Last month I took on one of the longest bikepacking races in the world. Not only is it one of the longest singletrack races, but because of its difficulty, climate, and overall length, it is an extremely demanding course. I have written many trip reports, but I wanted to find a different way to relay my story. Below is my Arizona Trail recap from A to Z.

Arizona Trail Race

The Arizona Trail Race is an event that takes place every spring, typically in April around a full moon. While you don’t necessarily need to ride it during that time, that is when the majority of racers head out together to take on the route. There are two disciplines, the 300 mile version which travels from Parker Canyon Lake to Picket Post, and the 750 mile option, which travels from the Mexico Border to the Utah Border. Each route is comprised of singletrack, dirt roads, and some pavement. It also travels through a number of micro climates – making for a unique traverse of the state.
My bike at the Start. Yes that is border, just some barbed wire, and few other obstacles.
My bike at the Start. Yes that is the border, just some barbed wire and steel beam.

Broken Records

The goal, like any long race of this kind, is to finish. At the same time, I really enjoy racing these events as fast as possible. The record was held by Kurt Refsnider for 6 years. He set a time of 7 days, 6 hours and 35 minutes back in May of 2011 on an individual time trial. He told me this past fall he was surprised that the record had not been broken yet. There are a lot of factors that go into record pace such as weather, mechanicals, injury, and determination, and it’s rare for everything to go right. Luckily for me, I nearly had a perfect run, and part of that is due to the luck of the draw. I finished the Arizona Trail Race in 6 days, 12 hours, and 28 minutes. Honorable Mention for the letter B: I listened to a lot of Black Keys out on the trail this year, major pump me up music!!

Camaraderie

This community of cyclists is easily the best group of people I have met. We can all thank Scott Morris for this beauty of a ride, but everyone has a part – from trail hands like Steve from Sierra Vista, to all of the athletes. One thing to mention in particular was the night before the race. I had Joe Grant and his buddy Nico pick me up in Sierra Vista. We made it to the start and everyone was up talking about the race and how they got there. It gave me an overall sense of gratitude towards this niche in the cycling industry. Thanks everyone!
The morning before the race, the crew woke up to a delightful sunrise.
The morning before the race, the crew woke up to a delightful sunrise.

Distance

Like I mentioned, racers have the option to ride in the 300 or 750 mile versions of the route. 4 years ago, I participated in the 300 version, It was my first real bikepacking race, and I instantly fell in love with this trail. At the time it was the hardest thing I had ever endured, especially dealing with a number of mechanical issues. The next year I came back and did it again, to better my time and I did, finishing in 52 hours. After taking a year off, I knew my next try would be the border to border race. I think it’s safe to say that many of the miles on the 750 would be considered difficult. This race does have some pavement, but the majority is rugged track, which allows me to say this race acts much longer than 750 miles.

Environment

It’s pretty incredible what environments this trail travels through. I said this before and will say it again – mile for mile, the Arizona Trail has some of the most diverse landscapes. Starting in the south, you have the stunning desert climates, then the chilly Mt. Lemmon outside of Tucson, then more hot desert riding until night fall where 50 degrees acts much cooler after your body gets used to 80’s. Up north you have extremely cold nights with the chance of rain and snow. This year, proved to be perfect conditions for the first 10 days or so. Daytime was mild but not too hot, evenings up north were cold, but not too cold. I never got rained or snowed on. I just had to trudge through a bit of snow on the east and north faces of Humphreys Peak north of Flagstaff and that was the coldest morning I had. I was pretty excited for the sun to pop out that morning.
The Canyon, well... It was hot as I reached the North RIm.
The Canyon, well… It was hot as I reached the North Rim.

Flagstaff

Flagstaff proved to be a significant moment for me. I ended up losing my Spot device somewhere south of Mormon Lake after fiddling with it for the first time in the race. If it’s not broke, don’t fix it… Anyway, I texted Scott Morris and told him, he said this ” Crap. I am in Flag now. Camped off AZT. I will try to track you down with a replacement.” Crap indeed, but fitting that he was in the next town I was going through. I texted him just as I could smell delicious food from the outskirts of the city. We met at McDonalds and he gave me a replacement. Thanks again Scott and Ezster for giving my family and friends the piece of mind of knowing where I was. I also ended up getting some good Ol’ McDonalds, gas station snacks and some pajama pants at the Frys as It was going to be pretty chilly that evening.
The Grand Canyon from the North Rim. You can see a thin line down there...
The Grand Canyon from the North Rim with views of Humphrey Peak. You can see a thin line down there…

Grand Canyon  

Yep, in order to complete the full Arizona Trail you must hike down and back up the Grand Canyon. Roughly 21 miles – 7 down, roughly 7 at the base, and 7 up. I ended up making the South Rim around 6:30ish on Wednesday, April 20th. I started hiking down around 7:00pm. I gave myself 24 hours to go from rim to rim. I arrived at prison camp at about 12:00am and took a nap near a spigot for about two hours. After waking up and continuing to deal with the sleep monster, the sun finally rose, and I finally made my way out of the canyon at 11am on the 21st. It was one of the most difficult parts of any race I have ever endured and the one reason I really would never want to do this race again. Do your homework on your backpack. I wish I spent more time on my setup. Honorable Mention for the letter G: Gates – there are 100’s of them, and almost all of them you have to get off of your bike.

Hike-A-Bike

It’s only fitting that with any bikepacking adventure you have some hike-a-bike. The Arizona Trail, mile for mile has more than any other bikepacking route I have taken on. It is also some of the most difficult hike-a-bike out there, whether it be steep uphills or even scary descents that you feel more comfortable walking down. Oracle Ridge is likely the most painful, with an absurd amount of sharp pointy things overgrown in the trail. Highline is a straight up scramble with steep rock climbs and overall crappy trail (albeit improved). And then you have random sections of hiking that seem to pop up in almost every segment. Of course you can’t forget The Grand Canyon as mentioned above. I was pleased that I had fresh shoes with a good tread in the Pearl Izumi Alp-X Launch II, more on those shoes to come. untitled-0959

Intake

Many ask me what kind of food I eat on trips like these, and my answer typically is what ever I can get. Staying on route is the fastest way to the finish, so detouring to get food is typically out of the question. This year, I stopped at 3 different McDonalds and spend $80 total at those 3 locations, the largest of the 3 being a $40 tab at the Tusayan McDonalds. I remember saying, “wait, how much?” then I realized I was in one of the most ridiculously expensive towns know to man. Other than McDonalds, I would eat plenty of gas station sandwiches, corn dogs, cheese sticks, sweet or salted nuts, granola bars, gummy worms, cheese crackers, snickers, fig bars, and whatever else I could find. Maverick Gas stations were my go to and I would research where they were in towns. untitled-0938

Jacob Lake

To be honest, this section was a bit ridiculous. After topping off on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon I was trashed. The bugs up there were ridiculous, and I needed water food, and a mental checkpoint to the end. The snow covered the Arizona Trail up north, so I was greeted with 45 miles of an approved pavement detour to Jacob Lake. Because of the larger snow fields I figured I would find a few snowmelt streams here and there instead of detouring off route to a spigot, but apparently when snow melts in Arizona, it’s just soaks right into the ground. I was frustrated, but I ended up filling my camelback with snow, and then found a small pond a few miles down the road to add to the snow. It made for some pretty tasty and cold water.  When I arrived at Jacob Lake mid-afternoon on Thursday the 21st I knew I was going to finish the trail that night, I was excited. I ate a lot of delicious cookies that they bake fresh, and got going in hopes I could beat the sunset. Jacob Lake is a welcoming site to see, but even better to see go.
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Desolate road going into Jacob lake.

Kelvin

I slept about 4 hours just south of Ripsey which was a solid night sleep. During my sleep, I heard two riders pass me. I figured they were 300 riders but I was not sure. When I arrived at the Kelvin Hwy I was surprised to see Hunter Keating and Neil Stitzer by the cache on the other side of Ripsey Mountain. After chatting with the guys about the trail and the sunrise I was off a little bit ahead of them. I forgot how long this section took, but Hunter mentioned 8 hours, and that seemed about right to me. As the day grew warmer and warmer I would eventually make the turn up Martinez Canyon. I was surprised that I didn’t see Neil or Hunter by then, I continued on and finally got to the top of the canyon. Right then and there I figured I could actually win the 300 mile version, so I started smashing the pedals a bit harder. I arrived at the Picketpost Trailhead at 1:35pm with an unexpected win on the 300 mile race. I finished that section in 2 days, 5 hours, and 35 minutes. I was only 300+ miles in so I used the bathroom there and moved on quickly.

Mt. Lemmon

Mt. Lemmon is a 22 mile road climb, it’s steep in sections and you can expect cars, motorcycles, and roadies to zip by you. This year I started the climb in the morning. My goal was to not get to the top before the Gift Shop opened at 10:00am for my first real resupply of the route. I hit it perfectly getting up there at 10:30am. In general, going off route is not efficient to me, but In order to pack enough food to make it to Gold Canyon, I would need to make some purchases in Summerhaven. I purchased a hand full of bars and treats, and then went to the restaurant which opened at 11am to get a BLT for dinner later that night. 45 minutes later, I was on the road off to the famous Oracle Ridge.
Climbing up Mt. Lemmon. Photo: Nico Barraza
Climbing up Mt. Lemmon. Photo: Nico Barraza

Northbound

Before the race there were thoughts in my mind to do this route southbound, mainly because I wanted to get the canyon hike out of the way, but after doing the route in this direction I was happy going Northbound. A lot can change as far as weather, but in general, starting in the warmer climate and going north towards the mountains and cooler air was the right decision. It allowed more snow to melt off up north, and allowed me to climb pavement to Summerhaven and descend Oracle Ridge. However, If you were to try this route in the fall, I think it would be fun to go southbound, there would be more shops open north of the Rim, and would not have to deal with much snow. It’s a toss up, but I think going southbound could be a fun way to ride/hike the route. Brad Mattingly is the only rider to currently complete the route southbound and Holly Borowski is on track to be the first woman.
Tiger Mine Trailhead, Once you pass this point northbound, you are in it for the long haul.
Tiger Mine Trailhead. Once you pass this point northbound, you are in it for the long haul.

Oracle Ridge

The famous Oracle Ridge did not disappoint this year. It was my third time doing it, and I totally knew what to expect which gave me some motivation to get it over with. The ridge was overgrown with plenty of cat claw – a cactus like bush that rubs and eventually cuts your skin. When you’re not hiking, you are on your bike leaning all the way back on descents that are pretty scary, be it singletrack or ridiculous scree filled roads. Then once you are off the ridge, there are some fun power climbs that again had me scratching my head. Obviously not built for mountain bikers and likely never will be.

Payson to Pine

I totally underestimated this section. Not only was there extremely difficult 4×4 road climbs that lead to some hiking, there was also a bit of singletrack that was super difficult. This section ultimately made me detour into Mormon Lake as I was just about out of food and water by the time I got there. I possibly should have detoured into Pine which is a much shorter detour than Mormon Lake.

Quality of Trail

The Arizona Trail was filled with a lot of hikers, more so than I remember in the past. In chatting with a hand full of these hikers they were surprised that we were out there. Many of them said this is a hard enough hiking trail, or “this is not even a hiking trail, but it’s just a trail.” The trail is indeed rough, rugged, and ridiculous, but there are times when you will encounter some pretty sweet and smooth singletrack that will put a huge simile on your face like it did for me. below are two pretty good pieces of singletrack.

Resupply

The route has a number of different resupply locations which are a necessary evil. Who doesn’t love a resupply? They allow you to re-up on food, water, and eat a real meal. But many times people get sucked into towns, making it hard to leave. My goal is always to get in and get out, make it short and sweet. Here are the towns I stopped at for resupply; Sonoita, Mt. Lemmon, Gold Canyon, Jakes Corner, Payson, Mormon Lake, Flagstaff, Tusayan and Jacob Lake. I really dislike going off route, but I had to in some instances, such as Mormon Lake.

Sharp Things

If you didn’t know, the Arizona Trail is filled with cactus and sharp plants. So much so that it will cut your legs, arms and any exposed piece of skin. From south to north you can count on getting cut from these plants, and it will test you mentally and physically.
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On the drive back to Colorado, I noticed my arms were thrashed.

Travel 

People will travel from all over to take on the Tour Divide, but when it comes to any other race in the world, it seems like less people will purchase a plane ticket or travel that far. This year there were more folks who participated in the 750 than the 300 mile version for the first time. Many of the people that raced the 750 traveled from out of state including myself. Outside of folks from Arizona, racers came from 4 different countries; Australia, Canada, Italy, United Kingdom and 14 different states; California, Colorado, Idaho, Minnesota, Montana, Oregon, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Utah, Vermont, Washington, Wisconsin, Wyoming. I have a feeling those numbers will continue to grow.

Ultras

Between the major ultra endurance cycling races, The Arizona stands as one of the toughest. It’s a relatively long route at 750 miles with challenging terrain and travels a number of climates that make for an interesting pack list. In my opinion it’s more difficult mile for mile than the Tour Divide, and even the Colorado Trail Race. But really, you can’t compare these races because they are all so different. Anyone who completes these three races (Triple Crown) in one year has some serious grit.

Views

This route has some stunning views. From Sugaruo filled singletrack, stunning sunsets and sunrises, ridge and rim top views, and more. The Arizona Trail travels to some ridiculous places and at times I exclaimed to myself, WHY! But it typically is for good reason, except for when it’s not. Being able to traverse the state in a week is pretty incredible. It was one of the best experiences I have had and it is one of the best ways to see so many miles in such a short amount of time. untitled-0934

Water

Arizona is a state that you don’t really associate with water. In the Southern portion of the state you have extremely dry conditions, where water caches are almost necessary. Even up north, water is hard to find in areas, especially in April and beyond and when weather is dry. I decided to have the ability to carry more water in hopes of stopping less. At one time I could carried 4L and 21oz between two bladders, one in my frame and one on my back, and one water bottle. I don’t think I ever actually ran out of water except on the hike out of the Grand Canyon. I traveled from spigot to spigot filling up on water, only using an Aquamira tab once. There was a lot of water caches along the route, and plenty of public water in those caches. While those are nice, I planned on getting water at designated spigots before I took off, because you just can’t always trust water caches.

CruX

There are just not that many words that start with x, let alone words that would fit in this article. But one word that has an X in it is crux –  word that I like to use in events like these. For me each day is difficult, but one thing that I had on my mind for the majority of the ride was the Grand Canyon. Not until I took that final step, and set up my bike again on the North Rim did I know It was actually going to happen. That was when I knew I was over the most difficult part of the race. It made me anxious a bit, but that feeling of topping out on the cruz was easily the best feeling other than finishing.
The last stretch to the North Rim, Oh boy did it hurt. Once you get to this bridge, you have a lot of steep in front of you.
The last stretch to the North Rim, Oh boy did it hurt. Once you get to this bridge, you have a lot of steep in front of you.

Yawn

Yep, we all need to do it and some more than others, sleep. My first day I hardly slept at all. It was hard to know people were passing me but I needed to sleep. I was beat. I slept about two hours. The second night I slept closer to 4 hours south of Ripsey Mt. The third night I slept next to Roosevelt Lake for about 3 1/2 hours. For night four, after Highline and cresting the Mogollon Rim I slept in the General Springs Cabin, an open cabin for public use. It was freezing that night and I ended up sleeping a lengthy 5 hours. The night after I slept on the south side of Humphrey Peak which happened to be very warm still, I slept roughly 4 hours then. On my last night of sleep I took a 2 hour snooze down at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. My intent was to do it all in one push, but my eyes were no longer working. In total, I slept around 20 hours during the race.

Zoo in the Desert

It was that indeed. In past years I have seen a Gila Monster or a snake or some eyes in the bushes at night, but this year I saw a whole lot of wildlife. I shared the trail with deer, rabbit and lizards almost every day. The third day on the trail was the best. I saw a baby Lynx in Kelvin as I crossed the Gila Bridge, about an hour later I saw a wild boar, and two hours later I saw a huge black snake taking up all of the trail, soaking up the sun. From south to north wildlife is abundant, you will certainly run into something during your time on route.

If anyone has any specific questions, please ask me in the comments section below. Thanks for reading.

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12 Comments

  1. Great job, I have enjoyed watching your adventures over the last couple years.

  2. Larry Goodman

    Great job Neil, It was fun to follow your race. You are an awesome rider! Thanks for all your energy with Bikepacker Magazine. you deserve a long rest. Take care, Larry

  3. Fascinating write-up. I have a couple questions. First, how did your bike components hold up on the trail, any replacements you had to do? Second, what were your favorite passages/sections of singletrack to ride on the AZT?
    Thanks!

  4. Michael Devitt

    Great write up Neil. Thanks for sharing. It was fun to out some perspective to what we saw your dot do.

    Congrats!

  5. What an incredible journey Neil. This one is definitely on my five year bucket list and your informational play-by-play makes me even more excited to try it out.

  6. Fantastic!!! Great trip and summary of the pain and joy you must have endured. I shall carry on in your footsteps and bike tracks, but not all at once.

  7. Gabriel DeSequeira

    Great post, congrats on the finish.

  8. Can you give some more specific info on what sort of pack you wore, and especially, how you carry a bike on it through Grand Canyon? What sort of strapping did you have to have? Thanks as well for all the editorial work you do on this site! I am always looking forwards to the next edition. It’s always an inspiration.

  9. Any idea of the age of oldest competitor? At 58, I keep thinking my long-distance days are behind me. I’ve done a couple of 1200-km (750 mile) brevets finishing in 85.5 and 88 hours in the last few years but something keeps pulling me towards this event. Maybe it’s early dementia and I’m forgetting that these are as mentally challenging as they are physically challenging and they’re an exercise in sleep-deprivation.

    • Neil Beltchenko
      Neil Beltchenko

      Oldest competitor that finished was 66. JC Cullen was the eldest to ever finish the route. I would say age is not as important as your determination and will to take on such an endeavor. I like to call it Bikepacking Amnesia. Go for it, Gerry!

      • I appreciate the encouragement. I’ve got a lot to learn – who knows where it’ll take me. Safe travels!

  10. Pingback: Powering Over Gravel with Stages Cycling - Bikepackers Magazine

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