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The ultimate ultra: The Arizona Trail Race

In the world of multi day, self-supported racing, there are three major races: the Arizona Trail Race, Tour Divide, and the Colorado Trail Race. The first of the season — starting April 13 at 9 am — is the Arizona Trail Race. Traversing the deserts of Arizona, the 300 mile version of the event starts at the Arizona Trail Trailhead at Parker Canyon Lake slightly north of the Mexican border and heads north, sticking to the Arizona Trail (AZT) wherever possible and using dirt roads to bypass Wilderness Areas, finishing in Superior, AZ. The 750 mile version of the race continues north and includes a rim to rim traverse of the Grand Canyon. The only caveat to the Grand Canyon: bike wheels are not allowed to touch the ground so racers are forced to disassemble their bikes, load them on their packs, and hike into the depths of the canyon and back out the other side before reassembling their bikes and continuing on.

Unlike the Tour Divide and other early self supported races, the Arizona Trail Race provides large distances of rocky and technical singletrack and unlike the Colorado Trail, the heat is a major factor in completing the route. Unlike the Divide and the Colorado Trail that have fairly established routes year after year (except for detours due to snow on the Divide) the Arizona Trail route is fairly new and has been continually changing as more trail is built. The final touches on the lower 300 miles were finished this winter.

This year will be the first time racers will race on the completed trail and will tackle new sections of singletrack. Twenty-five miles of newly added trails are described as “among the best miles on the whole trail, so it’s going to be a special year” by event organizer Scott Morris. With the northern sections of the 750 mile version of the event still open to changes, the addition of the new trail is one step closer to cementing a final route for the entire Arizona Trail Race.


Residing in Tucson, AZ., Morris, who was frustrated by the lack of dirt roads in other multi-day races, created the route following as much of the AZT as possible and provided the GPS points to whoever wanted to join him for a ‘race’ in 2006. With navigation being one of the cruxes of newly emerging races, the GPS points helped reduce the home trail advantage and encouraged riders from outside the area to try the route without fear of getting terribly lost. He was uncertain if anyone else was crazy enough to try the route but five others joined him in the inaugural year. Only one other person finished the route besides Morris, but it was the first multi-day event that contained a significant amount of singletrack. Since all the other self-supported race routes relied heavily on dirt roads to cover miles, Morris was unsure whether the hike-a-bike sections of the AZT would appeal to mountain bikers who often times were opposed to taking their bikes for extended walks. Clearly, based on the growth of the race since then, racers have embraced the fact that the long trails are not all manicured trail systems and have accepted that there will be significant portions or trail that require hiking.


There is no official start list, no entry fee, and no announcer at the finish line. It is grassroots racing at its best. The Arizona Trail Race, like its cousins the Tour Divide and Colorado Trail Race, have an honor code-based system of rules. The rules are designed to create equal opportunities for all racers and eliminate all forms of outside support.

1. Complete the entire route under your own power.
2. No support crews
3. No caches
4. No motorized transport or hitchhiking, even off route
5. Gear: Nothing required, nothing prohibited

To summarize: Start with everything you need unless you plan to buy it at a gas station. Don’t expect anyone to rescue you or help you.

This ethos is what draws riders to routes and events like the Arizona Trail Race. While cross country racing is becoming increasingly supported with pits manned with mechanics and even endurance races have a plethora of support, the self supported races truly test the racer against the elements, the trail, and themselves.

From the get go, the AZT is known for testing the resolve of those planning on traversing it. The route leaves from a small trailhead near the border and heads immediately northward over the Santa Rita mountains on terrain that is described as ‘rocky and rubbly’ by the 2011 race winner, Lynda Wallenfels. A little under halfway, the route drops down to Tucson before climbing over the famed Mount Lemmon and the Catalina Mountains before dropping back down to Superior. Water is sparse through much of the route and carrying enough water to stay happy, or at least alive, is a key to completing the race. From Superior, the 750 mile route continues northward towards Payson, Flagstaff, and finally to the southern rim of the Grand Canyon.

Last year, temperatures soared into the 100’s on the course and the heat and trail took its toll on racers — of the 22 that started only four finished. Winning the race, and also becoming the first woman to ever finish the race, was Lynda Wallenfels. Hailing from St. George, UT., the diminutive Wallenfels completed the route in 3 days, four hours, and five minutes.

As an accomplished endurance racer and coach, Wallenfels was drawn to the race by her love of the Sonoran desert. Her preparation for the event was meticulous and her consistent riding had her finishing the route over four hours ahead of her nearest competitor. While she admits to low points, such as the 30 minute hike-a-bike near Molino, she is quick to extol the virtues of the trail including the new sections near the Gila River that made her laugh out loud. She also credits the wide variety of flowers in bloom in making the trail a special route.

As a coach, Wallenfels used her experience on the trail to create a training plan for those looking to complete the Arizona Trail Race. The plan encompasses everything needed to prepare for a self-supported ride. The plan is suitable for riders ranging from those who want to race the route competitively to those who merely want to finish. It focuses on building the fitness and durability to be able to complete the mileage, intervals to build strength and speed, and finally, and maybe most importantly, how to prepare for the small details that are notorious for derailing race plans, such as torn up feet from hike a bike sections, gear selection, nutrition, and GPS use.

With the start of the 2012 race just a matter of weeks away, riders are gearing up for the first major ultra of the year. Many will start and not all will finish as another summer of multi day racing begins.

More information on the race can be found here

Eszter Horanyi lives and mountain bikes in Crested Butte, CO.  She has dabbled in road racing, cyclocross racing, and cross country mountain bike racing, but has gravitated towards ultra endurance and multi day self supported racing in the more recent past.  She firmly believes that nothing tops a good ride with good friends on good trails, thus she spends her life in search of all of the above. All articles by Eszter.

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