Hi everyone! Eszter here. We’re pretty much wrapping up our Arizona Trail Race coverage (we have a few more fun things in the works, don’t worry) with a little photo essay from yours truly with some of the images that I loved that didn’t make it anywhere else and stories from trying to shoot an 800-mile event where racers never do what I expect them to do. We’re a largely reader-funded site, and if you’ve enjoyed our coverage of the event even half as much as we’ve enjoyed making it, we have a donation button at the top of the site for anyone who’d like to help with our mission. The support and kind words of the bikepacking community over the past two weeks and months have meant everything to us, and we can’t wait to see what else we can create moving forward. And if you’re in a giving mood, the Arizona Trail Association does so much for the trail and is a great organization to support.
Anyhow. On to the good stuff.
The start of the AZT is always fun with lots of people camping out the night before. This was the first year that both the 300 and the 800 racers started at the border together instead of having different locations for the start. Camped on the border fence, 50 strong, I’m sure we confused the border patrol. I’d venture to say that maybe they even took down some license plates because Scott and I got pulled over by border patrol as an “out of area” suspicious vehicle on our way north. Granted, we drive a white cargo van, but it was registered in the same county we got pulled over in. Either way, we got a kick out of it.
Start line nerves are always funny to watch. Even though most people have had months to prepare for the event, there’s always last minute stuff to do. Like put air in your tires.
Or ponder the meaning of it all.
AZT racers with GPS issues are lucky, Scott Morris, AZTR creator, Trackleaders’ computer guy, and all-round GPS geek, shows up. That way, if you’ve loaded a non-simplified GPX track on your GPS and it only shows the route to Kentucky Camp, he can load a new route for you with four minutes until the start.
The AZT is many things to many people. For Johnny and Alexandera, it’s a one-year anniversary. I still think the podcast episode of BIKES BIKES BIKES recorded by Alexandera and Cjell Mone detailing how the two met at the race last year, rode together, and fell in love, is one of the best podcasts ever. Way to go Matchmaker Schilling!
The AZT is a family affair for the Hansons. Jen started a southbound ride the day before, Jason was starting a northbound one at the Grand Depart, and daughter Shelby was there to do logistics. The Hansons are also responsible for the best AZTR start ever a few years back when they showed up at Parker Lake with cake for John Schilling’s birthday and a pile of tiny squishy brand new border collie puppies who wiggled around and stole everyone’s hearts.
I feel very strongly that you can’t capture the essence of the AZT in southern Arizona without photos with saguaros in them, and Colossal Cave has a beautiful grove. Watching the tracker from a camp in the Rincon Valley, Katie Strempke and I timed our ride so that I could try to grab images of Alexandera, Ana, and Katie riding through. Once we got onto the AZT where I wanted to shoot photos, Katie sprinted back towards camp, wanting to avoid getting caught by the leading trio of women in order to minimize the interaction the Townie would have with the race. With her speediness, not only did she not get caught, but she caught up to Bodie, forcing her to stop and wait for him to get past the turn off to our camp.
I always appreciate when a test rider comes through the area where I’m trying to shoot so that I can see if an image will turn out how I imagine it. Zach Friendly was my guinea pig for shooting in the saguaro grove.
There can be a lot of waiting around when it comes time to shoot photos, especially in a race like this. Wildlife is a welcome distraction.
I was super surprised at how close the top three were riding. While I’d brought enough water and snacks and podcasts to stand out in the sun for a while, they all came through within 10 minutes of each other!
Back at camp with Katie, Schilling, and Scott, we entertained ourselves watching the tracker and trying to decide if Isabelle was going to come through the Rincon Valley in the dark or not. When we saw her set up camp just north of La Sevilla campground, I thought maybe I’d have a chance to shoot some images at dawn the next morning. I knew she’d have to resupply at the Rocking K, and they didn’t open until 8 a.m.
At first light I got up, made myself a thermos of coffee and puttered around trying to find a place to carry my breakfast burrito on my bike, occasionally refreshing the tracker, figuring Isabelle wouldn’t move until well after daylight. And then the dot refreshed well past where I wanted to go take a photo. Crap. With a very quick change of plans, I sprinted out Old Spanish road to the Hope Camp trailhead, rode backwards on the trail, and hoped that I’d find a good place to shoot some images before our paths intersected.
I did, with maybe three minutes to spare. Needless to say, I didn’t get to sit there and drink my coffee and eat my burrito. But it used up my adrenaline stores for the day.
Last year I got some beautiful images of Alexandera and Johnny dropping down from the Tiger Mine trailhead north of Oracle at sunset. Golden light. Magic. While everyone was running about four hours behind last year’s times, I was still hopeful. I posted up about a 90-minute ride south from the Tiger Mine gate and waited anxiously for Katie and Ana to come down from Oracle Ridge.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned while shooting these events, it’s that racers never do what you expect them to do. I’m still not sure where those two stalled out, but as I slowly watched the light fade, I came to accept that there very simply weren’t going to be any racer photos shot.
But the sunset over Mount Lemmon was stunning!
And when waiting for racers who refuse to show up, flowers always provide a willing subject.
The following morning, I set out to a similar location to catch Alexandera, post Reverse Lemmon Pusch, and Isabelle coming down from Oracle Ridge. They both timed it beautifully for good light. Thank you ladies for actually doing what I expected you to do!
In the meantime, Corey came through on his singlespeed dropbar bike with aerobars and a massive gear. I have to admit, I was skeptical of his bike setup, but he just rolled into the Stateline campground as the final finisher of the AZT800, eighth singlespeed and ninth overall. Do the math there. The only non-singlespeed person to finish the 800 this year was Ana, and five of them did the Reverse Lemmon Pusch alternate. Bonkers. All of them. Bonkers.
Speaking of crazy singlespeeders, I also ran into Conner post Lemmon Pusch while waiting for Isabelle. The light was so good, I was a little mad at him that he wasn’t actually Isabelle.
Taking photos on the AZT is fun for the simple fact that I get to ride a bunch of AZT. Scott came a joined me for a romp on Ripsey Ridge with the hope of seeing Ana and Katie come through. We knew that they’d left Tiger Mine together the night before, along with Johnny, but Katie hadn’t tracked all day. I had no idea where she was, but my hunch was that she’d be somewhere between Johnny and Ana.
And I predicted right! In fact, she was just minutes behind Johnny, who had the most impressively torn pants that I’d ever seen. There was no ass left. Luckily there were shorts underneath. They’d both ordered food from Kearney and were anxious to get down to Kelvin.
Every person who had the chance to ride with Katie came away with a single phrase: She’s so fast! For someone who had only four days to prepare for her first bikepacking race, she crushed it. A little more experience and know-how on the tricks to making bikepacking racing faster, well, I’m personally excited to see how fast she’ll be able to go.
And while it was super fun to get out and ride with Scott, especially on the part of the AZT where he took me on our first date ten years ago, he’s often not great to have around when I’m trying to take photos because apparently he’s wider than a saguaro…
We pedaled higher on the ridge with a little bit of extra time before Ana got to the top of the Ripsey switchbacks climb. I found a spot I really liked, but there was a big ol’ rut in the trail right where I wanted to take the image. On an unloaded bike, it was fine, but would it be fine on a loaded bike piloted by a sleep-deprived Ana?
I figured I’d risk it.
In the end, I’m just lucky that cameras can shoot in burst mode and I’ve learned to start shooting a little bit before my actual ideal image lines up. Because sometimes riders come off their bikes exactly where you want them to be pedaling and looking stoic. But racers never actually do what I want them to.
We goofed around a little more up on the ridge before following Ana down. We got back down to the parking lot just as Ana started in on the super obnoxious traverse-y BS-y section between the Ripsey parking lot and the river. The saguaros were amazing. The zoom on my lens, less so.
Katie still wasn’t tracking well, and riders who don’t track well make my life as a photographer exceedingly difficult. So we stopped by the Old Time Pizza delivery drop-off station to tell Katie to double check her tracker and pleasepleaseplease put it in a spot where it would track better. And then I took a picture of her eating her delivered ice cream, because the idea of ice cream in Kelvin just made me so happy.
It was just a short hop, skip, and jump over to the AZT300 finish at Picketpost where there was a surprisingly large crowd. As it turned it, it was mostly because Mike McKnight, an ultra runner, was trying to set a supported FKT on the trail and his crew was there waiting for him. The crew at Picketpost: six cars, probably a dozen people, film crews, drones, pacers, the works. It was a production to see, and it made me glad that bikepacking has stuck as true as possible to the self-supported, Do It Yourself ethos. I’m sure fully supported long-trail efforts will be a thing someday. But today is not someday, and I’m grateful for that.
I set some early alarms to be able to check on the incoming dots of Ana and Katie, both of who had left Kelvin together the previous evening. But, lucky for me, they had the decency to sleep overnight, so I also got to sleep. And I also had light to take photos, which is always appreciated.
Ana rolled through first, ate some Cheetos, posed for some finishing photos, and headed off into the desert. Katie came through less than an hour back, and since she was only racing the 300, got to stop! It’s always fun to hang out with people right after they’ve just finished something so huge.
When it gets this late in the race, there’s lots of time to go play in between racers. We got in a solid ride up the new Arnett Canyon trails before I had to be back to catch Alexandera coming through as the third finisher of the 300, and the first woman to ever completed the AZT300 Lemmon Pusch Edition.
Then Max Morris, long-time AZT racer, Tucson mountain biker, and all around good human set up dinner in the Picketpost parking lot and fed us carne asada tacos. He was up and ready to make breakfast burritos when Isabelle came in just after dawn the next day. The breakfast set up fooled several thru hikers into thinking that Max was a hiking trail angel, and then they were all confused when we didn’t have trail names.
The Big Ditch
I left Alexandera and Ana alone after they left Picketpost. I do my best to make my photography as unobtrusive as possible, and after seeing most of the women riders once per day three out of the four days on the southern part of the route, it felt like it was time to minimize my presence. Even though none of them knew when I’d pop out of the bushes or from behind a cactus to shoot photos, being out there as a photographer does have an effect. I admired Katie Strempke’s commitment to staying out of sight of the racers as part of the Townie’s coverage, going so far as to leave the Picketpost trailhead as 800 riders were coming through.
I had hoped that both Ana and Alexandera would come through the north rim of the Grand Canyon in daylight, but alas, only Ana timed it right for photos.
I shot photos for about half a mile of trail, apologizing for being that super-obnoxious person who didn’t have a bike on her back and could scoot up the trail to take more photos as Ana made her way up. Only problem was, she was moving so well, I actually had to try decently hard to get a big enough gap to get the photos I had envisioned!
I had a fun shot picked out of shooting Ana as she was coming over the bridge at the top of the red wall. But as it turned out, two giant backpacking groups also chose the exact same time to get down to the bridge and cross it. The acoustics of the canyon allowed me to evesdrop on their conversations with astonishing clarity. Them: What are you doing? What bike is that? Wow. And Ana: I’m pretty ready to be done.
For the half-mile I was nearby, I got to chat with a backpacking gentleman who was trying his best to not get caught by the girl carrying the bike. She’s lagging a bit behind, he’d told me when he first encountered me. Turns out, she’d just stopped to pee, which is quite a deal as a woman carrying a bike on your back. But as she slowly caught him, he exclaimed, She must have eaten an energy bar!
Cheetos, I told him. She’s walking while eating Cheetos.
The Finish: Stateline Campground
After deciding that Alexandera wasn’t going to emerge from the Ditch in daylight (she didn’t, it was 3 a.m.), I headed down to the Stateline Campground to join the Strempke Compound. Katie had been feeding finishers all week, and she lovingly fed me as well, as I’d shown up with a few packets of ramen and a box of Cheese-Its to my name. Self-care while out shooting photos is not my strong point. I got a full run down of Andrew’s ride before heading off to bed. By the time morning rolled around, Johnny Price and Zach Friendly had also finished, Johnny sleeping in a tent that Katie had set up for him and Zach in the infamous Strempke Lounging Couch, under a sleeping bag, snoring. Katie made us all pancakes and coffee. Katie is a saint.
Camped just 30 feet from the finish, we all got to chill until the tracker showed Ana coming down the final switchbacks. As someone who never really had much of a greeting committee at the finish of a race, except for the Ryters who fed me all the yummies when I finished by second CTR just after Jarral, it was really cool to see our little group of five there to cheer her across the finish line.
Shoes off was her first task.
Her feet were gross. I have a picture over at the race recap. She hadn’t taken her shoes and socks off in days.
Then it was the wait for Alexandera. We made a fire to stave off the cold of the night and had high hopes of keeping it going until she showed up around midnight. But the sleepies got the best of all of us and we went to bed with the intention of waking up for her finish.
But then the Strempkes, who were our dot watchers, managed to get their van door stuck as she got close and couldn’t get out to wake the rest of us up. They watched Alexandera’s light fly past on the trail, still stuck in the van. By the time they extracted themselves, roused everyone else, and made it over to the trailhead, Alexandera had been standing by herself in a cold dark and empty parking lot for several minutes. Which on some level, is kind of funny given that we’d been watching her dot so closely all day.
When morning showed up, Zach got the fire going, Katie made us egg breakfast burritos, and everyone lazed around telling stories. I felt extremely lucky to get to be a part of it and to get to call these amazing (and crazy) humans my friends. I’ve had the chance to meet so many new people in the past two weeks, every single one of them a good human. Getting to shoot this event and tell stories about the people has been such a special experience.
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