Three hundred miles. One hundred-ish hours. Zero flats, zero mechanicals, zero scorpions. Five snakes, three tarantulas, four cholla attacks, one crash. About eighteen hours of sleep. Approximately one hundred cuts and scrapes. One blown out knee. No chamois and one poor ass. Two cries. Two still-numb fingers. Many many mistakes and lots of learning. Virtually five lifetimes.
It was Sunday. I was texting my friend, Isabelle, “Have fun! Good luck!” as she and her partner, Bodhi, were on their way south for the Arizona Trail 300, which would start on Thursday morning. Then, I got in my car and started driving from my home in Durango to Silverton where I wanted to ride that day. I wanted to ride. That feeling had been elusive to me for months. I don’t know where my passion had gone. I had been so beaten down by the lack of desire to ride that I just sort of said, fuck it, I guess I’m a runner and a hiker now and spent most of my summer on foot.
In the car, I thought about Isabelle doing the race. I kinda wish I was doing it too. Then it hit me in an instant. Fuck! I really want to do it!
I pulled over and called Isabelle.
“You’re going to think I’m a crazy person for what I’m about to ask you,” I blurted out.
“Probably not,” she responded with sincerity.
“Do you think it’s too late for me to sign up for the 300?”
“No, I think you should do it! We can turn around and come get you right now.”
“Well, I’d still have to pack!!”
“You should do it! I would be so excited if you were out there too.”
I had braced myself to hear a tone of doubt in her voice. I was nervous to admit that I really wanted this. But somehow, I believed I had nothing to lose. Isabelle was only encouraging. The way she responded to my wild idea made me feel capable. Like it wasn’t actually crazy for me to think that pulling off an effort of this magnitude was possible for me- exactly as I was in that moment.
After talking to her, I decided to go and do my planned ride, see how my legs felt, and see how my heart felt while I mulled over the idea of doing the 300. I climbed up the road to Stony Pass. I felt strong and fast. It felt good to breathe hard. I was excited to see what was ahead.
As I was climbing, a sudden wave of emotion rolled over me. I was thinking about all the pain, grief, heartbreak, and fear I had experienced in the last year. I was thinking about how stuck I’ve felt, trying to figure out what I want. My heart rate started to rise to an unsustainable level. I put my foot down, crumpled over my handlebars, turned my face toward the sky and cried.
I had recently learned about the “ninety-second rule.” Supposedly, it takes only ninety seconds for your body to process an emotion if you let yourself feel it fully and completely.
For ninety seconds I was a hurricane, and then I was done. I clipped back into my pedals and continued on. I felt so much space. I felt light and free. I felt presence and desire. I felt happy to be climbing higher and higher. I felt like myself. I flew up to 12,500 feet and then stayed high on the Colorado Trail (CT.)
I looked across to places I had hiked this summer. I love these mountains. I felt awe and gratitude. It started to snow.
Being on a long trail like the CT, I sometimes have this vision of just going and going forever instead of turning back to the trailhead at the end of the day. For years, I’ve thought about doing something like the AZT or CT, but it’s always been a “maybe one day.” I looked north and felt that desire to just go and go. That feeling confirmed that I really wanted to do the AZT, and now.
When I got back home, I texted my therapist, a safe person to tell, because I felt very vulnerable in uncovering this truth; “I think I’m gonna go do the AZT 300. I think I can do it.” She responded, “Do it!!!” And so ensued operation Don’t Think, Just Go!
As I began on this mission, I laid a few ground rules for myself. I wasn’t going to have any expectations. No pressure. No comparisons. No overthinking, second-guessing, or worrying. And I reminded myself of something I had learned through experience: my physical limit is beyond my mental limit. This is just an adventure.
I spent the next day getting ready. It was Monday and I had until Thursday at 7 a.m. to get down to the Mexican border for the start if I was going to do this. I first spent a couple of hours on the computer reading about the route and mapping it out. I ascertained that it seemed, while illogical, maybe doable, so I worked up the courage to ask my boss at Durango Cyclery for the week off to execute this wild hair of a plan.
I spent the rest of the day packing, sorting, making a mess, and working through lots of decisions. I texted friends searching for transportation to Arizona and gear to borrow. Stephen, another AZT racer, came through with a ride for Tuesday! Time was really ticking now.
I wasn’t even sure if it was going to be physically possible to get ready in time for the Thursday morning start. That night I went over to my friend Emma’s, who absolutely crushed the 300 last year, to pick up lights, a quilt, and a bivy. I admitted to Emma and her partner Ryan, “I don’t even know if I’m gonna make it to the start line.”
“You got this!” they said.
Tuesday morning I found myself getting into Stephen’s truck. It felt like a dream reality. It didn’t feel real. I still thought that it was literally impossible. Nevertheless, I rolled my bike to his truck to have it loaded onto the rack, sat my butt down in the back seat, and didn’t object as we left Durango.
I spent the entire drive to Tucson staring at my phone. I studied the route, marking all the water sources, bailouts and resupply options on my map while asking Stephen to share his intel. I texted Isabelle “What is your water carrying capacity? How much food are you starting with? Are you bringing pants???” I texted some other friends, “I feel so underprepared,” to which I only got encouraging responses: “You can do this!” and “Katie, just eat snacks and drink water and ride a bike!!”
When I woke up on Wednesday morning, I immediately began racking my brain for excuses I could make about why I couldn’t start. I could tell everyone I’m starting to feel sick, or that I forgot a crucial piece of gear, or just come clean and admit that I’m scared. My brain was in protest and still, my body continued on.
Dawn of Thursday morning found me changing my cleats to different shoes, changing back to my old grips after installing new ones the day before, and asking Eszter for last-minute food and clothing advice. As all the racers rolled out at 7 a.m., sharp, I was still tearing apart the truck looking for my gloves before it was pointed out to me that I had stuffed them in my bra for safekeeping. I rolled out a few minutes behind everyone. But once I was pedaling, I was just pedaling and everything felt right and I was happy.
It was gloriously sunny and the grasses shone golden. The other racers shone golden too as I passed them or they passed me in the first several hours. I pedaled and pushed and made my way along. It all felt very simple.
I stopped to filter water. I stopped to eat. I stopped to sit in the shade. I stopped to chat with some hikers who were confused when I told them I had over 250 miles to go. But mostly I ripped down the rollercoaster of singletrack. There were some hard parts, but I was so wrapped up in the excitement of going, going, going.
As evening approached on the first day, I felt really content with how things were going. My body was handling the miles well. I rode with Connor into the night and we took turns pointing out to each other where the trail was when we lost it to the overgrowth.
Going into this, I didn’t really have a strategy for my ride except that I wanted to finish and I wanted to go at a pace that felt pretty fast. Basically, I wasn’t going to dawdle. I didn’t think that I would be competitive. If I did well, it would be a bonus. The first night I allowed myself to sleep for about seven hours on the porch at Kentucky Camp.
The second day started off frustratingly slow, but after I warmed up and got into a rhythm, I was cruising. I had no idea where I was compared to all the other riders. I had decided not to check Trackleaders the whole race so that I wouldn’t start the comparison spiral.
Then I caught Ana. Woah! I had heard about Ana and her Tour Divide and CT efforts. I knew she must be fast, and I was surprised when I caught her. After that, I realized that I was going to be a contender and I became more committed to pushing myself.
As night fell on the second day, I ended up with Ana and Zack at the top of the Redington Road climb. The three of us rambled across Bellota trail. I looked out across the landscape and felt like I was looking out across an ocean. We saw Alexandera’s headlight way ahead and Connor’s way behind and admired how fast they were both going. I admired Ana’s steady strength and Zack’s determination. I felt honored to be there with them.
We pushed and pulled and hucked our bikes up to Molino Campground where we slept. I’d never felt more tired in my life. I slept an hour later than Ana and Zack because I felt confident that I could crush the highway climb in the morning and wanted the extra rest.
When I woke up, I stretched, tried to eat with little appetite and was soon cruising on the highway. I caught Ana. Again. We rode into Summerhaven together to resupply.
Oracle Ridge was a raw experience. I had just consumed two ice cream bars, a bag of Doritos, two cups of coffee, a Gatorade, some tuna and I flew through the hike-a-bike thanks to all that premium fuel and to my on-foot summer. I was in the zone.
I had a flashback to playing soccer growing up. Feeling that fierce focus, drive, and determination. Exhausted from the physical effort of it, but energized by the joy and the wanting. Being connected to myself and my body. Feeling that love and passion for what I was doing and wanting to do it well. Few experiences have made me feel that way since my soccer days.
Again, I turned my face toward the sky and started to cry. My body and mind were so broken down by the previous two days that I was just a little ball of being and emotion.
I ended the third day in the rolling hills and the wind, camping in a wash with Ana. It had been a disappointingly low-mileage day. Before falling asleep, I told myself, Tomorrow, I fly. I was getting ready to be done and was tired of trying to pace myself. I wanted to finish this thing!
I caught Johnny early on the fourth day. We rode together from mid-morning to late afternoon. I was thrilled by the chase! I didn’t want to let him drop me because I knew that would be a big blow to me mentally. Keeping pace with him gave me a lot of motivation and confidence. Plus, the trail was just plain fun.
We both were running low on food, so at the top of Ripsey, we called a restaurant that delivers to the trail. I ordered two hamburgers, a pastrami sandwich, two large fries, a Coke, an orange soda, nachos and an ice cream sundae.
Because of our timing, we ended up having to wait a couple of hours for our food. In that time, my doubt spiral crept in. I had felt so strong that whole day. My bike handling was on point and I was moving efficiently. However, that all came crashing down when I started THINKING.
I was running low on batteries for my lights, bike computer, and phone. I was nervous that I was going to get myself into a bad situation if I lost both light and navigation. Johnny rode away after packaging his pizzas to go and giving me a little pep talk. But still, I hesitated.
What if, what if, what if? I was trying to plan how I would solve every single potential problem before starting to ride again. Then Ana caught me. Again. And I relaxed into a plan of riding with her so I could turn off my navigation and save battery. We rolled out together, along with Andrew who also caught up.
Soon after resuming riding, an unexpected problem came up. Sudden, excruciating knee pain. My knee felt like it was going to explode if I put too much force on it pedaling. After trying to move through it for a few hours, I bivied. Ana and Andrew wished me well and continued on.
I gave myself two hours to rest. I knew that I was going to have to hike through the night because the longer I was out, the more all of my problems were going to snowball. My alarm rang, and I got up and started hiking. Because of my knee, pedaling was out of the question on the climb.
Though it was dark, I could tell the landscape was gorgeous by the silhouettes of the rugged topography. The stars were incredible and I could sense my proximity to the Gila River by the smell and the feel of the air. I slowly made it to the high point and a water source just at sunrise.
When I got there, I was so exhausted that I couldn’t keep my eyes open. For a moment, in my delirium, I thought I was dying. I haphazardly got into my bivy again. I had no choice. I set an alarm for thirty minutes, then gave myself thirty minutes more. I got up as the sun was starting to warm the earth, filled my bottles and continued.
My tired brain couldn’t calculate how many miles I had left and I didn’t know if I would be able to pedal at all, so I prepared myself to be out all day. I slowly made my way toward Picket Post, the finish. I coasted down each descent and dismounted to power-walk up each climb.
Eventually, I started to see day-hikers. I knew I was getting close. I couldn’t believe it. I saw the parking lot. Part of me didn’t feel ready to be done. I stopped for a moment and stood in the trail. I’ve done it! A preemptive grief settled into my gut. Then a wave of pride and relief came too.
Eszter, Scott and Katie were at the finish to greet me. I felt loved. I think the first thing I said was, “that was so hard!” I wanted to cry and cry and cry, but I was still trying to hold it all together.
My mom once told me about an experience she had finishing a triathlon and just needing to cry immediately after. Hearing her story has helped me to embrace the release that sometimes happens after profound experiences or physical efforts.
I didn’t let myself fully unleash my tears from this event until several days later back in Durango. I got to see my sibling. I just told her, “I can’t believe I did that,” and then started to cry. She hugged me and held me as a river of adrenaline, sorrow, joy, reverence, pain, fear, purpose, peace, everything I had done, seen, and felt on the trail flowed out from me and pooled at our feet. I knew she was well aware of how big of a deal this was for me.
This race was probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done, physically. However, I did not suffer.
Even when I was getting thrashed by a myriad of thorns. Even when I flew off my bike after hitting a rock made invisible by the thick grasses. Even during the hike-a-bike that felt to me like climbing out of the Grand Canyon. Even when I thought I was going to run out of water. Even when I almost stepped on a rattlesnake. Even when my bike felt so heavy that I became very angry with a certain unappetizing packet of tuna that I thought was to blame. Even when my ass was so chafed that I dreaded sitting back down in the saddle after standing and I had to apply so much baby diaper rash cream that I’m still traumatized by the smell of it. Even when I got a cholla stuck in the back of my arm that took two tries to yank out with pliers. Even when, multiple times, I found myself thinking, this is so fucked up. Who came up with this route? Who even does this shit? Even when my face was puffy and my legs were swollen with inflammation. Even when I was scared and felt like a lost child.
No matter how hungry or tired or in pain I was, there was just no space for suffering. I wanted to be there. I was so happy to be there. I am meant to be here.
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