock.  I need to work on being a little more smooth while scrubbing speed.  I rolled into Picketpost around 4pm and found a spot near the parking lot to setup camp.  There was water next to the trailhead that I used for cooking dinner and refilling a bit for the next day.  After bedding down after sunset there was a flurry of people and vehicle activity outside culminating in a sheriff helicopter dusting down into the parking lot around 8pm.  Evidently someone had gotten either stranded or injured on Picketpost mountain and they had sent out a pretty aggressive search party.  The chopper landed and took off a few times then everything quieted down by around 10 o'clock.

    This last big day of trail started pretty hard but ended with a lot of fast fun action.

    Day 3 numbers:

    • Oatmeal and coffee for breakfast.  Snacks throughout the day.  Sausage, cheese and crackers for lunch.  Dinner was another nice hot meal.
    • 7 hours and 56 minutes (6hr 2m moving)
    • 28.7 miles - 3.62 mph average (4.8mph moving) - LOTS of hiking
    • 4554' vertical gain
    • Strava activity here:  https://www.strava.com/activities/806546662

     

    Day 4

    Iconic Picketpost Mountain

    Iconic Picketpost Mountain

    I had thought about doing the Gold Canyon loop today but given the compromised tire and wanting to make good time back into town, I took a pretty direct route.  Heading out of Picketpost there were a couple of miles of singletrack that gave way to Hewitt Station Road which was a very fast and fun gravel segment taking me into the tiny community of Queen Valley.  Leaving this town on a nice two lane with bike lanes sent me on the only questionable section the entire route.  I went back and forth a few times between two gates in a fence that were both marked no trespassing, something something permit required.  I saw a few bicycle tire tracks and there was no one around so I trespassed as fast as I could hopping onto a fast, rugged powerline access road.  Five miles of this road ended up dumping onto US60.  I was warned that this was a fast and dangerous road but I found it to be a very safe feeling 4 lane with a large, clean shoulder that rode really well.  The sad part here was that it was starting to feel like civilization.  RV Sales, strip malls and restaurants.  Good thing is that this could be a solid resupply for the race.

    My route back into Gilbert was a pretty uneventful 15 miles through suburban RV retirement communities that gave me a chance to space out and reflect on the past couple of days.  It was much harder than I imagined but I am so happy I was able to come out to this incredible corner of the world to get a little taste before I took a huge bite of it in April.  The 100 miles at a very easy pace was nothing compared to the massive scale of moving across the entire state of Arizona as fast as possible in just a few months.

    Day 4 numbers:

    • 3 hours 56 minutes (3hr 21m moving)
    • 46.9 miles - 14mph moving average (LOTS of asphalt and gravel)
    • 1K vertical gain

     

    Stay tuned for more stories as I prepare for this massive race across the state.  I hope this can be a good reference for anyone that is looking to take on part or all of this incredible trail that has a very interesting (and relatively short) history.  I have joined and I would recommend that you join the Arizona Trail Association (http://www.aztrail.org/) and pick up the AZT Guidebook.

    The route I rode can be found here:  https://ridewithgps.com/routes/17924981

    Information about the Arizona Trail Race can be found here:  http://topofusion.com/azt/race.php

    Feel free to comment below or share if you find this interesting or helpful!

    Car Smash to RPI

    2016 had its highs and lows.  If you read my recap of Stagecoach 400 you will know that I was riding a big wave into preparations for Dirty Kanza.  That all came to a screeching halt when I was struck by a truck while out on an early AM training ride in May.  Broken scapula and a grade 2 separation wasn't going to leave enough time to heal and get back on the horse for a Kanza start.

    A lot of time has passed between then and now so I figured I would just do a sort of photo essay to bring you up to speed on 2016 because I am very excited to start writing about what is to come in 2017.

    EDIT:  After adding all of these pictures and writing captions it made me feel so grateful for how full our life is.  Wendi and I have our work and life stresses like everyone but I am so happy to have a family that loves adventure and an employer that gives me the funding and flexibility to do what we love.  This has afforded us to see some amazing places and build a network of friends across the country and around the world.

    Couple of weeks after Stagecoach

    Couple of weeks after Stagecoach

    I am still riding pretty high on the stoke from

    Stagecoach

    a few weeks ago and looking towards what is next.  Initially I had planned on heading to Arizona in April to ride the

    AZTR300

    as a training ride to prep for the 750 mile version of the route next year.  But alas, I was a little slow to recover from SC400 and I do actually have a day job required to feed my family and fund these adventures.

    Endless ribbons of gravel

    My legs came back pretty quickly after Stagecoach but I did get this weird little bit of tendonitis in my right ankle/shin nearly identical to the same injury I had on my left leg after

    TNGA

    last year.  A week before the race I rolled my right ankle in the gym and my best guess is this was the root cause.  It didn't really bother me during the race but I knew it was there.  For about a week after getting back from SoCal it hurt pretty bad walking on it, localized swelling was noticeable and range of motion sucked big time.  Writing this today it is 90% healed and really only bugs me on longer rides.  I recall it taking 6 weeks or so for the injury to completely heal after TNGA.  After talking to Wendi and Lynda we decided that it would be best to scratch Arizona and get 100% rather than trying to carry an injury through a season of long, tough races.  The only puzzle to figure out now is how to get some Arizona Trail time in before next year's grand depart.  Right now we are thinking that we'll try to find a long weekend in October to do a casual bikepacking trip from Oracle to Superior based on Lynda's suggestion.

    So.....as Wendi and I sit here at JavaCat Coffeehouse in Emporia, all sights are set on

    Kanza

    .  We came up here this weekend for her to attend a

    DK training camp

    in preparation for the 100 mile version and I am getting a few big gravel rides in working with my awesome coach to bend the plan around this weekend to take full advantage of being in the environment.  We both went for warm-up rides today on a beautiful blue sky day with only a 20mph southeasterly wind to dampen the spirits.  It seems so simple but the endless rolling bands of gravel and chunky dirt b-roads that stretch across the flint hills make the miles go by so quick and are truly a joy to ride.  Every human you pass in a car gives you a warm smile and waves.  The treeless horizon is truly expansive.  This place is simple beauty.  No epic mountains, green pitches of meadow or stands of timber.......just farmland as far as you can see.

    Tomorrow and Sunday have some long rides in store for both of us.  Time to get some sleep.

    Massive Effort, Massive Reward - Stagecoach 2016

    Massive Effort, Massive Reward - Stagecoach 2016

    After racing

    Trans North Georgia

    last August, I was bit really hard by this fringe but increasing popular cycling discipline referred to as bikepacking.  For the uninitiated.....these races are typically 300+ miles in distance and 100% self-supported.  No crew allowed, no aid stations, no marked course.  You get cue sheets and a GPX file.  The terrain typically calls for a mountain bike and you end up carrying a lot of stuff with you to be prepared for whatever the route or mother nature might throw at you.

    For 2016 I stacked my season with a number of these bikepacking races as well as a few gravel events.  My first race of the year was this past weekend in Southern California called

    Stagecoach 400

    .  It was created by a really cool dude named Brendan Collier of

    Hub Cyclery

    in Idyllwild designed to showcase three distinct ecosystems:  mountains, ocean and desert.

    Getting into Town

    It's a bike in a box!

    I flew into Irvine a few days before the race and made my way into the sleepy little mountain town of Idyllwild on Thursday morning.  This gave me plenty of time to swing by the shop and hang out for a while getting the lay of the land.  My bike had arrived there earlier in the week and I was excited to get it unboxed and put together.  It was the first time I had shipped this frame and it was a bit of a squeeze getting it in there.....more disassembly that normal required.  I found a nice little green space with a picnic table behind the shop and got to work.  Within about 45 minutes or so she was ready to go.  I took my bike, bags and all the stuff I had meticulously packed in marked ziplock bags into the shop to get everything packed out while chatting it up with other folks doing the same.

    One of the coolest things about bikepacking is the diversity in gear.  Some people rock full suspension trail bikes, others hardtails.  Handlebar bags or seat bags or backpacks.  Some use frame bags and others use the front triangle for water bottles.  No two bikes are alike and it really expresses a personality.  Am I here to go super fast or just to enjoy the ride?  You can usually tell.

    Rolling rigid

    My ride for this race/not-a-race is a

    Cysco Cycles

    titanium hardtail with a Niner carbon fork rolling on

    Nox Composite

    Teocalli wheels wrapped in Maxxis Ikon rubber.  I had Clay build this frame up last fall after TNGA to be bikepacking specific.  Lots of bottle bosses in particular places and the largest front triangle possible given my size.  I also had sliding dropouts added to be able to convert pretty easily to singlespeed (either intentionally or an emergency conversion).  In industry terms the frame is about a medium plus but the front triangle holds a frame bag designed for an extra large bike.  I have owned both carbon and steel mountain bikes in the past and I can say that titanium is the best of both world.  Light and laterally compliant like a carbon bike but vertically supple like a steel frame.  I love this bike.

    Just a teaser for what was to come

    After getting my bike all squared away I checked into my room at the

    Idyllwild Inn

    and went out for a quick spin on the course.  The first 2.5 miles of the route consisted of pretty steep climbing starting on asphalt leading onto rutted dirt roads.  It was a great/horrible way to start a race.  It woke your legs up quick and would surely thin the group out a bit.  The top of the climb lead out into the first of many fireroads which descended pretty quickly dropping into some really fun singletrack.  I only needed a quick spin so I found a way to cut over to hwy 74 and climbed back into Idyllwild.

    Pre-ride Strava:  

    https://www.strava.com/activities/513696518

    Getting back in town I cleaned up, made a few adjustments on my bike and headed to the Silver Pines Lodge where the pre-ride meeting/dinner was being held.  Something else cool about bikepacking is that they aren't really "races" per se and very loosely organized.  This is intentional for a few reasons.  One is that it would be very costly and logistically challenging to insure a sanctioned event that crosses so many boundaries.  Hence.....these routes are typically put on as a social ride with no cost of entry.  Stagecoach asks for a donation from riders that 100% benefits the

    Idyllwild smARTS program

    .  This non-profit group helps bring art programs to local K-8 students.

    The dinner at Silver Pines filled the house.  There were probably around 60+ riders and family in the house eating a great dinner of pasta, salad and cookies.  Lots of cookies.  I love cookies.  The volunteers from smARTS prepared and served all of the food.  After everyone was pretty settled into a seat, Brendan got up and made a number of announcements ranging from a delayed start to 9am, weather conditions, dry spots for water and known dog areas.  I was a little bummed about the delayed start as this was just another hour of daylight we were loosing but it was out of anyone's control as the rental Spot trackers were delayed being shipped out of another race in Anchorage.  In races like this everyone is required to carry a little GPS tracker device that essentially does two things.  First it updates your location periodically on a website called

    Trackleaders

     which gives friends and family a way to follow along.  Secondly these trackers have a button on them that sends a kind of SOS signal you can use in the event of a dire emergency.  Think mountain lion attack or shattering a femur......not because you ran out of water.  Evidently helicopters and seal team six comes in for the rescue.  I hope I never have to find out.

    After Brendan finished up I snuck out of the lodge and headed back to my room to make final preparations, layout the clothes I'll be wearing for the next few days and pack up my bags.  I was in bed by around 9pm and slept like a rock.

    To the Ocean

    Minutes before the start

    7:30.....get up.  Threw some street clothes on and took a short walk over to

    Higher Grounds

    coffee shop to grab a bite to eat.  Coffee, two hard boiled eggs and a banana muffin into the belly.  Chatted with a few other racers in there doing the same then headed back to the room.  Got all kitted out and packed up my bags and threw them in my rental car.  I rode over to the Idyllwild Bake & Brew at around 8:30 which is where everyone was nervously milling around.  Lots of chatter about gear, the weather, what food are you carrying and fast dudes sizing up other fast dudes.  Brendan was busy getting folks that rented Spot trackers all setup and there were the obligatory late comers but amazingly we rolled out right at 9am.  If you are a mountain biker, you know that this NEVER happens.

    We all rolled out neutrally through town before making a left turn on Saunders Meadow Road next to the Idyllwild elementary school.  Outside the school there were ALL of the students cheering us on as we started our journey.  A truly awesome send off!  Climbing up Saunders Meadow my legs were feeling fresh and I stayed up close to the front of the pack.  After pre-riding yesterday I knew that I did not want to get stuck in a bunch of traffic when we hit the fast descent on May Valley Road and then into the singletrack.  This opening section of the route was just a big blur.  Before I knew it we were on Hwy 371 heading into Anza.  I stopped at a gas station really quick to top off on water before making the push into Warner Springs.  More asphalt, a truck trail and before I knew it I was in Warner Springs.  The cue sheets made mention of a closed gas station that had a spigot that was turned on and I easily found this spot.  As I was finishing topping off and eating a bit a few more riders came through including Isaac Chilton and Foon Wong.  We chatted for a bit and then got back on route.

    Out of Warner we climbed for a bit up Mesa Grande and then dumped out onto Black Canyon Road.  This was one of the most memorable sections of the route for me.  Foon and I were riding together and saw that the sky was getting a little dark and noticed some sheets of rain ahead.  This was predicted and in the forecast so I took the time to stop and throw on my Gore rain jacket.  Black Canyon was a really nice and fast 10 mile section of gravel road that twisted and turned through......you guessed it, a canyon (this is a common theme).

    Rain continued and the sun went down.  The next thing I remember is muddy trails and more muddy trails around Lake Hodges.  I had flashbacks to the mud field at

    Dirty Kanza

    last year.  This was way worse.  Peanut butter clay clogging everything up.  Found my magical stick that I used over and over to scrape mud out of my stays and off of my tires.....praying, praying that I wouldn't rip off my derailleur.  Kanza was a pancake flat 3 miles of mud.  I have no idea how long the mud section around Hodges was but I was not carrying an 18 pound gravel bike.  Oh no.....I was carrying a 40lb MTB with another 40lbs of mud catching a free ride.  There were sections that were absolutely brutal but most notable was shouldering my bike and hiking up a 10%+ trail to San Dieguito Rd.  I had never been so happy to see asphalt.  I pulled out my magic stick (sticks were hard to come by in these parts) and pushed mud out of the moving bits one more time and hit the road.  Lots of crunching was going on so I scoured strip malls and gas stations in this upper end suburbia for a solution.  No hoses were in sight (probably not common here due to draught conditions) but finally resorted to using a window squeegie thing at a gas station to clean off my chain and cassette.

    A little farther down the route the cues talk about a horse track or something.  Just go through the gate and go down to the Coast to Crest trail.  It was kinda late....maybe about 10:30pm and said gate was closed.  There was also a gate to an adjacent trail with a lot of signage that said it was permanently closed.  Naturally I ignored the sign and lifted my bike over the gate and then again over the fence into the horse grounds feeling very exposed and criminal.  I pedaled down the south fenceline of the park and ran into the end where there was another gate.  I could see the Coast to Crest trail but couldn't find access.  Behind me there were some horses in stables laughing at me but they did draw my attention to a horsey bath area with a hose a spigot.  Considering I was already breaking into this place I figured I might as well steal some of their water to get my bike nice and cleaned up.  They were kind enough to even leave a few brushes out to get those hard to reach areas.

    Back on a clean bike I looked for an easy fence to hop to get on the Coast to Crest and made my way towards the Pacific.  This was an easy multi use trail composed mostly of small crushed California gravel which has always reminded me of kitty litter.  Drains really well and best of all.....no mud!  The trail dumped out onto Camino del Mar for a few quiet miles of road before a shallow climb up to Torrey Pines and then down into the UCSD campus.  I wasn't really sure of what roads, sidewalks or bike paths to take through the college but I just followed the track on my Garmin the best I could.  On the south end of campus the route turned onto the Rose Creek Bike Trail which is a really cool urban path cutting through northern San Diego into Mission Bay.  I was surprised to see there were no protesters out at Seaworld as I cruised by turning south to zig zag through Sunset Beach.  Next turn was onto Hill St which was not just a clever name.  It was a very steep paved road that I ended up walking a lot of with very tired legs.  The rest of the ride through San Diego was along the harbor which was pretty cool.  Lots of empty sidewalks to cruise on and people stumbling out of the Gaslamp district.  Some train tracks through National City and then onto the Sweetwater Bikeway heading east.

    Once I hit this area I knew I was very, very close to my planned stop for day one.  In Chula Vista there was a spot that I found when doing recon that had a few hotels, gas station and a 24 hour Denny's.  I rolled into the late night breakfast mecca at 3am and was greeted with a smile.  Ordered a massive breakfast plate and what turned out to be the best hamburger I have ever had.  Food in hand within 10 minutes and I was off to the Comfort Inn across the street to grab a room.  I ate, showered, repacked all of my bags, laid my shoes & shorts on the AC to dry and set a timer for three hours.  Once my head hit the pillow, I was out.  Just ask my wife.....I can literally sleep anywhere.  Get me horizontal and I'm gone.

    Up and Over

    Ring, ring goes the alarm.  I woke up a little stiff but feeling pretty damn good considering I threw down 170ish miles the first day.  I ate half of that marvelous hamburger and some fries packing the other half in a ziplock and jamming into my seat bag.  Drank a cup of coffee and rolled out back onto the Sweetwater Trail.  Just before hitting the trail I ran into Keith Richards-Dinger and chatted with him for a while.  This trail suddenly turned very, very suburbia.  It was Saturday morning and everyone was power walking in their best Lululemon.  Looking like a dirtbag, I really felt out of place without a Starbucks cup in my hand but I did my best to blend in and courteously pass all of the beautiful people.

    A cold hamburger never tasted so good

    The terrain started to turn up and then shit......more mud.  This morning it was thicker than it was the evening before and really demoralizing.  I did catch up to a few other riders including Jose Bermudez who I had met on Thursday back in Idyllwild.  Sometimes when the going gets tough it is at least nice to have someone to share the misery with.  I quickly found another magical stick to poke and scrape the mud from my bike's spinny bits.  One thing that is almost always certain with steep trails is that they tend to drain pretty quickly.  After the mud near Sweetwater was passed it would be clean sailing from there on out.  I honestly don't remember much of this section.  I lost Jose and crew when they took a wrong turn and I think there was a really cool old iron bridge but before I knew it I was in Alpine.  Second breakfast!

    I stopped in a local bike shop and asked them to lube my chain up and was off to Janet's Montana Cafe to get a huge meal in my belly.  I asked to sit outside on the patio in order to offend the least amount of people and ordered a massive gravy covered omelet with hashbrowns and a biscuit plus a chicken quesadilla to go.  During this race I learned two things about food.  Numero uno.....I can eat a big meal and get right back on the bike.  I just need to keep my effort easy for an hour or so......something like below 160 watts.  Dos......ALWAYS order a second meal that is portable so you can eat on the run.  More stops = more time.

    The route and cues

    Just before my food came out Keith rolled up and came over to sit with me and grab a meal.  As a veteran of this route it was great to talk to him, hear about years past and get a little intel on what lay ahead.  We finished eating, packed up and made a quick stop at Albertson's up the road to restock on water and some snacks.  I remember a very, very steep climb out of Alpine that reminded me of the Dug Gap road climb out of Dalton on the TNGA route.  Not much fun on a full belly.  A little way down the route we hit the Merrigan Truck Trail which was a really fun doubletrack climbing.  We passed Oakzanita Campground which was closed.  Supposedly they were going to have some really good food for riders......I'll never know.  The sun was starting to get pretty low in the sky as we continued picking up elevation.  I knew that once the sun went down and we got over 4000 feet it was going to be cold so I bundled up early with a few layers.

    The Lagunas are an area that Wendi and I rode a few years ago when we were in the San Diego area for a conference, so it felt pretty familiar.  I think I rode DOWN Indian Creek on a 5" bike and it was a LOT of fun.  Going the other way with a 40lb bike was a lot of challenging climbing.  It was hard but I really didn't mind it.  One thing that Lynda worked into my plan was a good bit of hike a bike practice.  Learning different ways to carry your bike and strengthening muscles that you don't use when you are pedaling.  At the intersection of Indian Creek and Noble canyon I saw a light.  When I got up there Forest Baker was taking a break and we chatted for a bit before I made my way up Noble.  He had woken up really early on the day of the start and decided to get a head start on the group around 3:30am.  Also turns out he was bit by a dog somewhere near Terwilliger Road.....an infamous canine encounter spot.

    The first pitch of Noble was a lot of fun....not terribly technical just a lot of good singletrack.  I came to a big intersection and then I got lost looking for the continuation of the trail.  The GPX and the maps on my Garmin said to go a certain way but there was no trail.  I went round and round for 30 minutes or so but decided to take another adjacent route to get to the top of the canyon and onto Sunrise Highway.  By the way.....it was f'ing cold up here!  I had put all of my clothes on and was still freezing.  Garmin said 36F.  Refilled water before getting on the highway then Keith and I kept moving to stay warm.  We were on Sunrise for a while before hopping off onto some singletrack and then down Mason Valley Truck trail.  This was rough, rough stuff.  Steep, very rocky switchback descents.  It was about the only time on the ride where I wished that I had a suspension fork.  We got close to the bottom and there was a truck parked with a sign that said "Stagecoach 400 BEER".  As soon as we pulled up a dude hopped out of the back and offered us drinks and snacks.  I really could have gone for a beer but wanted even more to keep moving.

    We dumped out onto a road and there was a sign that said "Oriflamme Canyon" and I proclaimed....."Sweet!  We're getting ready to go down Oriflamme!".  Keith looked at me, shook his head and said "We just went down Oriflamme".  They should have really put a sign at the top.  Back down around 2000 feet it was starting to warm up a little.  The next 10 miles was all fast downhill asphalt dropping the remainder of the elevation to Aqua Caliente.  This was the gateway to the desert.

    Into the Desert

    We stopped at the then closed Agua Caliente general store and rested for about 1.5 hours and then hit the desert at around 3am.  This was the section of the route that I was the most apprehensive about and I can say that I was most happy to have Keith there to show me the ropes. I have ridden in sand near some of our costal trail in the south before, as well as churning through sand in cyclocross races but I have never experienced the expansive sand of riding through desert washes.  This section through the Anza Borrego desert was 25 miles.  Yea......25 miles of sand.  Think Tatooine.

    Turned out I was pretty good at this sand thing.  Keep your legs spinning at a pretty high cadence, keep your head up and find the solid lines and glance at your Garmin every once and a while to make sure you haven't wandered off course (this happened a few times).   Occasionally you'd hit a patch of deep sand or make a mistake, wash out and have to hike a bit and find a solid place to get started again.  On these washouts I would typically take the time to eat something and get a drink.  One time I just sat there for a second, turned off both of my lights and covered the screen on my Garmin.  There was only a sliver of a moon that night.  Complete silence, nearly complete darkness and total isolation.  It was a pretty strange feeling of emptiness and reminded me why I love bikepacking.....self-reliance.

    Sun peeking over the horizon

    Diablo drop-off was a pretty cool downhill sandy section where you could just get behind your seat and surf down the sand.  The drop into Fish Creek Wash was more of the same surfing.  There wasn't a huge elevation drop to this section but the temperature dropped 5 degrees or so when I reached this wash.  There was very little wind, with told me that the colder air had kind of settled into this area.  A few miles into Fish Creek, the sun was starting to come up over the horizon and I finally started to see the beauty of the desert.  The route wound through these beautiful red rock slot canyons for miles and miles until I was eventually exiting the desert onto Split Mountain Road which was rather boring for 8 or so miles into Ocotillo Wells.  When I made it to this little town I was pretty beat.  I sat under a little awning thing next to a closed general store for about 15 minutes or so to rest and collect myself.  I looked at the cue sheets to see that Borrego Springs (I call it Burrito Springs) was only 19 miles away and it was all asphalt.  How hard could that be?

    Turns out it was really hard......at least for the state of mind I was in.  The headwinds were brutal and I just stared at my odometer counting down the miles.  I played games like "you can stand up and pedal when you hit mile 316" or everyone's favorite "get to that next telephone pole and you can take a drink".  Just little mind games to make hard, boring miles tick by.  Oh.....and there was "Texas Dip".  I have no idea why it is called that but it is this bowl that is about 9% down and the same back up.  9% down seems fast....right?  Not when there are 20mph head and crosswinds.  Pedaling with all you have downhill and moving slow.  When I rolled into Borrego I was at my very lowest but when I pulled up to Jilbertos burrito shop there was something sitting outside that immediately pulled me up and out of my hole.

    Final Push

    Isaac Chilton's orange Meriwether was leaned up against a bench outside the shop.  What the fuck?  How did I catch him?  I thought he and Ben were waaayyyy out in front of me as they had kept pushing through San Diego as I took some rest in a hotel.  I took my helmet off and grabbed my dirty ziplock of cash and credit cards and walked into the shop.  We chatted for a few minutes and then I went up to the counter to place my order.  Beef burrito plate and a dozen crispy rolled tacos to go.  I went back and sat down with Isaac as he was finishing up his lunch chatting about the route so far.  Turned out he had some mechanical problems dealing with the mud back on day one and had limited gears to push.  I told him that I thought there was a bike shop here in town but I didn't know where.  Before my food came out he was off.

    Boulder fields between peaks

    in Coyote Canyon

    It was great to get some real food.  Other than snacking on quesadillas I packed in Alpine I hadn't had a real full meal in about 16 hours.  The burrito was actually pretty greasy and disgusting but I ate one of them and all of the rice and beans on the plate.  I called Wendi to check in and catch her up on the overnight and chatted with Paul Dennis who ITT'd the route the previous month.  Two weeks before the race I talked to Paul and he gave me a lot of good guidance on the route.  He told me a number of times that the upcoming Coyote Canyon was the crux of the route and it took him about 12 hours to get to the finish from Borrego.  This was good.  The end was in sight.  I had been up for 24 hours at this point.

    I went next door to a liquor store to restock on water & food and packed it all up.  Just about then Keith pulled up and got the last burrito before the power went out at the shop.  I hit the bathroom real quick to take care of business and freshen then rolled back out onto the route.  Making my way around the roundabout in the middle of Borrego my Garmin 810 turned off and then back on again.  Unfortunately it isn't uncommon for this to happen.....it had crashed a few other times on this trip.  Normally it comes back up, doesn't lose any data and lets you resume your activity.  Not this time.  Big bummer.  24 hours of ride data lost which totally sucks for a metrics nerd like myself.  I cursed at the dumb thing but I didn't let it get me down.  Hit start and got back after it.

    Quick stop at Bailey's

    Rolling out of Borrego was another long flat road like the one I came in on.  And then there was a sign that said "Welcome to the Anza Desert" or something like that.....and there was more sand.  More sand?  I thought the desert part was over?  Nope.  More sand.  Oh well.....I had gotten pretty good at this and it was way more interesting than asphalt with headwinds.  This was actually a really fun segment where at some point I caught up with Isaac while he was taking a food break and I kept on pushing.  Turns out Coyote Canyon was about 25 miles of really varied terrain which kept it fun.  Sand, fire road climbs, scrambling up a huge boulder field and even slogging through "the middle willows".  That last part left my socks and shoes muddy, soaked and filled with sand.  I made a quick pitstop at Bailey's Cabin which is a really cool feature to change my socks and eat some food.  Isaac showed up and we chatted for a bit and got back underway.

    Slogging through the willows

    The rest of the route out of Coyote, down Terwilliger, stopping at Sunshine Market and then cruising down Hwy 74, I really enjoyed riding with Isaac.  A vast majority of the miles I put in on this route were solo and having someone to hang and chat with was very welcome.  It was a very friendly pace and we were having a good time.  I started thinking maybe we'll just roll across the line together?  My legs are really tired.....this dude has got a lot of depth in his legs watching him climb some of the fire roads through the canyon and there is no way I'll be able to match him when we get into some of the technical singletrack and climbing back into Idyllwild.

    When we got off the road and back into the trails on what would be the last 10 miles of the route something unspoken happened.  I think Isaac was ahead of me at this point or maybe I was but we both started pushing a lot harder.....this was racing  We were both riding the technical sections really well considering the mileage in our legs but we each bobbled and changed positions a few times.  At some point the technical trails gave way to fast, flowy meadow trails while I was up front and I just let it rip.  The trails turned back to steep fireroad when I hit May Valley and I took a quick glance back and didn't see any lights.

    One two three......awesome guys, great race!

    Now I was just running scared.  I figured there were just a few miles left but it went on forever.  I kept it in the red and picked my way through the puzzle that was every single rock strewn fireroad......they all looked similar but not one had the same solution.  There were a few openings and turns in there calling for a quick glance down to my GPS to make sure I was on track but I kept pushing, pushing.  Feeling I was getting close was confirmed with I noticed the name of the road had changed to Cowbell Alley and started to trend downward.  This took a left onto Saunders Meadow Road and I knew right where we were.  The agonizing climb out of town at the beginning of the race was now a blazing fast descent with swoops and curves where my screeching brakes were giving away my position.  I hit Hwy 243 next to the school and took a left to climb back up the hill to the Hub for the final mile of the course.  I gave it all I had looking back every minute or so expecting Isaac to sneak up on me.  Finally making it to the bike shop I was surprised, excited and so so stoked to have finished 2nd in this epic bikepacking route.  Ben and a couple of other guys were there delivering high-fives then showed me to the sign-in sheet, pizza and beer.

    A few minutes later Isaac rolled up and we all went inside, told war stories for a while and then headed to our cabins to get some well deserved sleep.

    After

    Fast dude breakfast

    The next morning I got up and was moving a little faster than I though I would be.  A bunch of us who had already finished met at the Red Kettle around 8:30 to grab some breakfast and talk about the weekend.  It's always a really awesome thing to get together with people that understand and are passionate about this ultra-endurance form of mountain biking.  I packed up my bike on the patio of the shop while talking to Foon (who had finished in the middle of the night) and then made my way back to Irvine to catch a flight the next day.

    I learned a lot about myself at this race/not-a-race:

    • First and foremost......the body is capable of absolutely incredible things if it is properly prepared.  I have been working really hard for the past three months with my coach, Lynda Wallenfels, to get ready for this first race of my season.  Endless hours of hard intervals and long weekend rides away from my family made this possible.
    • I can race on very limited sleep.  I really only slept for about 2.5 hours in Chula Vista.  Everything else was just little breaks to reset the body and mind.  In the future I might adopt a micro-napping or short rests to remove some additional time.
    • I finally figured out how to eat big meals, get back on the bike and digest on the move.  This is a huge time saver.
    • Take a minute to look around.  Every route looks the same if you are just staring at your front tire.  When you are taking a break to eat or rest snap a few pictures to remember the moment.  We do this kind of racing to challenge and push ourselves but also to get out and see some new scenery.  What other route can you see alpine mountains, the pacific ocean and a beautiful barren desert in just a few days?

    And of course a couple of people to thank.

    • My wife Wendi.  She is about the only person that really understands me and why I have the need to subject myself to these difficult challenges.  Without her full support encouragement there is no way I would be able to do this sport that I love.
    • Any of you out there that texted, facebooked or otherwise encouraged me while I was on route.  I really enjoy being disconnected when on these types of rides, it a massive moral boost to reconnect at a food stop and see the outpouring of support on the onlines.  Keep it coming!
    • Oh......and Audible.  I listened to three books while on route....so now I am not only stronger and more confident as a rider but also a little smarter.
      • Post Office by Charles Bukowski (recommended my John Karrasch) - super funny and vulgar
      • A History of Eastern Europe - The Great Courses - really learned some new things
      • The Upright Thinkers by Leonard Mlodinow - love this guy.....really heady stuff

    Many more pictures on Instagram here:  

    https://www.instagram.com/travelsofjason/

    Find me on Facebook here: 

    https://www.facebook.com/great.to.be.jason

    Check out my Strava rides here:  

    https://www.strava.com/athletes/1483987

    1 step back, 2 steps forward

    1 step back, 2 steps forward

    Racing is done for 2015 so it is time to start building for 2016. Through this year I have been following plans that

    Lynda Wallenfels

    helped me stack against my schedule which basically looked like this:

    Jas & the turtle @ Kanza

    March 15 -

    Rouge Roubaix

    March 24 -

    24 hours of Iron Maiden

    (12 solo)

    April 11 -

    Skyway Epic

    (60 miler)

    April 25 -

    Cohutta 100

    May 30 -

    Dirty Kanza 200

    August 22 -

    Trans North Georgia

    September 6 -

    Rebecca's Private Idaho

    The goal this past year was to try a variety of endurance length formats which were essentially all firsts. Roubaix is an awesome race which gave me a taste of fast, packed road racing but not really my style (and I sliced my tire 66 miles in).  My first 12 hour race at Tannehill was a lot of fun....116 miles in just under 12 hours with a second place finish.  Skyway Epic was really an unplanned add-on race and Lynda recommended I just do the 60 so I wouldn't carry too much fatigue into Cohutta.  Very fun and challenging race.  Cohutta was a great race and I'd recommend it to anyone looking to do a 100 miler.  DK200 was insane and I can't wait to do it again next year.  I didn't hit my goal but dealt with a really bad mechanical and finished the race.  TNGA was basically a perfect race to end my season and confirmed that I am in love with long format multi-day ultra-endurance sufferfests.  RPI was a beautiful fun race and mini-vacation with Wendi.

    My plan stack looked something like this:

    As I was framing up 2016, I reached out to Lynda to see if she had time to coach me full time and she agreed.  We talked through next year's schedule and came up with an off season plan based on a TON of work travel I have committed this fall.  The four point plan looks like this:

    • Get healthy, stay healthy - Fully recover from any minor injuries and nagging issues.  No real problems here other than that tendonitis in my lower left leg and finger numbness.
    • Maintain body weight - Basically Lynda told me to not get fat.  Training volume will be massively decreased and I'll need to decrease caloric intake accordingly.  When I travel I can be like a fat kid in a candy store eating all kinds of garbage but I have a plan for this I'll talk about in a future post.
    • Build Core Strength - I found the core work that Lynda put me on this past year to be some of the best time spent off the bike.  My goal for the off season is to put that type of work into overdrive.  10 weeks of Mark Verstegen's Core Performance program.
    • And finally.....the hardest part of Lynda's off-season plan.  Spending less time on the bike, not following a plan and getting my getting my CTL down to 75.....essentially letting fitness dwindle.

    All of the training through my 2015 season added up to a TON of volume throughout the year.  If you are a user of TrainingPeaks (or other software), you may be familiar with keeping track of metrics in Performance Manager and hopefully watching your blue line (CTL) go up through your training blocks.  If you are not familiar with this metric it is essentially a measure of overall fitness (measured in training stress) on a rolling 42 day average.  Whether you know it or not, you are working hard to build this cumulative capacity and it feels like you are getting robbed when you see it dip or are told to let it go.

    My plummeting fitness

    My first question to Lynda was naturally "Why do we do this?  Explain to me the physiology behind this strategy".  She gave lots of reasons like adrenal fatigue and completely recovering but framed it up simply as "taking one step back to take two steps forward".  Some how this simple phrase worked for my analytical, engineering brain.  Fully recover, travel to a few continents, enjoy life, ride your bike with your wife.  In December we get back on plan for 2016.  It works.

    Weird stuff

    So the past month or so I have been doing that.  I've been watching that blue line fall fast and am not freaking out too much.  In a couple of long weeks traveling domestically to SoCal and Georgia I've really enjoyed getting back on some serious strength training.  Some of the exercises in the Core Performance program look pretty goofy when you are in a gym but the function of them is painfully (literally) obvious.  It is essentially a lot of traditional strength movements executed from a very unbalanced positions.

    The other big mental challenge with all of this is not having an immediate goal in front of me like a race.  Everything is very far off right now.  I listened to a good podcast the other day that helped me rationalize that problem though.  A hyper-focused, goal oriented person must have a goal but it does not have to be a race.  It can just as easily be more generic like

    "stay healthy, get strong"

    .  This is my off-season mantra.

    Till next time when we talk about how I'm taming my inner fat kid while traveling to far away places.

    My life balance

    TNGA 2015......sweet, sweet suffering

    TNGA 2015......sweet, sweet suffering

    Pre-race - The Nerves

    Backside of a cue sheet I made.  So true.

    Photo credit: Mulberry Gap

    Day 1 - Excellent Climbs

    Day 2 - Sweet Singletrack

    Day 3 - The Snake

    Reflection - Continuous Improvement

    Trackleaders Link

    I sit here writing with swollen legs, numb fingers and a chapped ass.  I am happy to be home with family but I long to be back on the bike in the solitude of wilderness.

    For those not familiar, the

    Trans North Georgia(TNGA)

    is a 350 mile off-road bike race across the northern mountains of Georgia. Starting at the South Carolina border and ending in Alabama.  There is mixed asphalt, gravel, doubletrack and singletrack but make no mistake.....there is an enormous amount of climbing involved, totaling 56,000 feet.  That is over 10 miles of vertical elevation; the equivalent of climbing Everest early twice.  The

    course record

    was set by Eddie O'dea in 2013 with a time of 1:14:57.  My goal was a sub-3 day finish.

    In the weeks leading up to the race, I was going nuts. My training plan was starting to decrease in volume to give my body a chance to completely recover before the TNGA. A month before, I was putting in 20-24 hour weeks of intense riding to get prepared, and then the last couple of weeks cut back to around 10 hours. To fill the time, I spent countless hours going through my packing list. Laying things out, adding things, removing things.  What did I really need?  What is a nice to have?  For my first bikepacking race, I was taking the "I'd rather have it and not need it than need it and not have it" approach.

    My pack list for TNGA was essentially the same as the practice run I made earlier in the month. You can read about that here:  

    /southerngears/2015/07/prequel-to-first-solo-bikepacking-trip.html

    Pre-race - The Nerves

    The Wednesday night before the race I headed up to Birmingham and stayed with friends Sean and Danielle.  We ate

     some smoking indian food, then 

    stayed up for a while making some last minute changes.  The next morning we packed up and headed to Crestwood Coffee to get some breakfast with Danielle and our friend Tiffany on the way out of town.  The 3.5 hour drive to Mulberry Gap flew by as Sean and I discussed everything we had already talked about....not knowing exactly what we have gotten ourselves into.

    Despite the fact that I had been to

    Mulberry Gap

    only once before, pulling into the driveway felt like I was returning to a second home. Cool people,  great food and sweet trails right out the back door. We checked in with Kate and chatted for a while before heading down to the barn to see if anyone else had rolled in. The first person we ran into was a talkative and entertaining fella named Monte Marshall. He had done the TNGA many times before and had many war stories to tell. One thing I vividly remember is him talking about how these new guys would pack out their bikes with 50 pounds of gear and then regret it on the first climb.  I am that guy.

    All smiles from this guy

    Our cabin wasn't ready, so Sean and I decided to get a quick ride in. He had never ridden any of the Pinhoti trails so I took him down the gravel road and onto section #2.  Easily my favorite trail in the Cohuttas.  The trails were a little wet from the previous day's rain, but very well drained.  We had lots of fun and got back to Mulberry just in time for dinner.  

    The meals here are just as good as the riding; we ate a h

    uge salad, roasted potatoes, flank steak, pork tenderloin and soft bread. After dinner, we unpacked the truck and sat around with some others telling more stories of the TNGA.  I crashed hard with dreams of all-day riding.

    The next morning, we hopped out of bed and headed up to the barn for breakfast.  Bacon, eggs and the best waffles you have ever had.  So good.  Fueled up, we started sorting our gear in preparation to shuttle towards the South Carolina border that afternoon.  More and more racers started to trickle in.  I wanted to get a quick ride in and asked around to see if there were any takers. A really nice dude from Savannah named Bill Bailey said he would be up for it so we set out on an easy 8 mile gravel loop.  We chatted about the TNGA and other bikepacking routes he had been on.  He told me about the Huracan 300 and CFITT in Florida.....both of which I'll check out for 2016.  Back at Mulberry, I got cleaned up and packed up for the east bound trek.

    Get the tots

    photo credit: Mulberry Gap

    There were a couple of options for shuttling to the starting line in the east.  Brett Davidson, whom I made friends with on my previous trip to Mulberry, offered to give Sean and I a ride. This beat the shit out of the other option, piling into the church van, so we quickly took him up on it. We spent some of the ride with Brett telling us about how brutal the route was.  I knew part of this was drama mixed with some sober reality.....Brett's style.  On the way to the yurts we stopped at a restaurant in Clayton called the U-Joint and ate burgers.  While there, some of us decided to order something to go so we could eat another meal before lights out.

    Getting to the yurts, Sean and I made a beeline to one of the smaller units that only had three bunk beds.  Less people, less noise, more sleep.  Some of the other yurts had up to eight bunkbeds......no way, no how.  We hauled our gear in and set out the kits that we would be wearing for the duration of the race.  I had once thought I would take a second set of bibs to keep my ass happy, but I found during my test run a few weeks ago that this was completely unnecessary for a 3 day journey.  We were joined in our bunk house by the infamous Monte as well as someone with a really interesting story.

    Yurts were really nice

    photo credit: Mulberry Gap

    Ryan Brown made his way to the race start via bus from Pittsburg to Chattanooga, and then rode to Mulberry Gap.  He had some really great stories about bicycle touring from Canada to Central America over a 10 month period. The next journey on his list struck me with much jealousy. In a few months, he plans on picking up where he left off in Central America and making his way down to Tierra del Fuego.  When Wendi and I traveled to Argentina earlier this year, I was completely enchanted with the thought of riding the length of Chile and Argentina by either Ruta 40 or Carretera Austral. This guy is doing my dream ride and then some.

    Awesome food, early chatter.

    photo credit: Mulberry Gap

    I tucked into my sleeping bag on a top bunk and drifted away. I have never had much issue sleeping the night before a big race, and this night was no different.  The alarm went off at 5am and I hopped up, trying to sneak out of the yurt as quietly as possible.  I walked over to the dining hall to see I was the first rider in there with Andrew, Brett and Kate.  The food was starting to come out so I started grazing.  Bagels with cream cheese, some fruit, coffee.  The second course was eggs and bacon. Beating the rush, I headed back the yurt and grabbed my kit and toiletries to occupy a bathroom for a few minutes to take care of business and don the spandex I would hopefully be wearing for three days or less.  I filled my water bottle and my 2.5L bladder in the kitchen sink.  Sean and I quickly got our bikes loaded up on Brett's car and there was plenty of time to chill before we set off to a non-descript parking lot on the GA/SC border.  Nerves in camp were getting high.

    Day 1 - Excellent Climbs

    Sean and I....riding buddies 4 life

    photo credit: Mulberry Gap

    The drive to the start was a pretty quick 45 minutes and conversation was light.  Brett, being the awesome tour guide he is, pointed out significant mountain passes and waterways on the way.  We pulled into the lot and hopped out of the car sizing up other racers who had not been staying with us at the yurts.  It is pretty 

    fascinating

     to see the wide variety of bike setups. From the ultra light side of the spectrum carrying only a few bottles and maybe a small saddlebag to the fully loaded bagged out variety. I would say I fell into the latter. Some wore backpacks but most did not.  I do not tolerate weight on my back very well, so I definitely did not go the backpack route. I only carried a large bottle with Tailwind in my middle jersey pocket and a smaller shorty bottle in my right jersey pocket to carry reserve water.  My phone was typically in my left jersey pocket unless it was raining or when I was charging it.

    Just before the start at the South Carolina border

    photo credit: Mulberry Gap

    There was a lot of nervous milling around and short conversations at the starting area.  Everyone was making last minute checks and tightening down their loads. The only final adjustment I made was putting a few extra pounds of air in each of my tires as they felt a little soft.  From the back of a truck bed, the race director Derek Kozlowski gave a quick recap of the rules and route and asked everyone to line up on the bridge. Once lined up and without much fanfare, a subtle "ready, set, go" was commanded by Koz.  Everyone clipped in and rolled out at a very mellow pace.  The small crowd of supporters on the bridge cheered us on and that was it.......we were off on a 350 mile journey.

    All year long I had been training with a power meter. This became my best friend in knowing what kind of an effort I was capable of sustaining for different periods of time.  With much practice, I had determined that my all-day pace was between 200 and 220 watts.  Rolling up some of the early climbs while we were all warming up, I really focused on getting a feeling for what this effort felt like out here.  I'm not one who is glued to the screen constantly, but I will occasionally glance to see where I am. Conversations up the early climbs were nice. Up front, I chatted with Chad Hungerford about his experiences with this route and he actually remembered reading a blog post of mine from a couple weeks back. Super humble guy.

    The feet were never dry....

    photo credit: Mulberry Gap

    The early climbs weren't bad at all, but I dropped off of some of the riders who had packed lighter. Never in the entire race did I regret p

    acking what I did, but I definitely have goals to cut weight. Miles ticked by pretty quickly. Although finding the entrance was difficult, the Darnel Creek trail was great fun....very rugged, rough cut and some blowdown to hike around. Some sections followed water and were a little slippery. The Rabun post office w

    as passed without stopping.  At some point we were cooking down a gravel road and I noticed there were some familiar cars parked on the side of the road and my garmin was telling me I was off track. I didn't remember seeing a turn but headed back to see where the route was supposed to go. I remember being told about a water crossing where you couldn't see the trail until you ventured out into the shallow bottoms and this had to be it. I plunged into the water and was surprised to see Brett and Kate standing in the water tucked up under the trees on the shore to the right. I started laughing at them when I spotted them, stopped pedaling and stopped for a minute to chat with them in the middle of the river crossing. I spotted where the trail picked back up across the stream and headed that way. I believe this was the last time my feet were dry most of the route.

    One the few easy descents

    Shortly after this, we popped out on to highway 76 for a shallow road climb. I was accompanied by a singlespeeder named Matthew Sweeney and another fella named Phil Canning. Researching from years past, I knew that we were about to come upon a place called Top of Georgia Hostel. In years past,  people have camped out at the end of the driveway offering riders ice cold cokes and peanut butter sandwiches.  I could almost taste the bubbly sugar rush of the Coca-Cola, but was disappointed to see the driveway vacant.  Oh well.....only about 45 miles to Helen. Luckily, on the way to the yurts the day before we drove along this same stretch of highway.  I heard that finding where the trail jumped off of the highway could be a little tricky to find, so I asked Brett to drive slow so we could pick it out.  And there it was.....just after a break in the guardrail, a trailmarker with the number 164 on it.  Finding it on this day was very easy after spotting it the previous day.  Matt, Phil and I turned onto the trail and headed down some singletrack for a while before dumping back out onto a gravel road.  The road made its way down the mountain and we decided to stop in at a campgroud to top off on water and grab a bite to eat.  The park had a pretty well stocked camp store where I grabbed a can of sardines and a snickers bar.  I scarfed the oily fish down in the parking lot and ate the candy bar on the road.  Weird combination but it definitely satisfied.

    Somewhere down the road we turned off the fairly busy Unicoi Turnpike and onto a really nice gravel grade. I knew that just before Helen there was an infamous climb named Tray Mountain.  I asked Matt if that was indeed the section we were on and he confirmed.  After about 800 feet of climbing the road headed down for a little relief.  No way that could have been all there was to this legend of a climb.  I caught up to Matt and asked him if that was it.  He said that sadly, it was not. He explained that Tray wasn't necessarily a hard climb but a relentless one.  Pedaling on, I found this road was cut like many other big climbs I have encountered.  Up, up, up.....curve or switchback, up, up, up.....repeat.  It was a pretty pleasant climb with a consistent grade that allowed to you stick to one gear and just grind away.  Eventually the gravel gave way to a open red dirt parking lot of sorts. There were quite a few trails that shot off in different directions.  Luckily Matt was right there and pointed me in the right direction.

    The first trail down the backside of Tray was my first real taste of the difficulty of TNGA. Going down is just as hard as going up.  The first section down the back of this mountain was a very rocky jeep road.  My heavy bike wanted to go fast, but you really had to maintain your speed so you had the time to pick a decent line through the chunder.  After a few miles, this gave way to another parking area that looked very similar to the previous one. Matt said this is where the notorious Hickory Nut Trail began. Once again, there were a few roads and trails that left from this parking lot so it was nice to have an experienced guide with me. Hickory Nut was fairly well covered with canopy and the sun was starting to go down, which made picking a good line through the singletrack a little difficult.  To add to this, there were big rocks strewn everywhere on the trail. Like head sized rocks.  Just sitting there in the trailbed. Misplaced. Evidently these rocks got here from bears and wild hogs flipping them over looking for grubs and whatever else bears and hogs eat from under rocks. By this time, I am starting to feel some of the fatigue of the day wear on me, and it takes all of my concentration to either not run off the side of the trail and spill down the mountain, or smack into one of these nice sized rocks and eat shit. Before I knew it,  I was back on asphalt and descending towards the town of Helen.

    Woody's Bike Shop

    should be just ahead.....and then I whizzed by it on the right. I turned around and then headed up the gravel driveway to this oasis, where I was greeted with cheering and cowbells.  Just short of 100 miles into this epic journey.

    This guy loaded up on waaayyyy too much sugar at Woody's

    photo credit: Mulberry Gap

    Rolling into Woody’s I racked my bike, pulled off my helmet and gloves and made a line straight to a tub where they had some glistening red cans of Coke iced down.

    Cracked it open and took in the refreshing nectar, limiting myself to little sips although all I wanted to do was chug it.

    I found a seat at a picnic table next to Matt, who had gotten there a few minutes before me, and walked over to see what the food offering looked like.

    I grabbed a plate of eggs and a few pieces of bacon for my first course, and then went back for a bagel with cream cheese, a banana, some pickles and topped it off with a piece of cake.

    I sat around chatting with some of the other racers for some time.

    Justin Hurd informed me that his race was over as he blew his fork out.

    Next to the shop, I saw this wild haired kid named Sam Harney working feverishly on his rear tire, pulling a brand new Schwalbe out of packaging.

    I remember passing this guy early on where he was working on the same wheel.

    As I was washing my bike off and cleaning up my drivetrain, I gave Wendi a call at Mulberry Gap to let her know everything was going great.

    Bike cleaned, I topped off my water and packed a few to-go snacks to keep me fueled for the ride ahead.

    Back on the road, I knew the infamous climb over Hog Pen Gap lay ahead of me.

    As the sun was setting I started heading up this paved climb, but I soon found that I just couldn’t get my legs under me.

    I started getting passed by other riders, and I had to stop a few times to take a break.

      T

    hen it dawned on me that I made a total rookie mistake back at Woody’s by gorging myself on entirely too much food.

    All of the blood in my body had evacuated my legs and instead was focused on digesting the immense amount of food I had just loaded in my stomach.

    I slowly continued up the climb, taking breaks as I needed and eventually crested the gap.

    Just as I hit the top, the sky was starting to light up with a crazy amount of lightning and crashes of thunder were stealing the quiet silence of the night.

    This continued during the screaming fast descent down the backside of the gap, and I was just hoping that I could make it to Vogel State Park at the bottom before the inevitable rain set in.

    Surprisingly, there was no rain yet with all of the noise and light in the sky.

    I started to see signs for the park, and began thinking whether I should just push on past Vogel to the next mountain pass.

    I decided to swing into Vogel to finish letting my food digest and see what this storm did.

    Pulling into the registration building, I saw a couple of other racers sitting on benches next to a glowing red coke machine.

    Hank Campbell, a teammate of his and a young kid from the Sewanee Cycling Club named James Dunaway were all talking about how far they were going to push on when I rolled up.

    I sat on a soft patch of grass and pulled out my phone surprised to see I had a few bars of LTE.

    Opening up a weather app I couldn’t believe that it only said that there was slight drizzle in the forecast for the next hour.

    Maybe this was just a big electrical storm?

    I was really on the fence as to whether I was going to push on over Wolf Pen Gap or sit around and see what this storm was going to do.

    The trio I was chatting with decided to push on and I resorted to finding a place to rest for a few hours.

    On the way into the park, I remember seeing a pavilion with some picnic tables.

    This looked like a perfect place to stay off the ground and out of any rain that may head our way. I peeled off my kit and put on a pair of running shorts, some thick wool socks and my rain jacket.

    I threw my buff on my head and laid down on the picnic table.

    Before crashing out I drank a couple of liters of water as well as a serving of

    CarboRocket Rehab

    .

    I set my alarm for 3:30am and started to snooze off.

    Somewhere in the middle of the night the wind picked up and the rain started.

    I pulled my bivy out of my seat bag as I was starting to get a little cold and zipped up.

    The sound of the rain actually made it a little easier to get some rest.

    Every once in a while, I would wake to the sound of thunder or a set of squealing brakes of another racer pulling into the park.

    Day 2 - Sweet Singletrack

    Breakfast of champions

    Around 3:30am I woke up to the sound of the alarm on my phone.

    The rain had stopped and it was nice and cool.

    I packed up most of my gear and headed over to the laundry facility at the park to dry my wet kit before getting on the road for the day.

    After the torrential downpour just hours before, I was actually surprised there wasn’t a racer sleeping in the laundry room.

    I put my kit in a dryer and ate a breakfast of canned sardines and a Belgian waffle, washing it down with two packets of Via instant coffee poured in a bottle of cold water. I was starting to feel pretty human.

    I grabbed my kit from the dryer and slipped the warm, dry but stinky kit on for another day of pedaling.

    As I was getting packed up, a few other racers followed the light into the laundry room and happily threw their wet clothes into the dryers as well.

    I spent some time chatting with Chris Joice, Peri Garite and a few others. Knowing that Chris had done the route before, I asked him what he thought the Aska trails would be like after getting a bunch of rain. The answer wasn't awesome.

    After getting back on course you almost immediately turn onto Wolfpen Gap Road.  Getting into the climb, I was pleasantly surprised at how well my legs were feeling and that it was a pretty consistent grade. After about three miles there was a slight relief which I wasn't expecting. After a couple hundred more feet, I 

    realized

     I had missed a turn off to the right so I doubled back. The turn was a little tough to see in the dark, but I found Duncan Ridge Rd and continued climbing on gravel for about a mile before the grade turned down into miles of very fun rollers. A couple of turns were made on the way down passing through some rural residential area and I vividly remember coming to a pretty deep creek crossing, which marked the last time my feet would be dry that day. A few miles later, I popped out of the woods and hit highway 60 where there was a pretty well known convenience store which, unfortunately, wasn't open yet. Bummer. Not too much further down were some really nice and tacky gravel/dirt roads - I believe it was the Cooper Creek area -  where I saw at least one person camped out. I found out later that it was to John Hightower.

    Pretty cool bridge crossing

    Just up the road I came upon a really cool bridge which crossed the Tocca River. Just on the other side of that, I saw a few buildings and the Iron Bridge Cafe, which I heard had great food.  It was closed for business.  Bummer.....getting hungry.  The good news was that the water spigot on the side of the building still worked, so I topped off and back on the road.  I was now on Aska Road, so this could only mean I was getting close to the trails. After dealing with a little bit of fast traffic and a stout climb, I was in the trailhead parking lot. I pulled out my cue sheets, looked at the map at the kiosk, and mapped out my course through the network of trails.  On this section I was going to have to pay pretty close attention to cue sheets and mileage.  I gave Wendi a quick call to let her know I was in good spirits and hit the trails.

    Just as I put tires on dirt it started sprinkling.  No big deal... I've ridden trails in the rain before.  The first few miles on the Aska trails were really nice.....until I turned onto Stanley Gap trail.  I had heard that this was a tough climb but that was a huge understatement. In the rain, this trail has significant portions that are completely unrideable. It would level off to where I could remount, I would ride for a couple hundred feet and then round a corner where I was met with extremely steep rock and root stairs.  Get off, hike it up, repeat.  This seemed to go on forever.  Somewhere along the way, John Hightower and another rider caught up with me.  We chatted for a while before they went ahead as I struggled up some of the technical bits. I was completely frustrated, but when I get into these types of situations, I rationalize it by telling myself that it will eventually be over. A section or a trail cannot go on forever. At some point I crested the gap, descended down about a mile or so of trail, and then spit out onto gravel for the rest of the descent. Looking back at the effort, it is easily some of the hardest hike a bike I have ever done. A measly 8 miles of trail took my 2.5 hours to complete.....ouch.

    After a few more miles, I ended up in a small town called Cherry Log.  I remember noting that in this town there would be a convenience store or gas station. Or wasn't Jack's here?  I still had some snacky bike food, but I was pretty cooked and hungry for some real food. I tried finding something in the vicinity on my phone but cell service was sketchy. Just when I was getting ready to head back on the route, a friendly face named JP Evans came pedaling down the road. I asked him where Jack's country store was, and he said it was still a good two hours down the road.  For a split second I freaked out and then just grabbed reality and JPs wheel and headed down the road. We had a fantastic conversation talking about previous times he had done this route and his experience doing the Tour Divide a few years ago. The riding was pretty easy, mostly paved and the miles just ticked by.  We hit highway 2 and JP proclaimed that the country store should be right up the road.

    Getting to this store was an enormous mental relief.  Opening the door we were greeted by the owners and I was visually overwhelmed.  Rows and rows of shelving with packaged foods and coolers full of cold drinks. A really nice lady named Donna told JP and I about all of the sandwiches and hot food they had available, and we started placing our orders and grabbing things off of the shelves.  My focus was on getting snacks to refill my feedbag. I grabbed some trail mix, small candy bars and a few granola bars. I ordered a BBQ sandwich and a chicken salad sandwich. Grabbed two bags of chips and an ice cold Coca Cola. As we were settling up, Donna was really sweet, taking our pictures and telling us where we were currently placed according to Trackleaders.

    This sign seemed so much bigger.....really.  I <3 Cohuttas.

    Stepping outside to eat, we saw another rider named Jon Livengood who was just finishing up his stop and packing up.  JP and I both ate one of our sandwiches, some chips and a Coke as we shared stories.  I was still hungry but I remember what happened the night before after the stop at Woody's so I packed up the rest of my food and refilled water.  With a nice 30 minute stop to get refueled, JP and I were back on the road. We were back onto gravel pretty quickly and winding up a really nice gravel grade which I later learned was Watson Gap. At the top of the climb there was a sign I had seen before, which put me on top of the world.  "Welcome to the Cohutta Wilderness"  I knew right where I was.  I had been looking forward to the sweet, sweet singletrack that lies ahead all day long.

    Cresting the gap led into a really fast gravel descent down to the South Fork trail. This lead sinto the northern terminus of the Pinhoti trail system. Visiting this area about a month ago gave me some really good familiarity with the trails in the Cohuttas, and I was having a great time ripping down the mountain. A couple of rollers led up to the Mountain Town overlook and then DOWN Potato Patch dropping into the Bear Creek Trail parking lot. Lots of technical descending on the spur and then great riding on the main trail. The best thing about these trails is how fast they drain after a good soaking. Nice hard trailbed, lots of elevation and great design make these trails so much fun to ride. Before I knew it I was on P2, which is easily my favorite trail in the system, and I was feeling great. When I popped out onto gravel I knew I was just a few miles away from Mulberry Gap.

    Feeling good.....should have hit P3

    photo credit: Mulberry Gap

    Cruising down the road making my way to my stop for the day, I saw a silhouette in a black hat at the top of the road. I knew right away it was Brett Davidson, snapping pics. I stopped and chatted with him for a bit, talking about how miserable Stanley was and how awesome it was to get to the Cohuttas. Making my way down the road, I really considered skipping Mulberry Gap and just getting into P3. Next year I will probably make the skip, but for this year it was a nice planned stop to get a good meal, cleaned kit and a most excellent surprise to see my wife when I climbed up the driveway. Pulling in, I was feeling really good and it was nice to sit down and chat with some other racers that were taking a break at the Gap.  Scott

    Sidener

    was there taking it easy, JP rolled in a while later and Eddie O'Dea was there hanging out.

    Day 3 - The Snake

    Click for Strava activity

    After eating and changing clothes, Wendi and I got a few hours of sleep in the cabin. I set my alarm for 2am but somehow missed it and woke up at 3:15. Eek!  Got up, got dressed, ate a light breakfast, kissed Wendi goodbye and hit the road. I could have used a LOT more sleep and really did not feel like getting on the bike, but once I got my legs spinning my mood quickly changed. After following the gravel road back to the trails I got onto Pinhoti section #3 (P3), which was pretty climby with some really tight switchbacks. My mindset getting into this section was to take it easy to get good and warmed up, and that worked out really well. I cleared lots of spiderwebs and was surprised by some bats swooping into the beam of light from my helmet light to snatch attracted bugs. Close to the end of P3 I saw a light coming towards me.  This was really weird.....5am and someone coming up this section of trail wasn't quite right.

    When I caught up to the light I was surprised to see it was JP Evans.  I sat and talked to him for a couple of minutes, and it turned out he had gotten turned around somewhere at the bottom of P5 and accidentally backtracked up the mountain. He had decided to head back to Mulberry Gap and pack it in, completely smoked and mentally exhausted. I tried to get him to grab my wheel and come back down the mountain, but it was a no-go, which really bummed me out. Wrapping up P3 and popping out onto highway 2, I had a bit of trouble finding the trail entrance for P4 in the dark. I had to pass by it a few times before catching a reflection off of a turkey foot trail marker.  I was getting good and warmed up, and feeling amazed at how well my legs were feeling with 200+ hard miles in them. P4 went quick, rolled down Tatum Lead and into P5 which is a great section of trail. Not at all technical, mostly flowy and quick. One thing I remember about riding this section of trail was that it felt very "bear-y" for some reason. Pretty low lying trailbed, very dark from canopy cover, creek crossings...

    just felt like a great place for bears to hang out.  I was disappointed that I didn't actually see any bears.

    Peeples Lake road led into a really awesome, easy to miss newer section of trail called Dennis Mill (nothing actually says this though).  From previous riding I remembered a white trail marker on a tree to the left, and there was a broken Stihl bar cover at the base of the tree.  It should also be noted that a ton of trees on this trail have orange spray paint on them, which I can only assume was used to mark out the trail when it was being built.  Mostly downhill, machine cut with tons of flow and speed are the trademarks of this section of trail. The sun was starting to come up which made riding this trail even more fun. After about 3.5 hours after leaving Mulberry Gap, the trail dumped out onto a two lane road and I knew the next section was a flat road ride to get over to Dalton.

    Soup.....easy on the 

    stomach

    before a big climb

    Although the profile of the 20 mile section looked relatively flat, it had enough curves and rollers to keep it interesting. Little did I know I would be begging for some easy asphalt in the coming hours. I rolled into

    Bear Creek Bikes

    in Dalton around 11am and was a little surprised to see it was so quiet. I was greeted at the door by the race director Derek Kozlowski, who grabbed my bike and threw it up into a workstand to get the drivetrain cleaned up for the final leg of the journey. When we were chatting, he mentioned that I would be done in about 12 hours.  Huh? 12 hours? This was the first sign that I had grossly underestimated the difficulty of the last 75 miles ahead of me. While he was working on my bike, I freshened up and walked across the street to Panera Bread.  I grabbed a soup & sandwich and sat down inside to enjoy my chicken noodle while deciding to save my sandwiches until after I got back on top of the next mountain.

    I walked back over to the shop, refilled bottles, packed up and headed out the door thanking Derek for the service. Just a little more road getting out of Dalton and then right up a very steep climb for a couple of miles on Dug Gap to get to the top of the ridgeline. I found the start of the trail, which is a continuation of the Pinhoti trail but called "The Snake", and found a shady spot to sit down and eat half of the sandwich I had picked up down the hill. Evidently this trail claims its namesake from both the fact that rattlesnakes love to coil up on the rocks to sun, and for the way the trail wraps and winds back and forth across the ridgelines. I heard that the Snake was basically 30ish miles of singletrack covered in rocks that you had to pick your way through, similar to the rocky sections of Jekyll & Hyde at

    Oak Mountain

    in Birmingham, Alabama. Over the past few years I feel like I have gotten much better at technical riding, so I just locked myself into taking it easy through the tough parts, keeping my head up and picking good lines.

    Even a sign welcoming us!

    It was slow going through the rocky ridges, which I expected, but overall pretty enjoyable riding. Most of the sections through very technical lines were very straight which made line selection fairly easy. The hardest part was dropping off of one ridgeline and then climbing back up to another.  Every one had more of the less the same characteristics, and after a while got somewhat monotonous and boring. Up, ride some rocks, down.....repeat. I wasn't exactly sure where the Snake ended but at some point around 30 miles in I ran into a clearing just before Armuchee Road and looked to my left to see horse stables. Derek and team had mentioned that one of the only places to get water on course on this final 75 mile section was at a stable, so this had to be it. I rolled over and saw a sign welcoming racers to refill their bottles right next to a water hose. I wasn't completely tapped out on water but I ended up taking a little break to grab a bite to eat and top off my bladder and bottles.

    Cuesheet says "big stone column on the left"

    Took me a while to find this guy....

    After a short section of road riding, I was back off-road and climbing up another ridgeline. Another ridgeline?  I thought after the 30ish miles of the Snake it was just an easy, mostly downhill, spin to the state line. Not the case. More ridges, more climbing and darkness setting in. Singletrack or gravel ends, cross a road and then back onto singletrack. At this point in the race there were moments where I honestly just wished it would end, but as the air cooled and the stars came out it once again became really fun riding. Complete darkness other than the lights you are wearing and a humbling sense of solitude in the wilderness. On the last few ridgelines there was a LOT of deadfall, presumably from storms that had passed through in the previous week. Some of them were pretty challenging, requiring you to either pick your 40lb bike up and over tree trunks and then climbing your way through, or hiking you and your bike up the slope off the trailbed to find your way around the base of the tree, and then back down the slope to find the trail again.  This definitely killed momentum but it did make it a little more interesting.

    If I remember correctly, the last ridgeline after crossing highway 27 was mostly doubletrack with fast and fun rollers. This made the miles tick by pretty quickly. The last few miles before dropping off the ridge turned back into twisty singletrack, where I once again started seeing signs of fatbike tires. Scott had to be really close.  I was almost immediately on highway 100 and then a turn was indicated which lead to an old rail trail which was assumed by the Pinhoti system.  More turkey track trail markers made it fairly easy to spot. Being a trail converted from an old railbed, it was dead flat and mostly straight. Within just a few minutes of being on this section, I saw a faint blinking red light about a half mile or so ahead. This could only be one person! I clicked down a few gears and got on the pedals. It took a few miles to close the gap, but in no time I had caught up to Scott. We chatted for a few minutes and I asked if he was still going to turn it around at the state line and head back to South Carolina and he confirmed that was his plan.

    Done and done

    After turning up the heat, my legs were feeling really good so I kept pouring fuel on the fire. The rail trail eventually ran out and dumped back onto highway 100. This only lasted a few miles before it intersected highway 20.....the final stretch.  I made the right turn and kept it going. This road had mile markers, so it was dead simple to know how much asphalt remained.  3 miles.....a few rollers.....2 miles.....1 mile.  Almost there. Keeping the pressure on the pedals. I passed one gas station on the right which by this time was closed. I stood up, dumped my cassette and sprinted across the state line to finish. No more than 100 feet past the "Welcome to Alabama" sign a semi flew past me with maybe only a foot to spare sucking me into the middle of the lane.  That would have been a pretty horrible way to finish a 350 mile journey.

    I checked over my shoulder for any other oncoming traffic and turned it around to head back to the gas station and call it a night. Andrew was there waiting and we chatted for a while and in just a few minutes Scott came rolling down the road. We reminisced about the past couple of days and talked about his return trip home. The TNGA route had never been yo-yo'd before and Scott was hoping to be the first riding a singlespeed fatbike. What a stud! I was starving, so Andrew and I headed into Rome, GA, to grab a bite to eat before the next rider came across the state line. Once we rolled back into the gas station it wasn't but a few minutes before Peri Garite came rolling through. We all chatted for bit and then piled into the truck and wished Scott a safe ride back east.

    It took a few hours to shuttle back to

    Mulberry Gap

    , but it went by pretty quick between chatting with Andrew and catching some sleep. Once back we unloaded, I ate a half a pizza and a beer and made my way down to the cabin to take a quick shower and pass out. By the time I got to bed I think it was close to 5am and falling asleep was easy. I was surprised when I woke up at 8:30am full of energy and ready to go. Soreness in my legs was starting to set in, but I got everything packed up in the truck and drove up the hill to grab some breakfast on the way out of town. The barn was pretty quiet, but as usual the food was awesome and I was starving. Eggs, bacon and two blueberry waffles.  Finishing breakfast, I had a really good chat with Sam Harney about his race, coming in second just behind Chad Hungerford, and all of the other bikepacking routes he has raced. Oregon Outback, Stagecoach and more. The coolest thing about this discipline of cycling is how laid back and humble most people are. I said my goodbyes to Mulberry Gap crew and headed home for the 6 hour journey.

    Reflection - Continuous Improvement

    Squeezy therapy

    So that was my race.  My first bikepacking race. Two days, sixteen hours and thirty eight minutes. Just a few hours under my three day goal. For about 3 days after the race, my legs were pretty swollen so I spent a lot of time rolling, stretching and sitting in my

    Elevated Legs

    . The only real injury I sustained was some tendonitis in my left lower leg and almost a month later I still have some numbness in my toes and right pinky. Being on the bike that long, you have a whole lot of time to think.  I kind of grouped my goals and areas of improvement into three buckets:

    1. Lighten the bike. I'll be working on getting a lighter setup this fall and ditching unnecessary items. My hope is to get my loaded rig, including food and water, well under 40 lbs.
    2. Continue with strength work. For a vast majority of the race I could feel where the core and upper body work my coach put into my plan came into play. I felt much more stable climbing and I never really felt any upper body fatigue while making technical descents (and there were a lot of them) until the last day.
    3. Increase FTP. First and second day I had no problem holding 220-240 watts while under power. The third day was tough to keep the mojo on the pedals and many times I just felt like I was out of fitness. I'll be working hard with Lynda this winter to get ready for some solid early season races in 2016.

    Would I recommend this route?  Yup. It is hard......really hard. The climbs are tough, and you get very few breaks on the descents as they are pretty technical. There is a good amount of hike-a-bike through some sections like Stanley Gap, and ridge climbing on the Snake. The gravel sections are really well groomed and the singletrack is so, so sweet.  Cannot wait to crush this route in 2016.