AZT 300 #5

The forecast was for snow and a southern storm. But my experience with the Tucson area weather forecasters is that they are overwhelmingly hysteric when it comes to snow levels and accumulations. I think they warn of snow when there is the slightest chance, just because it is so rare and people are not used to dealing with it.

So I didn’t put much stock in the forecast. Soon after Sahuarita Road, Jobie and I began seeing cars with inches of snow heading back the other way. A few minutes later we were driving in a blizzard. All ground was covered. And we were only going up to get to the start of the AZT 300.

photo by Mary Metcalf-Collier

I never thought the race would start like this. It’s late April and 80’s and blasting sun are the norm. Truly a freak storm.

I tried to think about how I’d start and what this meant while handing out SPOTs and trying to meet everyone. I wondered about the full AZTers, of which I should have been one. But they did arrive, on time, having already covered many a snowy mile. (The AZT full race starts earlier and at the US/Mexico border, while the AZT 300 starts at the first singletrack).

I definitely thought about bailing. The first 30 miles were already questionable enough with my weak/unstable ankle. Add in some snow and goop, and it didn’t seem very wise. I am sure I am not the only one that thought of bailing (and perhaps starting later). But there we were, and no one dropped or didn’t show due to the snow.

photo by Mary Metcalf-Collier

What a way to start a 300 mile desert epic!

I struggled at the start. The first descent threw up enough gunk to render my granny ring inoperable. I walked, I overheated, I fell behind. I rolled my bad ankle multiple times, cringing and wondering if I should turn around and get a ride out while I still could.

The snow picked up as I found myself alone. I crested a minor pass in a blizzard, cold wind driving soft flakes into my face. Though I knew racers were ahead and behind, I felt totally isolated, surrounded by fog and a world of white.

Though I was frightened and wondering why I was out there, there was something tangibly real about it. This is not ordinary life, not the everyday, not the ordinary mountain bike ride, not even the usual AZT 300. This was different, and I felt so alive, felt my blood coursing hot and somehow more real. The cold flakes felt good on my burning skin.

I found some composure, giving up on the granny ring and often walking instead. I caught up to Jefe, and it was clear we were of the same mind. It was hard to believe what we were experiencing, making it all the more meaningful. Above all we were focused on forward movement. Movement is life.

My feet were not happy, cold, wet and ankle swelling. There wasn’t anywhere to bail to, though, so I kept going. As usual, it was impossible to get any kind of rhythm until Canelo West. I finally got some continuous pedaling there as we dropped out of snow. Everything was still wet, but thankfully there was not much sticky mud.

I caught up to Todd Tanner on the road into Patagonia. Jefe rolled up as I left the store, Todd just behind me. Todd was clearly running a ‘speed’ higher than I wanted to. I was in no hurry, more anxious about how my ankle would settle out than about making good time.

He rode ahead most of the time, but I would catch up when he stopped, only to have him pass me back later.

Road conditions started out perfect, then slowly deteriorated. I wondered what would happen when we hit the forest boundary where the graded surface ends.

Right after the forest gate there was a bull dozer on the side of the road. Gone were many of the rocks of Bull Springs road, replaced with a loose surface that was more efficient at first.

Soon my tires were sinking deeply into the mud. I came around a corner and saw Todd in the distance, walking his bike up a slight incline. It was not an inspiring sight.

I knew what was about to happen, and sure enough, my tires started collecting everything in sight — rocks, sticks, leaves and layers of mud. I cursed my luck, now walking through nasty mud on my bad ankle, and at times carrying the bike to keep it from going into 80 pound mode. But it was nothing compared to the Grand Loop last year, it didn’t really bother me that much.

Todd was waiting, frustrated, where the dozer seemed to have stopped. Hallelujah! Instantly the road was rideable and barely even sticky.

I thought I might gain an advantage on Todd on the rubble-meister descents of Bull Springs that followed, knowing what I know and riding a full suspension bike. But he disappeared every time the trail turned down.

Todd was very quiet and focused. He had the guy who knows the most about the route right next to him, but asked me nothing about what was to come. I was shocked to see that he nailed the hardest turn on the whole route (off Bull Springs over to the Hopkins Road). He must have been watching his GPS like a hawk. He seemed very confident.

Especially when it came to descending. He took the lead on a particularly technical bit of Elephant Head singletrack. Not only did he clean the whole thing, he got a sizeable gap on me. There’s no way I would have ridden some of that trail if I were in his shoes, on-sighting, with bikepacking gear and hours of rough riding already taking its toll on the body.

Later I found out that Todd has a long history of pro downhill podiums, and has been racing DH and XC for as long as I’ve been riding bikes. The guy is obviously a phenomenal cyclist.

We wrapped around Elephant Head, emerging into brilliant evening light. The energy of a full day’s pedaling propelled us up the rocky trail. I heard Todd dab and fumble behind me on a ledgy climb. Ah ha! So he is human after all. Besides smoking me on the downhills, I had been watching his tires all throughout the snow of the Canelos–watching and noticing there were no foot prints beside them. Often I’d see Jefe’s foot prints, which I would then cover with my own, but very rarely would I see Todd’s. I think he cleaned more of the Canelos than anyone ever has, despite the snow.

I was psyched to make it to Madera Canyon with twilight to spare — just as fast as last year despite the snow and mud. And I felt twice as good, twice as strong. The spigot was working, so I was on my way quickly to make some miles disappear on Box Canyon.

It was really striking how good I felt here. My legs did not feel fatigued at all. My body was tired and calling for food, but otherwise I was excited to see how quickly I could make it to Tucson.

Todd and I joined up to ride the singletrack together, for the first time really riding close to each other. This year added eight or so new miles of singletrack (previous years took the highway), and they are not easy miles. Though they probably only added an hour or so of moving time, Jefe and I agreed the new trail seriously upped the difficulty level on the route as a whole.

I can’t say it was really tiring me out, but my body was slowly shutting down. I kept getting colder and colder. I was so sick of my feet being wet and numb. It was interesting to have Todd there, because I could see how little he was wearing and how comfortable he was. I was adding layers and layers and still getting cold. The humidity in the air, coming off the ground, just seemed so awfully cold. These are not conditions I am used to riding in.

Todd noticed how warm and dry it was in the I-10 culvert, throwing out the idea that it might be a good place to bivy. He may have been playing a mind game on me, because I had no intention of stopping and neither did he. But once I sat down the idea sunk in, and though I was not sleepy, I had been getting dizzy and had difficulty staying focused. I had felt pretty crappy for some time and wasn’t having fun, for sure, which was too bad since I love these trails.

I pulled out the sleeping bag. “Sometimes you have what it takes to ride all night, and sometimes, well, you don’t.” Todd rode off. I got in, still cold and now wearing everything I had. I was disappointed that I was stopping. I didn’t think I’d be able to sleep anyway, with occasional cars zooming overhead and the knowledge that wildlife use the culvert, especially at night. The only thing I remember thinking was, “This is pointless, I’m never going to fall asleep.” Then I heard Jefe opening the gate on the far side of the culvert, waking me up from a solid hour’s nap.

It took me twenty minutes to convince myself that I was now warm, not dizzy, and should leave the comfort of the culvert and sleeping bag. I could feel that my ankle had swelled up and was now quite stiff. I still couldn’t understand how I could be so cold, wearing everything I had been wearing. Everything in my experience told me that wearing that much I should have quickly overheated on any sizeable climb. But I hadn’t been, just getting colder and colder.

I left the culvert wearing everything again, and within 2 minutes I was sweating bullets and stripping things off. It was still 4am, no light detectable on the horizon, and likely degrees colder than when I had stopped. My body could now regulate temperature, and I felt comfortable again.

This is one of the first things you learn as an endurance rider — you will feel low, feel broken, like you can’t go on. But if you just keep going, you will feel better, almost guaranteed. Even as much as I have learned that lesson, it is still hard to convince yourself of it, when you’re bottoming out. But in this case I was truly reborn. At first there was no sign of Jefe. Then I saw his light, and within minutes I had caught him.

We ripped through Colossal Cave and the Rincon Valley as the world came into the influence of the sun once more. “Were these trails designed by mountain bikers? They’re so flowy…” Jefe asks. Uh, yeah, designed by someone you and I know very well.

We exited the AZT at X9 and grabbed some grub and hot drink at the store. I really enjoyed the small changes to the route here — lower traffic roads and even a much welcome section of trail. Plus – a small river crossing (this year anyway). Just off Redington Road there was a half marathon in progress, it was fun to wave and say ‘hi’ to other people out pushing endurance limits this morning. Pirate Girl was on the side of one of the roads, cheering us on and planting a “Go AZT racers!” sign. I would have snapped her pic but I thought she was cheering half marathon runners until I got a lot closer.

Usually climbing up Redington Road is a bit of a drag at this point in the race. But this morning it was just beautiful. The desert is very green and still blooming up there, and perhaps most importantly, my legs were full of strength. I was almost sad when the climbing ended. Jefe and I moved swiftly through the ledges of Chiva falls, merging onto the AZT. The last time I was riding here I was in far worse condition — hovering at the edge of cramping on my bike in singlespeed mode.

We saw some hikers who told us that Todd was about 15 minutes ahead. We both ramped up the pace for a while, but I suggested a lunch break instead. It was a good idea — I think bonk was about to settle in.

I got a ways ahead of Jefe as we neared the Molino hike-a-bike, for some reason, so I pulled out my mp3 player for the first time. After one song I caught the headphones on my bike and ripped them apart. D’oh! So much for that.

Jefe moved a lot faster than I did on the hike-a-bike, and was soon close behind. I did not like what my ankle was doing as I fumbled my way up. I had largely forgotten about it, given that there had been so little hike-a-bike in recent hours. But it felt weak and clumsy as I made missteps trying to hoist my bike up the rocks. Then, it was quite painful on the few sections I had to walk downhill towards Molino. Oracle Ridge seemed like a recipe for disaster, and I was happy just to have made it this far.

The rhythm that Jefe and I had together was the biggest reason I had to stop and think about dropping out. It was really fun to ride with him, and things were going well. But I care much more about my ability to ride on an everyday basis than I do about any race or record. If this hadn’t been my race and hadn’t been so close to home, I never would have started it. I knew that things would have to be going extraordinarily well for me to head down Oracle Ridge with my ankle as weak as it is. Things were going well enough, but I knew I could be faster and feel better. I wasn’t willing to risk it.

We found Todd, looking despondent, at Molino. He had been significantly ahead of us, but his GPS had died and would no longer show him where to go. He had left his cue sheets in his hotel, so he had no way to follow the route. On top of that, both of his lights had failed. I tried to convince him to keep going, offering my GPS since I was dropping, but he wanted to stay 100% self supported. He rode back into Tucson to try alkaline batteries and see if he could do anything to fix it. I found him at Radio Shack, trying the batteries, but it was the same story — boot up, then blank screen. Too bad, he was having a solid run otherwise.

I pedaled homeward, as I have too many times during the 300 (or reverse attempt). The head wind was pretty unreal, so I hopped on the bus for the last few miles, inhaling an oreo shake as it whisked me effortlessly home.

I’ve been fighting off swelling in my ankle ever since dropping out, but I’m still hopeful that I didn’t set myself too far back. No doubt the rolling early on in the snow did not help, and it is clearly still injured. But I can still ride, and that’s important. Meanwhile I’ve been having a blast following all the other racers. Jefe rode the most consistent 300 ever, taking over five hours off the previous record, and completely destroying my original 2006 record. I’m super stoked for him. My friend Lee Blackwell is also about to wrap up his first 300, which is very cool. I hope to see someone finish the full AZT, too.

Overall I’m very excited about this years AZT race, and even more excited for next year. I want to thank Jobie for the ride to the start, Matthew Lee for watching the tracker while I was racing, and everyone that lined up and gave it a go. Thanks for being a part of the AZT race.

9 comments to AZT 300 #5

  • YuriB

    Nice write-up Scott. If the stars align I’ll be there next year.

  • DH

    I was really stoked to see Todd Tanner in the lineup. He was living in Utah for awhile and we went head to head in the E100 series events in 05′. He’s a strong rider for sure but I thought he had quit racing as I hadn’t seen him around for a few years. I think this is his site: Check out the flyer link – big bikepacking article included. Evidently he’s been busy!

    Nice ride there Scott, and congrats on such a successful running of this years event. Now let that ankle heal, ya hear? There are a lot of new trails calling your name this year!

  • Incredible! I’m amazed you were able to do as much as you did, with your injured ankle and all the snow and mud. Loved the photos, too.

  • Chad

    An incredible event, the AZT 300 is. In the long line of events that have followed the AZT, it still remains one of the most intriguing to me. Well done on creating such a beast.

    I love the Madera Canyon/Elephant Head picture of Todd.

  • Great writeup Dr. Morris. Heal up quick and I hope to see somewhere later this summer. Given out weather lately, I may have to come back to AZ for another vacation. πŸ™‚

  • Jac

    wow that’s some amazing scenery and well captured may I add. I used to ride myself until I did my 5th vertebrae a few years back.

  • The AZT was truely an amazing experience! I will be back for another shot for sure…maybe sooner than later. It was great to have the company riding through the night…motivating at the very least. The route is spectacular, true mountain biking. I will say my choice of shoes will change next time. Live and learn, he?

  • […] See, Deanna Adams, Eric Nelson, Jackson Smith, Mary Reynolds, Matt Gindlesparger, Peter Pfister, Scott Morris, Randy Sooter, Rob Brinkerhoff, Taylor Lideen, Todd […]

  • […] case for me anyway. Even the venerable Morris found this year to be a hell of a test, according toΒ his report of swollen ankles, snow and culverts. Still, I envy the idea… source: […]

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