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MailTribune.com
  • Trail-eater

    Pacific Crest Trail speed-hiking champ looks back on what turned out to be a new beginning
  • SPOKANE, Wash.
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  • "I'm not a particularly fast walker," Heather Anderson said — much to the relief of her interviewer — as she recently hiked a North Idaho trail.
    "The difference between me and the thru-hikers who have a fast pace is that I walked 3 mph all day and into every night, averaging 5 hours of sleep, without a rest day."
    For two months!
    That's how Anderson, 32, beat the unsupported backpacking speed record on the Pacific Crest Trail by four days. Starting June 8, 2013, at the U.S-Mexico border, the Bellingham hiker averaged nearly 44 miles a day, gobbling up nearly 2,700 miles along the PCT to arrive at the Canada border in 60 days, 17 hours and 12 minutes.
    "Once I realized this was not a backpacking trip — that it was all about pain and suffering — it was easier to cope," she said.
    Anderson, who works at the food co-op in Mount Vernon, Wash., has no plans to set another record of any kind. She says she's content running 30- to 100-mile ultra-marathons and disappearing into the wilderness regularly to climb peaks and hash out obscene mileages with friends.
    She's already proved herself to herself — hiking through obesity, fear of the dark, self-doubt, a marriage and the triple crown of the USA's long-distance trails.
    She started from scratch 12 years ago.
    "Never in my dreams did I imagine setting a record of any kind, much less an athletic record," she said, noting that she grew up in a relatively inactive Michigan family. "I weighed 200 pounds when I graduated from high school."
    Her epiphany came that summer after she landed a job at Grand Canyon National Park.
    "I fell in love with the trails," she said. "I had never hiked before."
    In college she majored in religious studies and minored in creative writing. "I wanted to be a Christian missionary," she said. "I had my sights on Mongolia until I realized I was no good at proselytizing."
    Meantime, her introduction to hiking had been taking root and was ready to blossom into another sort of mission.
    "The day after I graduated from college in 2003, my friends dropped me off in Georgia at the beginning of the Appalachian Trail," she said. "I said goodbye and took off on my own for four months hiking to Maine. Most people prepare for something like the AT, but I had never backpacked overnight.
    "At the first resupply opportunity, I had to go shopping. I had to shiver under a space blanket for a week to realize I needed a sleeping bag."
    Her empty cache of backpacking experience started filling as she shared the miles with experienced thru-hikers. She took on the trail name Anish, (pronounced "ah-NISH") to honor her Great Lakes heritage and her full-blooded Anishinaabeg grandmother.
    "The big eye-opener wasn't just learning that I could do long-distance hiking, but that I was pretty good at it," she said.
    That hike — and shedding 70 pounds that year — was her new beginning.
    On the AT, she learned about the Pacific Crest Trail. In 2004, she hiked it with a partner in a normal time of about four months.
    "On that trip, I crossed paths with David Horton, who was on his way to setting a supported PCT speed record," she said. "I'd never even thought about such a thing. I began to wonder if I could do it."
    Hooked on the freedom of trails, she completed long-distance hiking's Triple Crown by bagging the 3,000-mile Continental Divide Trail in 2006.
    Her hiking and climbing treks gained speed and distance. A few ultramarathons quenched her lust for mileage.
    "Some people put up with hiking so they can get to a good place to camp," she said. "I was becoming one of the people who put up with camping as a means of hiking farther and farther into the wilderness."
    By 2013, the girl who had never dreamed of an athletic achievement became the first woman to take a serious stab at the PCT speed record.
    "I had the advantage of having done the PCT on a normal trip, enjoying the social part of it and learning the route," she said. "It was the driest year in California since 1977. That meant snow-free hiking through the High Sierra."
    She planned for months using spreadsheets to map out the mileages she would need to make, including side trips for the resupply boxes she'd package and mail before she left.
    While she would later avoid snow in the Sierras by opting for a late June 8 start, she paid a price during the initial 40- to 50-mile days in the California desert, packing up to six liters of water as temperatures soared. After running out of water and relying on a source that turned out to be a mud hole, she wandered two more hours in 115 degrees to find another. "Too close," she said. "That almost did me in."
    Confidence that she could keep up the record pace was elusive until she scaled the last of five major passes ranging to 13,200 feet in the Sierra Nevada Range in two 40-mile days.
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