Jefe Branham Wins AZT800 + Week Two Update
As the riders of the 2022 Arizona Trail Race (AZTR) hit the two-week mark, Jefe Branham has set a new singlespeed record on the 800-mile route, Andy Wentzel took second place, and over half of the riders have scratched from the race. After tracking down racers on the north half of the route, find Wyatt Spalding’s second report here…
Words and photos by Wyatt Spalding (@wyattspalding)
It was the sixth day of the 2022 Arizona Trail Race, and riders of the 800 route were still steadily making their way northbound as I headed back out onto the course. A few days had passed, and many of the 800 riders were now making their way past the Four Peaks and deeper into the challenging terrain within the Mazatzal Mountains. Returning to the course was quite surreal; the stillness of nature among the relentless landscapes that riders were traversing made me feel great admiration for the event.
As the sun began to set, I crossed paths with Alexandra Houchin as she took a break along the Four Peaks road. The last time I saw her was when she passed through Tucson. Since then, she has navigated through some very challenging terrain. She explained that her legs were swelling a bit, but she was otherwise was doing her best to manage the ups and downs of the trail. A few days back, she also ripped a knob off her rear tire, exposing the inner casing. She had it covered in some duct tape and a Voile strap and said it was holding just fine. Moments later, she was back on the bike and riding off into the horizon.
I awoke the following morning and rode my bike onto the Gold Ridge Trail on the eastern side of the Mazatzals. It was a beautiful start to the day, with perfect temperatures and clear skies. I caught Ana Jager as she made her way down the steep and technical singletrack. She seemed to be enjoying the 3,000-foot descent when she flew by with a smile on her face. She was still in the lead in front of Alexandra, who was roughly 20 miles back. As I continued up the trail, the terrain became more and more difficult, and I felt a great respect for all of the racers who were enduring the challenging terrain day after day.
I later traveled north of Payson and began riding up the Highline Trail outside of Pine, Arizona. The first few miles of this trail are pretty enjoyable, but things quickly become rocky, overgrown, steep, and loose. Andrew Strempke was not far behind me, and I was able to grab his photo as he passed by on the flowy singletrack. I rode a mile or two of the trail with him and asked how the race had been going. Overall, he was in great spirits, and I got the impression that he had been having an enjoyable experience on the trail.
On day eight of the race, I awoke to some pretty cold temperatures above the Mogollon Rim. Andrew Strempke had made it atop the rim the night before, and now Johnny Price, Zack Friendly, and Ana Jager were making their way along the Highline Trail. After a quick look at the tracker, I saw Jefe Branham was about to reach Flagstaff. He was still leading the race with a moderate gap ahead of Andy Wentzel. I headed into town, hoping to catch Jefe on his way out after a re-supply.
Just as the sun started to set, Jefe rolled past me on the lovely Little Elden Trail. He stopped to chat for a moment and told me that the course had been full of incredible challenges this year. He said his GPS had been giving him some issues, and he often missed turns. It didn’t seem to slow him down much, however. He pointed to a group of deer traversing the ridgeline above us. After a bit of admiration for the beautiful animals, Jefe continued up the singletrack and faded from view. It was beginning to get very cold, and after a quick look at the weather forecast, I knew it would be a frigid night for anyone above the rim.
I awoke the following morning near Mormon Lake, just south of Flagstaff, where I’d camped. As I shivered and glanced around, all my water had frozen, and the temperature read 23ºF. Andrew Strempke later posted an update on Instagram, saying that his Garmin read 17ºF as he rode through Walnut Canyon that morning.
A considerable challenge of the Arizona Trail is the variability of temperatures on the course. You go from burning up in the desert to wearing every layer you have once you get into the northern portions of the state. Overnight, Jefe had made significant progress on his way to the south rim of the Grand Canyon. Around 4 p.m., I was able to catch up with him as he re-supplied in Tusayan before entering the canyon, which is the last re-supply other than a small gas station near Jacob Lake on the plateau. He said he had never been to the Grand Canyon before and was thrilled to finally experience it.
About an hour later, as I waited at the South Kaibab Trailhead, Jefe arrived and began breaking his bike down and strapping it to his backpack. He planned to hike the 20 miles in one push since it is required to have a backcountry permit if camping overnight within the canyon. The trek would take him roughly 14-18 hours. He made a final phone call to his wife before he began trotting down the South Kaibab Trail.
As he entered, he explained how surreal it felt to finally walk into the canyon with his bike on his back. He had always dreamt of it, and now he was finally making it happen. I watched as he disappeared into the darkness, and I pondered for a bit on the act of riding the AZT800. It seemed like some absurd art experiment to me. To endure the most challenging bits of terrain repeatedly, to accept the lethargic pace that the trail forces upon you, and of course, to keep moving forward under all these conditions. As I drove back home to Phoenix, I felt greatly inspired and thankful to be able to follow along on this incredible journey.
Arriving at work the following morning, I checked the tracker and was happy to see that Jefe was nearing the final stretch of the canyon and would soon be rolling again along the Kaibab Plateau. Andy Wentzel had also entered the canyon, and Andrew Strempke wasn’t far behind. Jefe would continue riding until Sunday morning, when he finally made it to the Utah state line, finishing in 10 days and 9 minutes. He also set a new course singlespeed record with his time. Later in the afternoon, Andy Wentzel would also arrive at the state line around 4 pm.
As of Sunday evening, Andrew Strempke is nearing the finish line and will soon arrive at the finish line, completing his Triple Crown of efforts for the year. Johnny Price and Zack Friendly continue the hike through the canyon and will be headed to the state line shortly. Ana Jager has made it to Tusayan and is preparing for the canyon hike, while Alexandra Houchin remains roughly 35 miles behind.
Ana will be the second woman to complete a calendar year Triple Crown, alongside Alice Drobna. Connor Adkisson and Corey Kronser are making their way north from Flagstaff and will most likely arrive at the canyon sometime on Monday evening. Rod Dagneau has made it into Payson and is steadily chipping away at the route. He had tire issues earlier in the race, requiring him to take a zero day near Gold Canyon, but he continues onward.
The Stateline Campground will be a busy spot as riders continue to roll into the finish this week. A huge congrats to any and all riders who gave the Arizona Trail Race a go this year. It’s genuinely inspiring for so many of us, and the stories from the trail will be told for a lifetime.
There are still plenty of 800-mile racers out on course. Head over to the event page to follow along live.
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