Editor's note: Dana Ernst (no relation to Joey) is one of our Bedrock Ambassadors - he's out there using our gear all the time, including on events like the Arizona Trail Race. In his spare time (ha!), he's a professor at Northern Arizona University. Given his busy schedule, we're lucky to get such an in-depth race report. Read on for the 2018 AZT blow-by-blow... easiest to read by clicking on the title to open a new page.
Last year I dropped out of the Colorado Trail Race with roughly 50 miles remaining. I was in a group of four (me, Justin DuBois, Brad Ells, and Max Morris) and up until an hour before dropping out, I assumed that the four of us would finish together. I was even fantasizing about finishing in under 6 days. Given the weather, the fact that I had back surgery 4 months earlier, and the fact that this was my first bikepacking race (actually, to be more precise, it was really my first serious bikepacking experience since I had only done a single overnighter before the event), I was feeling damn proud of sitting tied for third place in one of the premier ultra cycling events. My feet were completely f*&#$d and I couldn’t really walk without holding onto my bike. But being only half of a day from being done, I figured I’d crawl to the finish if I had to. I was doing okay with the constant barrage of rain until suddenly I wasn’t. Despite being wet for much of the previous 5 days, I hadn’t been that cold (with the exception of descending the dirt road on the La Garita Wilderness detour). However, while riding toward Wellington Lake in the pouring rain, my core temperature dropped dangerously low. I knew I was in trouble. There was no shelter nearby, all my clothes were soaked, and my sleeping bag was soaked. I deliberated for a short period of time and reluctantly made the decision to throw in the towel. Meanwhile, Brad and Max decided to drop out. Justin opted to press on and ended up finishing in third place in just over 6 days. As Brad, Max, and I pedaled back towards the highway in the hopes of getting picked up, I knew I made the right decision and it is one I would make again.
I live in Flagstaff, AZ and the Arizona Trail passes within a quarter of a mile of my house. I’ve ridden sections of the AZT near Flagstaff countless times. However, being a college professor, the timing of the Arizona Trail Race prevented me from ever giving it any serious consideration. Sometime around Christmas, I let thoughts of squeezing in the AZT300 during a busy semester creep in. My main motivation at the time for wanting to do the race was to get at least one bikepacking race under my belt before making another go at the CTR. I rationalized that it was okay to miss a day of classes in order to do the event. Full disclosure: I got in “trouble” for missing that day of work. As a professor in the state of Arizona, I don’t get personal days. This year’s run at the AZT300 might have been my one and only attempt, unless I’m able to do it while on sabbatical or can squeeze in an ITT between semesters.
Despite being comfortable with my decision to drop out of last year’s CTR, it was important to me that I do my best to go the distance on the AZT300. Finishing was my top priority. However, I’ll admit that I was also interested in going as fast as possible. In the back of my mind, I was shooting for top five and to finish in under 2.5 days. The first hiccup in my plan was that I had foot surgery (in part from damage during the CTR) in late December and wasn’t able to start riding again until the middle of January. I would have roughly 11 weeks to go from zero to AZT300. Most of my riding was on the trainer in the garage, but I did manage to squeeze in a lap on the Fool’s Loop in late February. The second hiccup was that I tweaked my right shoulder in a bizarre crash while riding on Mount Lemmon during Spring Break. My crash was 2 weeks before the AZT300 and my shoulder hurt bad enough (in fact, it’s still bothering me) that I thought it might prevent me from making the start of the race. With a little bit of rest and a magical steroid injection, I decided that it felt good enough to give the race a go. It’s possible this was a stubborn and foolish decision, but thankfully, it worked out.
In the weeks leading up to the AZT300, I spent lots of time pondering things like nutrition, my sleep strategy, and my race strategy. I decided to carry most of my calories from the start and to supplement with other food along the way as opportunities presented themselves. I started with 12,000 calories. Of this, 6000 calories was Tailwind and the rest was an assortment of Trailbutter, Lara Bars, Sticky Bars, Scratch Gummies, and Honey Stinger Gummies. I also purchased a couple cans of Red Bull and a few cans of Coke along the way. I had a burger in Summerhaven and shared a pizza with Dion in Kelvin. I finished with half a packet of Trailbutter. I had no stomach issues whatsoever. If I ever do the event again, I’d likely increase the amount of Tailwind I brought.
One of the things that caused me the most anxiety was whether to bring a sleep system or not. A couple days before the race started, I committed myself to trying to do the entire race without sleeping. This made the decision about whether to bring things like a tent and sleeping bag easy! The only things I brought just in case I had to hunker down for a bit was a puffy Patagonia jacket and some light insulated pants.
My strategy going into the race was to pace myself early on, especially in the Canelo Hills, and then to just keep moving. I committed myself to not getting caught up with trying to keep up with folks that were hammering from the start. There are two types of people that hammer early in these long races: those rare people that can hammer the whole race and those that blow up after a few hours. I know that I am not the first type, especially given my abbreviated training period, and I definitely didn’t want to be one of the second type.
My bike and gear weighed over 50 lbs at the start of last year’s CTR (not including water). For the AZT300, my bike and gear weighed only 39 lbs (not including water). All of my bike bags are made by Bedrock Bags. I used a custom frame bag for my Salsa Spearfish, Black Dragon seat bag, Vishnu handlebar bag, custom Dakota top tube bag, and Tapeats bag. My Bedrock Bags set-up was rock solid and fit all of my gear perfectly. (See the end of this post for my gear list.) I was really pleased with how everything functioned and all of the bags held up to the abuse of the AZ Trail, which included constant gnashing from catclaw and all the other sharp, prickly stuff the desert has to offer.
The plan was to carry everything on my bike except water, which would go in my Osprey backpack. I had capacity for 6 liters. There were a few times (my memory is fuzzy now) that I carried all 6 liters. One of those times was leaving Kelvin. The only time I ran out of water was an hour or two before the finish.
Even though I live in AZ, one of the cruxes of the race is sorting out the logistics of getting to the start and getting home from the finish. My buddy Bill Akens, who also lives in Flagstaff and was doing the AZT300, arranged a shuttle with a dude named Steve to take us from the finish at the Picketpost Trailhead to the start at Parker Lake Reservoir. Bill and I drove separately from Flagstaff to Picketpost on Wednesday afternoon. We would leave our vehicles at the finish. We left the trailhead at Picketpost around 5pm and after a stop at In-n-Out Burger in Tucson, we slithered our way through the windy road to Parker Lake, arriving at around 10pm. There were bodies strewn around the trailhead fast asleep. We said goodbye to Steve, our shuttle driver, and thanked him for his kindness. Since I wasn’t planning on sleeping for the next two nights, I was extremely anxious about how late it was and desperately wanted to get to sleep. Being anxious about getting to sleep usually isn’t effective for falling asleep!
Since I wasn’t carrying stuff to camp during the race, but wanted to camp the night before the race, I needed to find someone to take my camp gear from the start to my car at Picketpost. John Schilling to the rescue! Feeling a major sense of urgency to get to sleep, I had a temper tantrum when trying to set up my tent. My fancy tent requires that it be staked out, but the ground at the trailhead was like concrete. All I wanted to do was get to bed! After cursing up a storm (which I was extremely embarrassed about later), I ended up just crawling in my tent as if it was a big sleeping bag. I know I dozed off a few times, but my heightened anxiety about the race, desire to sleep, and frustration with my tent, pretty much kept me up all night. Not a great way to start a race in which I would try to skip two nights of sleep!
I finally fell asleep shortly before the sun came up, but it didn’t last long because Bill woke me up to tell me there was a UFO watching us. It took me a while to figure out what he was pointing at, but it turned out to be a hot air ballon tethered to the ground that has a surveillance camera attached to it to keep an eye on the US-Mexico border. Despite going to bed grumpy and not getting enough sleep, I woke up in an excellent mood and was super excited to start the adventure.
I was an AZT 300 rookie and had only ridden the last 90 miles of the course before (but in the opposite direction). I tried to plan and be familiar with the course as much as possible, but no amount of planning is ever enough. There were a few things that I seemed to have dialed, but a couple of things I overlooked. First, it didn’t occur to me to bring all the water I needed for the start to the start. Thankfully another racer had lots of extra water in his truck. I could have gone to the lake to get water at the campground, but that would have been a hassle just before the start. Second, I didn’t leave any food or water in my car at the finish. That was totally dumb.
About 30 minutes before the start of the race, I was more or less ready to go. I took the time to walk around the trailhead and meet as many people as I could. I was surprised how few people seemed to be at the start, but within 15 minutes of go time, several trucks showed up. I started to have that feeling that I think most people have before the start of the race, “Dang, all these people look wicked fast. Maybe I should recalibrate by goals.” I reminded myself that my number one priority was finishing and that I could check in on my goals later in the race. The long term plan was to have fun and push myself. My short term goal was to not blow up in the Canelo Hills.
After a brief speech by Scott Morris from the back of someone’s pickup truck and a moment of silence for a rider that passed away earlier this year, the race was off at 8 am sharp. I filed into roughly tenth position as we rolled into the singletrack and I was pleasantly surprised that the pace was relatively tame. The moderate pace lasted a few miles and then someone decided it was time to up the tempo. I kept my cool and didn’t give in to temptation. I walked nearly all of the steep hills. I noticed that Kaitlyn Boyle was a couple riders in front of me. Every time there was a steep uphill, she elegantly dismounted and walked. There was no wasted effort and she smoothly maintained forward progress. It was awesome to watch her moderate her efforts. Meanwhile all the dudes around her were grunting and mashing pedals to ride up the short steep climbs of the Canelos. Occasionally, a dude would pass her, only to get passed back a few minutes later. I was both entertained and frustrated with their behavior. Kaitlyn set the perfect example for me to mimic on day 1. Unfortunately, I couldn’t keep up on the descents and eventually, Kaitlyn rode away from me. Descending is my major weakness and Kaitlyn descends like a rocket!
Not surprisingly, most of the dudes that were mashing pedals fell behind and I never saw them again. Several miles before exiting the Canelo Hills and reaching the town of Patagonia, I was riding with Dion Clark from Calgary, Canada. Dion and I were maintaining a similar pace and quickly settled into riding together. We chatted about life, family, and kids and also spent a fair bit of time hootin’ and hollerin’ about how awesome it was to be out in the desert.
When we reached the town of Patagonia (roughly mile 30), I stopped to grab some water and a Red Bull while Dion adjusted his air pressure. It’s kind of funny that I grabbed a Red Bull because I’m pretty sure I had never had one before. There was another rider at the store in Patagonia when we arrived and he departed shortly after we arrived. I think his name was Chad. Dion and I assumed he was racing, but it appears that he wasn’t using a Spot tracker. After a few minutes, we were rolling again. Dion got on the front and set a fast tempo on the pavement towards Sonoita. A couple miles down the road we caught and passed Chad. We would see him a couple more times later that day, but eventually we passed him for the last time and never saw him again.
We rolled into Sonoita (roughly mile 42) and stopped at the Sonoita Mercantile to refuel. Kaitlyn was wrapping up her resupply when we arrived. We exchanged a few quick words and she was off. That was the last time I saw her during the race. I topped off on water and grabbed a coke while Dion grabbed some calories. A few riders arrived as we were packing up. A couple of them looked fresher than I was feeling and I expected that they might get in front of me. However, I wouldn’t see any of them again during the race. At this point in the race, it’s still feeling a bit like a race, but at least for me, it wouldn’t be long before the thought of racing was more-or-less off my mind.
Shortly after leaving Sonoita and getting back on the dirt, Dion and I passed a bikepacker coming the other way. I didn’t recognize him at the time, but it was Richard May of Moustache Cycles in Flagstaff. The next section seemed to take no time at all and we were having a blast. We topped off with water at Kentucky Camp (roughly mile 60) and we were off again. I think it was shortly after leaving Kentucky Camp when we passed Chris Kuzdas, Chris was doing an ITT and started the day before us. I met Chris last year at the Cove Classic (part of the Arizona Endurance Series) and it was cool to bump into him out there.
The next several hours are a bit of a blur. At times the miles were passing quickly and effortlessly. And at other times, I was struggling to keep up with Dion. I think we passed Chad for the final time just before it got dark. At this point, the only riders in front of us were Kaitlyn Boyle, Neal Beltchenko, and Kurt Refsnider. Kurt was doing the AZT 750 and started 14 miles behind us and an hour earlier. Kurt was the only AZT750 rider that I saw during the race. I kept hoping that Max Morris would catch up, but it never happened. In fact, the only other racer that I saw for the remainder of the race was Dion.
My new Sinewave Beacon was doing an excellent job of lighting the way in the dark. I was running the Beacon off of a cache battery. The plan was to recharge the battery during the day using my dynamo. I wouldn’t realize until my third evening that something in my system didn’t work out as planned. In the meantime, I was loving my Beacon.
The Santa Rita's seemed to go on forever. It was amazing how dark the desert was. Every now and then we would catch a glimpse of the lights in Tucson. Eventually, we crested a hill and had a nice view of Tucson. Shortly thereafter, we arrived at the Sahuarita Road/Hwy83 water cache (roughly mile 88) and were greeted by an older couple. The husband was a bikepacker that was setting up for the night and they were excited to see us and give us splits to the riders ahead and behind of us. I think Max Morris wasn’t too far behind us at this point.
When we reached the entrance to Saguaro National Park (roughly mile 118), Dion and I parted ways. Dion needed to detour into Tucson to get food, but since I was carrying all of my calories for the whole race, all I needed was water. We weren’t sure if we would see each other again. I was feeling really good, but wasn’t exactly looking forward to riding the rest of the night by myself. As Dion headed towards Tucson, I took the bike path a short ways into Saguaro National Park and filled up 6 liters of water (which is really heavy by the way). As far as I knew, the next guaranteed water source was 50 miles away and most of the way up Mount Lemmon at the Bigelow Trailhead. It turns out that I would pass at least two places that I could have filtered water and a cache of water.
A few miles after filling up with water, I started climbing up Redington Road. I could see some car lights way up the road, which gave me a sense of how long I would be climbing. I probably should have held back a little, but I was feeling pretty dang good but also a little anxious about riding alone in the dark. Prior to the race, I was dreading this section. However, I was in the zone thoroughly enjoying myself. I was hoping the feeling would last forever.
After climbing for a few miles and gaining some significant elevation, the route turns off of Redington Road onto a much rougher dirt road. I’m not really sure how long the next section was, but the blissful state I was in was soon replaced with frustration and anxiety. I would have had trouble riding this section during the day, but riding it at night really kicked my ass. The road was a series of deep ruts and rock steps. I was on and off my bike every couple minutes and when I was pedaling, I felt like I was going at a snail’s pace. Numerous times I had to stop and look around so that I could figure out which way to go. The riding was hard, but I was also using up a lot of energy getting frustrated. At some point, my mind decided it was time to start worrying about mountain lions and other scary things that lurk in the dark. I stopped having fun for a little while.
Right around the time that I thought I might lose it emotionally, I came upon an unexpected water cache. I think it was near where the route rejoins Redington Road (roughly mile 143). (If the route changes to stay on Rediington Road instead of taking the detour that kicked my ass, I probably wouldn’t object.) I figured it was best not to pass up on the water, so I topped off to 5 liters. The previous section took its toll on me, so I decided that it might be a good idea to take a rest and maybe catch an hour of sleep. I put on my puffy jacket and laid down next to my bike. I tried to sleep, but I just laid there for roughly 30 minutes. If I wasn’t going to sleep, I might as well get back on the saddle and continue on my way.
Within a few minutes, I was back on the AZ Trail proper and happy to be on singletrack again. The short break did me good. I was cruising again and in good spirits. Soon enough I was on a section of trail that I had ridden just a couple weeks earlier. It felt good to be on familiar ground and I knew the sun would be coming up shortly.
Soon enough I was able to turn off my lights and ride using the pre-dawn light. At this point, I was thrilled with my progress and ahead of where I thought I might be. I was stoked that I was going to be able to climb up Mount Lemmon while the temperatures were cool.
Eventually, I made it to the hike-a-bike section that headed into Molino Basin. I had cruised up this section during Spring Break. However, this time I had to do it fully loaded and after riding for nearly 24 straight hours. I definitely didn’t set any speed records, but the HAB wasn’t too bad. On the other hand, my descent into Molino Basin was less than stellar. I lacked the confidence to bomb the technical sections and had to dismount numerous times.
After crossing over the Mount Lemmon Highway, I entered the Molino Basin Campground (roughly mile 154), which is where I camped with my family two weeks earlier. I had ridden the upcoming section of trail a few times. In fact, it’s where I had my crash and hurt my shoulder. As fate would have it, I rolled my rear tire and burped quite a bit of air out about 100 yards from where I crashed. I didn’t panic and stepped off to see how much air my tire had lost. It felt pretty low, so I grabbed my pump and put some more air in. A few minutes later, I thought my tire felt low again, so I stopped to check. Sure enough I was losing air. Ruh-roh! Now I was panicking a little. I pumped it up again, adding extra this time. I was able to make it to the Gordon Hirabayashi Campground (aka Prison Camp) before I stopped to check it again. Doh! Low again! I pumped it back up and verified that my valve stem wasn’t the culprit and that I didn’t have any obvious holes. I had some Stan’s leaking out the interface with the rim, so my best guess was that the tire wasn’t seated all the way after rolling it off the rim.
I was trying to stay positive and not have a panic attack. Maybe I should have stopped to assess the situation further, but I decided to just keep pressing on and see how things progressed. After Gordon Hirabayashi Campground, the route follows the Mount Lemmon Highway all the way to Summerhaven. I made it a few miles up the road before having to put more air in my tire. Around the same time, the foot that I had surgery on a few months ago starting to scream at me. I tried to ignore it, but the pain ramped up quickly. I pulled over at the Bug Springs Trailhead and took my shoe off hoping to get some relief. Thankfully, the pain eased up almost immediately. I was riding strong, but the stress of my rear tire and fear that my foot was going to bother me the rest of the race was wearing me out. I laid down on the pavement for a few minutes and gave myself a pep talk. After a few minutes, I was itching to get moving again. I pumped up my tire extra firm, put my shoe on, and started up the road again. Other than blisters I would get later in the race, my foot never bothered me again. I think I stopped once more to put air in my tire, but it never gave me trouble after that.
I pulled over a Windy Point (roughly mile 163) to take a picture and a gentleman walked over to me to chat about the race. He was dot stalking and knew my name. He told me that Kurt was only an hour in front of me. I was a bit blown away by this and it energized me to know that I wasn’t that far behind the leaders. I think the distance between me and them grew for the remainder of the race, but I didn’t know that would happen at the time.
The rest of the ride up Mount Lemmon was smooth sailing. I’ve ridden up Mount Lemmon numerous times and it was comforting to be on familiar ground. I had plenty of water when I reached the Bigelow Trailhead, so I pressed on to Summerhaven. I was looking forward to some real food. I try to eat vegan as often as possible, but I was definitely craving a burger and a Coke!
I rolled into Summerhaven (roughly mile 173) and parked my bike outside the Sawmill Run Restaurant. I took a seat on their patio where I could see my bike and looked over the menu. When I arrived I was feeling great and elated with my progress. However, that quickly turned to frustration as it took forever for a server to come over to my table. I pride myself on being patient, but it’s a bit funny how one’s mood and attitude can change in an instant during these types of events. I was tired and hungry. For hours, the thought of racing wasn’t on my mind, but now that I was sitting there waiting, I was stressing out about riders gaining on me. Eventually, I put in my order and after a rather long wait, my food arrived. Thankfully, after getting some calories in my body, my attitude improved.
After lunch, I topped off on water at the Summerhaven Visitor’s Center and pedaled toward Oracle Ridge. The upcoming section was one I wasn’t looking forward to. I had never ridden Oracle Ridge before, but I had heard enough about it to know I might not like it. According to folks that have ridden it numerous times, it is better now than it used to be. I’m not sure if that’s true or not, but what I do know is that it kicked my ass. I’m sure there are people that can ride sections of it, but I pretty much walked the whole thing. Hike-a-bike up and hike-a-bike down. It was hot and my progress was slow. For me, it was the least enjoyable section of the whole course. If I never ride Oracle Ridge again, that would be fine with me.
By the time I reached the outskirts of Oracle State Park, I was pretty cooked. I had anticipated the next several miles being uneventful and passing quickly, but I was moving so slow and walking lots of sections that I normally would have been able to ride. I was a bit of a zombie until I made it to the water cache at the bridge a couple miles before the Tiger Mine Trailhead. At this point, it was cooling off and I was looking forward to reaching Tiger Mine. In my mind, Tiger Mine was a bit of a milestone. From there, it is roughly 100 miles to the end. I had previously ridden those miles in the reverse direction during the Gila 100 in 2015.
I reached the Tiger Mine Trailhead (roughly mile 196) a couple hours before nightfall and decided I needed a rest. I was shattered and not looking forward to riding alone in the dark. It was windy and a bit chilly, so I put on my puffy jacket and laid down in the dirt. I knew I needed to eat, but it required a bit of effort to get the food down. I had good cell reception, so I checked TrackLeaders, posted a couple messages on Facebook, and called my family. It looked like Dion was roughly an hour behind me. Given how I was feeling, I knew he would likely catch me if I continued on my way. I had really enjoyed his company the previous day and definitely wasn’t in the racing mood. So, I decided to wait for Dion in the hopes that resting for a bit would hit the reset button for me.
I knew I was a little f*&#$d up at the time, but after all the miles and lack of sleep, it sort of felt “normal”. It seemed like no time at all before Dion arrived and my spirits were lifted. As I packed up my stuff, we chatted briefly about the experiences we each had since last seeing each other. We left Tiger Mine while there was still some light left, but it wasn’t long before the lights came on... (to be continued... the wheels come off the bus for Dana, temporarily, in Part 2.)