AZT800, the hardest vacation

I finally stopped putting the Arizona Trail Race 800 on the back burner on October 20th 2022. I let this very intimidating ride slip past me year after year, honestly I was scared and that fear made it easy to keep it from being a priority. I also realized that I am not getting any younger and these hard rides are much more of a serious endeavor for this mind and body to pull off, it was time to shit or get off the pot. So I got clearance from the family, got the time off work, and did the homework. Amazingly I was there at the Mexican border for the group start with 17 others taking on the 800 and 24 more riding the 300. It was a joyous moment starting such a big adventure with this wild bunch of the bikepacking community on a gorgeous sunny Arizona morning.

Border Monument 103, start of the AZT

I was feeling pretty amazing that first day, it felt so good to be doing this and not just thinking, planning, stressing out about it, I was finally here! I even stayed in a happy place as things started to fall off the dream pace I had set out to ride. I had pinned the idea that I was going to set a new record in my head, an idea that turned out to be a bit much to chew. I had ridden the AZT300, basically the first 300 miles of the 800 in the spring of 2021 and it was fast and fun, I had high hopes of being able to get close to those same time splits and keep that going all the way to Utah. The reality on the trail was something else. The trail was incredibly overgrown, something I knew would be the case, but it was far more of a factor than I imagined. The inability to even see the trail in so many places, combined with some GPS issues I was having made for lots of missed turns and that made for lots of frustration.

who is this fool!?

Because of this I didn’t sleep the first night, I wanted to catch up on those time splits so bad. I knew I wasn’t being smart making that choice, this ride was too long to blow through the first night without rest. I also didn’t quite catch up to those dream splits, double ugh. I also had a few things that I was forced to take care of that were costing me time. I had crashed on the first day and got a couple gashes on my knees that proved to be difficult to bandage, so I had to stop several times to keeping taping them. My shorts exploded at the seams and I had to ride in long pants, hot, or my underwear, exposed! My GPS was still not optimal and giving me fits. My shoes were shedding rubber from the toes and I was stopping to glue them back together. I was having some digestive issues that were slowing me down and causing me to have to stop a bit too often. It was also HOT and it was kicking my ass trying to keep the train rolling through the heat.

Trail Friend really excited to see me!

I did keep it going and in reality was doing a good job moving along the course, but in my head I was failing and that was a hard thing to reconcile and recover from. I slept the second night just after Oracle Ridge, but only for a couple hours, those damn splits haunting my dreams. I pushed pretty hard that third day from Tiger Mine to the Gila, an amazing section of trail through a huge chunk of the Sonoran Desert. It was a hot day, I was still dealing with all the things, but I was managing it pretty well and making good time. I love this section and it felt good to be cruising out there. I hit the Gila River after about 2.5 days of riding and pushing, I was worked and took a nap before the big traverse of the river and the huge climb out. It was great to see this section in the light, amazing geography back there that I missed last time riding it all in the dark.

with a million gates along the AZT every rollover is a wondrous gift

I passed through Picketpost the end of the AZT300, crazy that I was the second finisher of the 300 as it felt like the slowest ride in my head. I pushed on to get to more food and water at Queen Valley, and then on to Apache Junction for a full resupply. The route seemed so long and so much slower from Picktpost to Saguaro Lake, I was realizing I was quite optimistic when plotting out this ride! It was on the Jacob Crosscut Trail outside of Apache Junction with a bike loaded with food and water that I hit the wall. The trail is filled with loose rocks that make pedaling next to impossible, but I kept trying and failing to get anywhere. That seemed to be the MO for the whole section; slow, out of the way trails that seem to go everywhere but where you are trying to go. It was torture for trying to catch up on those damn splits.

my el jefe and the AZT

I got to Saguaro Lake just after sunrise and looked for the “water spigot”, after riding around the area I found a spigot and filled up and rode on. Later when I took a drink of water I realized the water I took was non-potable and tasted like chemicals, it was disgusting. I kept riding hoping I would find some decent water, somewhere… The Four Peaks section is huge, a gigantic climb through a sparse landscape of little shade, and no water. It was getting hot as I climbed, around every corner the road revealed itself to climb more and more. I was getting desperate, my mouth still tasted the chemicals of the shitty water I filled up on, when I saw a bottle of water in wash. I stopped, walked back and sure enough there was a 12oz bottle of water unopened and intact. A miracle that I cherished and that kept me going and thinking positive, but soon enough I was so thirsty again and the route kept climbing. My eyes were now scanning the edges of the road for another miracle, and there it was, another 12oz bottle, unopened in the ditch half covered with dirt. I almost couldn’t believe my luck, I might just make it.

400 miles to go?!

I did mange to keep climbing the seemingly endless climb, this section is a bit heartbreaking, it never stops going up. When you are out of water and wanting to get somewhere it feels like torture, in fact the decent to Bolder and Sycamore Creek is rough, overgrown and slow. Finally I got to Sycamore Creek and rinsed out my bladder and bottle and filled up, yes back to full capacity! Then I plugged away at getting to Payson, another section that was much slower and more difficult than I ever expected. I got so turned around a few times in my exhausted state, it was so weird to be alone, delirious and confused. I finally stopped and slept, now it was getting quite cold at night and my minimal sleep set up was quite a bit less than adequate leaving me shivering a good bit of the time I was stopped. Still the trail ended and I was to Jakes Corner, the store was closed, but I was solid on food and water and set out for Payson. In my sleep deprived state I missed a big turn off the highway and climbed a long way before I stopped along the busy highway to eat and noticed I was way off the track. I was able to laugh it off and reverse direction back to the route, which is amazing considering how much of a mistake it was, I did feel like such a dumb ass adding so much climbing and time going the wrong way.

hike up to the Mogollon Rim

I made busy Payson, mailed a few things home, and filled up my food stores and water and set out for the big push along the Hi Line Trail up to the Mogollon Rim. Here again the AZT800 surprised me with how difficult every section seems to be, the 20 miles from Payson to the Hi Line Trail was a huge climb, lots of B roads and intersections and finally the infamous Hi Line. Hi Line is being transformed into a whole new trail and sections of it were actually great, but some old rough and overgrown sections were still there and I was again feeling totally cooked and was having a hard time riding my bike and ended up pushing for miles and miles even after taking a nap. I was so tired and fried, but I just kept stubbornly pushing till I made the top of the Mogollon Rim and a big change in the terrain.

The AZT was now amongst the Ponderosas and the tall grass, the trail was at times fast and flowy and sometimes steep and techy. It was a rollercoaster of feeling great and making good time and then immediately grinding along feeling slow and going no where. So much trail and road was out there, it was so hard and also so beautiful. Once past Mormon Lake the trail is amazing, fast and rideable and so pretty with the oak trees glowing orange, red and pink. Suddenly I was just outside of Flagstaff eating my first sit down meal, refilling my food and water and actually feeling like might be able to finish this crazy ride! I pushed on trying to keep the train a rolling deep into the night, instead just after sunset as the air got really cold I was feeling terrible. My stomach was in knots, my pulse was pounding in my throat so I found a good spot to hunker down and try to stay warm enough to get some rest. I awoke at 12:20AM with an intense need to relieve my bowels, I shuffled up the hill, dug a hole and then pooped for almost 40 minutes. It was disgusting and left me feeling drained, empty inside and wondering what to do next. I considered heading back to Flag, but instead I just packed up and kept going forward on the route.

sweetness

Luckily I felt better as the day went on, but it took a long time to trust a toot to be just that and not accompanied by more! I tried to keep some power on the pedals, but it was hard to find that energy. Still the miles were disappearing behind me, at times painfully slow, but eventually I was in Tusayan for what would be my final resupply. I pedaled my heavy bike up to the South Rim just as the sun set and then proceeded to strap it to my pack and drop into the Grand Canyon. As I shuffled down the South Kaibab Trail I felt so happy, I wasn’t thinking or stressing about this crazy part of this race, I was Doing It! By the time I made it down the the Colorado River my whole body felt destroyed and I was having a hard time keeping my eyes open, I had been moving for 21 hours straight already and had the entire climb out still ahead of me. There is no sleeping in the Canyon without a permit so my only option was to keep moving till I made it to the North Rim. I can say that the next 12 hours were some of the hardest of my life. My pack was cutting into my shoulders and hips, my head was a mess, my eyes wouldn’t stay open, and my legs were so tired and tight. The climb is so incredibly long and was soon filled with Rim to Rimmers, hiking and running the Canyon. It was nice to have company, but also exhausting explaining over and over what the fuck I was up to!

close to madness

Finally I made it to the North Rim, I sat down and felt like I was done. I was so deep down tired and exhausted physically and mentally that I really felt like I finished, having all the rim to rimmers around made it feel even more like a finish line. I put my bike back together and ate some food, I googled resupply options as I didn’t have much food left, eating was how I got through the Canyon. I couldn’t see myself going off route for food, I looked at the remaining route and somehow thought it would be fast, I would be fine with the tiny bit of food I had. I got on my bike and rolled away feeling lost, confused and like I forgot something important. Oh how right that feeling was!

snow along the Kaibab Plateau

The last 70 or so miles were absolute hell for me. I tried to go fast but ran out of steam so quickly every time. I was so tired I wasn’t sure what was going on, where I was really going, I was such a mess. I tried, I dug deep and deeper, I took bunch of little naps, still I was fried beyond finding any sort of composure. I ran out of food, my water froze solid, my feet and hands were so cold. Somewhere around the turn for Jacob Lake I called my wife who was picking me up at the finish to just come get me, now. I didn’t care about finishing, or even winning this damn race. I just wanted to be done, I had nothing left to keep me pushing or riding my bike. Rachel refused to fetch me and said she would see me at the finish. So I kept moving, napping, crying and struggling my way to Stateline Campground, it took forever, it took everything I had and didn’t think I had left to get there. It wasn’t till I saw Rachel riding up the trail with a rainbow tutu on that I knew it was actually going to end, that it was over.

finished and so crushed, 10 days 9 minutes after starting

Since then I have been eating and sleeping every chance I get. I am back to work, back to being a full time dad. It is almost like things are back to normal, but I am still deeply effected by this ride. It shook me, drained me and crushed me. I feel unsettled, normally I would probably turn this into how to do it better next time, but I am not sure I want to ever do that again. It has only been a week since I finished, crazy how it feels like a dream, but not sure it is a dream I want to have again.

my shoes, with a side of duct tape and glue

4 thoughts on “AZT800, the hardest vacation

  1. Thank you for sharing the hardships of your adventure. My wife and I live in Arizona, and we followed your dot every day of the race. We know how difficult some of these trails are, and it was difficult for us to imagine how you and the other racers could keep going. It probably doesn’t feel like it to you, but your performance was inspirational.

    I first heard of backpacking back in 2011 when I stumbled upon the Tour Divide online. I had been riding a singlespeed bike for eleven years at that point, and I was surrounded by people who were always telling me how crazy and worthless it was. But there you were, leading the race for most of the way until Kurt Refsnider finally caught you. You showed me what was possible.

    Eleven years later, I’m still riding a singlespeed. I always wanted to upgrade to a titanium frame and I was getting close to seriously shopping for one, and then bikepacking.com just happened to post a review on the El Jefe. Ten months later, I reached out to you with some questions about the bike. Your reply was very helpful, and I ordered a small El Jefe frame from Why Cycles. It’s a fantastic bike!

    Thanks again!

    ~Mike~

  2. Jefe, that last paragraph details EXACTLY how I felt after my 2018 750! Tired, scared and confused seems normal. Be really afraid in a couple of months when you start thinking “that wasn’t so bad, I might do it again – but better” !
    Either way, awesome effort dude!

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