Editor's Note: PRC friend Gleb Velikanov will commence a thru-hike of the Arizona Trail on March 25, 2019, walking the length of the state from Mexico to Utah. Follow along here as Gleb blogs about his trek on portlandrunning.com.
March 18, 2019: Preparations
About a year removed from my last trail adventure, I started getting restless. Memories of walking the Camino Portugues in 2018 started to wear off. For me, it is quite difficult to sit in one spot, without an endurance project.
Originally, I thought another thru-hike of the Pacific Crest Trail would do the trick. However, after some careful consideration, I decided against repeating my 2010 adventure. Maybe stepping into the same river twice would end up being a bad idea.
The PCT seems to be a bit different nowadays, and I am certainly a different person. Not wanting to tarnish the memory of an awesome experience the first time around, I decided to find a different trail.
The Arizona Trail seems to fit the bill.
The AZT stretches for nearly 800 miles across the length of the entire state, from the border with Mexico to Utah. Along the way are deserts, mountains, forests and the Grand Canyon.
On its way north, the trail climbs and descends “sky islands," mountainous prominences, that will take me from the desert floor to boreal forest and back. This will provide a lot of biological, botanical, geologic, and, heh, climate diversity. While easy on the eyes, it will require more careful clothing and gear strategies. I do not want to be caught without my warm pants, up or down, on a high-altitude night.
This trail is fairly young compared to the Appalachian Trail, the PCT, or the Camino de Santiago. The late AZT progenitor, Dale Shewalter, first walked from Mexico to Utah in 1985. Officially completed in 2011, the AZT is not as developed as the PCT or the AT, without the infrastructure that I am used to.
Things such as established trail towns, “trail angels”(people who feed, accommodate and drive thru-hikers around), or even trail markings, are not abundant. This may be an adjustment, however, I feel prepared to take on the mental challenge.
As far as physical challenges, getting ready for a thru hike is nothing new to me.
Training for a thru-hike always starts with a solid running regimen. I apologize a million times, but “hiking yourself into shape”, i.e. starting “slow” and progressively increasing mileage and effort as you go is complete baloney in my humble opinion.
I strongly feel that if you do not have the time and opportunity to train ahead of a thru-hike, you may not be serious about completing it. Why set yourself up for misery, injury and possible failure?
When preparing for a long trail, I prefer a little less volume and a lot less speed compared to training for an ultra or a marathon. I try to shoot for anything from 30 to 70 miles per week, about 70% LSD (long slow distance), on trails, whenever possible, with trail hills (think climbing up to Pittock Mansion from Lower McLeay on Wildwood Trail) about once a week. Faster runs, like PRC’s Thirsty Thursday, or an occasional race are good, but definitely not the focus of this type of training.
A strength training routine is an integral part of any endurance regimen, in addition to running. It certainly helps when preparing to backpack 12 to 14 hours per day for weeks or months on end.
I have been lifting weights for a better part of the last two decades, albeit in a bruh-get-muscly-Jersey-Shore manner initially, which evolved into an endurance-specific, functional strength routine as I got serious about marathons, ultras and thru-hiking.
Today, I try to make it to the gym, or to pick up kettle bells or resistance bands at least twice per week.
Focusing on lower body, core and back strength has been paramount in better performance and injury prevention. I try to learn new ways to strength train from fellow runners and people in the know as much as I can.
My next step will be getting plane tickets to Phoenix, where a buddy’s family will put me up and give me a lift, as I start hiking north from the southern terminus of the AZT near the Coronado National Memorial, adjacent to the border with Mexico.
Last, but not least, I am looking forward to checking out local beer. Checking out local breweries has always been a fun side project; I will try to visit as many as possible. Stay tuned for the deets!
April 1, 2019: Zero Day in Tucson
Imagine yourself experiencing things that should not have a connection, but they end up doing precisely that. Imagine feeling that way for 12 to 14 hours every day.
The Arizona Trail has been like that for me so far. I have been hiking north for a week, having covered about 180 miles. Every day, I feel like I get a blast from the past, a small bit of the Pacific Crest Trail, the Appalachian Trail, or the Camino de Santiago. There are plenty of new things, but a certain synchronicity is evident.
The AZT has PCT’s views, sweeping vistas of the rugged beauty, that is the American West. It has difficult, sometimes rocky climbs, similar to something you experience on the AT.
The desert environment is hot and dry, familiar to those, who walked the PCT’s desert sections, or the Meseta on the Camino. That combination creates a unique, yet familiar experience. It’s the fusion cuisine of thru-hiking, the sushi burrito. You bite into a familiar shape, to experience an unexpected, but familiar taste.
By now, I hit my stride, having gotten my “trail legs," a concept thru-hikers use to describe the body getting used to hiking long days back-to-back.
Most days, I try to shoot for about 30 miles, unless a food resupply stop in town is needed, or the terrain is extremely difficult. The Saguaro National Park located southeast of Tucson is a great example of such challenging terrain.
The trail goes directly up in Saguaro, with very little switchbacking. Not having the AZT marked on most park signs makes navigation difficult, if a teeth-grinding frustration. A wrong turn ended up turning into a detour of seven miles two days ago!
The desert heat is intense here—the sun is merciless! Between the hours of 11 AM and 2 PM, you feel like you are walking through an industrial pizza oven. Sunscreen, covering up every possible inch of your body, taking electrolytes and hydrating are absolutely vital.
All these things may seem less than pleasant, but on the contrary, I am in my element. The midday heat is worth it to experience the fast, pleasant miles in the morning and in the evening. The feeling I get from hiking fast with a light pack is somewhat similar to the celebrated “runner’s high."
On a personal level, I enjoy the simplicity thru-hiking brings into my life. I can definitely live with dealing with the elements, feeding myself, and putting up my tent for shelter as the greatest of daily concerns.
Right now, I am in Tucson, AZ, taking a zero day and resupplying. That means grocery shopping for non-perishables I eat on the trail, planning to spend the rest of the day laying in a motel bed, eating take-away Chinese food and watching TV. Not walking.
Tomorrow, however, when a member of the Tucson running community I met through a friend drives me to the Molino trailhead on the Catalina Highway in the mountains to the east, I will be ready to crush more miles!
Note: Gleb posts awesome hand-drawn cartoon updates daily on his instagram account: https://www.instagram.com/poindexterendurance/
April 13: Cursed Mountains
“Appalachian Trail West," “a freakin’ rollercoaster,” and “rocky $Ωß!” These are just a few things I muttered under my breath, or said at a normal volume, while traversing the many ridges that form folds in the Mazatzal Mountains northeast of Phoenix.
The Arizona Trail (AZT) changed a bit since my last dispatch. Gone are the oppressive midday heat of the desert floor, the abundant cacti, and the need to camel up (hydrate vigorously) at the rare water source. I am in the mountains now.
There are plenty of rocks in the trail, plenty of springs and creeks, and the other day it snowed lightly.
By now, I have discovered a good rhythm to this trail: about three day chunks. If I am able to throw down 30-plus-mile days, that amounts to about a hundred miles per chunk. These leaps are separated by resupplies: stopping in towns adjacent to the trail to shop for groceries, or to pick up a box of nonperishable food I mailed myself in advance.
It all works out well. Carrying about three and a half days worth of food is optimal. Too much would be unwieldy in my ultralight backpack. Too little would be, well, not enough food. I think I burn roughly 12,000 calories in addition to my basal metabolic rate every day on the trail.
Most of the gear I use is ultralight. The backpack, sleeping bag, and three-season tent are all things you would not find at REI. A burgeoning cottage industry cranks our ultralight paraphernalia for the growing population of thru hikers.
My water purification system is a different story.
Going into the desert, I decided to skip the ultralight gadgets and purify the old-fashioned way, with a heavy ceramic-core pump filter. Having to gather water from cow tanks will make you want to be extra careful in this regard.
Now that the desert section is over with, I am switching to chlorine drops. The filter will be mailed home, which will lighten my load by about a pound.
One piece of gear that has gone above and beyond is my Hoka One One Speedgoat 3s. Boy, do these shoes stand up to abuse! Right now, 460 miles in, the uppers are still hole-free, while the midsole has plenty of cushion left. The toe cap took some damage in the rocks, but that is nothing a little heavy-duty tape won’t fix for now.
Much like many things in life, thru-hiking is cyclical. Resupply, hike, gather water, camp, repeat. There is a level of pleasure in this routine. You are absolutely certain about what is coming next. One of my personal favorites is meals while in town. There is nothing like it. A simple burger feels like sheer ambrosia. Really.
Note: Gleb posts awesome hand-drawn cartoon updates daily on his instagram account: https://www.instagram.com/poindexterendurance/
April 29: Yellow-Blazing to the Finish
I think I may have calmed down a bit and leaned to accept the whimsical nature of this trail, probably around the 500 mile mark.
Up-and-down, over rough, rocky terrain today, smooth-as-silk, flat and fast trails tomorrow? No problem!
Frequent, recognizable AZT markers through one stretch of the trail, then nearly nothing, save for some rock cairns? I will just check my Guthook GPS navigation app more frequently! I may have embraced the nature of this trail. Bring it on!
The mountainous terrain continued, and got steeper, after Pine, AZ. I climbed the Mogollon Rim (above), an escarpment or long cliff, in this case mainly sandstone and limestone, that defines the southern edge of the Colorado Plateau.
I was climbing up into thin air and cold of higher elevation! It was not extreme, still run-of-the-mill thru-hiking, but a few times, I did notice putting a little more effort into catching my breath. Nights certainly grew colder; I had to wear my puffy coat and gloves after sundown to sleep and for the first couple of hours of hiking in the morning. Some spots even had snow!
My daily routine remained unchanged. I woke up around 5 AM, quickly inhaling a breakfast of a protein bar or two, a liter of cold-brew green tea, a multivitamin, maybe a piece of fresh fruit, if I bothered to pack it in.
After packing up my stuff, which rarely took longer than a half-hour, I was on the trail by 6 AM.
From then on, it was hiking as hard and as fast as I could, stopping about every three hours to eat something. Crackers, dried fruit, jerky, cheese, nuts, chocolate, all the familiar non-perishable favorites went down the hatch as fuel at regular periods of time.
Whether it was time for breakfast or dinner, the amount of food remained the same: about six to eight hundred calories, as much fat and carbohydrates as possible, with all the protein that will tag along.
After stringing a few 30-plus-mile days together, I reached Flagstaff, AZ, the famous high-altitude endurance mecca, home to elite ultra runners and Northern Arizona University.
To me, it was an opportunity to resupply, clean up, and visit Mother Road Brewing. That particular brewery is very popular with the town’s runners, so I made a point to eat my gourmet Pizzicleta pizza and drink Mother Road’s flagship beverage, the Tower Station IPA, while proudly wearing my Sasquatch Track Club singlet—just to show the fancy Flagstaff runners that folks that frequent Portland Running Company’s group runs are no slouches!
In addition, I have to report that the urban AZT route, the loop that goes through the city of Flagstaff, is quite nice and a welcome alternative to the trail’s usual backcountry setting. It is nice to walk along the historic Route 66, stopping by a coffee shop for a cold brew and a bagel along the way.
Next, after another bundle of 30–35 mile days, the AZT took me to the Grand Canyon.
It is indeed grand.
A gigantic-looking expanse, it takes your breath away seeing a small piece of the North Rim about twenty miles away, as it stands above the forest of trees that covers the approach to the South Rim.
The Grand Canyon National Park turned out to be very reasonably priced, prompt and courteous. I was able to secure a campsite at the bottom of the canyon the day I swung by the South Rim Village to pick up a box of food I mailed to the local post office.
My permit allowed me to camp near Phantom Ranch, a park lodge at the lowest part of the canyon that gets booked a year in advance. It turns out thru-hiker credentials are good for something. They were certainly good for a free beer at the canteen on the premises, which, for a moment, made me feel like a minor celebrity.
The ascent to the North Rim was strenuous. It is a lot of vert, going from just above 2,000 feet to nearly 9,000. My calves hurt. To add insult to injury, I arrived at the top of the climb to discover the trail, as far as I could see it, covered in four to six feet of snow.
In thru-hiking practice, snow is a less than desirable surface to travel on. It impedes your forward progress significantly, while adding extra dangers of injury while postholing (falling through the snow’s surface). I consulted my GPS app, discovering other hikers’ notes of this snow continuing for another thirty miles. I took the alternative of walking the road, a highway roughly parallel to the trail. Jacob Lake, AZ, the final trail town, would be my aim. I could get back on the trail right around there.
About 12 miles into my road walk, a car pulled over. I was offered a ride to Jacob Lake, which I accepted, with, I must admit, some relief. Walking on asphalt was not the highest priority on my list.
"Yellow blazing" is a thru-hiker term for skipping any portion of the trail you are hiking by accepting a ride. The term comes from Appalachian Trail lingo, that trail is marked by unmistakable white blazes, while the highway lines are yellow.
Let the 30 miles immediately north of the North Rim I left unwalked be my mulligan...I totally yellow blazed.
I do not feel bad about it one bit—my parents were getting ready to pick me up at the northern terminus of the AZT, I only sped up enjoying my mother’s camp stove cooking and beers with dad by one day.
In the end, I ended up completing the Arizona Trail in 31 days, averaging just under 25 miles per day, including the zero days and excluding the snow-covered trail I did not walk.
My recollection of the AZT is still fresh, raw even. I am not certain I am able to form as crisp of an opinion about it, like I was with the Pacific Crest Trail, Appalachian Trail, or the Camino de Santiago.
Maybe that has to do with the AZT’s newness, it feels like the trail is still developing, still finding its identity.
I know that I enjoyed some days only because of my thru-hiking experience, because I know exactly what to do to retain my forward progress and remain somewhat comfortable. At the same time, there were portions of the AZT I enjoyed tremendously, some spots that I would be able to come across only in Arizona, without a suitable comparison on any other trail.
I think fondly of my entire journey, and would gladly repeat it a second time. I would, perhaps, bring along a friend.
Note: You can see all of Gleb's (almost) daily cartoons from this adventure on his instagram account: https://www.instagram.com/poindexterendurance/ Read about his other adventures at poindexterendurance.com.