By: Karin Pocock
I headed towards the Pinyons and Pines bikepacking race with many bricks in my pack, so to speak. I didn’t really believe I would be racing until I was pulling away from Flag Bike Revolution and pedaling out with the group start.
Slightly less than a month before the race, I had surgery on my butt to correct damage from a severe food poisoning event; that added a brick or two. My surgeon had only cleared me to race on the 15th and the race began on the 18th. Post-illness rest and post-operative complications forcing bed rest, coupled with a long season of work on skis had meant I’d barely been out on my bike and had only been on a loaded bike the week before the event. My fitness was as “off the couch” as it gets; that added another brick. I’d had bad experiences with snake fears both times I had ridden in Arizona prior to this and carried the weight of that anxiety; another brick. All told, my rig felt impossibly heavy with the weight of my situation and concerns. I had to really sit myself down and ask, Why, why am I doing this? Is this really necessary?
I found some answers within, and I was reminded of many on the trail.
I was one of the few finishers to complete the 526-mile route as intended minus the six miles of singletrack that I rode around to not destroy a flooded trail.
I’d had a couple days to digest the rollercoaster that was this year’s Pinyons and Pines during a 27-hour drive from Flagstaff, AZ to Blue River, CO after the race, and then on to Bend, OR. That amount of time will give a person some time for reflection and likely up the chance of a deep vein thrombosis. Thank goodness for interstates, cruise control, and leg dance moves.
I love to ride far, bake in the heat, freeze in the cold, and feel the extremes that desert bikepacking offers, but I came into this race terrified of snakes.
In the lead up to the Pinyons and Pines event, my friend John and I would examine the route drafts as each came out, not for quality so much as for a combination of latitude and altitude that in Arizona meant a greater chance of rattlesnake encounter. The final draft seemed the best of all variants to mitigate the potential for a snake encounter, but there were still hot zones and these would determine the pacing and moves of my ride.
Our mini posse, consisting of myself, John Phelps, and Matt Anabel, had met and created a close bond on last year’s Colorado Trail Race. We’d decided that we should ride Pinyons and Pines. Bailing, other than for surgical directive, was not an option for me. Bailing for rattlesnake anxiety would not fly, and as with so many good adventures, a little extrinsic nudge was in place to get my butt to the race start.
Day 1 felt like a race, with the group start, the semi-awkward singletrack peloton, and the motivation to push hard for a very full day in the saddle. It was social, full of friend love and highlighted for me by cruising down singletrack into Cottonwood talking to Leigh Bowe about how bikepacking really is just “the funnest thing ever.” The next highlight would be getting greeted by John Phelps at Verde Valley Cycles and then riding out together to find Matt at the Maverick station. John was so right when he’d said earlier that the three of us really are “never far apart” on the trail, and my heart was full as I pedaled up the singletrack out of Cottonwood, occasionally being pushed over by the crosswind. The climb up Mingus spread people out and changed riding order and I started to volley between riding and breaks with Zach M, who I would continue to see throughout the next two days. I was massively impressed with his efforts on a fully rigid bike.
The extrinsic motivation of moving while the snakes were “sleeping” led me to put in a 100+ mile day to clear the Black Canyon Trail singletrack nearly to its terminus onto a dirt road after the climb up and descent down Mingus. Curling up for the night, I pulled my first fully “dingus” move of the ride and parked myself in front of a gate to sleep. In my tired state, I had thought the route continued on a piece of singletrack a few feet away and thus I would be conscientious by napping by the gate for a couple hours instead of blocking the trail. When I heard Seth opening the gate and gently trying to pry it around me, I realized the error of my ways.
I rose in the dark, slammed some coffee and tried to get back on my bike ASAP knowing the sun was coming and the warmth would bring rattlesnakes. This may seem irrational to some, such an obsession with a slow moving creature while moving at high speeds on a bike, but this threat was consuming my thoughts. Everything about the terrain used in the event pushed my buttons and forced me to confront fears that I had avoided facing and moving through. As if to say You’re not too far off in your fears, I hit the dirt road at the end of the singletrack that headed to Mayer and saw a rattlesnake with its body tensed and tail erect, freshly squashed on the road. It was both an affirmation of being in snake country and a sad reminder that while I may fear such creatures, we are by far their biggest threat to survival.
The Mayer Circle K deserves a multi-star review as a bikepacking re-supply. The donut and snack selection, as well as the delicious coffee, pretty much made my morning and pepped me up after a very short night of sleep.
Later on Day 2 everything changed. The weather we knew was coming arrived. Every moment of relaxation or sleep up to that point dictated where each person ended up and how the storm would play out for them. I went for Round 1 with thunderstorms crossing the route at a high point in the Bradshaws. I managed to get scared by the overhead one to two second gap of flash and boom but stayed otherwise mostly dry and unscathed. I barreled down into Prescott thanking Dana in my head for the varied course. The climb up the Bradshaws had been a fight of baby head rocks and steep bike pushing, but the descent was a smooth road and some flowy singletrack. Clouds were building again as I started into the Homestead trail climbing out of Prescott, and my weather luck ran out and the skies opened. The mature alligator juniper I was taking refuge under was not going to hold at bay the volume of water that was swamping the trail. In minutes there was six to eight inches of standing water on the trail. Heeding the warning that we should not destroy singletrack trails for the sake of racing, I headed for the main road and Prescott. So much water was pouring down I could barely operate my phone for directions.
I hit the pavement, or rather the lake that used to be pavement, and started to pedal the mile and a half to the nearest hotel. The water was above my pedals and vehicles were hydroplaning everywhere I looked. Please don’t die in a car accident trying to escape the rain, I thought to myself. The grape-sized hail started, smashing down on the deep puddles of water, just as I got into the covered entrance of a Holiday Inn. I walked in, apologetic of my sopping “drowned rat” state and was immediately greeted with towels despite the mesh of water and mud I was leaving on the hotel foyer floor.
A half an hour later, all my things were splayed out in a room and I was walking the hotel dressed in towels while trying to get my clothes and kit dried out in the dryer and coming up with a plan of action. I could see people scratching from the race entirely or taking refuge in positions adjacent to the course that I could only assume were other hotels. Dana sent us emergency emails and texts encouraging us to re-route or take cover as needed. I didn’t want to scratch or re-route other than to prevent trail damage, so I decided to sleep through the storm and get as early a start as possible to make up the ground I had lost that afternoon.
I hopped back on my bike at one in the morning and pedaled out of the Prescott Valley. The rain had finally ceased, but mud and standing water were plentiful. I was lucky that the dirt roads on this part of the route were more gravel than mud. They were still mush to pedal in, but they weren’t locking up my bike components, thankfully.
Cresting over the Bradshaws and heading back towards Mayer, I checked in on Trackleaders to see what was going on now that others were awake and moving. I immediately realized how many riders had been affected by the storm. The scratch list was growing, as well as the list of riders who had rerouted, skipped course loops, or otherwise changed their plans of travel. I had thought in getting stormed off my bike the previous day at 3 pm that I really wouldn’t see any other 500-mile racers again, but the storm had taken its toll on all. I could see that I might get to see Zach, Dylan, or Emily down in the valley.
I came across Emily in Bloody Basin as I was soaking myself crossing the Agua Fria, not the most intelligent thing I’d done during the race thus far. I’d looked at the raging brown water and hoped I could ride fast and get across without having to take my shoes off and wade. I was instantly greeted by water that went well above my pedals. It was practically at my knees, and I was lucky it didn’t push me right over. When I arrived on the other side, Emily’s eyes were wide that I had ridden across the torrent and she let me know she definitely hopped a ride across in a pickup for fears of being swept over. She also filled me in on her mountain lion encounter of the past night and how she had turned around prior to the Prescott loop of the course, which is how we ended up at the Agua Fria together. We shared some storm stories before I continued up the road. I was soaked, but it was hot and I wanted to make it to Camp Verde prior to sunset. The final 10 miles of chunky double-track trail into Camp Verde looked like a perfect riparian snake habitat.
Watching Trackleaders dots while riding is an interesting mental game. I both prefer to not know and amintrigued by how the positions of other riders can affect my pace and psyche on a race so long that really riding at my own pace is the only option.
The Bloody Basin road and subsequent dirt tracks were hot and long, and I amused myself during mandatory shoe-off breaks by looking at where the other 500 riders were. I was closing the gap created by the previous day’s storm, and knowing the speed of the riders ahead, this didn’t compute. What is up with the trail ahead, I wondered. A text came through from Matt, then from Dana, then from Dylan. Death Mud. Less than half-a-mile-per-hour travel carrying bikes and barely gaining purchase with shoes. The storm, though it had concluded late the night before, was still claiming victims. Re-routes were being discussed, group text threads of options were coming through, and I was moving steadily closer to the decision point.
Another electrical storm started to rumble and I took a longer water break at Sycamore Creek where there was both terrain and tree shelter.
Approaching the junction where I would have to choose whether to detour around the mud or stick to the route, I was very aware that the number of racers that had been holding to the route could be counted on one hand at this point. I wanted to stay true to the course, or as true as was possible. I’d just received a text that Matt had not only been bogged down in the mud, but had now broken a crank arm in addition. Zach threw into the group text thread that he was going to stay true to the route and take his chances with the death mud. I figured, what’s the worst that could happen, and took the right turn towards the mud. It certainly wasn’t pleasant travel between the scorching heat and the residual mud, but the death orb had done a number on the death mud and most problematic sections were just awkward short carries rather than sustained mud.
It felt a bit like bikepacking in Colorado, If you don’t like the weather, just wait 20 minutes and it will change. I’d been up since midnight to catch back up to the 500-mile riders with no route deviations and I’d felt full of optimism gliding into Mayer in the cool of the morning, then I’d pedaled full of uncertainty through Bloody Basin, turned onto miles upon mile of mud roads and been cooked in heat while being simultaneously thankful for the dry ground and willing the heat to stop, and just like that, it was over and I was cruising high speed on gravity-fed techy double-track down into Camp Verde and wondering if I would catch anyone for dinner.
There is an amazing camaraderie to bikepack racing despite it being an essentially solo pursuit. I texted Matt my dinner location and he was there before I managed to talk to the server. Something special had been cultivated on the last CTR between Matt, John, and myself; we had found our tribe. A familial warmth spread through me as Matt and I recounted our days on the trail since the beginning: epics in storms, mud, snakes and other critters, and testing ourselves against the long days. This was the last time I would see Matt until the finish line, but it showed me once again that bikepack racing for me was about the people and the connections we make, not just about pushing ourselves in a solo pursuit.
The next two days were a blur of mostly solo time. As soon as I turned off onto the Mogollon Rim loop, I could feel the solitude. These were quiet lands and Dana and Dylan had woven into the route. Just as I was feeling the remoteness and the concerns of being a solo female in unfamiliar country, I heard a bell-like sound. It’s strange sometimes how the universe answers your call. I had been getting deep into my head with the potential consequences of different interactions with people, pickup trucks, and large mammals, and I was startled by the sound. The noise drew closer and I saw the familiar figure of Emily Elliot. A huge full-body sigh of relief hit me just as the sun finished setting. Emily had ridden around the singletrack and managed to catch me. We would have each other’s company through the dark lonely road. We embark on these race journeys that are designed to be solo, and in our solo efforts find an astounding enveloping community and a constant understanding that we are not alone.
We rode together until just before midnight and that was the last I would see of anyone else for the race. I spent the next day and a half with only my own thoughts, considering what pushes me and thinking about the motivation needed to be in a race of one, knowing that no other woman was completing the 500-mile route true to course).
I certainly slept more than I would have, which for me was telling in terms of competitive instinct. More than any other feeling, I remember pedaling those last 100+ miles with a big smile, just so thrilled to move across the landscape on my bike.
It’s hard to say if there is a darkness in some of us that gets lit up by extreme effort, if perhaps it calms some of the anxiety of past traumas and offers a type focus, if there is just something special about seeing what your mind and body are capable of. I think everyone’s story is different. I didn’t know how much I needed to see into myself in this way until I was doing it. I’m not sure I realized I was missing this community in my life until I found it. At the conclusion of every race and every ride I find myself in the state I hope to cultivate for my whole life: tired from hard work, accomplished in mind and body, and deeply full of gratitude.
It’s been 2 and half months since P & P and now the CTR is sitting on the horizon. Unexpectedly, I find I’m making peace with my deeply rooted fears of desert critters and thinking about the value of riding through such amazing landscapes rather than dwelling on reasons not to or feeling overcome by the potential challenges. I believe pushing myself in bikepacking races makes me a better version of myself. Every time I have to dig deeper and deal with discomfort and fear rather than running from it; I emerge stronger. I hope to take this mindset to both the CTR and the AZTR this season as well as into my life outside of riding.
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