Interview with Heather “Anish” Anderson
“Every inch of the forest on the AT is crawling or scampering or walking or slithering… there’s always something going on.”
Heather ‘Anish’ Anderson is the only person – man or woman – to simultaneously hold a self-supported fastest known time on both the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail. Her words, however, make her seem more poet than athlete. But this is only one of the many contradictions of Anish. Hiking 50 miles a day in her trademark dress, she pairs accomplishment with humility, sheer willpower with empathy, grit with grace – she is beauty and the beast, all rolled into one.
Anish has a long history with the mountains. She began her relationship with them in 2003, when she went on her first backpacking trip – the 2,172-mile Appalachian Trail. Despite being admittedly unprepared, she finished the trail in 4 months. By 2007, she had hiked all three of the nation’s longest trails – the AT, the 2,663-mile Pacific Crest Trail, and the 3,100-mile Continental Divide Trail – to become a triple crowner. She went on to set the fastest self-supported time on the PCT in 2013. And a few weeks ago she stood on top of Springer Mountain, with two major records and 17,000 miles between her present day self and the shy 21-year-old who took the first steps of a life-long journey.
Thirty-six hours after shattering the Appalachian Trail’s self-supported speed record, Anish was shouldering a huge backpack for a four-day hike above tree line. In Washington State, the weather waits for no one. She’s been working her way through the Bulger List, a list of the hundred highest mountains in Washington State. She completed more than half of them while training for the AT.
Halva – A confectionary mix of sugar, tahini, sesame seeds, and other ingredients, can be found at most natural markets.
“It’s amazing, it’s like this Middle Eastern dessert.”
Trail Butter – Nut butter with coconut oil, honey, and other natural ingredients.
“It’s like caffeinated Nutella; I had that pretty much every morning for breakfast and I never got sick of that.”
Salazon Chocolate – Dark chocolate with sea salt.
“When else do you have the opportunity to eat an entire chocolate bar at one time and not feel any sort of guilt?”
Anish attributes her record in part to a hard training regimen, but nothing could prepare her fully for the real thing. “In Maine and NH you’re going through really tough terrain. I wanted to at least do 40 a day and 35 was kicking my butt.”
The Appalachian Trail is notoriously hardest near its northern terminus, which is what most thru-hikers reach last. But Anish didn’t have the luxury of working up to that section, since most FKT (fastest known time) record attempters hike the Appalachian Trail southbound.
There is sort of a parabola effect when a hiker is covering 50 miles a day; They strengthen themselves at first but eventually, due to weight loss, sleep deprivation, and a total lack of recuperation time, the brutal pace of a record-breaking hike actually weakens the person attempting it. So getting the hardest part out of the way first is usually the safest thing to do, if a little demoralizing.
And Anish went to Katahdin prepared. “Having done the Pacific Crest Trail FKT couple years ago I kind of already knew what to expect mentally.” On the PCT, Anish crashed towards the end. “I had this eternal optimism that eventually it was going to get better and it just got harder the whole way,” said Anish of her 2013 record-breaking hike, “…and so on the AT when it started getting hard, I knew it was going to keep getting worse.”
But Anish, whose last hike before heading east was Mt. Rainier, where she spent sleepless days traversing glacial crevasses, had stepped up her preparation. “In the past I ate a lot of junk and typical hiker food so this time I really went out of my way to seek out healthy food.” She overhauled her eating system and changed her workout. “I do a lot of cross training to make sure my body’s balanced muscular-wise.” She planned her post office drops meticulously, often running into towns with minutes to spare. “That was probably my biggest challenge on my whole hike, meeting the business hours at all of the places I had boxes,” says the woman whose feet were bleeding by the end of her trip.
Most remarkable, though, was Anish’s reaction to her lowest moment, when her physical and mental preparation failed her.
“I threw away my schedule. I stopped worrying about the record or keeping track of how many miles I was doing,” Anish explains, “every morning just getting up and hiking with the intention to give it 100 percent and know that when I crawled into the tent at the end of the night that I had given a hundred percent.” The desire to beat the record was still there, but the reason had changed. After overcoming the hardest parts of the trail, she realized she was hiking only for herself.
She was so successful with this that towards the end of her hike, something amazing happened – Anish lost track of her record completely. “I thought I had been on the trail for 55 or 56 days the day before I finished,” admits a laughing Anish. As she marched through the Smokey Mountains sleep-deprived and emaciated, her mind began to play tricks on her, wondering, “Is the record 56 days or 58 days?”
But it was more than exhaustion that kept her mind off the miles. “My hike wasn’t about ‘this is where I am, this is how many miles I did,’” says Anish, whose quixotic trail updates usually omitted concrete details like location, distance, or timing. “My hike was about ‘There are really cool owl choruses at night and bats flying around and me wondering about how I became who I am.’”
A few days before finishing, Anish checked online but refused to believe what she saw. The day before reaching Springer, she called her boyfriend for verification. “That was when I truly believed that I had done it; Up until that point I wasn’t sure if I had the record.”
“There was a point where I realized all these challenges and self esteem issues that have plagued me my entire life, in the morning, hiking in the dark, and I suddenly realized that that was the whole purpose and meaning of this hike.” Anish hiked often during dark, but she is far from regretting her headlamp’s view.
Her night walking let her see a different side of the trail – the scampering, slithering side. “I saw tons of wildlife that I never saw the first time I hiked the AT… There was a night in the Smokies where I saw like 20 bears. I saw a copperhead snake, which I had never seen in my life.” Not every hiker desires these encounters, but for Anish, these moments were some of the major highlights of her trip.
There have been some suggestions that record attempters experience less than regular thru-hikers because of their accelerated pace. But Anish didn’t spend less time on the trail than most people; she simply packed it into a smaller box. She walked to Springer at the same three-mile-per-hour pace most thru-hikers move at – but she sacrificed sleep, town time, and personal time for her ultimate goal.
“You’re intensifying the entire process. Your highs are higher, your lows are lower, you have more pain on the trail but more joy – and you cherish all the conversations you have time to have and the rests where you sit down.”
Some fans might have gotten déjà vu this year as they watched Anish get her record in the same year that famous ultra-runner Scott Jurek achieved his own supported hike of the AT. Back in 2013, when Anish was quietly crushing the PCT’s self-supported record, Josh Garrett publicly broke the supported speed record for the PCT. This year, Anish found out about Scott’s hike through Facebook. “It was like, every year I do a thru-hike there’s going to be somebody out that gets the supported record at the same time,” laughs Anish, “But Scott’s an inspiration so it was really cool because his whole thing was done before I even started mine so I got to follow it along. It was kind of like my pre-hike pump-up.”
The thru-hiker community is a small one, but the fastest known time community is microscopic comparatively. Previous record holder Matthew Kirk immediately sent a graceful email to Anish the night that she finished.
And as that community has grown and come into the national spotlight, it has moved slowly away from having separate gender categories. Jenn Pharr Davis, who owned the supported AT record for four years before Jurek’s recent achievement, has said that she no longer believes in separate categories for men and women on long-distance trails, given the fairly even split between male and female record holders. Before beginning her record attempt, Anish stated that she wanted to bring parity to the men’s and women’s records for the fastest known unsupported hike by beating both. As a community, Anish believes, we are past that point.
“I think I demonstrated that it doesn’t really matter,” says the hiker who has accidentally become a role model for women by doing what she loves. “I think the statement ‘women are just as good as men’ completely undermines what that statement is trying to say because it’s just pointing out that we still consider men a benchmark. I just don’t think that’s the case when it comes to endurance sports or endurance hiking.”
The future of Anish is unwritten, but those who have been hooked by her eloquent trail updates will be happy to know Anish is working on a book she started in 2013. “It started out just being a story of the PCT because I didn’t necessarily have plans to do the AT right away but we’ll see…” And of course, the life of a professional hiker is never finished as long as there are more mountains to climb. “I’m going to be working on trying my mountaineering stuff, trying to climb a few more of the highest peaks in Washington, and then probably spend the winter climbing and hiking and mountaineering in the South West.”
Anish is a master of accomplishing the impossible, which makes her an inspiration to many and incomprehensible to most. When someone accomplishes something hard, we congratulate them; but when someone accomplishes the impossible, we can be guilty of dismissing them as super-human, as if their success is second nature.
But Anish wasn’t born to hike. She had to go out and find it.
“The thing I like to tell people is just ‘dream big and be courageous,’ because when I first came up with the idea to hike the AT in 2003 – I was overweight, I had never backpacked, I didn’t know what I was doing. All my family and friends were like ‘What are you thinking? There’s no way you’re going to finish this.’
The other hikers on the trail joined that chorus, dismissing her as another newbie who would be chewed up and spit out by Appalachia. But bullying belies fear, and four months later Anish stood on top of Katahdin with the knowledge that every one of her detractors had quit the trail. She is living testament to the platitude a self-doubter wears as armor: will power is the truest predictor of success.
A few days before finishing her hike this year, Anish stopped to sit on the rough wood of the Carter Gap Shelter. It was there, 12 years ago, that she sat contemplating her feet. “I had been wearing these boots that were way too small for me and so my feet were like hamburger,” she remembers. She had tended to ten blisters – one under each toenail – before putting her boots back on and walking out. “If I ran into myself, knowing what I was going through right then, I would have said, ‘You know what? You’re going to make it.’“
Hiking South this year, she often felt like she was passing her former self walking North. “It was like hiking back in time,” says Anish, “I was in lots of pain and I’d have these moments where I would escape, imagining if I had passed myself on the trail right then.” But her self-reflection was a two-way street.
“I was sitting there crying because I was tired, and I thought about all the things that I had overcome when I had hiked in 2003 and if my 21 year-old self had walked by me sitting there on a mountain crying because she was tired, how she would have just looked at me and been like ‘Hey, suck it up.’”
Despite being a self-described introvert, Anish lives for encouraging others. This is part of what makes her ideal for her future career plans: coaching. She got her personal trainer certification last year so she can help others meet their physical goals – obviously with a focus on endurance. “That’s sort of a parallel to what I do but it’s not like crafting what I do into a job. I do not want to make hiking a full job because I don’t want to lose the passion for it, I don’t want it to ever feel forced.” Her well of optimism combined with her ability to focus on what people get out of their experience as opposed to what numbers they accomplish make Anish an ideal coach. And the woman who crushed the two longest distance unsupported records in the country isn’t going to sugarcoat her advice.
“Life is never going to hand you six months to go backpacking, it’s never going to hand you the career of your dreams, it’s never going to hand you the perfect relationship. All of these things take work, they all take years of you being willing to make sacrifices and to step forward and make these things happen for yourself,” said the hiker who has willed her own reality into being, one mountain at a time.
“It all comes back to being courageous enough to take those first steps on the AT 12 years ago. You know it will be a wild ride… but follow your dreams.”
Learn more about Anish here.
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She did the thru-hike speed run the correct way, unlike Scott Jurek who almost ( and still might ) cost all future hikers the grand finale in Baxter State Park.
Looking to walk the AT next April for: Make A Wish
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Very nice! Here’s our audio interview with Anish if you’d like to hear more – https://mtnmeister.com/meister/heather-anish-anderson/
You are amazing Anish. Very inspiring.