2023 Arizona Trail Race: A Freezing-Cold Finish
In his second report from the 2023 Arizona Trail Race, Wyatt Spalding tracks down riders as they make their way in and out of the Grand Canyon and arrive at the finish line, facing sub-freezing temperatures and feeling the cumulative effects of more than 10 days on the trail. Find his update and a gallery of images here…
Words and photos by Wyatt Spalding
The 2023 Arizona Trail Race is beginning to wrap up as riders continue pedaling north from Mexico to Utah on the ever-challenging mountain bike route. At the beginning of the race, riders faced temperatures above 100ºF as they traversed the desert landscapes of southern Arizona. They faced many setbacks, with multiple riders suffering heat sickness in the initial days. Most remaining riders now face quite the opposite on the course, with riders reporting temperatures falling into the low teens at night along the trail shortly past the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. It has been quite a challenging year as far as conditions go. However, it has not stopped riders from achieving incredible feats out on the trail.
I returned to the course on day nine of the race, resuming my documentation in Flagstaff, Arizona, where the weather and terrain vastly differed from the deserts of the south. Autumn was in full effect in Northern Arizona, with bright yellow aspen leaves painting the mountainsides and wintry winds blowing among the hills. Shortly after arriving, I captured a photo of Alexandera Houchin as she made her way along Mt. Elden. She seemed to be having a great ride and was enjoying the downhill as she passed.
At this point, Alexandra was more than a day ahead of her previous course record. Her partner Johnny Price was a few miles up the trail and seemed to be having a great ride as well, pedaling in fourth place overall as he made his way past the San Francisco Peaks. I also crossed paths with Miron Golfman as he rode the last stretch of trail before reaching Flagstaff. Despite some major setbacks at the beginning of the race, he was successfully making up for lost time in the desert and was doing some big days and nights since reaching cooler temperatures. He flew past me and seemed to love the flowy singletrack into town.
Later in the evening, I saw Johnny Fitzgerald riding past Cedar Ranch north of Flagstaff and en route to the south rim of the Grand Canyon, roughly 645 miles into the ride. A warm hue of magenta fell across the landscape of rolling cinder cones and pinyon pines as he pedaled by the setting sun.
I awoke the following morning and began making my way to the finish of the Arizona Trail 800, the Stateline Campground. Alex Schultz was riding the final miles, and Katya Rakhmatulina and Phillipe Vullioud would shortly be exiting the Grand Canyon and beginning the final stretches of trail.
Alex Schultz was the first rider into the Stateline Campground, setting a new fastest known time (FKT) on the route of 9 days, 5 hours, and 43 minutes. Alex made some incredible moves out on the course, such as riding from Pine to Flagstaff in a single push—that’s more than 120 miles of challenging singletrack. At the finish, Alex noted that a few bouts of extended rest helped him stay on top of it out there. After being affected by the scorching temperatures the first two days, he slept for about 10 hours atop Mt. Lemmon before continuing onward. He also opted for a hotel in Tusayan before making his portage through the Grand Canyon, allowing him to get some solid rest before the 20-mile hike to the North Rim.
Later in the day, I decided to drive up on the North Rim with the hopes of grabbing a photo or two of Katya Rakhmatulina as she rode along the final stretch of the Kaibab National Forest. In this section, the route reaches its highest point at just over 9,100 feet, and it is often much colder than the rest of the route. The trail goes back and forth from dense wooded forest to wide-open meadows sliced in half by a thin strip of singletrack. Later in the evening, as I was driving back to the finish, it began to snow lightly, and the temperature was dropping quickly.
Katya Rakhmatulina finished second overall and was the first woman to complete this year’s race, setting new FKTs in the Arizona Trail Race and the Triple Crown Challenge. Her finish time was 9 days, 19 hours, and 52 minutes, more than a day faster than the previous FKT held by Chase Edwards. It was a frigid night as we were anxiously awaiting Katya to roll in at the Stateline Campground. A friend of hers got a text saying that her rear tire had gone flat and that her tube was not working, so she was going to run the remaining three miles. Not long after, Katya arrived at the finish line with her bike strapped to her backpack and a smile on her face. Her rear tire had almost no tread left, and a few spots were completely bald. She also mentioned that temperatures had dropped to 11ºF that night while riding along the North Rim.
Philippe Vullioud from Payerne, Switzerland, finished shortly after Katya in third place with a time of 9 days, 21 hours, and 1 minute. Philippe rode incredibly fast out there despite the many setbacks he experienced. Like others, the heat in the south affected him quite negatively, forcing him to take some significant time recovering off-route in Oracle after descending Mt. Lemmon. Shortly after, he slashed his front tire just before arriving at the Picketpost Trailhead at mile 300. His spare tube had also failed, but luckily, another 800 riders gifted him a fresh one. He ended up riding off-route to a bike shop in Apache Junction, where he was able to get both tires replaced.
On Sunday afternoon, Miron Golfman was the fourth rider into the finish with a time of 10 days and 7 hours. Miron had suffered from an intense case of heat illness early on in the race and eventually resorted to resting during the day and riding at night while traversing the hotter sections. Working his way from the very back to fourth place made for quite an impressive finish.
Later in the day, just as the sun began to set, Johnny Price’s lights could be seen descending the final switchbacks leading to the finish. Johnny was the first singlespeed rider and fifth overall to finish with a time of 10 days, 10 hours, and 25 minutes. Moments later, Johnny Fitzgerald (the other Johnny) rolled in, finishing in sixth place with a time of 10 days, 10 hours, and 33 minutes. I’d heard a rumor that this was Johnny Fitzgerald’s first bikepacking race, and after asking, it turns out it was his first overnight bicycle trip and his first bikepacking race! Pretty incredible.
Johnny Price’s good friends Andrew Strempke, Connor Adkisson, and Zack Freundlich quickly started cooking multiple courses for him as we gathered around the campfire and waited for his partner Alexandera Houchin to finish, who was close behind. Johnny shared his many stories from the trail and reminisced on some priceless memories.
Later that night, Alexandera made it to the State Line Campground in a time of 10 days, 13 hours, and 36 minutes. She set new women’s singlespeed records for the Arizona Trail Race and the Bikepacking Triple Crown and was the first woman to finish the race on a singlespeed. She beat her previous record by over two days!
At the time of writing, Hannah Simon has also rolled into the finish with a time of 11 days, 11 hours, and 17 minutes. This also completes her Triple Crown Challenge, making her the third woman to finish it this year. Kristen Tonsager is also reaching the final miles of trail and will likely finish her Triple Crown Challenge very shortly. Katie Strempke is not far behind and will likely be the second women’s singlespeed rider to complete the 800 this year.
There are still quite a few 800 riders making their way to the Stateline Campground to finish their voyage across the Arizona Trail. I’d like to send a huge congrats to all the riders who gave the Arizona Trail Race a go this year; what an accomplishment it is to finish and even just to begin such a challenge! Many thanks to John Schilling for his incredible effort to keep the spirit of the Arizona Trail Race alive year after year. The community that surrounds events like these is invaluable to many. That’s it from me this time. Thank you for reading!
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