April 14, 2012

AZT300 - 1st Attempt

We sat shivering at the Rincon Country Store eating our microwave hamburgers debating our next move. Meet up with Jonathan and camp in the wash with no dry clothes or head off route into Tucson for a hotel room? We opted for the hotel room, but that would put us too far down Mt. Lemmon for a full ascent/descent in one day, plus there was alot of snow up top that we weren't fully prepared to deal with. It was early the next morning, shoes still wet, when we pulled the plug on our attempt to reach Superior in 5 days during the 2012 AZT300. How did this come to be?

We, Seron, Chris and I, arrived down at the trailhead at Parker Canyon Lake late on Thursday. Of course we had to stop at El Guero Canelo's for a sonoran hotdog while passing through Tucson! We expected to see a few more people camping out, but some opted for the formal campground on the other side of the lake while still more stayed in Tucson and arrived via shuttle.
Sunrise on raceday.

Brad M. about to be the 'rabbit'.

Our campsite

Parker Canyon Lake.
Last minute adjustments. Photo by Seron.

A portend of things to come. Photo by Seron.

Scott giving some words of encouragement.

Chris and I ready to roll.
Ray and KC listening intently. Photo by Seron.

Raceday morning came and we chatted with Brad Mattingly who was about to take off early to use the full dose of daylight. Eric Foster was also camped out and he was super stoked to get going. We had plenty of time to get our bikes rigged up, eat breakfast, mingle and generally just watch things unfold to the 9am start. A few of our friends showed up, Jonathan (J-Bake), James, and Ray. As 9am approached Scott gave some last minutes tips then we were off. As I passed by Scott and Seron (he had to opt out this year due to a multitude of bike related obstacles leading up to the race), who were taking pictures, I thought 'man, I can't believe I'm riding here in the field with such a strong group of riders in a primo event like the AZT300'.
'DFL hard core elite' Photo by Scott.
Chris and I heading to the hills. Photo by Seron.

Yup, we're near the border. Photo by Seron.

One of the really nice stretches of trail

Mike Brislin and Chris doing what the Canelo Hills dish out - Hike-a-bike (HAB).

While tough, the scenery was spectacular.

As we crested each ridge we were reminded of the storm forecast with heavy gusts of wind.

Even the dead trees look stately.

The ample gate crossings gave us plenty of photo ops.

Montana is not the only state with big sky country.
James diggin' in early. Photo by Seron.

J-Bake at Canelo Pass Rd. Photo by Seron.

4 hours in, we were leaving the Canelo Hills East, the west was a bit more forgiving.

A clean shot of my setup.

The wind did help to keep the temps down.
Canelo Pass Rd.
As we began our attack on the west Canelo Hills I noticed my camelback wasn't giving me a whole bunch of water. I figured it was just pinched or something so I didn't look into it for a few miles. What I found was an almost empty bladder! What!?!? No way did I go through 100oz of water already...wait a minute....my carseat was a bit damp when I loaded my pack into Chris' truck. I bet I leaked out at least 1/2 before the start of the race! At least I still had all 3 of my water bottles with various concoctions and we were only 10 miles or so from Patagonia.

We were climbing up a nice ridgeline when I heard Chris behind me 'whoa!' and as I turned around I see him doing a barrel roll off the trail down an embankment!! Shit! Luckily there was a rather large yucca plant to catch him after one roll, otherwise it could have been ugly. I scrambled down to him to help untangle the bike, no damage done. Keep moving. A few miles later though he noticed his front brakes were decreasing in their ability to function. We didn't see a leak in the hydraulic line, perhaps it was a combo of the cool temps and elevation that were affecting them?
Chris cruisin'

Buckhorn cholla.

Some beautiful trail through the grassy hills.

Water source near Cott Tank.

A fellow racer we hung with for a few miles.

At the solar powered windmill.

This was cranking away in the gusty winds.

We pushed on and after 3 more hours we exited the Canelo Hills once and for all. We had set a goal of reaching Patagonia around the 7 hour mark and we were close: 7:15.
Chris all smiles as he exits the Canelo Hills.

End of the Canelo Hills, let's ride some pavement.

Nice cooldown ride into Patagonia.

Dreaming of a re-supply in Patagonia.
Our first re-supply stop would be in Patagonia. We've heard it's pretty much a tradition of sorts to stop in at the Velvet Elvis pizza, it did not disappoint! The Patagonia market was right next door too. Just a word of caution when bikepacking, do NOT go into a market and/or convenience store without a clear plan of what you want to buy!! You will want EVERYTHING!!! I controlled myself and only picked up our drinks, 2 chocolate milks, 2 Gatorades and 2 cokes to go with our pizza. Leftovers would be wrapped in foil for the next day - brilliant! Thanks to Jonathan for kicking in an extra 2 slices!!
Chowing down at the Velvet Elvis Pizza in Patagonia.
We now had a nice stretch of road riding up to Sonoita. Relatively flat for 13 miles. We approached Sonoita as the sun was setting so we stopped and set up our night riding gear and added a few layers of clothing as the temps plummeted with the sun.
Not a bad pic for not slowing down to take it.
 One of the other riders that we met, Adam, came up to us with a dazed look 'I don't have any of my cold weather gear, I think I left it at the start or it fell out of my pack!'. We really felt for him, he was riding strong, but it was getting cold and the forecast was ominous at best. He opted for a room in Sonoita for the night, then eventually had to drop out. Next year Adam, we'll see you there!

A few hours later we finally arrived at Kentucky Camp where at least a dozen others had already crashed out for the evening. We found a spot on the east side of the visitor building to help shield against the 40+ mph gusts. That night I really didn't sleep, maybe 2 hours, the wind kept me awake blowing bits of straw into my face. As daybreak approached as few light drops of rain could be felt, but overhead the skies were clear. To the north lying in wait were the dark foreboding clouds we'd be riding into.

Just before I got out of my sleeping bag I heard someone go INTO the visitor center! We were camped right next to a door, but assumed it was locked. We weren't allowed to campout inside, but it was nice to take our gear inside to pack up as the rain started to increase. Chris and I sat inside and munched on our cold breakfast burritos we picked up in Sonoita.....beep, beep, beep. What the? A microwave?!?! That would have been nice to know! Then someone offers up some wine that the caretaker had handed out the previous night, jeez sounds like you all had a great time!! We finished eating, packed up and headed out on the damp jeep road out of Kentucky Camp.
Packing up our gear at Kentucky Camp.

Jonathan and his neon 80's style raingear.

It may look sunny ahead, but things would go downhill quickly.
As we made our way back towards singletrack the rain picked up, then it started sleeting mixed with graupel into a vicious crosswind. The trail was holding up however, so we plugged onward. We passed a forest service agent out surveying and the thought of getting warm inside her truck was tempting. Chris' hands had gone numb and he was seriously contemplating turning back to Kentucky Camp. We waited it out for a few minutes while he was able to get his hands a bit warmer. Now it was starting to snow, we needed to get down from the ridge. We rolled along for a bit, crossed a washed, then I heard Jonathan call out 'HEY!', I turned my head back to see a very welcome sight - a campfire!!
Jonathan saving the day - for a bit at least.
 We hung out with him for a good 45 minutes, eating our leftover pizza and actually drying out a bit. Not 5 minutes after we left we were back to being soaked and cold. I knew there was some HAB sections coming up so I thought that would warm us up. We traversed the hillsides, went up and over a few drainages then with one more longer climb approaching we were almost out of the Santa Rita Mountains. We started up the HAB, riding a bit, walking a lot, but during one short bit of riding we hit it. DEATH MUD. Nooooo!! There's not much you can do, the trail surface looked the same as we had been on. One revolution of the tire later, the bike came to an abrupt halt as a softball size chunk of sticky clay lodged itself behind my forks and rear brakes.
Not much to do other than scrape it off as best you can.

The Devil's clay gets everywhere.

Oh the irony, as we're cleaning off mud, the sun comes out.

Screw you mud!!
We weren't really close to any bailout options so all we could do was clean, move a bit, clean again. It took about an hour to move a half mile. We finally hit some trail that didn't stick, but we couldn't shift. Gradually the mud fell off the tires and we exited the hilly region onto some sweet gentle downward sloping trail.
Even caked with mud & riding in a snow squall, this part of the AZT is incredible!
After a few miles and finally watching the weather break we were able to shift a few gears as we rode the long downhill section towards the i-10 underpass then onto the 3 bridges area. Our new goal for the day was to at least make it to La Sevilla campground near Colossal Cave so we could hopefully clean off our bikes. By now we were falling behind schedule to get up & over Mt. Lemmon on day 3. In addition, we received reports that the Catalina Hwy had been closed earlier in the day due to snow at the higher elevations. Only Kurt Refsnider made it through before the road was closed. We had only allotted 5 days to get to Superior, now that was in serious jeopardy.
Stretching out at La Sevilla campground.

Jonathan arrives at the campground to do some cleaning of his own.
We were able to clean the bikes fairly well, re-lube the chain, put on our lights and push on towards Tucson for the night. Jonathan was planning on camping out near the start of the Redington Rd. climb with a fresh pizza delivered to the end of Broadway Rd. After we left the campground we kept weighing our options for the night. It was clear out now, but still windy & cold. My feet were numb from the cold and my shoes still caked with mud and wet. Most of my clothes were damp, as most of my gear is water resistant not waterproof. We were prepared for the forecast of 30% chance of showers, not 8 hours of rain/sleet/hail/snow/mud & 40+mph winds!!

We finished the nice section of trail by Pistol Hill Rd., jumped on the washboarded X-9 Ranch Rd. & finally met up with the paved undulating Old Spanish Trail. The first lights were spotted were from the Rincon Market. We stopped for a warm meal and chatted with the store clerk for a bit. She told us how earlier in the day at least 10 racers were sleeping inside the market waiting out the storm. We inquired about a hotel room to get dry/warm. Of course there was no Motel6 or Super8 nearby, only a Hilton some 8-10 miles down the road.
Our refuge after day 2. Ultimately the end of our AZT300.
In the end, we made the right decision. Personal safety was a concern and this course is not to be taken lightly. Am I proud of our effort? Hell yeah. Was it an easy decision to 'scratch' from the race, absolutely not. I've been thinking about it ever since. Especially these last three days knowing that I should still be out there riding/plodding/suffering along with my compadres. Chris and I will be back in 2013 to fulfill some unfinished business. Seron will be along too. All three of us can't wait.

A special thanks to Seron for driving us down there and really being in the spirit of the race even though the mountain biking gods conspired against him all through March. Also, thanks for being our virtual command center and keeping K at ease through the storm!

Chris, what can I say? It was so good to ride this event with you. You're a great riding partner and can tie a hell of a knot!!

Thanks to my wife for putting up with all my bonus long distance rides in preparation. To all my friends & family who were tracking us during the two days - thank you, your vibes could be felt out there!!

A few sidebars of note: As we returned to Gold Canyon to pick up my car Kurt Refsnider was about 10 miles from finishing the 300 in record time. The finish line, Picketpost Trailhead, is only 20 from Gold Canyon so I went out to see him in.
Kurt crossing the finish line in record time: 2:07:59 (d:hh:mm)!!
Our friends, Jonathan, James and Ray all ended up scratching. Jonathan's knee starting acting up on him as he ascended Mt. Lemmon, James hit the death mud earlier than we did and didn't see an end to it and finally Ray's ride ended thanks to some yahoos driving too fast on Redington Rd. and drove over his bike while he put tape on his feet. It's not supposed to end like that.

Scott Morris started his 300 two days later than the field, partly to rest a sore knee & partly to avoid the weather (smart man). He just finished a few hours ago with a NEW course record, lowering Kurt's incredible time to a ridiculous 2:05:04!! Way to go Scott!! It would have been real interesting to see these two battle it out it they had started simultaneously.
A day after, my shoes are wrecked. The AZT is unforgiving!!

Until next year, ride strong!!

Full slideshow here: (photos by me, Chris & Seron)

Here's an elevation profile of the AZT300 route:
Available via Redbubble on posters, mugs & stickers.
Digital downloads are found via Payhip, be sure to read the file description.

T-shirts, mugs & stickers can be found on my Zazzle account. *Please note, t-shirts are available in all sorts of fabric and may have custom text added at no charge. For example: 2018 Finisher!! The tees have different graphics on the front/back of the shirts, be sure to check out the previews.
Mug available in different styles & colors.
Front graphic is the logo pictured on the mug above.


  1. Superb write up and pics John! Really nice job. Next year will be the one...weather permitting of course...lol...

  2. Awesome. Strangely enough, I wish I was in the mud with you guys. It's tough calling it. I'm still debating my non-last lap at 24HTOP. As I feel better now, what a stupid decision!! Oh well. Use it as motivation for the next in/out decision. Great recap.

  3. Well done John, crazy how that weather hit this time of year - sure made it hard for everybody in the AZT300. Great write up, I appreciate the effort, nice to read some of the detail of the experience.

    I look forward to reading about how you all finish it next year.

  4. So awesome. Thanks for sharing.