Friday, April 14, 2017

Arizona Trail Race 300 Race Report

As I've mentioned in previous entries, this race has been on my radar for years, but it wasn't until the end of 2015 that I really ended up committing to doing this. Up to that point, I had done a couple bikepack trips, and done some of the AES routes. So 2016 was fully focused on getting to the 2017 running of the AZTR 300 with enough fitness and HTFU hours logged (arguably much more important than fitness) to be successful. I'm not going to get into that too much here, you can check previous entries for more info. However, during 2016 I did the following:

AES Sedona BFL (ITT)
AES Flagstaff AA (first ever group start on an AES ride!!)
AES Prescott Mini Monster ITT with Marcus
AES McDowell ITT after it was cancelled
AES Picketpost Pulverizer ITT

Bradshaw Bender Bikepack with Marcus. Up to CK via the back road from my house (Happy Valley and 51st ave area) then down to Cleator then up to Mayer via BCT. Then BCT all the way back to my house. 2 days, 160ish miles.

Also started commuting twice a week in April - 25 miles minimum one way. I routinely added miles on in the afternoon return trip. I did this even during the hot weeks of the summer. I think this helped a lot.

I thought all of these were very important in preparation of completing the 300. The "interesting" AKA WTF!! route choices that a person experiences on the AES rides definitely provides some insight into the type of stuff a rider will encounter on either of the AZTR versions. That said, certain things just can't be prepared for. But I'll talk about those later. I will say that every single mile of this race was new to me, save for the stretch from Kelvin to Picketpost. I'm kinda glad it was that way, though it did make those "interesting" sections more interesting. OK enough rambling, let's get to it.

Day "0" - Prestart

Amazing little race overview courtesy of John Schilling

One unique challenge of this race is the logistical aspect of getting down to the start in the first place. The 300 starts a few miles north of the Mexican border near Parker Canyon Lake. Then the ending of the race is of course open ended. I ended up getting my brother who is working near Globe meet us Thursday around 10AM at Picketpost.

Arrival at Picketpost - already buzzing with activity. Talked to Ray, John, Jeff and Nancy briefly.
Marcus looking stoked! The vibe at Picketpost was positive for sure.

My brother parked his work truck and he jumped in with myself and Marcus to drive my truck and bikes down to PCL - but first - FOOD. We stopped at Seis in Tucson, but we timed it badly (lunch rush) and the wait was way long and the line didn't seem to be moving. I didn't want to keep my brother longer than necessary since he still had to drive back to Picketpost and work the next day. So we bailed out and got food from somewhere else and got on the road. 

We had a good time driving down to PCL, but as we drove I became keenly aware of just how far we were driving to get to the start. Um, holy crap we have to ride bikes back. Haha! A really cool thing about the drive for all of us was seeing the amazing terrain of this area of Arizona. It was really neat having my brother with me (who has seen so much of the state due to his work) see this area for the first time.

When we arrived at PCL, we rolled up to the trailhead and saw the familiar site of Scott and Eszter's scamp - first time seeing it in real life for me as I had only seen it countless times on their blogs - which you should check out btw. Scott's blog Eszter's blog

I introduced myself to Scott, but my introverted self couldn't bring myself to introduce myself to Eszter. I just couldn't do the "Hi, I read your blog" intro twice in five minutes. Ugh. I'm so weird. 

We were some of the first ones there, and once we were sure we had everything I told my brother to get out of there before I changed my mind. It was pretty weird watching him leave, knowing we had to ride bikes some 300 miles in order to get the truck back.

We started arranging some of our gear and got a spot set up to sleep for the night. Other familiar faces started showing up (Ray, John, Jeff, Nancy and and a bit later Joe P ) and soon the whole freaking place was buzzing. And wow, what an amazing area!


My sleeping spot directly to the left of my bike. Parker Canyon Lake in the background.

Another shot with Marcus's bike.

Sunset over PCL

And another.
We had a pretty chill night, including some birthday cake and a singing of the birthday song to birthday boy John S. Soon enough, everyone crashed out and I had a pretty restful night. Heard some coyotes, turkeys and a cow throughout the night. Gotta love the desert!

Day 1 - Race Start. Canelo Hills and Kentucky Camp: 

Woke up with the light from the sun around 5:50 or so. Time to get ready. 

Woke up to this - it doesn't suck.

Sun getting ready to make its appearance.

L-R: Marcus, Angry Ray, and Mr Schilling himself.

Soon enough, Scott called the riders to assemble - it was just about "go time". We had a moment of silence for two legends of cycling who tragically lost their lives. Then some final instructions and he sent everyone off. I promptly set my bike down and went to take a leak haha. There were so many riders at the start it wasn't worth trying to fight the crowds at the beginning.

My goal for the Canelo Hills section was seven hours based on other ride reports I had read. It was already getting warm, so I didn't really want to push the pace too much. This is a long race and if you try to go out to hard on day one, you can end up DNFing pretty easily. 

While the Canelos were tough, they weren't as bad as I was expecting. Still though, there was plenty of hiking in this section. Mainly to conserve energy and prevent overheating.

"Riders" in front of me.

Brief little shade break and some approaching riders

I ended the east section of the Canelos and briefly talked to Ray who was sitting there at the pass. I asked him when Marcus had gone through, and he said about twenty minutes. Ugh. Marcus crushing already.

Started up the Canelo west section which is much more ride-able than the eastern section.

Sweet singletrack

Gotta give some love to Rogue Panda. Their bags were rock solid the while trip.

Beautiful!

More hiking... catching a theme yet?
I finally escaped the Canelos in six hours (very happy with that) but figured I was probably close to an hour behind Marcus so I decided to just skip Patagonia and get to Sonoita. Little did I know Marcus was waiting for me in Patagonia. The pavement miles went pretty quick, but I was expecting a slightly stronger tailwind.

"Welcome to Sonoita"

I stopped at the market and grabbed a sandwich, gatorade and water. Joe and Nancy were there and I asked if they had seen Marcus. They told me that he was waiting for me back in Patagonia haha. Right on cue though, Marcus pulled up. He was watching on trackleaders and saw me blow through the stop and gave chase. We finished loading up our packs and bottles with water and started on the ranch roads to get to Kentucky Camp. We passed Jeff Z briefly on the ranch roads and eventually Marcus pulled away from me again *shocker*. Enjoyed the sweet trails leading into Kentucky Camp where we loaded up on water again. Jeff Z had blown by me on the singletrack and I told him to pass through at he gate he met me at. Never saw him again.

Sunset after Kentucky Camp

Not sure what we were doing here, maybe checking cues.
It was a tough day already, but the goal was to hopefully get to the "magic green gate" but we settled for a couple miles short of Helvetia Rd. Hindsight is of course 20/20, but I wish we would have just pushed through. We knew day two was going to be long and tough, so we wanted to be well rested. However cutting the day a bit short made day two obviously longer. Our goal for day two was to get over the the Catalina HWY which meant a late night push of the Molino HAB (hike a bike).

Day 1 Summary - 13 hours - 70.1 miles

Day 2 - Tucson:

Had a pretty good night's sleep, just a few riders passed us during the night, including John S who was trying to rally the troops after a rough start. He ended up riding until 2am. Damn.


Nature's alarm clock.

All packed up and ready to ride.

Since we didn't make it to the "magic green gate", we had a bit of tough-ish riding to start out today.

About an hour in, getting some calories.

Beautiful, but rugged terrain.

The magic green gate! Easier riding is about to start...

Yep, much better.

It was right at the I-10 culvert that we realized our Spots weren't tracking anymore. We had gotten a note from Scott saying that resetting tracking wasn't necessary every 24 hours so we had just left ours on all night. Apparently they stopped anyway. That could be because they are our personal spots, and not part of the rental fleet which might have the upgraded tracking service. I don't know. Either way, we started tracking again at I-10. We crossed Cienega Creek and passed under the train bridge. Right after, we were on an elevated ridge and saw a train approaching... like a little freaking kid I start doing a very exaggerated *blow your horn" arm motion... the train responded...CHOO CHOOOOOO!!!!!! Holy crap I raised both arms in victory and Marcus and I were just cracking up. So freaking cool. Made our day for sure. It was getting WARM, and that was just the spirit lifter we needed.

Train passing by. Thanks for the choo choo Mr Train Engineer

It was hot and we were getting low on water. We knew that Posta Quemada ranch was coming up, but were a little concerned because the cue mileage wasn't lining up quite right. We didn't want to miss this water source, and we wanted a burrito!! We weren't sure how obvious this off-route option would be.

Luckily, we saw the building from a ridge and we dropped down in fierce anticipation of some real food. We came up to a sign on the trail with a "fork and knife" AKA food in .25 miles and we were IN. We rolled over and there were ten or so seriously disappointed riders, including John S. His previous year's blog report was a primary driver for us being here in the first place. He was in a pretty bad place, and the other riders there were bummed out too, so we rolled back up the hill a bit to another place where we used the facilities to clean up a bit and fill up on water and take a short shade break. It was right around noon I think and we needed it.

Feeling a bit refreshed 

So serious haha!

We got back on the trail and then ran into John again at La Sevilla - like a ninja he kept getting in front of us despite feeling whipped. He informed us that he was done and had called his wife to grab him in Tucson. Major bummer. He told us to chill out for a bit in Tucson due to the heat. We filled up on water at the spigot in the rock there even though we had just filled up. It was now hot AND windy... very hard conditions to stay hydrated in. We hit up some sweet trails to approach Tucson, with John in tow... we dropped him pretty quickly... the last time I saw him he was on the other side of a pass taking our picture. I was so bummed out for JS, he is one of the main reasons I ever thought I could do something like this. He's completed both the 300 and 750 versions of this event... to see him tapping out just demonstrates how tough this event can be. Nothing is certain.


Getting ready to hit some pavement into Tucson. 
After some fast flowy trail, we ended up on pavement with some pretty nasty but short climbs. The wind was brutal - pushing us all over the place. Just grind away. I let Marcus put some bike lengths between us... I didn't want to draft off of him at all. Even though we were riding this thing mostly "together", I thought it was important to not reduce my effort by drafting him. We rolled up to Saguaro Corners and were ready to take Schilling's advice. Rest up a bit, and get some payback for the missed burrito at La Posta.

Didn't even bother to get a "before"... it was gone too fast. 
We got some quesadillas to throw in the packs for dinner and made our way out, full of food and hydrated.

Never-ending road towards our next destination.
We detoured off the route at Tanque Verde Rd and headed to the Circle K to load up on water/gatorades/snacks before getting back on route to start the dreaded Redington Rd climb. We started the climb and Marcus is really in his element here. So strong. He dropped me fairly quickly and I did my best to enjoy the climb up. The traffic heading up wasn't too bad, but there were a couple instances that were definitely indicative of the "Redneckington Rd" moniker. Rapid fire shooting, a couple of faster drivers, but all in all not too bad. I took a couple of breaks just to capture some pictures.



The climb is over, now to the 4x4 roads

Big views

Start of 4x4 area

Marcus taking a quick break. He was a bit cold and this rock was still warm.
Sometime after the singletrack started, my night took a bad turn. I was tired, and mentally fried a bit. It was beautiful, but I knew we had a big, big effort coming up. I was getting frustrated because the mileage in my mind wasn't working out right and I wasn't sure when the dreaded Molino HAB was going to start.

Mentally drained, so stopped to take a pic of this singletrack

And that's the last picture of the day. From here pretty much every place that looked comfy I wanted to stop. But we pressed on. I would see Marcus's lights a few minutes ahead of me for the next few hours. I continued to try not to lose him. Eventually the Molino HAB started. Lots of HAB's are fairly easy, just roll your bike as you push - not this one. The whole way up was basically a series of steep steps/ledges. Pretty rough hoisting a loaded mountain bike up. We were approaching midnight as we neared the top. I was hoping to be able to ride down, but I was so fried and the terrain technical enough for me to basically repeat the process down the other side. We ended up at the Molino campground around 1AM. We passed a sandy wash in the campground and were so smoked we stopped right there and laid out sleep kits. We tore into our quesadillas and bedded down. I was out in minutes...

About thirty minutes later Marcus yelled out "skunk". Holy crap IT'S UP AGAINST ME!!! I'm sitting straight up in my bag and no matter how I turn, I feel this pressure pushing against me. Shit, I'm going to get sprayed and this is going to suck.

Soon, I realize the pressure I feel against me is my rolled up puffy jacket that I was using as a pillow rolling around the inside of my bag and pushing against me. Breathe a sigh of relief, but are you serious there are skunks coming into camp? Just wanted to sleep...

I put on my helmet so I could have some light and walked around the campground half naked since I was too tired to get dressed. I was trying to find a better place to set up camp... I was contemplating sleeping ON the campground tables to be off the ground. As I looked at one of the campgrounds, I ran across the skunk. I was in full on skunk panic. Did not want to deal with this. I came back to where we were set up and starting pulling out any unsealed food items out of our packs and tossing them in the animal proof trash containers further away from us. Then I hung our packs 30 yards away on a sign. I hoped it was enough to prevent another encounter. We didn't hear anything after that, but I can't say I slept well that night. Felt my heart pound in my chest for quite a while after that.

Day 2 Summary: 88 miles 18ish hours

Day 3 Mt Lemmon/Oracle Ridge:


First rays of the sun near Molino campground

Well rested after the skunk encounters???


Some of the terrain before hitting the paved climb.

In the middle of a grind. Break to take a picture of what I've come up already.

Got worried on the climb up Lemmon. There were a ton of hotshot/fire truck crews that were heading up, plus there were helicopters doing drops further up. I'm not familiar with the area, so I was hoping the upper towns weren't in danger. Luckily, when we got up there we found out they were safe and we proceeded to smash some serious food. It was a bit chilly at first, but then the sun came out and the feast was on!

Marcus looking like I was feeling

Legit! Power fuel for Oracle Ridge

No chance!!! Victory is mine!

Dessert? A challenger appears!!! Mike wins.

We finished up and headed over to the general store for water. There were some kids and a mom doing some sort of sale outside of the general store. We had bought a gallon of water, but needed a bit more. I was going to go inside, but the mom asked if she could just fill up the bottle for me. I said sure. I talked to her kids while she went inside. I gave them a couple of dollars in their donation jar and talked to the little girl. She might have been 9 or 10? She said that her uncle said "all these bikers are crazy" and I said yeah we are a little bit! She said that she wants to do this someday. I told her if she want to do this, SHE CAN! She had a look in her eye that told me she believed that she could. It was awesome to be able to affirm her belief in herself. In this random little town far away from all of my comfort. To be able to tell a little girl that she can do this. What an opportunity and privilege. I wish I would have gotten her name. Damn.

We left the general store and hit the steep road approach over to Oracle Ridge. Feeling stuffed to the gills we were happy we didn't really have to ride too much.

We got to the start and boom there it is.

Consulting mileage cues - doesn't look too bad yet.
Hi, I'm a trail



Burned area

A rideable section. Usually these rideable sections were so short they weren't worth hopping on the bike for

Trail behind me. Do I look entertained?

Quick mental break to take in views


If we are going down, why does it seem like we are getting higher?


Marcus pulls thorns out of his shoes

Oracle ridge man. What the heck. Somehow, even though you are going down in elevation, you are always climbing. They only way I can describe this is as a game trail. Very over grown, very steep. Just tough, tough terrain. If you want to simulate this, go to the gym with your loaded bike. Go to a stepmaster. Turn it on, then lift your bike from step to step while someone slaps your entire body and face with vegetation. Also make sure that someone just randomly grabs your bike to prevent you from lifting it. You see, branches are the perfect thing to get stuck in random bike parts that prevent you from moving your bike. Just wow. If you haven't done this section, you have no idea. Trust me.

Oh, now we lose elevation. See that ribbon of dirt? We just came down that. 

Quick break

We hit some OK trail towards the american flag trailhead but man those water bars were constructed in an interesting fashion. Enough of that.

We saw the American Flag TH and did our best cowboy holler. We got responses back in kind and we thought there would be some riders. Nope, just the residents of the building there. Nice folks who offered water, but we declined as we had enough to get to Oracle. An older gentleman came up on a quad and asked if we were going to Superior and we said yes and he said we were crazy. He then started talking about "the old women" who were doing thru hikes. It was kinda funny, but I think he under-estimates the folks out on the trail - regardless of age.

Marcus happy to be here, but let's get out of here and get to Oracle!

We rode through oracle state park, it was fairly quick and fun riding, but man we just wanted to get to Oracle. These felt like "busy miles". Eventually we got to highway 77 and the sun was just about gone. We hopped on the highway and weren't super pleased with the shoulder. It was kinda narrow to start. Marcus wanted to take the first left into Oracle, but I insisted we continue on 77 because there was a circle K and other food further down. As we went further down 77 I started freaking out a bit - it seemed like nothing was going to be on this route - did I make a major mistake when scouting this? I got Marcus to stop and we pulled up google maps (thankfully had service) and saw that indeed there was a circle k just a bit further up. We made the left and then saw a pizza place on the left. We put our order in, then headed next door to the circle K to get plenty of fluids and food for tonight and the next day's push and finish.

Went next door to eat our pizza and wrapped up the extra and got out, heading back towards Tiger Mine TH. These miles went fairly quick, and we were done physically and mentally. We wanted to ride until 10PM and evaluate our sleep environment. At 9:55PM or so, we hit the first sandy wash of the area and enthusiastically laid out our sleep kits and finished off the rest of our pizza. I slept pretty well, but there were some noisy birds down there that wouldn't shut up all night.

Day 3 Summary: 15 hours 53 brutal miles  

Day 4: Tiger Mine to Kelvin


Another stellar sleep spot.


Hard to capture the feel of the terrain. So big!

Splashes of purple

Fun trail here. 


More big views

Careful for cholla around here!!!

Some awesome gates are being installed. Much better that the shoddy stuff found earlier.

Beehive well. We tanked up on water here knowing that Freeman cache is not guaranteed and also not wanting to pull too much from it.

It's a party! More riders showed up after this as well.

Getting closer...

Self closing gate that doesn't work as well as it used to...

First rattler sighting! Close to a gate.




Amazing to see what we have been through today

Sunset on ripsey!

Golden hour at ripsey

Gila Monster!!! First one I've seen in my life. I would see one the next day as well.

Somehow during the HAB up Ripsey I picked up a freaking monster cactus spine in my front tire sidewall! Dammit! Same type that I got at the end of the CK/BCT bikepack trip. I didn't want to eff with it up there, so I broke off the extra, put some superglue on it and put gorilla tape around the tire/rim to help keep it from moving. I hoped this would hold to Kelvin. It did!

By time we got to Kelvin, we were spent. It was around 8:30 or so, and there were some riders there resting up. They all took off while Marcus and I hydrated and planned our next move. Eventually, we just laid our kits out right here and slept. First for an hour... then for another two. Then for two more. Finally at 2:15am I knew we had to get out of there. We'd be looking at a noon finish at the earliest now. Not ideal, but what can you do?


Luxury accommodations - running water! 

Day 4 Summary: 13 hours 54 miles

Day 5 Kelvin to Picketpost

I don't have any pics, that last pic took the last of my juice due to the cold temps. Probably a good thing, since I would have wasted too much time taking pictures of this area. If you are curious to know what it looks like, look at my picketpost pulverizer entry!

This day was rough which is to be expected. That said, it was so peaceful riding along the Gila in the moonlight. The moon was so bright I kept thinking that a rider was approaching from behind, especially since we had passed the riders who had left us the night before. They didn't get super far away from Kelvin. In fact we passed Jenny fairly quickly after starting the AZT proper. She was crashed out right on the trail, I think we scared her because her stuff was scattered all of the place. We both managed to avoid her phone thank goodness. There were certain areas where the moon was reflecting off the river - so cool and a treat in the desert. Marcus was a rock star. His IT band was really angry - so much so that he was thinking of scratching in Kelvin. But he sucked it up, I stayed behind him quite a bit and didn't talk much. I knew he was fighting an intense personal battle - you have to know when not to say something to anyone. I think we said two or three words between Kelvin and the AZT sign after "the turn" away from the Gila. I was actually amazed at how quickly it came. I didn't think it was right when we got there, I was shocked. 

Begin the trudge up. There was a lot of hiking up this section, at this point we just moved forward as fast as possible. Neither of us wanted to be caught, but it was getting hot and we were slowing down. Continue this battle until the final ten mile "descent" to Picketpost. This again is some kind of voodoo magic section because it feels like there is a lot of climbing and the trail never ends! Just keep looping around and around and around. It was hot and we stopped at the little cache close to the end - I took 10-12 ounces of water and chugged it. I knew that was the boost I needed. The trail started to flow a bit more, but there were still some tech moves to be careful on. Don't want to make a mistake now. 

I was just waiting for my tire repair start to fail, but it never did thank goodness. We first caught glimpse of the 60 and got excited, then we saw a few cars in a lot and we knew we were just about done. We started hollering and just talking and yelling belligerently. I was telling Marcus in my best redneck voice "Go on and go get that truck boy!" Or something like that. Finally there is a final wash and we hear John Cox who had made his way to see us in yell, "you better clean this". Thankfully we both did haha. Marcus rolled in and I was right on his tail. WHAT A FEELING!

AZTR300 FINISHER!!!

Relieved - Uh, what do we do now? 

"You can be my wingman anytime"... "Bullshit - you can me mine" Top Gun-esque moment. 

Proud freaking moment right here. 

Several other riders rolled in after us. Including Jenny (always in a happy mood on the trail and a strong rider), and Mike Sowers. Nobody caught us after we passed them earlier today. We even almost caught up to Jeff Z. He's riding strong and going for the full meal deal (750).

We finally changed and cleaned up a bit and headed to Gold Canyon to grab food. It felt so weird to drive! Had a hard time keeping up with the speed limit - it felt so fast. It was not lost on Marcus or myself how easy it is to get up some of those rolling hills leaving Picketpost - just push the gas pedal. Weird.

I know I had a hard time talking and piecing together coherent sentences. That took a couple of days to pass. And woah - the post ultra event bloat was weird. By time I got home, I was two pounds heavier than when I started. Two days later, I was up ten more pounds! My body was holding on to everything. Ugh.

I still want to eat everything in sight, but I finally feel rested and not as sleepy anymore.

I can't say enough how satisfying it is to set a goal to tackle this beast and actually accomplish it. Every year, this race takes out the strongest of competitors. This year, Scott says that the attrition rate is over fifty percent! Wow. To finish in the midst of those odds is something I am very proud of.

I would like to thank those whose writings have helped me succeed in this endeavor:

John S
"Angry" Ray
Jeff Z (and Nancy)
Scott and Eszter (links are earlier)

There are plenty of others. In fact, I think I probably read every linked blog entry on the aztr results page. Something valuable can be gleaned from every experience out there in my opinion.

I can't say enough about the AES/ultra mtb community. Kindest people ever. I still have yet to run across a jerk at any of these events. "Interesting" people, sure - but negative - nope!

Day 5 Summary 10 hours 38 grueling hot miles.



Strava (or it didn't happen):

11 comments:

  1. Hell yeah, Mike!! You've come a long way since I first met you and now look, rockstar!! So stoked for both you and Marcus to not only finish, but finish well and on your first attempt over almost all new terrain. Macho.

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  2. HOLY CRAP, Mike!! Your words & photos inspire me to think bigger for myself! *cough*sprint tri* Thanks for sharing your amazing journey. You're an incredible athlete!

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  3. This was an awesome read Mike! I am not afraid to say I read it twice!!! Brutally Awesome!!!

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  4. This was an awesome read Mike! I am not afraid to say I read it twice!!! Brutally Awesome!!!

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  6. Incredibly inspiring! Great write up and a job well done! Can't wait to attempt it in 2018.

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  7. Thanks everyone for reading/commenting. John, I couldn't have done it without the wealth of knowledge you've given the entire community. Lysa - GET IT DONE!. Daniel, thanks my friend. Brutally awesome is an amazing way of putting it. Michael, thanks! Josh - You can do it man. Get your plan in place and execute. Then be ready for your plan to go out the window. Train... YOUR MIND and your body. Likely in that order. Yes you need to be able to put big days in the saddle with a decent WTF factor, but ultimately the biggest obstacle is going to be your brain. It wants you to survive and on the AZT sometimes it feels like you aren't... until you see a trailhead or a car or some other bikers or a store. That is how fickle the brain is. I don't have it mastered by any stretch, but I do understand it better now. Even with all that - it's not a guarantee. Good luck man and enjoy every second of the prep.

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  8. Just had time to read this. Wow!So proud of you. Pretty amazing.Pictures were beautiful...well except for that rattlesnake!

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