Coatimundis and Cougars on the Arizona Trail

After a disappointing and unsuccessful attempt on the Colorado Trail Race this year, I was surprised at the pang on envy I felt watching racers lining up to tackle this year’s Arizona Trail Race. I followed the race on Trackleaders and on the Townie, and felt a flicker of longing at Eszter’s photos of Ana hiking out the Grand Canyon. Did I really want to do that? Even after my less-than-fun attempt at the CTR, did I really want to race my bike again? And hike through the Grand Canyon with my bike on my back like a fool?

I don’t know. Maybe?

My 2021 AZTR300 was the best few days I’ve spent on a bike and apparently, that experience isn’t quite done with me. I’m not a particularly introspective person (long bike rides still haven’t convinced me to go there), so I don’t have any transcendent takeaways from my ride, but the experience has stuck with me and, apparently, I might want to do it again.

Below is an essay about my 2021 AZTR300 that was originally published in Issue #1 of the Ride Your Bike Zine.

It’s early- way too early- and somewhere nearby, a coatimundi is waddling away, its belly stuffed with snacks it scavenged off my bike. I’d had a lot of food packed- hopefully enough to get me to the first resupply- and the cheeky camp robber had stolen as much as it could, leaving me whatever it couldn’t stuff in its mouth.

It’s the start of the Arizona Trail Race 300, and I’m under-trained, under-prepared, and now, thanks to the thieving rodent, under-caloried. My goal is to ride the Arizona Trail from the Parker Canyon Lake trailhead to Picketpost Mountain trailhead, some 300-ish miles north.

The first morning at Parker Canyon Lake, I anxiously mill around with the other riders, chatting nervously with the few that I know, before we’re rounded up for a brief talk about… something. I have no idea what’s said- I’m so anxious I can’t think. Before I’m ready, the race starts, we roll out and… I’m off the back.

Emma finally out of the Canelo Hills. Photo: The Town Bicycle/Eszter Horanyi

I joke that it takes me three days to warm up, which is why I’m so sluggish on short bikes rides. It’s a joke, but for real. I occasionally get passed by people in jeans. And not, like, fast people ironically wearing jorts. I’d like to pretend that getting immediately dropped by the whole group is part of some plan but really, everyone is just faster than me. Still, I’m prepared for this! I have no illusions about my speed, so I know the group will start ahead- I just hope I’ll pass someone eventually.

The first day is scorching. I walk every hill in an attempt not to overheat, but I fail. Nine ibuprofen make no dent in my massive headache, so late that night I find a sandy wash to rest my poor, pounding head.

The next morning, my alarm wakes me up to a dark, beautiful, pre-dawn morning. My headache is gone, a new day is dawning, and… oh, shit- is that a cougar?

It’s not. I knew I would do this. I vacillate between elation- “I love riding at night!”- and fear- “I’m gonna get eaten by a mountain lion!” In fact, I only end up seeing birds, the occasional cow, and a deer, all of which scare the crap out of me.

True to form, 36 hours in, I’m finally warmed up! I feel amazing- I’ve never ridden stronger or faster! I can do anything! I’m so good at biking! I ride this high to the base of the Molino climb, where the headlamps from the folks in front of me are so high above me that I mistake them for stars. It’s a grind, dragging my loaded bike up this vertical wall, but I’m still glowing from finally hitting my stride.

Cruising through the Rincon Valley. Photo: The Town Bicycle/Eszter Horanyi

The next day I climb Mount Lemmon. Slowly. Mistakes I didn’t know I was making catch up to me- blisters form on my toes, my bike is heavy with too much water, and my hands and wrists are throbbing in pain. Plus, road riding… ugh. I knew this section would be the toughest for me, but still. This sucks. I’m passed by everyone and it’s like they’re shot from a rocket while I’m stuck in the mud. I try to listen to audio books, but everyone who passes me is having such a nice time and they all want to chat about how great road biking is. Freaks. Eons later, the road climb is over and I’m back on singletrack. I ride late into the night, trying to shake off the tedium of the pavement.

The last morning, I wake up on the side of a dirt road energized from my brief rest. My hands and wrists are numb and so painful that I can only sleep on my back, with my hands folded across my chest like a vampire in a coffin. Even then, when I twitch, my hands throb and wake me up.

But this is it! I’m going to make it today! It’s only… some number of miles left! Math is elusive, but I’m close! All I have to do is ride over a mountain! I’ll be done by dinner!

18 hours later, the sun has set and I’m still climbing this fucking mountain. Earlier, my bike computer registered 117 °F. I’m out of food and water and this trail is going in circles. Every time I look at the elevation profile, the climbs ahead get bigger. I’m cracked, but without snacks or sleep, I can’t get it together. Another racer’s lights are visible behind me and it’s all that’s keeping me going- I don’t want anyone to see me like this. I sit down to take stock. I’ve got one bite of jerky, no water, but enough phone battery to start rocking out. Soon, Lizzo and I are harmonizing as we cruise through the unending miles to the trailhead. Every little uphill feels monstrous, but I’ll make it.

This was taken on the last morning because I knew that my husband, Ryan, would tease me endlessly if I did this whole race and didn’t take a single photo.

Three days, 16 hours, and 31 minutes after starting the race, I roll into the parking lot at Picketpost, where my dad greets me with sandwiches. He’s a hero. I eat and keep him awake with stories that are only interesting to me.

My hands and wrists were so sore that for the next few nights, I woke up moaning in pain, and my legs and feet swelled so much I didn’t have ankles anymore. In fact, it took about six months and few hand and wrist physical therapy appointments for the numbness in my fingers to completely go away. Would I do it again? While I suspect you’ll someday see me lugging my bike through the Grand Canyon for the AZTR800, it won’t be soon. If there’s anything I hate more than road riding, it’s hiking.

Your support means the world to us. If you enjoy our work, please consider making a donation to help us with our mission.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *