Somewhere on the order of a month ago, I was holed up in a -20 degree sleeping bag on the Kuskokwim River in the middle of Alaska, completely cracked from the Iditarod. When I did finally make it to the finish line, I breathed a sigh of relief that the rest of my racing for the summer would be 100 miles or less. No more sleep deprivation, no more sore rear ends, just pure speed, or as much speed as my slow twitch muscles can produce.
But not long after returning to Anchorage and then back to Colorado, I started to get a little bit sad that my ‘adventure’ racing was essentially done, at least until the fall. While there is something to be said for speed and logistically easy racing, I started pondering how I could fit in one last bikepacking race before I really needed to buckle down and do some speed work for a summer of ‘shorter’ races.
The Arizona Trail Race 300 immediately entered my consciousness. I knew the timing would be tight between feeling recovered from the Iditarod and being ready to race 300 miles of rocky Arizona trail, but I also knew that if I’m motivated to recover for something, the body has amazing healing powers. It might also have something to do with the fact that if I’m motivated for an extra fast recovery, I’m motivated to eat right, sleep lots, and train well. So I signed up, going straight from the coldest bikepacking race on the calendar to the hottest one.
I’d previewed part of the route on a bikepacking trip in December, not because I was even considering doing the race, but because it’s some of the best trail and views to be experienced on a mountain bike. In fact, after having spent some quality time scouting the course during a second spring trip down to the desert, I can firmly say that the trail contained on the course is some of the most fun riding I’ve ever done. The race starts just a handful of miles north of the Mexican border at Parker Lake and traverses the Canelo Hills before navigating around the Santa Rita Mountains and dropping into Tucson. A quick jaunt across the desert valley brings the route to the base of Mt. Lemmon where the trail proceeds to climb, through a combination of trails, dirt roads, and pavement, to Summerhaven, altitude 8.200 feet, at the top of the mountain. Then comes the famed Oracle Ridge hike-a-bike, thought by many as the crux of the route, and then more trail and more road to the Gila Canyons, the newest section of trail. Having ridden the Gila Canyons on fresh legs and with fresh eyes, I absolutely cannot wait to return, hopefully under a nearly full moon with the plan of dropping into the Picketpost trailhead sometime circa sunrise on Day 3 of the race. That’s the plan, at least.
One of the beautiful things about bikepacking racing is the sheer diversity in the races. Each event is incredibly unique. The Colorado Trail Race has high altitude, the Iditarod has the frigid temperatures, the Tour Divide has the big mileage, and the Arizona Trail Race is known for its chunky trail, heat, and a history of a snowstorm on the first day of racing. While some have negotiated the Tour Divide route on cross tires, Panaracer Rampages, one of the burliest 29’er tires available, is considered a safe bet against the sharp Arizona rocks which have taken countless racers out of contention due to sidewall tears and shredded tires. While -20 degree sleeping bags are par for the course for Iditarod, 40 degree ones can be considered adequate for the AZT. Rain gear is generally left at home, except for the years that a late spring snow storm parks itself on Mt. Lemmon and stalls all but the most prepared racers. In bikepack racing, nothing is ever ‘normal’.
And so I find myself gearing up for something completely different in a very short period of time. Luckily, bikepacking, especially of the racing variety where there is no debate between taking something you ‘want’ rather than ‘need’, is a simple endeavor. Take enough tools to fix the majority of mechanicals on the bike, take enough clothing to stay warm enough to survive, take a stout enough sleeping system to catch a few hours of sleep out on the trail, and enough food to fuel the body from resupply point to resupply point. If it looks like it’s going to be cold, add an extra insulating layer and leg warmers instead of knee warmers, if it looks like it’s going to be hot, add some extra water carrying capacity and some extra electrolytes.
It’s so simple. Really, what could possibly go wrong?