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Heather Anderson and I meet for a run around Seattle’s Green Lake. She’s a wiry 35 year old who runs with an easy stride.
Heather wasn’t always like this. Growing up in rural Michigan, she didn’t go on runs. She didn’t like to exercise. She was overweight, and her classmates teased her.
"They called me fat, and they called me a bookworm, and just general making fun, teasing," Heather says.
Heather went to school with the same 40 kids from kindergarten through the end of high school. She says she started to believe what her classmates told her.
"That, you know, that I was, you know, whatever: unattractive and overweight and socially awkward and all these things," Heather says. "There was something wrong with me."
Heather says she wasn’t just insecure, she was extremely anxious. She was scared of the wild animals that might be in the woods behind her parents’ house. She was scared to go to the bathroom alone at night.
"I just remember one night just being, like, 'This is not the way it’s going to be from now on. This just isn’t going to happen anymore,'" Heather says. "And so then I just started from that point onward consciously seeking out things I was afraid of and doing them."
Taking On The Grand Canyon
After her freshman year in college, that philosophy took Heather to the Grand Canyon. She was studying to become a minister, so she took a summer job cleaning hotel rooms by day and leading Wednesday night worship services.
Heather had never been on a hike before, but on her first day, she and her roommates set out down the Grand Canyon. It was 120 degrees out.
"And everybody turned around, but one of my roommates, and she was a collegiate basketball player, and I was just, like — I wanted to be athletic like she was, and I was, like, 'I’m not turning around till she turns around,'" Heather says.
Heather and her roommate hiked 4 1/2 miles down, and then they needed to go back up.
Heather wasn’t just a hiking novice. She was 70 pounds overweight. She’d spent the previous night in an airport, which is to say, she hadn’t slept. There were red lines running up her legs, because she had blood poisoning from stepping on a rusted fence the week before. And on top of all that, she was suffering from slight altitude sickness.
"I remember leaning against the canyon and thinking, 'I am going to die,'" Heather says.
But she didn’t die. She made it out.
"And then the next morning, I woke up, and I was, like, 'That was so cool! I want to do that again,'" Heather says.
Heather spent the summer hiking in and out of the canyon, often starting after work, hiking until 3 in the morning and then sleeping for a few hours before going back to work.
That summer changed her.
"When I went there, I was planning on going into the ministry, and, by the time I left, I was, like, 'I want to be a dirt bag,'" Heather says.
Heather set a goal for herself. She would hike the Appalachian Trail, a 2,200-mile footpath from Georgia to Maine. So, a few days after she graduated from college, her two best friends dropped her off at the trailhead.
"I gave them a hug, and then I’m, like, 'OK, bye!' And then I took off," Heather says. "I was just excited."
Heather hiked from dawn to dusk, 20 to 30 miles a day. She gave herself a new name: Anish.
"I could see that I was changing. I was a completely different person. I was becoming someone else," Anish says. "The act of naming myself was a reflection of that. Being quiet and shy and introverted and staying indoors and reading books and all those things, versus this person that now lived in the woods and walked all day and was athletic for the first time in her life and wasn’t scared of the dark and could sustain herself and take care of herself fully independently."
Anish finished the Appalachian Trail in four months — and then she went on to hike the Pacific Crest Trail and the Continental Divide Trail, which are similar footpaths on the West Coast and down the center of the country. Then, she tried to settle down. She got married, and she took a job at a software company. But she had trouble adjusting to life in Bellingham, Washington.
"I was going through, 'What’s wrong with me because all I want to do is forget modern society and I wanna go live in the woods,'" Anish says. "I was trying to cope with the fact that that’s not normal and try to fix myself."
Anish spent five years trying to make it work.
"And finally, I was, like, 'You know, you don’t really need to fix yourself,'" she says. "'There’s nothing wrong with you. Follow your dream, basically'"
Anish got divorced. She quit her job. And she bought a bus ticket to Ashland, in southern Oregon. From there, she started walking toward the Canada border.
"I still had a lot of emotional everything that I was processing," Anish says. "And so it was actually pretty tough, emotionally, and my body was not doing so well. I had an injury from running."
But, by the time she was done ...
"I felt more whole than I had in a long time," Anish says. "That was where I decided to pursue the PCT fastest known time."
That is, she wanted to break the record for the fastest hike from Mexico to Canada along the Pacific Crest Trail. There wasn’t a women’s record, so she set her sights on the record that did exist, which had been set by a man: 64 days.
Conquering The Pacific Crest Trail
To break the record, Anish would have to hike 40 miles a day, with no days off. That would mean getting up at 5 every day and hiking until 9 or 10 at night.
One night, at 8 or 9 p.m., Anish arrived at a river. The bridge had been washed out, so she’d have to cross on foot. Night is the worst time to ford a glacial river; the water is at its highest and strongest.
"There were some guys camped and they were like, 'Don’t try it! It’s too dangerous!'" Anish says. "And I was, like, 'Well, I have to, 'cause I have to go another 12 miles tonight. I just have to.'"
"That was the biggest thing that I conquered on that trail, was once and for all putting those voices to bed. Sometimes there's still that thing where it's like old patterns of feeling bad about yourself, but it's very easy to just dismiss them now. They don't have any power."
So Anish stepped into the river.
"It was mid-thigh deep, but very, very, very, very cold, because it's glacial water," Anish says. "So it was tedious because you had to go slowly to ensure you didn’t fall down. You had to find where to put your feet. But the longer you were in the water, the more chance you were going to trip and fall because you couldn’t feel your lower extremities.
"I almost got knocked off my feet. I lifted my one foot to put it down, and it caught that leg and basically spun me around, and I was facing downriver, and that was definitely an adrenaline moment. I was scared, 'cause then you can see the river that you would go down, which is big boulders and rapids, and it's just disappearing over the edge of the earth. And I’m just, like, 'OK, not going to mess this up, focusing on getting foot back down and going back across river.'"
Anish says she didn’t feel like she was facing the river alone.
"I had faith that what I was doing was what I was supposed to be doing, like, as a calling in life, I guess, and it made it easier for me to face the things that were scary."
Anish made it across the river, and she finished her mileage that night.
But then, 2,000 into her hike, with 650 miles to go, things started to go wrong.
"Your legs just buckle and you fall down and you’re just, like, 'Why did that happen?'" Anish says. "And you just get up and keep going again."
But then, it happened again.
"They gave out on me a couple times during one day, and then I was having the low blood sugar swings where I just felt kind of woozy, off and on," she says.
Anish stopped to pick up a fresh stock of food and snacks at a youth camp near Bend, Oregon.
"And I was crying and, like, I thought my hike was over," she says. "Finally, I basically just said, 'You’re going to hike out of here. You’re going to eat more protein at night. You’re going to eat dinner at night. We’re just going to do it that way. You’re just going to eat a lot more food and see if that fixes the problem.'"
So Anish got up and walked out of the youth camp.
"Even with four hours of sitting there, I still did 50 miles that day," she says. "I hiked 'til really late that night."
From then on, she made herself eat dinner every night: tuna packets with bagels, or dehydrated refried beans mixed with water.
"I woke up more than once with my headlamp still on and half-eaten food next to me, because I could literally not stay awake to have dinner," Anish says.
But she kept eating, and she kept walking. About two weeks later, she woke up just over 50 miles from the Canadian border.
"I was like, 'Da da da, life is great,' and I ran into a lot of people that were out on the trail that knew who I was, and they were cheering for me," Anish says. "It made me feel like a celebrity."
That was in the morning. In the afternoon, Anish didn’t see anyone at all. She arrived at the border just before midnight.
"I was just in the woods by myself in the dark," she says. "I yelled like, 'Hurrah!' You know, 'I’m done!' And then I started crying. And then I was walking into Canada sobbing. I was just so overwhelmed by everything."
Anish had finished in 60 days, four whole days faster than the previous record.
More World Records
And yet she wasn’t satisfied.
"There was just that little voice that kept telling me, like, 'This was accidental. There’s no way you could do this again,'" Anish says. "And to really shut that voice up, I knew I had to go do the AT."
That is, break the record on the Appalachian Trail, too. So two years later, she did just that: She hiked the AT in 54 days, four days faster than anyone, man or woman, had ever done it before.
"That was the biggest thing that I conquered on that trail, was once and for all putting those voices to bed," Anish says. "Sometimes there's still that thing where it's like old patterns of feeling bad about yourself, but it's very easy to just dismiss them now. They don't have any power. Most of my self-esteem issues were body image issues. Now, I’m, like, 'Well, I don’t care what you’re trying to tell me about myself. I’m not fat, and, you know, I'm not unathletic. I went and did the Appalachian Trail in 54 days.' Somebody can break that record and that doesn’t change the fact that I know that I did that thing which is very difficult to do."
As the hiker named Anish, Heather Anderson conquered her fears and insecurities. But, she’s not finished yet. She broke her third world record in November, hiking the Arizona Trail faster than it’s ever been hiked before.
This segment aired on January 28, 2017.