Heather Anderson Post-Appalachian Trail Speed Record Interview
In 2013, Heather “Anish” Anderson captured the outdoor world’s attention as she commandingly set the overall self-supported FKT for the Pacific Crest Trail [PCT], a time faster than any woman or man had yet hiked the trail in self-supported style. Her record still stands. Now, Heather is just back from setting the overall self-supported FKT for the 2,185-mile Appalachian Trail [AT] at 54 days, 7 hours, and 48 minutes. The previous women’s self-supported AT FKT was held by Liz Thomas at 80 days, 13 hours, and 31 minutes, a record she set in 2011, and the men’s self-supported AT FKT was set by Matt Kirk in 58 days, 9 hours, and 40 minutes in 2013. Enjoy our interview with Heather, which took place 10 days after her September 24th finish.iRunFar: Congratulations! You’re just back from a four-day backpacking trip, which you started right after finishing your record effort on the AT. How are you feeling?
Heather Anderson: Thanks. I feel pretty good. My feet hurt, but that’s about it. I think if I had not taken them out peak bagging right afterward, they probably would have been a little happier with me.
iRunFar: Did you get home from your effort on the AT and your boyfriend was like, “Let’s go out and celebrate in the mountains!” How did that transpire?
Anderson: I’ve been working on the highest 100 peaks in Washington for a couple years now, and there’s been this trip where you can combine four of those plus a bunch of other peaks in this long traverse. We’ve been waiting to do it during larch season because you want to be back there when there’s color in the larches. Getting good weather for four days during larch season is kind of tricky. It just so happened that I got back [from the AT two Sunday afternoons ago], and we were thinking about going out and going for a day hike on Tuesday, and Monday we checked the weather, and we were like, “We have four days of good weather.” I was like, “We should just go do it.” He was like, “Are you sure?” He asked me a dozen more times, “Are you sure you’re okay?” It was all me.
iRunFar: Did your feet hurt more when you finished this shorter trip that than when you finished the AT? Was that the straw that broke the camel’s back?
Anderson: Yeah, they were really sore and swollen the day after I finished the AT. Your body just knows and it goes in that hyper-recovery phase. I was off of them for four days before we went hiking. The first couple days we were hiking and peak bagging, they didn’t actually hurt. It was the third and fourth days they started to hurt. They were just like, “Alright, we were enjoying that break you gave us.” I was carrying a heavy pack because we had multiple days of food and mountaineering gear versus light thru-hiking packs. After three days of that, they had enough of the heavy weight in boots.
iRunFar: Now you’ve been able to put your feet up again?
Anderson: Yeah, we got back two days ago. I haven’t done much of anything.
iRunFar: I want to ask you some questions about the AT, but my first question is why? I talked to you two years ago after you finished the PCT, and you expressed that your experience then was dominated by challenge, like being afraid of wildlife, being able to travel in the night comfortably, and toward the end, wondering how you’d be able to go on each day. Now you’ve done it all over again!
Anderson: With the PCT it was very much about overcoming all those external fears and obstacles. I did that. I accomplished that. I learned to accept myself as a hiker and someone who was good at these ultra-long distances. Then in the last two years, I tried to do an FKT on the John Muir Trail, and I didn’t succeed at that. Then I tried to do some other long endeavors in the mountains, not necessarily FKTs but other things, and didn’t really succeed at those. So I started to have some doubts as to whether I could do something like this again. I thought, Maybe the PCT was a one-time thing, and I don’t actually have these skills or abilities that I thought I had?
But part of me still wondered the same question for the AT as for the PCT—how fast could I do the AT? So I decided that to really put all these doubts to rest, I needed to go out and tackle something big again and give it my all and, whether I set a record or not, just be able to finish it. That was why I chose the AT.
iRunFar: The AT was your proving ground, your first thru-hike. You said, that first time, that you went out not knowing anything and with novice gear. What was it like being back there in the same environment but with a totally different you?
Anderson: It was incredibly empowering and amazing. That was also part of this, I don’t want to say spiritual, but personal thing that happened where it put these parentheses on my life.
This time, I started in Maine and went south. The first time I started in Georgia and went to Maine. It was like walking backward in time the whole time I was out there. The closer I got to the finish this time, the more I was reminded of these things that had happened to me when I was still learning how to hike. Here I was, 17,000 miles of hiking later, and it was super motivating and empowering and strengthening to go through that same terrain and be like, This is where you were hypothermic and had no sleeping bag. Look how far you’ve come. It was incredible to walk back in time to where you had your roots as a hiker and to revisit these places where you learned everything the hard way.iRunFar: Did you ever look back and think, Man, if I would have known half of what I know now…”?
Anderson: Oh, yeah, definitely. When I started the AT the first time, I didn’t even know the PCT existed. Just thinking about if I had run into myself and told myself what I was going to end up doing, I wouldn’t have believed it.
iRunFar: You have, at this point, fine-tuned thru-hiking and speed thru-hiking. When you planned the AT this time, what kind of changes did you make to gear, strategy, and food based on the PCT and what you’ve learned since?
Anderson: Everything on the AT was much more waterproof. I had a real rain jacket and a tent that had real water protection and a waterproof case for my phone because it’s just so much more wet and rainy out there. That was one thing to prepare for—the humidity and the rain.
I tried to go at it with a similar strategy by coming up with an itinerary from home, but the terrain is so much more variable on the AT. The PCT is all rated for pack stock, and you can pretty much camp anywhere the whole length of the trail. Obviously there are some parts where you can’t. It’s a lot easier to say, “I’m just going to do 40 miles every day,” and be consistent. The AT is much more difficult because the terrain varies so much. Your mile 40 to 50 could be solid rocks and no place to camp. That doesn’t generally happen on the PCT where you have a 10-mile stretch where you can’t camp.
I had an itinerary starting out on the AT, and then I ended up throwing it away when I was a week in. I was like, “I just have to go out and play it by ear and give it my all every day. If it’s 35 miles or 45 miles or 50 miles, then that’s just what I do that day.” So the application of pushing my limits or doing a long distance every day was very different on the AT. It wasn’t scheduled or pre-planned.
iRunFar: However the trail allowed it.
Anderson: Yeah, “I’ve been hiking for 18 hours and this is the first flat spot I’ve seen in the last 45 minutes, so I think I’m just going to camp here.” Sometimes I’d get stuck and end up hiking until midnight because, “There are literally no places to camp because it’s all rocks and I’m on the side of a mountain. Alright, I guess I’m only going to get three hours of sleep tonight.”
I didn’t feel like I was as consistent on the northern half of the AT. The southern half is a little bit easier to be more consistent in.
iRunFar: Because you were relying on resupplying in towns or resupply boxes that you’d get from post offices that have regimented hours, how did your free-flowing itinerary affect this? Were you able to stay efficient, or were you waiting for your box sometimes?
Anderson: I sent all my boxes to businesses. Most of the businesses were a 9 to 5 type thing. Yeah, that was probably the biggest challenge for me was dealing with business hours. I’d wake up and be like, Okay, I’m 40 miles away from my box and the place closes at 5 p.m. or 6 p.m. Do I kill myself to get to the box or do I camp outside of town and have a leisurely breakfast waiting for them to open? Sometimes I did one and sometimes I did the other. It depended on how desperate I was to get to my box. There were definitely a few, maybe three times, where I ran a lot of downhills in the last 10 miles of the day to get my box. I’d get to the business about five minutes before they closed. Then there were a couple places where I was 40 or 45 miles away and thought, I just can’t get there in time, so I camped a couple miles out and then hiked in in the morning and had coffee and breakfast while I waited for the store to open.
I lost a lot of efficiency in this way, but there was really no way around it. You can only do what you can do. You’re either there or you’re not. On the PCT I’d do the same thing. I sent to mostly businesses along the trail, but a lot of the places along the PCT that hold boxes are resorts or lodges or gas stations or something that caters to tourists, so they’re open until 9 p.m. or 24 hours. It really wasn’t as much of a time crunch to get there. I could walk in at 7 p.m. or 6 a.m. to get my box.
iRunFar: After your PCT hike two years ago, you were very clear that, “Hey, I didn’t run. I did this by hiking really fast.” Did you take the same approach this time, by only running when you needed to or when the moment moved you, and powerhiking the rest of the time?
Anderson: Yeah, it was just like the PCT. I hiked long days. There were only three or four times when I ran, and that was just to get a box. I didn’t run any other time.
iRunFar: “Must get food!”
Anderson: Yeah, I’m out of food. I’m going to run. I like that. I’m a runner, but yet I really love to hike. Running with a full backpack is just not fun. It’s not comfortable. Having 10 pounds banging you in the back is not nice.iRunFar: You are now a person of notoriety in the hiking community. Did people recognize you on the AT? Did you have to negotiate your celebrity-hood?
Anderson: Very little. There are so many more people on the AT, and I think that helped with anonymity. On the PCT there are less people, so everyone chats. On the AT, there are so many people out there, everyone says, “Hi,” and keeps walking. I think when I was passing a lot of the northbound thru-hikers in Maine and New Hampshire, there were probably 10 or 15 people that recognized me.
I had conversations with people who didn’t know me or didn’t know what I was doing. For the most part, I didn’t really know anyone who knew what I was doing. It was nice to be just another hiker out.
Somebody told me there was on whiteblaze.net, an AT forum, a thread about me and people would post when and where they saw me, but I made it pretty clear on my public Facebook page that I didn’t want people to come out and find me. I wanted this to be a private hike. I just wanted to be out there hiking like everyone else. There was a thread where people were like, “Oh, I saw her here or there or wherever,” but they were respectful and didn’t try to find me. I got messages from people later on my Facebook page, “Yeah, I saw you at such-and-such a place, but I knew you wanted to be left alone, so I didn’t say anything.”
I guess I was recognized more than I thought I was. I was out there thinking, Nobody knows who I am. This is awesome. Apparently there were people who knew who I was, but they weren’t engaging me because I’d specifically asked to be left to hike on my own. I thought that was really awesome that people respected my wishes.
iRunFar: There was this ‘Scott Jurek shadow’ on the AT this year in his highly publicized supported record. And he additionally received negative attention based upon what was called his over-celebratory finish. Did that add to or subtract anything from your experience, knowing there were people talking about the AT, and sometimes in a negative way?
Anderson: You know, there was one place in Maine where I had gone into pick up a box and had an interaction with someone there. They didn’t know what I was doing at all. They were talking about thru-hikers in general. They had a really negative opinion of Scott. I was just like, Oh, okay, I’m not going to tell you about what I’m doing. That was the only time I actually heard anyone overtly saying anything negative about it. I didn’t go online when I was on the trail. I was able to pretty much stay focused on what I was doing and not be influenced by the outside world.
To me, it was another event that happened on the trail this year. I was inspired by Scott’s journey. I followed it when I was at home because he got done just before I left. When I was out there, I was thinking about Scott being out there. That was really the only effect it had on me, Scott was just out here doing these miles. That’s inspiring.
iRunFar: You put some cool posts up on Facebook in the last couple weeks about your journey. There was this confidence coming out of you that seemed different from how you described being on the PCT last time. There wasn’t any, “Oh, my gosh, this is so hard. I don’t know how I’m going to finish.”
Anderson: As I was saying earlier, I had that battle with low self-esteem haunting me when I had not failures but learning experiences between the PCT and now. The PCT was this building block where I’d confronted my external fears, and I came to accept the fact that this is who I am, a long-distance athlete. Then, after the PCT, I had these doubts as to whether maybe I was wrong and maybe I’m not good at this.
At the beginning when I was still focused on the record and I had that schedule and I was falling behind, I was just hemorrhaging time off my schedule every day. I couldn’t do the miles. I was way behind after a week. That was when I threw the schedule away and just made this deal with myself. I was just like, You know what? You are just going to go end-to-end and give it your all and whether it takes you 100 days or 50 days or 60 days or whatever it takes you, you’ll just know you gave it 100% and that’s all you can expect from yourself.
Initially I wanted to quit every single day for the first two weeks. I was just like, I can’t do this. I want to quit. This is too hard. It’s too long. I’m not good at this. Doing 35 or 40 miles per day just felt insurmountable. I only ended up doing three or four 50-mile days on the AT. I did probably a dozen on the PCT or more. It was just the difference in the terrain. I remember I called my boyfriend one time. He was like, “How are you doing?” I was not meaning to say how bad I was doing. I just started crying. “I can’t do a 50-mile day.” He was very kind. He was like, “You’re out there kicking butt doing 45 miles. You went out there to find your limit and you’re hitting it. You’re bumping up against it every single day. Maybe you can’t do 50 miles per day on the AT. Maybe it’s 45, but you’re still hitting it. That’s what you went there for.”
After I passed the halfway point on the AT, I started realizing that I was being successful at giving my all every day, walking from well before dawn to well after dark. All these things I had attained on the PCT I had brought to the AT. I hadn’t lost them. I was comfortable in the forest. Running into animals wasn’t something scary for me anymore. I wasn’t scared of the dark or unsure of my ability to actually cover the miles, I just wasn’t sure I could do it consistently. I started overcoming the doubt.
As time went on, I became much more confident. I’m not sure when it really happened, but at some point I realized that I had really overcome the self-doubt and self-esteem issues I had my whole life. They were finally over. I couldn’t not only accept myself, but also believe in myself.
I think that’s what you’re saying. You started seeing the confidence in my posts because that had happened inside. I finally started to believe in myself and my abilities. It happened somewhere out there probably around mile 1500. I didn’t know for sure how I was doing in relation to the record exactly, but I knew I was giving my 100% and that at 100% I was capable of doing some pretty amazing stuff. Yeah, it was definitely a big personal-growth adventure.
iRunFar: Did you find a newfound sense of freedom or a weight lifted off your shoulders? How did it literally feel to become a different version of yourself?
Anderson: It did feel like a weight was lifted. The best way I could describe it was that I started to feel completely comfortable. On the PCT there had been a struggle to wake up early in the morning and to hike late at night and push through the miles. I felt like I fought it the whole way.
On the AT, it felt like I wasn’t fighting against these things. I wasn’t fighting against fear. I wasn’t fighting against the terrain. It was difficult and I had to struggle every day to make the miles, but that was a struggle not against the trail but with the trail.
At some point I just realized that even though it was really hard and I had to fight for it every day, I was comfortable doing that. When it got dark and I put the headlamp on and I was walking through the forest and there were bears and bats and owls and snakes, it wasn’t terrifying to me at all. It was just comfortable. It was normal and natural, and I felt totally at home. Same thing in the daylight. I just felt like I was supposed to be there.
It’s kind of hard to explain. You just realize that you’re doing what you’re supposed to do and you don’t have any sort of negative emotions because you’re doing what you’re supposed to be doing. You just realize, Okay, this is it. This is it. This is what I’m supposed to do, and this is what I do, and I’ll do it until I reach Springer Mountain.
iRunFar: In 2013 you described having to get over a physical hump the first couple weeks where lots of things hurt. Your feet hurt for a couple weeks straight, and then they stopped hurting. For a couple weeks, one thing would hurt one day, and something else the next. Did that happen this year, too?
Anderson: There was obviously the initial hump of getting your feet toughened up and getting used to the demands of moving 17 to 18 hours per day every day, but it was definitely not as significant as the PCT. It was exhausting as I adjusted, but I didn’t have the excruciating pain all over that I had on the PCT. I think part of that was that I was in much better physical condition when I started the AT than I was when I started the PCT. I also learned from the PCT and brought calf-high compression socks on the AT and slept in them every night. My feet felt 1,000 times better. I slept in those every night on the AT, and it really helped.
iRunFar: When you’re thru-hiking, not for speed though, your time in town is a respite. You wash your clothes, maybe you get a hotel room, you eat many thousands of calories, you hang out with other thru-hikers. Given that this was a speed hike, did you ever allow yourself an indulgence in town?
Anderson: I didn’t stay in a hotel. I stayed at a hostel in town once, but I tented in its yard. There was a really bad storm where I picked up a box in Maine and they let me stay in their lodge area. I slept on the floor in a building. Other than that I slept out in my tent every night. I did get some town meals. I had breakfast in town a couple of times when I was waiting to pick up a box. The rest of the time, I pretty much just bought food at a grocery store or a gas station or whatever was there and ingested as much food as I could while getting my box.
I once learned a very valuable lesson. I ate a pint of Coconut Bliss ice cream, which is a vegan ice cream. Then I tried to drink a kombucha immediately following that because I love both of those things. But having both of those things in a very short time was bad. I didn’t throw up, but I really thought I was going to. I started to hike out of town right after while downing the ice cream and the kombucha and I walked to the edge of the plaza where the store was and they had this grassy ditch. I just laid down in the fetal position. I’m either going to throw up or I’m going to die. Right now both sound equivalently good because I feel terrible. I laid there for 20 minutes and then I was like, Okay, I think I can hike out now. That was one of those things where, if I hadn’t been doing a speed thru-hike, I would have had time to leisurely enjoy both of those things instead of trying to eat them both within a 45-minute window.
When I went into town, I did what I had to do. If it took me a couple hours, that was fine, but I generally tried to keep my time in town to an hour or hour-and-a-half. Sometimes I took a shower. Sometimes I got to eat a meal. Usually I didn’t get to do both. I’d pick up my box, get my groceries, and then if I had time for something else, I’d do that. I didn’t have a lot of luxurious time in town. There were a few times I was there for awhile because I was waiting for the store to open, but most of them I went in and out super quick.
iRunFar: Speed hikers sometimes get a bad rap. People say, “You don’t see where you’re going. You don’t enjoy what you’re doing.” I think people said that in comments on the iRunFar article we published about you two years ago. “She said that she cried and it was difficult for her…”
Anderson: I’m a crier. I cry about everything. I cry because I’m happy. I cry because I’m sad.iRunFar: You express yourself through tears. Last week, there was an opinion piece in High Country News by a hiker criticizing endurance runners or people who cover a lot of miles in a short period of time in the Grand Canyon, saying they are missing the point and not enjoying the space like a hiker would. What do you say to that opinion?
Anderson: It’s like saying, say, you have this little walk you do. Sometimes you go out and you walk your dog and it’s slow. And sometimes you go out and jog that loop. Just because you went out with a different intent doesn’t mean you enjoyed it less.
I’ve hiked all three long-distance trails in this country, the big ones, at traditional speeds, and I’ve done two of them at a fast speed. I’ve enjoyed every single experience equally. Sometimes I enjoyed the fast experiences more because when you do a hike at a speed that’s twice as fast as you normally would, you’ve intensified the experience.
When I hiked the AT the first time, I saw five or six bears. There was a night in the Smokies this year where I was hiking after dark, and I think I saw 20 bears. They were everywhere. They were in the trees. They were on the trail. They were next to the trail. The place was covered with bears. I have never seen this many bears in my entire life. It was so cool. I never had that experience before, hiking during the daytime.
If you haven’t experienced the trail at a different speed then it’s hard to understand. The best way I can describe it is as an intensification because you’re doing the same amount of miles in less time. The amount you see every day is greater. The joy is greater. The pain is greater. The beauty, you enjoy it more. Everything is just completely more intense. The successes feel bigger. The highs are higher. The lows are lower. It’s a completely different way to experience the trail.
I cherished my time in town on the AT and the PCT and the time I spent talking to other people so much more than when I was on my traditional thru-hikes because it was shorter. It was less time for interactions. The conversations were much more meaningful to me. The little bit of random trail magic I received, like a soda at a stream crossing, sometimes I’d get there and there would be some northbound hikers and we’d all enjoy a soda together. That was a cool experience because I got to spend this time with other hikers when I wouldn’t normally get that time.
iRunFar: Matt Kirk’s record, which you broke, 58 days, 9 hours, 40 minutes, that was already considered a stout record. He’s a well-respected dude. The women’s self-supported speed-hiking record, that was off Matt’s time by weeks.
Anderson: I believe [Liz Thomas’s] record was 80 days and 13 hours or something like that.
iRunFar: Did you go into your attempt with your eye on the 58 days of Matt’s record? Did you go into it with the thought, I want to bring the women’s record down as far as I can?
Anderson: I spoke to that in my fastest-known-time announcement on the Proboards site. My intention was to bring parity to the men’s and women’s records because I didn’t feel like a three-week gap was acceptable. They should be closer together. I definitely wanted the women’s record to be a sub-60-day record as well. My intention was to bring the women’s record down to at least 58 days, and if I could be faster, if I could break Matt’s record, then obviously I would go for that.
iRunFar: You and Jennifer Pharr-Davis—her supported AT record is just three hours slower than what Scott set this summer. You and she and a few other really tough gals out there are proving that gender may not be one of the controlling factors in long-distance speed hiking. Having brought the women’s record down below the men’s on the AT and the PCT, having your times represent the overall records on two of the most famous long trails in the world, there’s probably not a better person to ask this question. Do you think gender is a non-issue in this type of endurance environment?
Anderson: I absolutely think it’s a non-issue. I was just saying this to my boyfriend when we were out hiking the other day. I don’t even like when people say, “This proves women are just as good as men,” because that still is saying that women are still comparing themselves to men and men are the benchmark. I don’t think that’s the case. I don’t think men are the benchmark in long endeavors.
Being in the wilderness, I don’t think men are the benchmark either. It’s human beings as a species. Not very long ago we all lived out in the wilderness. We didn’t have buildings in society until recently. We all were nomadic and had to know how to survive out there. Women are equally well adapted to surviving in the wilderness if not moreso.
Yeah, I really think gender is a non-issue when it comes to extremely long distances or when it comes to just being out in the wilderness.
iRunFar: Your sentiment does not match the societal sentiment on gender abilities in endurance sports or in wilderness environments. How do you think we change that?
Anderson: Every culture has their societal gender roles. They’re deeply ingrained. I don’t know that we’ll ever necessarily change our cultural opinions.
Having more women going out and doing things and being courageous and pursuing what they want to do regardless of whether it’s traditionally a male thing will help demonstrate and provide positive role models for other women. There are a lot of women who continually underestimate themselves or who don’t know how to go hiking or to be in the woods. They don’t have any role models.
I am a member of several Facebook groups that are primarily women or only women and there are a lot of women in them who want to go out and they just don’t know how to go about it and they have lots of questions. Often, they don’t feel comfortable discussing their concerns with mixed groups or with men. I think it’s important for women who have experience to share it with anyone who has questions. The more we get out there, the more common and more acceptable it will become.
I don’t know that it will ever stop being male-dominated, but I definitely think it will become more acceptable and common for more women to be out not just setting records but being out and being competent and capable outdoorswomen. That’s something we’re going to see happen because we’re getting lots of great, positive role models out there doing things and demonstrating that you don’t have to be a man or be with a man to be a capable person in the woods.
iRunFar: You have the speed record on the PCT. You have the speed record on the AT. You got home from this and did a trip with your boyfriend. Now you get to put your feet up. What do you dream about? What do you still want to do?
Anderson: Too many things. More than a lifetime worth. I’m working on that highest 100 peaks in Washington list. I’m at number 52 now. I’ve got 48 more of those to climb. Right now I’m dreaming about good weather through October so I can get out and do a few more. There are a lot of other international destinations my boyfriend and I have talked about traveling to—some to travel and some to hike. There are other trails out there that I haven’t explored yet. There are some routes I’d like to do, not necessarily fast. It’s a long list.
iRunFar: You weren’t able to complete your John Muir Trail FKT effort last year. Do you want to try it again?
Anderson: Absolutely. I have unfinished business there. I got severely altitude sick there. I’m like, Alright, I’m going to acclimate properly, and I’m going to do it again and see what happens. I’ve gone to the Barkley [Marathons] now twice, and I really hope I can go back again. Last year I started the third loop and then I quit. I’m like, Alright, baby steps. Hopefully you’ll do the third loop. There are things like this that I want to keep working at, throwing myself against until I get it or get tired of it, one of the two. That’s really what it is at the Barkley, you throw yourself against it, and see what happens. You either stick or you fall off, one of the two.
iRunFar: One of these years you’ll stick. Thank you so much for this interview. Congratulations.
Anderson: You’re welcome.