When asked who was going to win the women’s Arizona Trail 800 race, most people were hesitant to commit to either Ana Jager or Alexandera Houchin. The pair had shown earlier this year during the Colorado Trail Race that when it came to multi-day racing, their speeds were similar enough that it would be hard for either of them to shake the other. It was race set up to be pitting experience against youthful enthusiasm, singlespeed versus gears, platform pedals compared to clip-ins, and the Reverse Lemmon Drop against the Catalina Highway, but the reality was, it was two friends out on course pushing each other to be their best. They’d raced hard against each other across the Colorado Trail, and they were prepared to do the same across Arizona.
And they did! When Alexandera opted to take the Lemmon Pusch Alternate to the top of Mount Lemmon, the gap between the two opened up to about 12 hours, where it would stay steady pretty much until the end, never big enough for Ana to relax, never big enough for Alexandera to give up the chase. But it would be Ana who would make it to the border first in a time of 12 days, 6 hours, and 11 minutes. Alexandera, even after bike issues plagued much of the middle section of her ride, rolled in less than 12 hours later.
The Arizona Trail Race 800 is often considered the hardest of the self-supported bikepacking races. The Sonoran desert of southern Arizona is unforgiving, especially in the fall, the resupplies are sparse and with weird hours, and water is precious. Once past the first 300 miles, riders face the relatively new Four Peaks section of the route that bypasses the Mazatzal Wilderness, a remote alternative to the old Apache Trail Road option. Then it’s on to the high pine tree country of the Mogollon Rim and temperatures dipping well below freezing overnight enroute to Flagstaff. From there, it’s around the San Francisco peaks, across Babbit Ranch, and on to south rim of the Grand Canyon, where bikes are disassembled, placed on backs, and portaged across the biggest ditch in North America. Once out of the Canyon, riders faced 75 miles of trail along the Kaibab Plateau, some of which was snowy this year, to finally reach the border.
After finishing the Arizona Trail 300 at Picketpost, (read our full recap of that race here), Ana and Alexandera pushed north, riding within a few hours of each other. Alexandera was already dealing with brake issues in the early miles of the race. She’d already burned through the new pads she’d started with and her replacements and knew she’d have to source some new ones sooner rather than later. She’d also torn a knob off of her tire on the run into Picketpost and was riding with a sewed and plugged and Gorilla-taped tire.
Ana was also dealing with tire issues. In her MTBcast call in, she seemed resigned to the fact that holes in tires were just part of the race. “I got a little sidewall slice that I tried to patch up, which is, meh, not ideal. So we’ll so how that goes.”
Ana’s tire continued to hold, but Alexandera’s problems seemed to get worse. Thinking that she’d be able to find brake pads in Payson, she skipped going off route in Apache Junction to the bike shop, a mistake that would end up being costly, both literally and figuratively, as soon as she realized that Payson doesn’t actually have a bike shop. When overnighted brake pads didn’t show up to the Payson post office, she found a courier who would be willing to deliver them to her at the Pine Trailhead further north. The entire debacle not only cost her hours of phone calls, but nearly $300 when all was said and done.
In a heartbreaking call-in, Alexandera explains, “I’m just really super sad because I care so much. I was trying so hard.” She continues on, “I’m here to deal with the consequences of my stupidity and ego.” But she wasn’t going to give up. In her call-in from the Mogollon Rim, after installing fresh brake pads, she says, “It would be so much easier to quit, but I pushed my bike up the motherfucking AZT Wilderness bypass/Lemmon Pusch, so fuck it. Still don’t know of any other ladies who’ve done it, so I’m still doing something.”
Ana’s MTBCast.com call in seemed incredibly disappointed at the loss of having someone breathing down her neck. “I’m bummed about Alex’s brakes, because it’s fun to race. We’re still racing, because anything can happen. It just sucks when shit goes wrong even if you’re super prepared.”
Meanwhile, Ana also had things go not quite as planned. She’d ridden into Payson late afternoon and made an incredibly insightful decision to stop and get a hotel room. The stop allowed her to get all of her electronics charged, and “I got a bunch of food, which was good for me.” A shower and clothing wash provided a much needed reset, and she cruised out of town around midnight, leaving her room key for the incoming Alexandera. An error in her decision-making process was quickly apparent in the cold nighttime temperatures. The following morning she, with surprisingly good humor, explains on her call in, “[I] rinsed out all my clothes in the shower at the hotel because they’re stinky as hell, as you can imagine, but now all my clothes are soaked and I just didn’t think that through when it was going to be 25 degrees biking into the night.” But in typical Alaskan fashion, she ends the thought with, “But it’s fine.”
Ana continued on towards Flagstaff, properly running herself out of food. In her call-in, now well fed, she explains fairly nonchalantly in Ana fashion, “I ran out of food early in the morning, and whatever, did my math wrong and I was like 20 miles off of what I thought I had, so I ate my final piece of cheese, like yeah, you’re almost there.” She pauses, “But I wasn’t almost there.”
Meanwhile, Alexandera was having a moment with the endless babyheads on the trail. The devoted hardtail singlespeed rider asked MTBCast listeners, “As a full-squish-curious person, I am wondering if a full suspension makes them less terrible.”
In the same call-in, after having ridden a much-improved Highline Trail, she reflects back to all of her previous experiences on the Arizona Trail. “It was just so different and it really made me think just how alive this trail is and how it’s constantly evolving and I get to go back three years of my life of having ridden lots of sections of it, or having ridden the whole thing, and just relalizing how I’ve grown to along side it and how I have different bikes and my body looks different and I’m in different mental places, and it’s always transforming and it’s always alive”
The gap between the riders never seemed large enough for Ana to feel like she could let up, and Alexandera never gave up the chase. North of Flagstaff, the sleepies started to get the best of Ana as she struggled to push on just a few more miles into the night. In her call-in, she laughs recounting the night, “Sorry mom you’re not going to like this, but I wiped out so hard. [I told myself] It’s time to find camp, you are asleep on your bike.” The next evening Ana would find herself in Tusayan, just south of the Grand Canyon, stuffing her face with pasta and getting a bag of noodles to go for her hike down into the Big Ditch.
The noodles must have done her well because she crossed the canyon in under 15 hours, a startlingly fast pace for someone who’d just pedaled their bike 700 miles and was now carrying it on her back.
She emerged from the canyon late in the afternoon to start her final ride to the border, which she reached with a cheering crew made up of three earlier finishers, Andrew Strempke, Johnny Price, and Zach Friendly, and Provider of Food to all AZT800 finishers, Katie Strempke, who’d been posted up at the finish for nearly a week with snacks and beers.
Alexandera meanwhile had also made short work of the canyon crossing, getting to the North Rim at 3 a.m. and rallying the final miles to Stateline faster than nearly anyone else in the field had. She rolled down the final switchbacks, finishing at 11:30 p.m. for a final time of 12 days, 16 hours, and 30 minutes, setting a new women’s singlespeed record. Her final thought, “That was a really fun bike ride.”
She’s also now the holder of the women’s AZT800 Lemmon Pusch FKT, something that will hopefully be repeated and challenged by many in future years.
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