Two weeks before this year’s Arizona Trail 300, I had created a mental gear list of what I was going to carry along for the event. This year I wanted to try to pick up where I left off in 2011, which meant traveling light, fast, and efficiently. The course is just shy of 300 miles of mostly rugged desert singletrack through some of the most beautiful country southern Arizona has to offer. This was to be my fourth straight Spring of taking on some or all of the AZT. In 2009, I rode the 300 as my second ever self-supported ultra. In 2010, I time-trialed the full 750 miles of the AZT. Last year I decided at the last minute to do the 300 again, only to be knocked off record pace and out of the race by a rather stupid crash on the northern flank of Mount Lemmon.
Anyway, back to my gear. My plan was to once again ride my Spearfish, although most of its parts have changed since last year as things wore out. The biggest changes include a new rear triangle with a 12mm thru-axle, which made a noticeable improvement in the tracking of the bike in rough terrain, some lighter wheels, and reliable XT brakes. The drivetrain is still a 9-speed triple setup, which I find ideal for these sorts of races.
My Spearfish taking a quick break on the final climb of the race...
Tire choice could provide hours of debate among AZT racers. The course is full of sharp rocks, jagged cobbles, razor-edged pebbles, and the full array of Sonoran Desert pointy vegetation. Sidewall slices in particular, are everyone’s biggest fear since the result of one is losing a tubeless setup, which in turn renders a tire, even with a Slime tube, very vulnerable to all the spines that lie in and reach out into the trail. The safest bet are a pair of nearly indestructible Panaracer Rampages, which provide both ample traction and rotating weight. I took a bit of a gamble and ended up pairing a Schwalbe Racing Ralph on the front and a Maxxis Ikon on the rear, using models of both with reinforced sidewalls. These are lightweight racing-oriented tires, but after having good luck with some unreinforced Michelin tires the past few years, I decided to give these a go. But that was only after several weeks of agonizing second- and third- and fourth-guessing my decision.
Amazing scenery north of the Gila River...
My mental list of gear two weeks before the event was short. For clothing, it included a wind vest, arm and knee warmers, a light insulated vest, and a warm cap. The sleeping kit was an emergency bivy and nothing more since I was hoping to get away without sleeping more than a few minutes. I would also carry a mini pump, a tiny shock pump, a few key spare parts, two tubes (one with sealant, one without), a tiny bottle of sealant, chain lube, a few tire boots, tire plugs, patches, needle and thread for tire/tube repair, and Gorilla tape.
For repairs and dealing with spiny thing, I bring a multi-tool, tiny pliers, and tweezers. I always carry a small first-aid kit, ClO2 tablets for treating water, sunscreen, chamois butter, ibuprofen, and toilet paper. All this would go in my homemade frame bag, a Revelate Designs Lemming seat bag, and my Osprey Talon 22 pack. I also used a 4L bladder, one bottle on my fork, and an additional 2L bladder in case the mercury rose into the 90s or 100s. For navigation, I still use the old Garmin Etrex Vista HCx GPS and carry printed cues as a backup. And for lighting, I carried two Fenix LD20 flashlights on the bars and an old Princeton Tec Apex on my helmet. Some of the new sections of AZT are incredibly faint and difficult to follow in the dark.
Rethinking everything once again...
A week out, I piled all these things on the floor of our gear room and then stuffed it in my bags. They were all mostly empty. This was what I really wanted – minimal bulk, minimal weight, and general simplicity. Then I began to pay attention to the weather forecast. A strong low-pressure system was looking like it might pass right through southern Arizona on the second day of the race. Rain, wind, and possible snow on Mount Lemmon – an eerie repeat of the 2009 race when I climbed over Lemmon through several inches of slush and snow in miserably cold conditions.
Suddenly my rather minimalist kit looked a bit unwise. I added things to the pile as the days went by and the weather models began to exhibit converging predictions. First it was a 40-degree sleeping bag, rain gear, cool-weather gloves, and an extra pair of socks. Soon waterproof socks and gloves fell onto the pile. Then as the forecast became even colder, lobster gloves, waterproof booties, and a long-sleeved jersey were added. So much for going light...
Riders anxious to get going with their AZT adventures...
On Friday morning, 40-some riders milled about, inspecting each other’s kits, discussing strategies, recent adventures, and future plans. Through all this, I reconsidered my kit several times under a sunny, cloudless sky. How could it rain on us the next day? Ultimately, I started with everything that had been in that pile on the floor. My bike was disappointingly heavy. But when the rain started falling on the second morning with the temperature only in the low 40s, I was glad to have all the waterproof gear. When I started the long grind up Mount Lemmon and saw cars coming down with several inches of snow on top, I gained a bit of confidence knowing that I had some decent warm clothing still in my pack. By the time the road became covered by several inches of snow still ten miles from the summit, I had to dig into that warm clothing in order to keep my core temperature from getting too low as my rain gear became covered both outside and inside with ice.
Covered in ice upon reaching Summerhaven; Photo by Carol Mack
I managed to once again climb through a freak April snowstorm in the middle of the race, just like in 2009, trudge down the unrideable snowy singletrack of Oracle Ridge on the north side of the mountain, and continue on to win in just under 2 days 8 hours and break the old course record. Had I skimped on the gear that the wisest part of my brain suggested, I would have ended up being forced to bivy down lower until conditions improved. Everything else went more or less according to plan, although I did end up sleeping for a couple hours on the second night. My bike worked flawlessly (except for when the drivetrain became completely encrusted in ice) and the tires remained filled with air and unscathed.
Oracle Ridge’s heinous singletrack made even worse...
In the world of ultralight adventuring, there’s a fine line between going as light as possible and being unprepared. I’ve learned through more than a few experiences like these that it’s worth carrying a pound or two of extra gear in order to be somewhat comfortable and a bit safer when conditions really deteriorate. This also provides a margin of safety should your adventure take an unexpected turn for the worse, something well worth considering when you are planning your next big ride.
Nearing the finish, exhausted and sore all over; Photo by Caroline Soong
WORLD PREMIER of Reveal The Path! May 31st, Minneapolis, Minnesota
Enjoy and evening with Salsa and the cast and crew of Reveal The Path. Live music from soundtrack artist Dominique Fraissard!