Meet the trailblazing thru-hiker who walked 8,000 miles in a year

With 28,000 miles to her name, National Geographic Adventurer of the Year Heather Anderson has made history on America's most iconic trails.

By Doug Schnitzspahn
Published 9 Apr 2019, 00:37 BST
Editor's Note: This week we are celebrating our 2019 Adventurers of the Year. Each day we will reveal a new honoree. Come back every day to discover the stories of six people who pushed adventure further to redefine what's possible. Read about Monday's honoree here, Tuesday's here, and Wednesday's here.

I ask Heather “Anish” Anderson if she is a spiritual person. I know it must take more than pure physical strength to will someone to walk 8,000 trail miles in 251 days. I have also heard that she does not like a lot of fanfare—such as being named a National Geographic Adventurer of the Year—and I want to give her a question that will resonate deeper than just asking how she pulled it off. She answers simply, “yes.” Nothing more. No explanation.

That koan of a response is not flippant. It’s exactly what it takes—a single-minded focus on only what matters—to pull off the type of superhuman achievements on Anderson’s résumé. It’s also indicative of a top-tier athlete who shies away from social media in an age of bragging and brand building. To push the limits of endurance, you have to live a life of moment-to-moment mindfulness. Since 2013, Anderson has speed-hiked 28,000 trail miles—a greater distance than the circumference of Earth at the equator.

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Anderson makes camp on a New Jersey section of the Appalachian Trail. During her record-setting treks, she relies on tents and packs specifically designed for thru-hikers—built from extremely lightweight materials that are also sturdy enough to stand up to daily use in all kinds of weather.

Photograph by Arlette Laan

But Anderson didn't begin her career with such a grand goal; she began her career like most casual thru-hikers. She had never been particularly athletic but loved nature and started hiking while working in the Grand Canyon. When she graduated from Anderson University, located just outside Indianapolis, in 2003, she had the time and no idea what she wanted in life, so decided to attempt the 2,200-mile Appalachian Trail. She adopted the trail name “Anish” in honor of her great-great grandmother, who was of Native American Anishinabe heritage, and without realizing it took the first steps to becoming one of the most legendary thru-hikers to ever put boots to the dirt. But she did not stop there. Hooked, she went on to become one of 400 people who have claimed the Triple Crown of Hiking, completing the Continental Divide and Pacific Crest trails in addition to the Appalachian.

Then she turned to normal life, getting married and taking an office job in Seattle. It did not satisfy her. She longed for unconventionality, for something deeper, for the trail.

“You work through a lot of things when you are out spending a lot of time in nature and in communication with yourself,” she says. “I had questions to answer about myself, and the best place that I find to do that is to go on a long hike or a long run.”

She got divorced, quit the job, and set out to answer those still-nagging inner questions. Her stats are mind-boggling. In 2013, with her knee aching with a mysterious pain, she set the fastest known time on the PCT. The ailment didn’t seem to slow her down. She walked 2,655 miles in 60 days, crushing the previous men’s record by four days and becoming the first woman to ever hold the overall record. In 2015, she set the woman’s self-supported (meaning she dealt with all the logistics and food on her own with no crew or help) speed record on the Appalachian Trail, taking just 54 days to blaze from Georgia to the top of Maine’s Mount Katahdin. The following year she toppled the record on the Arizona Trail, covering 800 miles of desert and mountains in 19 days, 17 hours, 9 minutes.

Anish outdid herself last year, when she became the first woman, and fifth person, to complete the Triple Crown—7,944 miles—in a calendar year. She pulled off the feat in stunning fashion, hiking an average of more than 31 miles a day to finish in 251 days, 20 hours, and 10 minutes. (Cam “Swami” Honan holds the overall record at 231 days.) It also marked the third time she had hiked all three trails, the only woman to do so.

All this from a girl who was 70 pounds overweight and often teased while growing up in Michigan. But the appeal of Anderson’s achievements speaks to the idea that the most incredible people don’t have to be the ones with the varsity letters in high school. Determination means more than in-born talent. Anderson has set benchmark trail records with nothing more than humility and guts. “She is not a super-talented, physically gifted, über-athlete, which makes her even more inspiring to me,” says Will Harlan, an ultra running champion and the editor-in-chief of Blue Ridge Outdoors magazine. “Any one of us could follow in her footsteps—but none of us can, because we're just not as tough.”

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Anderson celebrates completing the Appalachian Trail at Maine’s Mount Katahdin, the northern terminus of the iconic trek in 2015. That year she set the unsupported speed record, completing on the journey int 54 days, seven hours, and 48 minutes. "This is how I always want to remember you," she wrote. "A sunny Autumn afternoon on the summit of this sacred Mountain all alone. Able to sit and drink into my bones the magic of this journey and all this land. With all my love, Anish."

Photograph by Heather Anderson

Jennifer Pharr Davis, a National Geographic Adventurer of the Year who set what was then the overall fastest time on the Appalachian Trail in 2008, agrees. “People never appreciate how average and relatable record-setters like Heather are,” she says. “Painting these feats as superhuman allows the observer to remain content and comfortable. However, recognizing the similarities between oneself and an elite record-setter pushes people to a place of discomfort—in a good, hard, way.”

Pharr Davis also salutes the no-nonsense, self-effacing Anderson for being a pioneering female force in a thru-hiking world where men tend to push to the front. “She has helped break down perceived gender barriers,” she says. “Most folks will never understand what these records demand as far as physical endurance and overcoming self-doubt, especially when you are the only woman among a pantheon of men.”

Anderson sits atop Monument 78, which marks the northern end of the Pacific Crest Trail in northern Washington, at the Canadian border. In 2013, she set a new speed record—60 days, 17 hours, and 12 minutes. "Dear PCT," she wrote on Instagram, "I will always love you. Your dust and bugs, climbs and forests, your sunsets and mountain vistas. You break my heart and make me fall in love every damn time."

Photograph by Heather Anderson

But anyone seeking some sort of detailed training regimen or secret to success from Anderson might be disappointed. What makes her tick is nothing more than the determination to keep walking. “I do what I want, and see where it goes, and try to stay open minded to all of life’s twists and turns,” she tells me.

That attitude applies whether the 36-year-old Anderson is seeking another hiking record or writing her book, Thirst: 2,600 Miles to Home, which hit shelves in January and chronicles her Pacific Crest Trail speed record. The “thirst” of the title is both literal (she’s stuck without water on the Southern California desert sections of the the trail in June) and metaphorical (the force that her keeps her pursuing thru-hiking records). On the page, she seems more willing delve deeper into her psyche than in interviews with reporters. She explains that she’s afraid yet determined when she sets out the hike, though she does find herself roaring at a mountain lion when she comes face to face with the animal on the trail.

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“I am still afraid of many things. Some days it seems like an inconceivable notion that I sleep in the woods alone. That I have faced grizzly bears, wolves, bobcats, rattlesnakes, advanced hypothermia, dehydration, etc. That I routinely risk security in finances and relationships to pursue a life that John Muir would be proud of,” she writes.

Upon completing the final section of the Continental Divide Trail in New Mexico, on November 8, 2018, Anderson became the first female to claim the calendar year, thru-hiking triple crown. She had finished the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail earlier in the year. "At this tree," she later wrote, "a 15-year-old dream came to fruition."

Photograph by Heather Anderson

That life is not defined by singular moments experienced during a long-distance hike—even those as dramatic as roaring at a cougar—but rather the entire journey is an enlightenment.

When I ask her to expand a bit on what makes her a spiritual person, she responds: “I feel like there are things greater than us, and I feel a connection to that when I am in the outdoors. Anytime I’m in nature, [that connection is] everywhere around me.”

This is what you learn when you walk around the Earth.

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