Time Trial on the Arizona Trail 300: The Trail is Always Available
Words by Lael Wilcox and photos by Rugile Kaladyte
I started thinking about riding the Arizona Trail again while Rue and I were hiking it in November. We took a $5 FlixBus from Tucson to Flagstaff, walked one mile down Historic Route 66 and got on the trail. It took us a month to walk to the Mexican border. Walking was my mental recovery from a summer of racing. The Arizona Trail is a 789 mile hiking trail across the state. With a bike, it’s a hybrid– mostly riding, but a considerable amount of pushing too. It’s hard. It took me 270 miles of walking to start dreaming about getting back on the bike. I remember the moment– we were hiking the Gila River section and my mind started tracing the curves of the trail with bicycle wheels. And it hit me, what if I rode the Arizona Trail with a bigger, more capable bike?
I first rode the AZT in 2013 on a steel 8 speed hardtail. I came back to it in 2015 on a cross-country race bike to try to break the women’s record. I got really sick and had to abandon my attempt. I left with a well of resentment. I put the Arizona Trail back on the list of things I had to do and filed it away deep.
And then I was hiking, dreaming about biking. How would it feel to roll over these loose rocks with big tires and big suspension? Could I stay on the bike longer?
I picked up the Stumpjumper in Tucson and the very next week I was out riding the Arizona Trail. My personal challenge was to ride the first 300 miles between Christmas and New Year’s. Within the first 15 miles, I knew I’d done something right. I was smiling ear to ear so hard that my cheeks got sore. That day, I made up my mind. I was going back out to race the Arizona Trail the next chance I got.
I spent February and March guiding endurance gravel camps for The Cyclist’s Menu. I was on my bike all day every day, but never on the Stumpjumper.
Regardless, I was set on racing the AZT 750, the whole enchilada including a portage across the Grand Canyon. The weather did not cooperate with this decision. In the middle of February, we got 15 inches of snow in Patagonia, Arizona. It snowed three feet on Mount Lemmon and even more in Flagstaff. If the AZT is wet north of Pine, it’s impassable due to mud. I all but told myself that the Arizona Trail was out of the cards for me this year. I couldn’t make it for the race mid April cause I have to be back in Alaska for Anchorage GRIT.
Talking about this with Cjell Mone in the Trader Joe’s parking lot, I heard myself saying I was getting weathered out of the Arizona Trail. I didn’t want that to be true. It felt like an excuse. Then I realized, I could still race the 300– there’s a separate race that covers the first 300 miles of the Arizona Trail. I just had to make sure that Oracle Ridge, on the top of Mount Lemmon, was free of snow.
But did I want to race the AZT 300? Kait Boyle set the women’s record on the 300 last year at just under 51 hours. She broke the previous record by 10 hours. She didn’t sleep at all and she didn’t stop for more than 15 minutes the entire time. I know cause Rue and I watched the full trackleaders.com history with mouths agape. Kait Boyle is the 24 hour mountain bike world champion. I ride with platform pedals and running shoes. I don’t pretend to have skills.
And then I thought, who cares if I don’t beat the record? I’ll do the best I can out there cause that’s how I always race. At the worst, I’ll come out of it with a big ride under my belt. I couldn’t think of a better way to say goodbye to Arizona this year.
The week before the time trial, Rue and I hiked up Oracle Ridge to check on snow. From the base, it looked covered, but near the top it was clear and dry. That settled it. The time trial was a go.
I worked a full week shooting a product launch video for Wahoo Fitness with The Cyclist’s Menu. We’d start the day at 5am and finish at sunset. We all fell in love with the San Rafael Valley. Wahoo folks left on Saturday. Rue and I drove back to Tucson, got our equipment and headed back to Parker Canyon Lake for my Arizona Trail Independent Time Trial. My favorite aspect of time trials is that you can do them whenever you want. You can chase records alone. You can fit them into your own schedule and everybody’s allowed to take a crack at the title. Results speak– fastest is fastest and that’s it. Conditions can entirely change rides and that’s part of the fun. The trail is always ready to host you and I just want to be there.
I set the clock for 6am on Tuesday, March 26. We drive down to the Parker Canyon Lake trailhead Monday night. A border patrol truck is parked in the lot and leaves half an hour later. I put bags on my bike, blow up an inflatable mattress, eat some potatoes and chickpeas and go to bed at 10pm. It’s a calm, warm night without wind.
I get up at 5am the next morning, have coffee and Mexican pastries and start riding at 6:05am. I’m late to my own time trial, pretty typical.
It feels amazing out there. The best part of the beginning of a long race is having fresh legs. I put on some music about an hour in and jam to Patagonia. I’m surprised by a couple sections of freshly built trail in the Canelos thanks to AZT trail crews. It feels like a gift.
From Patagonia, the AZT bike route diverts from the hiking route due to wilderness. It follows highway 82 to Sonoita. I stop at the Steak Out to fill water from an outdoor spigot. I’m stiff getting off the bike and my low back is tight. Thirty miles in, 260 to go. I take off my helmet, lean my head under the faucet and soak my hair. It’s hot out. I chug a bottle, fill another with water and GU Roctane drink mix, down that too and fill two bottles to go. Sunglasses on, helmet on and I’m back on the bike, turning down a dirt road towards the Santa Ritas. The road gets looser in the national forest and turns onto trail. Full suspension makes this stuff fun.
I stop at Kentucky Camp to fill water from an outdoor sink and repeat the water-Roctane bottle chug. An older couple asks me what’s for dinner? I tell them I have some burritos. And I do, I packed five homemade burritos with refried beans, cheese, Spanish rice, potatoes, hardboiled eggs, green olives and Sriracha. They weigh heavy in my backpack, but that’s fuel. I also packed three big slices of chocolate chip walnut banana bread, gummy orange slices, dates and walnuts. The only problem is it’s hard to eat and ride singletrack at the same time and I really don’t want to stop.
On the otherside, I turn on my lights– a headlamp on my helmet and the Hope R4+ strapped to my bars. Now I have a sphere of light all to myself. I put the music back on and I’m ripping through Colossal Cave. I cross paths with a couple of night riders. The moon is at half blast and the night is warm. It’s fast.
I hit the pavement past Pistol Hill and stop at Saguaro Corners to fill up water from an outside sink. The dishwasher is outside smoking a cigarette. It’s 10pm.
“Okay if I fill up?”
“Yeah, of course.”
I wash my hands with soap and rinse my face. It’s salty.
It’s all downhill on the pavement past Saguaro Corner. I coast and eat a burrito and a half slice of banana bread. That should get me through the night.
I pedal a sandy wash and neighborhood streets to Redington. Then up the pass on the dirt road and back onto trail. I start listening to the Harry Potter V audiobook to keep my mind alert. It works. It’s getting near midnight and I’m still riding in a t-shirt. Such luck.
Pedaling Bellota Ranch is fun until the final 2 mile hike-a-bike ass kicker to Molino Basin. Then, it’s another 2 mile hike-a-bike to Prison Camp. I make it there before sunrise. Heidi and Zander and Drew surprise me there and we start pedaling up Mount Lemmon in the dark. The light hits us near Windy Point. Lemmon is a stunner any way you ride it, but especially that morning. No cars and fresh light. Although, I have to say, it’s kind of a bitch to ride with a 150mm full suspension bike. H&Z are relaxed and conscious of giving me space so as not to impact my ride. Incredible to be there with them for that time.
Then I’m over the top on the Control Road and onto Oracle Ridge. What a push! I put music back in the ears and get through it. Incredible views. That’s the Arizona Trail. Even when you’re struggling, you’re in such a beautiful place, you can’t not appreciate it. Everything is prickly and harder than it looks.
The descent off Oracle Ridge is a loose, steep barrel of laughs. I’m so thrilled I have this big bike. I drop the dropper post and rip it. I wish I was better at switchbacks cause it’d be so fun to nail these ones. Rue’s stationed on the trail near American Flag to take photos. I’m so surprised she’s there. We pass an older hiking couple.
“No, bandaids yet?” The man asks.
“Nope, no bandaids.” I smile.
The AZT trail crews have really improved the stretch through Oracle. It’s fast and flowy and in no time, I’m across to Tiger Mountain. I fill a little water from the cache– a big thanks to Marney at the motel for keeping that stash stocked.
I’m not going to lie. The section leading north of Tiger Mine is hard, featuring several climbs and descents in and out of drainages built on loose rock. It looks rideable, but definitely a grind. Early on, Rue and I see a pink Gila Monster and then she turns back to shoot an assignment for the New York Times. I pedal the afternoon away, listening to Harry Potter and get pretty out of it mentally. I’m hanging in there.
Super thrilled to make it to Freeman Road by sunset. Sequoia, the trail angel, has some major trail magic set up out of the back of his motor home and there are at least ten hikers camping in the parking lot. It looks like a full on party. I don’t want to lose any time, so I just fill a little water from the cache and move on. Music and fast flow singletrack time. It’s dark. I put on a long sleeve wool shirt and my lights. Time after time, there are strange fat birds sitting right in the middle of the trail and they don’t move until I almost roll over them. Their eyes shine red in my headlamp. So many animals come out at night– bunnies and hares and small rodents scurry in and out of my light.
I know Ripsey is beautiful, but I can’t see any views and my eyes start crossing on their own accord. I’m into night two with zero sleep. Right before the big climb, I pull over and lay down on the ground with my helmet on. I set my timer for eight minutes, close my eyes and breathe deeply. I tell myself that after eight minutes, I’ll see clearly. I tell myself that the earth is holding me, that I need to release into it and I’ll be able to move on. It works. I check my timer with one minute left, put my phone away, get back on my bike and pedal on. The wildflowers in my headlamp are exceptional– yellow, blue, red, orange and so much green.
I make it to the Florence-Kelvin Trailhead at 1am. Hubert and Rue are there and Hubert rides out toward to the Gila River with me to take some photos. It’s buffed out and fast at first and get looser later. Lots of climbing, lots of ledge riding in darkness without views. It’s cold near the river and warm away from it. The aromatics bring back memories of racing through the night in Switzerland, but I’m not there. I’m in the desert.
I near the high saddle at sunrise. The moment is magic, but it’s nowhere near the last of the work. There’s another solid fourteen miles of pushing and switchbacks and toppling over ridges. The sun gets hot, my lips are cracking and my chain is dry. I just want to finish. I just want to finish. I can’t stand the sound of that chain. I stop and lube it. And I’m back on the bike. Up and down and up and down. I pass a large group of hikers and all I can remember is that they’re sunburnt. I think I must be near the trailhead, but I’m not.
Then I hear Rue cheering.
“You’re two miles out. Finish strong.”
I feel like a noodle, but I grip my handlebars tighter, put my head down and pedal. There’s the trailhead sign and the parking lot with cars and that’s it. It’s over.
“It’s 9:59!” Rue shows me the time on her phone.
I look down at my bike and all I can think is, “I want to lie down. Where can I put this?”
I lean the Stumpjumper against the AZT sign and lie down in the dirt. Rue hands me a cold can of coconut water. I close my eyes and raise my arms over my head, suspended in the air. It feels oddly good.
51 hours, 54 minutes. I came up 57 minutes shy of Kaitlyn’s record. Am I happy with this result? Yes. How can I improve? I can get better at mountain biking. Did I have fun? 100%
The Arizona Trail will be there and I’m set on racing the 750 next spring.
For now, it’s time to go home to Alaska to ride bikes and go camping with 12 year old girls for Anchorage GRIT.
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