I've developed an obsession with the Coconino Loop, a nearby 245-mile mountain bike route put together by a couple friends a few years ago. The route is so close that I can see the three highest points it traverses on my daily commute down into town. I stare off toward the San Francisco Peaks and Mingus Mountain as I coast through the wind. My focus shifts westward to Bill Williams Peak briefly before I round a bend and the skyline disappears behind a wall of elms.
The route has drawn me in four times now. The first was an absolute disaster as the early summer heat took its toll on me, instigating some of the worst cramping I've ever experienced. I ended up spending the night in a motel in Williams and bailing on the route. Then I tried again in late summer, still suffering tremendously in the heat, but at least I finished. My pace was not particularly spirited though, as I had finished the Tour Divide only a few weeks prior. This past summer, I tried the loop again, and lo and behold, the heat destroyed me. I ended up back in that same motel in Williams.
I vowed to not ride Coconino again this year. But after a month of bikepacking with my students, my co-instructor Kaitlyn decided that she was going to give Coco a go. Then, one of our students decided the same. Peer pressure. It didn't take much, though, to make me agree to go for a ride, too.
We decided to start in Williams, of all places. Starting there minimized the number of hours any of us would have to ride in the cold, dark night on the Plateau. Plus, there was a rally race utilizing some of the dirt roads near Perkinsville, so my normal Sedona start would have been affected by those cars drifting through turns at 50-plus miles per hour. So Williams it was, and at least I couldn't bail to that same motel a third time.
We started just after dawn. Bobby headed off first, Kaitlyn a few minutes later, and I finally launched after a minor argument with the air pressure in my fork. It wasn't long before I caught Kaitlyn. We rode together, enjoying the warm sun and cursing our frozen toes. We reeled in Bobby on a flat section where his singlespeed moderated his pace. As we dove into the Sycamore Canyon Rim singletrack, I found myself alone, and alone I would remain for the subsequent 30 hours.
The early miles passed with increasing ease. My legs felt surprisingly strong on the climbs, and I was coming in well ahead of each estimated split time for which I aimed. Before long I hit the Arizona Trail high in the Peaks, giggling like a little kid as I launched through aspen groves toward Flagstaff. I resisted all the delicious food that Flag has to offer and was in and out of town in just a few minutes.
The hellish traverse of Anderson Mesa was rough and blown out by cattle as usual, yet the miles continued to fly by. The crisp autumn air was nearly too cool for me to be wearing just shorts and short sleeves. By late afternoon, I found myself increasing my pace in an effort to make it to Sedona by dark. It did not quite happen, but my bright Fenix lights allowed me to descend Schnebly Hill and the Munds Wagon trails almost as I would have in the day.
Sedona then came and went. I grabbed a bit of food and then tackled the ledgy red singletrack. That kind of riding is tough during the day; at night, it requires immense focus. Fortunately, as when I raced the AZT300 earlier this year, the sleep monster must have been napping himself. Orange sandstone gave way to dusty limestone on the Lime Kiln trail. Tall grass obscured the rutted trail, and I watched a steadily growing accumulation of goatheads on my tires. I stopped, ate some cookies, and looked at my watch: 10:36 pm. Wow. It had already been dark for four hours. The nights sure are long in October.
Mingus Mountain loomed as a dark shadow stretching all the way across the southern horizon. The 4,000-foot climb up to the summit is hard enough on a day ride. I found the prospect of hitting that climb after 160 miles rather terrifying. Within the hour, I was laboring up the steep lower slopes of the beast. The two-track was steep enough that my tired legs couldn't power me up without periodic walking. Then I walked nearly the entire upper 2,000-foot singletrack climb. Orion was arcing across the sky above, but I remained too focused to notice, noting instead only the constellation of the town of Cottonwood down below getting increasingly distant.
The first light of morning arrived as I pedaled along the opposite side of Mingus. The night had been surprisingly warm, but my eyelids were getting heavy, and I really needed the sun to help wake me up. And that is just what it did. I hammered on, alert as ever, but cursing sore knees and Achilles. Fifty miles to go, and ten hours left to top my best time, and nearly that to best the record.
The only thing worse than hitting the Mingus climb at 160 miles is hitting an even larger, longer climb at mile 190. It's a climb I know well. It is relentless. It is exposed. It had absolutely broken me twice already. I feared it. So I began up it gingerly, going easy on my sore legs and tender knees. Entire hillsides were saturated in brilliant yellow flowers, distracting me from the physical pain. I praised my legs for not cramping despite feeling like my quads were slowly being pulled apart from the inside. Even so, the combination of exhaustion and pain brought tears to my eyes while forcing myself up the steep singletrack switchbacks on Bill Williams Mountain.
I found myself in too much of a haze to even look out at the incredible view or take in the yellow glow in the small aspen glades. My feet stumbled over the high point. I remounted and struggled to navigate the treacherous descent to the end. At the end of some ultras, I find my bike and I to be one, but this time, my bike fumbled around beneath me, bouncing off rocks and bucking me around. The strength in my hands was rapidly diminishing. My focus was rapidly unraveling.
Then, before I knew it, I found myself standing at the trail intersection marking the end of the loop. Kaitlyn's truck was just a few hundred meters away. The sun was still high overhead. I looked at the time and slowly did the math: 30 hours, 52 minutes—nearly six hours faster than my fastest time, and nearly five hours quicker than the record. I was too spent to even feel a sense of satisfaction.
Six hours later, right at dusk, Bobby's tires crunched down the trail and into the parking lot. He had just covered three times more ground than he ever had in a ride. He finished his first ultra, on a singlespeed, and in nearly record time. And he was grinning a big, exhausted grin. This is most certainly a guy that's going to soon be stomping down other ultras. We headed over to Denny's for a meal and joked about all that had transpired over the last 36 hazy hours.
In the wee hours of the morning, Kaitlyn jogged her bike down the last of the rocky switchbacks and completed her first ultra. She had battled an uncooperative stomach for much of the ride but still came in within an hour of her goal. And she had ridden straight through nearly two entire nights and the intervening day sans sleep. She's going to be another one to watch out for if she races more ultras.
And just yesterday I heard that another one of our students is heading up next weekend to take on Coconino. How cool is that?
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After growing up in Minnesota, I’ve been lured away by the rugged charm of the mountainous west. I relish every opportunity I find to spend a day (or days) on the bike, linking together unknown trails and forgotten routes through deserted country, enjoying the simplicity and unpredictability. When driven to race, I am growing ever fonder of pushing the limits of endurance and sanity. www.krefs.blogspot.com