Sink Into the Earth: Lael Wilcox Rides the 827 Mile Arizona Trail – Lael Wilcox & Rugile Kaladyte

On April 12, 2022, Lael Wilcox set out to ride the 827-mile Arizona Trail faster than anyone had before. She completed her ride in 9 days, 8 hours, and 23 minutes on April 21. This is her story.

Note: Lael’s time is not recognized by the AZT Race administration which prohibits media coverage. The current official records: Men’s – Nate Ginzton – 9:10:44; Women’s – Chase Edwards – 10:18:59

 

April 20, 2022 around 11pm at mile 745

I’m flat on my back, tucked behind the two-story pit toilets at the Manzanita Rest Area on the North Kaibab Trail in the Grand Canyon on the ninth night of my Arizona Trail time trial.

My bike is disassembled and strapped to a hydration pack and propped against the wall that’s protecting me from the wind. It’s been gusty for days.

It’s against the law to ride your bike through the Grand Canyon. The wheels can’t touch the ground. To complete the Arizona Trail by bike, you have to carry it through. It’s 24 miles– 4,700’ down from the South Rim, along the Colorado River and 5,700’ up to the North Rim.

I breathe methodically. My eyes are closed. I’m meditating.

“Sink into the earth. Rest your eyes and your body and your mind.”

I’m mentally and physically preparing for the finish. It’s so close– just another 5 ½ miles of hiking and 80 miles of singletrack.

I’ll climb another 4,500’ to the highest point of the route. It’s at least 30 degrees cooler up there with residual snow from the winter. I don’t know if I can make it through, but I have to be ready to try.

Set for an hour and a half, my alarm sounds before midnight. It’s time to move.

I put on my helmet, switch on my headlamp, down a bottle of water, hoist my bike onto my back and begin the ascent. It’s somewhere between a trudge and a march. The North Kaibab Trail is a staircase.

Carrying a bike on your back is a burden. I can feel the bruises on my shoulders and low back. The pressure has caused my hands to swell into paws. I can’t see any of the knuckle joints. I clench my fists to encourage blood flow. It’s a losing battle. I just have to get there and I’m making it.

I cross paths with a pair of hikers.

“Are you Lael?”

We talk while passing, blinding each other with our headlights before continuing into the night. At all hours, in all seasons, people are crossing the canyon. It’s a national treasure, one of my favorite places in the world, something everyone should experience.

I don’t get hung up on how I feel. I just keep moving forward. This is hard. It’s complicated. I’m traveling through beauty. I’m in pain. I’m alone, but along the way, I see so much life.

There’s a tent set up at Roaring Springs and another at Supai Tunnel.

My peers are Arizona Trail thru-hikers. I see them every day. On the climbs, sometimes our pace isn’t so different, but at the top or crossing a meadow, I can throw my leg over the bike and cruise. Without cell phone reception, they have their own methods of communication. It’s like a game of telephone. Hikers cross paths and relay information to the next group. Most of them know I’m out here and that I’m going for speed. They’re kind and encouraging and can relate to the experience. Exposed to the elements– from desert to grasslands to pine forests– blazing hot days and freezing nights, with limited water and little access to food, we are living adventure. Beyond respecting the land, the communities and each other, there is no right or wrong.

The higher I go, the colder it gets.

I pass under a rock archway, see the sign for the trailhead and nearly cry out in joy.

It’s dark, windy and below freezing. I put on all of my layers, put my bike together, turn on my GPS and ride away.

The start: April 12, 2022 9:01am

For an individual time trial, you can set the start for any time. You can ride the trail in either direction. You ride alone and you race the clock. You make your own decisions and take care of your own needs. This has always been my approach for the Arizona Trail. I started a time trial from the north in 2015. I rode a time trial on the 300 in 2018. I’m back to finish the trail. That’s the priority– a clean run and to finish as fast as I can.

I start at a small stone monument on a dirt road at the Mexican border, evident by the wall. It’s windy and it’s cool, good conditions for mid April in Southern Arizona. I’m overwhelmed by a wave of calm. I’m in a trance. I don’t fight it. I’ve been thinking about this ride for seven years, since my first failed attempt. While planning, I felt dread and terror. It’s technical and exposed. So much could go wrong.

I’m always surprised by how I feel come race day, but this is definitely a first. I’m riding through a dream. I’m so relaxed, I miss the first turn, less than a mile into the ride. I double back. It doesn’t phase me. Right now, nothing can.

The calm lasts for four hours. Excitement kicks in.

It gets dark near Kentucky Camp, 72 miles into the ride. I ride for another 30 by the light of my bike and bivvy at the Sahuarita Road water cache. I wake up with frozen water bottles and head out wearing everything I brought. Clothed in leather work gloves, my hands ache with cold. I’m in Southern Arizona at low elevation. This is not looking good for the coming days. Today, I’ll climb to Summerhaven at the top of Mount Lemmon and above 8,000’. There are rental cabins, but I’m sure they’re booked. I’ll sleep in the post office. The door is open and it’s heated. The lights don’t turn off, but you can’t have it all.

It’s a hell of a push to get there– over Redington Pass out towards Chiva Falls and backwards up stretches of the Lemmon Drop, a famous enduro descent down the mountain. I put on my running shoes and walk most of it. Nice to see a few locals from Tucson and a group of lady hikers make a trekking pole tunnel for me to ride through.

I bed down in the post office, set my alarm for 2 in the morning and wake up to face Oracle Ridge, a rugged walk down the backside of Mount Lemmon. I’m imagining that I’ll have to wear my ground cloth like a toga and am dumbfounded when it’s not even cold. Hooray!

I cross paths with Alexandera Houchin pushing up the opposite direction at about 4 in the morning.

She says, “Have a nice ride!”

It’s a full moon. I witness the sunrise on the ridge. The deep pink is almost red. These are the moments that make these efforts special.

Someone is frying bacon at the American Flag Trailhead. I wish it was for me. I see a group of hikers and stop to fill up at the water cache. One of them tells me that I can’t stop if I want to get the record.

“I have to get water.”

The trails through Oracle are in exceptional condition. It’s fast and fun. Such a change to be moving at speed!

The next 90 miles are an absolute ass kicker– exposed with little water, in and out of drainages. I plug away. The wildflowers and cactus bloom are otherworldly. I see a few hikers. I’m in my own head, making my way.

I ride the Ripsey rollercoaster at sunset. It’s lush and golden with bright yellow flowers, filling my heart with hope. I’ll sleep early in preparation for the 40 mile stretch along the Gila River to the Picketpost Trailhead with no easy access to water.

I’m up at 2 and spend the next 5 hours traveling in the dark. The light hits the peaks and then the temperature rises. I pass a hiker that’s a friend of a friend and planned to be on the bike until he had a mechanical and now he’s walking and he’s still smiling. I eat Joje bars and Trailbutter. I’m a human machine– consuming, moving, feeling. There’s time for everything.

It’s not easy to get to Picketpost, but I make it in the heat of the day. John Schilling, the organizer of the AZTR, is waiting with his phone out to take a picture. He gives me a side hug. I’ve been out of water for hours. There’s no spigot, so I don’t delay. A half mile down the trail, I find a water cache. What a relief. It’s a bit more trail and then dirt road to Queen Valley, my first chance to buy food in a couple of days.

I stop at the Mexican restaurant and tell them I’m racing my bike through and ask what’s fast. Quesadillas? The woman says they slice them in four and I can eat them on the bike like pizza. I order four to go, wrapped in foil.

“Do you want salsa and guacamole?”

“Just a little.”

“How about a spicy pickle?”

“Yes, please!”

I buy a gallon of water– drinking it and pouring it over my head in turns. I fill a bottle with iced tea, drink the salsas, spoon out the guacamole with my finger, consolidate the quesadillas and I’m back on my bike, flying high– thrilled to have fresh food and happy to be moving.

There’s singletrack and fuschia cactus flowers on the way to Gold Canyon. I stop for a proper resupply at the Basha’s– wrapping up an entire large cheesecake in foil to go. I buy lithium batteries for my headlight and aloe gel for my constant nose bleeds. Heading into the sunset, I’m feeling good. The vistas will make you melt. The loose, rocky trail in front of the Superstitions is time consuming. I change into my sneakers and keep moving. Darkness falls. I’m aiming for the Saguaro Lake Marina for a water fill. I pass dozens of car campers with bonfires and bottles.

“That must be one crazy bike ride!”

“It is!”

I’m up and down on the crushed white rock roads until I hit the pavement, cruise over a climb and down to the marina. It’s closed in by a tall fence. I knock on the office door and nobody answers. I grab my bottles and hydration pack, leaving my bike propped against the wall and hop the fence to the other side. A couple of workers are cleaning out the grease trap of the restaurant. I ask if there’s a spigot and they have no idea. I walk out to the docks and find one. I fill up and get out of there. It’s another couple of miles to an OHV staging area with pavilions and picnic tables. It’s midnight and there’s still traffic ripping through, but I don’t think I’ll find a better spot. I lay my bedroll out on the concrete, drink a Gnarly protein-greens shake and set my alarm for four hours.

The next morning is my favorite of them all– climbing dirt roads in the Four Peaks Wilderness above 6,000’. I’m back on the Arizona Trail for the descent and aiming for the Best Western in Payson. I make it by two in the morning, ordering Mexican food from the Filiberto’s drive thru on my way into town.

The Highline Trail marks day 6. I’m climbing up to the Mogollon Rim. It takes me all day to cover less than 40 miles– lots of walking and a bit overgrown, but absolutely stunning. I camp early and low to get some sleep and recovery before climbing to freezing temperatures.

It’s a 24 hour push to Flagstaff. It’s getting harder to focus my eyes at night, but I’m trying to be strategic about my stops. If I can make it to a town, I can sleep in a hotel, charge my electronics, take a shower, have access to water, pass out for four hours in a warm bed, save time packing, get hot food at night and a full ressupply in the morning. It’s a better use of time and energy than bivvying on the side of the road.

Flagstaff locals come out to lift my spirits. Cami and Allison wait for me up on the mesa just after sunset, Celine is under the route 66 bridge around 10pm and Harrison tells me it’ll be his birthday in 9 minutes as I’m almost to town. It’s wonderful to celebrate.

I detour two and a half miles to a hotel and get some take out Mexican food out front. Plug in the Wahoo, plug in the phone, plug in the SRAM batteries, plug in the power bank, plug in the watch, take a shower, set the alarm, breathe deeply, lights out, brain off. It’s time to rest.

Pain wakes me up. My knees ache. My hands are numb. My shoulders are throbbing.

It’s time to go.

The next push is to Tusayan, the entrance to the Grand Canyon. I won’t stop until I get there.

The Tunnel Fire in Flagstaff chases me out of town. After I get through, the road is closed. The wind is blowing. They can’t contain it. Wildfires are changing reality in the west. It’s devastating.

The ride out of Flagstaff up to Snowbowl is a ball. It’s fast and fun and I’m in my element. I hit snow and downed trees on the other side. I’m not worried. I’m moving. I ride into a nasty headwind through Babbitt Ranch.

When the sun goes down, I get tunnel vision. I’m staring down the trail, trying to move as fast as I can, knowing I have to make it. The focus is wearing me down. I’m getting close to the end. It’s cold enough that I’m riding in my down jacket.

It’s a triumph to make it to Tusayan. I plug in, shower and pass out.

I load up at the hotel buffet. The attendant is a trail runner and brings me out plastic wrap so I can take cheese omelets, sausage links and muffins to go. He suggests that I buy frozen fruit to add to my water bottles. I don’t find any at the gas station. I buy two pints of ice cream and as much packaged food as I can cram in my bags. I fill my hydration pack with a mix of iced tea and electrolytes. I drink a Coke. I’m ready.

It’s just a few miles to the South Kaibab Trailhead and it’s about as busy as it gets. Three ladies cheer me in– two Germans that I recorded a podcast with in the spring and an American they just met. They’re all thru-hiking the AZT. It’s a light to see them. I spend a few minutes visiting while I eat a pint of ice cream with my toothbrush handle.

“We want to watch you take your bike apart!”

“Sure!”

I walk it over to the rim and start the process of getting the bike strapped to my shoebox sized hydration pack. The first step is to take all of the extra food out of the backpack– several thousand calories worth of breakfast buffet & gas station fare. An aggressive squirrel goes straight for the treasure pile and it doesn’t back down, no matter how sternly I shake my finger. I’m worried he might actually bite my hand.

Front wheel off, handlebars twisted, food stuffed in the framebag, buckles clipped, 5 Austere Manufacturing straps to anchor it all down.

I bend down and huck the pack onto my back, clip the chest & waist straps and I’m ready to go.

There are families descending and hikers in jeans. I hear languages I don’t recognize and so many reactions.

“There must be good riding down there!”

“Unfortunately, no!”

“You’re my hero!”

“It’s hard enough to walk.”

“I’m not even going to ask.”

One lady’s jaw drops and her eyes bug out like she can’t believe what she’s seeing. I can’t help, but laugh. It really does feel ridiculous. And then it just feels hard. Three miles down, the crowd thins to a trickle. Everyone is kind. I’m stopped by a mule team. The leader directs me to wait at the side of the trail. And then I’m stopped by another mule team doing trail work.

“We’ll just be another 5 minutes.”

I’m staring into the sun. I’m melting. I drink the other pint of melted ice cream.

The hose on my hydration pack is leaking sticky orange electrolyte & iced tea mix all over my filthy t-shirt. My hands are bulging from the pressure on my shoulders. The Grand Canyon is romantic. This isn’t. I keep walking.

I make it down to the Colorado River, cross the bridge and stop at the boat launch water spigot. I drink a couple of bottles and soak my head and my clothes. What a relief! A couple of hikers invite me to share their campsite at Cottonwood, another 7 miles along the river.

I hoist on my pack and keep going. Along the river, it gets better. A dozen folks on the other side cheer for me when I pass. A lady hiker gives me a square of dark chocolate.

“It has caffeine. It should help!”

I make it to Cottonwood at sunset. The water is turned off, so I fill up at the river. I tell the hikers that I’m going to keep moving.

“Good luck!”

I’m getting close. I stop at Manzanita to meditate and I’m back on my way– up to the freezing North Rim. The wind whips over the snow, chilling me to the bone. I have to keep moving to keep my body warm. I’m so tired. I’m struggling to focus my eyes. I know I can’t sleep on the frozen ground. I’ll lose too much heat. I have to keep going. At the last moment, my eyes recognize a downed tree. I slam on the brakes. My rear wheel fishtails out. Close one! I’ve got to find somewhere to sleep– maybe a pit toilet or an outhouse– anything off the ground.

Patches of snow, downed trees, I shoulder my bike, I look for openings. It’s awkward and slow, but I’m moving, grateful for the icy post-hole grooves from previous hikers.

Around 5am, I come to a crossroads with a forest service cabin. The door is locked, but there’s space on the porch between wood stacks. Perfect! I pull out my sleeping bag, set my alarm for an hour and have the best sleep of the entire ride.

I wake up to the sun high in the sky. I’m ready to finish this! I pack up and I’m back on the bike. Some of the snow patches have a light frozen crust coating and I can actually ride straight over. It’s a miracle! Everything is better in the light of day.

It’s a dance– on the bike, over a snow patch, off the bike, over the tree trunk– back and forth, over and over. The deep rutted mud is frozen. Thank God!

I pass tents in flat patches. I pass hikers through meadows. The best moment is the view over the Saddle Mountain Wilderness. It’s an odd balance– moments of beauty, moments of pain, I want to be finished, I can’t believe what I’m seeing, I don’t know what’s next. The farther I go, the more frenzied I feel. Will this ever end? How fast can I move? I’m out of water. The hiker cache just has empty bottles. There’s a cattle tank in 5 miles or so. Dirt and bugs float on the surface. I fill up and drink.

Trees are charred from a wildfire. I don’t know the history, but it doesn’t look good. I’m pushing the pedals with everything I’ve got. The wind is pushing me north. It’s steep. I’m walking. I’ve got this!

I cross the road to Jacob Lake, past the hiker box. I don’t need anything. I have to finish!

The temperature is rising. I’m listening to music. I have the oddest sensation it’s actually playing inside my brain. I can feel the rhythm through my body. It’s part of me. I’m having fun! I hit the ground– slamming my shins into a jagged rock.

Music off, focus on. I soak in the final descent, with views into Utah. I can’t believe I’m actually going to finish this.

I see the AZT sign. That’s it. It’s over. Rue and Sean are there. Straddling my bike, I look at the time and do some very rusty mental math.

9 days, 8 hours, 23 minutes.

“That was so hard.”

“I can finally give you this.” Sean hands me a bottle of water and I drink.

I fill in a ledger line on the Arizona Trail log book. I claw the pen. I don’t recognize my own writing.

A lady comes by, asking if I’ve just been for a bike ride. I tell her about it.

“That’s amazing!”

She comes back with a couple of friends that are camping with her. They’re drinking canned beers out of koozies and offer me one.

“If I drink that, I think I might pass out.”

I’ve got to eat some food.

We load up and drive to Page, Arizona– the closest town to the finish. I eat spaghetti & meatballs and a couple of slices of pizza and we get a pitcher of Sprite, old school American-Italian restaurant style.

“I don’t think I’m going to be able to walk tomorrow.”

We load back up, heading for Tucson and get turned around by the Tunnel Wildfire road closure to Flagstaff.

We’re back in Tusayan at the same hotel from 2 days ago and then back at the breakfast buffet. This time, I don’t wrap up any omelets to go.

It’s time to switch gears. We’re flying to Spain in 5 days and then onto the Komoot Women’s Montanas Vacias bikepacking challenge and then the Kromvojoj and then the Trans Balkan Race.

I wouldn’t have it any other way– so thankful I get to do what I love every single day and so grateful to close the chapter on my Arizona Trail time trial. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.

I’m talking with Matt Nelson and Jody Bartz about starting an Arizona Trail Gear Girls chapter in Tucson, my new home town. I care about my community. I care about encouraging more women and girls to ride and I want them to feel welcome on the Arizona Trail. It’s so many things– beautiful, rugged, public and remote. It’s definitely worth it.

Thanks to all of the folks volunteering to make the Arizona Trail a reality and their tireless effort to maintain it. Thanks to Rue, Josh & Sean for documenting my ride.

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