Lynda Wallenfels at the start of the AZT300. Photo by Caroline Soong.
On Monday, April 11, after three days, four hours, and five minutes of riding, Lynda Wallenfels won the Arizona Trail 300, a self-supported mountain bike through-race that roughly follows the Arizona Trail from Parker Lake Canyon, Arizona, near the Mexico border, to Superior, just southeast of Phoenix. In addition to scoring the overall win, Wallenfels became the first woman to ever complete the course in the race’s six-year history. Out of the 22 people who lined up, she was one of only four finishers, as record heat (daytime temperatures soared into the mid-90s), mechanicals, and crashes decimated the field.
The AZT races follow the same self-support rules as events such as the Tour Divide and the Colorado Trail Race, with riders required to find their own way on the course and carry all gear and provisions. Racers are permitted to purchase food and supplies en route but can’t accept any outside assistance. The course follows some incredibly rough and remote stretches of singletrack, racking up 40,000 vertical feet of climbing, including a 49-mile, 10,000-foot slog over the 8,200-foot shoulder of Mount Lemmon. The course record is held by Kurt Refsnider (Salsa Cycles), who blazed the trail in 2010 in two days, eight hours, and 45 minutes en route to finishing the full Arizona Trail Race in a record seven days, six hours, and 35 minutes.
Wallenfels, who coaches many of the country’s top endurance racers through her LW Coaching, is no stranger to the podium. In 2010, she and AZT race organizer Scott Morris won the Coed Duo category at 24 Hours in the Old Pueblo, and in 2009 she was crowned National 24 Hour Singlespeed Champion with a decisive victory in Moab. A week after the race, I caught up with Wallenfels at her home in St. George, Utah, where she was recuperating. “I'm trashed. Stupid head and sleepy tired, ” she said. “I have six weeks of recovery in my schedule now.”
OUTSIDE: This was the primary goal for your season. How did you choose the AZT300 and why?
WALLENFELS: I love the desert. The AZT route looked like it was splattered in scenery I wanted to see.
How do you prepare for an event this big?
I obsessed about the race for six months. The top priority was getting the body ready with physical conditioning. There was the homework part of studying the course, the terrain, resupply points, and weather conditions. Equipment prep is key: what you will need to safely cover the terrain in the forecast conditions. Putting the physical, logistical, and equipment plan together ties it all up by go time.
The first 35 miles in the Canelo Hills are loose, steep, and brutal, especially with the heat. Did you have second thoughts?
I had a super granny gear on my bike, a 22x36 on 26-inch wheels. I kept it spinny on the hills so it didn't feel like a hard start for me. I had pre-ridden the Canello Hills so there were no surprises. It felt easier than I was expecting.
Heat was a real factor. How did you stay hydrated?
I carried three 29-ounce bottles on my bike, a 100-ounce bladder on my back, and I had room to pick up liter bottles of soda at gas stations. There was actually a time I felt I was peeing clear too often, about every 45 minutes. I had to limit myself to sips, not gulps. I was never dehydrated.
How much did you sleep?
Five hours over the time I was on course. I was in my sleeping bag for 10 hours total but lay awake a lot of the time as my body was so amped.
Photo by Dave Harris
What was your best convenience store fueling purchase?
Gummy sharks. They tasted good in the heat because they were fruity. They made me laugh cause I was racing through the desert eating sharks. I got a bit too giddy with my sharks at times and sang a silly shark song from Saturday Night Live ("Oh when the shark bites, with it's teeth dear...," she singsongs). It was just me out there so I could be the biggest dork.
Did you ever know you were in the lead? At what point did your goal shift from just wanting to finish to wanting to win?
It never made that shift. It was so hot out there in the desert with no shade after Oracle. Riding down Bloodsucker Wash [Editor: mile 208] in the heat of the day there were only one set of tracks left in front of me. It was so intense that I started hallucinating there were spiders crawling on the backs of my hands. I could barely ride anything. The heat robbed all my power, and it felt like I was moving in molasses, or like a man on the moon in a space suit, or like those guys you see at the top of Mount Everest. I had all these visuals. I am small and I love the heat and this was right on the edge of my tolerance.
The one set of tracks in front of me started weaving around on the road like crazy. Then they disappeared... I got to a point on the course you could look back a long way, maybe five miles, and I saw nobody. My heat dazed head told me everyone else had quit and there wasn't a race anymore, but I still wanted to finish because there were all these things I had seen on the map and flown over in Google Earth, and I didn't want to quit and miss them.
What was your favorite part of the race?
The Boulders/Ripsey segment. [Editor: mile 220.] The sun set, and simultaneously the full moon rose. It had cooled off and the molasses had gone and my legs had power again. There was a moment when there was exactly half a sun on the west horizon and half a rising full moon on the east horizon. The half sun was deep orange turning the air an orange-pink, and the rising moon was pure white. It was the biggest horizon moon I had ever seen. I stopped and absorbed that magical moment and breathed deep and slow like I could ingest it.
And the toughest part?
The hike-a-bike up Molino Saddle. [Editor: This almost mile-long uphill hike comes at mile 148, about midway up the Mt. Lemmon climb.] It was late afternoon and still hot, and I had been in the heat all day. The sun was shining directly on the hike-a-bike, and it wore me down. I am small (started at 104 pounds; finished quite a bit less) and lifting my fully loaded bike up some of those rock ledges was very difficult. I got grumpy and started calling it Arizona Hoof Race.
What five tips can you offer for the rookie bikepacker?
Train hard, rest hard, do your homework, make sure you know how to fix everything on your bike and work your pieces of equipment. Understand what you face and obsess about every tiny detail. The small details count in games like this.