February 17, 2013

Bikepacking & 24hr Racing

Our flight from SLC touched down around 5pm, almost two hours behind schedule. Not a big deal, but now I knew I'd be scrambling to get all my bikepacking / 24hr race gear packed up before my scheduled departure at 9am the following morning.

First up, swing by ASU to grab Seron's SPOT tracker. He was gracious enough to let me borrow it since he had to forgo the event this year. His knee has been giving him fits and the time has come for the big fix. Heal up my friend, I'll hopefully provide some good ride stoke while you're off the bike. This also left me with an opening for our duo team, in step Caroline. She was looking to get in on the fun and attend her first 24hr event. I knew I'd have to hold my own, she's a 2-time vet of the Tour Divide afterall, most recently completing it on a tandem with her boyfriend, Kurt.

Next order of business, pick up a pizza, not only for dinner, but for some glorious trail leftovers the following day!!

Pizza in hand, finally at home. It's now 7pm. I contacted Phil to see how late I could drop some supplies off, 9pm was the answer. Ok. Mad scramble ensues, pack the cooler & don't forget the jug of chocolate milk!! Extra clothes & a sack of food and I'm out the door at 8:35p. I'd be meeting Phil at 24hr town sometime Friday after he lands a camping spot for the race. I continue to round things up at home until 11p, then call it a night. I have to get some quality zzzz's. I'll pack the bike in the morning.

I'm up at 6:30a, making all my final preparations & loading the bike. 9a rolls around quickly, then I get a text from Tim, my bikepacking partner in crime, that's he's running a little late. That's great news! I tell him to take his time, so I can relax & re-check my bike one more time. Tim doesn't own a car, so he rode his rig, a rigid singlespeed (SS) from Tempe to my house out in Queen Creek. A nice 24 mile warm-up if you will.

Tim arrives and we're ready to go. I say my farewell's to K and we begin our 97 mile trek to 24hr town on 95% dirt. Gotta love that.
Tim and I getting set to push off.
We head south from my neighborhood to the San Tan Regional Park, blowing right past our turn at Hunt Hwy because we were chatting too much, we briefly chat with a new mountain biker at the trailhead who was curious to what we were up to. Even with a 49lb bike & 20lb pack the Dynamite trail climb is nice. We hit the fun flowy section of San Tan Trail soaking it all up as this would be our only singletrack of the day. I was keeping my eyes peeled for the Shaka Cactus and before we knew it we not only missed the cactus, but our turn onto the Rock Peak Trail. This 'trail' is really just a mile Hike-a-bike (HAB) in a sandy wash. At the end Tim dumps out his shoes which have filled with sand through the two massive holes by his toes.

We exit the park and begin a series of jeep road connectors along the parks southern end. A few steep ups/downs are thrown in here to keep it real along with navigating a vague area that is tough to follow even with a GPS track! Tim's tire doesn't want to completely seal and we stop a few times to fill 'er up.
A little trailside maintenance.
Such a beautiful day to ride through the desert.
We pop out near an abandoned luxury home sub-division and I recall an overly aggressive dog chasing me last time through this area so we opt to go around the house in question. We're now cruising on a 4x4 road and I'm mentioning how nice it was to find an opening in the fence ahead connecting this road to the Hunt Hwy. Gah! The fence has been repaired! Of course it's barbed wire, but thankfully not too tall. We scramble over the fence thanks to a well placed wooden support and we're back on our way.

After a very short stint on the shoulder of the Hunt Hwy, we turn south again. This area, while close to Hunt Hwy, has the feel of being hundreds of miles from civilization - except for the trash here and there. It's a vast open area of desert with a few dirt roads cutting across the arroyos.
Somewhere along this stretch we started chatting about our lunch stop in Florence, this soon became our obsession as we dreamed about a smooth vanilla milkshake or McFlurry!! Ride on, lunch is near. We paralleled Hunt Hwy once more on a dirt frontage road then found our way over to the smooth banks of an irrigation canal. Word of advise here: when approaching Florence, stay on the south side of the canal, this will keep the canal between you and a few protective dogs!! A quick traverse of the dry Gila River bottom and McD's was in sight.

We found an outside table conveniently located next to an outlet. My GPS was running on my short-life battery & was in need of a charge. Tim ran in for some grub & I held down the fort just as two extended vans full of high school kids pulled in. Looks like my milkshake will have to wait a bit longer as I was now behind about 25 orders!

Thankfully McD's put a few employees on the HS kids order & mine was up in no time at all. We chilled for a bit enjoying our cravings, topped off our water with tons of ice and hoped that my GPS got enough juice to get me to a good camping spot.

The next portion of our ride would also serve as more route scouting for my Salty-Gila Tour as I still needed to validate the track from Florence out to the Diversion Dam. Tim and I found out quickly that my drawn in route was a no-go as the canal path was fenced in with plenty of warnings to keep out. Reluctantly we made our way over to the Florence-Kelvin Hwy, but not before a fella in a mini-van from Oregon warned us to watch out for the feds who patrol the area. We weren't too far away from the prison and I'm sure they don't think too kindly of people roaming around. We appreciated the heads-ups and were on the F-K Hwy before too long.
Just keep pedaling.
The highlight of the F-K Hwy, watching a red-tailed hawk take flight from a saguaro.
The golden hour creeps in over the Gila River Canyons.
Blah, on pavement, rough pavement to boot and just uphill enough to keep you cranking away. I felt like we'd been riding for hours, 10 miles, 12 miles, then we finally hit dirt. Another mile or so ticked by and the sun was getting low. We stopped to consult with the GPS to see how much farther our turn off towards the AZT was. Our best guess put it at roughly 7 miles, not close enough to make it by nightfall. Time to find a camping spot. We looked up and there was a 4x4 track across the road, it looked promising.

Promising indeed. Tim was looking for some trees for his hammock, boom! Palo Verdes. I needed a small clearing for my tent, boom! Open flat area. Even the GPS battery made it all the way! Time to re-charge.
'X' marks the spot for our campsite.
Just enough time to set up camp.
The fireball exits, replaced by howling coyotes under a starry sky.
Really diggin' my 1-man tent setup.
Now, how's that for relaxing in the desert!
We cooked up some dinner & settled in for the night, early for a change. We could hear an occasional vehicle dry past on the F-K, but traffic is minimal at best anyway and soon I was asleep.

The next morning Tim mentioned how a couple of coyotes had wandered into camp to 'check out' his bike! I never heard them, but they were spooked off quickly.

We took our time getting moving, not hitting the F-K until sometime shortly after 9:30. We wanted to be in 24hr town well before sunset and we only had about 45 miles to get there. Back on the F-K, we were met by a stiff headwind and I was thankful only a few miles remained until our turnoff to the south.
Very cool area with a giant boulder field, to bad we couldn't access it.
More of the endless slightly uphill F-K Hwy.
We plodded along into the headwind and came upon a cow who meandered onto the wrong side of the fencing. She kept looking at us as we approached, then would take off ahead up the road. Herding cattle via bikepacking!! The game continued for a good 1/2 mile until we crested a short climb, then she had enough shoulder for us to pass by. That's one cow that had a good workout!

Finally off the F-K Hwy, through a gate and onto a powerline road that would eventually lead us onto the AZT. First we would come upon a vague double track that Seron and I had scouted for our Ripsey loop a couple of years ago, I had us going that way, but decided to not make the turn as that route has some bushwacking. Opting instead for the more direct (read: boring) powerline route. The entire time spent under the high tension lines was interesting to say the least, any time I bumped my brake lever I would get shocked! Zap! Some serious juice flowing over our heads.

We connected up with the AZT, followed the powerline a couple more miles, passed by Ripsey Ranch and made the turn onto a super fun flowy section of AZT: The Boulders.
Dwarfed by the landscape.
Great to be back on singletrack!
Our first glimpse of Antelope Peak.
A slick counter-balanced gate.
Tim riding with the boulders.
We found a nice shady spot for lunch, then cruised through the Boulders segment up to the Freeman Rd water cache.  Rule #1 when stopping at a water cache: check all your water levels!! I didn't and would run out on the final mile into 24hr town!! I did top off my bottle with a fresh batch of CR333! There were still plenty of gallons remaining in the cache from the Gila100 a few weeks prior.

Freeman & Willow Springs Rds traveled quickly, we were getting close, all we had left was the infamous Painter Boy connector & trail.

I've now traversed Painter Boy a few times & it's really starting to grow on me. I like the primitive feel of the trail & surrounding area, plus it's always a bit fun when you have to break out your route finding skills!!
We successfully navigated the turn-off from Willow Springs Rd & the subsequent sandy wash. Next was getting through this barbed wire fence. Leave the bike at the metal pole, walk down 100ft & find the one strand of wire that has been cut to allow passage.
This is the next section of 'trail'. Probably the toughest part to navigate as the branches are sharp & thorny, plus the track gets more vague.
My bike waiting for my safe passage.
Not everything survives Painter Boy, including my GPS battery: dead. Time to continue the route on my phone.
We found our way onto the Painter Boy singletrack, but one more obstacle remained. This barbed wire fence has a nice sized gap at the bottom that allows both bike & rider to squeeze under!!
Beautiful raw desert. We're getting close now!
Tim yelled back 'I see riders!!'. People were out pre-riding the 24hr course and we were about to join them for the last 1/4 mile climb up to the saddle before the fun descent into 24hr town. It was our first encounter with other riders since we left my house the day before.

We entered the course and immediately the pre-riders began passing us and looking quizzically at our rigs. We'd get a lot of that. Just as I was cresting the saddle a familiar rider blew by me, Krista Park, our semi-resident mountain biking rockstar. I yelled hello to her and she stopped to ask what I was doing & where did I come from. I laid out our route for her and she simply replied 'You know those aren't base miles, right?' We laughed about it and then she was off.
The saddle of the High Point trail, all downhill into 24hr town from here.
I rolled down into the sponsor area to the registration tent and picked up the race packet for Caroline and myself. Tim and I had made it and we were off to find our camping spots for the race. More odd looks came my way as now the area teemed with riders. A few people asked where I came from with all that gear, most were amazed at our trek and a few were bummed they didn't think to do the same!

The day was growing short and I had to track down Phil since he had all my food/extra clothes. I also needed to get in touch with Caroline as she would be arriving very late that night. Before Sunday's race end I also needed to find Steve, he was my ride home!! All this with a cell phone with very limited 'at best' coverage in remote areas, sheesh. Luckily, I stumbled into Chris, a friend from Prescott who's 14 yr old daughter was racing - how cool! He let me use his phone & I was able to meet up with Phil and setup a meeting time with Caroline. All was good. Time to set up camp & eat!!

This year it was just Phil and I camping out, way up in the bleacher seats if you will. Last row in tent city. It was all good. I was able to get everything set up and kick back in a chair with a cold one as the sun was going down...perfect.
The sun sets over 24hr town.
We turned in early, I think I was asleep by 9p. Sometime around 1:30a a couple of neighboring yahoos decided to get into a shouting match for about 15 minutes. Thanks fellas. I tossed & turned over the next few hours never falling back to sleep. Daybreak came, the camp began to bustle, I did feel rested, let's GO!

Race Day!!

I made my way down to the vendor area and picked up a huge breakfast burrito, complements of Tim - Thanks!!  On my way down to meet Caroline I found Steve, that was a relief, everything had come together. Caroline and I met up and we mapped out our 'strategy', I would start, then we would alternate laps until Noon on Sunday. Ride, have fun, done.

The start of this event is pretty nutty. They march you back at least a 1/4 mile to a Le Mans style start, running back to the start tent to find your bike. I opted to lightly jog after the starting gun went off, this gave me ample time to swipe a beer from the rowdy bunch offering them to the starters! Carb loading at its best. I hopped on my bike & was off. The start of lap 1 on the course is a bit different too, they re-route everyone onto a service road, bypassing the first section of singletrack in order to keep the masses safe.

We weren't a 1/2 mile into the race and someone was already changing a flat tire! Must've been from CO!! The course is fun, sort of bow-tie shaped and a nice mix of jeep roads & singletrack. There are two options on the course, the first is to stay on the gasline portion, affectionately known as 'the bitches' for it's repeated fall-line undulations, or take the 'skip the bitches bypass' a nice singletrack line (slightly longer & tougher to pass people). The other option is at the rock drop just before the exchange tent. A crowd usually gathers on the rock waiting for carnage or you can bypass the drop all together.
The rock drop.
I had to take the Bitches on lap 1, the bypass doesn't open until 3p, and passed a bunch of people on the short steep climbs. The wind was really ripping, but you didn't notice it over the first few miles. Then you made a sharp left turn and BAM!! Wind in your face. Whoa, this was going to be interesting. The Corral Trail peels off to the right and the wind wasn't much of a factor, but turning onto the Rattlesnake Trail it was back in full fury. This 2-3 mile stretch would be my hardest part of each lap, it's slightly uphill anyway, through a nasty headwind and I could feel the power getting sucked from my legs. I really needed to pace myself through here.

 Lap 1 is all about being patient, so many people are en route you're bound to get stuck in a conga line at some point. There were a couple slow times, but all in all lap 1 was cruising by. I was on the final climb to the saddle, behind a girl wearing a 'cog snob' racing kit, made me chuckle a bit as I passed by. Lap 1 in the books, Caroline made the hand-off and she was gone.

The routine in between laps would be almost the same, charge the GPS after each lap, chug chocolate milk, make a new bottle of Gu or Carborocket, get something to eat and just chill for a bit. Caroline zipped around quickly and I was back out for lap 2 before I knew it.

Lap 2 was my best lap, the crowds were being spread out and the fast riders had yet to come around to lap me. The wind was still stiff on the backside of the course, but I made good time through it. After making the exchange with Caroline I stopped by the Arizona Trail tent & was offered a shot of tequila with key limes, this is my kind of race!! Next up was a plate of chicken street tacos & lemonade. I went over to Kurt & Caroline's camping spot just below the rock drop to eat & watch the racer's zoom by. Kurt and Aaron were teamed up in a duo shooting for the top spot on the podium.

I made my way back up to the tent to change & found Phil packing up to leave. He said he had enough of all the rude riders out there, practically running him off course, so he was done. Damn. It's too bad people can't just enjoy riding their bikes, I suppose I've been lucky to have a positive experience at these events. I did ask Phil to leave his water for me, since I was a dope & didn't top off back at Freeman Rd. Now it was just me and my tent getting set for a cold hopefully not-so windy night. I better bundle up.
Love my Osprey pack, only needed it for the bikepack though.
Time to prepare. Long John's, recovery socks, ski socks over-top, knee warmers, arm warmers, glove liners, lobster mitts, neck warmer & ski mask!! I wasn't getting cold. In fact I had to drop the glove liners early on due to my fingers going numb, too much pressure on the grips with all that material. In the end I was comfortable all night.

It was almost 6p when I went out for my third lap, lights affixed on the bike & helmet I sped out into the blinding sunset. This time the bypass was open, so I went for it. I made about 3 turns, looked down, an gasped, Gah!! No GPS!! It had fallen off. Noooo! I was getting ready to send the unit back to Garmin for a replacement as soon as I received a bonus at work the following week. I really couldn't afford a brand new one. I jammed on my brakes, made sure the coast was clear, then rode backwards to the course split. I ditched the bike & jogged back up the trail to a couple of rough sections that surely caused the unit to dislodge. I asked racers as the sped by if they saw a Garmin on the ground, but 'no' was the answer each time. I saw a course volunteer up ahead and he asked if I was looking for a GPS? Hell yeah I was. Trail karma indeed.

Back at my bike I made sure the GPS clicked into the mount, I'm guessing my handlebar lights prevented that in the first place. I settled back into the ride, still blinded by the horizon hugging sun. Soon twilight was upon us and the lights came out. Night riding is so much fun, I really need to do more of it. Somewhere about 1/2 way around the course my handlebar lights started to flicker on & off. I had them on 'low', so I knew the battery wasn't overheating. Full darkness settled in and my flickering became worse. I tried different settings and it would be good for a bit then start up again. What a pain. At least my helmet light was working great. I was really concerned that my lights would be flickering at one of the check points and I'd get grief for not having two functioning light sources. This didn't happen and I made the exchange with Caroline some 20 minutes slower than lap 2.

The only thing I recall on Lap 4 was my finicky handlebar lights. They were good for the first 15 minutes of the lap, then fhe flickering commenced. I switched over to medium setting for a while, then that began a random strobe effect!! I was getting really frustrated by this and let it consume me the entire lap. By the time I was on the final climb I talked myself into stopping by the Light & Motion tent to rent a set for the next two laps! My legs were starting to feel the effects of our bikepacking ride as I was now closing in on a 2 hour lap time. I made the exchange with Caroline and started my in between lap routine.

I went to the Light & Motion tent to see if they had any more lights for rent. One of the guys rounded up the last set from the back of the tent! A few signatures and $40 later I was back in business. I left just after midnight for lap 5 with a renewed attitude. I could just ride, knowing that my lights would not play head games with me. Early into the lap on the bypass I was treated to one of the most magnificent moon sets I have ever seen. The moon was a healthy crescent shape sitting just above the horizon immediately in front of me, but it was turning a deep crimson almost blood-red. If I had a tripod & DSLR I would've stopped, it was that cool. Fueled by lunar stoke I pushed it through to the Rattlesnake Trail where, thankfully, the winds began to die down. My legs were still feeling heavy, so I decided to take a few 1-2 minute breaks along the backside of the route. This really helped me, just not my lap times. Somewhere on the bottom of the last climb my GPS died, these short battery lives were really bugging me, I can't wait for a replacement. I made the exchange with Caroline once again and tried to figure out what to eat.

It was 2:15a and although my legs were a bit heavy, I felt good. Each lap I chugged some chocolate milk before eating anything. I then ate a bunch of fruit along with my tuna pouch & gloriously salty potato chips! I couldn't get enough of them. I wasn't the least bit sleepy, so off I went for lap 6. This time I used my Strava app on the phone & left my Garmin at the charging station.

I was a couple minutes late to the exchange tent as Caroline had finished up another nice lap. What a partner! I left just before 4a and after my scheduled stops out on course I rolled back into the exchange tent at 6a, a 2:12 lap! Somewhere out on course the sleep monster found me, I needed a little shut eye. Caroline took off and I made a bee-line to the tent. I could see daybreak approaching so I wanted to lie down before it was too bright. I must have dozed off quickly because the next thing I knew it was light outside!! Crap. What time is it? 7:10a, whew. Ok, I have to eat something, but I'm just not feeling it. I managed a fruit squeeze & some grapes. I changed out of my layers for what I had now declared my last lap. I was done.

In the exchange tent we discussed our strategy once more on how we wanted to finish the race as one member has to be on course at noon. It was now 8a and I figured another 2 hour lap for me, but Caroline could push it a bit to get either one of us another lap after that. I told her this was it for me, she was free to do 1 or 2 laps if she wanted. She said she'd do one more, so I went out for one last spin.

Maybe it was the sunlight or the shedding of layers, but as I got going around the course I was feeling pretty good. I even skipped a couple of the stops I had been making. I was grinding up the final climb when I noticed I was behind 'cog snob' again, at the exact same spot!! I said 'hello' as I passed her and mentioned that I had seen her here almost 20 hours earlier!! We laughed a bit and I went on to complete the lap in 1:45. I think Caroline was surprised to see me back so soon! She took off and I went to round up my camera for a couple of action shots.
About 1/2 through the course it gets very close to the start/finish area, so I went over to catch Caroline coming through, but I missed her. Instead I caught Kurt flyin' by on his 10th lap!!
Each year this tree is donned with Whiskey, this year also had combs (cacti removers) hanging from it.
Caroline cruising through lap 7.
Heading down towards the exchange tent.
Caroline finished lap 7 around 11:30a and without hesitation said she'd go back out for #8! She took off and I went back to the tent to change. Her last lap would give us a total of 15, how would we stack up? She crossed the finish line at 1:05p, one minute ahead of the next co-ed duo team putting us in 9th place out of 29 teams. Woohoo! See our lap times here. Thanks for being such a great teammate. Hopefully I can get that elusive 8th lap on a duo team soon.
Home stretch, completing lap 8!!
I packed up my gear & re-located over to Steve's camp before heading home from an incredible 4 days of riding. I'd definitely do this again, perhaps taking a slightly more scenic route down to the event and leaving time to ride home as well. I better train a bit more before that happens.

Final stats for the 4 days:
213.3 miles
13,416 ft of elevation
12,496 calories burned

One of the funniest things was having complete strangers come up to me in between laps and ask if I was the guy who rode to the event from Queen Creek. Yep, that's me.


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