My Arizona Trail Adventure – Part 1

Type 2 fun….. possibly type 2.5

Background

I only discovered my passion for running later in life.  I was working in the corporate world for 22 years, at the age of 38 I decided to quit in order to pursue a journey of self discovery, wherein I found running and haven’t looked back since.  In July 2017, I came to Flagstaff, Arizona for Rob Krar’s ‘Trail & Ultra Running Camp’, this was my first experience of running on trails. I fell in love with trail running, Flagstaff and the community and decided to move out here a month later. 

About a year ago, approximately 6 months after I first experienced trail running, I came up with the crazy idea that I’d like to run the entire length of the Arizona Trail, all 800 miles of it.  And, not just run it, but try to set the women’s supported Fastest Known Time, FKT (currently there is only an unsupported recorded FKT of 19 days, the men’s supported FKT is 15 days 22 hours).  This meant I would need to cover 50 miles a day for 15 days.   I always like to set myself a new challenge and this certainly met the criteria.  I would be wildly outside of my comfort zone having never been backpacking and only just beginning my career in ultra running. At that time the furthest distance I had run being 50 miles in one go.  Now it is 100k…ok, well 155 miles if we count this adventure.  I was looking for a challenge that would hold meaning for me too and as it was in Arizona where I finally felt like I belonged, having found my people, the trail running community, it seemed fitting.  I could raise money for the AZT Association and give back to a community that has welcomed me from the beginning with open arms.  

The sections I had seen of the AZ trail in Flagstaff were nice single track and well maintained.  With the Arizona Trail Association looking after the trail, how bad could it be?  My coach and I looked at my racing calendar and decided that my first 100mile race would take priority.  As this was happening in June 2019, taking into account recovery and then training, I would be able to run the AZT in October 2019. We decided that I should do a 4-day trial run to see what it would entail, and to give me a chance to get a taste for it to make sure I was absolutely sure I would want to take on this challenge.  My friend Emily was able to secure 4 days off work and agreed to support me and drive between miles and set up camp each day.  I chose a section of the trail down South, for warmth at this time of year and my coach agreed that I would try to cover 25 miles, 50 miles, 50 miles and 25 miles across the 4 days.  He didn’t want me to break myself with my 100mile race being my next goal race.  I looked on the member site of the AZT and the Passages and access points and I came up with the following plan:

Day 1  Passage 15Tortilla Mountains28.1 miles
Day 2 Passages 16-18 Gila River, Alamo & Reavis Canyons56.1 miles
Day 3Passages 19 & 20Superstitions, Four Peaks48.4 miles
Day 4Passage 21Pine Canyon19.3 miles
Total  151.9 miles

Wednesday 13thMarch 2019

We travelled halfway to Phoenix the night before to miss a storm that was due to roll into Flagstaff so I was packed and ready to go. I awoke with a feeling of excitement and the anticipation of not really knowing what to expect, naively looking forward to running lots of miles on sweet trails in good weather. As I enjoy running long distances and having ‘me’ time to meditate, I was looking at this adventure as a chance for a holiday to rebalance and find my inner peace.  I wasn’t scared, I had no forethought of challenges, I was just focused on having the opportunity to run, a lot.

We drove to the Freeman Road Trailhead (TH) in Kearney, just north of Tucson.  I had my pack all ready to go, I realized I just needed to have a look at the water filtration system my housemate had given me, so I took it out of the packet and read the instructions (I know I probably should have done this in advance…this was how relaxed I was feeling about the trip). I had asked on Facebook for some filter recommendations and A&B drops came out as a popular option. The instructions said I had to mix ¼ tsp of A with ¼ tsp of B in 9 gallons of water! I was a bit frustrated at reading this, as I wouldn’t be purifying 9 gallons of water, only a 500ml flask (0.1 of a gallon!) and so more likely only needed 1/100thof a teaspoon, of which I wasn’t able to measure.  I have never used a water filter and so was already nervous about drinking from rivers and creeks, I didn’t know what to do.  I came to the executive decision that I could last the day on 2 ½ litres of water (5 hours worth) and left the drops in the car (Lesson number 1 – research filter systems and practice using well in advance of October to get comfortable with drinking and filtering water).  

Excited to start my adventure

We pull up to the TH and of course, the heavens open…hailstones come careering down and winds are chopping trees around us.  This is nothing new to me… I ran Boston last year with the worst storm on record and I’m used to running in gnarly conditions.  A quick change into running tights, buff around the neck and rain jacket over my pack and I was ready to start my adventure. I said my goodbyes to Emily with the promise of seeing her at days end at Gila River.

Off I went and thankfully, despite the storm I wasn’t cold and the trail was very runnable, rolling but relatively flat and clearly marked single track.  After about 8 miles the rain and hailstones stopped, the clouds parted and the sun started to peek out.  A big smile formed on my face.  The wind was still there, but manageable.  Open desert, lots of cacti and beautiful springtime poppies.  

Although I had strict instructions from coach to keep the running to maximum 50%, I didn’t want to pass up the opportunity to enjoy these trails and knew there would be some hard climbing in the days to come, so I kept it light and steady, fast-hiking any climbs and made it to the trailhead around 5pm where I was greeted by Emily and her raccoon dog Finn, walking on the trail to meet me.  I finished the day feeling good and strong.  The trail ended under a freeway, so with limited camping spots we camped on the trail.  We heated up the food I had already prepared in advance (chicken, pasta and spinach), I foam rolled and then we went to bed.

28.83 miles | 6:18 hours | 1,877ft Gain | 4,142ft Loss

Fuel: GU Energy 4 x Roctane Powder, 4 x Gels

Hydration: 2 litres

Thursday 14thMarch 2019

I woke up before the alarm at 430am.  I had had a restless nights sleep as we had found ourselves camped next to a railway line, wherein the trains rolled through 3 or 4 times during the night blaring their horns (Lesson no.2 – research camp sites). Despite the lack of sleep, I still awoke feeling energized and excited to start the long day ahead.  Today, I had 56 miles in the books to do.  I started to get ready and cooked my breakfast (my go-to of oatmeal, berries, turmeric, ginger, cinnamon, black pepper and Greek yoghurt).  It was so bloomin’ cold though, my fingers soon froze and it was a slow process! Emily packed up camp and went to start the engine to get some heat going, when she discovered the battery had died!  We hadn’t left any lights on overnight so it must have been when we had the doors opened and the interior lights on for extended period of times.  Who knew that those little light bulbs could drain a car battery!!!  For once, it was I who had cell service and we managed to contact roadside assistance, but they said it could take an hour.  While I finished getting ready, Emily went in search for help.  I wasn’t going to leave her alone without cell service. She found a couple of good Samaritans who jump-started the car and I was good to go (Lesson no.3 – make sure the support vehicle has been serviced and turn off all interior lights).  

I was starting later than I had wanted (640am vs 6am) which worried me a little given the volume of mileage, but it was what it was so I just had to get cracking.  The next time I would be able to see Emily would be at the Picketpost TH 37.9 miles away as this was the first available point for vehicle access.  I told her that I thought I would be there in around 8 hours, so 240pm. I had borrowed a 12L pack and 2L bladder from my friend Betsy, for these long days and so, with my 2 x 500ml flasks, I had with me 3L of fluid. This amount of fluid was cutting it fine (ideally 500ml per hour as a minimum), but I knew I wouldn’t be drinking that much to start with and I was hoping I’d get to the TH quicker than 8 hours anyway as I felt I had included a buffer in my estimation.  

Off I went.  The day was shaping up to be warm and sunny, I was happy.  I soon stripped off my wind jacket and was running in my shorts and t-shirt. I went to take a sip from the bladder, only to find I couldn’t suck up any liquid.  Perhaps it was frozen from the icy night still.  I drank from my flask instead.  A couple of hours later, once I had drank the contents of my first flask, I tried the bladder again, still no joy.  So I stopped, took it out of the vest, jiggled it around, sucked and blowed. Still no joy! I was wasting far too much time on an already time crunched day.  I figured, at least I had liquid and I would just have to stop and decant into my flasks throughout the day.  Not ideal but it was what it was! (Lesson no.4 – test all equipment before use and always test flasks and bladders once filled.  Schoolgirl error for sure!).  This bladder was soft plastic, very difficult to hold and pour at the same time.  I lost nearly 1/4litre of fluid, pouring it into my flask.  Not what I needed when I was already carrying too low volume of fluids.  It was very frustrating but not a lot to be done about it. I thought to myself that I would try to be cleverer on the next attempt and I carried on going.  

Reminder of Crete, Greece

My worries were washed away as I came into Alamo Canyon and was greeted with the smell of Thyme.  I was instantly transported back to my homeland of Crete, Greece where Thyme grows in abundance wildly in the mountains.  The Canyon was also likening itself to the rugged rockiness of the Cretan mountains…and the wildflowers!  Wow, such beauty and all that yellow, my favourite colour. Coupled with the sweet single track, I was surely in heaven.  This was why I did this, running free through the wild.

With the bladder issues and stops to enjoy my surroundings, the day was taking longer than expected and unfortunately without cell service, I was getting a little stressed that Emily would be worried expecting me at 240pm, I was now likely to get there more around 4pm (Lesson no.5  – when including a buffer, include some more!).  There was nothing to be done and I was determined to be in the moment and enjoy the experience and my surroundings.  I ran on all the runnable sections and tried to keep a good hiking pace up all the climbs. I saw the TH in the distance and Emily was there waiting.  I immediately drank half a litre!!  I then swapped out the bladder for my usual 1.5 litre which I knew worked, restocked my food and picked up my headlamp. I had 18.4 miles to go until our camping spot at Rogers Trough TH.  I told Emily, hopefully I would be there around 9pm, but in my head I was hoping it would be nearer 8pm.  There was nothing in the notes to show this section had anything difficult about it. I was a bit nervous about running in the dark as my exposure has been limited and I’ve never run on my own in the dark before, but with dusk around 630-7pm, I was hoping I only had an hour or so of bravery ahead of me.  

Off I set.  I was feeling a bit tired at this point, 67 miles in coupled with my lack of sleep last night and my dehydrated state from earlier.  I had slowed down but kept pushing forward knowing the end was in sight. Around 630pm as it was getting dark; I came to the streambed at Reavis Canyon (as per the notes – it follows this streambed up to Montana Mountain).  I couldn’t believe that this streambed was full flowing with water.  I looked for a way to cross without getting my feet wet, worried that it was getting dark and knowing I wouldn’t be able to dry off.  I couldn’t find a way, so I waded through trying to keep my self steady, more worried now about slipping.  I needn’t have worried about trying to keep dry as I ended up having to cross this streambed 34 times…yes, 34 times!!!  To be continued….

Footnote: Article relating to Type Fun can be found at http://pebbleshoo.com/3-types-fun/

10 thoughts on “My Arizona Trail Adventure – Part 1”

  1. Great story. As we know from previous mountain hikes, Mother Nature is not to be trusted!! Lol. I look forward to the next instalment…

  2. This is my honour to read your blog! Very inspiring. I am very proud of you, and feel grateful that you are my friend.

  3. Wow Helen, I am so proud of you and what you have achieved. Your passion for your running is inspiring. Looking forward to next installment. Keep safe my friend and well hydrated. Xx

  4. Helen you are truly amazing and you write so well, although after reading your blog I think I preferred my ignorance that all was safe when you ran, saying that however I cannot wait until the next instalment ……… :o) x

Leave a Reply