Doing What She Most Wants To Do: Heather Anderson’s Pacific Crest Trail FKT
[Editor’s Note: This is the next edition in iRunFar’s On Adventure article series, a play on words from the climbing phrase “on belay.” On Adventure strives to document the raddest adventures undertaken by trail and ultrarunners.]
It all started with a seasonal job. “I worked one summer of college at Grand Canyon National Park,” she recounts during a long, August phone conversation. “I learned to hike in the canyon. Before that, I didn’t know trails existed.” She confirms that she means this in the literal sense, and I gulp back incredulity. The woman on the other end of the phone line is Heather Anderson, an accomplished long-distance hiker and ultrarunner who lives outside Bellingham, Washington.
This summer, the 32-year-old, whose trail name is ‘Anish’ as a tribute to her Anishinaabeg heritage, set a truly obscene long-distance hiking record. She hiked the 2,663-mile Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) between the United States’s borders with Mexico and Canada and through California, Oregon, and Washington. She did so in traditional thru-hiker style, meaning she carried all of her gear in a backpack, resupplied her food via personally sent mail drops at post offices and purchases from grocery stores on and near the trail, and received no planned assistance.
Somehow, Heather managed to squeeze all of that into 60 days, 17 hours, 12 minutes. On the day she finished, her time was the fastest-ever for the PCT. Faster than all self-supported thru-hikers before her. Faster than the supported/crewed hikers, too. Faster than any woman. Faster than every man.
Her record now has a qualification. The day after Heather finished, Josh Garrett finished his own PCT thru-hike in 59 days, 8 hours, 14 minutes. That’s 33 hours or so faster than Heather. But his hike was supported, meaning he had crew stationed occasionally along the trail for resupplying his food and other needs, and meaning he didn’t have to leave the trail to do so himself.
Heather traveled an average of just under 44 miles per day. She said she ran infrequently, instead opting for a sustainable three-mile-per-hour hiking pace. “My pace wasn’t fast. It’s just that I kept going, and going, and going. I would hike with other thru-hikers sometimes, for some miles, a part of a day. The difference between them and I was that they didn’t want to get up at 5 a.m. to do it all over again.” Some quick math as Heather talks, and I realize she was on her feet for more than 14.5 hours a day. Every day for a bit more than 60.5 days. Over and around some gnarly mountain and desert terrain. Through heat, storms, and whatever other weather Mother Nature tossed around. While providing for her own food, water, shelter, and recovery.
Right, well. Heather’s daily numbers make her record seem even more intangible, no? I’ve been on dozens of backpacking and fastpacking trips. I’ve run 100-mile races and 150-mile stage races. I’ve had lots of 17, 18, 20-hour days on mountains around the world. I still can’t process Heather’s day in, day out endeavors. To quote Vizzini from The Princess Bride, that’s inconceivable!
But it doesn’t matter whether or not my brain can conceptualize what went down. The fact is, she did it. The fact also is, Heather has proven she exists on a plane of toughness several levels above almost all other backcountry enthusiasts.
It’s also difficult to imagine that all of this–the physical ability to walk so far for so long and to tolerate the mental drama associated with doing so–came out of a young woman who not more than a decade before had no idea there were paths to walk beyond the sidewalks of civilization. That decade must have been a helluva Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride.
“Before I went to the Grand Canyon,” Heather begins her explanation of how she got from there to here, “I never exercised. It’s not what my family did. I was overweight. Exercise wasn’t part of my conscious. But at the Grand Canyon, I day hiked and went on a couple overnight trips. I somehow got it in my head that I wanted to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail (AT).”
A few years later, in the summer she graduated from college, she’d taken up jogging as a hobby. “Because I’d been overweight, I started running and going to the weight room to prep myself for the AT. I’d lost a bunch of weight. When I started running, I couldn’t even run around the track once at my school without having to take a walk break. By the time I left to walk the AT, I could run eight miles. It was a jog, but I could do it.” She was fitter, but still incredibly inexperienced when it came to the wilds. That didn’t stop her from handing her somewhat befuddled parents her diploma and hitting the trail the day after graduation.
And inexperience didn’t stop her from finishing the AT either, though it did provide for a stiff, on-trail learning curve, “When I started the AT, I’d only gone on two overnight trips before. I still didn’t really know about hiking or backpacking. I was like, I’m just going to do this. I had really random stuff that I bought off the Internet or from Walmart. I didn’t have good gear. I just showed up.” For instance, she didn’t know she needed a sleeping bag. “I started in Georgia, in May. I thought it would be too hot for a sleeping bag. I shivered in my emergency blanket at night. The first town I got to with an outfitter, I bought a sleeping bag. I knew nothing, but learned so much.”
That was the summer of 2003, and it’s safe to say that the Heather that finished the AT was a different Heather than who started it. In addition to learning how to make a life on the trail, the trajectory of her whole world evolved. “Out there, I ran into middle aged or older people who were out hiking for the weekend or the week. Over and over they said, ‘Do this while you’re young because you’re going to get a mortgage, babies, and relationships, and you won’t be able to.’ I remember thinking, I don’t want those things if they stop me from being out here. My perspective on what I wanted out of life shifted.”
That’s an understatement, for certain. It wasn’t long until she was back for another thru-hike, this time of the PCT, in 2005. And then, the very next summer, she took to the Continental Divide Trail (CDT). The AT, PCT, and CDT are collectively called the Triple Crown by long-distance hikers, and when she finished the CDT in 2006, Heather became a revered Triple Crown thru-hiker. In a bit more than three years, Anish had backpacked around 7,900 miles.
After her 2006 CDT hike, Heather’s life took a big meander away from long-distance hiking. She moved to Washington state and took a full-time job with a software company. Something she didn’t do, however, was to give her feet a break, because that’s when she discovered ultrarunning. “I realized very quickly I was going to go stir crazy if I didn’t have something athletic to do. I picked up a copy of Trail Runner magazine and it featured Krissy Moehl, a big story about her. I saw that Chuckanut 50k was her first race.”
Heather was inspired by Krissy. She was also comforted by her history, believing that, if she could hike 30 miles in a day during her thru-hikes, she could surely run 30 miles. “I did Chuckanut. I was hooked. I realized I can run all these miles, and go to these cool places, and still get home in time for dinner and a shower. Ultrarunning filled a backpacking void. I fell in love with it.”
Thru-hiking took a six-year hiatus as Heather delved full bore into ultrarunning. You’d never know it that Chuckanut had been her first race, ever, because she was soon running 50k’s and 50 milers with seeming ease and frequency. Soon, 100 milers were on the drawing board, Cascade Crest 100, Plain 100, Western States 100, Javelina Jundred, among others. She wasn’t particularly fast or slow. She was, it seems, steadfast. A quality surely borne of those days, weeks, months of hiking trails.
In 2012, Heather grabbed life’s pendulum and swung it back the other way. She reflects, “My job at the software company, it wasn’t making me happy. I wanted to pursue my running and my hiking.” So she bought a bus ticket to Ashland, Oregon and walked back home. From Ashland, she hiked the PCT north through Oregon and Washington. Then she hung a left on another, lesser known long-distance trail, the Pacific Northwest Trail, and made her way to Bellingham. One thousand miles later, the old Anish was back.
That trip, she says, was half about tasting the freedom she’d missed during her time in the corporate world and half about practicing for a PCT speed hike. “When I was out on the PCT the first time, I met David Horton. Our meeting on the trail was brief. He was moving fast,” Heather recalls. During the summer of 2005, David set a then-supported speed record for the PCT, and their meeting planted a seed that Heather says stewed in her psyche during that summer. “I had a hiking partner. You know, you’re out there for so long, you talk about anything, everything. My hiking partner and I hypothesized that maybe I was made for these long trips. I never lost a lot of weight. I always finished them invigorated. I began to wonder, How fast could I go?”
Stewed, and stewed, and stewed, waxing and waning over the years that followed. “There were these guys out there setting records, David Horton, Scott Williamson, Adam Bradley. But no girls were doing it. One day I was just like, ‘You know, I think a woman needs to step up and do this.’ I didn’t think it would be me.” A few more years passed and, when a woman was still yet to undertake a speed hike of the PCT, Heather decided it would, indeed, be her.
Before our phone conversation, I had spent a good, long while stalking–er, researching–Heather through her blog posts from previous thru-hikes, ultra races, even some stuff about her personal life that she’s put online. As I studied her, a couple themes emerged from her words. Bucking traditionalism was one strong theme, as was fear. She wrote about fearing many things, especially the dark, mountain lions, and spiders. So frequent was her chatter about fear that, despite her Triple Crown’s worth of thru-hiking experience, I couldn’t help but wonder how she mustered the courage for a solo speed hike.
“I’m a scaredy cat! I jump around when I see spiders. Before this trip, I would freak out if I was hiking and it was almost dark and I hadn’t found a campsite, that a wild animal would get me. It was all illogical. Part of the reason why I wanted to do this was because I would have to face those fears.”
Night hiking became a regular part of her speed-hike existence, to get the miles in. “I started to like night hiking. You see different animals. The temperatures are cool. I became very in tune with the moon. On my other thru-hikes, I’ve been asleep by 9 p.m. On this trip, I was out hiking until 10 or 11 p.m. It’s a different world at night.”
When I ask her about memorable moments on the trail later in our phone conversation, one is about a night hike. “It was a full moon, and I was hiking by Obsidian Falls in the Sisters Wilderness of central Oregon. The trail there is littered with obsidian chips. By the light of my headlamp and the moon, the obsidian was just glittering, like walking through a field of diamonds. I almost cried it was so beautiful.”
Heather also had the, shall we call it, opportunity to face another of her fears, mountain lions. In what I can only presume is insane statistical improbability (or maybe Heather was hiking with raw meat strapped to her pack), she saw four mountain lions in those 60.5 days. And because this is the way the universe works, she encountered the first one while hiking at night. A double dose of facing her fears! “I caught its eyes in my headlamp. I instinctively yelled. It ran off. I just kept hiking.” She says it took her about 15 minutes to process what had happened, that she’d seen and shooed away a lion, and that she didn’t feel scared. “I realized then, mountain lions are like any other animal. See it. Scare it away. Keep hiking. Wow! It was so empowering. I had faced my biggest fear.”
She summarizes her experiences with fear, “When I was growing up in Michigan, I would steal a hammer from my dad’s toolbox to go for walks in the woods by my house. In the middle of the day with my dog, in a place where the biggest animal was probably a raccoon. If someone who took a hammer into the woods for unneeded self-defense can grow up to be a Triple Crown hiker, an ultrarunner, and the holder of a PCT FKT, anybody can overcome their fears. Anybody can do anything.”
No effort like this would be complete without some serious lows to intercept these moments of transcendence, and Heather had her share. “There was a night, early on, in the desert. I ran out of water. I had to keep walking until I found some. Finally, at about 11 p.m., I did. I stopped and drank a half gallon. I barely got my sleeping bag out, and I just passed out there. I woke up in the morning, on the ground. That was rough.”
Heather also says that she dealt with some serious physical discomfort during her first two weeks on the trail as her body acclimated to traveling more than 40 miles a day with a pack. “I remember, on my eighth day, when I took off my shoes, I couldn’t walk right on my feet. I was limping around on the outside of each foot. They were so tender. But three days later they were back to normal again.”
Mental agony? Plenty of it. It became Heather’s habit during the second half of her hike to cry in the mornings. She says it was her way of warming up to the day, of processing the angst of knowing she still had so far to go. ” I allowed myself to have that first 20 to 30 minutes of the day where I was like, ‘Okay, have your little pity party. Cry. Be miserable. Then suck it up and move on.’ Crying was cathartic because there wasn’t anyone to talk to, to commiserate with, to cheer me on. You have to find that within yourself.”
She says the combined physical and mental hardship almost convinced her to quit. “It was my next-to-last day on the trail. I had camped with 100 miles left. I woke up so exhausted. I packed my stuff up, and then I just stood there, looking at my backpack and crying. I was thinking, I don’t want to do this. I’m quitting when I get to the next road. I don’t care that there are only 100 miles left. I gave my pack an evil glare, let all the emotions come, and then reminded myself of how irrational that was at that point in my trip.” She got up and walked on.
Crisis averted! Heather saw through her record attempt.
I ask her what the end was like. How she felt when, after more than 60 labor-filled days, the record became hers. What standing at Canada was like after carrying herself all the way from Mexico in such a short period of time.
“I don’t really know how I felt. It was emotional and yet not emotional. It’s a long, gradual four or five-mile downhill to the border. It was dark. I was hiking so fast I might as well have been running, so I just started running. I’ve never had an adrenaline rush like I had the last two miles. I couldn’t feel my body. I knew I was running, but I couldn’t feel my feet hitting the ground. I was thinking, I have to get there. I must get there now. Then I got there, and I just stood with my hand on the monument. I cried. I guess it was probably relief, but I didn’t really feel like I was having an emotion. It was totally chemical. Adrenaline, adrenaline, adrenaline, rush, rush, rush, rush, we’re there. Then I was kind of shaking with the adrenaline. Then I was just, ‘Okay, that happened.’ I signed in that I’d gotten there and that I finished the record. I took a couple pictures. I walked a little ways to set up camp. There was excitement and relief and a little bit of sadness. It was all these emotions, but not one of them was overwhelming the others.”
Even at the tail end of the storytelling of an adventure as miraculous as Heather’s, I still can’t resist asking about what’s next. Like bugs to flame, too irresistible is the urge to find out how I can next be inspired by her. Heather says she’ll settle back into her life in the little cabin outside Bellingham’s city limits she shares with her boyfriend. The cabin doesn’t have a shower–it’s close to off the grid–but it does have a bed that, after two months of sleeping on heard Earth, she’s soaking up the comfort of. She has no plans to return to the corporate world. In fact, she’s now the Co-Race Director of the Chuckanut 50k, the race that got her into ultrarunning, along with Krissy Moehl, the woman who first inspired her to transfer her thru-hiking abilities into trail running. And she does have a physical endeavor on her distant calendar, too, the HURT 100 in Hawaii in January.
I suppose this brings us to the end of Heather’s PCT FKT story. There’s so much more one could learn, so many more questions to ask. But maybe some things should be left to mystery and, of course, we have to stop somewhere. Except that I haven’t gotten to the most important part. The part where Heather imparts a lesson about life. The part where everyone should listen the heck up because this bad-ass lady’s about to share what she’s learned through traveling many, many miles.
“You will do whatever it is you most want to do,” she says, without a lick of hesitation. “That’s what I say when someone says they can’t do something because of their commitments. If you really, really, really want to thru-hike, or go on some extended trip, or do anything, you will make it happen. You will have to make sacrifices. There’s never going to be a time where the stars align and you’re suddenly debt-free and commitment-free. That just doesn’t happen. You have to make it happen. Nobody’s life is so complex that they can’t make their dream happen, it just might require more sacrifices than they’re willing to give. You will do whatever it is you most want to do.”
Okay, off to dreaming then, shall we go?
Heather has reviewed a good chunk of the gear she brought with her over on her personal blog, but here’s her basic speed-hike kit: