A Brief History of Women in the Arizona Trail Race

Created by Scott Morris in 2006 as the first singletrack-based bikepacking race, the Arizona Trail Race has a deep history of attracting some of the best bikepackers to its trails. Both the 300-mile (AZT300) and 750-mile (AZTR750) versions of the route are incredibly rugged, and the remoteness of the trail makes it a test piece for many bikepacking racers.

It took until 2010 for any women to line up for the race at all. Both Deanna Adams and Mary Reynolds made strong attempts during a year that started with snow in the Canelo Hills but ultimately weren’t able to make it to Picketpost. 

It wasn’t until 2011 that the 300 had a woman finisher and 2012 for the 750. Since then, there’s been a small but strong contingent of women who line up each year, and recent years have seen a proper women’s race take place. A lot has changed with the race since Lynda Wallenfels first set the women’s course record in 2011, but the spirit of the event seems very much unchanged: a self-supported adventure through some of the most beautiful areas of Arizona testing the mental and physical strength of everyone who partakes. 

Looking at the history of women on the AZT shows a clear connection of them finding friendship and inspiration from each other. From 2011 to 2021, it’s been a decade of strong and independent women throwing down impressive rides, both challenging and supporting each other to do their very best. 

300 Miles in the Sonoran Desert

In 2011, just two women lined up for the start of the AZT300. To be completely accurate, Jill Hueckman lined up for the start alone after Lynda Wallenfels missed the start by 18 minutes. Tire issues would take Jill out of the race at Molino Campground, but Lynda would go on not only to be the first woman finisher of the 300 but would also beat all of the men in the process. “AZT was a men’s race only at that point. My boyfriend [Dave Harris] was in the race and people thought I just went along cause he was going. It actually was the other way around!”

Lynda Wallenfels at the start of the 2011 AZT300. Photo courtesy of Lynda Wallenfels.

Lynda was no stranger to long-distance racing. Prior to the AZT, she’d been focusing on 24-hour solo racing and 100-mile races. She’d also just set the women’s FKT on the Kokopelli Trail (15 hours 3 minutes), a 142-mile route from Moab to Fruita. “I had the fitness,” Lynda explains of the transition to bikepacking racing, “The self-supported aspect and navigation inside the race format was a different piece that drew me in. That changes the performance-paradigm. It’s not just the fittest that wins but the athlete who also can nail all the other aspects; navigation, fueling, pacing, keeping your bike working, gear selection, mental tenacity, etc.”

Plus, Lynda was no stranger to traveling by bike. “I’ve been riding my bike in the dirt on overnighters for a long time! I did a lot of “off-road touring” in Scotland in the early 90s. That was before it was called bikepacking. I like being outside and sleeping under the stars and riding my bike and have been doing that for decades.”

Unlike current racers who have access to seemingly endless information about the AZTR, either from prior racers’ blogs, apps, or by being able to ask any questions on the internet, beta on the trail was relatively scarce in 2011. But that didn’t intimidate Lynda, who is known for planning for races better than anyone else out there. She’d managed to scout about half the course prior to the race, relying on Google Earth and Topofusion to look at the rest virtually. “Those programs are so good I can have déjà vu going through an area I have never been before!” Plus, for a meticulous planner, the lack of information was actually an advantage. “I can sleuth out things that other racers may not have discovered.”

Lynda Wallenfels at the AZT start in 2011. Photo courtesy of Lynda Wallenfels.

2011 was an incredibly hot year on the AZT and Lynda showed up feeling no pressure to ride fast, something that ultimately worked to her advantage. “There was a full field of strong men with the prior year’s winner and the course record holder from another year and several other very fit strong men, including my boyfriend. There was a lot of talk about them. Nobody paid any attention to me at all. There just wasn’t a ‘women’s race’.” So after missing the start and escaping the frantic race off the line that has been the downfall of many, Lynda started off strong and steady. “For the overgrown cat claw poky sections I sewed Tyvek into knee-high socks I pulled up when it was super scratchy and made sure my arm coolers were pulled up. For the difficult parts I was patient and focused on moving smoothly through with the least amount of energy.” 

Missing the start of the race meant that Lynda never saw the front of the race, right up until she became the front of the race. In Lynda’s description of the events, “All the fast guys dashed off the front and raced each other into DNF’s.” Lynda just focused on taking care of herself, staying hydrated, eating, and minimizing sun exposure, pedaling herself to Picketpost as the first woman to finish the AZT300, and as the first person to the finish line that year. “The tire tracks in the dirt on course became fewer and fewer until finally there were none. Racers just vanished!  I won by attrition! In bikepacking races winning by attrition is a very valid win! I love that about bikepacking self-supported races. It takes more than putting your head down and hammering on the pedals to win.”

The following year, 2012, the AZT300 only saw one woman finisher, Jill Hueckman, on her way to becoming the first woman to finish the AZTR750. Read more about that in the history of the AZTR750 section below.

[Author’s Note: Hi! It’s me, Eszter. I absolutely cannot write about myself in the third person, so y’all will have to be okay with me switching into narrative mode here for a little bit.] Lynda’s involvement with the AZT didn’t end with setting the women’s course record. She was/is the best bikepacking racing coach in the business, and I’d been working with her for the better part of two years, setting women’s course records on the Tour Divide, Stagecoach 400, Dixie 200, and the Iditarod Trail Invitational 350 under her direction and wisdom. My goal race of the winter season had been the Iditarod, and while I’d set a new women’s course record, I described the ride on my blog as, “A poorly executed junk show.” I spent most of the miles from Knik to McGrath fairly miserable, making terrible decisions, and just barely holding it together. It very well could have been the end of my bikepacking career right there. I was signed up to race the Whiskey 50 later that spring, but the best laid plans never go as expected, especially after I started dating Scott Morris, AZTR founder and race director. Somehow I talked Lynda into changing my training and race plans to do the AZT300 instead, just six or so weeks after finishing the Iditarod. I suspect that she realized she wasn’t going to talk me out of it even if she tried.  

I flew down to Tucson the night before the race, slept embarrassingly little, and drove down to Parker Canyon Lake with Scott and a few friends in the morning. Lynda is quick to say, “Happy racers go faster,” and I have to agree. Buzzing on New Relationship Energy, the riding felt effortless. I’d ridden many sections of the route during a few earlier visits down to Tucson and drew on the energy of having spent time on many of the sections of trail with Scott in the prior few months, and knowing that he’d built and designed many miles of the ribbon of trail through the Sonoran Desert made it extra special to ride.

Eszter Horanyi climbing away from the Gila River on the way to setting a new women’s course record.

After the abject miserable disaster that the ITI was just six weeks prior, flowing through the warm desert on all the endorphins that come with new love was such a contrast. While I suffered down Oracle Ridge and roasted through the Gila Canyons, I look back on the ride as pure magic. I rolled into Picketpost with a new women’s course record of 2:13:15, just behind Pete Basinger and in third overall.

Eszter Horanyi at the Freeman water cache. Photographer unknown.

Injuries and sickness would take me out of the race scene after the AZT300, but it was a great way to cap off four years of bikepacking racing fun. 

2013 was also a breakthrough year for the 300, having four women finish the event. While Sharon Sell and Nancy Gray both finished while riding with a partner, Sheila Torres-Blank completed the route in true solo, self-supported fashion.

Alison Kinsler made a strong attempt at the women’s course record in 2014, finishing just two hours behind the record in 2:15:03, a hugely impressive performance given that she’d done much of her winter riding on a trainer in Afghanistan while working as an orthopedic surgeon. She placed fifth overall out of 34 starters, and finally the women’s field was starting to grow. Also finishing the 300 were Alexis Ault, Caroline Soong, and Jill Hueckman. Kait Boyle was also slated to line up for the race before a crash and broken wrist had her sitting on the sidelines. 

This was the start of Alexis’ regular presence at the AZT300. She was a National Science Foundation Postdoc at the University of Arizona at the time and new to bikepacking, going on her first bikepacking trip earlier that winter. “Looking back, was in over my head? Probably! Was my headspace a mess? Also, yes! Those might be one and the same.” But after finishing in 3:23:14, she was hooked. “On the car ride back to Tucson with Pete Lippert, I was shelled, smelled like death (sorry Pete!), and was already thinking about how I could go faster.”

Alexis Ault finishing at Picketpost, 2015. Photo courtesy of Alexis Ault.

In 2015, Alexis lined up alongside Kait and Cassie Morelock, determined to go faster. “In 2015, I flew in from Utah, where I was in my first year as an Assistant Professor in the Geosciences department at Utah State University. The days leading up to the race had been stressful at work. But somehow, I put all of that behind me, focused on pedaling, and took 15 hours off my time. 3 days and 6 hours stands as my fastest time.” It placed her second behind Kait, who was just starting on her multi-year commitment to laying down a fast time on the 300. Kait’s time of 2:20:41 would place her tenth overall out of 42 finishers. 

Kait on her first AZT300 finish, 2015. Photo: Kurt Refsnider/courtesy of Kait Boyle.

This was just the start of Kait’s commitment to riding the AZT 300. “The things I recall as being difficult that led to future refining were how challenging some foods are to eat when it’s hot, your mouth is sore, and you’re worked. I recall putting both pairs of shorts I brought on for the boulders segment because my butt was so sore I wanted as much padding as possible. I “slept” but didn’t really and realized I hate sleeping for just a few hours and would rather stay awake (my only prior ultra at that point was the Coconino Loop in 2013 which I rode without sleeping in about 48 hours).” While she was still 12 hours off of the course record, there was a seed of possibility. “By then Eszter and I had become friends, she had retired from racing but was incredibly encouraging of me, and helped me realize that she’s human, and thus I too can do what she did on the AZT.

[We’ve got a full feature on Kait’s multi-year commitment to the AZT coming in a few days. Keep your eyes out!]

On paper, 2016 looked to be the most competitive women’s field to date with Kait and Alexis both returning and being joined by Tracey Petervary. Tracey is well known for her bikepacking exploits, having ridden the Iditarod Trail Invitational 1000 from Knik to Nome twice, finishing Tour Divide twice, once solo and once on the tandem, and completing countless other bikepacking races. The race started out fast and the heat was relentless. Alexis would drop out at the Reddington Road crossing of the AZT after she “went out far too hard for my fitness and endurance and Elliot DuMont found me laying in my sleeping bag, in a puddle, on Choose Your Own Adventure [Italian Trap/Chiva Falls area].” Kait would also drop out after Oracle with breathing issues. Tracey would win the women’s race in 3:05:38 ahead of Shannon Villegas and Kathi Merchant.

The third time was the charm for Alexis in 2017. She says, “I was back and winging it. The wheels came off the bus over and over again, but somehow, each time, I pulled myself together. I was determined to finish. I finished in 3 days and 11 hours and may have been the fastest female that year; it was a race of attrition.” But attrition is a perfectly valid way to win a race, especially one as difficult as the AZT300. 

Alexis Ault finishing at Picketpost, 2017. Photo courtesy of Alexis Ault.

Alexis would return to the AZT300 in the spring of 2021 for two ITT attempts that were derailed by tire issues and “my poor choices getting the better of me and my perfectionism consuming me.” 

“My desire to return to the AZT300, again and again, is annoyingly simple and complicated. My familiarity with the trail brings me comfort, but it also challenges me – I want to go faster. I have to make the space in my life to accomplish that goal. One day I hope to get there again. The AZT provides suffering in spades. I love it, and the trick is managing it, my mind, and my heart.”

Alexis Ault enjoying the magic of the AZT.

“It [the AZTR] has been a quiet, thoughtful partner, with me at my very best and my utter worst mentally, physically, emotionally.”

Throughout this time period, Kait was slowly working to fit all the pieces together for a fast ride, making several attempts that fell short of Picketpost, but in 2018, it all came together. “I was continuing to develop as a cyclist through all those years. It was still a time period in the trajectory of riding for me that I kept getting stronger and soaking in experience, so each year I felt like my potential was higher. I  just needed to pull it together, which while you need luck for the uncontrollables to fall into place, I also understood and was drawn to the puzzle of what it took to make a smooth run” 

Also in the race was Rebecca Rusch, an incredible endurance athlete known for being able to put together huge efforts. Rebecca had set the new Kokopelli Trail women’s record at 13:32 in 2013, about two hours faster than Lynda’s, before Kait would take it in 2020 with a time of 13:07. While she was relatively inexperienced on the AZT compared to Kait, it would have been dumb to count her out.

But for 2018, it was purely the Kait Show. She took off fast and never let up, finishing the ride in an amazing 2:02:57. The now-former course record holder (your author here) could only watch the KB pink dot move with such efficiency and speed with amazement, so impressed with everything unfolding. Reflecting on the ride now, Kait says, “In the weeks leading up to the race I had changed my goal from the FKT time of about 60 hours to 48 hours, which felt a bit crazy. But I knew that if I didn’t set a barely attainable high goal I wouldn’t get the most out of my ride. I really wanted this to be the last time I tried to go fast.” 

Kait after her FKT-setting ride in 2018. Photo: John Schilling/courtesy of Kait Boyle.

The following year, Annie Lloyd-Evans, coming all the way from Scotland, rode away with the women’s win in 2019 with a time of 3:08:36. Her blog is an amazing account of her experience and well worth a read. It’s hilarious. Coming from cold and rainy Scotland, she had to learn how to cope with the heat. The draw of amazing singletrack through cactus country provided plenty of motivation to make the trip.  

Lael Wilcox performed an ITT on the route in the spring, finishing with a very strong 2:03:54 but falling short of what is proving to be a very, very fast women’s FKT on the route.

In 2021, both distances of the AZTR were moved to the fall to help alleviate the problem of snow on the northern parts of the course for the longer race and to avoid the increased number of thru hikers on the trail during the spring. Extra mileage was added to both events, with 300 racers having to initially head south from Parker Lake to ride Sunnyside Canyon. The addition moved the actual mileage of the short route, which fluctuated yearly with the addition of more Arizona Trail as it was built, closer to an actual 300 miles. The fall date also meant overgrown trails, and heavy monsoon rains in southern Arizona meant that the prickly plants were out in force and much of the trail was filled with ruts. No one knew exactly what to expect.

It was Kristen Tonsager who was able to handle the elements most efficiently, finishing as the first woman to Picketpost in 3:05:52. No stranger to bikepacking, she’s ridden the Colorado Trail four times, twice in the race, and has toured extensively throughout the American West and Europe. It was story time with Justin DuBois on a ride in 2019 that initially put the race on Kristen’s radar. But she’s a mountain person and initially had minimal interest in the desert. But after a visit to the state in 2020, she was hooked, and after completing the Colorado Trail Race, she set her sights on the AZT300. Her completion of the double is even more impressive in the light of the fact that her husband, Joe Tonsager of JPaks bikpacking bags, underwent open heart surgery in March of 2021 and spent the summer recovering.

Kristen Tonsager rolling through the Canelo Hills in 2021 during the first fall edition of the AZTR. Photo: Eszter Horanyi

Kristen admits to going into the race pretty blind. “With no prior knowledge of what the AZT looks like in the spring, I heeded the advice of people on social media that know the route best (thank you John Schilling) and took the advice to wear long sleeves and long socks to protect myself from the vicious catclaw that had overgrown the trail.  I had never experienced such pain and anger towards a plant as I did riding those 300 miles.”

Still, the beauty of the desert outweighed the menace of the overgrowth. Not knowing how much clearer the trail would have been in the spring quite possibly helped with the mental aspect of dealing with it.  “Despite the untamed fury of Mother Nature, fall in the desert was pretty magical,” Kristen says. It was the night riding that stood out. “I looked forward to the sun setting each day, the cool blanket of night air enveloping me and flowing down the trail.”

It was a close women’s race to the finish with Chase Edwards, on her way to winning the women’s AZT800, just a few hours behind. But it was seeing Kyle Quinn and Peter Schuster at 4 a.m. at the turn away from the Gila River and up into Martinez Canyon in the final section of the race that pushed Kristen to the finish. She fueled the last section, known for its remoteness and difficult riding, on half a bottle of water and two bites of a Snickers bar. “Adrenaline is a magical thing,” she says. 

Chase would finish the first 300 miles of her 800-mile journey in 3:07:58. Emma Millar was close behind at 3:16:31, and Alexandera Houchin, also racing the 800, also finished under four days with a time of 3:23:53. Katya Rakhmatulina finished at Picketpost in 4:08:49 rounding out the year with the most women finishers in the history of the event.

The AZT races have attracted significantly more creativity and innovation, and arguably light-hearted fun, than some of the other well-established bikepacking routes. In the spring of 2021, after the Grand Depart had been moved to the fall, a group of singlespeeders, including Alexandera Houchin and Katie Strempke, set up the Potato Sack Race, a group ITT of the 300. They raced under aliases including Mashed Taters, Tater Tot, Pomme Frites, and Potayto Potahto. During this event, Alexandera would set the women’s singlespeed course record with a time of 2:19:25. 

Katie Strempke was also part of the Potato Sack Race, making it to Oracle Ridge before breathing issues forced a retreat back to Tucson. She would reload the effort a few weeks later, starting the 300 at the border instead of Parker Canyon Lake and finishing in 3:10:57.

Katie Strempke at the iconic Picket Post finish in 2021. Photo courtesy of Katie Strempke.

Perhaps it’s because of the constant tweaks to the course introduced by new race director John Schilling, but racers also seem more inclined to push for changes to the route to make it more difficult or interesting, often by gathering a group to do an alternate route either as part of a group ITT, or as part of the Grand Depart event. The Lemmon Drop is the newest bit of trail up for consideration. While the official AZT Wilderness Bypass uses a series of rugged trails on the south side of Mount Lemmon, called the Lemmon Drop when ridden in the downhill direction, original route designer Scott Morris had deemed using them to climb to the top of the mountain too difficult and put the route on the highway instead. Purists argue that if hiking a bike through the Grand Canyon isn’t considered too difficult for the race, the Lemmon Drop trails shouldn’t be either.

Justin DuBois was the first to add the Lemmon Drop to a 300 ride, going southbound in the spring of 2021. Alexandera and Jolly Goodtimes also added the difficult trails to their AZT300 rides when they did southbound ITT efforts in the spring of 2022, but all three of them were going down the trails, not hike-a-biking up them. Alexandera accepted outside support to fix a broken pedal at Hope Camp during that ride, leading to an * next to the time, but it was a big step in setting the Lemmon Drop precedent. 

Alexandera Houchin descending into the Black Hills during her 2021 AZT800 ride. Photo: Eszter Horanyi

This fall, a group of riders, including Alexandera, plan on taking the Lemmon Drop route to the top of the mountain, estimating that it will add about 12 hours to the route in the northbound direction and require a fairly hefty water carry. But, one could argue that if John Schilling is going to add Sunnyside Canyon to the route, even going up Lemmon Drop shouldn’t be considered too absurd. (We love you, Schilling.) 

Border to Border

The modern AZTR750 didn’t have its first completion until  2010 when Mark Caminiti finished it during the Grand Depart, with Kurt Refsnider setting a new men’s course record during an ITT later in the spring. In 2012, Jill Hueckman was the first woman to finish the 750 in a time of 14:11:36. While she missed a six-mile section of dirt road near Jake’s Corner and received an * on the ride, it was still a gutsy and impressive ride border to border. Jill wrote about her experience and encouraged other women to go after the record.

The following year, Sheila Torres-Blank did the route justice in 2013, finishing in 15:10:16. 

Jill was back in 2014, lining up at the border with Caroline Soong and Christina Nacos with plans to lower her course record time and put together a clean run on the route. Again, she would be the only woman finisher on the 750, setting a new women’s course record 14:09:36, after having a challenging time on the trail. She wrote up an extensive trip report on her blog.

In 2015, Alice Drobna showed up on her singlespeed, lowering the women’s course record to 9:13:53. She was joined in finishing by Katherine Wallace, a Kiwi living in the US with plenty of bikepacking experience, including Tour Divide. 

2016 also saw two women finish the event, Sarah Jansen in 12:06:49 and Sara Dallman in 15:07:17. Sarah ended up missing a three mile section of the route near Mormon Lake, receiving an * for the ride, but gaining infamy after walking her broken bike nearly 30 miles to get it fixed in Payson. She went on to write a book, Pedaling Home: One Woman’s Race Across the Arizona Trail about her experience out on the trail. 

In 2017, Jenny Graham and Fiona Massey raced the route together, finishing in 11:09:20. 

Alice returned in 2018 as the first race of her Triple Crown attempt. She won the women’s race in 10:10:50 before going on to win Tour Divide later on in the summer with a time of 19:22:04. She remains the sole female finisher of the Triple Crown with a total time of 36:06:56, having completed all three races on a singlespeed. Beth Shaner, another highly experienced bikepacker from Crested Butte, Colorado also finished the 750 with a time of 11:05:56. 

The final year of the 750 route, 2019, saw Eliza Sampey set a new women’s course record of 9:11:44, shaving two hours off of Alice’s time. After the event, she put together a beautiful video of her experience with the Arizona Trail. She also wrote an in- race report for the Townie that is well worth a read, saying, “I raced a smart race, not a balls-out race. I knew if I wanted to have a shot at the record I first needed to finish the route, and that meant racing in a way that was smart for me.” She emerged from the canyon crossing at the exact same time that Alice had during her 2015 ride and put every ounce of effort into racing the record dot to the border. 

Eliza finishing at the Utah border with a new women’s FKT.

In 2021, a change in race date, new additions to the route, and a new race director added enough mileage and change to prompt a rename of the event, from the AZTR750 to the AZT800. While the increase in mileage may not seem like much, the added trail removes many fast miles of the course, replacing them with some of the more remote sections of the Arizona Trail. Chase Edward blitzed the route in 10:18:59, finishing second behind Nate Ginzton. Alexandera Houchin also finished the 800, riding much of the route with (and falling in love with) Jolly Goodtimes along the way. You can listen to an endlessly entertaining podcast with Alexandera detailing the trip on Cjell Mone’s podcast BIKES BIKES BIKES

Chase Edwards coming through the Canelo Hills on the way to winning the AZT800. Photo: Eszter Horanyi

Lael Wilcox rode the AZTR800 route as part of a film project in the spring of 2021, finishing in a quick 9:08:23. She accepted a relegation for using a personal media crew to document the effort. 

For 2022, the race is shaping up to be a repeat showdown between Alexandera and Ana Jager. The two rode within miles of each other for most of the 2022 Colorado Trail Race, with Alexandera riding away for the win during the final night. Alexandera has committed to riding up the Lemmon Drop while Ana is planning on sticking to the normal route. Alexandera’s deep knowledge of the trail gives her a distinct advantage, but as Ana showed in the CTR, she’s able to hang with the best over the most difficult terrain. It’s also worth noting that Ana also won Tour Divide this year, and if she finishes the 800, she’ll be the second woman finisher of the Bikepacking Triple Crown.

To follow both races starting this Thursday, head over to Trackleaders.com

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