Ahead of me, the Arizona Trail snaked into the forest, disappearing behind the shadow of ponderosa pines, and re-emerging in a stretch of marsh lit by a sliver of moon. I dismounted my bike and plunged off a muddy bank onto a log submerged in stagnant water. After seven scorching days racing through southern Arizona, this riparian zone on the rugged southeast flank of the Colorado Plateau offered a reprieve from the harsh Sonoran desert, but without the constant pricks and jolts from agave, cholla, and cat’s claw to center on, my mind wandered where I didn’t want it to go.
It was November 2nd, or maybe 3rd, depending on whether or not the clock had struck midnight yet. I didn’t care. This time last year, I was deep in the relentless clutches of psychosis, and moving my body outside, no matter the time of day, made wrangling with grief and humiliation easier.
Pedaling Through Trauma
My body felt clammy, I’d been overheating for hours, not wanting to stop and shed a layer. I longed for a breeze and missed the way my bike light in the desert stretched beyond the scraggly outline of creosote and slipped around the silhouette of saguaro. Nausea came and went as I climbed into darkness. I set my mind on cresting the Mogollon Rim, less than 2,000 feet above, where the trail rolled past my home in Flagstaff toward the abrupt edge of the Grand Canyon. Once on top of the Rim, I’d have 200 miles left to pedal, plus one long hike with my bike strapped to my back across the Grand Canyon. Then my name, riddled with stigma from the psychotic episode, would be listed as holding the unsupported 800-mile Arizona Trail Race women’s record. Thinking about my name prompted another wave of nausea. I turned up my light to the highest setting, wasting batteries to calm my nerves as details from the past year flooded in.
By now, I was accustomed to these flashbacks, and when I couldn’t control them I made the best of it by clipping them into anecdotes and stringing them into a narrative, trying to sort out what had happened to me. I held on for the emotional ride, knowing something—a flat tire, a rock in my shoe, anything to distract my attention—would eventually snap me back into the present. Memories of my mental health crisis started where they usually did, in October of 2020, at the beginning of psychosis, when I insisted my name was Harper, first to neighbors and then to the police who were asked by friends and family to perform house checks. I forgot I was a Senior Lecturer at a university and an elite mountain biker who had recently won the National Ultra Endurance Series. I changed my name on Instagram, posted I was 26 instead of 36, described myself as a rock climber and river guide, and claimed I was looking for my long-lost husband, who, in reality, was a former student I’d briefly dated. The week before I was finally hospitalized, while thinking someone was trying to shoot me, I ran across the street in a snowstorm and knocked on a neighbor’s door to ask if I could spend the night. I curled up in her bathtub and cried until sunrise, when I suddenly became convinced she wanted to poison me and darted out the door, without my shoes or coat, through a foot of snow back to my house.
A newly prescribed medication triggered the psychosis. I’d walked into a nurse practitioner’s office looking for something to take the edge off anxiety and walked out with an (it turns out, incorrect) ADHD diagnosis and a prescription that brought on an impending sense of doom, unlike anything I had ever experienced before. The initial medication was swapped for another prescription, and the newest prescription gradually eroded my self-awareness, replacing my problem-solving skills with hyper-focus and an obsession with details.
Mania was my prelude to psychosis, undressing me for good over a long weekend, after the nurse practitioner had tripled the medication dose, continuing to frame the side effects as ADHD symptoms. This is where the flashbacks get fuzzy: someone had suggested a book that would help me cope with my sudden whirlwind of emotions, and I’d consumed every page, blowing off the student papers I needed to grade, dodging the plans I’d made to ride my bike, neglecting to grocery shop, living off espresso, a few bites of leftover quinoa, and the prescribed dose of my ADHD medication. Each day morphed into the next, sleep overtaking me for a few hours just before daybreak.
The twenty-five-year-old Grand Canyon river guide I was dating at the time, who I later thought was my betrothed-since-birth husband, revived me momentarily on Sunday evening, shortly after I’d finished the book, with a to-go order of Pad Thai. I was in the front yard, half-naked in a sports bra and spandex shorts, obsessively staking up sunflowers when he called to say he’d just gotten off the river and wanted to know if I was interested in Thai food for dinner. I felt my bare waist with my free hand: I’m skinny! I thought, realizing I had unintentionally fasted for three days and wondering—suddenly—about my current weight-to-power ratio. Then I heard static on the phone, followed by something about being at my place in an hour, and I went inside to put on mascara and change my clothes six times. I was mopping the floor and dancing to Lake Street Dive’s “Good Kisser” when my young lover walked in the door.
The Pad Thai calmed the electricity pulsing through me, soothing the pounding in my head and hushing the gurgling in my stomach. I wanted to devour every noodle but distractions got in my way. His blue eyes. The dust on my floorboards. What music should we listen to? I need to put the mop away. Look at this watermelon I grew! Did I tell you I’ve started training again? For a 200-mile gravel race. There’s ice cream in the freezer! Tell me more about the Grand Canyon. I want to be a river guide. Let me feed you a strawberry from my garden! Shit, I forgot you were allergic. Sorry.
A few days after our night of Thai food, my innocent date went back into the Grand Canyon; paranoia shattered me soon after he left and psychosis took hold shortly after that. My brother, worried about several odd Instagram posts, flew out to check on me. He witnessed a psychiatric Telehealth appointment where I presented with dilated pupils and delusions in which I’d decided an ex-boyfriend of mine had turned off my internet and also killed a dog. I described struggling to keep it together, and in return, my ADHD medication was increased again. After picking up the new medication dose, now four times greater than when it was first prescribed, I succumbed to more delusions and scared my brother away.
My pace slowed, and in the hazy beam of my bike light, the ponderosa pines along the trail looked dark and gloomy. There wasn’t enough sensory stimulation to pull me out of the agony of the past year, and I reminded myself shedding layers of grief had become routine since the first morning of the race. Seven days ago, I’d commenced pedaling the 15 miles between me and the start line on the Mexico border well before sunrise, but halfway up Montezuma Pass, it became apparent I was going to be late. I sprinted. As the burning in my legs increased, so did the berating in my head: I’m a joke, a bumbling idiot, too much of a mess to make the start on time.
Just before the top of the pass, a truck stopped to pick me up. Friendly conversation, followed by a hug from the race organizer, and then a cheerful “Hi Chase!” from the legendary Alexandra Houchin, helped me shake off the negativity. As I pedaled away from the border, I let go of my little storm cloud, soaking up the early morning sunshine, the green and brown hues of the desert, the Huachuca Mountains rising to the north and east.
As the Arizona Trail climbed steeply in front of me, I continued to tell myself the hard feelings my memory was provoking would pass, just like they had on the first day. I dismounted my bike and walked, staring at my front tire trying to recall something more pleasant. I’d felt joy for the first time since psychosis while reuniting with an old friend, the ultra-endurance athlete Kurt Refsnider, and I focused on remembering his purple windbreaker, the blue sky, the red decals on his bike, the green sagebrush. The colors from that ride cheered my mood as I pushed my bike in front of me, into more darkness, climbing higher and higher up the Mogollon Rim.
My refreshed mood didn’t last long. I slid from the memory of riding with Kurt back into the eery aftermath of the psychotic break. In March of 2021, five months after my brother’s visit, I came out of psychosis and faced the ashes of my life. I’d lost my job, savings, bike sponsorships, community, and every photo I’d ever taken. I’d thrown my phone and laptop into a snowbank and locked myself, permanently, out of all online accounts. I spent hours on the phone, on hold, trying to regain access to my life. I filled out teaching applications but didn’t send them because my work references, who had been mentors and colleagues for nearly a decade, didn’t respond to my emails. I tried reaching out to friends. Most wanted space.
I was a skeleton of my once resilient self: paralyzed by all I had lost and without a clue as to how to move forward. My dopamine receptors had been damaged. I’d lost grey matter. In a desperate attempt to carve out a new career, I’d driven to United Bicycle Institute in Ashland, Oregon for a professional bike mechanic course. I barely passed. On the last day of class, I called my mom, shaking from the tears I’d been holding back. “The Arizona Trail Race is in two months,” I said. “I want to race it. I need to start riding my bike again if I’m going to be okay.”
She supported me. She’d gone through her version of hell the last fifteen years and come out the other side. Her wine bar could sponsor me for the next ten weeks while I trained for the race. After the phone call, I worked on my bikes, replacing cables and indexing gears. New chain on one bike, new brake pads on the other. “Zen in the art of bike maintenance,” my mom labeled it when I told her my brain was working better now that I had a purpose.
The night before my first big training ride, while camped at a trailhead on Mt. Ashland, a packrat peeked out from under the passenger’s seat of my van, and I spent two hours throwing pots, pans, and shoes at him until he finally scurried out the sliding door. The chaos startled a mouse, and I smacked a book on the floor near his hiding place, scaring him up the center console and across the dashboard. As he jumped out the window and onto the hood, faith in myself began to feel like a possibility again.
The next day, my self-belief was put to the test on a 78-mile loop along the Siskiyou Crest above Ashland. When the sunset, I realized my bike light was dead, so I detoured into town to buy a flashlight and navigated the final five hours of the ride, which included a 4,000-foot climb on rutted dirt roads, holding the flashlight in one hand, determined to make it back to my van before the sun came up. At 2 a.m., I crawled into my sleeping bag with tired legs, having found the glow that had gotten me through hard times in the past, knowing it would be enough to get me to the start line, and ultimately the finish, of the Arizona Trail Race.
Sparkling frost diffused the darkness, shifting my thoughts to the present when I finally emerged on top of the Mogollon Rim. I rode through the night, weaving from microclimates of ponderosa pines with temperatures above freezing into glistening meadows where a sudden burst of cold would hit my face and send a rush of sensations down my neck, into my core, and through my limbs. Frost danced on either side of the trail, flickering in my bike light as I sped by, my breath hanging like smoke until I reached the edge of each clearing and pedaled back into the relative warmth of the ponderosas.
The landscape, once again, propelled me forward. I had started the race determined to set the women’s record so that whatever people thought of me now—something along the lines of “she went crazy”—would be replaced with some version of “badass” or “damn she’s tough.” The closer I got to my goal, though, the less I cared about it. I’d only had two and a half months to train; my record would likely be smashed in the spring by Lael Wilcox with thousands of more miles of training than me. As I flew through another frost-covered meadow, cold air whipping down my unzipped jacket, I understood I was getting closer to finding what I needed.
I felt small thinking about the Grand Canyon ahead of me and smaller still, remembering the start of the race on the Mexico border just seven days before. I’d ridden from my house in Flagstaff to the start of the race, leaving at sunrise, pedaling through a frosty morning, and catching the sunset on the first evening in the Tonto Basin. My route to the Mexico border linked together 400 miles of dirt roads, sections of the Arizona Trail, and scenic highways. Freedom and hope had driven me to the start line; I’d been recapturing those feelings over and over again as I raced toward the Utah border.
Awe is the term psychologists use for an experience that draws attention to something bigger than yourself, leaving more positive emotions and reduced stress in its wake. As I pedaled around the Kachina Peaks, toward the Grand Canyon, I felt too small to hold on to the pain of the past year, so I gave up and the vast Arizona landscape absorbed it. A smaller sense of self ushered me forward, reviving me with a sense of less is more, making the sparse resources left in my life seem like just enough, rewriting possibility into what I had previously thought of as impossible. I envisioned, for the first time, how moving from one flash of hope to another might be all I needed to press on.
About my Bike and Gear
When Alexandra Houchin won the Colorado Trail Race in 2021, I pictured her in the steel-toed leather boots she was wearing when I met her in 2018, and her low profile style shifted my thinking in a very important way. I thought: here is a woman who faces hard parts of her life on a bike, racing with grit on the gear she’s got. For the first time since my traumatic life event, I was inspired to get out of bed and start pedaling, eager to use whatever gear I had left (I’d lost my sponsorships and thrown a lot of gear away while in psychosis—multiple pairs of bike shoes, a super lightweight Sea to Summit sleeping bag, and a handful of Fenix light batteries all went into the trash). I took stock of the gear left in my shed, and with a few doses of kindness from Glen Arbor Wines (my mom’s wine bar—hello new Club Ride attire) and Rogue Panda Designs, my colorful Arizona Trail Race rig was born:
2020 Liv Pique Advanced 1
Wolf Tooth 30T Oval (I pedal smash when I’m tired and like thinking the oval helps)
Bike Yoke Revive Dropper (a cartridge-less dropper with a user-friendly “burping” system when it starts to stick)
WTB Deva Saddle (a favorite for long chamois-less rides)
Wolf Tooth Fat Paw Grips (my hands don’t go numb with these grips during ultras, they do with most other grips)
Cane Creek Bar Ends (these snagged on catclaw and manzanita, but I was still glad I had them—when the AZTR upgrades to 100% singletrack I’ll probably ditch them)
2018 Stan’s CB7 Wheels with Neo Hub (I was worried about my old Neo during the race, but it made it to Utah—and now I’m excited about my new DT Swiss hub and wider rims)
Maxxis 2.4 Ardent in the front / 2.35 Ikon in the back
Rogue Panda Gordo Top Tube Bags x2
Rogue Panda Frame Bag
Rogue Panda Canelo handlebar harness and bag (not pictured, but it’s AMAZING)
Rogue Panda prototype seat bag and harness (not pictured, but it’s AMAZING)
The Arizona Trail is notoriously overgrown in the fall, and sections of the trail for the 2022 race were especially thick due to a big monsoon season, so I put a lot of thought into my daily ride kit. I chose bright colors because looking at color helps me focus on the present and stop thinking about things out of my control—important for both ultra racing and life.
Club Ride Gracie Long Sleeve Shirt (the best sun shirt I have ever worn, cool enough for hot temps but also hardy enough to stand up to cat claw and manzanita)
Club Ride Eden Shorts (the gusseted crotch is my secret weapon for chamois-less trail riding)
Pearl Izumi UV Leg Warmers (they were shredded and covered with blood by the end of the first day—the AZT in the fall is a matter of pick your poison: bare legs and scratches that hurt like hell or clammy over-heating pants)
Kahtoola Running Gaiters (great for the overgrowth down south)
A note on the photography: A portion of the image gallery is from Chase’s close friend Kurt Refsnider, who was there to greet Chase at the end of her race. The other portion, by Josh Weinberg, is from one of Chase’s recent training rides on the Black Canyon Trail.