Finding the Breaking Point
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.
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.