KofA, Arizona

AZT Attempt #1 Spring 2022

It was only in October that I did my last ultra race, but I already forgot what I need for these adventures. Last spring, I went out with 5 or so friends to race the 300 miles of trail between Parker Canyon Lake and Picketpost Mountain in southern Arizona. I didn’t bring a sleep kit, and managed to finish in less than 3 days. I was definitely out of shape then, and had come from Minnesota just a day before we were to set out. I was optimistic this year about my fitness as I’ve been “training” a lot  since leaving my jobs. 

Falling in love with Johnny has been amazing. He’s a total bike freak, and always responds to my “little flexes” with a sprint. Just as we were in the last 2 miles of a 2500 ft climb I passed him silently teasing him, all the while feeling confident that I would beat him to the summit. At the 3/4 mile to the summit sign, he passed me again and the next ?? minutes were a serious push to the top. When I finally caught him— about a minute after he summited, I was full on trembling, gasping and shaking, but felt incredibly lucky having someone to chase and someone who will chase me. 

Anyways, we set out on March 20th for an attempt to cover the Arizona Trail from Picktepost to Parker Canyon again, but this time including the Lemmondrop, 20+ miles of trail from the top of the Catalinas to the bottom, and the new Casa Blanca section just off highway 82— that adds quite a bit more trail and time, which I neglected to think about when I went sans sleep kit, sans puffy coat and basically raced across Arizona in my underwear.  The trip didn’t go the way I anticipated and I pulled out of my attempt just outside of Tucson. Ultimately, I had decided I wanted to try again. And instead of murdering myself to get to the truck on the trail, that I would call it quits and try again in a couple weeks. Justin extracted us and drove us back to our truck— I don’t know how I got so lucky to have found a brother in him, but I love him.

The thing about having epic attempts on these trails is that there is so much more “failure” than success on the course for me. I’ve been lucky enough to have some strong finish times, but I’ve gotten beaten down by the race course in the hours where no one else is watching and hell, often while people are watching my little pink dot. 

We parked our truck at the Parker Canyon trail head and pedaled to Picketpost over a week. We spent the first 3 days on the trail and then rolled into Tucson, rode a bunch of trails at Tucson Mountain Park and then climbed Redington Road and took the back way to Superior. It was a hot week, and we spent countless hours discussing our plan for the AZT.

Amanda was camping at Picketpost the night we arrived, so we were able to downsize our kits and send our extras away with her. I took just about everything off my bike and only rode with a frame bag (full of food) and two bags on my handlebars— one for electronics and the other was stuffed with more food. I had a “gas tank” full of starbursts, clif shots, and twizzlers. I left my puffy, my sleep kit and my extra socks with Amanda. Last year I never even opened up the bag I had with my puffy and extra socks, so I figured, I wouldn’t bring them. 

We had been discussing the weather, and it had looked like a little precipitation would come on Sunday afternoon, but shouldn’t be anything monumental. So off we went. 

I had a blast riding through Martinez Canyon, Kelvin and made it to the ADOT spigot at 10:45 or so I think— which was super fast for me! I was only like half an hour off of Justin’s time from last January, so I was feeling proud because he’s such a monster on the bike. By the time I made it to Freeman road, I was only 45 minutes off of Justin’s pace and still feeling really good. I’d been so water secure, that I blew past the cache for the first time ever. I’ve often relied on just a liter from that cache— I really really really try to not take anything from the caches because I know the hikers need it way more than we do. There were two riders there, just chilling, watching me ride in circles because I forgot if I had to go into the parking lot or follow the trail. I asked them which way the trail went, but they must not have heard me because I didn’t hear a peep. So I went the wrong way, came back, and rode past them again without any word from them. Which was weird, but then again, maybe they were beat from the trail. It’s not easy riding at all. 

I was headed into Tiger Mine— which is the hardest part of the 300 for me. Something about the constant same hills makes me insane. They’re not really hard to ride, and it’s not really technical, but dang, I find myself walking so much in that section and it feels like failure. Then the washes are freezing, and there’s like 1000 washes back there. So, the dread I feel when I get to that section often poisons me and I AM SLOW, like SLOW SLOW back there. I’ve often lost more than 3 hours to my competitors in that section. Maybe an hour after Freeman Road, I was blessed with my first bout of rain and a 15 degree temperature drop. I put on my wool base layer and the wind coat I’d brought hoping that it was a proper desert rain— short, sweet and refreshing. It was. And then there were rainbows, and the creosote smelled like magic. The trail got more grippy and I was just elated! I thought about changing into my contacts because my glasses were foggy and wet, but I figured the rain would be done soon and all would be well again. 

The rain did stop and I managed to have a decent time back there. It was a little slower than Johnny and Justin— but by the time I made it to Oracle State Park, I was 2 hours behind Justin’s pace. Not the worst considering how slow I’ve gone through Tiger Mine in the past. I foolishly had thought I was out of the rain, but I had a tailwind and about every 45 minutes, a dusting of rain would cover me. I realized the storm was blowing in behind me. 

I started to get hit by a heavier rain and found a big tree to post up beneath thinking that, maybe this would be the rain for the night and I could carry on. It stopped after about forty-five minutes, and I carried on. However, the rain continued in waves and as I climbed higher and higher, the temperature dropped. By time time I made it to 6,000 ft, the snow was falling and blowing everywhere. The winds were like 45 mile an hour winds that were ripping my face off. I’d been wet all night and it didn’t seem like it was going to get any better. I knew that I would be able to warm up at the top, so stopping wasn’t really an option. Plus, I knew Johnny was in front of me, and if he was doing it, I could. 

That’s a whole thing— how the hell do you ultra race with your partner in a good way? Like, if I see him, that’s cheating. And knowing he’s out there too brings me comfort. But we met racing ultras because we ride the same pace. So, it’s inevitable that we would catch up to each other. So we’ve been trying to figure it out, because we both love ultras. It’s what brought us together, it’s what makes me trust in him so much, and it’s like a fundamental knowing in our relationship that binds us. But I also won’t cheat for the race —and it feels bad, feels like cheating —to see him because I turn into a different person. I’m not a competitor when I see him, I’m his partner. And I want to snuggle and take breaks and laugh and take photos. So, it doesn’t work seeing him in a race. We have some ideas that we’re working through.

I finally made it to the top of Oracle Ridge at 9:45 a.m. after a nearly 10 hour walk to the top of the mountain. I immediately rolled to the bathrooms to fill up my water and pee. They were plowing and salting the roads and the sun was out, so the roads were covered in water and any descending was painful. I thought about drying out my socks and shoes, but I knew that Sunset would be under snow so I figured— why waste the time, my feet will just get wet right away again. 

I set out for Sunset trail and saw only Johnny’s tracks ahead of me. They were insanely circuitous wandering all over because that trail was under like—8 inches of snow, and some of the drifts were so packed that it came up to my mid calf. There’s a lot of random sun exposure, so there’s ice beneath the snow covering the rocks and I was slipping all over the place. Based off the way Johnny’s tracks were melted in the snow, I guessed that he was less than a half an hour ahead of me and I tried to hustle. But the snow was so thick and wet that it was building up on my wheels like peanut butter mud. It had gained some weight so lifting the bike over my head to climb up some rocks was like olympic weight lifting. By the time I made it off of Sunset Trail, I looked up to see Johnny at the highway.

I was happy that he didn’t carry on walking the Lemmondrop, but also melted in seeing his beautiful face. I was so proud of him for doing what I knew was SO hard, I was impressed by his ability to route find, and just overall impressed with his ride thus far because I knew how hard I was trying and knew he was going just a little faster than me. 

We’d decided not to ride the Lemmondrop and considered riding Bugs if it was dry by the time we got down to 6,000 feet again. But, there was still snow near the trailhead, and I was like, “nope” I don’t want to ride Bugs in the snow. Forget it— plus, I was a popcicle human after descending the Lemmon Highway— which I can say is almost shameful on a single speed mountain bike. I felt embarrassed and disappointed to be riding the highway when there is world class trail riding just to my left. After all, it’s such an expedition to get to the top of Lemmon, why would I waste riding down on a paved highway? We made it to Gordon Hirabashi and took off all the wet stuff we had and yard sale our things in the sun. 

I think I knew my “race” was over there. Snuggling next to Johnny was definitely cheating in my book, so I fixated on just having a hard ride to the end with him. We managed to sleep an hour or so in the sun, I woke up to a puddle of drool I left on his jacket. We left to ride Prison Camp— so fun and Molino, one of my favorite trails! I was flying down the descent. Johnny is a fast as hell hike-a-biker, and gained a minute or 2 or 3 on me climbing up, but I rocketed down the other side almost catching him. 

It was on this descent that I realized how far I’ve come with mountain biking. I love it. And it’s not just a “I want to ride bikes” thing, it’s an integral part of my being alive. I believe the bike found me, and as I thought I was moving through society to make an impact, it got more and more challenging to find space and time for bikes. It really got to the point of having to give up riding at the level I wanted to in order to focus on a career.

Once the sun set, I was never able to warm back up again, and as we continued on down to lower elevation, the cold was sitting still in all the valleys. We made it a few miles into the Hope camp section and finally decided to call it quits. Not really because I was totally broken or anything; I was super cold, I could have finished, but what I really wanted was a mulligan. I wanted to try again. I know I can complete the route, I want to do it in a way that centers on the 7 gifts of the grandfathers—respect, love, truth, bravery, wisdom, generosity and humility. I set out with a few of them in my quiver, but I wasn’t humble, I wasn’t tuned into my ceremony as I had been for other rides. I had ridden so much of the AZT so many times, that I forgot how sacred these expeditions are and I was definitely reminded how tiny I am in the scheme of things.

I decided that if I quit early, I would recover much faster and be back out there on the trail. I’d learned a few lessons that I had forgotten. These routes aren’t easy. And speaking as a recovered couch potato, it’s going to take me 45 times of trying to get the result I want. And now, I have time to try. 

I don’t know…The thing is, though, that once I did one of these things, these epic quests that test every ability within myself, going back to a life where I simply open the fridge, sleep in a bed every night, overwhelmingly live a life of comfort, became impossible. I began to feel more and more discomfort with my complacency.

I don’t know what “they” I am speaking of when I say this— but they say that you’re supposed to follow your heart and your passions. And it’s not like I am getting rich playing bikes. I am getting stronger. I’m getting better at playing bikes. And my life is full of riches now. I see sunrises and sunsets, and find water in places where it appears as though water doesn’t exist and I surprise myself on climbs and descents. I’ve finally accepted where I belong, and it’s outside on trails, in the dirt.

Mostly. I am getting better at being myself. I’m doubting myself less, I am punishing myself less. Really, at the end of the day, I have a few sponsors that provide me with all of the stuff I need to replace my bike components, sleeping bags, clothes, etc. I can grow food and hunt to eat if I have to. At this point, I never want to go back to a desk job, office job, real job, whatever you call them. My time is worth so much more to me than the security of a paycheck. 

For the first time in such a long time, I can’t wait to show you who I am.

I’m back bitches. Look out.

9 Comments Add yours

  1. Leigh says:

    Fuck yes

    Like

  2. Ralph Karsten says:

    Enthusiasm has a root Greek word meaning be filled with a god, inspired. Always follow the path with heart 🙂

    Like

  3. Robert Dippold says:

    I hiked the AZT last year north to south in the fall. It was rough. Had thorns stuck in me for months. Can not imagine riding most of that southern section. Are you saying that you went up Mt Lemmon from the south? I saw guys coming down it and I couldn’t believe the skill level they had. So happy you are posting. You are a big inspiration to me in many ways.

    Like

  4. houchinc says:

    Beautifully written. Thank you for sending! I love and miss you!

    Like

  5. Auntie D says:

    You’re glowing my dear. So happy to see that smile on your face! Stay safe out there and keep the posts coming! —Love you-
    Auntie D

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  6. JL says:

    Dig the beads!

    Like

  7. Hey Alexandera! I’m such a fan of yours and cheered you on last year from Durango as you totally smoked my husband in the CTR 🙂 I’m also a writer and journalist, and would love to write about you for a publication called Adventure Journal (the gorgeous print edition, not the online version). I’m trying to find your email address at the moment, but if you see this first, I would be grateful if you could get in touch with me — kristaleelanglois (at) gmail (dot) com. Thank you!

    Like

  8. Mike Symons says:

    So good to see a couple new entries here. Your writing is amazing and I appreciate and try to learn what I can from your perspective. You’re one of the real ones for sure. I only wish I would have been brave enough to meet the “potato group” last spring. Just couldn’t bring myself to do it and stayed down near the PCL campground and started a few hours after you – not that I could have kept up with any of you for more than 5 minute haha.

    Like

  9. cgfranzone says:

    Catching up on some of your posts… absolutely love “I’m back bitches”… hope you don’t mind if I use that as a private mantra on my next hard ride!

    Like

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