With the American Trail Race just three months away, I frequently find my mind floating toward gear organization, music playlists, and the magic of eating stupid amounts of ice cream without it affecting my waistline. Though this distracts me from my grad-school/work schedule more often than I’d like, it seems that prepping for this year’s race is just the mental break I need to keep things balanced, so I’ve decided to embrace the distraction and start a blog 😀
Over the past few years, I’ve participated in some spectacular events, but to me, the ATR is a particularly special route. The sheer length of it guarantees enough time away from the daily grind to truly feel mentally reset when I’m done, and the unexpectedly-steep hill climbs and isolated nature of the course provide a mental and physical challenge I haven’t quite experienced in other events.
And the views…
Cinnamon Pass, Colorado
Dusk falls in the Umpqua National Forest, Oregon.
While I look forward to the ease of riding alongside kudzu-covered forests, free to let my mind wander in a way it doesn’t often get to in daily life, I also eagerly anticipate the mental and physical challenges inherent to a long, remote route that traverses such wildly-diverse landscapes. The challenge dominating my thoughts at the moment: the hot, exposed, beautiful but hellish desert stretch of Utah, Nevada, and Oregon Pt 1. This section was much tougher than I anticipated, which caught me off guard because it was the one I felt most prepared for having spent the last few years living and riding in the desert.
Beaucoup de sable
In December of 2010 I moved to Phoenix, land of majestic saguaro and relentless heat. Shortly after my move, a bit of car trouble and persistently-high gas prices made car ownership seem more like a burden than a convenience. Having arrived in the Sonoran Desert at what I realized later was a deceptively comfortable time of year, I considered what it would be like to live car-free. I knew the summers would be hot, but I clearly wouldn’t have to contend with icy roads in the winter. I felt out of shape and was tired of long, stressful commutes spent bumper to bumper with other annoyed motorists. The prospect of being able to bike commute year-round, visions of healthier living, and the optimistic feeling that I could contribute less to the perpetual haze lying over Phoenix was enough that I sold my car, bought a $98 Roadmaster mountain bike from Walmart and never looked back.
Teddy bear cholla, the cuddliest of cacti
Six years later, I found myself lining up for the 2017 ATR. Being well-adapted to desert riding had me confident that if there was one portion of the route I could count on crushing, it was the beautiful but barren stretch through Utah, Nevada, and southeast Oregon.
This section is characterized by long exposed climbs and several waterless stretches (the longest being ~135 miles), and it seems shade only comes with nightfall. I’m well-accustomed to rationing water and riding strategically in hot exposed places, but a couple of days into this section I started to feel unprepared. I suspect the few weeks I had just spent riding through the humid southeast, cloud-covered Oklahoma, and snowy Colorado put me out of practice.
A tough transition from lush greenery, shade, and abundant surface water to…
Making this crossing is one of the most physically and mentally challenging things I’ve done in my life. One particularly difficult day I found myself tearing through my water more quickly than I liked, so I decided to pitch my rain fly, nap in the shade, and trade a little bit of day riding for night riding. I stumbled around, taking much longer than I should have needed to get the fly up, threw myself under it and started idly shoving large quantities of candy and cheese into my mouth, trying to get my energy back up. Then it started…sharp stinging on my ankles, quickly moving up my legs. I was so out of it I’d thrown myself right next to an ant hill….and was so tired I just laid there and let them carry on for several minutes before grudgingly packing up and heading back into the sun.
Being forced out of their spot so quickly, however, led to a lucky encounter with the only car I’d seen in 9+ hours. Shortly after hopping back on my bike, a truck pulled up beside me, a man jumped out, and he immediately launched into the series of questions one typically hears when found riding alone through such an inhospitable place. To my delight, he quickly broke from the regular string of questions to ask if I knew about Acty Spring. No, sir, I certainly do not. He pulled out a map and gave me detailed directions to a spring located only 1.5 miles off course. As I took off up the hill, he told me he’d drive by it to see if it was actually running.
It was, and it was glorious…
I took off my shoes and threw myself in, sticking my head right under the spout. I’d never felt anything so rejuvenating. A five-minute soak had me feeling like a new woman. I dumped the warm water out of my bottles and re-filled them, ice cold. It’s amazing what just a bit of cool water will do. I sat and thought about how fortunate I am to not have to worry about having reliable access to something as simple as clean water in my daily life.
Even with directions this spring was a bit hard to find, so I’ve put a map and some notes below for future ATR racers and tourists. I don’t doubt that I would have made it to the next water source with what I had left in my bottles, but I would have been dragging for sure. This spring is definitely on my list of stops for this year’s race.
Though I eventually made it through this gorgeous but occasionally miserable stretch without ever running out of water or hope, this year I strive to do it much more efficiently and comfortably, and at least 2 days faster. This time I’m using a frame bag and bladder to increase my water-carrying capacity. Last year I resorted to taping extra bottles to my frame and slinging a gallon jug over an aero bar during the worst stretch, which was an effective but inconvenient technique!
I’m also going to ride later into the night, though I won’t completely trade day riding for night riding. I’ve tried before and am terrible at it.
Any techniques that you prefer for long desert stretches? I’d love to hear about them!
A couple of options for accessing the life-saving spring:
- At what is currently mile 4365.5 of the ATR route, take a double track across a playa to get to Ackley Camp Road. Take a left (east) and ride for about .6 miles, until you see a double track heading uphill to your right (if you get to the old house on the right, you’ve gone too far). The spring is approx 500 feet (0.10 miles) up the hill. The double track is faint and I couldn’t see the spring from the road, but I was able to hear it when I stopped and listened.
- Shortly after mile 4366, take a left (east) on Ackley camp road and follow the rest of the directions above.