Life on Fire: Jill Hueckman and the AZTR

The Call of the Wild: Hueckman took on the AZTR just two years after buying her very first bike. 

Last year, Jill Hueckman became the first woman to complete the Arizona Trail Race (AZTR), a 750-mile bikepacking mountain bike race that includes a 24-mile hike through the Grand Canyon, carrying your disassembled bike. She conquered it in 14 days, self supported. Only four men had ever finished the race, which doesn’t have aid-stations or entry fees and leaves riders at the mercy of their wits and saddlebags for food, water and shelter. The crux? Hueckman only bought her first bike three years ago. Hueckman attempted the 300 mile version of the Arizona Trail Race the year before and failed, but then became just the third woman to complete the 500 mile self-supported Colorado Trail Race in 2010. Coming back to the AZT in 2012, she made the decision to take on the daunting 750-mile version to exorcise her demons. We caught up with Jill at her home in Durango to see what drives her.

What was it like the night before the AZTR started?

I felt a quiet, unspoken, but very present confidence—not arrogance—that this year, I was getting across that finish line. I would have to say that it was born from my increased awareness of what was ahead of me and my stubborn determination to finish. I couldn’t help but think back to the eve of last year’s race and how different my mindset was this year. I had some demons to slay here in the desert—tire demons, rookie demons, DNF demons, but I pushed worry and fear aside. I slept like a log.

What was your biggest moment of doubt?

I never once doubted that I would finish, but I did start to doubt my goal of sub 10 days once I was between Payson and the Mogollon Rim. The trail was miserably overgrown, steep and hard to travel even without a bike. My pace slowed down far more than I anticipated and my feet were trashed from hours and hours of really difficult hike-a-bike.

Did you run out of water?

Food, yes. Several times. Water, no. People always tell me they could never do this race because there is not enough water.  But really, there are many water sources if you do the research beforehand. The one time it got a little dicey was north of Flagstaff. The only confirmed source was a “tank” 70 miles away. But I actually found two others in those 70 miles and was fine.

How hard was hiking the Grand Canyon?

Once I arrived, I realized that I was committed to packing my bike to the north rim. Packing it. I waited for a moment and took a deep breath… I looked at the ground, I looked at the sky. I shook my head and started to laugh. What was there to be afraid of? This is the epic adventure part of the race. The part I crave, love, have thought about nonstop for months. Had a woman ever toted her bike across this ditch ever before? I had no idea but suspected very few, if any. Has there been one who had even made it this far in the AZTR 750? No. And as quickly as the fear had crept into my head, it was gone. I began my descent down the South Kaibab trail.

How did you feel at the end of the race?

Leaving Jacob Lake, I anticipated a highly emotional ride. This was it. This was the last few miles leading up to a moment I had wanted to experience for so long—to be the first woman to finish the AZTR 750. In the movies, this is where the music gets really loud and epic and we see the heroine in slow motion. Ironically, this section felt the most anticlimactic. I pedaled along really not thinking about much. The fight had been fought and won. I felt both the joy of achievement and bittersweet sadness for a journey that was ending.

How has doing these epic bikepacking races changed your life?

I have set my life on fire. A fire that burns hot for a journey and its inherent challenge and adventure.  It probably sounds reckless and is not the safe, secure life prescribed by society. I have found the courage to face down my fears by refusing to be paralyzed by them. I have chosen to stop limiting myself to doing the basic, and being basic, go for broke, really listen to my heart and just straight up believe in myself.

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