I set out to do a ride report, something that would fit on a two sided page, pictures included.  I’ve never had enough original content to justify a full blown ‘blog,’ but given the extent of the experience, the thing soon took on a life of its own and started to resemble a ‘blog.’  I’ve never wanted to take on the responsibility of care and feeding of a blog, so what follows is my ‘unblog,’ a caffeine fed rambling that will hopefully never have to be repeated.  This is intended first as a personal remembrance of the trip because I’m fast approaching the age where, frankly, we just start to misplace memories.  Secondly, few enough people have done the route that I hope it fills a few holes in existing descriptions and can provide guidance to those foolish enough to take this on in the future.  It should provide a complete guide to finishing the Arizona Trail Race middle of the pack; if you want to win just pedal a little faster.  Third, my friends and family are always looking for new means of justifying their opinions of my eccentricity, so I present this for their entertainment. Logistics are complicated for this ride, there are lots of options for the start, but the finish is pretty remote.  Some decided to just ride to the finish and figure it out from there – not my idea of fun after ~10 days of abuse, so I arranged a ride share with John F. to St. George, where we rented a car, drove to the finish, left my truck and drove to Flagstaff, where we met the sonoranmtb.com shuttle for the ride to Parker Canyon Lake.  Not a bad arrangement but a bit expensive; I would recommend in future years that someone take the lead to just hire a shuttle for the whole thing. Day 1 Rick Miller1 After a pleasant evening ride to the border the evening before, we all saddled up at 07:00 for the 15 miles of gravel back to Parker Canyon Lake and the 300 mile race start.  My strategy for day 1 was the same as for my 300 ride the year before, which was overheard at the start (thanks Ezster): “the slower you go in the Canelo Hills, the faster you’ll finish the 300.”  It was cooler than last year and cloudy with fair winds, perfect conditions.  I started with 5 liters of water, topped off at Cott Tank (good solar powered well) and rode through to Sonoita.  After somehow loitering for over an hour at the Sonoita Mercantile, I continued for one of my favorite rides of the route, Kentucky Camp, camping at my usual 12:00, a few miles south of I-10.  (My daily rides can be found at https://app.strava.com/athletes/519570) Day 2 My overriding strategy for these rides is simply to keep pedaling, without too much concern about speed, reasoning that if I just spend a lot of time on the bike without wasting time at stops, I can make up for my lack of speed.  So, after my usual 5.5 hours sleep I was up and on my bike in the time it takes to stuff my sleep kit; I usually stop for breakfast and transition to ‘day mode’ after the sun and temps rise a bit.  The trail is buff and miles are easy into Tucson, though I missed the Rincon Market, (what is it with Arizona markets? The Oracle market was boarded up too). I ended up detouring to the Circle K on Tanque Verde.  I normally choose convenience stores over supermarkets – the choices are just too overwhelming and I find myself wandering the aisles aimlessly.  I made sure I stocked up with water, it’s a long way to Molino (though I got water at Italian Trap last year after missing the Circle K) or Palisade.  I also got enough food to get to Oracle as the Summerhaven store opens late.  Redington isn’t my favorite section – lots of 4 wheel drive hike-a-bike (HAB) in the heat of day, then the long Molino HAB, which doesn’t really end until you get to the pavement at Prison Camp.  I decided to ride past my usual 12:00 so I could camp at water at the trailhead across from Palisade, where the spigot was on. Unfortunately the recreation.gov outhouse motel was already full for the night, so it was a cold camp (a taste of things to come). Rick Miller 2 Day 3 Oracle Ridge gets a lot of bad pr for its HAB, but I honestly did not think it was that bad.  It could use some brush removal and there are some mean, boulder choked, short climbs, but the whole thing is over in 4 hours or so. More tedious is the endless ‘flow’ with occasional HAB sections in the Oracle State Park when all you want is the soda fountain in Oracle.  And I won’t even discuss the American Flag section, with water bars that appear to be built by equestrians with the sole purpose of discouraging mountain bike usage.  One rider last year threatened to ask for an ATA membership fees refund after riding this section. As mentioned earlier, the Oracle Market is closed so the Circle K at the far end of town is the only option for provisions, which wouldn’t be bad except for the uphill, headwind plagued, 2 mile off route ride into town.  I stocked up with a full load, 7 liters of water and food for 2 days to Apache Junction (I have chronic neck problems and avoid a backpack but carry a lightweight Camelback, usually strapped to my bars, for when extra capacity is needed).  During the Black Hills section I developed an insatiable thirst, and despite my best efforts to conserve, I went through 4 liters before Freeman Road.  I didn’t intend to use Freeman Cache water, but was very glad it was there.  I camped that night in a wash (nice soft sand) north of the Boulders section at the Tecolote Ranch Road.  I think it was here that the valve on my Klymit sleeping pad started leaking and I awoke to full contact with the cold, cold ground, a problem which lasted for several nights before I figured out a workaround.
View north to Utah from the Black Hills
View north to Utah from the Black Hills
 Day 4 Each night I would use precious phone battery by leaving it on as an alarm clock.  Curiously, I always woke up before the alarm, about the time I could just see without a light.  I guess I just couldn’t wait to get back in the saddle and, today, finish the 300.  My primary strategy for this part of the race was to NOT race the 300.  Last year I rode 20+ hours on the last day and it wasted me.  I was determined to treat it this year like just another day in a long line to the 750 finish.  Shortly before Ripsey Ridge I passed a tightly closed sleeping bag beside the trail, which would turn out to be a consistent pattern.  I had met Alice at the Rincon farmer’s market a couple days earlier and was surprised that she wasn’t further ahead of me, so I asked her if everything was ok.  “I like to sleep late” was her curt answer.  For several days I would pass her in the early morning or late evening, only to be passed sometime during the day. I had planned on Wilson’s Trailer Court for water, but one of the 300 rider’s wives was at the Ripsey Trailhead and suggested that I take cache water (which was overflowing), so I did and headed straight down the Gila.  The Gila is a nice stretch of trail construction with awesome desert flora (which was still in full bloom), but for a tired and loaded down bikepacker, there are quite a few grades that I just couldn’t crank and had to get off and push.  It was hot, as expected, but there are two places you can easily access the river for a swim, one where a road comes down through a wash about ⅔ of the way and the other where the trail leaves the river for the Picket Post trailhead.  I also filtered some water at the second location through my bandana and treated it with MSR tablets. Rick Miller 17 I soon passed Josiah, who it turned out had been having heat problems, I continued on the climb and reached the trailhead at 9:28 p.m., for an improvement of around 3 hours over last year’s time.  There was no one there and I didn’t have anything else to do, so I continued without stopping, reaching Queen Valley about 11:00.  The convenience store was inconveniently closed so I spread my bedroll in the Queen’s Creek wash, just outside of town and called it a day. Day 5 Picket Post to Payson was a welcome day of road spinning (with a tailwind!) to detour the Mazatzal Wilderness.  An hour or so of easy 2 track and highway brought me to breakfast at Jack in the Box and resupply at Basha’s.  Next stop Tortilla Flats, a typical false front tourist stop.  The food looked good, but it hadn’t been long since breakfast, so I took advantage of their offer of free lemonade refills to fill both bottles before continuing up the Apache Trail. It was here that I began to notice a pattern that lasted through the rest of the race.  In the morning I felt pretty good and pedaled well until about 11:00, when I would start to feel lethargic.  This became so bad that I usually had to stop for a nap and try to get some calories in my system.  After about 6:00 p.m., I would come alive and pedal like my hair was on fire until I had to make myself quit at 12:00.  This became very frustrating and I’ll be doing some research before my next race trying to find a solution to this problem. The section between Tortilla Flats and Roosevelt Lake, the Rick Miller 4Apache Trail, is gravel with many hills but pleasant pedaling. Shortly after passing the Roosevelt Lake dam, I stopped at the Cholla Campground for a free shower (and laundry), definitely the high point of the day!  I caught up with Alice (probably the only time in the race) just after, and we rode loosely together to the Tonto Basin market and on to dinner at Jake’s Corner.  I left Jake’s before Alice and headed toward Payson on a road which starts out pavement and gradually degrades to 4wd.  At some point where the road is graded gravel, I topped a hill, and as I gained speed on the descent, found my front tire caught in a dried rut going opposite directions to myself and the rest of my bike.  The only happy ending to this story was that after picking myself up I found that I was only missing some skin – no damage to the gear!  I continued on with dampened spirits until Alice caught me (pedalling her singlespeed Moots like a demon after a double Pepsi at Jake’s) and related that she had crashed at the exact same place!  She was planning to get a room in Payson and await a bike shop opening the next morning and suggested we split the cost so I could clean up my wounds.  I was more than a bit conflicted because I had never resorted to a motel during a race and consider it a style demerit, but given the circumstances, I accepted.  (Note: I have since learned, per S. Morris, that under the rules it’s ok to call ahead and arrange for after hours bike shop support) Day 6 I was starting to wonder if it was a waste of pack space bringing my winter weight gloves, but leaving Payson was just a foretaste of things to come and I was finally glad I had them.  I had only minimally stocked at the Circle K leaving Payson, saving the major resupply for Pine.  What was becoming a theme of this route, the ride to Pine took longer and involved more HAB than I had anticipated. Rick Miller 5  But a delicious burger at THAT Brewery lifted my spirits, and after a trip to the market, I was ready for Highline.  (Tip: get enough food for a long ride to Flagstaff unless you want to make a 9 mile detour to the Long Valley Cafe, or try to hit the 3 hour open hours window at Mormon Lake)  A lot has been written about how bad Highline is, and my expectations were set accordingly.  I found, however, a lot of recent brush removal (careful of the remaining ‘punji sticks’) and some fairly long rideable sections and beautiful views to the south.  Alice made her daily appearance at Geronimo Trailhead and quickly pushed on while I downloaded some calories.  I surprised many elk in this section and was generally impressed with how verdant and and alive the forest seemed. I camped at the usual time at Washington Park, where the route leaves the Highline trail and turns to top the Mogollon Rim. Day 7 Day 7 began with a confusing search for the route where the GPX track turns off the powerline road and goes up the Tunnel Loop.  At one point I had to shoulder my bike in a boulder field.  I have since learned that the cue sheet ok’s continuing up the powerline trail. Rick Miller 6 Clearing the Mogollon Rim was a big psychological boost and I expected a cruise into Flagstaff.  AZTR lesson 1: never expect a “cruise.”  Generally the long miles to Flagstaff are rideable, but with significant HAB hills and a lot of long sections of baby head rocks mixed with dried cattle post-hole tracks, reminiscent of the Sargent’s Mesa section of the Colorado Trail.  The landscape here is Ponderosa forest without much undergrowth, but very dry and devoid of the usual forest life, birds, etc. – maybe it was just still winter here, but it seemed pretty eerie. My only two mechanicals of the trip coincidentally happened today.  A loud ‘boing’ turned out to be a broken rail on my relatively new Sella Anatomica NXR saddle.  I possibly should have bought a new offset seat post instead positioning the saddle back on the front of the rails – lots of leverage.  I slid the saddle forward so the clamp held both ends of the broken rail and continued, hoping the new seat position wouldn’t jack my knees.  Later in the afternoon Jason caught me and we continued together until he noticed a hissing coming from my bike.  You guessed it, a leaking front tire; I had apparently hit a rock hard enough to put a small puncture in the tread between the knobs of my Geaux Gato.  Jason continued while I stopped, pumped it up, rubbed dirt in Stan’s bubbling out and performed various voodoo rituals to encourage it to seal.  I did a lot of walking and slow riding for the next couple hours babying the tire and it finally sealed up and didn’t give me any more trouble for the rest of the trip.
Rick Miller 7
A cold night
I went 2 quick miles off-route for water at the Blue Ridge Ranger Station and continued on to Mormon Lake.  Knowing that I could sleep in to 8:00 the next morning for the store opening, I elected to leave the trail at USFS road 90H, which is past the lodge, but an easy spin into town versus the HAB Navajo Springs trail.  I camped on the Navajo Springs trail just above town and the store attendant told me the low temp had been 15F. Day 8 It started with a boring ride into Flagstaff, unless you’re a connoisseur of baby heads and bovine postholes.  As I approached town I remember being amazed at how fast a local rider on a training lap passed me and was out of sight – sometimes this can be a real slog. I stopped at the first greasy spoon in Flagstaff for one of the biggest burgers I’d ever seen, I then made a quick stop at Fry’s for lithium batteries, then to the nearby Circle K to provision for the 1+ day trip to Tusayan. Maybe the low point of my trip was approaching the high point of the route on the west side of Humphreys Peak at about 10:00 and noticing that the fastex buckle closure on my handlebar pack was open. (I think I probably closed the buckle, but didn’t make sure it ‘snapped’ shut.  I’m planning to add velcro backups to the closure system) Hmmmm…a quick inspection revealed that all my food and some gear was gone.  I didn’t think I could make it to the canyon without calories, so i had no choice but to backtrack.  After about an hour of riding back towards Flag, I found my rain pants in the trail and was sure that the rest must be close.  After about another hour, still no sign of food, so I decided to throw the dice and turn around, thinking I must have somehow missed it.  The trail is braided by downhiller whoop-de-doos in places.  Upon closeup inspection of my original gps track, I discovered I had taken one of these for about 50 ft.; sure enough there was my stash scattered on the trail.  Big sigh of relief and disgust, I repacked and I was off once again.  My trials of the night weren’t over however.  At a quick switchback where the trail crosses a road, I apparently managed to get turned around and started following the trail back towards Flag, for the third time!  You know that feeling you get when you’re sure you’ve been somewhere before?  After about half an hour of riding, I decided it was time to stop and consult a higher intelligence, because at this point I could make absolutely no sense of my Etrex 20.  So just like billions of humans everyday, I fired up my smart phone, which indeed proved it’s moniker and revealed that I had been going the wrong way down hill for the last few miles.  After a few minutes of quiet reflection on the meaning of life, I turned around and proceeded to camp – significantly short of the mileage I had expected for the day. Day 9 Rick Miller 8It started with a quick spin to the Alfa Fia Tank to fill up the auxiliary Camelback for the long day to Tusayan.  My water system consisted of a handlebar mounted 1 liter Smart Water bottle (fits Sawyer filters) and a bike bottle, a 2 liter MSR Dromedary in my frame pack and a 3 liter Camelback backup.  I only carried full capacity on 2 occasions and this was one of them (the other leaving Oracle).  Curiously, the rest of the time I only had to tap into the Dromedary a couple times and ended up carrying 2 extra liters of water for most of the trip. Rick Miller 9 The rest of Arizona Trail Passage 34 is a pretty cool descent down flowy trails and, for me, over early morning frozen snow drifts as Humphreys Peak receded rapidly in the rearview mirror.  Babbit Ranch roads were in remarkably good condition and also passed quickly.  I was almost heartbroken to have to get back on singletrack for the Coconino Rim passage to Grandview campground and Tusayan, but I rolled into town and straight to the only (Mexican) restaurant still open.  I had planned to resupply and camp at the S. Kaibab trailhead, but the convenience store had just closed when I got there so I camped on the trail behind the RV park and enjoyed their heated bathrooms. Day 10 Brought Gunter through camp at the crack of dawn, so I decided to get up and have breakfast at Mickey D’s with him and Jens before provisioning and heading to the big ditch.  Once again the AZ trail does not disappoint and we were treated to winding singletrack for an hour or so instead of having to endure highway shoulder to Yaki Point.  My carry system, consisting of Mountain Smith shoulder straps from REI attached to the seat tube and a homemade hip belt with the front tire Velcro strapped to the rear triangle, went together quickly (I had 3 practice hikes at home) and I wasted no time joining the pilgrimage. Rick Miller 10 It felt really good getting off the bike and I made the river in just over 3 hours in spite of stopping to answer about a hundred questions.  I don’t think I’ve ever received so much open admiration; I kind of wanted to do another lap, just to bask.  Crossing the river, it was really odd seeing the Colorado from the bridge instead of my raft, which is my preferred method of touring the canyon.  A private permit group was stopped at Raft Beach; they waved and I waved back enviously, knowing they would soon be camped at one of the most beautiful campsites in the world, swilling cold beer and eating endless helpings of gourmet camp food.  Stopping at Phantom Ranch for lemonade, I was almost floored by how much my leg muscles, particularly my calves, had tightened up.  But after an hour or so I shouldered the load and headed up the N. Kaibab. trail. It’s 6 miles of relatively flat (and hot that time of day) terrain to Cottonwood Camp.  I stopped for my usual low blood sugar induced siesta and was caught up by Jens while enjoying dinner.  He decided to rest at Cottonwood, while I tackled some steepening terrain up to the Pump House Residence. Last Day Rick Miller 11 I awoke at 04:00, again without my alarm, ready to get this over with.  With all this practice, breaking camp now takes about three and a half minutes, so I was soon on my way.  This section of the trail is steep and is literally cut into the cliff face at times.  I was sorry to miss the views in the dark, but I was a bit relieved not to have to look down. I passed a trail crew shortly before the trailhead, doing a morning yoga routine and making lots of happy sounds.  Thumbs up were exchanged in silent mutual understanding and I cleared the rim before 08:00.
“The Wave” viewed from above the finish
“The Wave” viewed from above the finish
Contrary to popular myth, the ride to the finish is not all downhill.  There is officially a snow detour on the highway to Jacob’s Lake, but there are also significant climbs to about 9000 ft. and I was blessed with a light, but annoying headwind.  Riding a closed highway is always fun, though a bit weird; I passed a DishTV van and am not sure who was more surprised to see who. I had a good burger with overcooked fries at Jacob’s Lake and said hello to Jens who rolled in as I was leaving.  By this time I was not even irritated by the occasional short HAB on the final 25 miles of singletrack, but like this report, I was ready for it to end and was ready to face the hordes of race groupies and well-wishers at the finish.  Ok, it was just one Japanese tourist with a camera, who had a good laugh and didn’t even bother to take my picture when I told him I had just ridden from Old Mexico.  So it goes… Rick Miller 13

6 Comments

  1. Nice write-up, Rockstar Rick.

  2. Rick,

    Great read, thanks for sharing!

    Wondering if you have any more info on your ‘bike backpack’ setup. I’ve often wished for something like this, particularly in the winter, where I could alternate between riding and snowshoeing. If you have more details that would be awesome.

    Thanks!
    -Kent

  3. Nice! I know what you mean about the sigh of relief and disgust.

  4. Rick, great unblog.It was agood read. Fantastic job on finishing.

  5. Thank you for the excellent write up and motivation for my putting my next trip together in Kern Plateau.

  6. Rick,
    Thanks for taking the time to write up your great TR. As another 50-something middling, your report might motivate me to escalate from the 300 to the 750 one of these years. Second thought, maybe I’ll wait to do the 750 on my 60th trip around the sun…
    -Barry

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