In September, Heather Anderson broke the unsupported speed record on the 2,180-mile-long Appalachian Trail, which stretches from Maine to Georgia. Anderson completed the entirely self-supported thru-hike in 54 days, 7 hours and 48 minutes, a whopping four days faster than the previous record holder, Matt Kirk.
This was not the first time Anderson—a 34-year-old ultrarunner who lives in the Seattle area—has quietly dominated the long-distance hiking world.
In 2013, Anderson came out of nowhere to capture the unsupported speed record on the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail through California, Oregon and Washington. Today, she is the only person in history to hold the speed record simultaneously on both the AT and the PCT. We chatted with Anderson, who goes by the trail name “Anish,” about what drives her and why the AT felt like coming home.
REI: Congrats! You did it again. How did you feel after completing the AT in record time?
Heather Anderson: I was pretty tired, obviously. As far as the trail itself, it kicked my butt. It certainly wasn’t like a walk in the park. But I actually went out hiking again right after finishing the AT.
How long were you planning to attempt to beat the AT speed record?
I’d been thinking about it since I was on the PCT in 2013, but I didn’t make the final decision until last fall. Matt Kirk set the record on the AT within a few hours of when I set the record on the PCT in 2013. We both finished basically at the same time. My goal on the AT was to get somewhere in the vicinity of his time.
Did you train for this hike?
My life is pretty much training for this type of thing. But I definitely had a focus to my hiking and running and climbing for the six months prior to setting out on the AT.
Heather Anderson poses on a local Washington mountain. Photo by: Adam Walker.
You started in Maine and hiked south on the AT, the opposite direction of most hikers. Why?
That’s what most of the record-setting hikers do, they go north to south. I think the prevailing opinion is that Maine and New Hampshire have the hardest terrain, so most record breakers like to do that while they’re fresh. But going the opposite direction isn’t very social. Once I crossed most of the northbound crowd, there wasn’t much human interaction.
Did people know what you were up to when they saw you?
Some did, some didn’t. I wanted to have a typical thru-hike. I didn’t want to be sought out like a trail celebrity or be given a lot of extra trail magic. I wanted it to be my own journey. But sometimes you run into someone who cheers you up. I came into Damascus, Virginia, and I got to have real coffee and gluten-free muffins. It was amazing. I was at this coffee shop, and someone came out and brought me an organic pear. That was cool trail magic.
What was an average day like for you on the AT? How many miles were you logging?
Up north, where the terrain is harder and steeper, I was putting in 35 miles a day. Down south, I was able to do closer to 45 miles a day. It was lot of 18-hour days—waking up 4 a.m. and walking until 11 p.m., with lots of hiking in the dark.
What’s it like walking at night on the AT?
There are a lot of animals out at night—insects, bears, bats, owls. There’s a lot going on out there in the woods.
As part of your self-supported thru-hikes, you ship boxes of food to yourself along the way and you don’t accept rides in and out of town, right?
That’s right. That was first established by [record speed-hiker] Scott Williamson, and the 2013 record-setter Matt Kirk also adopted that style for his hike on the AT, so if I wanted to do a comparable record, I didn’t want to take rides. I personally like that style anyway. I like that it’s an entirely pedestrian journey and you walk everything. For me, on these long distance hikes, I like the idea of being fully responsible for myself and having to problem-solve everything myself. I like being self-sufficient.
You first thru-hiked the AT in 2003, with a $20 backpack, just days after graduating from college. It was your first long-distance hike. What was it like coming back to the place where you first got started?
That was part of my desire to do this trail. Not that I’m done long-distance hiking, but I don’t know that I’ll do another 2,000-plus-mile-long trail. It was cool to come back to where it all started and walk it in reverse. It made it more meaningful to me on a personal level.
Feature photo by: Adam Walker.