AZTR - Part 3: Wash before Kelvin / Picketpost (300 finish) / Superstition Mountains ~mile 350
I am woken by the sound of Kaitlyn riding by my camp spot. She comments on how cozy I look bundled up in my bag. In reality, I am freezing and stiff from laying on the hard ground. She keeps riding which is a good motivator for me to get up and going quickly. It is just after 2:30am. I barely feel as if I have closed my eyes and I am already back on the trail. I see a couple of lights up ahead. One is Kaitlyn’s, the other one must be Calvin’s. It is funny to think that we only slept a couple of hundred feet apart without knowing of each other’s presence. The whole race is a strange mix of a mostly solitary experience with a collective umbrella. Small, abstract details are comforting such as knowing that my Spot messenger device is pinging the satellite, allowing friends, family and others to follow along. The proximity of other riders, even if I am not in direct contact with them, allows me to get out of my head in harder moments and realize that we are all going through similar challenges. Speaking of Calvin, I have noticed he sleeps longer than most of us, then rides harder to make up for it the down time. I envy his strategy as the sleep deprivation game is a tough one to play. I speed up on a short descent and just as I am about to catch up to Kaitlyn... “Pow!! Fuuuuuuck!!” my foot slaps a cholla cactus protruding from the side of the trail. She asks if I am ok, as I sit there whimpering, pulling the spines out of my foot. As I remove them, I get sharp, electrical pangs running down the top of my foot. Kaitlyn must be wondering how I got this far still relatively unharmed. Yesterday, she witnessed me perform a perfect swan dive over my handlebars coming off of Oracle Ridge, landing flat on my back. Somehow, I got up without a scratch. The cactus is more painful, but at least has the merit off shaking off the fatigue. I am now fully awake and alert. I ride a little further with Kaitlyn before pulling ahead. Her breathing is still limiting her, which will unfortunately force her to pull out from the race - a wise decision in my opinion, given the uncertainty of her condition.
As the sun rises, I ride some fast, engaging trail and 4x4 road below a string of powerlines- a weird, contrasting sight to the beauty of the desert. All things considered, I am feeling really good and plow through this section trying to remain as fluid as possible. The fast riding is punctuated by a long, ridge hike-a-bike just before Kelvin. I pause on the ridge for a good 5 minutes to take in the view and eat my last frozen burrito that is now warmed by the sun nearly to perfection.
I ride the downhill a little too aggressively, with a few close calls on some turns. I nearly slice a bull snake in half, but grind to a halt just before impact.
I have now drained all of my water, so I am thankful to reach a paved road for a short detour to Kelvin for a refill. Kurt had told me about a hose at this guy’s house, setup for AZT hikers and bikers. As I sit there filling my bottles, the owner of the house walks over, introduces himself and says, “Let me tell ya, boy...it’s some harsh country out there and ya’ll are really doing something special. Can I offer you a beer?” A beer sounds very appealing, but I decline mainly out of fear of finding a spot of shade and passing out. His wife chimes in and offers me a banana and some cookies. That I accept. She is the embodiment of the trail fairy. In moments like this, stripped raw, I do not have a veil over my emotions. I take each bite with an immense amount of gratitude. Each sip of water is like nectar to the soul and I can feel its vitality flow through me as my body readjusts to contentment. The ranch is in an idyllic setting, emanating a particularly soothing quality. It is quiet with just the sound of insects buzzing and the river flowing nearby. Maybe it is the overall wear and tear of the trail making me more vulnerable, I am not sure, but in this moment, it comes to my attention that I am indeed experiencing something special. I feel an ever so slight shift in perspective as my doubts and fears all evaporate. I have done a number of long, challenging events prior to the AZT, but have always found that my success or failure was determined primarily by my physical ability, rarely tapping into the real potential of the mind. In this instance, I can see the essence of possibility, far beyond the AZT or any arbitrary goal. I can feel my place in the universe and a simultaneous appreciation for the importance and utter inconsequentiality of our lives, and I know that everything is going to be alright. I do not want to sound too wishy washy here, but there is an honesty that manifests itself in moments like this that is hard to deny.
Back to pedaling. It is hot, so hot. I am above the river, which is taunting me with it’s fresh looking flow, as I hike and ride the choppy, rocky, desert track through the saguaros. This is the final push to the Picketpost trailhead, the end of the AZT 300. It is not that far, maybe 30 miles or so to go, but the terrain is slow, exposed and the heat is relentless. I left Kelvin with 150 oz of water, and have drank nearly all it, by the time I reach the last 10 miles of downhill. The trail is only sort of downhill, as it has plenty of frustrating little bops making me earn every last mile to Picketpost which I reach just after sunset and two and half days of riding.
A couple of guys are hanging out, following along on the Trackleaders site. They congratulate me and tell me a few stories of other riders that have come through. While it is a nice feeling to reach Picketpost, the reality is pretty anticlimactic. I am at trailhead, just off the side of the highway, with no amenities and I am not even halfway done with the race. The forest service bathrooms are heated which is great since the desert has flipped the night switch and it is now freezing cold. I spend about 20 minutes in there, putting on clothes and getting reorganized. The guys thought I had fallen asleep.
Back to pedaling. I am just outside of Phoenix on some easy, mostly dirt roads. The change of pace is welcome and my focus has shifted to reaching a 24 hour gas station about 40 miles away. The route takes a few turns off the main road, connecting a number of smaller ranch roads. I am thankful for the GPS since it would be impossible to find the exact route through here without it. The gas station comes as a huge relief. It reminds me of the feeling of driving on empty for far too long and repeating the hitchhike/gas can scenario in my head over and over, when finally, deliverance, “gas” next exit! It is just after midnight. There is a rowdy couple in the store, yelling at each other “Hey, porky! How about these fucking chicken bites?!” Chicken bites sound strangely appealing, but I stick with frozen burritos, hot chocolate and the usual mound of candy. I manage to spend nearly $50, without even getting any gas. The couple has gone and it is quiet now as I sit on the bench out front, eating and repacking my bike. The gas station clerk comes out and asks in an unfriendly tone, “You gonna stay here all night?” “No. No, I’m not. I’m just eating” I reply. “Well, I’ll give you another 5 minutes and then you need to move on. This is considered loitering.” “Really? I’ve been here for 15 minutes, just spent $50 on food and can’t have a minute to eat in peace?” “No.” Is all says, and with that goes back inside. I am too tired to argue, so I finish packing, pee on the bench, and leave. Well, I did not pee on the bench, but it felt like a reasonable thing to do.
What a contrast the city is to the time spent alone in the desert. I am eager to get out of Phoenix, but the frustration is not enough to keep me awake on the bike. I manage to ride about another 10 miles out of town, before I sneak under a barbed wire fence on the side of the road and fall asleep in the ditch. It is cold, uncomfortable, and I hate the city. But, you know, everything is going to be alright.