When Isabelle Fisk rolled up to the Arizona Trail’s Picketpost trailhead at 6:22 on Monday morning, the look on her face was a cross between incredulity and complete joy. She’d been up for nearly 48 hours to complete a long push to the finish, partially because her entire sleep kit was wet from a heavy downpour two nights prior and she had no choice but to keep going throughout the cold night. But now, after the long and unseasonably cold night, she was standing at the end of the Arizona Trail 300, surrounded by friends and with a cup of coffee in her hand. She’d finished her first bikepacking race.
The challenge to race 300 miles self-supported through the rugged terrain of southern Arizona is an immense undertaking and it took courage for each and every woman to line up for the Arizona Trail Race 300 (AZT300) this year. Following a second hearty monsoon season, there were reports of shoulder-high grass, rutted trail, and overgrowth making the course extremely difficult to follow in places. Paired with the relentless heat during the first two days, the finisher rate was well below average this year. With only 24 percent of the riders signed up for the AZT300 making it to the finish this year, Isabelle truly earned the title of “The Last Woman Standing.”
While the AZT300 was Isabelle’s first bikepacking race, she’s is no stranger to long and challenging rides. As a Durango local, she has spent long days riding the Colorado Trail and recently completed a 200-mile gravel race. She also volunteers with EveryPedal Mountain Bike, a program designed to get girls out on bikes, teaching them valuable life skills in the process. Chasing young kids around on bikes is certainly a role that takes patience and commitment, two important traits of successful endurance athletes.
Seeking out longer and longer rides, Isabelle thought the next logical step was to try a multi-day race. She was curious whether she could finish the race and whether she would enjoy bikepack racing. So, despite her concerns about solo camping and whether she’d be able to take care of her food and water needs over several days by herself, Isabelle did the brave thing and signed up for the AZT300.
On her drive down from Durango, Isabelle went over every excuse in her head to not even start the race. “I was telling everyone that I was nervous because I’m getting hip surgery in December, and I didn’t want to make it worse because I didn’t want the recovery process to be worse.” And while there was truth in that excuse, when Isabelle was honest with herself, she knew that the nerves came from feeling intimidated, vulnerable, and scared, especially when she thought about having to camp on her own and take care of herself over multiple days of hard riding. Her hip injury was an easy cover and people would have understood if she scratched or didn’t start.
When Isabelle got to the border where racers were camped the night before the race, she thought their excited energy would make her excited to race too, but she still couldn’t shake the nerves. The excuses kept adding up, and now the day before the race, her Wahoo broke. She would have to rely on her phone for navigation if she went out there. She felt like a black sheep in the group of people who were stoked to be starting the Arizona Trail. While many racers stayed up laughing and talking, Isabelle went to bed early, crawling into her sleeping bag and crying for an hour before she fell asleep, holding onto hope that on race morning her nerves would ease up.
She was still dreading the race when she woke up the next morning, but she felt like she couldn’t bail before she even started. She told herself to just get through the first day and try camping alone to get one new thing under her belt, giving herself permission to reassess when she got to the Rocking K market in Tucson. Giving herself this out helped her get started. Fortunately, Isabelle’s nerves finally broke a mile into the race. Riding and talking with Meg Knobel helped her settle into the day. Okay, we’re in it. I’m doing it for real.
Isabelle continued that first day, solving problems that arose along the way and making important decisions about her ride. She managed her navigation with her phone. The cradle that holds the dry bag to her rack broke, so she had to stop frequently to fix it. When she got to an intersection in the trail where riders must decide whether they will make it through a section closed to trail users after sunset, she checked the time and saw she was cutting it close. To not risk getting stuck for the night, she decided to take the longer and more difficult option into Patagoina. The trail into Patagonia was extremely overgrown, but town was a highlight of her ride. She got a soda from the general store and received encouragement from people in town, giving her a boost as she set back out on the trail.
Just as Isabelle started getting tired, she found a pile of racers camped in a large clearing. It was a good place to camp, and she was ready for rest after a long day of riding through challenging and overgrown terrain. She wanted to sleep as long as her body needed, so she didn’t bother to set an alarm. If she woke up and felt rested, she would keep moving but if she woke up feeling horrible, she would go back to sleep.
It’s evident that Isabelle is friends with other bikepack racers and understands how little many of them sleep because she considered her six hours of sleep a long night. She woke up naturally at 5:30 a.m. feeling rested and ready to go. It wasn’t long after setting out that morning that she arrived at Kentucky Camp, a crucial water stop for people traversing the Arizona Trail.
Water was a major worry throughout the race, and Isabelle was committed to carrying enough to go from spigot to spigot, skipping the water caches and leaving them for hikers who take much longer to cover the ground between water sources.. While her water plan was working out, food was a different story. She found herself dry heaving every time she had to eat. She thought the effort in the heat must be getting to her. Unable to keep food down, her nerves popped back up again. She was discouraged by her lack of appetite but kept going, mostly on autopilot. She soaked her shirt and washed her face each time she came across moving water to help manage the heat.
Now just south of Tucson as the sun went down, Isabelle felt motivated to keep moving. Night riding was fun, and she felt more comfortable and safe moving than camping. But she knew if she kept riding, she would pass the Rocking K convenience store in south Tucson and miss a crucial resupply, which wasn’t an option. Throughout the day, she’d chatted with other racers and realized that almost everybody was nervous about being out alone at night. Isabelle thought that she was feeling more afraid than others because of her vulnerability as a woman, but it was somewhat comforting that her fear was a near universal experience, even among men. So, that night when there were no other racers around and she had to stop and sleep to wait for the market to open, Isabelle faced her fear of camping alone with more confidence than she thought she was capable of.
It was about 9 p.m. and she found a beautiful little flat spot to camp. She got her sleep kit out and realized that her sleeping pad had a hole, but she didn’t let it bother her because it was warm that night. She laid down and thought to herself, Wow, I’m out here by myself and something went wrong and I’m okay and that’s cool. She felt more comfortable than she expected to. While she was nervous before she stopped, when it came to setting up camp, she thought, I know what I’m doing, I’m going to put my sleeping stuff out, I’m going to crawl into it, and I’m going to fall asleep then I’ll wake up and nothing bad is going to happen. She laid down feeling giddy, proud of herself for making the decision to stop even though it would have been more mentally comfortable to keep on going.
All of the food options at the Rocking K were overwhelming, but nothing sounded good. Still, she bought a sandwich to eat for breakfast, a bag of Bugles, and a can of soup to have a real dinner that night. Isabelle was still struggling to eat enough, so she sat down and forced herself to finish the sandwich, which went down surprisingly well.
Next came the climb up Redington Road. The access point to Tanque Verde Falls along the road often draws an interesting crowd, many of whom prefer minimal to no clothing. As Isabelle rode by, she saw a naked woman and two men who were taking turns slapping her butt standing on the side of the road. Perplexed, and having no idea that this wouldn’t necessarily be something that is out of the ordinary for the area, the situation kept Isabelle going for several hours. She couldn’t stop thinking about how weird it was, and it kept her brain entertained for a long time.
That night, Isabelle pedaled up Mt. Lemmon by headlamp, powered by music, feeling like she was in a nightclub with her flashing light and dance music. The party came to an end when the wind picked up and started pushing her all over the road. She even had to stop and wait for gusts to pass so she wouldn’t get blown over.
When she finally reached Summerhaven, she was feeling ready to tackle more trail, but the wind continued to blow, and she didn’t feel safe starting Oracle Ridge, the next high and exposed section of trail, in the gusty weather conditions. She sat in the post office and checked the weather, seeing no mention of wind or rain. She didn’t love the idea of loitering in the building, but it was her best option to stay warm until it was safe for her to continue to Oracle Ridge. Without her sleeping pad, camping on top of a mountain with just her quilt and bivy would be too cold. She sat in the post office, would doze off for 20 minutes or so, then walk outside to see if the wind died down. She repeated that process for about four hours. Finally, at 3 a.m., the wind had calmed, and Isabelle made a break for it. She traversed Oracle Ridge in the dark and just as she was coming out of the main thick overgrowth, the sun came up.
Missing business hours in Summerhaven the day before, Isabelle planned an off-route stop in the town of Oracle. While she technically had enough calories to get to the end, much of the snack food she was carrying was unappetizing and she knew she needed more real food. Part of her wished she’d grabbed a few extra sandwiches in Tucson to avoid the four mile trip to Oracle. Still, the stop allowed her to get food she actually wanted to eat. She noticed a jar of marinated mushrooms on the shelf, and it looked delicious. She bought a ton of food and ate more than she thought she could, including the entire jar of mushrooms, knowing she needed the fuel to get through the rest of her ride.
As Isabelle was gearing up to leave Oracle that afternoon, dark clouds started to build in the distance. She had gear for a drizzle, but not for a downpour. There was a 20-percent chance of rain in Oracle, but not until she would be long gone. When she checked other locations between Oracle and the finish, it looked like the rain would miss her. She left Oracle feeling confident about the weather, but unfortunately the forecast didn’t pan out. Just as the sun was setting, it started drizzling. Isabelle wasn’t worried. It was still warm out, and she was equipped to handle light rain. Even if the rain continued for a couple of hours, she’d be fine.
Then the rain started picking up. Nervous that if she got any wetter, she would get too cold and wouldn’t be able to ride, especially since her gloves had gone missing, Isabelle made the decision to set up camp. She laid her groundcloth down and got into her quilt and bivy. She went to sleep thinking, this will pass within a couple of hours. Her plan to stay warm and dry was foiled an hour later when she woke up completely drenched. Somehow, her bivy had flooded and she was sleeping in a pool of water. Confused about how the water got in, Isabelle got up and dumped the water. “It looked like you took me, and all my clothes, and my bivy, and my sleeping bag and you just dipped them into a swimming pool and handed them back to me and was like, ‘Here, sleep in this.’” Her hair was plastered to her face, and she was completely soaked and shivering. The seriousness of the situation dawned on her, and fear started to creep in. She knew that it would be a couple of hours for someone to come get her if she needed to get out of there. Trapped without an obvious solution, it was the most scared she’d been in an outdoor situation.
Planning to get to the next road intersection and hoping she could get warm by moving and potentially find vegetation to shelter under, Isabelle packed her stuff on her bike. She thought, If I can get warm between here and there, I’ll keep pushing and if I can’t get warm, I have a decision to make. It was too cold to ride, so Isabelle walked with her bike to the Freeman Road trailhead, where she found Corey, another AZT racer. When asked how she was doing, Isabelle replied, “It’s really bad. I’m soaked all the way through, I have no warm things, my sleeping pad has a hole in it, my sleeping bag is soaked, and my bivy flooded.” Corey, an experienced bikepacker, told Isabelle in a nonchalant tone, “Well I guess you better keep moving because it’s really cold out and if you don’t keep moving, you’re probably not going to be okay.” Isabelle was surprised at Corey’s calm in the midst of her panic. Corey told her, “I’m going to pack up my stuff and I’m going to keep rolling. I like to warm myself up by walking if it’s cold out so I’m going to be walking. So, if you want to throw on a jacket and give it to me later, that’s fine, you can borrow a jacket.” Isabelle felt conflicted, on one hand, she didn’t want to accept support from another person, but knew that she needed to put her safety above her pride in that situation.
Just as Isabelle thought it couldn’t get any worse, as she and Corey left the Freeman Road trailhead, it started hailing. It was almost comical. Then she thought to herself, You know, I’d rather be pummeled with hail right now instead of rain because hail isn’t going to soak through my clothes. She walked to stay warm from 11 p.m. until sunrise. When she was finally warm enough to stop in the sun, she took a quick dirt nap on the side of the trail, and returned Corey’s jacket.
Now that the sun was out, and she was warm again, Isabelle was able to enjoy the hike up and descent down Ripsey. Her appetite returned and she ordered a pizza and root beer from Old Time Pizza in Kearney. “That pizza was a game changer,” she recalled afterwards. She also drank two liters of soda in one sitting. With only 38 miles to go to the finish, she was feeling optimistic about the whole situation.
Everything was going smoothly until just before sunset when her bike started to make strange noises and started to drag. She wasn’t sure what the issue was. She went through a mental list of what it might be. Was it her bottom bracket? Her freehub? Maybe the wheel was loose? Knowing that with wet sleep gear she didn’t have the option to stop for the night and figure it out in the morning, she got nervous. But when she inspected her bike, she realized that the bolts that fasten her rear derailleur to the frame were loose and the derailleur had about 10 millimeters of play. It was an easy fix, and she was relieved that it wasn’t a full-on mechanical.
Now with a functioning bike, Isabelle continued on the trail, hiking her bike with swollen legs. Getting on and off the bike was difficult, pedaling was too, so she walked much of the climb. Isabelle knew the final stretch would be hard, but the difficulty of this section of trail exceeded her expectations. The night before, she had only slept an hour before the rain forced her to continue, and the sleep deprivation was starting to get to her. Music and the occasional slap to the face helped keep her awake. Isabelle saw a javelina (real) and heard banjo music and ladies singing and talking (not real). She saw the stars dancing in the sky and kept thinking she saw a bike light ahead. She had to think hard about what life was like outside of the Arizona Trail Race because she was so immersed in the experience. She asked herself questions, What do you do for work? Who’s in your life? Where do you live? What are your friends like? The trail felt so far removed from anything else in her life.
Again, the trail became overgrown, and Isabelle’s riding became sloppy. After staying upright the whole trip, she crashed four times in the hour before sunrise. She was feeling low and told herself, You gotta make it to sunrise. You’ll feel better once the sun is up. She had just four miles to go when the sun finally started to light up the sky. The trail became smooth and rideable, and she was having fun again. As she approached the trailhead, she could see her greeting committee. A wave of emotions hit her. For the past 48 hours, she was wishing for it to be over, but now that the finish was in sight, she didn’t want it to end. She stopped and took a couple of minutes to feel everything and sit with her emotions before she finished her ride. After not even knowing if she was going to start the race, she was proud of her ride and grateful for the experience.
Isabelle was all smiles when she finished her race. Her partner Bodhi was there with a hug, but most importantly coffee. A selfless human, Isabelle’s first questions were about how her friends who also raced were doing. As she sat in a camp chair bundled up, sipping coffee and eating breakfast tacos, she reflected on her ride, “Every day I couldn’t believe I was still out there doing it.” Her joy and energy were infectious despite having just finished a huge ride pushing through two nights on very little sleep.
The whole time she was out there, Isabelle told herself she would not do this again, but the second she stopped she told herself, I gotta do another one. She truly enjoyed the hiking and biking and has some ideas about what she can do to be more prepared for her next one, like planning for worst-case weather scenarios, bringing a patch kit for her inflatable sleeping pad, and locktiting important bolts.
Isabelle’s first bikepacking race was certainly a difficult one, it’s easy to see based on the low finisher rate. She faced challenges like riding in the heat, overgrown trails, unexpected cold and rain, a broken Wahoo, a broken rack cradle, pedals that wouldn’t turn, difficulty eating, and camping on her own for the first time. Despite all these challenges, she found solutions to every challenge that came her way. While Isabelle says she felt like she was biting off a bit more than she could chew, she now feels empowered by her experience. “I was just proud and grateful, and the experience was so much more than I ever thought it would be.”
When asked to offer advice to someone thinking about signing up for the race, Isabelle is quick to point out that it’s important to realize that you’ll never feel entirely ready and you should just try it anyhow. “I think if anyone is curious about it they should do it because I didn’t feel prepared, or equipped, or qualified, and I think if other people feel that way, they should do their research, not go in blind, but I think it’s worth trying because it’s way cooler of an experience than I ever thought it was going to be.”
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