Is this real? Photo by Mark Allen
Being the first race I've done in a few months, I was not honestly expecting much out of my legs. I also had been sick with the flu a couple weeks before. So I resolved to simply pace myself, enjoy the scenery, and not slice either of my tires, three goals that can be very tough to achieve on any part of the Arizona Trail.
Eleven riders rolled out under the cover of darkness at 5 am, beginning the 12-mile climb up over the southern edge of the Superstition Mountains. I rode alone at the front for 45 minutes before Max Morris and Aaron McCombs caught up to me. We continued up the long climb together, delighted to see first pale light of the morning filtering over the cliffs above. Weaving among spires of welded volcanic ash, the trail climbed higher and higher as more and more of our surroundings became clearly illuminated.
And then suddenly, we crested a gap in the ridgeline, and a fantasy world of a pastel but vibrant sky over cathedrals of glowing stone, a bank of fog on the opposite side of the Gila River Canyon far below, and bright green vegetation and lichens all around us. I skidded to a stop to simply take in the view. It was like nothing I've experienced before, and unfortunately, my camera battery was out of juice. Max continued on, Aaron snapped a few blurry photos with his phone, and then we chased after Max.
Into a fantasy land. Photo by Aaron McCombs.
I crashed on one turn as I was again distracted by the view. Aaron did the exact same thing behind me, ripping his tire bead off the rim in the process. Max and I rode together for the next couple hours through White Canyon, talking about the Tour Divide, racing, and life. Four hours in, I was feeling strong, and as we began the next long climb, Max dropped back, and I forged ahead on my own, listening to the crunching of rocks beneath my tires and the subtle grinding of my chain as I churned my lowest gear through the many tight switchbacks.
On that climb, I settled into a comfortable rhythm that I managed to maintain for seven more hours. Sections of the trail I've always struggled on passed with ease. My mind stayed focused, my legs comfortable, and my tires inflated. The twenty miles of climbing before reaching Antelope Peak quickly passed, and the cholla-lined trail beyond was nothing short of delightful. I ground up the 1500 feet of climbing above Bloodsucker Wash, not realizing there was anywhere near that much uphill.
82 miles in and still smiling. Photo by John SchillingWith 10 tough miles to go, I became confident that I could finish by sunset even if I bonked, so I finally ended my careful pacing and pushed harder. The dozen or so short, steep climbs out of drainages disappeared behind me as my legs did everything I asked of them. And suddenly, I found myself looking several switchbacks above me at the new Arizona Trail archway at the trailhead finish line. The remaining riders trickled in for several hours after that, several killing it on singlespeeds and several completing their longest off-road races to date. Very cool.
The Gila 100 is indeed a monster, but it is a breathtaking ride unlike any other ~100 milers out there. I finished in just shy of 13 hours and was impressively exhausted for the two days following. But it gave me some confidence for a few upcoming races, and provided a bit of a boost for my racing inclination at a time when I am continually questioning the rationale for racing rather than instead going bikepacking and on adventure rides.