When I lined up for the Arizona Trail Race, an 800-mile mostly singletrack route from Arizona’s border with Mexico to its border with Utah, I had one major goal: Finish with healthy lungs. To be honest, I didn’t know if that was possible for me. Asthma has always been something I’ve had to contend with in these things, but as I participated in more bikepacking races, I felt that my lung health was deteriorating, even outside of races. I’d come to the start line knowing there was a month or more when I’d be taking my emergency inhaler randomly throughout the day. That I wouldn’t be able to walk up a hill normally without it. That I’d have to take it to combat asthma attacks while I was trying to sleep. All of this made me wonder, “Is bikepack racing worth the toll it takes on my body?”
Of all the races I participated in, I could think of one where my lungs weren’t my limiting factor – Tour Divide. While it was the longest race I’d ever done, somehow I came away with only slightly cranky lungs. I contemplated the difference between that race and the others. First off, there were wet conditions – 16 of my 19 days on the route, I rode through rain. Maybe the more humid air helped my lungs? I knew that wouldn’t happen on the Arizona Trail, so I thought about other differences. I slept substantially more during the Tour Divide due to the sheer distance of the ride. I knew to be sustainable, I’d need more rest, so I slept six hours per night. The fact that my lungs did better with more rest certainly tracked with many of my other experiences, so I made a commitment to myself – during the AZT, I’d sleep six hours per night.
I figured it wasn’t a bad strategy even if I wasn’t concerned about my lungs’ recovery. With the long nights in the fall, more than half my time on the trail would be in the dark. I know that I ride slower at night, so I wondered if the extra time sleeping would give me more energy so that I could ride faster in the daylight and make up for any lost time.
The AZT started during a heat wave with temperatures over 100 degrees, unusual for this time of year. The forecast intimidated me and I knew that pushing too hard could land me in a dangerous situation. I studied water sources meticulously and created my spreadsheet with times to the next chance to fill up. I chose to use reliable water sources only, no caches as hikers need these and bikes can get from reliable source to reliable source more easily. I based my times on last year’s splits from a similarly paced rider. I knew exactly how much water I needed to take from each stop – six liters from the border, four from Red Bank Well, six from Kentucky Camp, two from La Savilla, nine from Tucson. I was armed with as much information as I could gather, all I had to do was not blow up.
On the first day of my ride, it felt surreal to have finally made it to the start line of the Arizona Trail Race. I used that motivation to ride strong, only holding back during the heat of the day. When my lungs started to wheeze and I felt it was limiting my riding, I stopped. It was 9:30 p.m., earlier than I’d typically stop during a bikepacking race, but I knew if I was going to keep the commitment to myself to listen to my body and take care of my lungs, I had to start on day one. So I set up camp on the side of the trail and set my alarm for six hours later. I heard other bikes roll by throughout the night but stuck to my plan to get enough rest from the start.
When the alarm went off at 3:30a.m., my lungs allowed the air to flow freely through them. I’d have a few hours of riding in the dark before the sun came up. While I was asleep, lots of people passed me, but I had the pleasure of chasing some of them back during the day.
The first several days felt like a time warp. Sunrise, managing effort in the heat, sunset, putting out more effort until it was time to sleep. It was probably the first time I looked forward to the sunset more than the sunrise during a bikepacking race for a respite from the heat. I traversed the trail.
I’ll spare you the play-by-play of the whole race, but here were some special moments:
- Running into Kristen and Hannah on the trail and chasing them the best I could. They both finished ahead of me, completing the calendar year Triple Crown!
- Seeing a bighorn sheep in the Gila River Canyon at sunrise – probably my favorite moment of the entire race.
- Riding as fast as I could from the rain collector to the Queen Creek store, making it with only 20 minutes to spare.
- Seeing elk and hearing them bugle at sunrise from my camp outside of Payson.
- Riding the new rebuilt Highline Trail up to the Mogollon Rim – seriously so fun.
- Waking up at Cottonwood Campground in the Grand Canyon feeling rejuvenated and ready to tackle the hike out and getting to the North Rim in better condition than I expected.
- Knowing I was following in the footsteps of some of my favorite people.
- Reaching the finish line and seeing Andrew, my parents, and friends who finished ahead of me, and friends who were there just to add to the finish-line stoke! Thanks to everyone who stuck around to see me finish.
Here are some of my low points:
- Waking up and finding a colony of ants had moved into my backpack to eat my potato chips.
- Hiking my bike most of the day on the Cornucopia Trail when I didn’t expect it to be that difficult.
- Struggling to stay awake and absolutely dragging in the Grand Canyon to get to Cottonwood Campground before I could sleep.
- Having to keep moving on my last night on the trail despite desperately wanting to sleep. It was far too cold to stop – my Garmin read eight degrees at one point. After that, I stopped looking.
Looking back, my most miserable points on the trail were when I had to force myself to stay awake. Sleeping consistently not only helped me maintain healthy lungs, but helped me to stay more emotionally stable and honestly have fun riding every single day. I was so grateful to be out there.
I used to have this idea in my head that if I wasn’t pushing sleep, I probably wasn’t trying hard enough. After this race, where I gave myself enough rest and was able to push harder during the day, I honestly don’t think I could have gone faster had I cut sleep, especially in a race this long.
I learn something every time I complete (or quit) a bikepacking race. This time, I learned that more sleep and self-care was faster, and certainly more pleasant for me. My recovery went much smoother and I have the energy to do the things I want and need to do in my life. I am, after all, much more than just a bikepack racer.
If you’re interested in seeing more about my race, here’s a YouTube video:
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