2022 Arizona Trail Race: A Look at the First Three Days
As the riders of this year’s Arizona Trail Race begin their fourth day, Wyatt Spalding shares a report and gallery of photos from the first three days, including an update from the first 300-mile route finisher, Alex Schultz…
Words and photos by Wyatt Spalding (@wyattspalding)
This past Thursday, a group of cyclists started pedaling and pushing their loaded bikes north from Mexico’s border as they took on the annual AZT300 and AZT800. Conditions out on the trail are arguably more demanding than ever. A monsoon season full of rich rainfall has provided the perfect conditions for thorny catclaw bush, tall grass, and deep rain ruts to overtake many parts of the singletrack. The tall blades of grass took me by surprise as I rode out onto the trail to take photographs. At times, the route was entirely hidden by the thick overgrowth.
Day one was beautiful, with clear skies and minimal winds, but it got pretty warm during the day’s peak. Alex Schultz and Will Bodewes led the pack most of the day, but later, Alex pulled away, creating a large gap between the rest of the riders. I assume this is partly because Will’s rear brake failed around mile 30, leaving him with only his front brake to work with for much of the day. Will would later meet with a mobile bike mechanic around mile 100, who was able to set him up with a mechanical disc brake as a replacement (at midnight!). Alex and Will would then push through the night along with Jefe Branham and Andy Wentzel, both of whom are riding the 800 route. Alexandra Houchin and Ana Jager, the two women taking on the 800, were close together most of the day. Katie Scott led the women’s 300-mile race with a decent gap between her and Isabelle Fisk.
Day two, however, was much warmer. Many riders began descending into Tuscon, which brought higher temperatures with a high of around 90°F. I ran into Andrew Strempke on Redington Pass as he took a break in the shade of a nearby mesquite tree, accompanied by a pint of half-melted ice cream. He was in good spirits and explained that he planned on taking it easy in the heat. He said the high temperatures while climbing Mt. Lemmon took a toll on him last year during his AZT800 attempt.
I then caught Alex Schultz in Summerhaven as he resupplied at the general store. He quickly grabbed an assortment of snacks and an energy drink that he said would power him through another sleepless night. As Alex packed away his snacks, Will Bodewes arrived. It was clear that Will was interested in trying to close the gap and pull ahead of Alex overnight.
Mt. Lemmon is probably one of the biggest challenges on the AZTR. Climbing out of Tuscon is often very hot, and the trails leading to the pavement climb to Summerhaven are steep and technical. Descending the backside of Mt. Lemmon via Oracle Ridge is also no easy task, especially in the past few years after the Bighorn Fire scorched the area.
As the sun began to set, I caught Alexandra Houchin as she made her way up Redington Pass. She appeared hyper-focused as she pedaled her single-speed up the steep road. Ana Jager wasn’t far behind, and she seemed to be in great spirits. Katie Scott still was in the lead position for the women’s 300 and had gained a sizeable lead over Isabelle Fisk throughout the day.
I spent most of day three hanging around Picketpost Trailhead, awaiting Alex Schultz to arrive with a first-place finish for the 300. I saw that Will Bodewes had scratched, and luckily I ran into him at the trailhead. Unfortunately, he broke a spoke sometime that morning, which then punctured his rim tape, leaving him with no pressure in his rear tire. He tried multiple tubes but said each would only last him 20-30 minutes before getting another puncture. He had used all his patches, and his wheel was falling more and more out of true as he rode. With no options remaining, he called it quits. Although unfortunate, he maintained a great attitude and said he immensely enjoyed his time on the route.
Back on Mt. Lemmon, Andrew Strempke, Johnny Price, Connor Adkisson, Alexandra Houchin, and Zack Friendly were taking singletrack to bypass the pavement, as if the route wasn’t already hard enough! This segment is known as the “Lemon Drop” and is a mix of black and double black trails that are extremely challenging, especially on the way up. Andrew Strempke’s pedal failed at some point during this time, leaving him with only the spindle to ride on. Luckily, he got a replacement set of pedals once he made it to Summerhaven and was on his way.
Around 6:15 p.m. on Saturday, Alex Schultz was the first to arrive at Picketpost Trailhead. Will Bodewes, Dan Moses, Mike Hanrahan, and I were there to congratulate him on his effort. Alex told stories of the strange hallucinations he had the previous night, which had us all laughing as he stuffed his face with pizza. As we chatted about the route, Alex said he expected things to be overgrown this year, but it turned out to be much worse than he’d imagined. He also ran out of water halfway up the climb from the Gila River, but luckily some hikers informed him of the water collector toward the top where he could fill up. Overall, it sounds like Alex had a primarily positive experience out there.
After following the race for the first few days, it’s clear that some incredible riders are out taking on the route this year. The strength and determination it takes to embark on such a thing is breathtaking. As of Saturday night, nearly 45% of participants have scratched from the race, showing just how challenging this route can be. Whether marked as a finisher or a scratch at whatever pace, the trail will take you to amazing places that many people only dream of experiencing.
Observing the race also reminds me to be immensely thankful for the grassroots-style events like the AZTR and all the volunteer efforts that go into said things. Many thanks to John Schilling, Scott Morris, the Arizona Trail Association, and all the volunteers who keep the AZT alive and ready for exploration.
There are still plenty of 300-mile and 800-mile racers out on course, and we’ll likely see some riders finish the shorter route later today. Jefe Branham is currently sitting in first place on AZT800, with around a 10-mile lead over Andy Wentzel. Both are riding singlespeed. Head over to the event page to follow along live.
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