Thursday, May 24, 2018

2018 Arizona Trail Race 750 - The Good, The Bad And The Ugly

Here I was, panting hard, sweating harder, pushing my heavily laden bike up a steep, loose hillside in southern Arizona under a blistering sun, just a handful of miles from the Mexican border. 

I briefly thought "what the fuck am I doing here, no really..., wtf ?" as I rounded yet another tight, loose, rocky, climbing switchback. I stopped to take a pull on my water bottle, then my eyes swung out to take in the vista of the Miller Peak wilderness. 
Holy crap! From up here at 6000ft, the view was magic

I had been riding/walking with some guy from Idaho or North Dakota for about five minutes and he just kept his head down and pushed on. I felt like saying "look to your right!!"  

He was deep in the pain cave, just 45km into this 1230km race. The Arizona Trail does that to people. It gets inside their head. All of the stupid pushing up a fall line trail with no breeze. Have you ever noticed there is never any breeze when you are climbing in the hot sun? No breeze, just the quiet muttered curses? But then the yee-haws of the loose, steep, rocky drop down the fall line on the other side help to wipe that horrible memory of the climb.......until the next steep pinch.......

So, what was I doing, grovelling along the Canelo Hills section of the Arizona Trail on this fine Thursday morning I hear you ask? Lets rewind a little to explain how I found myself in this mess. You may wish to grab yourself a cold beverage before continuing......

Back in late 2017 I was toying with the idea of doing the Arizona Trail Race. It being one of the must-do trifecta of bikepacking races in the US, I had sort of followed it's history and heard of strangely exotic sounding places such as Sonoita, Oracle and Summerhaven, to name but a few. I like a challenge and this sounded like just that. The fact that Dave Wicks (multiple starter and TD 2015 accomplice) was in my ear about having a crack sort of sealed my fate. So I applied for leave, fairly safe in the knowledge that being around Easter, I would have zero chance of getting leave from work. 

Roll around to early January and HOLY CRAP, I got my requested leave!! I had been slowly ramping up my riding volume, just in case the unexpected happened but now I invoked the full Lynda Wallenfels (coach Lynda) 10 Day Bikepacking Training Plan that I had used for the Tour Divide in 2015. It had worked well for that 20 day race so I was confident that if I stuck to it, it would be perfect for the AZTR750.

Suregate AZT.

This meant no alcohol and a fairly strict diet but I must admit, I wasn't as disciplined this time around. For the TD I was pretty scared of the unknown. As a result I trained and planned like a madman, not wanting to risk failure. For the AZTR, if I am honest, I didn't feel that same passion and commitment. I was in two minds as to whether I should race it, or just fast tour it. Those terms are relative of course. My race pace would be someone else's fast touring pace but that isn't the point of these races for most of us who start them. Most of us are really just racing ourselves. Trying to challenge ourselves. To see what we are capable of and how we react when put under severe duress. 
Did I really want to do that? Really put the hurt on? As you would have gleaned in my lead-up posts, I just wasn't sure if I had it in me, hence my vacillating between racing and touring.

I madly scoured the interwebs for any material on the Arizona Trail Race or even just the Arizona Trail. From Ross Cairns's failed 2013 AZTR750 attempt, I gleaned some absolute pearls of wisdom, namely DO YOUR RESEARCH. Know the trail and where to find water/resupply. There would be plenty enough adventure and unexpectedness during the race that knowing where the heck everything is wouldn't spoil it. 

Planning sessions galore!

Dave Wicks pearl of wisdom was that the AZT was just like my local trails here in Cornubia, just replace the gum trees with cacti and it was very similar. I now had a focus for where to train! How lucky to have techy singletrack, similar in composition and steepness to the AZT right out my backdoor!! My many 2-3 hour training rides that "only" yielded 25ish kilometres in that time were a perfect reset of my mental effort-versus-outcome equation for the AZTR.

Cornubia trails

John Schilling's blog about his AZTR750 race in 2016 is THE go-to place for AZTR750 research and I must have read that thing 8-10 times. The opening lines of his post scared me plenty....
Belief. Commitment. Planning.
These are a few of the attributes necessary in order to complete a ride such as the Arizona Trail Race, AZTR750 (300). If you're not 100%ALL IN, you'll be OUT before you know it. Even in perfect conditions this event will test everything you've ever known about riding and suffering on/off the bike. How you deal with it determines whether or not you finish.
There's more to it than that, but in the end if you don't truly believe you can reach Stateline Campground on the Utah border, you probably shouldn't line up at the border fence of Mexico. It's really that simple.

Hmmmm.....I may be in trouble here.......

I didn't feel like I had banked the amount of training that I would need for the race but I didn't beat myself up (too much) about it. It would have to do and I would make up for what fitness I lacked on the trail research front. 

Training rides in the wet and dark.

I did quite a bit of upper body and core strength training with a mate who is a personal trainer. This gave me a lot of confidence that I would be strong enough to take this thing on. The Grand Canyon hike setup gave me quite a few sleepless nights though. While I did train with a pack filled with weights, I only got one or two actual hikes with the bike on my back. These probably caused more angst than anything else!

So it was that on the 31st of March, ready or not, I boarded a jet bound for the US of A. I met Dave Wicks in the gate lounge for a chat. He was flying Air New Zealand via Auckland and I was direct to LAX. We would be meeting up in Phoenix in about 20 hours time to get this adventure on the road!

Bye bye Moreton Bay......

Hello PHX!

The following day we had a hire car loaded with two bikepacking bikes and quite a bit of REI schwag (love that place!) and were on the road toward Tucson and Seirra Vista. But first we caught up with the man, Mr Schilling and his lovely wife, K for a few beers and a meal. It was awesome to finally put a person to the words on a blog!
A stop at the Picketpost Mountain trailhead was the plan tonight. Picketpost is the finish of the AZTR300 race and here we unboxed our bikes and then slept on said boxes for the night. It was clear and cold, with a huuuge full moon peeking over the mountain as we went to sleep. This is what I could look forward to for 10 days or so!

Picketpost Mountain moonrise.

The following morning, a quick roll along 2 kilometres of trail back towards the Gila (pronounced Hila) river confirmed that the trail was narrow, rocky and technical. I got off to walk several rocky sections, concerned that I might crash and hurt myself. This attitude changed when I next attacked this section of trail.....though I wasn't to look so fresh!

Stoopid is a stoopid does.......

Picketpost mtn from the AZT.

After the night and my short ride at Picketpost it was a thoughtful drive to Tucson. WTF had we got ourselves into?  


Dave had noticed cracks around several spoke nipples on his rear wheel that morning so we headed straight to REI in Tucson to try to find a replacement. Well, if we must.......did I mention, I like REI??

I had a giggle at their "Bikepacking 101" poster.

When REI couldn't help with Dave's cracked nipples :O  we went to Road Runner Cycles to say g'day to Elliot Dumont, a great guy who Dave had raced the TD with a few years back. Elliot soon had the wheel issue under control and we made plans to catch up for a beer that night. Securing a hotel right on Broadway (the race route came past the end of Broadway and the Safeway was a primary resupply point) was good to help get a feel for the area. I put all of my bags on my bike and went for a spin to stretch the legs and suck in some dry desert air. 

Man, was it dry!! My eyes were tearing up as the moisture was sucked right out of me. What a great place for an aircraft storage yard. We were going to take a tour but sadly realised that there was a 10 day application time for "security" purposes. Oh well, next time I will know.....

Anti-low humidity and cacti spike removal equipment.

The next day we headed for Sierra Vista, the jumping off point for the AZTR start. SV is actually quite a large town with all the regular facilites AND a great bike shop, namely Sun N Spokes. We dropped in to say hi to Mark LaPaglia, the owner of SNS, to confirm details for the drive to the race start in the morning. Mark had VERY generously offered to give us a lift to the start line. I wanted to return the favour and bought a bag of Carbo Rocket and a sweet Sun N Spokes jersey. I had an inkling that it would be hard to get calories down in this heat and was going to risk some untested liquid nutrition for the race.

Dave W decided that he wanted to camp at the start line and headed out at about 2pm for the 30 mile ride to the Mexican Border. I was torn. I wanted to go as well but my sensible self said stay in a nice warm motel room, eat well and get a good rest. There would be plenty of time to lay on the cold, hard desert floor.

Dave W with f-all on his bike! Man it was a light setup!!

I proceeded down to the Safeway for a calorie collection. American supermarkets are always an eye opener for me. They just have soo much stuff and it is all dirt cheap. It is very hard not to go overboard.

Sooo, I went overboard and ended up with way too much food. I was still choking down Clif bars that I bought in Sierra Vista way up at Pine in central AZ!! Stupid stupid stupid!!

Only 60% of the food I lugged that first day.

Here it is packed for the bike. Two bags of white powder at the Mexican Border....? 

I was up at 4am race day to pedal the half mile down to another motel where Mark and his team would be picking us up for the drive to the start. There were four others availing themselves of the lift and we chatted briefly in the cold morning air before bundling ourselves into the trucks.
We arrived at the border just after first light and saw that many people had camped out along the dirt road that leads to/away from the border. We quickly unloaded our bikes and I gave the guy that drove me out a few bucks for helping us out. Mark is really pumped about the AZTR and helping people out. That is really cool and I wish more bike shops had that "enthusiasm".

I soon saw DaveW, looking a like shit. I don't think sleeping in the dusty grass did him much good last night. I also met Mirko Haecker, who did the TD in 2015 with me and Dean Anderson (TD2016). I had to get the obligatory border shot but chatting away I forgot to get the "I'm in Mexico" shot. No, I am not coming back to get it Mr Schilling!!

Me and Trumpy's current "wall".

Everyone was getting ready for the 7am start and we were soon assembled along the border fence while Kurt Refsnider said a few words in memory of the late Dave Goldberg, another bikepacking race nutter. RIP Dave.
 It had been pretty cold but the sun was warming us now. How we would soon wish for the return of that cool air!

Kurt remembering Dave Goldberg while my stupid GoPro beeps away.

Me, Dave W and Ron Thomson

A few minutes before 7am and everyone had their backs to the fence (soon to be wall? 'cause that would have sounded better. C'mon Donald!!). This shit was about to get real!! I actually felt pretty calm and was just chatting to Dean Anderson when someone must have said "Go", because everyone started to pedal off. We were underway!!

Chatting with Dean

Boom!! Racing!!

Dave W's advice for this first road section was to try to be toward the front of the pack. This was to avoid getting jammed up once we hit singletrack. I was feeling the elevation (and the weight of all the 'effing food I had packed) a bit so didn't go too hard initially but was mid to forward pack I think. Apparently my Spot wasn't tracking for the first few hours. It worked fine after the road section from Patagonia to Sonoita, which is odd because it was on from before the start and I didn't touch it all day. Go figure?

As we warmed up it was a great chance to chat to some others and it was nice to ride alongside Alice Drobna for a little while. Her setup made Dave W look like he was heavily loaded yet Alice claimed she was a princess who liked "glamping"!! 

Alice (left) and Ron Thomson(right) 749 miles to go!

The pack spread out quite quickly and soon enough I had the road to myself, which was great as I needed a restroom break!!

Looking back to Mexico

Just as I had read in many a blog account of this race, a bunch of us blasted right by the first turn off onto the AZT!! It was on a steep, corrugated downhill with a hard left turn, where we were travelling quite quickly and funnily enough, my gps had actually jumped off it's mount right by the turn! I had been too busy remounting it to notice the turn off and continued a few hundred metres up the road (up a climb of course) before being met by other riders coming back toward me. I knew what the issue was right away. Before long we were all on the first bit of "proper" AZT!! Everyone was buzzing and riding like it was an XC race!! Until the first hike a bike (HAB) that is.

After a mile or two we passed the Parker Canyon Lake trailhead where the AZTR300 had started at 8am. I said a quick "hi" to Scott Morris, the evil genius behind the AZTR then I spotted John Schilling taking photos a few metres further on. He wasn't racing due to an achilles issue this year but he was there adding to the stoke as we lemmings filed past.

Parker Canyon lake Trailhead 
(Schillingsworth photo)

Dropping down "gear check" hill. My bike passed with flying colours. (Schillingsworth photo)

This section of trail was the infamous Canelo Hills. Infamous because it consisted of about 50km (31mi) of rough, rocky, steep singletrack that contained large sections of H.A.B., all at between 4500 and 6000ft amsl. Top that of with the predicted 35C(95F) and 8% humidity and you have bloody demanding conditions. No problem, I was mentally prepared for this section as every blog or story about the AZT starts with "how much does the Canelo Hills suck?!". I was fresh, had plenty of water and was in a good mental space. The only thing slightly frustrating were the slow riders on the downhill sections. Everyone was reduced to walking uphill at times but some chose to walk down the hills as well, so it took a bit of careful brake lockup induced noise to wake them from their "zone out". To be honest, everyone was good though and I passed heaps of 300 racers too in the East Canelos as my plus size tyres had no problem handling the steep, loose downhills. It was just like my home trails with cacti and catclaw instead of gum trees and lantana!

We soon started encountering gates. The AZT has lots of wacky and wonderful gates. the gates here in the Canelos were pretty well made and no issue to get through. That would change as we went north.


A few hours in and it was hot. Damn hot. As I noted earlier, there is never any wind when you are climbing a steep hill and that makes it 10 degrees hotter! I was saving energy and walking anything steepish. No need to burn the legs out in the first few hours. I would need them again in the next 10 days!

HAB, East Canelos style.

I was passing a few riders, even on the HAB sections. I was very surprised when I came upon Dave W as when he left me at the start I thought "well, that is the last I will see of him until Utah". He waved me past and I slowed to chat for a while. He indicated that he was feeling like crap and I, like a Grandma, reminded him to drink, der! Shut up Dave....

Dave W feeling like shite in the East Canelos.

Dave's one word explanation for the whole AZTR750 was "brutal". It was proving to be just so.
I left Dave grovelling up a hill. He would get his second wind and pass me in no time, I was sure of it. Meanwhile, I continued with the solid pace, no breaks.

We were climbing a pretty serious hill and the trail designers were not to au fait with IMBA best practice when it came to trail layout. We seemed to be climbing unnecessarily steeply toward a rather high ridgeline, which is where I caught up to the fellow from Idaho/North Dakota.

We too'd and fro'd for a while as we stopped for photos and to adjust our gear. I finally dropped him on a sustained loose, rocky, steep downhill section. I didn't see him again.

I stopped briefly at the Canelo Pass trailhead to dump a bag of nuts that I had been lugging. I had almost zero appetite as I was sucking sooo much water down and my food was simply dead weight. I had been saving my CarboRocket powder for when I filtered water to take the taste away but I decided that I should mix it in my bottle that was stored on the handlebar feed bag. That way I could get the proportions of the mix right AND monitor how much fluid I was taking in. This was probably the smartest thing I did in the first 2 days of the race. I only brought about half the bag of CarboRocket with me and I was wishing I had it all and had left food behind. What was I thinking?! It was only 72km (and 7-8 hours) to the first resupply option in Patagonia but I had been sucked in by the hype of the Canelos and "packed my fears". Yes, I needed all 7 litlres of water but in reality, I didn't need much food. #rookieerror

Canelos Pass T.H. The "nut cache" is on my seat.

The west Canelos had a reputation of being more 'flowy" and hence easier. I got bitten a little by this as it certainly was not easy trail. There were many washes (dry creek beds) that one had to ride across and more often, along. These were soft, deep sand and I was so glad of my Plus size tyres as I could ride these quite easily, whereas I could see the narrower 2.4 wide tyres had sunk in and riders were off the bike, pushing. There were many drops into these washes and you needed to be careful.

Dropping into a wash.....

Looking back at the same drop. As high as the bike.

I was glad I was toting 7 litres of water as it wasn't until here in the West Canelos that I saw my first water by the side of the trail. There was a tank (dam to us) then a couple of windmills and bores. I stopped briefly at Red Bank well for a photo but figured I didn't need to filter any water. I should have got a photo of the algae growing in the trough as it looked like a mini reef system!

As I wasn't stopping to look at my notes, I wasn't really sure how far it was to Patagonia but I didn't worry too much. If I pedalled and pushed for long enough, it would appear....

After what felt like forever but was probably only 90 minutes I stopped to transfer some water from my frame Camelbak to my bottle in the shade of a tree. I was down to about 2.5 litres now but Patagonia couldn't be too far away? Right?

The trail became quite steep from here with sections of machine built singletrack cut into the steep hillsides. There were stupidly steep, loose downhill switchback corners. Most I could ride, but some felt like the front was going to wash out and I was going to go over the topside! I wouldn't have stopped rolling for 2 days if I had! It was effing steep AND loose and went on for ages, until my hands were aching from gripping the bars and brakes! All of a sudden I rounded a bend and there in the distance was Patagonia (or the flat where Patagonia must be). Sweet! I knew there was a few kilometres of sealed road into town that I could just time trial.

My plan upon reaching Patagonia was to just quickly grab some water and a cold soda, the head out for the 20km(12mi) sealed climb to Sonoita. No need to waste time in Patagonia with another resupply so close up the road. I bought 2 x 500ml waters and a can of Orange Crush. This I sipped while I poured the water into one of my Camelbaks. I had about 1 litre left, so it was 6 litres for the first 72km! No wonder I wasn't hungry! A quick lube of the chain and I was off again. Trackleaders only shows me stopped in Pat for about 10-ish minutes. Sweet pit stop!!

The ride to Sonoita on Hwy 82 was a bit "meh", with lots of traffic buzzing by my left shoulder at 85mph. For cars that was fine but the trucks scared the shit out of me, especially when there was one coming both ways! I managed to find cell service so I shot a few quick texts off to home as I rode but I had to give it away as I thought I was going to end up under the front of a fast moving vehicle if I didn't.

The road was all uphill to Sonoita, so of course it felt like it took forever. According to the gps, it only took one hour and five minutes so I was actually flying along! I avoided the hotel/diner on the main intersection and went to the Sonoita Chuckwagon, which didn't look like anything from the road. In fact, I thought it must be closed up until I rolled into the courtyard at the rear and saw another mountainbike propped against a post. I had seen that fat bike, broken on the side of the trail in the east Canelos! How the hell could it be here now?! It turns out the front wheel had fallen out of the dropouts on a steep downhill, bending the fork and 'effing up some other bits. The rider was inside and was fine. We chatted a while as I tried to get the cute waitress to understand what I was trying to order. The guy on the fat bike (sorry, forgot his name but he was from Park City) ended up interpreting for me. All I was trying to order was a BLT, a burrito to take-away (to go in the US of A) and a massive Coke with ice! I also wanted to fill my Camlbaks with ice and water which she kindly let me do myself behind the servery. I think she had given up trying to understand and just let me do it. I left a generous tip......

That BLT was mighty dry but tasted good all the same. First real food in 9 hours and first of 2 Cokes.

I sat, eating, checking Trackleaders and consulting my route notes as I looked out over the road that came in from Patagonia. I saw a few riders coming into town but none were passing which meant they were all heading to the Steak Out Restaurant and Saloon at the crossroads. Nobody seemed to know about my little hidey-hole. ;)

It was "only" 27km(17mi) to Kentucky Camp where I could next get water, then another 21km(13mi) to Helvetia road, where I planned to camp. This wasn't that far but there are no easy miles on the AZT and it would take me another 3 hours 50 minutes to get to Kentucky Camp, though I had no idea how long it was at the time. (It would be right on dark as I filled my water bags again and fitted my light to my helmet at Kentucky Camp).

The ride out of Sonoita was tough. Tough because it was on open prairie into a strong headwind, on a full stomach. I hate it when you can see too far and realise how slowly you are grovelling along.

Westbound in a South to North race....

Excellent, what with me and my bag of white powder......

I stopped to water the plants on a rocky climb, looking back toward Sonoita. I could see the Canelos in the distance to the right with the Miller Peak wilderness off to the left. It was pretty spectacular even though I was fairly rooted.

Canelos right, Miller Peak wilderness left. (or something like that)

The trail for some miles into Kentucky Camp was excellent. It seemed to follow a contour more than any other trail and I believe this is because it followed an old aquaduct built back in the day to assist in mining gold. Whatever the reason, I was very pleased with the smooth-ish, level-ish trail and my spirits rose somewhat. Yes, I was getting tired now.

As I said earlier, I rolled into Kentucky Camp just before dark, quickly refilling my water, eating a little beef jerky, a banana and some peanut M&Ms. All the while some woman was on a phone in a caravan not 20 metres away and I could unfortunately hear half of the conversation. I was pleased to get the hell out of there without them noticing me.

Kentucky Camp historic area

Kentucky Camp "spigot" (tap to us) behind the tree. You really need to know where to look for it!

It got dark as I climbed to the gate above Kentucky Camp. A couple of loud (I could hear them riding in from about 1 kilometre out) Americans had rolled in just as I rolled out and now I tried to keep their lights well behind me as I climbed and descended what felt like endless hills in the dark. The steep, loose, tight, downhill switchbacks were very demanding of attention and I sort of chuckled to myself after a while. Here I was, in the middle of nowhere, on a 25+kg (55+lb) bike, flying down steep hillsides into tight, loose switchbacks, most times skidding the rear end to get it to turn around the corner, all with a heap of exposrue meaning that if I came off I was going to roll down the hill for a week.
This is nucking futs but shit its fun!!

I blasted past a turn near Rosemont camp but I had been watching my gps like a hawk all day since the early navigation faux pas this morning and I only went about 50m down the hill. Back on track I soon crossed Helvetia rd, my target for tonight. Well, I think I crossed it. It was a major-ish road but the dark and in my tired state I couldn't read the tiny writing on the eTrex 30. Damn that thing needs a bigger screen! Either way it didn't matter. I wasn't finished riding tonight so pressed on.
More silly climbing and even sillier descending ensued. I crossed a creek and decided that a flat-ish spot under some prickly looking trees would do for the night. It was only about 10 metres off the trail but that was far enough. As long as I wasn't right on the edge of it, it would be fine. As I set up camp riders were dropping the 50 vertical metres down the hillside on the other side of the creek, which sounded like it was right above me. It was funny to hear them skidding and cursing the tight switchbacks. I had killed my light as each one approached, not because I was being anti-social but because I just needed to get set up, eat and get to sleep asap. I knew if other riders saw me there they would either A)chat with me as I would with them or B)want to camp there as well because it was flat-ish. I say flat-ish because as soon as I got into my bivy on my Tyvek groundsheet I promptly slid off the bottom end! I righted myself once but as I began to immediately slide off again, gave up and let gravity take it's course. That was my lack of testing biting me in the butt. I knew that for future nights I would need a very flat campsite. Something not easy to find at times on the AZT.
A few more riders, pushed their bikes out of the creek past my hidden campsite without even knowing I was there. I awoke at about midnight to a couple setting up about 20 metres further up the trail from me but I don't know if they saw me. Surely my lilly-white Tyvek groundsheet gave me away? Who cares? I didn't. They probably didn't either so I drifted back to sleep, pleased with my progress today but slightly nervous about my food and water situation for tomorrow. It was 46km(29mi) to the next guaranteed water supply, which isn't normally far but we were talking AZT miles here.

Those miles would probably kick my arse, but that would be tomorrow.

Day 1.

Cheers and thanks for reading.


  1. Bloody hell Dave, that's a fantastic bit of descriptive writing - well done mate. I was dry as dust and knackered just reading it! You've got a real talent for writing. Weren't you worried about snakes and tarantulas etc whilst kipping? Probably not, seeing as most things in Oz are hell-bent on killing you :-). Can't wait for the next part!

    BTW, did anyone tell you that you look like your bro? S'pose I've insulted you both :-)

    1. Yes, only I'm the handsome one Geoff.
      Thats right......

      Good write up old boy.

    2. Thanks Geoff. You had best get a cold drink if you are a bit dry. Camping steaight on the ground? I was too rooted to care (plus the rattler is only number 25 on the most venemous snakes list. It’s a pussy! Ours fill all, top 10 spots.....
      I tend to run on a bit in my blog. Can’t get a word out of me in person!
      As for looking like my bro? Can’t help bad luck I guess.....

  2. You need to be printing gout your blog posts into a book so you can look back on this and laugh, and curse, and just enjoy.

    Great write up for Day 1, and kudos to you for actually setting your mind to doing this and accomplishing it.

  3. I have been wondering what I would do if Blogger gets taken down. Because my TD writeup was so long I did consider putting it into paper form. This AZTR write up may also turn out to be a bit epic, so another candidate.

  4. How did I miss the World Premiere of this blog release?? It's helps knowing the trail as I read this, I recognize certain rocks!!

    Oh, and you'll be back for that Mexico obelisk shot, plus the newly minted finish one at Stateline!! Looking forward to the rest...

    1. I don't put my blog anywhere near Facebook, so you need to subsribe. ;) I sort of explain my reasoning in my very first blog post, #1 which was well before I had even heard of Facebook.
      As for those obelisk shots...can you send me one of each.... :) I'll come back for the beer......and Gold Canyon trails on a cool day.... ;)


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