Sunday, April 23, 2017

AZTR 750 2017

Arizona Trail Race 750 2017: El Freako’s account of one of the world’s toughest bike packing races.

After finishing the Colorado Trail Race (2013) and the Arizona Trail Race 300 (2014) I have been wanting/yearning to race the entire AZTR 750 route. I decided last year that 2017 would be the time. It’s not like I had to really START training for the race as I am always training for something. It’s a lifestyle I have instilled into my daily life for years. Either it’s ultra-running the last couple years or bike racing. I’m always training.

I spent a lot of time bike packing the months leading up to the race as well as few ultra-running races; A couple of 50 milers, a couple of 50ks and a 100k. Ultra running is a great cross trainer for bike racing. Especially bike packing as you are on your feet a lot hike –a-biking (HAB). One thing I always say about training for these type of events: you have to be uncomfortable to be comfortable. If I have to explain that than never mind. Some of you will get it. NFG!!

On top of the training comes the expense of the gear needed for bike packing. It really doesn’t take much gear but then again it does. I had bought a pack just for the Grand Canyon traverse that would carry my bike on my back. An Osprey Stratos 36. In orange color of course. I bought the newer Fenix 35 lights. I have previously used the Fenix PD32UE for the CTR and AZTR 300. They use disposable 123 batteries which you can find at most hardware or grocery stores. Albeit they are not cheap batteries.

The bike of choice was my Kokopelli Bike Co 29er titanium hardtail single speed with a Rock Shox 100 mm front suspension fork. This bike has been with me nearly four years and has survived many beat downs including the CTR. I replaced the bottom bracket, front chain ring, chain, rear cog, brake system (XT 8000’s) the rear brake failed during the race. So much for new. Ha. Ergon grips, and saddle. I ran a 32x23 gearing which I was very happy with.
The majority of my frame bags are from Broad Fork Bags out of Park City. Josh Van Jura makes some of the best bags on the market. My seat pod and feed bags were Revelate but frame bag, top tube bags and front harness system are from Broad Fork. And he does sweet custom colors as well.
My sleep system includes a Stoic 30 degree bag, Sol Escape Bivy, Klymit x lite pad that border lines uncomfortable and a blue tarp. In all it weighs just under 3.5 lbs including the Broad Fork Bag it all stuffs into.

Ok, after months of prep, training, memorizing the route with food and water stops, and riding some of the route that I didn’t know it was finally race day.

Laura, myself and Dan Holmes from Rico, Colorado drove down to the race start the nite before the race. No time for nervousness, just go time. The morning came fast and before you knew it, it was go time at 7am April 7th starting at the Mexico border. 750 miles to Utah! I knew just to get into a zone and pedal within my limits and get to the 300 mile mark where in my head the race really started. IT looked as though there were a few of us single speeders out of the 40 racers who started. No need to worry about anybody as it was a long race. My goal was to go under 9 days and beat the single speed record of 9 days. Dan I were riding together as long as possible. It is a race after all and you can’t plan to ride with somebody the whole time. Somebody will be faster than the other at times. It was nice to have the company though. Dan is tough as fuck and has completed the AZTR 300, Vapor Trail, KTR and San Juan Death loops amongst other hard routes that nobody else could fathom. Yep, Dan is tough. We have shared some good ones together. Enough about him, its about me. Ha.

The race started off with nearly 17 miles of dirt road, I was dropped as my gearing is spinny but that was ok. I knew the Canelo’s were waiting for me and the 32x23 would be a nice gear to get through these horrible hills. The heat was ramping up. All I had to do was cruise through and get to Sonoita where cold drinks and food supply awaited. I made it through the Canelo’s with only one crash over the handlebars. No damage. It was a lot of on the bike and off the bike. It was all I was going to know the entire race.

Once we made it to Sonoita and refueled it was on to Kentucky Camp where there was water. The next food supply was Tucson. The goal that day was to bivy at Colossal Cave but made it just a few miles shy of Colossal Cave. 112 miles for the day. Not bad for the first day out in the weeds. The plan was to sleep a few hours and get back at it. The morning came and it was on the bikes to Tucson, first stopping at a farmer’s market to get some fresh coffee and breakfast burritos. I am vegetarian and asking for a veggie burrito was like pulling teeth from the vendor. He was an ornery east coast type. Not that hard. Really. Next stop was Safeway, where we were way to long as the sun was rising and Redington Pass Road awaited us. We pushed on to Redington Pass Road where the temperatures were rapidly rising. After about halfway up I started to question my durability. But, I’m a tough fuck and I made it off the dirt road and into the hill jack rodeo section (knar jeep road crap). Finally, into the single-track that would lead us to the Molina HAB taking us over to the Mt. Lemmon Road grind up to Summerhaven and every body’s favorite Oracle Ridge.
I had a bike, not a hiking pole on Oracle Ridge. WTF!

Oracle Ridge this second time around wasn’t as bad as I remember from the AZT 300 three years ago. Sure, it keeps going but it is what it is; a shitty hiking trail. You push your bike, bash your calf with a pedal with sharp edges from the rocks. I received some nice cuts on my calf hidden by my tattoo. The tattoo took a beating.  After negotiating the single track at the top of the ridge we eventually popped out onto the jeep road that I remember being steep and loose. Well, this time it was graded nicely. I compared it to a ski run this time. A groomed fire road is nice in the middle of the night. Once, off of the fire road it was time for more single-track all the way to Oracle. It just seems to keep meandering all over the place for no good reason and the water bars installed at an odd angle on the turns do not make any sense at all. Anti-biking trail building it is.

Arrived in Oracle a little over two days into the race. Progress was good thus far. I had an agenda to stick to if I was going to finish under 9 days and capture the single speed record which Cjell held at just 9 days. After refueling in Oracle it was time to ride over a hundred miles to the next food stop: Queen Valley just pass the 300-mile finish line at Picket Post. 

Dude was pissed I disturbed his warming spot outside of Oracle.

Two thumbs up !!!

Picket Post! 300 + miles in!

  So, along the way to Ripsey I suddenly lost my rear brake totally right near Antelope Peak. Nothing, lever pulling all the way to the grip. WTF. I tried to bleed it by pumping the handle with the screw out. I tried putting water in the caliper. Nothing worked. Oh well, I would get it fixed later. No time to dilly dally. It was interesting going down Ripsey in the dark on the switchbacks. No rear brake with a 50 lb rig is no fun at all. I had called around in the interim to see what my options were for getting the brake bled. I found a mobile bike service out of Mesa that would meet me in Queen Valley where I wanted to be at on Monday by 7pm. The self-supported rules apply here… only what everyone else can do. Well, anybody can call a mobile service so I did. No friends, etc can help you out in a situation like this. I was fortunate enough to be near Mesa where he was out of and the right time of day. My goal of being at Fitz’s Stop for food by 7pm on day 3.5 was spot on. I refueled, brakes bled and moving again before 10pm. I was stopped longer than I wanted but that’s how it goes. So far into the race at this point I was leading the 750. Justin Smith came along and so did Dan Holmes. Justin took off before us and we gave chase later on putting it down for the nite at Apache Junction close to each other. It was racing time. The race started at mile 300. It had been hot but manageable the first few days. I had seen a rattlesnake near Oracle and a desert tortoise so far during the race. The desert tortoise was hanging out on the first climb out of the Gila going toward Martinez Canyon. Pretty cool to see it.
Desert tortoise on the climb away from the Gila.

After going to Basha’s on the morning of day 4 it was onto to the Apache Trail, Roosevelt Lake and onto Payson. But first we had to ride a new route from Queen Valley to the Apache Trail. Jeep road, single track and asphalt made up this section. Nothing exciting here but wide open exposed sun all day. Dan and I jumped into Apache Lake/Salt River toward the end of the Apache Trail to rinse off and wring out the kits. That felt amazing. Nothing like standing butt naked in the lake as the fisherman cruise by in their fishing boats. Nudist beach it was for a moment. That was the only time I really cleaned up besides the normal washing the face and brushing the teeth.

Once we made it to Payson it was shopping time at Walmart for a few items to make an all nite assault to the hi-line trail at Pine. The double track out of Payson was freaking awful. Up, up and more up. At least it was nite and all we saw was some cat eyes in the brush. Last time I saw a lion was during the 300 race in 2014. I really didn’t want one following me again.

Arrived in Pine the next morning with no sleep. Refueled at the market and started our traverse on the hi-line trail. I’ve only ran on the end of the trail that leads up to the power line road to the rim. It was as awful as I expected. Up and down and off the bike and on the bike and off the bike and on the bike.... repeat until you cry. About 8-10 miles into the Hi-line trail Dan loses a bolt in his linkage on his super spendy high end full suspension bike. The other side was starting to shear off as well. We look for a while with no luck on finding the missing bolt. His race is over and he has to hike out three hours back to Pine. That fucking sucked for him. I motored on traversing the shitty terrain and finally make it up to the Mongollon Rim around 5pm at nite. Wow, that was tough. That will break a soul.
I topped out and started making my way over some snow drifts on the trail. It was eerie up there as no cars were allowed yet on the rim. Not a person around. Very tranquil it was. The only evidence of a person up there was Justin’s tire tracks in the snow. 

Shitty trail.

Shitty pushing my bike up this debacle.

As soon as dark approached the sleep monsters started attacking. I fought them off as long as I could. I was hearing music and voices as I neared Blue Ridge Campground. The wind was blowing and the symphony music volume increased. The voices increased. I couldn’t understand what they were saying but they were vocal mother fuckers. Wow, I was starting to sleep a bit on the bike. As soon as I made it to Blue Ridge Campground I had to lay it down for the nite. I couldn’t continue in that state. I had been awake for over 30 hours at this point.

The next morning came and I knew I had lost some ground to Justin. All I had to do was ride my bike. Another racer caught me that morning; Mike. I caught up to him and we chatted for a bit and I soon left him behind on the climbs. He too was on a single speed.
On the way to Mormon lake we had options for snow detours. I took the snow detour thinking Justin did as I saw his tracks. Turned out he didn't. Oh well. I didn't feel like dicking around in the snow anyways.  It was equal playing ground, all in  play. We would have another snow detour north of Flagstaff as well. I personally think it added time.

 I rode all day making it to Flagstaff with daylight to spare. I refueled, ate and got back on course attempting to put some miles into the nite to chase down Justin, aka Bigfoot. I nicknamed him that in Pine due to the way he moves on his feet. Amazing fast fucker he is.

I got out of Flagstaff and rode the snow detour to regain the Arizona Trail on the other side of Aspen Corner. It was dark and cold with lots of snow on the ground on the fire road. I was happy to get on the single-track as I was falling asleep while riding up hill. Just a few more hours I told myself before stopping. I would ride until 1am and put in 120 miles that day. Still no sign of Bigfoot. WTF. He knew I was chasing so I really didn’t expect to see him anytime soon. I would be correct on that assumption. I finally got to lower elevation that nite and slept under a couple pinion trees to avoid the wind that was howling non-stop.

After a handful of hours of sleep, I was up and back on the bike heading toward the Grand Canyon. I was both excited and scared of what lay ahead of me. I was also on a time crunch as I had to be at the Grand Canyon Post Office to pick up my pack and trail running shoes for the hike across the big ditch.  A sense of urgency came over me…. I motored on not stopping much at all along the way. I arrived at the Grand Canyon with two hours to spare. I picked up my pack and went to the market to get a hot veggie sandwich and a veggie pizza. I’m a vegetarian so it is hard at times to get the proper food. I was in heaven with some hot food instead of cold frozen burritos. I did eat meat two times during the trip as it was pretty much my only option. It wasn’t going to kill me. Gotta splurge sometimes.

It was roughly 7.5 days at this point into the race. I was solid on my schedule. I was pleased thus far. I pedaled over to the canyon’s south rim and prepped my bike for the back and dived down into the abyss. It was roughly 5pm and lots of hikers were coming up from their day hikes. I fielded a lot of questions on what I was doing. People had some blank stares. I should have made pamphlets to hand out. I arrived at Phantom Ranch around 9pm. I had some lemonade and Reese’s peanut butter cups before heading out up to the north rim. I was so tempted to drink a beer with the others hanging out in the bar area. I chatted with some other hikers who had seen Justin earlier. They told me he knew I was coming. The race was coming to an end soon and I knew once he hit pavement on the north side I wouldn’t catch him.

After climbing out of the big ditch and almost falling backwards off a cliff I topped out around 8am on Saturday morning. 15 hours to cross the big Ditch! I must have bonked a hundred times on that North side. The bonk machine was tapped out. 8 days into the race. I knew I was going to finish that nite. I reassembled my bike and started pedaling down the road. 
North Rim. It was a long nite.

But wait, here comes the sleep monsters one more time. I fought and fought. I started seeing snow sculptures in the snow drifts. I saw people with cars in the snow drifts. I started falling asleep on my bike while pedaling. I got around 20 miles into the 40 miles of pavement to Jacob Lake before I had to lay down. I propped my bike against a sign post and laid right there in the gravel facing the sun. I flipped down my cycling bill to cover my eyes. I thought maybe a car would drive by and honk and wake me up eventually. Nope. Notta. I woke up hours later in a startled state of mind. I didn’t know where I was. I looked around without a clue what I was doing. I looked at my dirty swollen hands thinking I was in a dream. I pedaled a bit. I stopped. I told myself to wake up. I wasn’t waking up. I pedaled again. I stopped. I couldn’t wake up. This was real. I looked at my GPS unit to see where I was …..fuck…….I had to get to Jacobs Lake. It was 1.40 pm. I had lost some time. I was in a panic for a bit. I calmed down and settled into my ride. Wow, that was a trip. It was like I was sleep riding before I snapped out of it. That was rough. Eventually I was able to get a text out to Laura saying I had to take a nap and I was coming. My phone was in the red. I was out of water but had some food still.
After arriving to Jacobs Lake and getting some liquids on board I made my way to the single track and I was like a kid in a candy store. Literally, I had snickers on board! LOL!!! I was ripping along on some fun fucking single track. The climbs didn’t hurt, nothing hurt. I was going to finish the AZTR 750! The last few miles were ripping downhill single-track with a view to die for at the finish right down to the Stateline Campground. On my way to the finish I saw two house cat looking animals. Not sure what they were. 


My awesome wife!!!

Let's do it south now. 
1st and 2nd place. Justin rocked. 

AZT completion buckle. Fuck Yeah!

Finished and just under 8.5 days capturing the single speed record and 2nd place overall on the 750. 8 Days 11 hours and 51 minutes! NFG!!!

 Laura was waiting with bean and cheese burritos and beer! I was so happy to see her. That was a truly epic ride. A journey that I will never forget. All of the training and sacrifices paid off in the end. Thank you Laura for all of your support


veezeman said...

Fuck ya! That's #superhuman shit. I almost teared up reading. So happy for ya! Awesome right up!

Norb said...

Great job, El Freako! Way to get this beast of a race done. Enjoyed the report, and your experience with sleep deprivation.
Big congrats!!

Michael Devitt said...

Wow! I saw you at the start where we were all making fun of your matching kit, and then you were gone. Great write-up and great race. Truly something to cherish and be proud of.

Jeff Hemperley said...

Thanks! I don't fuck around.

Anonymous said...

Wow! Fricken awesome Jeff!
Billy McMillen, Prescott AZ

Dean Anderson said...

Great write-up and awesome ride! What an accomplishment! I am debating tackling the 750 on my SS in 2018. I did the TD on a SS in 2016 and loved the desert (not much desert in Canada). Mostly single track on a SS sounds awesome! How much of the course were you spinning wildly with that gear ratio?

TonyD said...

First Time I’ve read this and you inspire me to be a bad ass. Incredible race Jeff. I knew you set the record and crushed it like you do everything in life. You’re a giant and you live an ultra life. Don’t stop! Tony Diede