Dana's AZT, Part 2

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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, Part 2... easiest to read by clicking on the title to open a new page.

...I think in general, Dion is a slightly better rider than I am.  He’s certainly better at descending than me. However, when we had last seen each other on Thursday evening, I think I was riding slightly stronger than him.  That’s what I unconsciously remembered and I was looking forward to some slow miles.  But now it's Friday evening and Dion is feeling fantastic.  About 30 minutes after leaving Tiger Mine I realized that there was no way I could keep the pace up and I was starting to feel awful. I told Dion to feel free to drop me, but he stuck by me.  He slowed it down a bit, but shortly thereafter, the wheels completely came up off the bus.  I started getting super dizzy and my vision was totally messed up.  My sense of balance was out of whack and I was having a hard time keeping my bike upright.  Dion was pretty far in front of me and I was getting really worried.  I had never felt that way and the thought of being alone in the dark in the middle of nowhere (with no tent or sleeping bag!) was pretty f*&^$g stressful. 

I decided I would try to lay down at the top of the next hill.  When I pulled over the top, Dion was there waiting.  I collapsed into the dirt and laid there.  Dion was futzing around with gear and debating what to do.  Meanwhile, the sky was spinning for me and I couldn’t really get up.  15-20 minutes go by and I start to feel way better. I get up and we ride pretty slowly for maybe an hour and then another dizzy spell hits me, but this time it is worse.  I tell Dion to leave me behind and hope that sleeping for a couple hours does the trick.

So there I am just laying in the dirt in my puffy.  Not really my thing!  I was so tired that all the fears of the scary shit that lurks in the dark didn’t matter.  I fell asleep instantly.  30 minutes later I was startled awake by a coyote yip that sounded like it was right next to me.  Now I’m wide awake!  Another yip.  And another.  From 3 sides of me!  I jump to my feet and shine my light and count four of them circling me about 50 yards away. I threw rocks at them, yelled, and jumped onto my bike.  I was convinced they ignored me and just let me pedal away, but reflecting now, I have no reason to believe they didn’t follow me for a bit.

After the coyote incident I’m feeling quite a bit better, but I have no “go” juice. I am riding really slowly and walking pretty much everything that goes uphill.  I’m shattered and alone in the dark in the desert.  I’m fighting to keep moving, fighting fear, and fighting the sleep monsters.  I convince myself to try to ride to Freeman Road.  At some point, I fell asleep while pushing my bike up a hill.  I have no idea if I fell asleep for 2 seconds or several minutes.  I startled myself awake and then couldn’t decide which way I was supposed to go.  I was staring at my GPS for what seemed to be an eternity, trying to figure out which way to go.  My mind was mush and nothing made any sense.  Eventually I decided that I should just keep riding in the direction that my bike was facing.

I made it to within about 3 miles of the Freeman Road cache when I started to hallucinate. For about 5 minutes I saw women in 50’s style clothes and kids wandering in the desert as if each cactus was a rack of clothes. So weird!  The apparitions were completely silent.  At that point, I decided to sit down for a minute.  45 minutes later I woke up. I hopped on my bike and rode the last few miles to Freeman Road (roughly mile 223).  Dion was there sleeping and I woke him up when I arrived.  Somehow he had only been there for 2 hours.  The last few hours seemed like an eternity.  I collapsed in the dirt and slept for about 30 minutes before I started shivering pretty intensely.

Dion and I got up around 5:30am (I think), gathered up our stuff, and pushed off for Kelvin.  Within 5 minutes, I felt absolutely fantastic as if it was a fresh start.   It seems impossible that I could go from feeling so crappy to feeling so good.  We were flying! Thankfully we made it to the bottom of the “Big Hill” before it got to hot.  We dispensed with the hike-a-bike with ease and then descended Ripsey Ridge.  I almost never enjoy descending, but I was loving the Ripsey descent.  

When we reached Kelvin, we pedaled to the water spigot at the ADOT yard (roughly mile 251).  There was some shade and the water was cold.  Life was good.  We decided to chill for a bit and ordered some pizza and soda from Old Time Pizza.  As we waited for the pizza to arrive, we started to realize how hot it was.  Both of us were feeling sorry for anyone that was out on the section we had just ridden.  Hiking up the Big Hill in the heat would be soul crushing.  The pizza arrived and we devoured all but a couple slices, which we wrapped in tin foil and saved for later.  

Rested and recharged, we departed Kelvin and entered the Gila Canyon section of the AZT. Our plan was to ease into things and then speed up, but we started slow and got slower.  It was hot!  According to my Garmin, it was 104.5 degrees Fahrenheit in Gila Canyon. This pretty much crippled Dion and me.  It took us 5.5 hours to go the 15 miles from Kelvin to the base of the final big climb. We basically slithered from shady spot to shady spot, often stopping for 15-20 minutes at a time.  We tried to be extremely conservative with our efforts. Being out in that kind of heat is dangerous, especially given the state we were in.  Before the final big climb, we cooled off in the Gila River and then waited quite a little while before starting the final push. We were hoping for some shade before climbing up Picketpost Mountain. I had saved a Coke that I ordered with the pizza. I had been looking forward to drinking it for hours and decided now was as good a time as any.  Unfortunately, it was more like warm bath water than a refreshing cold beverage.  Oh well.  I also finished off the rest of the pizza I had been saving. 

Dion and I were on pace to finish in under 2.5 days when we arrived in Kelvin, but it just wasn’t in the cards for us with how we timed the heat. We only had 21 miles to go.  At this point, I think both of us were just going to be happy to finish and any concerns about our time or placing were absent.

We were pretty spent from the heat when we started up the climb out of Gila Canyon.  I had descended that section once before during the Gila 100 race, so I thought I had some sense of what was in store.  However, reality and my memory didn’t line up.  It got dark on us a couple miles before the “top”.  We turned on our lights and continued on our way.  I was anxious to reach the high point and then rip the descent to the finish.  Ha! Not long after turning on my lights, my Sinewave Beacon dimmed quickly and then turned off.  I was walking and pushing my bike at the time.  I stopped and fiddled with the wires, flipped the on/off switch a few times, but nothing happened.  I picked my front tire up and spun the wheel to see if dynamo would power the light.  Yep, that worked.  Shit, my cache battery was toast.  It should have been charging all day, but apparently that didn’t happen.  It appears that my cache battery never recharged during the whole race.  If that’s the case, my cache battery (with help from the dynamo when I was going fast enough) powered my handlebar light for two full nights.  A little testing post-race with the help of Sinewave revealed that my cable and battery combo was the culprit.  Unfortunately, I didn’t do adequate testing before the race.  After the race, I swapped out my cache battery and replaced the cable I was using.  I’ve used the Beacon a few times since then and everything works great.

I wasn’t in panic mode yet since the light would work as long as I was rolling fast enough.  And I still had my headlamp…or so I thought.  As I was pushing my bike, I realized my headlamp was extremely dim.  The night before I swapped the batteries in my BD Storm headlamp.  I was carrying lithium batteries as a back-up because that’s what the Spot requires.  Unbeknownst to me, the lithium batteries and my headlamp don’t cooperate.  I seem to burn through the lithium batteries in the matter of a few hours.  This isn’t the first time this has happened to me, but it’s the first time that I figured out why it was likely happening.  I haven’t been able to confirm that this is a documented issue, but I’m confident the batteries are an issue for my headlamp.  

The lack of light was a bit of a bummer at this point, but I definitely had enough for hike-a-biking.  Besides, soon we would hit the top, and then we would be descending fast enough for the dynamo to power my Beacon and I would have bright light all the way to the finish.  Right?  Nope.  

We hit a high point and both of us assumed it was the top.  We descended a bit (with bright light!), but then soon dismounted and started walking back uphill.  We hit another high point.  Ah, this must be the top.  Descend a bit, then back up hill.  This happened a few more times.  Descend a bit.  Hike up a bit.  Dion and I wondered if we were going in circles or experiencing groundhog day.  I was pretty discouraged at this point and on the verge of having an emotional meltdown.  At one point, we looked down and saw a light.  Fuck, was someone gaining on us?  This spurred us to move a little faster, which maybe lasted 5 minutes.  Back to snail pace, I kept looking around for the light, expecting whoever it was to catch us at any moment.  After the fact, I’m confident it wasn’t another racer as the next rider to reach Picketpost after Dion and me was Dustin Eroh nearly 3 hours after us.  In fact, I’m not even sure the light was behind us.  We were so turned around up there in the dark, it’s possible the light was in front of us. 

Somewhere near the top, my heels started screaming at me when I was pushing my bike.  I figured I had blisters, but there was no sense stopping to address the issue with how close we were to the finish.  I’ve never had blisters before and was shocked at how painful they were.

Eventually, we really did reach the high point and “down” we went.  Dion was flying and I was desperately trying to keep up.  When I was going fast, my Beacon was throwing plenty of light.  The problem is that every time I slowed down, the light would dim so much, it was extremely hard to see. The frequent change from really bright to essentially non-existent was very hard on the eyes. Every time I’d get to a switchback, I’d slow down so much, I more or less couldn’t see where I was going. I crashed multiple times. I’m guessing I lost over an hour on the descent to the finish due to the lack of light. 

I couldn’t believe how long the descent from the top took.  As close as we were to the finish, I was feeling like I was never going to make it there.  I was having trouble believing that I had ridden my single speed up what I was currently trying to ride down. Of course, it wasn’t all downhill as I was hoping.  There were also plenty of short uphills, which I mostly walked.  A couple miles before the finish, I tried to power up a short technical section but my cranks came to an abrupt stop.  It felt like classic chain suck, but when I dismounted, I was surprised to see that my chain was jammed across three or four cogs of my rear cassette.  That was a new one for me and it took me a few minutes to pull it off.  I gingerly remounted and was relieved that things seemed to be working fine.  I assumed Dion was long gone, but was thankful to see him a few minutes later.  My chain stuffed itself across my cassette a couple more times and each time it took a little longer to unjam.  

After 2 days, 15 hours, and 13 seconds, Dion and I rolled into Picketpost.  We were the 4th and 5th riders to reach Picketpost and tied for 3rd place in the AZT300.  Neil Beltchenko won the AZT300 with a blistering fast time of 1:23:13.  It appears Neil is only the second person to ever finish under 48 hours.  Kaitlyn Boyle set a new women’s course record with a time of 2:02:57.  Well done Kaitlyn!  Kurt Refsnider’s split time from Parker Lake to Picketpost was 2:04:55.  Kurt went on to set a new course record for the AZT750.  Nice job Kurt!  

 Finished!

Finished!

When Dion and I reached the finish, it was pitch black and eerily quite. I felt like I should stop for a moment and take in what I had just accomplished, but instincts took over.  Where’s the food?  Shit, I didn’t have any food…or water. I rolled over to my car and fumbled around looking for my car key while Dion rode to the other end of the parking lot looking for his wife.  After dropping all my stuff at my car, I wandered over to where Dion and his wife were hanging out.  Dion’s wife brought me some Wendy’s!  We laid in the dirt wedging some fries, chicken sandwiches, and giant Cokes.  So good. After chilling out for a little while, Dion and his wife departed. Thankfully they left me a bottle of water since I had none of my own.  Note to self: always leave food and water for after races and bikepacking trips.  

I bumbled around at my car for a bit while pondering what to do.  My son was playing in a soccer tournament in Prescott the following morning, so I decided I would try to catch a few hours of sleep and then drive to the morning game.  It took me forever to get changed.  I was a total space cadet.  It felt great to get out of my cycling shoes.  Within a few minutes my feet were super swollen. I was about to set up my tent that John Schilling had delivered from the start to my car (thanks again John!), but then realized that Bill’s truck was parked next to my car.  I blew up my sleeping pad, grabbed my sleeping bag, and crawled into the bed of the truck.  I elevated my swollen feet,  stared up at the stars ,and slowly drifted off to sleep.

A couple hours later I was awoken as Dustin Eroh rolled into Picketpost.  I sat up in the truck and congratulated him on his progress.  We chatted a little as he sat up camp next to the truck.  I’m sure I was a muttering fool.  He sounded surprisingly fresh.  Dustin would go on to finish second in the AZT750.

I woke up before the sun came up and hobbled out of Bill’s truck.  I could barely walk.  My feet were completely f*&^$d. There’s no way I could have put my shoes back on.  I was shocked at how massive the blisters on my heels were, but it was the swelling in my feet that was causing all the pain.  I had similar swelling at the end of the CTR.  I need to figure out this swelling thing.  I might have to try compression socks.  I was an absolute zombie driving to my son’s soccer game.  I made it there in time for kick off and cheered on my son’s team.  It was nice to be with family and friends.

Closing Thoughts

  1. Gratitude: I’m extremely grateful to have the opportunity to experience these types of adventures. It wouldn’t be possible without support from my wife and family. Events like the AZT300, the lead up to them, and sometimes the recovery afterwards are taxing on family, too. Thanks Jen, I love you!  Also, thanks to the dudes at Flagstaff Bicycle Revolution and Bedrock Bags for the support. I’m also indebted to Mike Vanderberg for helping out with an abbreviated training plan. I had foot surgery in December and wasn’t able to start training until the middle of January. My early training was slowed due to a recurring saddle sore turned staph infection. In reality, I packed all of my training into 8 weeks. Thanks to Scott Morris for organizing this crazy event. 
  2. Companionship: I had a blast riding with Dion. I hope we can share some adventures in the future.
  3. Feeling proud: I’m really proud of what I’ve accomplished. Squeezing in time to train when you work 50+ hours per week isn’t easy. Balancing work, family life, and play isn’t easy. I’m 43 years old and I’ve had two surgeries in the past year and a half (lower back and left foot). Also, I don’t think I’m really that good of a bike rider.  But I do have an abundance of “try hard”.
  4. Room for improvement: There are lots of little things that I can improve upon, but one thing that stands out is my descending.  I’m awful.  A huge part of the problem is that I don’t really like going fast. I’ve always been conservative when descending, but since my back surgery, I’m definitely overly cautious.  I really need to work on riding switchbacks.  I bet I could take an hour off my AZT300 time just by riding all of the switchbacks faster.
  5. Animals: I saw 3 rattle snakes (2 of which seemed to be mating along the trail in Gila Canyon), 2 scorpions, 1 gila monster, 4 coyotes, hundreds of wolf spiders (their eyes twinkle at night), and mountain lion tracks on top of cycling shoe prints. Whoever was using Speedplay pedals may have had a mountain lion following them in Gila Canyon! I was hoping to see a desert tortoise, but that didn’t happen.
  6. Community: I think the bikepacking community is awesome and I’m proud to be a part of it.
  7. AZT750: I have massive respect for every rider attempting the 750. I’m happy with how my race in the 300 went, but given the state of my feet, I’m not sure I could not have finished the 750. I’ll admit that bums me out a bit, but it’s irrelevant.  Someday I’d like to do the 750, but I’m not sure it’ll ever happen since I just can’t miss that many days of work in the middle of the semester.  Missing one day for the 300 was already a problem.

Gear List

Here’s a more-or-less complete list of the stuff that I took with me:

  • Clothes:
    • Bike hat
    • Buff
    • Bibs
    • Wool Rapha shirt 
    • Wool long sleeve base layer
    • Socks
    • Knee warmers
    • Gloves
    • Cycling shoes
    • Helmet
    • Puffy jacket
    • Insulated pants
  • Osprey Syncro 10 backpack
  • Two 3-liter bladders
  • Sinewave Beacon Light
  • Garmin GPS
  • Spot Tracker
  • Black Diamond Storm headlamp (strapped to helmet)
  • Batteries for Spot and headlamp
  • Sunglasses
  • MSR Trailshot and Aquatabs
  • Dude wipes
  • Minimal first aid kit
  • Lighter
  • DZ Nuts
  • Sunscreen
  • Money, drivers license, credit car
  • Repair stuff:
    • Spokes
    • Nipples
    • Pump
    • CO2
    • Tubes w/ sealant
    • Patch kit
    • Tire boot
    • Sealant
    • Valve core remover
    • Valve core
    • Leatherman
    • Chain link
    • Lube
    • Rag
    • Zip ties
    • Gorilla tape
    • Curved needle and nylon thread
    • Brake pads
    • Cleats and bolts
    • Superglue
    • Shifter cable
    • Multi tool
    • Derailleur hanger
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