Arizona Trail 300: Bikepacking Race Report

Neil shares a first hand bikepacking race report from the Arizona Trail Race.

I wake up from a nap next to my fully-loaded bike. I hear Big Dave rustling and I get out of my bivy. I needed the nap to at least attempt the last push up and over the very difficult climb into Martinez Canyon and eventually Picket Post Trailhead. It’s about 1:00am when we awake from our quick 30 minute nap just along the the Gila River.

Ross comes strolling along, says his knee is “in pain,” and he’s going to ditch out on the 750. But by the looks of it, he is determined to finish. He pushes on but eventually we would pass him as he took a nap. It is dark, the moon casting shadows of saguaros and bushes in my periphery. Two AM turns into 3:00am and it feels like I only went about a mile.

Dave, on his single speed, just keeps pushing and I follow in his tracks. I attempt as many climbs as my poor tired legs can handle before I succumb to each individual climb and walk the rest. It’s an ongoing theme for hours upon hours. Dave remains almost entirely in front of me through the climb, his lights motivating me to stay close. He did the AZT 300 last year so he kept telling me about this section, and how it would never end–and he’s right.

Four AM turns into 5:00am and finally we reach a spot where there’s a fence. I take a load off and know we are close but Dave keeps telling me how taxing the downhill will be. All I want to do is go downhill, and finally we begin the descent. The sun says hello and soon it’s bright enough to turn off my already dim lights.

I brush off Dave’s comments, thinking it’s going to be cake riding down to the Picket Post Trailhead, but that is not the case with rocks, short climbs, and more mileage in front of us. I keep looking up just hoping to see a car, bathroom, or something other than another ridge. Finally I see cars and a few minutes later I reach the trailhead, where I see Dave sitting on a lawn chair watching me finish while eating bread and butter. My first bikepacking race is in the books!

Picket Post Trailhead, the finish line of the AZT 300.

The Arizona Trail Race is an “unofficial challenge” that is held along the Arizona Trail each spring. There are two options: a 300 miler or 750 miler. I would be riding the 300.

The night before the race began my girlfriend Lindsay and I made it to the Parker Canyon Trailhead. We used my new eTrex GPS, which I had been trying to get used to for the better part of the winter, to pull up the AZT 300 track and find the trailhead. There were only a few racers and families camping at the trailhead, and we joined them. After setting up camp, I started to sort out all my gear and get packed for the 9:00am start the next morning. I was nervous, and needed to get to bed for my last full night of sleep for a few days. Predictably my sleep was interrupted by thoughts of the adventure to come.

My rig and I ready to hit the Trail.

My first pedals of the AZT 300.

Race day was finally here! All the planning, hard work, and a little training had come and gone and there wasn’t much left to do but get on the bike. As we got going, everyone was bottle-necked as I expected and my goal was to just stay up front. I was following Estzer for most of those first 30 miles and she was setting a good pace. Once I got to Harshaw Road and eventually Hwy 82, I noticed my fork stanchions were only showing about half the travel they should be showing. This was not good.

I made it to the Sonoita gas station to resupply on food and water and asked around for a shock pump. Luckily, someone had a pump so I was able to check and see if the fork was holding air. The pressure was to my liking and the fork was holding air, but obviously something was still wrong with the fork. I loaded up some food, scarfed down a turkey and swiss sandwich and chugged some coconut water. I continued on with limited fork travel and panic started to set in.

My Broken fork showing about 30mm of travel.

I was enroute to Kentucky Camp with a lot going through my mind. I started to vent to some of the other racers to help me decide what to do. Should I really bail after months of preparation, not to mention the long haul from Colorado? I really started to lose speed and Luke, Casey, Estzer, and others would all pass me.

Lucky I had cell service, so I decided to call all the shops in Tucson that were reasonably close to the trail. All the shops were booked and could not even take a look at my fork until Tuesday (4 days away). I tried to pull the “extra money card,” but to no avail. The only silver lining to my current situation was that my fork was still holding air, meaning it was not totally useless. I decided to keep pedaling, get some rest, and plan to head to the closest bike shop in Tucson the next morning. My plan was to push on to La Selvilla Picnic Area that night, where there was a spigot and a bathroom.

Sundown came and went and before I know it was 10:00pm. Somewhere between Kentucky Camp and Sonoita Hwy I heard air escaping from my rear tire. I knew I hit a sharp rock and sure enough it slashed an inch-long cut in my sidewall. Time to get the thread and needle out!

I slowly and carefully sewed the slice shut, making sure to keep my tire seated to the rim. The goal in a race like this is to keep your tire tubeless. With all the cacti and thorns on the trail, your tire is extremely vulnerable to punctures. I continued to sew up the slice, but of course on my final stitch I broke my needle. I was rushing a process that should never be rushed. I put some superglue and a bit of dirt on the stitching.

I attempted to ride on it, but the tire would not hold air. I added more superglue and rotated the tire so the Stan’s was covering the slice completely from the inside. I put the tire back on my bike and attempted to ride the bike, while being as delicate as I possibly could. It worked–my first ever tire surgery a success! The slashed tire had set me back an hour and I had quite a lot of ground to cover before La Selvilla Picnic Area. After some very fun night riding I finally arrived to the picnic area around 2:00am, my fork with slightly less travel then earlier in the day.

My tire after the race. It held up pretty well.

After the successful tire surgery and a fun night ride, I grabbed some Z’s at the La Selvilla Picnic Area.

My sleep was interrupted by Big Dave, who zoomed right by my head. We chatted as I woke up and he said he camped out near the tunnel under the highway and had a lackluster sleep. I could only imagine. Dave filled up on water and was on his way out before I knew it.

Despite all the bad luck with my fork and tire, the desert was still a beautiful place.

I started to gather my things slowly and filled up on water at the spigot. Max Morris came riding up with lots of energy. He asked if many 750-mile riders were ahead of us. I told him yes as I thought there were, but over the next few days I realized I had been mistaking some 750 riders with 300 riders.

I finally got going around 6:30am for Tucson. The Hope Camp section was a great warm-up for the day, not too difficult and road riding is always welcome in a race like this. I passed the Rincon Market where I knew a few people were getting resupplied on food and I would have done the same if not for my fork.

I arrived at Broadway Cycles at 9:00am and asked if they had a rigid fork laying around for a 29er. They did not, but they did have a Fox Float 100mm 29er for sale. They suggested I go to Arizona Cyclist where I’d find more of a selection. I started to pedal that way, but I kept feeling like I was wasting valuable time–I wanted to get back on the trail. So I turned around and decided to continue to ride on the broken fork the rest of the way…. until my conscious brought me back to Broadway Cycles. I wanted to finish so bad, so I did what needed to be done. I bought the Fox Float fork.

My new fork…I was in business!

Luckily my credit card was on me as I did not have that kind of money after all of my pre-race expenditures. It took about an hour for the mechanic to put the fork on. I was in business and spirits were super high!

I left the shop and noticed a dollar store so I stopped in to find a new needle. I grabbed some beef jerky and downed a Sprite in the check-out line. On the way out of town I passed a McDonald’s and it drew me in like a magnet. I ordered a Big Mac, took it out of the wrapper and ate it while I pedaled east up Broadway Blvd toward the route. Everything had worked out perfectly, minus spending so much money. But who cares? I was back on a fully-functional bike!

Spirits were super high on my way back to the trail from Tucson.

On my way up Reddington Road temperatures were rising and the grade was steep. It was painful so I just started to walk my bike which was better than not moving at all. On hot days like this the wind was truly a life saver. The wind didn’t really pick up until I reached the summit of the road but boy did it feel great.

I wasn’t sure if I would ever see Dave, Max, or Luke again. My two hour detour really set me back, but all I could do was keep pushing. After some technical jeep roads and overshooting my turn, I made it back to the Arizona Trail.

The temperature continued to rise, and the riding was not that easy. I crossed Reddington Road again and took cover under a small tree for some shade. From what I can remember, I had never been in heat like this since growing up in Chicago–and I can remember some pretty hot summers.

After a short break I felt refreshed and continued on. I passed the lake which was currently a toilet for cows. I would have never taken water from it, even if I needed it. I finally made my way to the epic hike-a-bike section and I saw two bikers hiking away which was a welcoming site to see.

I started hiking my bike and next to a bush, I heard a rattlesnake. I couldn’t see the snake but I sure could hear it. I talked to the snake, “I’m only passing through, sorry that I upset you.” That scared the crap out of me and I scampered away from the bush quickly.

I finally reached the top of the hike-a-bike and caught up to the two other racers. I didn’t catch their names but remember one of them saying “I’m not in my mojo.” Just before Mount Lemmon Highway I reached a trail junction. I was told there was water up the drainage of the junction called Molino Watering Hole. I did not need much water but I walked up and saw Blake and a dude from Tennessee. Blake started up Prison Camp as I chatted this guy’s ear off while I filled up my two empty bottles. It was good to see so many racers again!

The saguaro-dotted vistas were amazing.

I crossed the Highway and started the climb up Prison Camp and eventually came to Mt Lemmon Highway. I could see Blake ahead of me and pushed to catch him. I was told the climb up Mt Lemmon Highway is one of the most famous for road bikers. Although I didn’t see any road bikers, it could only be famous for one thing–the 13-mile continuous climb.

Blake and I discussed when we thought the store at the summit, the Summerhaven Market, would close. It was late afternoon and the sun was setting. Blake overheard at the Rincon Market that the store was open until 9:00pm, so our goal was to get up there by then which seemed manageable.

The sun eventually set on our climb, forcing us to turn our lights on. It got cold and I was officially starving. We finally reached a downhill section and eventually the junction of Oracle Ridge and Summerhaven. I cruised down the road to see if the market was open–and it was not. Temporarily discouraged, I climbed back up and noticed a restaurant, The Sawmill Run. The lights were on and there were 5 bikes parked out front. Inside I found Max, Ross, Luke, Casey, and Dave. They convinced the restaurant to stay open for us when they saw our lights in the distance climbing up the road (thanks guys.) That right there was luck which I knew would come into play at some point in the race.

We reminisced about the trail while I ate a huge cheese burger and fries. It was cold up at 8,000 feet so I layered up and prepared for the famous Oracle Ridge hike-a-bike. After cleaning up a bit and using the bathroom, Blake and I finally left the Sawmill and started up the ridge. I ended up losing Blake and tried to catch some lights in the distance. Steep climb after steep climb, I kept pushing my bike at a relatively fast pace. It was about 11:00pm when I caught up to the lights–Luke and Casey from the restaurant. I rode/walked with them for a good portion of the night chatting about life. We found a flat clearing full of cow pies and called it a night around 1:00am.

Getting into Oracle, I was pumped for the last section.

I was tucked into my bivy as the sun slowly rose; for some reason my alarm didn’t go off. Luckily I woke up just as Dave passed by. I hustled to pack up my sleeping gear and got moving, parting ways with Luke and Casey on the descent into the Town of Oracle.

I met Dave at the Circle K on the west end of town around 8:40am since the market on the east end was closed. We chatted as he was packing up the food he had just purchased and I told him I was feeling good and hoping to push for the finish. Dave simply said the next bit was “tough” and he took off as I began shopping: coconut water, Snickers, trail mix, a breakfast sandwich, an apple, and a Bomb Burrito (it’s a foot long.)

I chugged the juice and destroyed the apple. I took inventory of the rest of the food in my bags: beef jerky, Powerbar gummies, Cliff Blocks, two Cliff Gu’s, and my emergency bag of Uncle Ben’s pre-cooked rice. I figure this and the recent purchases would be enough to get me to the finish.

I was about to head out when Luke and Casey arrived. I told them I thought I was going to push on and try to finish in under 3 days. They were also feeling good and had thoughts of doing the same. I left Oracle and got back on the Arizona Trail having no idea what challenges lay ahead.

Back on to the Arizona Trail after Oracle. What a draining section.

It was now Sunday around 10:30am and the heat was already starting to get to me. I was now truly in the desert with lizards and rabbits scurrying across the trail, the saguaros waving to me, and the cacti menacing, especially the jumping cholla.

Jumping cholla is a very interesting cacti in that once the tree is brushed or the wind picks up enough the stems break off, thus creating a free section of the plant. The cholla were all over the trail and with the slightest contact they stuck to anything. People said to bring a comb to remove the needles since they attack in burrs. I had one encounter with a cholla that stuck to my hand; fortunately I managed to pry it off with another bush. It felt like getting a shot–except the “shot” stayed in me and wasn’t easy to remove.

That was my day, staring at jumping chollas, saguaros, lizards, and rabbits in the desert heat. It was only getting hotter when I saw Dave stopped on the side of the trail. He was tending to his slashed tire, a mechanical from the first day. We talked a bit about the heat and how far we had to go. While we were talking a few women who know Dave approached from the opposite direction on their own bikepacking trip. It felt good to see new people on the trail.

We continued on, riding together and finally got to the Beehive Well. We sat in the shade next to the well pump behind a shed. Dave talked about finishing the 300 last year and about his Colorado Trail Race experience on a singlespeed. He got back on the trail, and I followed.

Dave and me climbing in the desert heat. Photo Compliments of Caroline Soong.

I biked past Antelope Peak and knew Freeman Road was not too far off. I was doing okay on water since I carried more than I needed for most of the race. As a rookie I decided it was better to have too much than to be without water.

I made it to the Freeman Cache and noticed a racer laying under a tree in the shade. I don’t remember his name; I just remember how comfy he looked laying down. I topped off my water from the cache and got going after 5 minutes or so.

After the cache, the route was super easy with a very fast mix of road and singletrack. I figured this was the perfect opportunity to make up for lost time from the day before. This was just what I needed, and although the sun was still out the temperatures were cooling down. I passed Big Dave as he worked on his tire once again.

Shortly after passing Dave, I stopped to eat my rice before the Ripsey Mountain Climb. Dave caught up and we pushed on to the climb together in hopes of making it to Kelvin before dark. Unfortunately this would not happen. All of a sudden Dave stopped me, saying “look!” I was confused until I saw the snake. I asked him if it was poisonous and he said “oh yeah.” This was the first rattler I had ever seen.

It’s hard to see, but the snake is in the middle of the picture, just left of the bush in the shadow.

The sun set as we reached the saddle. I tried to get my lights on but had a problem with my helmet light. I knew the batteries were still good but the light just wouldn’t turn on. I decided to rig my small headlamp to my helmet, hoping it would get me through. It worked but was not nearly as bright as I would have liked.

Dave and I made it down to Kelvin. We reached the parking lot off the highway and filled up on water. Here I chowed down my Bomb Burrito, and also changed my socks. I assessed my food situation again: one Cliff Gu, a half bag of trail mix, Power Bar gummies, a little bit of jerky, and two emergency packets. I was getting low on rations and was a little worried about it. I called up Lindsay to tell her that I planned on finishing that night or early the next morning.

Another desert sunset.

We began the long haul to Martinez Canyon and the first part of the trail was actually fun. The trail follows the Gila River and each climb is rewarded with a fun downhill. We paced ourselves, making sure not to to overdo it. We continued up and down the trail, in and out of the cool river air. Dave and I were exhausted but my goal to finish under 3 days was still in sight. We decided to find a good flat spot near the Gila River and took out our bivys for a quick 30 minute nap. It was just what I needed.

… I wake up from the nap next to my fully-loaded bike. I hear Big Dave rustling and I get out of my bivy. I needed the nap to at least attempt the last push up and over the very difficult climb into Martinez Canyon and eventually Picket Post Trailhead. It’s about 1:00am when we awake from our nap.

We continue grinding as the clock passes 4, then 5am. Finally I see cars and a few minutes later I reach the trailhead, where I see Dave sitting on a lawn chair watching me finish while eating bread and butter. My first bikepacking race is in the books!

I’m pretty sure this was the hardest thing I have ever done. The last few hours were by far the most mentally draining and physically demanding part of the race. I signed up for the Arizona Trail Race because I wanted a challenge. I wanted to try one of these self-supported, multi-day races, mainly to see if I could handle it, or even race a little.

But man, this race felt more like a fast-paced adventure. A lot of hike-a-bike, almost too much for my liking, although I knew that coming into the race. Another factor was the heat which was relentless, especially the last day from Oracle to Ripsey. Lindsay showed up soon after my anti-climactic finish. We made our way to Scottsdale and found a hotel. I slept 16 hours and ate an amazing amount of food. After it was all said and done, I traveled 306.6 miles with 31,794ft of elevation gain in 2 days, 21 hours, and 49 minutes.

See you all next year!

Finishers list:

Aaron Gulley – 2:03:59
Pete Basinger – 2:12:18
Eszter Horanyi – 2:13:15
Aaron Boatman – 2:17:31
Dave Wilson – 2:21:23
Neil Beltchenko – 2:21:49
Ross Cairns – 2:23:04
Max Morris – 3:02:20
Luke Jay – 3:03:23
Aaron Denberg – 3:06:13
Cjell Money – 3:07:17
Blake Bockius – 3:09:38
Forest Baker – 3:16:24
Eric Foster – 3:16:51
Holt Harlan – 3:17:32
Mark Allen – 3:17:43
Scott Jones – 4:00:05
John Schilling – 4:01:56
Sharon Sell / Michael Braun – 4:05:00
Nancy Gray / Jeff Ziemski – 4:05:15
Mark Caminiti – 5:09:10
Rich Wolf – 5:14:41
Sheila Torres-Blank – 5:17:13
Ron Thomson / Jeff Swanstrum / Donald Houk – 6:02:22

After 16 hours of sleep, I enjoyed some R&R next to the pool at our hotel.

Check out this page for more information about the Arizona Trail Race and final results.


More information