Humbling Arizona Trail

The AZT 750 kicked my butt! Being humbled, surprised, and caught off guard is exactly what I need sometimes to have a real adventure and an experience that I can greatly appreciate. I compete in many events every year, but few really take me out of my comfort zone to that place of uncertainty. For years I would gain those experiences through adventure racing, and then I discovered those feelings again by competing in the Iditarod race. It’s been a while since I had that deep-down, uneasy feeling while competing, but the AZT delivered all those things big time.

I sometimes, on purpose, try and set myself up for a bigger challenge by choosing events that take me from one extreme to the next. This was another reason I chose the AZT 750. I live in mountain snow-country where I barely see temps above freezing until April, and I ride a fat bike on snowmachine trails all winter. So to run down to the desert and ride chunky, technical singletrack amidst the relentless desert vegetation seemed like a perfect adventure, a real change of pace and style. The last event I competed in was the Arrowhead 135 where it was thirty-below-zero! So why not go where it will be 90-degrees-above next? From one extreme, to the other.

As I left cold, snowy Teton Valley with my loaded Salsa Spearfish, I felt prepared with the right gear, knowledge, and lots of long distance racing experience; everything I needed to complete the route. But I really had no idea what to expect of the trail except the things I had heard and the little reading I had done. I knew a few things; there is lots of singletrack, a fair amount of hike-a-bike, and the route is harsh on tires.

Singletrack…maybe it would be better described as single path. The AZT is really a through-hiker/equestrian trail, not an mountain bike-designed singletrack trail. We have some of those same types of trails here in Idaho on the Forest Service lands that I ride, but I refer to them as the backcountry trails with more adventure-type riding. Yes, the AZT trail is rideable, but it is chunky, line choice is critical, and has enough overgrowth, cactus and other non-moving vegetation hanging in the trail that when you brush against it you might as well drag yourself across a barbwire fence. The switchbacks are more like ‘v’ turns, and the downhills might require some freeride skills.

I often felt like I was in a rock tumbler or on the other end of a jackhammer. I don’t mind these types of trails, but it was not where my head was at or anything I expected from my limited research. You can imagine how exhausting riding a trail like this can be for just a few hours, but how about all day? Literally every day for eight-plus days! It was a beater. I will add it only took a day before I was back on my singletrack game cleaning a lot of the tech sections and gaining trust in my new steed. Yes, this was the first dirt ride of the year for me. Why warm up on something easy?

Hike-a-bike; I knew there would be some of that and was also told most of it was in the first 300 miles of the route, and things would then get easier. NOT! Boy, what a mind game that was. There was plenty of ‘taking the bike for a walk’ throughout the whole route. In fact, it lasted all the way to the finish. On top of that there were plenty of downed trees to negotiate. The hike-a-bike came in all kinds—sometimes just for a small pitch, sometimes that small pitch came every ten minutes, then maybe to get through some overgrowth, or to bushwhack the 18- mile Highline Trail that was overgrown with Manzanita, or to gain the 2000’ Mogollon Rim, or to hike the 24 miles across the Grand Canyon, steeply down then steeply up. I would say there was TONS of hike-a-bike. PERIOD! Do not be blindsided!

Tires were a big concern, yet I did not have a single flat on the route! I need to praise the WTB Wolverine tires and Slime sealant for that. In the end my tires might have been close to slicks with lots of iffy-looking tears, but they survived the 750 miles without using any of the excessively, overly-paranoid repair kit and three spares I brought. Maybe I was a little lucky too.

The trail may not have eaten my tires, but it did eat me. The first couple days my legs got scraped, poked, and cut by the vegetation, along with a few crashes that were needed to loosen me up a bit and remind me how to ride such terrain.

Going into an event like this for the first time I don’t build up too much in the way of expectations or set my goals too high. I start off with simple goals: wanting to complete the route, learn as much as I can, and make the run as cleanly as possible. If all that happens, maybe I can be on the pointy end of the group. If things are going really well, I start to pay attention to my ‘time’.

On this effort, my first attempt at the AZT 750, I don’t feel like I had a clean run by any means. My mind might have been the biggest hurdle I dealt with. I kept thinking things would get easier as I progressed on the route, but they didn’t. The time and miles were going by slowly, painfully. The temperature differences definitely had an overall impact on me. It was hot during the day and cold at night. I felt okay, but not great, as it is always hard to keep up with your health in an event like this, digging deep all day, slowly digging a hole in terms of nutrition and hydration, soreness and scratches. I found myself on the ‘losing’ side most of the time. Not bad, but bad enough that when the sun went down and temps dropped, I was pretty much cold every night. Once cold I could not get warm again until the sun came back up and that made for very long nights. My sleep was disrupted, and some nights I would just get up to move as I was tired of shivering in my bag with all of my clothes on.

My shins took a beating fairly early with pedal slaps and the hiking must have strained some of my ligaments pretty heavily, to the point that I thought I fractured my right tibia. I have since had an x-ray and have been resting the injury. Things are improving. As one might suspect, sometimes to my own disadvantage, I have a high threshold for pain and discomfort. From about day three, I had to start walking very flat-footed in order to not overextend the right ankle. As an aggressive hiker, this was not only uncomfortable, but also very frustrating.

To top off all the challenges the route offers, there was the hike through the Grand Canyon with my Spearfish bike on my back. Turns out it was one of the most enjoyable parts of the route for me. It gave me a chance to actually look around, use different muscles, and reflect on life and how fortunate I am to do these things.

At this point, when I am physically and mentally beat, the physical part is numbing and nothing I really ‘feel’ per se, but the emotional end is strong. It’s the part I enjoy most. I often feel overpowered by something greater and get a sensation of chills as a smile appears on my face. In these moments I feel like the luckiest person in the world and that absolutely nothing can get in my way. There are few things in life that deliver such potent feelings of humility yet power, and it is something I can’t truly explain. But it is a feeling that I want to continue to experience, and it mostly happens when I push through really difficult challenges and exhaustion.

This might sound like a nightmare to most people, but it’s really what I crave. I feel the AZT has beaten me and challenged me…all in a good way. I look forward to my next run on the route with everything I have learned and experienced this time around. Next time I hope to have feelings of me challenging it, instead of it beating me.