After three years, Aaron Gulley finally made good on his obsession with one of the harshest, self-supported mountain bike races in the West.
In April, I rode 300 miles in a through-push on the Arizona Trail in an annual bikepacking race that bills itself as "No entry fee, no prizes, absolutely no support." Friends and family asked me why I did it—why I do any of these endurance races. Everyone acts like there’s some quick, straightforward answer.
For me the AZT starts with the desert. The Sonoran, that rugged swath of stony, rolling wasteland that sweeps up from the Sierra Madre in Mexico to engulf a chunk of Arizona and southeast California, has captivated me since I first visited a decade ago. Up against the harsh, stripped-down topography, there’s lush and whimsical flora: cholla that look like topsy-turvy erector sets, sunshine-yellow creosote bushes, and the giant saguaros, which somehow balance between majestic and ridiculous.
When I heard about the Arizona Trail Race (AZTR) a handful of years ago, I knew I had to do it. The full AZTR spans the entire state, but at the time most riders were doing the shorter, 300-mile option from Parker Canyon Lake, just north of the Mexico border, to Superior, Arizona, east of Phoenix.
It’s predominantly singletrack and follows ascetic rules of self-support: Get yourself to the end, under your own power, and without assistance. I was just starting to dabble in endurance events when I heard about it, but somehow I figured that a couple of 12-hour races and a run on the Candyland course at Leadville was preparation enough. I was an athlete and a desert kid—what could go wrong?
As it turned out, almost everything—from some extraordinary food poisoning on my first attempt in 2010 to a GPS failure that left me wandering in desert darkness the following year. Last year, a late-season snowstorm closed Mt. Lemmon, and when I reached 6,500 feet, the officer tasked with enforcing the closure took one look at scrawny, underdressed me, another look at the snow piling up on the blocked highway, and turned me back.
I’m not used to failing, and, dammit, did those DNFs sting. I was demoralized, humiliated. But I also continued to believe that I had a smooth ride in me, so I was drawn back like a jilted lover. Rather than give up, I obsessed.
Before this year’s AZT300, I pored over maps of the course, weighed myself and my gear, counted calories, and scratched out list after list of mileages, waypoints, water sources, time splits. Going fast on a ride like this requires trimming your kit as small as you dare to save weight while still carrying enough for eventualities.
Some of the more important bits: two spare Slime tubes (as heavy as anchors); a curved industrial needle and dental floss for stitching tire slashes; 5,940 calories and Osmo enough for 600 ounces; Gorilla tape and zip ties; a comb and tweezers to extract cacti from my skin; 20+ hours of light power (plus a backup); an emergency bivvy, and a spare GPS with track.
I sometimes think that you have to like the compulsive planning as much as the riding itself to do these events. When I finally rolled up to Parker Canyon Lake, my setup looked anemic compared to most riders’, with my bike at just 34.9 pounds and less than seven pounds on my back.
It was great to see more racers at the start than ever—37 for the 300, with another five starting late, and 15 for the full AZTR—but I was so absorbed in my ambitions that I barely noticed. The start was unceremonious as always, a ragtag group filtering into the desert.
One thing I love about this sort of racing is that everyone has their own intentions and designs, from blazing a course record to just surviving. I exchanged a few words with a other racers as I moved past them, filtering through the riders who started early. After just an hour or two, I was on my own, which is how I wanted it. At the risk of sounding grandiose, this was my vision quest, and I needed to do it alone.
The first half of the course, which I’d tried so many times before, became a series of comfortingly familiar landmarks. After just 2.5 miles, I passed the spot where, in 2012 I shredded a sidewall—and my confidence. A few miles before Kentucky Camp, just six hours in, I rode by the acacia where my wife and I had encountered a scrum of undocumented immigrants crouching in the shade. At a forest gate near dusk, I remembered stamping around impatiently in 2011 as AZTR record-holder Kurt Refsnider sat and ate a sandwich. “Sometimes food just tastes better sitting down,” he’d said, a platitude that’s taken me a few years to appreciate.
Everyone thinks that we’re out suffering in these races, but the truth is that the AZT is so replete with twisting, laugh-out-loud singletrack that it mostly feels like fun. I barely stopped in the first 21 hours of racing, and when I found myself an hour early at Molino Campground, low on Mt. Lemmon, I allowed myself a 10-minute nap that felt as restful as a full night’s sleep.
I climbed higher and soon churned past Windy Point, where I’d been turned around in the snowstorm the previous year. I savored the sun on my arms and the passage into new territory. An hour later, I crested Mt. Lemmon at Summerhaven, where the world's friendliest waitress packed up a turkey sandwich, two burritos, bread pudding, and four chocolate chip cookies that she pilfered from house-made ice cream sandwiches. She served me the filling in a bowl, and I savored eating fistfuls of vanilla ice cream guilt-free at 9 a.m.
Next came the “Traverse of Death”, a thorny, rocky, exposed crest of trail that would offend most goats. It didn’t kill me, but it slowed things to a crawl and inspired a few fits of frustrated cursing—especially when I envisioned my friend Scott Morris, race director and creator of the TopoFusion mapping software he used to plot the course, slamming down the ridge in 3.5 hours en route to a course record the previous year. Five hours later, I reached Oracle.
It was 2 p.m., I was crisping like a Minnesotan retiree in the Arizona sun, and I made my first and only real mistake of the race. I replenished my bottles at a state park landmark called the Kanally House and sped off into the open desert without trying the water. Miles down the trail, I took a draw off my hydration pack, and it tasted like bile. Bad water. I forced myself to drink—I had no real option in the burning sun—and became progressively more bloated and sick. Two hours later, I was vomiting beneath a mesquite tree and wondering if I might die in the desert.
As I hunched over and wretched, I momentarily thought of skulking 12 miles back to clean water in Oracle. But if there’s one thing that I’ve learned on the Arizona Trail it’s that nothing is ever as bleak as it seems. So rather than retreat, I eked out a bit of shade for a 40-minute nap. Submission is another thing I’ve learned. No matter how tough you are, the desert is tougher, and enduring sometimes means yielding. Before I left Parker Canyon Lake, I accepted that no matter how prepared I was or how determined I felt, I still might not succeed—if I didn’t, I’d at least ride away certain that I’d done everything that I could.
When I rose, the relentless heat of the day was abating, and I could move again, if slowly. I inched forward, walking up hills and blundering through wrong turns. Eventually dusk fell, and the relative cool made the fact that I hadn’t had a sip of liquid in hours more tolerable. My mouth felt like it was stuffed with tissues, and I trudged forward and finally reached a road. I came upon a woman hiking in the darkness with no light and an umbrella and thought I was hallucinating, but she told me she was a through-hiker. Not long after, I arrived at the Freeman Water Cache, 18 miles from where I got sick. I drank like Jesus after his 40 days in the desert. Then I lay down and slept another 40 minutes. When I woke it was midnight and chilly, and I felt as if I’d been resurrected. Time to ride.
After Freeman comes a section called The Boulders, which trends gently downhill and is rollercoaster fast. My legs warmed and I pistoned forward like I hadn’t in ten hours. The saguaros were shadowy figures urging me forward in the night, and my lights glinted like diamond pinpricks off the eyes of tarantulas, which balled up and recoiled as I zoomed past. I trailed a skunk for a quarter of a mile, then I had to lock up my brakes to avoid a coyote sitting in my path. She stared at me and didn’t budge for what felt like an eternity until I finally yipped at her so I could move forward. I sang out loud and counted falling stars, and before I knew it I was at the Gila River and the skyline was sharpening with the cobalt hues of morning. One final, 35-mile push remained.
The passage from Kelvin, on the Gila River, to Superior is the only section of the AZT300 that I hadn’t ridden before. I was both excited and unnerved about not knowing what lay ahead. The trail zigged and zagged along the river for a few hours then turned north through a forest of saguaros as big as missile silos and scrambled sharply into a range of toothy mountains. I should have loathed and cursed this grinding climb in my depleted state, but the trail was so well built and the surroundings so enticing that I simply pedaled upward in awe.
At a high saddle, I looked down into a hanging valley and knew that this was what I’d been riding toward for four years. It was a private, unspoiled place, with shields of golden rock piercing the scraggly mountains and a ribbon of trail snaking along the ridge sides to the horizon. I often tell people that I go into the wilderness to affirm that such places exist, which is true, but that doesn't explain racing. In taking on the AZT, I realized that I ride hard to test myself and to build fortitude—after a four-year opus like this, insurance hassles and speeding tickets and all the other day-to-day headaches that once seemed a big deal now feel like mere trifles. Solitude and relentless exertion sharpen the vision so I can see both the immense and humbling spaces—as well as myself—more clearly.
It took more than an hour to slash down the meandering, rocky trails that lead from the far side of the hanging valley to the finish of the race at Picket Post trailhead. I stopped the clock in 51 hours and 59 minutes, faster than anyone before me. More importantly, I was certain that, though it hadn’t been a perfect run, I’d done everything that I could.
I was relieved that there was nothing waiting for me in the dusty parking lot—no people, no backslaps, no commotion. It was just me and the burning bright desert.