Aaron Johnson: Blog https://www.ajphoto.net/blog en-us (C) Aaron Johnson (Aaron Johnson) Wed, 28 Dec 2016 14:23:00 GMT Wed, 28 Dec 2016 14:23:00 GMT https://www.ajphoto.net/img/s/v-5/u408911582-o667766943-50.jpg Aaron Johnson: Blog https://www.ajphoto.net/blog 120 120 Colorado Trail Race: A Self-Powered Adventure https://www.ajphoto.net/blog/2016/12/colorado-trail-race-a-self-powered-adventure-film

Whew. This was a tough one, definitely the most difficult and involved creative project I've worked on. Ever since I did my first bikepacking race back in 2013, I knew I wanted to someday make a film about these events. It's so interesting to me - the amazing beauty of the landscape, the self-reliant nature of the race, the beautiful simplicity of the experience, and I wanted to find a way to share that with people in a manner that would be appealing even to those without any knowledge of these events.

I went into the CTR this past summer with the primary goal of racing fast, and a half-baked secondary goal of maybe trying to create this film I've had in the back of my head. To be honest, I was much more focused on the racing, and did not put much thought or anything into shooting a film, other than bringing along a GoPro and planning on pulling it out occasionally to capture a nice sunset, or capture my thoughts when I was feeling inspired or downtrodden or whatever. I had filmed this race before, back in 2013, and wasn't really interested in just capturing the same GoPro footage that I did back then. Indeed, I recorded a lot less during this race - I focused more on capturing my thoughts during the race, from how I was feeling, to thoughts before trying to sleep for an hour or two, to my state of mind during the low parts of the race. I didn't think much of it until after the race, when I saw that maybe I could actually pull off an interesting film, one that focused more on the human aspect of racing these events, rather than just the beauty of the route.

The problem was, I had nowhere near enough footage to create a film, and knew I'd have to get back out on the trail and spend many days getting some quality B-roll and race-reenactments. Now that I have a drone, I knew I could get some good aerial shots of both the scenery and myself by putting the drone on autopilot to follow me as I rode through some of the best parts of the trail. I spent an additional 7 or 8 days in the weeks and months after the race traveling to different parts of the course and shooting aerial footage and timelapses, as well as using a new GoPro helmet swivel mount I recently got to get those 360 degree video shots of me riding. These days were mostly filled with frustration, as the weather was often absolutely horrible, especially the several days I spent in Silverton and up on Segment 23. There were days where I'd drive up to Stony Pass in pouring rain and lightning, sit in my car for 6 or 7 hours waiting for the rain to stop, getting only a few short minutes to film during breaks in the weather. (The weather was so bad, I actually rescued a few hypothermic thru-hikers who were in pretty serious trouble!) It was funny that the weather was so perfect and sunny during the race, yet when I tried to go back and film, I got nothing but rain. But through all of that effort (I went back and filmed on Tenmile, Searle Pass, Twin Lakes, Buena Vista, Fooses Creek, Segment 23, Silverton, Molas Pass, and Kennebec Pass), I was able to get enough footage to start putting together a story that finally at least scratched the surface of portraying the grandeur of the Colorado Trail.

I wanted to show more of the human side of the race - why people do these events, how it affects them, etc. - so I decided to do some in-person interviews of a couple of the racers. The first obvious choice was Stefan Griebel, the guy who started the race back in 2007 and has kept it alive and flourishing over the years since. I also wanted to interview Jefe Branham, as someone who not only has set numerous record and won the event several times, but has more experience on the trail than maybe anyone else. And finally, the person who has completed the trail faster than any other human, Neil Beltchenko. These three interviews were exactly what I needed to craft an interesting story, and I'm so grateful to them for taking the time to share their thoughts and motivations with me. There are so many other amazing people and interesting personalities - I would have loved to have gotten a female perspective on this event - but I unfortunately did not have enough time or resources to pursue all these people. Maybe food for a future project!

I'm excited with how the film turned out, as it comes close to portraying the spirit of these races. Also in keeping with the race spirit, I set out to create this film in the Do It Yourself ethos - all filming and production was done entirely by myself, without any outside support, financial or otherwise. (Neil Beltchenko did contribute a few videos taken during his race, and my dad, Lewis Johnson, helped film a bit at the race start and when I finished at 2am in Durango. Joe Polk at MTBCast was also nice enough to allow me to use the racer call-ins from the last 4 or 5 years). I am so grateful to those who did help me indirectly - my dad, for driving me to the race start and picking me up in Durango, not just for this race but for the 2013 and 2015 editions, as well as supporting me in the other races I've done over the years - and my wife Megan, for her endless patience and encouragement as I spent many days out filming and weeks holed up in front of my computer, agonizing through the painstaking process of sorting through hours of footage - her encouragement and feedback kept me going and helped craft the finished product. And everyone else who was in the film or offered feedback - thank you as well. My main goal with all of this is to simply inspire people to strap some bags on a bike and get out there, not necessarily to race but just to spend time in the wilderness and connect with the landscape in the unique way a bicycle enables.

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(Aaron Johnson) bikepacking colorado ctr race trail ultra https://www.ajphoto.net/blog/2016/12/colorado-trail-race-a-self-powered-adventure-film Wed, 28 Dec 2016 14:00:00 GMT
GODZone Adventure Race - New Zealand https://www.ajphoto.net/blog/2016/4/godzone-adventure-race---new-zealand

New Zealand is at the top of many people's lists of adventure destinations for good reason - these two small islands are an adventure paradise, with a thriving outdoor sports culture, huge mountains, glaciers, endless rivers, golden beaches, and spectacular coastlines. It is also considered the birthplace of the sport of Adventure Racing decades ago, and Team Adventure Medical Kits wasn't going to pass up an opportunity to come to the sport's place of origin to race in what has become perhaps the highest profile adventure race in the world: GODZone. More than 70 four person teams, many representing the home country alongside a healthy number of international teams, were to tackle 500+ km of mountain biking, kayaking, trekking, and canoeing around the Nelson Tasman area of the South Island. Team Adventure Medical Kits brought me along to document as much of the race as possible, with the goal of being with them during the race to capture the incredible surroundings and the true nature of the sport.

Team Adventure Medical Kits: Rob Preston (Australia), Mari Chandler (United States), Kyle Peter (United States), Jarad Kohler (Australia)

The race begins!

The race began with a coasteering and kayaking stage.

Thanks to a very supportive (and trusting!) race staff, I was given special permission to join the team during the trekking sections, with the understanding that I would not aid or influence their race in any way, as well as be completely self-sufficient, with all the necessary safety gear and GPS tracker / emergency beacon. The first trek was approximately 55km through a very rugged and remote area known as the Red Hills. This trek would start barely 10 hours into the race, around 10pm, so I knew the team would still be fresh and would be moving quickly. Keeping up with them was my primary objective - my safety depended on it! As expected, they set a fast pace, leapfrogging with other teams in the top 10 throughout the night, as we navigated a series of high, exposed, crumbling ridges. High winds and rain, not to mention darkness, kept my camera in its bag throughout the night, but I was able to snag some decent shots with the GoPro.

The next day, more fog and rain blocked most of the views, but I sneaked in some shots between the clouds. We were given brief glimpses at the grandeur that surrounded us.

All said and done, that first trek clocked in at 40 miles, 14,000 ft. of elevation gain, and took 22 hours. My legs were destroyed, but thankfully I could rest that night, while the teams had to keep going!

The rain finally stopped on Day 3.

The final trek was what I was waiting for - Mt. Owen. We were promised incredible terrain and scenery, and were not disappointed.

We gained the summit of Mt. Owen right at sunset, minds blown.

After it became dark, my job was done, and I just had to hold on for dear life as the team blazed across some more ridges and down into the TA, finishing at 3am. This one was less beastly than the first - only 14 hours, 24 miles, with 8000 ft of vert - but I was still happily destroyed, ready to rest and get those photos edited!

The team finished very strong, moving from 7th place to 4th on the last day. They were the only team in the top 10 NOT from New Zealand, a testament to the strength of the local adventure community!

Huge thanks to Team Adventure Medical Kits for bringing me along. Also a huge thanks to the race organizers and media team for putting their faith in me that I wasn't just some dumb American who would get in to trouble out there and allowing me to travel with the team, through some dangerous and remote terrain, to capture the images not possible to get in any other way. This race was the best-run adventure race I've ever been to, and the amount of local support was unlike anything I've ever seen in the AR world, with national news coverage, people out on the streets cheering, and literally every single shop owner, cab driver, farmer, EVERYONE knowing exactly what the race was and supporting it.

Looking forward to coming back for next year's GODZone in Queenstown!

 

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(Aaron Johnson) https://www.ajphoto.net/blog/2016/4/godzone-adventure-race---new-zealand Wed, 27 Apr 2016 00:38:26 GMT
Maya Mountain Adventure Challenge Belize https://www.ajphoto.net/blog/2016/3/maya-mountain-adventure-challenge-belize The first race on Team Adventure Medical Kits' calendar went down this past week in Belize - the Maya Mountain Adventure Challenge, a 4 day adventure race in the Belizean jungle near the Guatemalan border. The team blazed through the course in 89 hours, finishing in first place, and I was there to capture their efforts as they visited ancient Mayan ruins, explored huge caves and sinkholes, mountain biked, trekked, and paddled their way around Belize. Check out their race report below, as well as the short summary videos I put together for each day of the race!

Click for race report:

Day 1:

Team Adventure Medical Kits - Day 1 Highlights MMAC Belize 2016 from Aaron Johnson on Vimeo.

Day 2:

Team Adventure Medical Kits - Day 2 Highlights MMAC Belize 2016 from Aaron Johnson on Vimeo.

Day 3:

Team Adventure Medical Kits - Day 3 Highlights MMAC Belize 2016 from Aaron Johnson on Vimeo.

Day 4:

Team Adventure Medical Kits - Day 4 Highlights MMAC Belize 2016 from Aaron Johnson on Vimeo.

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(Aaron Johnson) https://www.ajphoto.net/blog/2016/3/maya-mountain-adventure-challenge-belize Thu, 03 Mar 2016 04:01:00 GMT
Fuego y Agua Survival Run Nicaragua https://www.ajphoto.net/blog/2016/3/fuego-y-agua-survival-run-nicaragua Back in February, I was invited to travel down to Nicaragua to shoot video at a very unique sounding race: SURVIVAL RUN NICARAGUA. Located on the island of Ometempe in Lake Nicaragua, this is a brutal 24 hour race that's part adventure race, part obstacle course race (think Tough Mudder / Spartan Race etc). It involves over 80 km of running, climbing, swimming, basically anything human powered, and racers are required to complete a series of challenges along the way that are designed to mimic the tasks and chores that the locals face as part of their daily, rural lives - think carrying wood, building rafts, climbing trees, etc. The race is famous for its dismal finishing rate - usually only 1 or 2 people finish, out of 50+ starters.

Approaching the island, its two volcanoes dominating the skyline

My goal was to follow my Team Adventure Medical Kits teammate, Kyle Peter, as he competed in the race, and take as much photo/video as possible. This meant I had to be prepared to be on the move for 24 hours straight, be completely self-sufficient in the Nicaraguan jungle, carry all of my camera equipment, and keep up with a strong athlete as he climbed volcanoes and ran around the jungle! Needless to say, I was pretty nervous as we prepared for the race, not knowing if I'd be able to keep up with my heavy pack.

The racers started on the beach, splitting into 4 teams to tackle a series of challenges involving building a raft out of wooden sticks to carry several large boulders many hundreds of meters off shore to an island. Kyle's team struggled a bit, losing one of their boulders mid trip to the island, and finished the challenge 30 minutes after the first team. With the team challenge over, it was every man and woman for themselves, and Kyle took off like a madman to catch the leaders, with me in tow, trying not to fall too far behind.

Kyle gets his bananas

The next challenge involved carrying a 30-lb sack of bananas up and over the 5,500 ft volcano Concepcion that dominates the island of Ometempe. The racers know nothing about the course, so when they were instructed to carry this 30-lb bag, they had no idea they'd be carrying it for the next 8 hours as they struggled to get over this massive volcano. As the temperature approached triple digits, I followed Kyle as he steadily made his way up the incredibly steep and rocky trail through the thick jungle that carpets the flanks of Concepcion. Kyle, not knowing he would be climbing the volcano, neglected to bring much water, and it soon became apparent that the situation was quickly turning dangerous, with the extreme exertion, oppressive heat, and lack of any water source this high on the volcano. Luckily, thanks to some generous hikers, and a lifesaving half full bottle of Coke found on the trail, he managed to get barely enough hydration to make it up and over the summit, catching many racers and climbing into the top 5.

Volcano Concepcion

Kyle making his way up the volcano

Traversing around the crater at the summit

Incredible views of the crater rim

The island is a vertical mile below us

Dried out dead frog, pretty much how we felt

Nearing sunset, Kyle and I both stumbled into the checkpoint at the bottom of the volcano, after 6 brutal hours in the heat, the last 2 of which we had zero fluids. More than half the field would not make it past this checkpoint, due to extreme dehydration on the volcano. The approaching darkness meant I could take a break from filming, so I gladly rehydrated and rested at the checkpoint as Kyle pushed on to regain more time on the leaders.

The rest of the race did not go well for Kyle - he got lost multiple times, at one point ending up on the back of some local's motorbike zooming around the island looking for the race course in the darkness. During the chicken run (racers were required to run carrying a live chicken for 15km), he got lost again, losing more time, and just missed a 3am time cutoff, ending his race. Barely a handful of people made it to the finish.

Kyle and Derek, his chicken

It was an absolute blast joining Kyle for the race, and I'm extremely tempted to have a go at it next year! Either way, Kyle and I will be back, as it's a truly unique and amazing event. Check out the little teaser video I made of the race, and stay tuned for some much larger video productions that will be coming out later this year!

Survival Run Nicaragua from Aaron Johnson on Vimeo.

 

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(Aaron Johnson) https://www.ajphoto.net/blog/2016/3/fuego-y-agua-survival-run-nicaragua Wed, 02 Mar 2016 04:01:00 GMT
Fat Bike World Championships - Day 2 https://www.ajphoto.net/blog/2016/1/fat-bike-world-championships---day-2 Gallery is live for day 2 of Fat Bike Worlds in Crested Butte!

In the gallery, use the search bar in the top right corner to search for your photos by number plate. If no search results come up, enter the word "blank" (no quotations) to see all the photos in which the number plate wasn't visible.

Click here to access the gallery.

Crested Butte Fat Bike World Championships

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(Aaron Johnson) https://www.ajphoto.net/blog/2016/1/fat-bike-world-championships---day-2 Sun, 31 Jan 2016 14:36:07 GMT
Fat Bike World Championships - Day 1 https://www.ajphoto.net/blog/2016/1/fat-bike-world-championships---day-1 Gallery is live for day 1 of Fat Bike Worlds in Crested Butte!

In the gallery, use the search bar in the top right corner to search for your photos by number plate. If no search results come up, enter 0 to see all the photos in which the number plate wasn't visible.

Click here to access the gallery.

 

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(Aaron Johnson) https://www.ajphoto.net/blog/2016/1/fat-bike-world-championships---day-1 Sat, 30 Jan 2016 04:11:12 GMT
Woodside Ramble https://www.ajphoto.net/blog/2015/12/woodside-ramble Spent a couple wet, chilly hours taking photos at the Woodside Ramble 50k/35k/half marathon today. Had some fun messing with 2 off-camera flashes, trying to light up the rain drops and create some dramatic effects. Check out the gallery below!

A couple notes: enter your bib number in the search bar at the top right corner to search for your photos. If none appear, try searching by only the first 3 numbers of your bib number, or enter 0 to see all the pictures where the bib numbers were obscured. Let me know if you want any of the photos touched up.

Click here to access the gallery.

Woodside Ramble, 12/13/15

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(Aaron Johnson) https://www.ajphoto.net/blog/2015/12/woodside-ramble Mon, 14 Dec 2015 15:40:15 GMT
2015 North Face Endurance Challenge California https://www.ajphoto.net/blog/2015/12/2015-north-face-endurance-challenge-california If you raced in the North Face 50 miler this past Saturday in Marin, check out my gallery from the race. Photos are available to purchase for high quality digital download for personal use, or prints.

Enter your bib number in the search box in the top right hand corner of the screen to see if I got any pictures of you. If not, try entering 0 to see all the pictures where the bib number wasn't visible.

Click here to access the gallery.

Most of the photos have not been touched up, cropped, or edited. If you find a photo you'd like to purchase and would like it touched up, I would be happy to do so. Send me a note via the contact page letting me know which photo you'd like me to edit.

Trail running test with Meg and Mowgs

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(Aaron Johnson) Challenge Endurance Face North events https://www.ajphoto.net/blog/2015/12/2015-north-face-endurance-challenge-california Wed, 09 Dec 2015 05:50:31 GMT
Team Adventure Medical Kits https://www.ajphoto.net/blog/2015/12/team-adventure-medical-kits I've been on the periphery of the Adventure Racing world for the past couple of years, thanks to several of my close friends being heavily involved at the highest level of the sport. This year I'll be getting full immersion in AR as part of Team Adventure Medical Kits, the US's top adventure racing team. I'll be traveling with them to their international races as photographer, shooting them in action in some of the world's most spectacular settings, including Belize, New Zealand, all over the Western US, and Australia. Super excited to be a part of it - check out their website and like their Facebook page to get all the updates!

Click for website:

Click for Facebook Page:

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(Aaron Johnson) https://www.ajphoto.net/blog/2015/12/team-adventure-medical-kits Wed, 02 Dec 2015 04:01:00 GMT
Tour du Mont Blanc https://www.ajphoto.net/blog/2015/9/euroland After CTR, I barely had enough time to unpack before I headed off to Europe for a couple weeks of mountain adventures. The plan was to check out Zermatt and the Matterhorn, spending a few days backpacking solo around the area, before heading to Chamonix to do the Tour du Mont Blanc by mountain bike for my friend Ryan's birthday - one big loop around Europe's highest mountain, 100 miles and more than 30,000 feet of climbing, spread over 3 days.


Camping high above Zermatt

I arrived in Zermatt with no plans, other than to roughly follow a 35-mile loop around the surrounding area and do some stealth backcountry camping (I was unclear if backcountry camping was allowed - I think not, but saw tons of people out there camping). After stocking up on food and supplies, I headed out into the beautiful evening, up a ridiculously steep trail out of town, and found a gorgeous little ledge to camp on, 2,000 feet directly above the town.

Morning above Zermatt

I was woken up by two curious hikers, literally peering inside my tent and speaking loudly in German. Little unnerving. The day started beautiful and clear, getting progressively more cloudy as I approached the Matterhorn.

Curious, hilarious mountain sheep. Aggressively followed me every which way

Looking at the Matterhorn, it is almost impossible to comprehend its sheer size, towering 7,000 feet above me. Definitely the most impressive lump of rock I've laid my eyes on.

That night, camped in a rather exposed part of the ski area, above treeline, the skies finally opened up, and I was hammered all night by the worst rain, wind, and lightning I've ever been out in. I was in a just-purchased, ultralight Tarptent - doesn't even have its own poles, you set it up using your trekking poles - and was pretty worried that it wouldn't withstand the storm. Luckily, I had done a really good job with the stakes and guylines, and the tent proved to be bombproof all night, not a drop of water inside at all. Little to no sleep was had that night, regardless - more exciting than scary, though.

My campsite, just before the storm hit

Misty mountains towering above Zermatt

Matterhorn looms over a church

The bad weather lingered for the rest of my time in Zermatt. I nixed my plans to complete the 35 mile loop with all my backpacking gear, not wanting to spend another night up high with the storms, and headed back down to town and got a spot at the town campground. The next few days were spent hiking all over the surrounding mountains hoping for big views, but getting only clouds, rain, and even snow. I came back down to town each evening cold, wet, exhausted, but I had found an awesome little hotel restaurant with drying racks, fast internet, and cheap, delicious food, and spent several hours there each night, warming up and stuffing my face. Despite the bad weather and not getting to see the big views I had hoped for, I had a blast in Zermatt.

On to France!

Pretty much summarizes day 1

Tour du Mont Blanc. This famous route makes a grand circle around the Mont Blanc massif, which our group was set to complete over 4 days. I, unfortunately, had a flight to catch in Geneva on the morning of the 4th day, so I was going to have to combine days 3 and 4 into one massive day. The bad weather followed me from Switzerland, and the first day was nothing but fog, drizzle, and mud, as we slowly made our way around the northern tip of the mountain and climbed up to our first refugio - Refuge de la Croix du Bonhomme.

Ibex battle

Dinner at the refuge

Morning, day 2. Refuge de la Croix du Bonhomme

Day 2 dawned bright and clear. We were elated to finally get to see the alps!

We followed a predictable pattern - hour or two long hike-a-bike to a col, bomb down an incredible descent, food/beer/cappuccino at a refugio, repeat. A glorious cycle. Several in our group were experienced adventure racers, and we all agreed how unbelievably *nice* it was to be on an adventure in the mountains and not be racing! Wait, we can actually just sit here and drink a beer? Take a nap in the sun if we want? Not be in constant pain and discomfort? Full night's sleep?? Wow....such luxuries did not go unappreciated!

The backside of Mont Blanc, huge rock spires and melting glaciers, towered above us.

Start of the long climb to Col de la Siegne

Nearing Col de la Siegne

Col de la Siegne

Ryan descends off Col de la Siegne

Lunch number 3

Lots of this happened

Courmayeur - beautiful little town

Evening view from our refugio

Day 2 was quite a bit longer than day 1, and we were sufficiently worked and ready to feast by the time we made it to Rifugio Alpino Walter Bonatti, our home for the night.

Dinner at Rifugio Alpino Walter Bonatti

TMB!

Rifugio Alpino Walter Bonatti, morning day 3

Day 3 dawned another beauty of a day. Onward!

Big ass hike up to the Swiss border

Switzerland is up there

Chad delivers the goods

Dip in the Lac de Champex

We made it to Champex around 3pm, and I sadly had to bid adieu to the group as they headed off to gorge themselves at their refugio for the night. I had a tough 25 miles to cover with 2 big passes, hopefully before dark! The Bovine climb is legendary for its difficulty, and it was one of the steepest hike-a-bikes yet, but I made it over without too much trouble, save for a herd of extremely curious cows who blocked the trail every chance they got. It's called Bovine for a good reason!

After a fast, steep, rooty descent down to Col de la Forclaz, I could see my final massive climb up to Col de Balme. I was running out of daylight and set a goal to be at the top by 8pm. After another steep hike-a-bike, followed by a somewhat rideable section above treeline, I found myself staring down at an incredible sunset above the Chamonix valley right at 8pm sharp. Yes! I should be done before dark!

An incredible, 3000 foot descent on swoopy trails through a ski resort got me back down to the hustle bustle of Chamonix right as darkness fell. What an incredible trip - much more difficult than I expected, but also more rewarding! Thank you to the Van Gorders for organizing, and to the whole group for an unforgettable few days.

 

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(Aaron Johnson) https://www.ajphoto.net/blog/2015/9/euroland Fri, 11 Sep 2015 22:25:47 GMT
2015 Colorado Trail Race https://www.ajphoto.net/blog/2015/8/2015-colorado-trail-race

The Colorado Trail Race has been bouncing around in the back of my head since I first rode it back in 2013. It was my first bikepacking experience, and completely blew my mind. I've been hooked on self-supported bikepack racing ever since, focusing on completing all the other Western US races, and have done a lot of them - AZTR750, California Sierra Trail Race, Stagecoach 400, Dixie 200. I wasn't sure I ever wanted to repeat a race - there are so many adventures out there, why repeat something I've already done? - but the CTR has had this pull on me, more so than any of the other races, and I wanted to come back and test myself, now that I'm much more experienced. Better bike, better equipment, better fitness - my goal was to finish under 5 days (my previous time was 5 days, 19 hours), and I felt confident. Also quite a bit more nervous than my first go - ignorance was bliss the first time, but now I knew what was coming!

Day 1: Durango to top of Stony Pass

4am start - 65 nervous and excited bikers in downtown Durango. Chatted with Kurt and a few others as we pedaled through town to the trailhead - good catching up. There were some heavy hitters of bikepack racing here - Kurt, Jesse, JayP, Jefe, Alice Drobna, among others - and I had no plans to chase them, just start super easy and calm, and work into it. The first climb is always tough - 6,000 feet straight up to 12,000+ ft - and I focused on just taking it easy, keeping my effort low. I was a bit slower to Kennebec Pass than last time, but felt totally fine as opposed to completely shelled like before!

Kennebec Pass in the rain. Photo by Andrew of Bedrock Bags and Packs - I've been using their packs for the past couple years, love them!

Kennebec Pass in the rain. Photo by Andrew of Bedrock Bags and Packs out of Durango - I've been using their packs for the past couple of years, love them!

After a bit of rain near the pass, the weather seemed to be holding as we crossed Indian Trail Ridge. My main goal was constant motion - minimize stopping, minimal picture taking (so hard for me, especially amongst some of Colorado's best scenery!), basically no dicking around, and I was already pretty far ahead of my previous pace just by not stopping. I was leapfrogging with Jefe Branham, Alex Lussier, Joe Grant, and Aaron Denburg all the way up to Blackhawk Pass. The pace was fast but comfortable, my bike was working perfectly. I was stoked on how fast all the landmarks were passing by!

Aaron Denburg on Blackhawk Pass

Aaron Denburg on Blackhawk Pass

Blackhawk Pass

Blackhawk Pass

Blackhawk Pass

Blackhawk Pass

Blackhawk Pass

Blackhawk Pass

I was anxious to get up over Rolling Mountain Pass before any afternoon thunderstorms came in. The miles after Blackhawk Pass went by quickly, and I soon found myself on the long, rocky descent down to Cascade Creek, at the base of Rolling Mountain.

Rolling Mountain

I was having so much fun on my Ripley, ripping every descent, as opposed to getting pounded like last time on my hardtail. I think I started to have a little too much fun, as I hit a particularly gnarly section on this descent a bit too fast, lost control of the front-heavy bike, and launched a spectacular front flip 180 off the side of the trail, down 10 feet into a bush, laughing my ass off but very glad it was a bush, not a pile of sharp rocks. Whoops - let's back it off a bit, shall we?

Jefe gaining Rolling Mountain Pass

Jefe Branham on Rolling Mountain Pass

Descent off Rolling Mountain

Jefe descending off Rolling Mountain

Nearing Molas Pass. Photo by Criss Furman.

Nearing Molas Pass. Photo by Criss Furman.

Approaching Silverton

I chased Jefe the rest of the way into Silverton, and got there at 6:30pm - 90 minutes faster than last time! Yes! I felt great, plenty left in the tank. Quick dinner and resupply at the Silverton Grocery, and I headed off to tackle Stony Pass - 3,000 feet straight up to the top of the San Juans.

Twin Rippers

Ibis Ripley - no better bike for this

Jefe blasted off ahead - I knew I wouldn't be seeing him again. Soon I found Aaron Denburg, and we began the long hike together as the sun went down. Aaron is a machine, and it was all I could do to keep him in sight. Especially impressive because he was sick, puking his guts out several times during the hike up - he just kept moving. It was a gorgeous night, huge bright moon, no lights necessary. So peaceful to hike up through the silent grandeur of the massive peaks surrounding us in the dark.

Night hike up Stony Pass

As we neared the top at 12,000 feet, I decided to catch a few hours of sleep in a small ditch shielded from any wind, and slept like a baby until 2am. Several people passed me during the night, and I was looking forward to chasing them down. The upcoming segments are the most incredible parts of the trail, and I couldn't wait to get to work on them. The night was perfect, warm and peaceful.

Day 2: Stony Pass to Sargents Mesa

San Juan sunrise

The early miles of Segment 23 went by so quickly compared to last time, I was shocked at how far I got before the sun started to come up. This is too easy!

I was joined by Joe and Alex as we approached Cataract Lake, grateful for the company. Joe is a professional ultrarunner, riding a fully rigid bike with Woodchipper drop bars - a perfect bike for the Tour Divide, but basically a torture device for CTR! He said he hadn't done much bike-specific training, just out for a fun adventure between running the Western States 100 last month and UTMB in a few weeks. I couldn't believe how he was crushing it - falling behind a bit on the descents as he just got rocked on the rigid, but clawing his was back ahead of us on every climb. It was obvious he was in a lot of pain, especially his hands, but ultrarunners are a tough breed. He had some cool stories to keep us entertained about the Hardrock 100, which crosses some of the exact terrain we were on.

We made it to the high point, Coney Peak at 13,200 ft, around 9:15am - more than 3 hours ahead of my previous pace. Nice. We had caught Aaron again, and had a blast chasing him on the long descent off Coney. Jarosa Mesa sucked as usual, but not nearly as bad as last time, and I found myself at Spring Creek Pass way earlier than expected. The rest of the day was peaceful, easy - the La Garita detour is one I actually quite like, and those 60ish miles go by so quickly.

Los Pinos Pass

Los Pinos Pass

Joe and I were together as we rejoined the Colorado Trail, plenty of daylight left. I had been looking forward to a cold Coke from Apple, but as we passed his spot, he and his little oasis of goodies was nowhere to be seen! Damn! I felt bad for getting Joe's hopes up, he'd never heard of Apple and seemed pretty excited when I told him about him.

Joe and I quickly made our way to Hwy 114, the start of the climb up to Sargents Mesa. I had started to get some severe pain in a tendon on the front of my right shin - very strange, never had any pain there before, but it had become excruciating for any sort of hiking, and standing out of my saddle, which was weird. Joe had hit a bit of a rough spot too, so we took our time refilling water at the highway, popped some ibuprofen, and started slowly up the long climb. I started to feel much better as we got onto the singletrack, and got a bit ahead of Joe as we climbed back up to one of the CT's most infamous sections, Sargents Mesa. Everyone hates it, some say it's haunted, but it's basically a long stretch of almost unrideable trail, littered with baby heads and gnarled roots. I had hoped to get through it before sleeping, but as I stopped at a creek to refill water at about 9pm, Joe caught back up to me and said he was wrecked and needed to sleep. I wanted to keep going another hour or so, but my shin tendon was killing me and I preferred to have some company on this night crossing of the mesa, so I decided to stop with him. We set alarms for 12:30 am, which would give us plenty of time, hopefully, to make it to Buena Vista the next evening, absolutely critical as our food supply was dwindling and BV was the next resupply point. (I didn't make it there last time, which resulted in a horrible, starving night spent on the trail, 20 miles from BV).

Day 3: Sargents Mesa to Buena Vista

No sleep came for either of us - we both just laid there uncomfortably, swatting bugs for 3 hours. I just felt very unsettled, couldn't relax, heart beating out of my chest - I blame Sargents Mesa, that place really is haunted. Blearily, we got moving around 1am. The mesa was SO, SO much better on a full suspension! I didn't think it was bad at all this year. Somehow, Joe made it through just as fast as me on his fully rigid - incredible - and we caught up to Aaron Denburg again. The descent to Tank 7 creek was muddy, wet, and frigid, and slightly unnerving as we woke dozens of cows from their slumber and they trampled around, half asleep and frightened by our lights. I got ahead of Joe and Aaron - I later learned they took a wrong turn - and I was so cold by the time I got to the bottom, I took off as fast as I could up the climb to warm myself back up.

As many things were proving to be, this climb up to Marshall Pass wasn't nearly as bad as I remembered. A few sections of ridiculous hike-a-bike, but not bad. The sunrise was incredible from the top.

Sunrise near Marshall Pass

Marshall Pass arrived at 7am - WOW! I was here last time around mid-afternoon! I got a burst of energy with the rising sun, and made quick progress up to the top of Fooses. The descent down Fooses was fun, but a sloppy, muddy mess, and I was glad when it was over. Downhill hike-a-bike through mud isn't my favorite.

After a bit too much fiddle-farting around at Hwy 50 - forgetting to fill my bladder, talking to some hikers, putting on sunscreen, and general lazing about, I got started around 10am on one of my least favorite parts of the trail - the deceptively long traverse along the foothills of the Collegiate Range to get up to Buena Vista. This trail destroyed me last time, and I quickly lost steam on all the steep ups and downs, and endless rocks and creek crossings. I had plenty of food left to get me to Mt. Princeton Hot Springs, and it was getting really hot in the midday sun, so I slowed way down, and took it easy for a bit. This was the first time I had done this section in the daylight, so most of it seemed unfamiliar, and I had no memory of a small but frustrating climb up to the final descent to Princeton. I pulled into the hot springs completely fried by the heat around 2:30pm. I grabbed an ice cold coke and a couple frozen burritos, and lay comatose in a shaded grassy field, but was continually bothered by curious tourists wondering what the hell I was doing. I quickly got fed up by all the questions, and got back on my bike with less rest than I'd hoped for. The road climb back up to the trail was boiling hot, and I was dizzy and barely crawling by the time I reached the trailhead. I had to stop again, 20 minutes lying in the shade, before I could think about moving. I was discouraged by a sign at the trailhead - "Cottonwood Trailhead 17.2 miles" - I thought this section was only 10 or 12 miles! Dammit. It was 4:30pm, and I needed to get to BV ASAP for some dinner and resupply. I started feeling better as the temperature dropped, and this section of trail was a bit more rideable than the previous miles, and I soon found myself descending down to the creek and making my way up the valley towards the road. It ended up being around 12 miles - either that sign was totally wrong, or I misread it in my heat-drunken state - but I was overjoyed when I popped out on the road, with an easy 5 mile coast down into BV. I had done it! Made it to BV before the stores closed, a critical milestone if I wanted to achieve my goal of sub-5 days. My shin tendon had begun to act up again, very painful, so I decided to get a hotel in BV, spend some quality time icing and massaging it, and get some good rest before tackling the 2nd half of the course. I was asleep in a warm bed before 9pm, alarms set for 1am.

Day 4: Buena Vista to Copper

I opened my eyes, confused and disoriented. The clock read 4am. WTF!! I somehow had slept through 3 alarms, an extra 3 hours. I scrambled to get ready and checked the tracker - several people had passed me and were at least a couple hours ahead. Crap. But on the bright side, I felt indestructible as I pedaled up the road towards Clear Creek Reservoir, and I knew it was going to be a good day. I was planning on skipping Leadville and not stopping until Copper, which I estimated was 12-14 hours from Buena Vista. The morning was beautiful and fueled my stoke - I was making such good time and got to Twin Lakes in no time. The Halfmoon Creek segment flew by, and was a blast. I was at the Leadville detour about 6 hours after leaving BV, which seemed crazy fast to me.

Aspens, approaching Twin Lakes

Side note: one huge improvement in my race this year was the lack of any stomach or digestive distress. Usually, after days of hard exertion and eating nothing but processed food and candy, I start feeling very sick, making it hard to eat anything, causing me to slow down. This year, however, I started taking probiotics in the weeks leading up to the race, and kept taking them twice a day throughout the race. This was HUGE - I had zero stomach problems, and was therefore able to eat so much more than in the past. I was mowing down the calories, which I think helped me move much quicker. I think all the exertion, plus the extremely unhealthy diet, wreaks havoc on the digestive flora, causing most of the stomach problems racers experience. I can't overstate how great it was to feel good, and HUNGRY, and be able to eat!

Before I knew it, I was at Camp Hale. I had no idea where any of my competition was, but several different groups of hikers told me I was the first biker they'd seen all day. That meant I had somehow passed everyone who'd passed me as I slept - they all must have gone into Leadville, which I'd skipped. Sweet, I was back up in fourth place! (Jesse, Matt, and Jefe were way up ahead, unreachable by me, so fourth was the best I was gonna get. Fine by me!). With renewed enthusiasm, I started the long hike up to Kokomo Pass. This was another section I had previously done in the dark, so I was excited to see some new scenery. And it did not disappoint - absolutely beautiful day, wildflowers EVERYWHERE, gorgeous trail. Some of the best views and riding of the trip so far.

Nearing treeline, approaching Kokomo Pass

Kokomo Pass

Kokomo Pass

Kokomo Pass

Searle Pass in the distance

Searle Pass in the distance

One thing was beginning to worry me, and threatened to ruin this perfect day and race. Starting this morning, and getting progressively worse throughout the day, my rear hub had been making loud popping and cracking sounds whenever I pedaled hard. At first I thought it was the chain slipping, but soon realized it was the freehub body, the pawls starting to slip on the hub body teeth. Every bikepacker's worst nightmare - potentially a race-ending mechanical, definitely not fixable on the trail! It seemed to be holding as I got up over Kokomo and Searle passes, and I hoped and prayed it would hold for the rest of the race.

I began to unravel a bit during the descent to Copper - I was getting tired, my hub was getting worse, and the descent was taking longer and had a bit more uphill than I'd remembered. I finally made it to the Copper Conoco at 6:30pm, and called around to as many bike shops as I could find in Copper, Frisco, and Breck. Only the Copper shop said they might be able to fix my hub - apparently nobody stocks Easton hub components - but they were already closed. I decided to keep going - maybe the hub would hold, maybe I could baby it through the rest of the race? Not too many steep climbs left! I bought my final resupply of food, and started the climb up Tenmile, hoping to get up and over Tenmile and up a ways into Gold Hill before stopping for a couple hours of sleep.

Tenmile is mostly a hike, but there are several rideable sections, and it became quickly clear that my hub was toast. It had developed tons of play, even when I kept tightening it, and any hard pedaling would make it skip. Fuck. I couldn't believe it. I made it to the intersection with the Wheeler Pass trail, and sat down, unsure of what to do. An absolutely gorgeous sunset filtered in through the trees. I could keep hiking and get up over Tenmile, and take my chances with the many bike shops in Breck/Frisco in the morning, or I could descend back down to Copper, and go to the bike shop there that said they had the parts to fix it. Aaron Denburg finally caught up, and encouraged me to keep going, to take my chances in Breck, but I decided my best chance was to head back down to Copper and try their bike shop in the morning. I passed Joe and Sam Koerber on the way down, bid them good luck, and set up camp beside the Copper bike path.

This is where the mental side of this sport can really mess you up. On the one hand, I was super bummed to have had to stop - I was having the race of my life, feeling great, and wanted desperately to continue racing those other guys and trying to beat my goal of sub-5 days, which was well within reach. On the other hand, I was cold, pretty exhausted, sore, and told myself that if I didn't finish, it would be no big deal - I'd already completed the race once before, and I knew the rest of the course wasn't that great - especially the Tarryall detour - and that I'd already ridden all the parts worth riding. These two little devils battled each other in my mind as I tried to sleep - finish the race, even though my goals are out of reach? Or just call it quits, you've already seen it before, there's no point in finishing if you can't reach your goals and be competitive?

The next morning, I headed back to the coffee shop at the Copper Conoco, and finally got ahold of someone at the bike shop. After describing my situation, they said they didn't have the parts in stock to fix the hub. Well I guess that's it, then. I'm out. Two hours later, I was back down in Boulder, my race done.

At the time, I wasn't too disappointed - I guess the evil devil won out. Why bother finishing, you've seen it before, who really cares? But in the days since I pulled out, I've been absolutely haunted - and flabbergasted - by my decision to quit. What the hell was I thinking? Why didn't I just buy a new wheel and continue? I could have tried harder to find a solution! You've gotten through worse situations before. Who gives a damn if I couldn't meet my goal? The time, money, and energy spent, and sacrifices I made over the last few months to prepare for this race, seemed like they were all for nothing, because I made a terrible decision to quit when I really didn't have to. Of course, I'm being hard on myself and it wasn't all for nothing - I had an incredible four days out there, surpassing all expectations and even the amazing experience I had back in 2013 - but I will always regret not doing everything it took to finish what I had started. For me, the 2015 CTR will always be an unfulfilled memory. I will never forget what it feels like to quit something you wanted so, so bad - that's so not me, I never would have expected myself to do something like that. But that's the thing about these races - sometimes they lead to huge personal triumph and let you shine in ways you hadn't expected, and sometimes they reveal unexpected cracks in your character, weaknesses that you'd rather not face. I guess I cracked, in a way I never thought I would, but now I am so much stronger because of it - I will never forget what it feels like to DNF for no good reason, to let myself down.

Congrats to everyone who battled through to the end and finished! I'll be back someday for a 3rd go - maybe next year, maybe 2018? I want to see the course in the other direction. Thank you to Stefan Griebel for putting this shindig on; to the Colorado Trail Foundation for creating and maintaining the Colorado Trail; to my wonderful fiancee Megan for her tireless support; to my parents for their support, driving me to Durango, housing me in Boulder, and picking my sorry ass up in Copper; to my coach, Mike Schultz, for getting me into the best shape of my life; and to everyone else I met on the trail - such an inspiring group of people!

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(Aaron Johnson) CTR bikepacking colorado race trail https://www.ajphoto.net/blog/2015/8/2015-colorado-trail-race Mon, 03 Aug 2015 12:10:01 GMT
Dixie 200 https://www.ajphoto.net/blog/2015/6/dixie-200 Bikepacking racing is a funny thing. Preparedness, fitness, and experience only count for so much - one tiny little mistake, or tiny piece of bad luck, can result in a DNF, untold physical misery, injury, or worse.  I've had my fair share of misery and suffering during these races, but so far, never succumbed to the dreaded DNF. I guess there is a first time for everything.......


The Dixie 200. One of the more obscure races in an obscure sport, only a small handful of people attempt it every year. Masterminded by St. George local Dave Harris, the route has a reputation for both stunning beauty and brutal, unkempt, remote trails, and a ton of climbing. At only 200 miles, it's one of the shortest bikepacking races out there, but each of those miles has to be fought for, usually dragging your bike over downed trees or routefinding blindly through alpine terrain. Sounded awesome to me, and great prep for the Colorado Trail Race coming up in July.

 

The plan was to go strong and steady from the start, and bang out the route in one push, no sleeping. I'm not gonna lie - I was gunning for the course record, set last year at 38 hours by Steve Cook. I had his splits all written down, and I was ready to test myself. I could have gone lighter on my bike setup, but I wanted my gear to be closer to what my actual CTR setup would be, so I included some sleep gear, and 10,000 calories of food, hopefully enough to last me the entire race and not depend on food resupplies.

Turnout was surprisingly large this year - 15 happy bike riders, as opposed to the 5 or so that normally show up. Dave gave us a quick pep talk in the chilly morning air, and we were off. First up, a 4,000 ft, 13 mile climb.

Usually, I start way too hard in these events, caught up in the excitement and trying to keep pace with the leaders. This time, I was determined to start super easy, and maintain an easy pace for most of the first day, to leave some gas in the tank for the push through the night and the next morning. I spun easy up the first climb, chatting with some other racers - Scott and Mike.

We topped out at 10,700 feet, and had a few miles of some awesome riding through alpine meadows. Everything was surprisingly wet and vibrant. Mike and I caught up to the front runner, Todd Tanner, who looked like he was out for a day ride! Almost no gear on his bike, just a backpack - obviously his goal was to ride straight through as well. The adventurous nature of the course soon became apparent - every so often, the GPS track would shoot off in some random direction, away from the trail, off into a meadow or field of bushes. Initially pretty confused, we quickly learned to just shrug our shoulders and trust the GPS track.

Todd was strong and pulled away from us. Mike had some water bottle mount issues and stopped to fix them, so I found myself riding alone. Still keeping it easy, I enjoyed the morning and had a blast on the long traversy descent down to Navajo Lake, the first water resupply.

I caught back up to Todd at the campground spigot. After getting shat upon repeatedly by a bird while filling my bottles, Todd and I headed out to tackle the Virgin River Rim Trail. Again, Todd was too fast for me, and I watched him disappear up the trail.

The VRRT was awesome and challenging, sometimes flowy, sometimes loose and techy. The views from the rim, looking South towards Zion National Park, were stunning. The heat of the day was upon us, and I again slowed my pace, not wanting to repeat the calamity of the desert heat self-destruction we all experienced in the Stagecoach 400 earlier this year. The miles flowed by relatively quickly, and I found myself at the first resupply, Todd's Country Store, around 4:15pm, well ahead of record pace. Todd was there, chowing down a burger.

I grabbed a burger and coke and was off pretty quickly, not needing to buy any other food. Todd was trying to figure out why his tracker wasn't working, so he left after me, but soon caught me on the dirt roads leading to the next climb.

A 2,000 footer awaited us, and proved more challenging and interesting than the earlier climbs. After some initial dirt roads, we cut through what appeared to be a section of private property, barely any trail, just following the GPS. Then we began climbing up a narrow, overgrown, steep canyon, surrounded by aspens and pines, pretty amazing in the bright evening light. The trail devolved into hike-a-bike, until we finally gained the top of the plateau.

It was full on golden hour as we traversed the plateau, the red cliffs and hoodoos in all their colorful glory. Todd's pace was still a little too quick for me, but as I followed him up the trail, he suddenly stopped and stared intently at something up ahead. Apparently a BIG mountain lion had been walking up the trail, and took off running when it heard us. Right then and there we decided we were sticking together through the night! That had me nervously checking over my shoulder every 20 seconds for the next hour - Todd was bigger than me, so who do you think the big cat would choose to eat? Little Aaron in the back, trying hard to keep up with Todd!

Luckily no more kitty sightings, and we started a ridiculously fun descent down Grandview - sandy and loose from all the ATVs, we surfed our way down. At one point a 5 foot drop came out of nowhere and I flew off it, barely landing upright. I wondered how people would handle that at night.

We grabbed water at a nice spring, and started another long climb as the sun set. I was thankful for my conservative pace throughout the day, as my legs and overall energy level were good and strong, but I was beginning to get some serious ass chafage. Nothing out of the ordinary, I knew it would pass, like it does in every long race as your rear end adjusts to the endless hours of abuse, but it was definitely slowing me down on the climb. Todd would easily pull away from me and then have to wait as I gingerly caught up. Eventually I took a bunch of ibuprofen which really helped, and we topped out the climb into the darkness. It was about 10pm, and we were determined to push though the night, no stopping.

After a series of shorter climbs and descents, the ibuprofen had worn off and I began to descend into the throes of some serious pain. Such ungodly chafage! More ibuprofen had zero effect. We had a good 20 miles of rolling, but trending downwards, fireroad to get to Tropic Reservoir, so I was able to stand out of the saddle quite a bit, which helped. As we descended into the valley, the temperature dropped precipitously, and we soon began to freeze, even with all our layers on. I was starting to get pretty sleepy - the ass pain helped to keep me awake, but the sleep monsters were closing in. Just make it to morning, then everything will get better!

What time is it? 1am. F$&k. Only 4 and a half more hours of this......

The dirt road to the reservoir took some maddening meandering detours, and it seemed like forever until we reached the reservoir, the temperature slowly dropping even further. I was in some serious misery, pretty much unable to sit down on the seat. Negative thoughts were creeping in - why the hell am I doing this? Just stop and sleep till dawn! No way can I keep going with this cheese grater ass! On the bright side, the ass pain distracted me from how cold I was getting on this long, endless, gradual descent.

We had a short climb up to Chimney Rock, which brought us just high enough to get back to some warmer air. We decided on a 20 minute nap here, just to give us a little boost to get us to sunrise. It was 3am. I definitely felt better after the nap, but my rump was only getting worse.

We topped off our bladders at the campground, and started off towards Thunder Mountain. 15 miles of relatively flat dirt road lay ahead, and I forced myself to sit and spin as smoothly as I could - every small bump was excruciating. We made it to the turnoff to Thunder Mountain just as dawn was approaching, and I looked up just as Todd swerved oddly. "I just hit a wall, can't keep my eyes open, I need another nap." I wasn't feeling sleepy any more, but my rear end was on fire, so I was happy to stop for a bit. 30 minutes later, we set off in the early morning sun to tackle Thunder Mountain.

Todd seemed totally revived after the nap and by the morning sun, and he was gone. I could no longer sit down on the saddle at all, and had to do Thunder Mountain entirely standing. This meant walking most of the climbs, as they were too loose or technical to maintain traction while standing. Thunder Mountain was incredible in the early morning light - an endlessly entertaining roller-coaster of trails down the red cliffs and among the crazy rock formations and hoodoos, and I wish I could have fully enjoyed it, but I wasn't in the greatest mindset. All I could think about was making it to Harold's Place and a hot warm breakfast. I didn't even stop for any pictures, which is odd for me.

Finally made it to Harold's, meeting Todd in the restaurant. My hopes for heaping pancakes and bacon were dashed when the menu was limited to some sort of frozen egg product, and frozen sausages. WTF?? Not cool Harold's. At least they had coffee....

I knew I was done after Thunder Mountain. No way in hell could I do another 40 miles, and nearly 10,000 feet of technical climbing, standing up. This proved to be a good decision - closer inspection of the damage indicated broken skin, some pretty bad swelling, and signs of infection. Sadly, I had to bid Todd good luck, and watch him ride off to hopefully finish our ride and break the record. My wonderful fiance swooped down from Brian Head and picked me up, and that was it for me.

I am baffled by what happened - good legs, on record pace, only to be taken out by saddle sores?? Never in my life has this been a problem. You might be wondering - was I using chamois cream? The answer is no - that was the one thing I forgot - but I normally never use it, even in longer races like CTR or AZTR750, so I wasn't very worried about forgetting it. Some combination of the high temperatures, excessive sweating, no chamois lube, and the bike shorts I was wearing, ended up rubbing me the wrong way and ended my race. Lesson learned - my iron butt isn't quite as iron as I thought, and I will be properly lubed up for future ultras!

The Dixie got the better of me this time, but I will return next year a wiser man to finish her off. Congrats to all who attempted the route this year, and of course, big thanks to Dave Harris for making it all possible.

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(Aaron Johnson) https://www.ajphoto.net/blog/2015/6/dixie-200 Mon, 29 Jun 2015 15:08:25 GMT
2015 Stagecoach 400 https://www.ajphoto.net/blog/2015/4/2015-stagecoach-400 The Stagecoach 400 had always peaked my interest, but not in the way the other bikepacking races I've done have. Unlike CTR, AZTR, and the California Sierra Trail Race, the Stagecoach 400 does not promise miles upon miles of quality singletrack; much of the Stagecoach route is paved or dirt roads. What it does offer is a grand tour of the geological, ecological, and cultural diversity of Southern California, from high alpine, to inhospitable desert, to civilized metropolis, and back, with a decent amount of good trail thrown in here and there. Nothing motivates me more than the promise of technical, challenging, big mountain singletrack, but I had a feeling that Stagecoach would prove to be, at the very least, interesting. Something different, a chance to explore a corner of California I otherwise wouldn't see.

I had been training hard for this one. Big, long, consistent hours in the saddle, starting with JayP's Fat Pursuit in early January, and good solid buildup through February and March. Hiring a coach was paying off - I felt pretty fit going into this race, much more fit this early in the year than ever before. My stretch goal was to finish in 48 hours - tough, but maybe doable, and I was planning on giving it everything I had. No sleep kit, just an ultralight bivy, going as light as possible. I did opt for the full suspension rather than the hardtail, as I'd heard how rough some sections are and I like riding the Ripley more than my hardtail, but in retrospect, the hardtail probably would have been faster with all the dirt roads and pavement.

The race started in Idyllwild, CA, a small mountain town high above Palm Springs in the San Jacinto mountains. I loved it - such a cool little town, friendly people, good food. Everyone kept asking me if I was a PCT hiker - guess I was giving off the hiker trash vibe?? Hah. But when I mentioned I was doing the Stagecoach, everyone was super excited and supportive - pretty awesome.

After some mingling and chatting with other racers at the pre-race meeting the evening before - good to see some familiar faces, and meet some new ones - I got a decent night's sleep, and felt great as we rolled out of Idyllwild at dawn. It was chilly, but I knew we would be facing triple digit temps in just a few hours once we'd dropped down to the desert, so I was determined to start fairly hard and get as many miles done as possible before it got super hot. After some fun Hurkey Creek singletrack, I found myself in the lead pack with Blake Bockius, Neil Beltchenko, Erick Lord, and a couple other fast guys. I let them go after the first road section - I knew Neil was going to charge off the front, and I didn't want to blow up trying to keep up with him. Better to ride at my own pace.

Hwy 74

The first 57 miles to Borrego Springs were pretty much all downhill, so we were just flying. About 20 miles in, I was coasting down a dirt road, when a big scary looking dog comes flying at me out of nowhere, barking like crazy. Of course, the road here happened to have a slight climb, so I sprinted my ass off for about 10 seconds to get away - the dog kept up easily, even nipped me right in the shoe. "F#&K YOU DOG!", sprinting all-out, fully expecting to get bitten. Finally the road started downhill again, and I was able to get away - that dog kept up the chase for a good half mile or more. Damn, if that didn't get my adrenalin flowing! 

Coyote Canyon was an interesting challenge - no trail, riding down a dried up river bed, some deep sand and rubbly boulders:

Coyote Canyon

I'd heard stories about the Willows, and they did not disappoint - out of the desert arises this sudden jungle, and we went from hot dry sand to hub deep in a river in literally 5 seconds. Pretty fun bushwhacking though this!

The Willows

Borrego Springs came pretty quickly, and I was feeling great. I got into town just as Erick, Neil, and Blake were heading out, so I grabbed a quick burrito and water, and set off down the highway to Split Mountain. Midday was approaching, and the temps were rising fast. I was pouring water all over myself to keep cool as I pedaled down that highway.

Almost to Borrego Springs

Burrito riding shotgun

Quick stop at the Split Mountain store to refill water to capacity (I could carry about 4.5 liters), and started up Fish Creek Wash. As soon as I left the pavement and hit the sand, the temperature skyrocketed, pretty much instantly. I began to get slightly worried - did I have enough water to make it 35 miles to Agua Caliente? As I battled the sand through the narrow canyons, the heat got worse and worse. I felt fine for the first couple hours, keeping up with electrolytes and hydrating, but after a nasty hike a bike up the aptly named Diablo Drop, the heat started to get to me. Exhaustion, headache....why is there no damn shade in this place!

Fish Creek Wash

 

Fish Creek Wash

Diablo Drop

Blake on the Diablo Drop

I could see the heat affecting everyone else too. I passed Blake looking not too good before the Diablo Drop, and saw Erick sprawled out in some shade under a cliff. I finally found some shade and took a 10 minute break to let my head stop boiling.

Feeling slightly warm

The last few miles out of the desert were the worst. Interminable heat, heading directly into the blaring afternoon sun, on a sandy road that never wanted to end. I had never been this hot in my life! I hit the road just as my water ran out, and limped the final couple miles to the Agua Caliente store.

I got to the store around 5:30pm - the store owner looked genuinely concerned, and hastily supplied many a cold beverage. I sat inside the store, pretty shell shocked, drinking a Coke, for about 20 minutes, until Blake came stumbling in. Slowly, racers trickled in, strewing gear and clothing and salt crusted bodies all over the porch of the store. Nobody was going anywhere, anytime soon. The heat had pretty much ended everyone's grand plans of pushing hard to make it to the 9:30am ferry the next morning on Coronado Island.

Agua Caliente store

After about an hour, I suddenly perked up and felt ready to push onwards. Another racer, Ton, left a couple minutes ahead of me, but everyone else looked like they had no plans to start riding again for a while. I chased Ton up the road into the sunset, feeling totally revitalized by the cooler temperatures and looking forward to tackling the upcoming Oriflamme climb, 4500 feet up a steep, rocky jeep road.

I caught up to Ton as we started the crux of the climb - just as rocky and loose as they said it would be, mostly rideable, with some hike-a-bike. I was feeling great, and left Ton behind as we crested a ridge to end the steep section. The rest of the climb was amazing, flowy singletrack - wish I could have seen the scenery in the daytime! Before I knew it, I was at the top of Noble Canyon, the start of the long descent down to San Diego.

It was a bit after midnight, and I decided to catch about an hour of sleep before tackling the descent. It was pretty cold up there at 5500 feet, so I descended a bit, found a nice pocket of warm air, pulled out the bivy, and tried to sleep. I drifted off a few times, only to be awakened by a couple racers passing me - finally I had enough, and packed up. Noble Canyon was pretty cool - fun, chunky singletrack, descending 3,000 ft down to the town of Alpine. Lots of frustrating little climbs interspersed throughout the descent made progress a bit slower than I'd hoped, but I had climbed back into 2nd place by the time I hit Alpine at around 5am. (Neil, in 1st place, was hours ahead, already on Coronado Island by the time I was in Alpine. Crazy fast!). I was still feeling pretty good, and after a quick breakfast at Starbucks, set off on a mission to reach the Coronado ferry by the time it opened at 9:30am! 50 mostly downhill to flat miles in 4 hours? Could I do it?

I began to feel kind of shitty as I left Alpine, low energy, but I shrugged it off. Finally got going at a good clip, but once I hit the trails around Sweetwater Reservoir, I knew I wouldn't make the ferry - those trails had some nasty little climbs! I finally made my way onto the city bike paths, and had to bob and weave my way through all the people out for their morning jogs and stroller pushings. Where did all these people come from?? Such a contrast from the previous 24 hours!

San Diego

I made it to the coast at precisely 9:30am. I could look across the bay and see Coronado Island, but I had to bike another 15 miles to actually get out there! OK, 11am ferry, here I come!

Coronado Island

The bikepath out to the Island was pretty uninteresting. I couldn't see much scenery from it, and had a nasty headwind. I ended up having to push pretty damn hard to make the 11am ferry, only to learn upon getting there at 10:57 that the ferry was at 11:30am. Crap. Took advantage of the downtime to get a big ice cream, gyro sandwich, and check the tracker - still in 2nd, but people are creeping up on me fast!

Waiting for the ferry

The ferry dropped me off right in downtown San Diego, and I started riding north along the coast. I thought this part would be fast and easy, but I was starting to feel off, like something wasn't right. I couldn't get in my groove, I had to keep stopping to adjust something, or get water, or put on sunscreen, and was getting frustrated with my slow progress and flagging energy levels.

San Diego

Was I just suffering the ill effects of yesterday's heat? Finally, another racer caught me - Keith - and we rode together for a bit through the city. Pacific Beach, Seaworld, La Jolla, UCSD, Torrey Pines, we saw it all....although I must say, I did not like this section, probably because I wasn't feeling good and had already seen San Diego before many times, but battling sketchy traffic and homeless people did not suit my fancy. I was relieved to finally get back on the trails, heading up to Escondido, with Keith and Ton, who had caught up to us.

All day, I had been readying myself for a strong push through the night to the finish, thinking my low energy was just a low point, that it'd go away, and I'd start feeling good and finish strong. As we got closer to Escondido, I became pretty sure that it wasn't going to happen. I was getting sick. My throat was hurting pretty bad, I was coughing a lot, hacking up green chunks, and couldn't breathe through my nose very well. The trails to Escondido were really fun, especially in the evening light, but I couldn't enjoy them at all, and it took everything I had to keep up with Keith. We finally arrived at a gas station in Escondido at 7pm, and all I could think of doing was sleep. I was literally passed out on the pavement outside the gas station, while Keith hung out and ate dinner and made sure no cars ran over me. Keith and Ton were planning on tackling the final 100 tough miles to the finish, pushing through the night, maybe sleep a bit later on, and I somehow convinced myself that I could do it too. We resupplied for the final push, and set off into the night.

I made it about half a mile out of Escondido before pulling over and crawling in my bivy. I was coughing a lot, super tired, and pretty out of it. I set my alarm for 11pm, for 3 hours of sleep, hoping that I'd magically feel better and be able to push onwards into the night.

My alarm went off, and I felt waaay worse. Sneezing, coughing, snot blubbering, horrible sore throat....there was no way to continue. I made my way back to Escondido and had to bike a couple miles off route to the nearest hotel, only to find it was full. I called every damn hotel in a 10 mile radius - no vacancy anywhere! F#&king Spring Break! ARGGHH...that was a pretty low point for me, feeling as sick as I was, and having to find a place to bivy, with no sleeping bag. Luckily it was a pretty warm night, and I found a reasonably comfortable place behind a bush in the hotel parking lot. Just to top off such a pleasant night, as soon as I was falling asleep, the sprinklers came on! Screw it, my bivy's waterproof....and I was out.

Not so awesome stealth bivy in a hotel parking lot in Escondido.

Slept for about 6 hours and woke up feeling marginally better. I took a nice, long breakfast at a diner, and evaluated my options. Ride 100 tough miles in my sick state, or bail from the race, rent a car, and drive back to Idyllwild? Obviously my race goals were out the window, but not finishing was not something I wanted to face. I decided to push on to at least Lake Henshaw - I could stay another night there at the lodge if I needed to, but I was gonna finish!

Bike proof gate - someone doesn't want us here!

The rest of the morning was pleasant riding and scenery, but I still felt awful. After some rattlesnake sightings, a horrible few miles on HWY 87 with no shoulder and sketchy traffic, and a nervous traverse through a section known to be patrolled by people who hate bikers, I made it to the Black Mountain climb, the big climb up to Lake Henshaw. It was getting hot again, but I was starting to feel quite a bit better, and made pretty good time to the lake.

Lake Henshaw

Quick resupply at Lake Henshaw resort, and I was off to tackle the often bitched about "land of a thousand false summits." I had the elevation profile so I knew exactly how many summits there were, so it wasn't that bad. Plus the scenery was pretty good!

I descended down to the Anza valley during a gorgeous sunset, and was back to the lolly pop stem of the route. Sweet, only a few more hours of known terrain! The first few miles went quickly, the sandy hike-a-bike wasn't too bad, I bundled up with everything I had for the long road descent to Hurkey Creek, and then the wheels fell off. The last 10 miles had a couple thousand feet of climbing, and I was crawling. It took forever, I felt like shit, cold symptoms returned, but I finally grinded my way to the top of that dirt road and descended down into Idyllwild for a finishing time around 11:30pm. 64 hours or something, maybe 8th or 9th place. It was ugly, but I'm damn happy I did it, and pushed through to finish!

Despite getting sick, I fully enjoyed this race. I loved the desert sections, even with the heat - felt like being on Mars. I will for sure return to ride Noble Canyon in the daytime someday. Huge thank you to Brendan and Mary Collier - you guys definitely have created something special here with this route!

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(Aaron Johnson) bikepacking stagecoach 400 https://www.ajphoto.net/blog/2015/4/2015-stagecoach-400 Thu, 30 Apr 2015 17:08:09 GMT
California Sierra Trail Race: Part 2 https://www.ajphoto.net/blog/2015/3/california-sierra-trail-race-part-2 August 3, 2014

I wake up shivering in my sleeping bag. It's not terribly cold, but my lack of a sleeping pad puts me in close contact with the cold ground, the only night I miss having a pad. We get moving pretty quickly just as first light appears, climbing steadily up to the high point of the route - 9,600 ft at a saddle below Freel Peak.

              

           

Sunrise hits just as we crest the saddle. Jack bombs off the other side, but I linger for a few minutes, just taking it all in. Damn, I could just stay here all day, but we've got places to be!

 

 

  

The rest of the morning presents some damn fine riding. The dirt is like velcro thanks to all the rain, and we just carve our way down to Scotts Lake. Everything is wet and shimmering in the morning sun. Big Meadow is impressive, but the final descent down to Meyers, Christmas Valley - oh my god, so good. Fast, very technical, super fun. It ends with a delicious breakfast in Meyers - huge bagel and egg sandwich chased by a massive muffin and large coffee. This is one of the best mornings in bikepacking I've ever had for sure.

Our breakfast stop in Meyers Our breakfast stop in Meyers

Echo Summit - leaving the Tahoe basin, heading down to Strawberry

After a way too long breakfast stop, we set out for Strawberry, our last resupply before Foresthill, some 120 hard miles beyond. I am still buzzing from the endorphins of the great morning and the coffee - the riding is effortless. Jack I think took quite a beating on his hardtail this morning and falls back a bit, needing some time to recover. We reconvene in Strawberry, and have a little contest to see who can spend more money on food at the market - I drop $40, Jack beats me by $15 or so. Hope it's enough for the next 120 miles!

                                 

A nice but steep paved climb brings us to Wrights Lake - wow, such a cool spot, a beautiful lake looking towards the backside of Desolation Wilderness. Need to remember to come back here for a weekend.

                               

For the next couple hours, we bounce around on another 4X4 road. The glee from the morning has worn off, we are both cursing the endless boulders.

We blow past the turnoff onto the singletrack and have to go back. Where is the trail? We blindly follow the GPS track through the forest until the faintest of trails starts to appear. And damn it is good, some true backwoods exploration, with flowers everywhere, golden hour evening light, and a good long descent. Glee has returned!

We make it down to Bassi Creek just as the last light of the day fades. Our target for the night is our mosquito-infested camp from the first night, the Rubicon river. And yeah, I neglected to buy bugspray or a bug net. Gonna be a fun night! Another hour or two of relatively easy road riding brings us to the top of that 3,000 foot road descent we climbed the morning of day 2. We bundle up in every bit of clothing we have and drop down into the cool darkness. The light of the headlamp on the undulating road is hypnotizing, I am snug and warm in my down jacket, and before I knew it, I'm falling asleep on my bike! At 30mph! I slap myself and sing songs to keep myself awake, but it's a struggle to make it down to the river. Finally, we pull into our old campsite, do the whole cliff scramble thing to get down to the river for water, and are sound asleep around midnight.

Day 4 on Strava.

Day 5

I forego the sleeping bag and just curl up in my bivy, hoping to avoid the overheating of the first night and keep myself shielded from the skeeters. It works, I sleep through the night! It is hard to get moving today, the sleep deprivation hits me hard and I can't shake off the bleariness like usual. Caffeine no longer has any effect. Jack always starts off strong in the mornings, and he shoots ahead up the road. The music in my headphones clears my head and I catch him before long.

We've got a good 80 miles and 15,000 feet of climbing between us and Foresthill. I'm a bit worried about my food supply, it looks like barely enough to get me there. The problem is, we might not get there till 8pm or later, and I didn't have much faith any of the stores or restaurants would still be open, as it's such a small town - that would leave me possibly foodless for the final stretch back to Auburn. This bit of urgency pushes our tired bodies forward, and after a brief rest at French Meadows, we set out on the last major climb of the trip - back up to Robinson Flat. We are pretty much praying for roads at this point.

And roads we receive, minus a small navigation kerfluffle trying to find some rough singletrack connector trail. We both struggle on this climb, but finally top out. Tick tock, let's roll! A long descent awaites, time for some more Western States.

The trail peters out in that same burned forest we encountered on the first day - it is choose your own adventure type riding, my favorite! I lose Jack here but keep rolling, knowing he'll catch back up. A brief road climb puts me back on Western States for a long, fun, traversy section, followed by a crazily steep, rocky, switchbacky, 2,000 ft bomb down to the American River. The famous footbridge there had been burned by the fires last summer, so I take my shoes off and wade across, the cool water rejuvenating my legs.

                   

The push back up the other side of the canyon is pretty nuts too - 2,000 feet straight up, no riding here. After doing parts of this trail, I have even more respect for the runners who finish Western States! Way tougher than I imagined. Adding to the misery are the bugs, swarming my face and sticking to my sweaty skin.

Still no sign of Jack as I make it to the top of the climb. I am feeling absolutely great at this point, zero fatigue or pain, and I know there is only one last big climb before Foresthill. I can probably make it before 7pm! The descent to El Dorado creek is fast furious fun, and I happily hike my way up the other side, knowing that this journey is almost over.

Almost to Foresthill. Photo by Sean Allan. Almost to Foresthill. Photo by Sean Allan.

A couple miles out of Foresthill I run into the man himself, Sean Allan, who jumped on his bike after work to come and find us. It is great to see him and share some stories of our journey on this course he designed. We pull into Foresthill right at 7pm, and he graciously offers to treat us to pizza. Even though a big part of me wants to just quickly grab some food and bang out the last 25 miles to Auburn, I'm starving and happy to sit and chill for a bit. Sean goes back out to find Jack, and they return a while later. Sean gets a good laugh at how bad we smell - we have no idea, our noses packed full of dirt and accustomed to our stench. Apologies to Sugar Pine Pizza in Foresthill! If you go there, don't sit at the booth to the right of the front door.......

We linger till it's nearly dark out. Sean escorts us a few miles down the trail till we reach his house, and bids us good luck. We take off in the dark and cruise down to the river, at which point I realize I've lost Jack again. I wait for a bit but don't see him - I'm so eager to be done at this point that I keep going. The 1,500 foot climb goes by quickly, my legs still have plenty of pep, and the singletrack back to Auburn is way too much fun in the dark. I'm actually feeling good and having fun this late in one of these races? That's a first, probably due to the fact we never pushed too hard, we were on more of a fast touring pace rather than a race pace the past few days. Kind of hard to motivate for race pace when there's only 2 of you.

The final 1,000 foot climb up to Auburn does finally break me and I'm hurting. I even manage a nice, slow motion fall off the side of the trail, stuck upside down probably in a big bush of poison oak. I finally roll up to Raley's in Auburn just before 12:30am, so grateful to be done, happy the race went so well and was so enjoyable. Unfortunately, I discover that in my pre-race haste, I left the dome light on in my car, resulting in a dead battery. Dammit! I just want to drive to Denny's and get some nice greasy food in me, but looks like I'm stuck. I clean myself up in a gas station bathroom, buy a sorry dinner of a Lunchables and a bottle of Muscle Milk recovery drink, and pass out cold on the back seat of my car. After a few hours of sleep, I find someone at dawn to jump my car, and I set off for the 3 hour drive back to the Bay Area with a huge cup of coffee.

I sincerely hope more people show up for this race next summer. It's every bit a quality route as the other big bikepacking races, CTR and AZTR. This race probably has more miles of fun, flowy singletrack than either of those other races, and the scenery is close to CTR standards, although pretty much nowhere matches the beauty of the San Juans in my opinion. Huge thanks to Sean Allan for all his work putting this together, I really hope that many more people get to enjoy this race as we did. We finished in 4.5 days at a fast-touring pace - the Jefes and Kurt Rs and JPs of the bikepacking world could easily chop a day off our time, maybe more, and would be really fun to watch. Let's hope people make a race of this route in the years to come!

Big thanks to Jack for flying all the way out from Maryland for this race - it was his first bikepacking race and he absolutely crushed it. Really fun riding with him, it was so nice to have company for all those long miles. And as always, a huge thank you to my girlfriend Megan for her unconditional support, always encouraging me to follow my passions and do these crazy things, even though it means being gone for long periods of time. I couldn't do it without her!

Day 5 on Strava.

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(Aaron Johnson) https://www.ajphoto.net/blog/2015/3/california-sierra-trail-race-part-2 Fri, 06 Mar 2015 18:09:16 GMT
California Sierra Trail Race: Part 1 https://www.ajphoto.net/blog/2015/3/california-sierra-trail-race-part-1 August 1, 2014

It didn't take long after I finished the AZTR for the bikepacking itch to return - funny how fast the memories of the pain fade.  I couldn't make the Dixie 200 happen - that route looks awesome, saving it for next year - so I set my sights on the California Sierra Trail Race, a 425 mile route starting in Auburn, looping around Lake Tahoe, and finishing back in Auburn.

I've had my eye on this race ever since its creation was announced a couple years ago. Foresthill local hero Sean Allan had been piecing together this route for many years, painstakingly making obscure connections between established trails until he had a continuous, feasible, doable route.  I say doable because it would have been very easy to create an impossibly hard route in this area - the rough terrain and jagged elevation profiles of the foothills quickly add up, and Sean did a great job balancing the demanding trails with dirt roads and pavement. "Pavement right when you want it most, never when you don't want it," he promised, and he was right.

Jack and Jeremy at dawn, day 1 Jack and Jeremy at dawn, day 1

Only in its second year, and first year for the whole original route (last summer's fires necessitated some re-routes), the turnout is pretty pathetic - only 4 of us line up together at the Raley's parking lot in Auburn at 6am on Friday, July 18. Slightly different vibe than AZTR or CTR, already low-key events themselves - we just kind of shrug our shoulders and slowly ride out of town together. We are definitely excited but the pace is relaxed, easy pedaling down into the deep canyons and off towards Foresthill.

Incredible morning Incredible morning

Sean, who is not racing due to a recent knee surgery, meets us about halfway to Foresthill. It's a gorgeous morning, trails dusty but in good shape, and we have some good energy and conversation as we head into Foresthill. Still easy pedaling - so far, a much more mellow start than CTR or AZTR! I am enjoying it but starting to itch for some speed, get my blood flowing, my legs are ready to go!

We stop in Foresthill, mile 25, to load up for the long 100-mile haul to Lake Tahoe. Temps are rising, and Sean promises plenty of suffering ahead, warning that the first day is perhaps the hardest. Looking at the elevation profile has me a bit concerned - 14,000 ft of climbing over the first 71 miles???

It gets real pretty quick. We are smacked by a 2,000 foot hike-a-bike out of El Dorado Creek on Western States, the canyon a furnace in the midday sun. I have been with Jack and Greg up to this point, and am glad to see that Jack is able to match my pace - nice to have someone to ride with during one of these events for a change, as CTR and AZTR were mostly solo affairs for me.

      

Next up - how about 3,000 more feet of climbing? At least it is rideable, on dirt roads and pavement, through a huge burn area from a fire back in 2008.

DCIM\102GOPRO

Finally we escape the heat and make it to Robinson Flat, a cool little campground with this huge meadow full of flowers. We refill our bladders, and the cool grass rejuvenates our cooked bodies and brains.

We poke our noses above 7,000 ft for the first time, certainly not the last, and finally reap some rewards for all that fine climbing: a loose, shaley, ridiculously fun descent down to French Meadows reservoir. The afternoon light is stunning, everything is so green.

We are flying. Jack is tearing it up on his hardtail, impressive!

It feels so remote....and judging by how overgrown some trails are, nobody has been back here in a long time. We get torn to shreds by horrible prickly bushes as we approach the reservoir but we're loving it!

Uhhhhh is this the right way??

Uhhhhh is this the right way??

Our goal for the day is to reach the Rubicon river, just shy of 100 miles. We start the long descent down to the river as darkness settles. The trail is treacherous - steep, loose, overgrown, much of it not rideable in daylight, much less by headlamp. Ego and excitement has me riding a lot of it until I go over the bars once, maybe twice. We hike and slide our way down, until the grade mellows out a bit. The trail contours on forever, up and down, the darkness and thick forest play tricks on our tired brains. Where is the damn river??

Finally! We reach the Rubicon near midnight, ready to pass out. Unfortunately, we did not count on having to scramble on foot a couple hundred feet down sketchy, exposed cliffs to actually get access to the water! I'm sure there is an easier way, but we are too tired to search around for it in the dark. After our acrobatic water endeavor, we quickly set up camp and pass out in the warm night, alarms set for 4am.

Day 1 on Strava.

Day 2

I barely sleep. I'm sweating in my sleeping bag, but cannot expose any flesh to the cool air, lest I be devoured by the swarms of mosquitos. They dive bomb me incessantly, buzzing everywhere - they're even in my damn sleeping bag! The alarm couldn't come soon enough.

Finally we're moving. First up - a nice 3,500 ft pavement climb up to Loon Lake. The morning is gorgeous and we're making good time. We can smell those breakfast burritos in Tahoe calling us.....

But first, just the minor obstacle of Loon Lake and the Rubicon Trail. Our progress slows to a crawl, the trails full of chunk. Entertaining chunk, however, and we are fully immersed in the beauty of this place.

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We escape Loon Lake and descend down to the famed Rubicon Trail. We can hear them long before we can see them: BRAAPP BRRAAAAAPP!

Jeepers everywhere! We are stunned at how gnarly the trail is and what these vehicles can do. We easily blow a half hour just watching them crawl their way over the granite slabs and boulders. Super cool. Time to boogie, only to be blocked again and again by these slow moving beasts. OK this is getting old.

               

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The final hike out is brutal but thankfully no jeepers, as they closed that part of the trail for the day. So close to Tahoe but it's noon, our chances of getting breakfast burritos is dwindling. I bomb the final descent into Tahoma, beeline it for the market, and yes!! HUGE breakfast burritos served right up!

Burrito/coffee/ice cream BOOM. Instant recharge, and we're off to tackle Stanford Rock.

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Ahhhh. Tahoe Rim Trail. Blissfully smooth climbing, it is nice not getting the crap knocked out of us for a change.

Climbs are starting to wear on us....

Climbs are starting to wear on us....

Incredible views of the lake as we near the top. Storm clouds are brewing so we waste little time. The descent back to Tahoe City is the best of the trip so far - how can this keep getting better?

Kings Beach is our goal for the evening. After a brief stop in Tahoe City for some pizza and to wait out a quick lightning storm, we head back up the TRT for the final leg of the day.

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Glorious, glorious evening riding. Such a fun trail.

Darkness comes and we still have many miles to cover. For me, the arrival of darkness is always difficult - energy levels plummet, mental struggles ensue. Jack is hurting as well. The trail is so much better than last night, but we are desperate for Kings Beach. We are still high on the mountain, but hilariously, we can hear the Infected Mushroom concert thundering up from the lake below. Here we are, alone in the pristine wilderness, with a dub step soundtrack to keep us awake. Oddly comforting, it means we are getting close.

Finally, the trail spits us out onto the highway, and we bomb 1,000 feet down to Kings Beach. We stumble into the Safeway and slowly peruse the aisles, frazzled by the lights and colorful packaged food after the hours of dark forest. As we shop, the store fills up with kids from the concert, some in bizarre costumes, many in nothing but boots, thongs, and torn up t-shirts - what a freaking bizarre scene! The dichotomy between the wilderness and crazy rave kids is too much for my tired brain and I just want to get out. It takes far too long to get out of there with the crowds, but we finally get everything and head out to find a place to sleep. Jack checks behind the dumpsters outside, and finds us a nice grassy field, hidden from view, so we plop down and set up camp like a couple homeless people, camping in a field behind Safeway. Already after 1am, I finally get some good rest, so thankful for no mosquitoes!

Day 2 on Strava.

Day 3

Our nice field behind Safeway

Our nice field behind Safeway

5am alarm wakes us up, and we blearily head out towards Mt. Rose. Jack is strong, moving well - I struggle a bit and he disappears up the road.

2,000 feet up the highway later, with a bit of rain, we are back on the TRT. I've done this segment before and am looking forward to it - fast, flowy goodness. Thanks to the rain, the dirt is absolutely perfect.

Despite the great trail and conditions, I am a bit grumpy. My knee is hurting, and out of nowhere I get launched off my bike and front flip upside down into a bush. Get it together man!

Soon, we come across hoards of runners - turns out the Tahoe Rim Trail 100 is going on, and we make our way through the back of the field. These runners have been moving for 30 hours straight, 85 miles in - so interesting to see their conditions. Some are chippy and fresh, and some are straight up zombies, struggling with every step. Jack is especially excited, as he's an ultrarunner himself.

We refill water at Spooner Lake, watching the TRT100 finish - such a cool, supportive community, huge turnout and cheering for the runners as they cross the finish line. If only bikepacking had the same level of participation and support......

The TRT over to Heavenly is an absolute blast - huge lake views and a techy but fast descent. Jack stops to fix his seatpost and I push ahead, eager to get to the market and get some food. Some ominous looking thunderclouds have been forming overhead, and a couple miles out from Kingsbury, it starts raining. Not too heavy at first, and I make it to the market still fairly dry. I spot a restaurant next to the market and duck inside, just as the sky opens up and starts DUMPING rain. Huge lightning and thunder all around. Wow, I made it just in time, but Jack is still out there! I hope he finds shelter! I sit down and order a huge BBQ bacon cheeseburger, and check out the weather forecast on my phone. Not good, heavy rain forecasted basically until midnight. Crap. We are about to head up to 9,600 feet, the high point of the route - not where you want to be during a thunderstorm!

Finally Jack come stumbling in, soaked head to toe. He got caught out in the storm, and had to take shelter under a staircase from the lightning. We sit and eat and chill, unsure of what to do - the rain has let up a bit, do we head back out? Do we wait and see if it gets better? Neither of us is particularly excited about a cold, wet night in the rain, so we decide to wait a bit. Suddenly the power goes out - not just for the restaurant, but for all of South Lake, the casinos, everything - and the restaurant is mobbed by people, as they have a generator and are still serving food. We just want to nap, but there is nowhere to lie down. Finally, around 7:30pm, we order some coffee and sandwiches to go, and head back out into the soggy twilight.

Star Lake is the goal. Only 9 miles, but some tough climbing - I estimate 3 hours. The night is actually pretty warm, and the rain stops. We are entranced by the lights of the Carson Valley below as we traverse through Heavenly Ski Resort. It is a beautiful night, and we make quick time to the lake.

We find a perfect bivy site right next to the lake and quickly set up camp under the stars. We are so thankful for being here, for having the good fortune to be doing this - it is truly something special. Another early wakeup awaits, and sleep comes quickly.

Day 3 part 1 on Strava.

Day 3 part 2 on Strava.

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(Aaron Johnson) https://www.ajphoto.net/blog/2015/3/california-sierra-trail-race-part-1 Fri, 06 Mar 2015 18:08:31 GMT
AZTR750: Flagstaff to Utah https://www.ajphoto.net/blog/2015/3/aztr750-flagstaff-to-utah May 18, 2014

In Flag, I had a decision to make. I had mailed my Grand Canyon hiking gear to the post office at the South Rim, so I was at the mercy of their operating hours.  I could either wake up super early (like 1am) to give myself enough time to ride the 105ish miles from Flag to the South Rim to make it to the post office before they close at 4pm on Friday, or I could sleep in, take it a bit easier, and hit the post office when they open at 11am on Saturday. I really wanted to start the GC hike at dawn so I could see the whole canyon during the day, so I was mighty tempted to push it hard and try to make it there by 4pm. But after taking stock of my state of being, I realized that would be very, very difficult, trying to ride over a hundred dirt miles on 3 hours of sleep in my battered state. Huge bummer to accept the fact I'd be hiking half the Grand Canyon in the dark, but I didn't have it in me to get there sooner.

Heading out of Flagstaff, towards Humphreys Peak Heading out of Flagstaff, towards Humphreys Peak

Now that I had a day and a half to get to the South Rim, I took a deliciously leisurely morning in Flag, stuffing my face at the hotel's continental breakfast and pedaling my way slowly through town. The day's main obstacle was up first - a 2,000 ft. ascent traversing around Humphreys Peak.

And wow, it was a treat. The trails were nicely built, smooth undulating singletrack, the gradient mellow. Hardly anyone out except for several groups of bikepackers - ran into a couple from Anchorage just touring the AZT for fun, as well as Eszter Horanyi and some buddies touring the Coconino Loop. Fun to chat with them and hear about their journeys.

Halfway up Humphreys. I look tired! Photo by Eszter Horanyi.

Halfway up Humphreys. I look tired! Photo by Eszter Horanyi.

I made it over the high point in what seemed like no time, starting to feel the pressure of Mike P. breathing down my neck a few miles back. Ain't no way I'm getting passed today! I was feeling good and starting to regret not getting up early and pushing for the South Rim.

Oh man, the trails descending off the back of Humphreys were perhaps the best of the trip. Fast, smooth, tacky dirt threading through groves of aspens, reminiscent of the Colorado Trail, the flow only broken by the annoying amount of downed trees I had to awkwardly climb over.

Looking back towards Humphreys Peak.

Looking back towards Humphreys Peak.

20 miles later, the descent ended and I found myself pedaling along dirt roads and doubletrack through rolling hills and farmland. I felt way, way out there - the only signs of human activity were the roads, fences, and cows everywhere, just hanging out, often blocking the road - it never fails to amuse me how fast a spooked cow can move!

Burrito break Burrito break

The day wore on and I realized I made the right choice by taking the extra rest and not rushing to get to the canyon - it was slow going, motivation was waning thanks to uninspiring terrain, a headwind whipped up, and I kept getting sprinkles of rain. The dirt roads gave way to singletrack, which I was both thankful for and annoyed by, since the roads were faster. My goal was to get to the Grandview lookout by dark, and then bomb down into Tusayan for dinner.

Darkness fell and I was still several miles from the lookout. Exhaustion was taking hold, I was desperate to end the suffering and almost decided to just stop and camp. No! Hot meals awaited in town and pulled me forward. For some reason my water cues were incorrect, leading me to believe Grandview had water, so I skipped Russell Tank and was crestfallen to find only an outhouse at the lookout. I was parched, but it was all downhill to Tusayan. I wish I could say I enjoyed the Tusayan bike trails but I was so tired and desperate that I just wanted it to be over. Finally - finally! - the lights of Tusayan appeared through the trees, around 10pm, and I rolled into town and collapsed on the sidewalk just outside a fancy steakhouse, prompting two employees to rush out and make sure I was ok (they thought I had crashed, haha). It was a bit surreal to suddenly be surrounded by $500-a-night hotels and fast food joints after such a desolate, long day. McDonalds was the only thing open but I didn't care, I inhaled 2 Bigmacs straight to my face. It was raining again, turning into snow as temps were right at freezing. I went to the cheapest looking hotel expecting astronomical prices, but the lady gave me a pretty decent rate for what turned out to be literally the last hotel room in town. Woohoo, time to rest up for the big final push!

Unpacking my hiking gear at the South Rim post office

Unpacking my hiking gear at the South Rim post office

Saturday morning was spent battling the hoards of tourists at the post office and general store in the South Rim village. I've never seen anything like it, the place was a zoo. I waited in long lines, finally got my package, got enough food to get me through the next 2 days to the finish, and got the hell out of there.

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I got to the South Rim 2 hours later than planned thanks to the tourist delays, and converted my bike and gear into hiking mode while being pelted by hail and rain. Great. I couldn't even see down into the canyon because of the clouds. As I started hiking around 2pm, the clouds suddenly dissipated and the sun came out, revealing the views and scenery that had been my main motivation for doing this race in the first place. Wow. Unbelievable, I can't believe I'm actually hiking across the Grand Canyon with a damn bike on my back!

And neither could everyone else. The first few miles of the trail were clogged with tourists, each one gawking at me: "oh my GOD is that a bicycle? On your back? Why aren't you riding it? Can I take a picture?" Smile, nod, keep moving.

After a couple miles the herds of tourists thinned out and I had some peace and quiet to enjoy the scenery. The trail was steep, dropping 5,000 feet to the Colorado river over 6 miles, something my twiggy cycling legs weren't so happy about.

Crossing the Colorado River

Crossing the Colorado River

I crossed the river and reached Phantom Ranch around 6pm. Woah, this place is a village! Ranger stations, a general store, cabins, tons of camping spots, people everywhere. Kinda spoiled the adventure aspect but also made me want to come back and stay here someday - it was gorgeous. Chatted with a ranger for a while, who warned me that they had a water pipe break and none of the spigots worked at the North Rim - good to know, that would have sucked to get up there late at night and have no water. It also meant I'd have to carry even more weight than I was carrying - oh well.

Now began the long hike out - 14 miles, 6000 ft. towards the sky. The first 7 miles went quickly, relatively easy grades and smooth trail. Darkness fell and my world retreated into the small bubble of light of my headlamp, but I could sense the enormity of the canyons surrounding me. If only I could see it!

Topped off my water at the Roaring Springs ranger station, adding another 6 lbs to my 50lb load - ouch. And then the real struggles began. My stomach had been feeling a bit funny, and as the grades steepened for the final push to the rim, the intestinal situation went South...literally. Let me tell you, having to stop every 5 minutes, with an awkward heavy bike strapped to my pack, freezing cold wind, at 2am, along a narrow trail cut into a cliff face, to do my business.....zero fun. Not to mention the handful of solo rim-to-rim-to-rim crazies that kept passing me during the most inopportune moments...made for some hilarious encounters. Progress was slow, but I began to feel much better as I neared the rim.

My goal was topping out by 4am, and precisely at 4am, I made it! Bone chilling wind meant I needed shelter fast, and I beelined it for the parking lot outhouse. Never been so excited to sleep on a mouse turd covered bathroom floor in my life.

Hour nap, assemble bike, hit the road to Jacob Lake at sunup. Even with every piece of clothing on, rarely have I ever been that cold in my life. A couple miles of teeth chattering downhill led to a gradual climb, and I could finally generate some warmth. But something was wrong - I couldn't stand up in the pedals. My calves literally wouldn't fire, they were so fried from the canyon hike. It was all I could do to hit 10mph on flat pavement. Luckily the 41 miles to Jacob Lake were mostly downhill, otherwise I would have been in trouble - I've never felt anything like that sort of muscle fatigue and soreness.

Jacob Lake finally arrived around noon, and I was desperate for some coffee and food. Despite the soreness, I was elated - only 30 miles left! A BLT and 20 minute nap in the gift shop revived me a bit, and I got back on the trail with earnest. The elevation profile looked favorable, mostly downhill, and for once, it was actually correct! The last 30 miles of the Arizona Trail were awesome, quite a treat to end this huge journey on such fine trail. It ended with a 1,000 ft bomber descent, the red hills of Utah stretching out for miles and miles ahead. It was an emotional last couple miles, feelings of exhaustion, gratitude, excitement at being done and getting to see Megan, and a bit of sadness to be ending the journey and going back to real life.

I SEE UTAH!!

I SEE UTAH!!

I rolled into the Stateline Campground parking lot at precisely 5pm after 9 days, 10 hours on the Arizona Trail. The best part of the journey was seeing my girlfriend Megan and dog Mowgli waiting for me there - Meg, your love and support have been incredible, I couldn't have done this without you, thank you so much for everything you do and driving out from the Bay Area to find me in the desert!

Such incredible feelings of relief, accomplishment, and gratitude for my body letting me do things like this, for all of those who made this event possible, and for everyone in my life who supported me through the hardest thing I've ever done - Megan, my family, and my friends cheering me on. I love you all!

Now, a month after the race, my body is recovered, and I couldn't be more stoked to ride. I miss being out there and can't wait to strap those bags back onto my bike. Not sure what the next adventure will be but there are plenty more bikepacking races to suffer through! Thanks for reading!

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(Aaron Johnson) https://www.ajphoto.net/blog/2015/3/aztr750-flagstaff-to-utah Fri, 06 Mar 2015 18:07:13 GMT
AZZTR750: Apache Junction to Flagstaff https://www.ajphoto.net/blog/2015/3/azztr750-apache-junction-to-flagstaff May 15, 2014

Day 5: Apache Junction to Payson

Today almost felt like a rest day compared to the previous 4 days - 100 miles of dirt roads and pavement from Apache Junction to Payson. No trail, no rocks, no hike-a-bike. A 4am start guided by a blazing full moon got me to Roosevelt Lake by late morning. The Apache Trail (not really a trail but a well maintained dirt road) was great, pretty hilly but scenic. For some reason I didn't take any pictures before the lake, guess I was too busy riding.

Approaching Roosevelt Lake

Approaching Roosevelt Lake

Roosevelt Lake

Roosevelt Lake

Not much to report for the rest of the day - just easy, fast road riding along the lake, the miles passing by incredibly quickly.

Lunch at Jake's Corner Bar - that place has personality! Kept waiting for some nutjob locals to come in for some entertainment but I had the place to myself. Left with a belly full of burgers, baked beans, and coffee, yum.

I stopped at the bike shop in Payson, 87 Cyclery - I can't remember his name, but the guy there was awesome, he'd been following the race and sat me down with a cold beverage while he worked his magic on my bike. Grabbed dinner and headed out into the beautiful evening towards Pine, bedding down for the evening about halfway there. It was warm, I slept like a baby.

Another damn fine evening on the trail, somewhere between Payson and Pine

Another damn fine evening on the trail, somewhere between Payson and Pine

Day 6: Pine to the Mogollon Rim

Some fun singletrack just before Pine

Some fun singletrack just before Pine

I got moving around 4am again, hoping to get to Pine at 6am when the local supermarket opened to stock up for the long push to Flagstaff. Didn't actually get to Pine until 7:30 - those final miles before Pine were tough! Bushy, loose hike-a-bike, a nice little preview of what awaited me.....

Came across Brad Mattingly, the sole Southbound racer, just before Pine - fun chatting with him, he was not at all amused by Highline, which he hike/stumbled his way down the day before. He warned of frigid nights ahead!

Pine wins for best breakfast. I think I got more excited about huge, syrupy breakfasts than anything else on this trip.....

Not wanting to repeat my earlier bouts of starvation riding, I bought an absurd amount of food in Pine. No more going hungry, even if it means dragging a boat anchor of a bike up Highline.

Oh Highline. In some ways, it was every bit as bad as everyone had said - hours and hours of hiking and bushwhacking through horrible prickly bushes that tore up exposed flesh and spandex. Trail often so narrow that awkwardly pushing the bike ahead of you and following it was the only option. Making matters worse, after my huge breakfast, my stomach shut down entirely, and eating anything made me incredibly nauseous. Zero calories consumed during the 9 hours from Pine to the Rim. All this heavy food and I couldn't eat any of it! Luckily, water and electrolytes weren't a problem.

Blister care

Blister care

Shoes were toast. No more tread, walking directly on the cleat. No bueno

Shoes were toast. No more tread, walking directly on the cleat. No bueno

BUT - it was also incredibly beautiful. The Mogollon Rim itself loomed large and rugged, while views of the valley to the South kept the mind occupied.

There's the Mogollon Rim. We go there.

There's the Mogollon Rim. We go there.

Typical bushiness

Typical bushiness

No riding here

No riding here

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It got more rideable as I neared the final climb to the Rim

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The final hike up to the rim. 1000+ feet straight up bouldery slabs and chunky loose trail.

I gained the rim around 6pm and decided I was done for the day. Not being able to eat took its toll, and I found a nice spot in the trees and crawled into my bivy. Asleep by 7:30, only to be woken up around midnight to some loud hoots and hollers - great, some AZ rednecks out for a backcountry joyride, please don't shoot your guns in my direction - oh wait, it's Mike P. and Elliot! They caught me! My competitive side told me to get up and ride! Don't give up 2nd place! But about 3 seconds later I was fast asleep, knowing they had a long, hard day and would probably sleep for a long time, whereas I had a 3am start planned.

BRRR! Woke up to water bottles full of ice! Got moving and warmed up pretty quickly, it was nice to be riding again! And I could eat! And the sunrise was amazing! Today was gonna be a good day.

The morning singletrack buzz eventually wore off, and the trail became somewhat tiresome - featureless terrain through a sparse pine forest,  badly rutted dirt roads alternating with singletrack, not really climbing much nor descending. Mormon Lake couldn't come soon enough.

Photo by Jeff Hemperley

Photo by Jeff Hemperley

Finally. Mormon Lake. It was mid-afternoon, still 4 or so hours till Flagstaff, and I debated skipping the detour down to the little town and just pushing on, but the call of hot pizza was too powerful to ignore. Ran into Jeff Hemperley heading down to the town, was good to meet him, his enthusiasm was infectious!

Chowed down a whole pizza and salad. That was dumb - yep, felt like crap climbing back up to the Arizona Trail. Luckily it was fun, fairly easy riding to Flagstaff, and after a couple road detours due to logging and a forest fire, I rolled into Flag around 8pm. Those two brutal days combined with caloric deficit took their toll, and it was all I could do to ride in a straight line. Grabbed a cheap hotel room, excited to have made it this far and knowing that I'd be at the main event, the Grand Canyon, tomorrow night!

Magic. Awesome dirt and insane evening light, heading down into Flag

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(Aaron Johnson) https://www.ajphoto.net/blog/2015/3/azztr750-apache-junction-to-flagstaff Fri, 06 Mar 2015 18:06:19 GMT
AZTR750: The First 300 Miles https://www.ajphoto.net/blog/2015/3/aztr-the-first-300-miles May 8, 2014

It's been 2.5 weeks since I dragged my dirty, blown out body and bike across the Utah border, and oh man, recovery's been awesome. Sit on couch, destroy all food in sight, drink beer, repeat. Glorious. Actually, I've been back on my bike quite a bit more than I expected, even though I am still feeling abnormally fatigued - that race got me super motivated to keep riding and I can't stop! I've been bouncing the experiences and memories from those 9.5 days on the trail around and around in my head, so I guess it's time to get some things down on paper.  Too much happened to do a play-by-play recap, so here's a photo essay of the memories that stuck with me.

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And we're off! People seem more nervous than excited - should I be more nervous? Answer - yes.

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Canelo Hills - AZT doesn't waste any time telling you who's boss

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Aaron G, Neil B, and Kurt R blow by me like I'm standing still, on their way to record-breaking AZT300 runs.

Patagonia's out there somewhere...

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Should've gotten some fudge

Patagonia. The greatest root beer float of my life. 6 hours into the race and I feel like I've been racing for days. The Canelo Hills blindsided many of us, the Arizona Trail's cruel and sudden wake up call. I was expecting a relatively easy start to the race, to ease into race mode - HA! Alright, game on.

Almost to Kentucky Camp - body is finally coming around, time to fly. Photo by Sean Allen.

Southern AZ desert

WOWZA. Somewhere past Kentucky Camp, the AZT atoned for its earlier brutality by giving us one hell of a sunset. Some of the greatest twilight riding I can remember, and the singletrack kept getting sweeter and sweeter.

Magic hour

               Can't let the mind wander too much here

Can't let the mind wander too much here

DCIM\100GOPRO Breakfast at the Rincon store with Paul

Early pre-dawn shred-fest coming into Tucson - man that trail was fun. An empty belly pushed me along towards breakfast at the Rincon market. Long gone were the memories of yesterday's struggles. Oh, if I only knew what was coming....

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Climbing away from Tucson on Reddington Rd.

DCIM\100GOPRO Struggle....

Near the top of the Molino hike-a-bike. Photo by Jesse Morse-Brady.                

Near the top of the Molino hike-a-bike. Photo by Jesse Morse-Brady.

The first BIG obstacle of the route - Mt. Lemmon and it's evil side kick, Oracle Ridge. After a slap-in-the-face 1,000 ft. hike-a-bike to gain access to the Mt. Lemmon road, we faced a 15 mile, 4,000 ft ascent up Mt. Lemmon. It started off horribly, my water cues were incorrect and I ran out of water at the base of the climb, only to be saved by miraculously finding a tiny pool just off the highway.

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The rest of the climb was delightful - sunset, cool temps, beautiful scenery. I crested the top around 9pm, donned many layers to face the bone-chilling wind at 8,200ft, and began the so-called traverse of death, Oracle Ridge.

I actually enjoyed Oracle Ridge quite a bit. Despite a chilly, horse-poop infested bivy a couple miles into the ridge (how do horses even get up here??), I had a blast scrambling my way along the ridge as the sunrise presented itself. I didn't think it was nearly as bad as people make it out to be - tough, yes, but I had much tougher moments out there. The descent off the ridge was grin-inducing crazy steep and loose jeep roads and singletrack, finally mellowing out into happy winding desert trails as we approached the town of Oracle.

            How I love you Oracle Patio Cafe    

How I love you Oracle Patio Cafe

Stuff yer face     Stuff yer face

Then shit got real. The heat came back with a vengeance, accompanied by some nasty crosswinds. Progress after Oracle slowed to a crawl - heavy bike (6L of water!), relentless steep ups and downs, getting blown off-trail by the winds - it took 6 or 7 hours (!) to make it to the Freeman cache, only 35 miles from Oracle.

                

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Cholla forests - beautiful                

Cholla forests - beautiful

First rattler sighting

My goal was reaching the Gila River that evening, but I hugely underestimated how long it would take me to get there, which resulted in me not packing nearly enough food in Oracle. Fighting the Ripley climb through the darkness, still many miles from the river, water and food dwindling, an uneasiness crept over me like I hadn't experienced before, and the mental demons had me in their grasp. My self confidence was shaken, I was pissed at myself for making such a rookie mistake about the food. What the hell am I doing out here, alone in the middle of the night in the freaking desert? Thoughts of ending my race after the 300 mile mark began to take hold.

Yet another ridiculous sunset

Of course, these thoughts were absurd - I wasn't in any danger, and I was doing exactly what I wanted to be doing, and I'm a bit annoyed with myself for letting those thoughts affect me like they did. But this race was taking me to depths of fatigue I hadn't experienced before, which did a number on my mental state that evening.

I did finally reach the river at midnight, immediately filtered several liters of water to quench my thirst, and devoured the rest of my food. Tomorrow's gonna suck, I thought as I dug into my sleeping bag on the soft river bank, and fell asleep instantly to the soothing sound of the river.

My alarm was drowned out by the river, so I awoke to daylight. And man, the Gila is stunning. The beauty of the morning banished the negativity from my head, and I rode along in awe.

DCIM\100GOPRO Sometimes riding......

DCIM\100GOPRO Other times pushing.

The 6 hours it took me to escape the Gila without any food weren't bad at all. Slow and steady, body in fat-burning mode, I simply pedaled forth, climbing out of the canyon and taking it all in.

DCIM\100GOPRO Mr. Boatman fills me in on the upcoming challenges

Picketpost. Finally. I was still debating in my head if I should continue, still a bit shaken by my errors of judgement, and completely exhausted by the unexpected difficulties of the first 300 miles. Thankfully I was able to push past the doubts; some fun conversations with fellow racers, a bit of rest in the shade, and some sorely needed bike maintenance got my motivation stoked up, and before long I was off towards Apache Junction, my mind on only one thing: FOOD.

Apache Junction did not disappoint. Easy miles on dirt roads and paved highways got me to restaurants and hotels in no time. Initially I felt guilty about getting a hotel - during CTR, I never even considered the possibility of getting one, and I didn't expect to want to stay in any hotels during this race. I always considered staying in hotels kind of contrary to the spirit of the race, but I also didn't expect to feel as bad as I felt after only 4 days. I realized, this is my vacation, and I'm here to enjoy myself and see Arizona in the best way possible, not worry about whether I should stay in a damn hotel or not. If it means getting a hotel so I could recover to continue enjoying the race, who cares.

And damn, did that bed feel good. Next up - central AZ and the dreaded Highline Trail to the Mogollon Rim.

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(Aaron Johnson) https://www.ajphoto.net/blog/2015/3/aztr-the-first-300-miles Fri, 06 Mar 2015 18:05:43 GMT
Game Time https://www.ajphoto.net/blog/2015/3/game-time April 10, 2014

Finally made it to AZ! I'm here in Tucson, getting all my stuff together before catching a ride to the border later today. Feeling pretty good - excited, a bit nervous but in a good way.

Packing up in the hotel

Packing up in the hotel

Here's the tracker link if you'd like to follow the race.

http://www.trackleaders.com/aztr14

Super excited to spend the next ~10 days in the desert, but even more excited to see Megan and Mowgli at the finish in Utah. Wish me luck!

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(Aaron Johnson) https://www.ajphoto.net/blog/2015/3/game-time Fri, 06 Mar 2015 18:04:36 GMT
Big Sur: Cone Peak https://www.ajphoto.net/blog/2015/3/big-sur-cone-peak January 20, 2014

After far too many weekends spent at home in Mountain View over the past few months for various reasons, Megan and I are determined to get away from home as much as possible in 2014.  Leor Pantilat's blog has been a good source of inspiration, and we decided to hit up Cone Peak in Big Sur for our first 2014 adventure.

Big Sur Coast 

Big Sur Coast

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Cone Peak rises more than 5,000ft above sea level just a few short miles from the coast, and the trail to the summit is rugged and steep.  Round trip, we'd be covering 22 miles and more than 7,000ft of climbing.  Strava route here.

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Mr. Bean joined us, as well as Mowgs - this would be his biggest run/hike ever, but he's getting so strong that we knew it wouldn't be a problem for him.

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We lucked out with awesome weather and the views from the top were incredible, as well as the sunset on our way back down.

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Lots more to explore in Big Sur, such a cool place.  All pics taken with a Sony NEX-5N and the kit lens (18-55mm).

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(Aaron Johnson) https://www.ajphoto.net/blog/2015/3/big-sur-cone-peak Fri, 06 Mar 2015 18:03:50 GMT