AZTR750 Prologue: How to Eat an Elephant
I’m sure you’ve all heard the saying “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.” This is exactly how my AZTR750 race went, and a big part of the reason I was able to be successful in both finishing and setting a new women’s record. Starting a race that is 750 miles and likely to take 8-10 or more days can be a daunting task.
Many people have reported difficulties focusing for this long of a race, and thus dropping out. To break a record one first has to finish the ride. So this became my goal -- taking care of myself well enough, both body and mind, to finish the ride. Ideally in under 9 days, 13 hours, and 57 minutes which was the previous women’s record set by Alice Drobna in 2015.
But that was the secondary goal. Get myself and my bike to Utah in one functional piece was #1. And that took breaking down my race into small chunks the entire time. I didn’t realize I was going to do this, but upon starting it just made sense.
It’s how I prepared for the race as well. I had a massive to-do list to get ready for this massive undertaking, and to keep myself from getting overwhelmed I chunked my tasks into bite-size, digestible pieces and focused only on one piece at a time, not allowing my fast-moving brain to get ahead of me.
This strategy ended up being a huge key to my success in the actual race, though I didn’t plan it this way, it’s how my brain started to unfold it. “Just get to Patagonia -- look, you paced it for 8 hours, but you’re way ahead — I bet you can make it in 6.5.” “Okay great work. Check. Our goal now is I-10, just past the highway and we’ll stop for the night.” “Good morning, it’s gonna be a hot one! Let’s just make it to the creek at the bottom of the hike-a-bike.” “Okay, we made it! Great work. We’re ahead of pace so let’s take 20 minutes to lie down in the river and cool off.” “Awesome, now let’s get to Summerhaven. If we make it in around midnight we can sleep in the heated bathroom at the visitor’s center.” And so on. I broke down 750 miles and nearly ten days one small chunk at a time, setting small goals for myself as I went. It worked, and it kept me from getting overwhelmed at the enormous task in front of me.
My Colorado Trail Race last year was a shitshow in comparison to the AZTR, and I think the experience scarred me a bit more than I’d have liked to admit. It was my first ultra, and my body broke down starting on Day 1 when I brought the wrong type of food. The entire race I had knee and ankle pain, got sick, partially tore my Achilles tendon (but kept going), and gave myself bilateral patellar tendonitis because of having to alter my pedal stroke from my Achilles problems.
Ultimately -- after all of that -- having my equipment break down 35 miles from the end of the race, unrepairable and unrollable, causing me to have to drop out of the race after gaining a huge lead on the women’s field by pushing through the final two nights — and running 13 miles while carrying all my gear after my bike broke down, finally pulling out 22 miles from the end when my body was just wrecked. After what I’d been through, it was gutwrenching and left me in a daze. I was actually mostly okay with it because I knew that I had done everything within my power to achieve the result I wanted, I went big, and came up short. And I can’t regret that.
But after the CTR my body was so broken that I could barely walk for two months, let alone ride my bike. Everything went wrong in that race, and I was determined to not let that happen again in the AZTR. My #1 goal was to take care of my body well enough that I didn’t do any major damage and ruin the rest of my summer. #2 was finish the race, and #3 was break the women’s record.
A few days before the race I get picked up in Flagstaff by Kiwi Dave Wicks, a veteran of the AZTR750 who had driven out from LA and was heading south. He has also an extra bed in his hotel room in Tucson. Score!! Dave is super fun to hang out with for those days and has a hilarious sense of humor that makes me both laugh and groan. I spend those days relaxing, finalizing my pacing and calorie resupply sheet, casually grabbing a few last minute items. It is really chill and I am feeling good and ready for the race, not stressed at all.
Photos: Hanging with Dave Wicks in Tucson post border run.
This is a bit surprising to me actually, because just days before I was scrambling to get ready for the trip down, I had pneumonia for three weeks right before the race, felt awful and couldn’t ride at all, and there were multiple hurdles with getting my bike built and my equipment dialed in.
Plus I was still feeling blue from getting my heart broken a month earlier by my former intimate partner, who I still really cared about and had been trying to build a new sort of relationship with, out of nowhere deciding for no apparent reason he didn’t want me in his life anymore and repeating exactly what happened the first time around. Walking away without trying — the one thing that I had requested not to happen. And once again, it crushed me.
This shouldn’t have come as a surprise though, it wasn’t his fault, he really is a wonderful, amazing human who ended up changing my life and teaching me so much about myself through our time together. I am so grateful for him and the time we shared, even though I ended up broken, yet again. But this person was merely playing out my long-standing pattern, another in a long line of men I’ve chosen to love who ultimately decide I’m not worth it because of (insert reason/excuse here) and walk away.
On a positive note, this pattern is a step in the right direction from my previous pattern with men, who choose to be mean or hurtful enough to me that I finally give up and slink away, tail between legs, in the name of some semblance of self-preservation. I guess some patterns die hard, but I’m learning, like we all are. And I have learned to separate the person from my pattern somewhat. It’s probably how I keep my sanity.
Anyway, I digress.
This is the main reason I’ve been nervous about this race, along with the pneumonia. I’m an absolute trainwreck with a broken heart. I pretty much lack the ability to be mentally and emotionally strong for however long the rollercoaster ride takes… weeks, months… years?, which also greatly diminishes my ability to be physically strong. I lost nearly two years of my life surrounding my divorce eight years ago. (Though I certainly learned a lot and wouldn’t change a thing).
The last bike tour I had gone on a month ago, immediately after getting my heart smashed, all I could do was sit down and cry every 20 minutes. This was NOT a good strategy for breaking the record or even finishing the AZTR. It would take me years, at that rate, and I would probably crack under the difficulty of the trail and the tender state of my heart and have to pull out.
After this awful experience I nearly decided to not start the AZTR. If I couldn’t make it a hundred miles without falling apart, how in the HELL was I going to make it 750 miles?! Ugh. I wallowed in self-pity for a couple days until I made the last minute decision to ride the Pima County Ultracruise, a ridiculous little bikepacking event that Nate Woiwode of Blue Dog Bicycles put on that took intrepid bikepackers up and down the hardest trails around Tucson. I, along with 15 or so like-minded crazies, got to ride some awesome, rugged, ripping trails, drag my bike through a river at night, up and over boulders, share a bed in a random person’s cabin with two other people (Freako and Turbo) all laughing like fools until the wee hours of the night, and posthole my bike uphill through snow for 4 hours (don’t ask me why, but I LOVE that ridiculousness — it just makes me laugh). I had so much fun on this ride, met the most awesome people who just made me laugh and feel silly, like myself again, and this turned my whole race around and likely my whole season.
Who knows who long I would have wallowed in self-pity and tanked my whole season if I hadn’t done that ride. I probably owe my whole season to these guys (and gal, Holly!) With another trip to the southern Utah desert to reconnect and ride with good friends, I was on the upswing — when one’s heart is wallowing in sorrow and not-good-enough-ness from being kicked to the curb by someone you love, it helps to be around people who care about you. Funny how that works. I usually slink off and hide when I go through heartbreak, ashamed at myself for yet another failed attempt at love. But the older I get the less fucks I give at appearing like these things don’t affect me. They do — especially when they happen again and again. I’m only human (which seems to be my problem in keeping romantic partners around). C’est la vie. I’m cynical, no doubt, but I’ve learned over the years to laugh at myself about it and keep a good sense of humor.
Photos above: Slowly coming back to life post-heartbreak. Fun on the Pima County Ultracruise, in Hurricane UT, and back in Flagstaff recommitted to the AZTR.
Still, after the Ultracruise was over, nearly everything that could go wrong before the race did, starting with immediately getting pneumonia and being sick for three weeks -- all the way up to the very end when my friend Nick, who was supposed to watch my dog Cody for a few days, literally BROKE HIS FREAKING LEG the night before I was supposed to leave, when he and I were out for a short little shakedown ride, in a random crash where he just hit the ground in the exact wrong spot. He had to have surgery the next day. So I spent the morning that I was supposed to leave frantically trying to find someone else to take care of my dog until my friend Spenser got back from his Grand Canyon trip.
I didn’t sleep that night, wondering if the universe was trying to tell me I shouldn’t do this race. EVERYTHING was going wrong. I might as well have just changed my name to Murphy. Was I trying too hard to swim upstream?
I wondered so many times if it would be stupid to start the race, because of my broken heart, my pneumonia, and all the things that had gone wrong compounding. I was really in no physical or emotional condition to race my bike. What ELSE could possibly go wrong out there? (The answer, I feared, was a lot.)
But something deep within me said, “just show up. Show up and see what happens.”
So here I am, sitting in a hotel room in Tucson, too late to turn back now. Doing my best to remain open and curious in the process, though still slightly apprehensive. I seem to have very little control over how my heart feels, so I just try to keep the attitude of being the curious observer instead of dreading where it might take me over those long lonely miles across the desert.
On my second day in Tucson I ride the 8 miles down to Blue Dog Bicycles, owned by my friend Nate who is the creator of the Ultracruise bikepacking route. This feels great as I lounge on the couch all day, hanging with Nate and Jesse who are so chill and just some really great people, they check my bike over for any last-minute adjustments. It feels good to be surrounded by friends who care and want to hang out, and I laze around drinking beer, greeting fellow AZTR racers as they come in and out.
I also get caught in a hour long rainstorm on my ride home, which is unpredicted, leaving me wondering if I should have packed rain gear for this little 10 day bike ride. There was zero precip in the forecast so I had left it behind to save space. Ah well, I’m a risk taker… I have a waterproof bivy sack and emergency poncho if I need them, I’ll be fine.
The final morning before I head to the border I spend frantically looking all around Tucson for a suitable kitchen timer for the race. I save it to the last day thinking it would be easy… well, I was wrong. I use a kitchen timer for an alarm clock instead of relying on my phone which might die later in the race and I wouldn’t want to mess up my chances of setting a record by sleeping way too long. I can NOT find a kitchen timer that is a) small enough and b) runs hours, minutes, and seconds in all of Tucson!
Just as I’m about to give up, the nice guy who drives the hotel shuttle van suggests I check the local hardware store. Lo and behold, they have the very kitchen timer I had lost earlier in the year. Success!!! I grab one, do my food shopping for the first 8 hours of my ride from the border to Patagonia, and even have time to lie in the grass and enjoy the last of the beers I had stashed in the hotel refrigerator. An hour later and the legendary John Schilling has come to scoop me up and give me a ride south, along with Neil Beltchenko, another 750 racer and a friend from my Crested Butte days.
In John’s car, I exhale a deep sigh of relief. There is nothing else to do, except exist in the moment from now until this race is over. Finally. I have a feeling that my luck is about to turn. I am on my way.
The start line at the Mexican Border is in the middle of nowhere, and most of the 750 racers camp there the night before. It is a reunion of sorts with many friends I had met in the CTR or in other endurance riding events over the past years, and I am flying high and excited for everything to begin.
Alex Houchin shows up and she and I run at each other, shrieking and laughing like school girls as we hug and dance around. She and I met in the CTR last year and have talked on the phone many times since. She’s one of the most real AF people I know, and I admire her commitment to ignoring all the hype and just being her weird amazing self. For a few minutes I wished we weren’t racing so I could just have a fun social ride with all my friends. But I know what I have come here to do, and I am committed to that.
As much as I want to socialize all night long I bed down early around 9 pm in hopes of getting a solid night’s sleep before the race. I didn’t sleep the night before the CTR last year and that set me on a shaky path to begin with. I don’t want that to happen again. Dave and I find a spot in the tall grass away from the road to roll out our bivys. I shove my earplugs in, enjoy being horizontal, consciously relax my body, and will myself to fall asleep.