Eliza Sampey: Racing Ghosts on the Arizona Trail

When I decided to give the Arizona Trail Race 750 (AZT 750) a go back in 2019, the initial inspiration was to traverse the state of Arizona by bicycle at a reasonably quick pace, not to be competitive or go for the record. I’d spent winters there the previous few years living in my van, and I’d been surprised at how much diversity of landscape and ecosystem there was – the rolling grasslands of the Canelo hills, the desolate yet vibrant Sonoran desert, the spiky Tucson Mountains, the deep and fragrant pine forests in the north. I’d even carried my bike on my back while postholing for hours through snow on Mount Lemmon in March, something I never thought would happen in southern Arizona. For me, the state was full of surprises and it had also started to feel like home, as much as a place can feel like home to someone who’d been living in a van for five years. 

I’d experienced a good bit of Arizona and parts of the AZT before deciding to do the race, but I really wanted to see it in one continuous go. I especially wanted to experience moving through the changing landscapes at night, into the dark and then into the sunrise. I wanted to see all the creatures that come out to play after dark (the pygmy owls!). I’d also somehow never been to the Grand Canyon, so I figured going through it with my bike on my back would be a good initiation.

I told a few people I wanted to race the 750 and most of them chided me, saying I was being pretentious thinking I could race the whole thing on my first go, that I should race the 300 first and see how that went before giving the whole thing a try. But they didn’t understand my intention, I wanted to see THE WHOLE trail, not stop part way through when the trail kept going. I had a long history of long bikepacking adventures prior to this, I’d ridden for weeks and even months through parts of Latin America and Alaska, I knew I could easily ride the distance. I also had done a couple bikepacking races by that time, so I knew what my body was capable of in a multi-day racing context. I’d almost won the women’s CTR a year prior, the effort derailed when my hub blew up on me 35 miles from the finish, so I knew I could race at or near the front of a field. 

Eliza’s Revel Rascal outside of Kentucky Camp. Photos all courtesy of Eliza Sampey.

I looked up Alice Drobna’s splits from the year she set the AZT 750 record. I wasn’t attached to a record ride, but I had her splits in mind and some strategies I could use to make up time if I found myself on that sort of pace. The course was a bit different, there were some sections where she’d had a road ride that had been replaced by singletrack, so I knew where I’d lose time. I also knew where I could make up time, like not detouring off course into Superior after Picketpost to resupply like she had. If I could skip Superior and head straight to Gold Canyon, I’d earn back some of that time lost on the slower trail. Or, where we both had road sections, I could move faster as I was on a geared bike and she’d been on a singlespeed. If the pace got tight, I could cut more sleep, or carry more calories and cut out a resupply stop. Those sorts of things. 

When I started the race I had a few things stacked against me. I’d just gotten over pneumonia the week before, and I’d just gone through an unhealthy and potentially race-sabotaging breakup. I was also on a brand-new bike that I had just built up, a Revel Rascal. Revel had just launched as a company and I’d literally never ridden that bike before as it was brand new. I rode it twice before the race. It was squishy and fun. I figured if I was going to try and ride my bike for that long, I might as well have fun. I had no idea how my lungs were going to respond after being sick or if I’d be able to keep my head in the game with heartbreak infiltrating my energy.  

A Strong Start

With all of that, my strategy was to just start and see what happened. Fortunately my lungs and legs must have liked the time off and I rode the first 300 miles at a good clip, having heaps of fun on my bike without really having to push myself into discomfort. I was familiar with the chunky desert riding of the southern zones and my bike flew along so effortlessly that it felt like cheating. Did they sneak a motor into my frame? Of course not, but damn, the bike climbs great. 

I caught Annie, the eventual women’s 300 winner, in the middle of the night on Ripsey Ridge, and we rode together and chatted a bit before chasing each other along the ridge by moonlight. It was so much fun and I wanted to keep racing with her but I finally made myself stop and sleep, telling myself I had 450 more miles to go than she did and I best not be doing anything stupid. The next day I skinny dipped in the Gila for a good 15 minutes and felt nice and fresh to take on the notorious Gila Canyons climb in the hottest part of the day, and my legs didn’t even feel tired when I got to Picketpost just before dark. I was maybe four hours up on the record pace. This is good, I thought. Alice had detoured to Superior for a resupply here but then had a short and easy road ride to Gold Canyon; I’d forgo Superior but had a much longer and rougher ride ahead to the same destination.

Eliza finishing the first 300 miles at Picket Post.

Then I totally wrecked myself trying to make up the time to Gold Canyon to resupply before the store closed at 11 p.m., and my legs that had felt so strong for the past few days turned into gummy worms. That was dumb, and I didn’t make it and had to survive on a sack of peanuts for dinner and the last few hours into town. Fortunately I recovered and was only two hours down on Alice’s record pace when I left the resupply in Gold Canyon. 

The next bit, the Apache Trail, was a terrible hot dusty gravel road that is thankfully no longer in the current 800 course. It was awful and made me want to die. I’m glad it’s gone, that is the one thing that might have deterred me from ever racing it again. I ran out of water and had to detour down to Apache Lake. At that point I completely gave up on the record, tore off all my clothes and went skinny dipping for what felt like forever, but in reality it had only been 20 minutes. I felt much better, so I decided to race again. 

Post skinny dip and ready to race again.

I hit the general store at Jake’s Corner and bought an avocado that I basically ate like an apple on the bike, spitting out the peel as I went, and also a huge Tecate that I put in my feed bag. I flew down the highway in the dark riding with no hands drinking the Tecate and yelling Foo Fighters songs at the top of my lungs. Beer is definitely a performance enhancing drug and should probably be illegal, but I’m glad it’s not, and that Tecate was the best thing I had the entire race. I reached Payson high as a kite on fresh air and moonlight after practically sprinting up the long 4-wheel drive climb with no lights needed. Hello legs, welcome back! Payson was cold as fuck at 1 a.m. and I looked for a bivy spot but couldn’t stop shivering so I got a hotel room for a few hours. 

A Delay

Then the wheels started to come off. I have a heart condition called SVT, or supraventricular tachycardia, which is the result of faulty electrical signaling in my heart that causes it to randomly beat really fast. It will shoot up from around 140 to over 190 beats per minute very suddenly when I’m riding, without any increase in my effort, and it won’t slow down unless I completely stop for a good while. It usually only happens on the bike and hadn’t happened yet in the race, but that night I woke up in my hotel bed at 4 a.m. with my heart going haywire and it was pretty scary. 

The SVT kept going, on and off until around 8 a.m. I’d intended to leave the hotel around six that morning but I was afraid to start riding before my heartbeat returned to normal. I still don’t really know the potential consequences of pushing through an SVT episode, even though I had a full but inconclusive workup by a cardiologist just before the race, so I loitered around Payson for a couple more hours. I forced myself to relax and meditate in the sunshine, asking my heart to please slow down and cooperate so that we could keep riding. Finally it did.

I didn’t leave Payson until nearly 9 a.m., now well behind the record pace. I wanted to keep going though because I was still having a ton of fun, and as long as I still wanted to be out there, I was going to stay out there. The Highline trail between Pine and the Mogollon Rim, which I went through at night, was a big highlight. I had run into a few fellow racers in Pine after eating a giant cheeseburger and getting one to go. We were spread out riding through the drainages after leaving town and we’d see each other’s lights and whoop at each other into the darkness. Whoops were echoing all throughout the hills that night and it was just the most fun I’d ever had. I camped just below the Mogollon Rim and hiked it at sunrise wearing no pants. That was pretty great too. I highly recommend hike-a-biking with no pants, whenever possible. I did it a lot and didn’t have one saddle sore during that race. 

After the Rim, I’d found my rhythm and was able to make up time, hovering just ahead of the record pace. My strategy was this: when I’d get a few hours ahead, instead of pushing harder to try and take even more time off the record, I’d continue to ride at a good pace but I’d take some extra time before getting into my bivy and when I got up to massage the muscles and tendons of my knees and ankles and stretch a bit, doing my best to ward off any aches and pains. It worked, my body kept feeling strong, nothing blew up, I never even needed ibuprofen or caffeine pills. Until the canyon… 

Crossing the Canyon

The canyon hike was tough for me, I’m a small person at five foot two inches and 120 pounds and putting all that weight on my back and hiking seven miles straight downhill nearly killed me. I’d mailed myself hiking poles and a stouter pack to the Flagstaff post office for the canyon crossing and I guarantee if I didn’t have them I never would have made it out of there. I went through in the night, it was really amazing, I was pretty sleep deprived and hallucinating by that point and I heard a full album of music by an a capella female quartet that was just so beautiful and saw little mummies curled up in side canyons, they were so peaceful just sleeping there. My lights died but I didn’t care, it was blissful and I was just tromping along under the stars and moonlight.

My blissful state lasted until I had to cross a creek with no lights and I slipped and fell over backwards into the water with everything on my back. I completely lost my shit, shouting expletives that I’m sure echoed all throughout the canyon in the darkness. Somehow I drug everything out of the creek and laid there exhausted next to my heap of gear trying to sort out what to do. I thought I was going to have to crawl out of the canyon hauling all my things up in multiple trips, I didn’t think I was going to be able to get it all out of there in one go. 

I’ve got a pretty extensive history of intimate partner abuse, and down in that canyon, all of their horrible condemning voices and looming faces descended upon me, repeating all the awful things they said to me over the course of 17 years. I curled up in a tiny ball next to my bike and silently begged them to leave me alone, to stop berating me, I’d leave and they’d never have to look at me again if they’d just let me be. They just laughed and made fun of me for being so weak, as they were prone to doing. They wouldn’t let me get up, and I curled closer to my bike, willing it to protect me from my emotional assailants. I laid there for well over an hour. 

Finally I was able to talk some sense into my exhausted brain and convince it that my former partners weren’t in fact all standing over me as I lay in a heap at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, that it was all just a wide-awake sleep deprived nightmare, and the actual reality in that moment was that all my shit wasn’t going to get itself out of the canyon if I didn’t get up. With this new realization I wiggled underneath my giant load, stood up, and started shuffling, figuring I’d carry it until I had to put it down again, and then start making trips to get it all out one piece at a time. 

Ghost Alice

Fortunately I didn’t put it down again. I climbed and climbed and as the sun rose over the North Rim, my spirits lifted and my pace quickened. I have no idea how I got so lucky but I emerged from the canyon at exactly the same time as Ghost Alice, my ever-present companion on my ride. I’d started calling her Ghost Alice awhile back, it was fun to imagine she was there racing with me, an invisible rider that I couldn’t see but could certainly feel. Having Ghost Alice there made my solo endeavor more fun, as I saw other racers here and there but never for more than a few minutes or so, save for a couple occasions. But Ghost Alice was always nearby, motivating me to keep moving as I chased her or she chased me, each of us trying to reach the finish line first.

That’s the thing about these self-supported endeavors: there’s no one out there waiting for you at road crossings, cheering you on, taking your picture and boosting your spirits. No one is coming to save you if you get into trouble, and no one is there to encourage you to keep moving if you feel like shit. It’s just you, all alone in the deep darkness of the canyons and your own thoughts if you let them run away with you in sleep-deprived moments of weakness. Only you can bring yourself back from the edge. There’s something beautiful about that, it’s one of the reasons I love self-supported racing. And sometimes, I’ve found in those situations, it helps to make friends with ghosts. 

So Ghost Alice and I came out of the canyon at the same time, and as she pedaled away on her singlespeed, I knew this was my only chance to put some time into her on my geared bike. The AZT doesn’t have many road sections, and this was one of them – the final one, and my last shot at the record. I could barely stand up, my feet were so swollen and disgusting after the canyon hike, but I crawled onto my bike and went into roadie mode all the way to Jacob Lake. This road section no longer exists on the current 800 course, and usually I’d much rather be riding singletrack, but I was grateful for it then. I locked out my suspension and pounded the pavement as fast as my legs would take me, channeling my road racer days a decade earlier as I scrunched into time trial aero position low on my handlebars. 

A quick resupply at Jacob Lake and I was off on the final 30 miles of trail. I was high as a kite again, the drama of the previous night forgotten. I felt like I was tripping, I hadn’t slept in close to 40 hours at that point. The woods were moving all around me and every tree stump was a bear or a whale or a homeless person huddled under a tarp, but I didn’t care, they weren’t doing any harm. A brass band started playing and it was obnoxious, they couldn’t get the harmony right, the dissonance was so distracting. I yelled at them to stop and bring the female quartet from the canyon back. They didn’t listen. And then the gates – oh, the gates! Every time I had to stop to open one I’d crumple to the ground, my feet were so fucked they couldn’t hold me up. Somehow I’d get through each gate and drag myself back onto the bike. Just keep moving, just keep moving

Utah

When I finally reached the final descent to the Utah border, it was sunset with the most magical alpenglow over the red cliffs. It was so beautiful, and I stopped for a few minutes to take it all in. I couldn’t believe I was actually going to do it – I would take two hours off Alice’s record. It wasn’t a lot, but it was enough. I was going to hold the self-supported FKT of the full Arizona Trail. That felt crazy – me?! Who would have thought. I didn’t realize I was actually capable of doing it until I was up there staring at the finish line. 

Finishing at the Utah border with a new women’s FKT.

I rolled down to the Utah border where Karla and Justin DuBois were surprisingly still posted up. They handed me cake and a champagne bottle. Justin had finished a day earlier, crushing what would become the new 800 course on his singlespeed and besting the 750’s singlespeed record in style. My best friend Spenser was there with my dog Cody, who seemed quite surprised to see me appear out of nowhere. I collapsed into a chair, exhausted and satisfied, and didn’t move for a very long time.

Looking back, I never really felt “good enough” to break a record. I’m certainly not the fastest woman out there, but I still earned it. I raced a smart race, not a balls-out race. I knew if I wanted to have a shot at the record I first needed to finish the route, and that meant racing in a way that was smart for me

I’d watched other women over the years who are much faster than I am attempt the 750 record and drop out, and what I took from watching them was that if I tried to take days off the record by going as fast and pushing as hard as I could, maybe I could do it, or maybe I’d blow up. But if I played it smart, and went just fast enough, and pushed just hard enough but not too much, I’d maybe have a real shot. That’s exactly what happened, and I know that luck played into it too. Despite some challenges, of course some things will go wrong for everyone over the course of a 750-mile race, I really did have a near-perfect ride. 

When I finished I already knew I would do it again someday, not necessarily to try and go faster, but because I had so much fun out there. The full Arizona Trail is truly a high-quality, fun bike ride. The canyon was a challenging experience, but those moments are just a part of self-supported ultra-distance racing and sleep deprivation that we have to accept. I also knew the course would be changing to include much more singletrack in the new 800-mile version debuting the following year, and I knew I would want to experience that when it was finished. I believe all the new singletrack sections are supposed to be completed in the spring, so maybe in 2023 I’ll give it another go if I’m healthy.

Racing Arizona: The Film

In 2021 Revel approached me about making a film that would be a retrospective look at my 2019 AZT ride. I’ve been in partnership with Revel since they launched in early 2019 just before the AZTR, and that record ride was just as good for them as it was for me. They believed in me from the beginning and signed me on as their first sponsored athlete, and I believed in them as well, enough to take a bike I’d never ridden and try to set a 750-mile bikepacking race record with it. They wanted to make the film to tell the story of my ride and my relationship with the trail and the bike, which was such a huge part of why I had so much fun out there. 

We didn’t do any filming during the race itself – they know better than to do anything that would potentially compromise the integrity of my race result as a true self-supported effort. The Revel crew are friends of mine, and it would have been a huge boost to see them or even just know they were out there somewhere documenting my race. I’ve done adventure film trips before, it’s easier to keep going and stay positive during the tough moments when you know it will be on camera, and I didn’t want that boost that others out there didn’t have… that Ghost Alice didn’t have when she set the record I was chasing. 

I made a rule for myself that I could only call Chris (the marketing director for Revel) to update him when I was taking a shit on a real toilet with indoor plumbing, because in that moment that would be the only thing I could be doing and it wouldn’t take away from anything else I could be doing to move forward with my race. That happened twice during the 9.5 days I was out there. 

I did do some self-filming during the race with my little camera, which I know slowed me down quite a bit when I was doing it, but I did want to tell the story. I like telling stories and I also wanted to do right by Revel for sending me out there on that amazing bike. Of course, me being who I am, I lost the footage and to this day I have no idea where it went. But all the filming in Racing Arizona happened last year in 2021, on a trip that was dedicated entirely to shooting. I know it’s a contentious topic, and I definitely could have gone faster in the race if I hadn’t been doing my own filming and photography, but as it was I went fast enough, and it’s what I believe is the right thing to do for a self-supported effort. 

If I could give any advice to women lining up for the 800 this year or in the future, it would be this: don’t forget to have fun. It’s a race, but it’s also a really awesome bike ride. I’ve bikepacked in a lot of places around the world, and I can honestly say that the Arizona Trail is the best. It’s just incomparable. Take it all in, drink a beer, go for a swim, have fun pushing your own limits, race the ghosts of women past, embrace the sleep-deprived hallucinations if that’s what you’re into, become one with the night creatures, and don’t forget to hike with your pants off at least once. Your hiney and your soul will be grateful.

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