There Is No Wrong Way To Experience A Trail

So What Started Out As A Review Turned Out To Be A Little More…

Back in September Darwin and I attended Arizona Trail Days. There I met Sarah Ruth Jansen author, adventurer, teacher, and philosopher. She was promoting her book Pedaling Home One Woman’s Race Across the Arizona Trail along with a few other local authors. I had the opportunity to talk with Sarah about the Arizona Trail, bikepacking and a variety of other adventure related topics. A very adventurous woman, I later find out Sarah has raced and bikepacked for several years having even won the 2012 California State Mountain Bike Championships, she has bikepacked the entire Colorado Trail, and raced the Tour Divide in 2015. Since our meeting, I have read her book and a hundred pages later was reminded that there are lots of different ways to experience long-distance trails. I was also given a different perspective on the trail I have been living so close to the last month.

A Brief History: The Arizona Trail itself is a long distance trail spanning across the entire state of Arizona (800 miles) from the border of Mexico to Utah. This long distance trail is open to hikers, mountain bikers, cross-country skiers, equestrians and other pack animals. The Arizona Trail Race (AZTR) which Pedaling Home is about, is actually an unofficial race. This means there is no entry fee, no support, and no prizes. I immediately think of a thru-hike, no fee to start (depending on the trail), no support along the way (which may vary for each hiker) and no prizes when you finish besides bragging rights. There are two races that take place, the AZTR 300 or 750 both starting on the same day usually in April every year. As of 2016, the 750 race was world’s longest trail bike race which is the one Sarah takes on by choice of her on. I can’t help but think how similar this sounds to a long distance hike. No one pays us to ultimately put our bodies through hell but weirdly, it seems that no matter how we do it, most become addicted to that self-made hell.

Pedaling Home Thoughts: Having only backpacked and having never done a bike race let alone a bike race on a trail, I never realized how similar and yet so different a trail race could be. I love to ride my bike but find I am pretty much a wiener when trying to ride on trails. Sarah’s book however, allowed me a glimpse into the experiences of a trail race. She shares her roller coaster of emotions that any long distance hiker would recognize and relate to: anxiety, excitement, exhaustion, and waves of adrenaline are all present throughout the duration of her race. She deals with issues at home, the death of a loved one, and personal doubts as she rides her way across 750 miles of roads and trail finding comfort in the scenery around her. This is not unlike the long distance hiker finding that the trail heals many wounds.

Sarah describes what I found to be both loves and hate her bike along the way, ultimately seeing it as an extension of herself. I found myself remembering similar thoughts and emotions I have had towards my pack. I hated how unsteady it could make me feel crossing rivers and logs. My first pack on the Appalachian Trail caused me back pain and while in the breaking-in period with my second, I had severe bruises on my hips. The same day I would curse my pack I would also experience a feeling of security and love for it as it held all my belongings, the things I needed to survive. When not with me, I often experienced a feeling of loss. I missed it. Similar to Sarah and her bike I was reminded that my pack is an extension of myself when hiking.

Sarah faces other challenges beyond the emotional during her race. She deals with weather, nourishment issues, and gear failures that even cost her setting the women’s course record and almost her entire race. These challenges are not unknown to a long distance hiker either. As I read along I found myself remembering issues I had with my pack, my poles, rain cover, and various other gear while on the Appalachian Trail.

Although there are fewer rules in regards to thru-hiking (i.e. hike your own hike) it was interesting to me to find Sarah was unable to enjoy a lot of the things long distance hikers enjoy without a second thought or she would have been disqualified. For instance, at one point in her race, she is forced to walk her bike 32 miles to a bike shop further up trail due to a major mechanical issue. Due to race rules, she was unable to accept a hitch up the trail to the bike shop. For a long distance hiker, some would immediately throw out a thumb in the event of a major pack failure (that is if we were first unable to fix it with duck tape). What would have taken less than half the day on a bike takes Sarah an entire day on foot. It’s always torture for any bikepacker or hiker who cannot move as quickly due to injury or gear malfunction.

This part of her book really made me think of all the times I felt I couldn’t continue to hike but came across trail magic and was provided a ride to town, food, shelter, etc. that was enough of a motivator to continue. At times on my hike of the AT, I would have surely quit if not for trail magic. Although some trail magic is allowed but not encouraged, Sarah is left to ultimately deal with her emotions and gear issues on her own the entire race. This at times forces her to enjoy the trail a little slower or challenges her in other physical and mental ways. Long distance hikers often find themselves in similar situations. They begrudgingly tackle trail miles in less than efficient ways only later realizing how much beauty they would have missed if not for being slowed done or forced to stop at a particular time. Often I have referred to this as “second-hand fun”. You only realize how awesome the situation was or bad-ass you are until after the fact.

After riding the trail to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, Sarah must break down her bike and strap it to her back before tackling a Rim to Rim hike in one day. Long distance hikers can often be obsessed with the weight they carry on their back; every piece of gear weighed and considered. Sarah however takes no time for either having no choice but to carry her bike per AZTR rules and National Park Regulations. She is only able to deal with the consequences this leaves on her body later. She completes her Rim to Rim in fourteen hours with a whole bike on her back. Funny enough, this is the average time it takes to hike it in a day usually with only a daypack. I can’t help but think of the long-distance hiker planning to be slack packed or at least taking a zero the next day. Sarah toughs it out and continues.

Although Sarah’s book is completely based on her journals and discussions with other participants specifically during her AZTR 700, it gave me the opportunity to see trail life in a different light. I, of course, have only experienced a long distance trail by foot and totally not as a race. I, for the most part, had the luxury of taking my time out on the Appalachian Trail. Sarah chose to experience the AZT within the limitations of a race, having to even ride on reroutes per various wilderness regulations but with the added competitiveness and challenge of really needing to push herself in a very different way then I think a typical long distance hike could provide.

Final Thoughts: Pedaling Home reconfirmed that I am a huge weeny (I would have fallen off my bike within the first thirty minutes) and have no desire to do a trail race on a bike. I must also say I feel Sarah is a total bad-ass and the whole time I was reading her book I not only thought about similar experiences as long-distance hiker but also the thousands of moments I personally would have thrown in the towel when she kept going.

Lesson Learned: After reading Pedaling Home, I was ultimately reminded that there is no wrong way to enjoy the outdoors or a long distance trail. Anyway you hit the trail by foot, by bike, horse, ski, etc. your experience can be beautiful, challenging, soul-searching, an emotional roller coaster and so much more. A trail can be experienced fast or slow, all together or in sections, on foot or bike, with an animal companion, solo or in a group, with ultra-light gear or any gear, etc. The important thing really, is that you get out there and experience it.

Want to read Sarah’s Book Pedaling Home One Woman’s Race Across the Arizona Trail? You can Find It On Amazon at:

Check Out Sarah’s Blog


(Sarah At The South Rim As Featured in Pedaling Home; Photo By Sara Studt

Things To Expect In Up Coming Posts, Recent Other Doings, and Further Thoughts:

Interested in the Arizona Trail Race? Find Out More Here

Interested in experiencing the Arizona Trail? Learn More About It Here

Leave No Trace!

Other Posts You May Enjoy:

Following The Boot Marks Of Those Before Us

Taking A Look At The Trees & Me




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3 thoughts on “There Is No Wrong Way To Experience A Trail

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