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May, 2023: Heading into a fifth night of not sleeping was difficult to say the least.
I was wending my way through the agonizingly slow rocks of the Pennsylvania Appalachian Trail north of Wind Gap, nearing the end of a multi-day push across the state. I really couldn’t imagine anything worse than going through these tortuously infamous fifteen miles in the dark. And then it started to rain.
At 3 A.M.—the time I’d hoped reach Fox Gap and the end of the rocks—I paused and sat down on a giant slab of talus to compose myself. I checked my phone. Two miles of rocks and then eight easier miles until the end of this fastest known time attempt. I took a deep breath and reminded myself that traveling through wet, uneven rocks that pinched and blistered my feet with every step was what I was doing now. Not forever, but for now.
Beauty in the Being
The feeling of urgency mixed with fatigue reminded me of another night a decade earlier at the end of a completely different FKT attempt. The one that had started me down the sinuous life path that had ultimately led me here, stumbling through “Rocksylvania,” operating on only a handful of dirt naps over the previous four days.
That night in August 2013, deep in the overgrown forest of Washington State, I was equal parts exhausted and high on adrenaline. I kept tripping and falling as I ran toward the Canadian Border. Not because of rocks, but because my corroded headlamp was flickering. When I finally burst out of the trees into the broad open swath delineating the international boundary, I screamed a wild banshee-like yell that woke people sleeping a quarter mile away, a cry that quickly dissolved into sobs as I finished my first FKT: the 2,600-mile-long Pacific Crest Trail.
I started setting FKTs because I needed to find my way back to something I’d lost.
I’d thru-hiked the Triple Crown (Appalachian, Pacific Crest, and Continental Divide Trails) previously and dabbled in ultrarunning. But I was new to FKTs, and attempting such a massive undertaking for my first crack at a record was so far outside the realm of my known that I could hardly believe I’d succeeded. The experience took a toll on me physically. And I was overwhelmed mentally as I tried to reconcile my self-image as an average recreational athlete with that of a record-setting one. The tears shed at the border weren’t the last ones.
Setting the self-supported record on the PCT tipped an invisible domino, catalyzing a cascade of personal growth and adventures—including this unsupported FKT attempt on the Pennsylvania section of the Appalachian Trail. Refocused on the task at hand, I made my way over the gigantic sloped slabs of Wolf Rocks and onto the freedom of dirt trail. I ate the last food in my pack: a bar I’d been saving during many hours of hard rationing. I’m almost done. The full moon emerged from the fog and rain behind me as dawn leaked red onto the horizon in front of me. I forgot how much my feet hurt and how hungry I was. There was beauty in the being.
I started setting FKTs because I needed to find my way back to something I’d lost. In 2011 my marriage ended, and in 2012 I quit my job and spent the whole summer hiking around the Pacific Northwest with no true objective. Camped under an ancient cedar tree one night, I decided to attempt to set the PCT self-supported FKT the following summer. There was no real rationale; it was more of a feeling. A sense of destiny or dharma, depending on your point of view. I could only answer the frequent “Whys?” of my family and friends with, “It’s just something I need to do.”
I had no concept of “fastest known times” as a sport. In fact, FKTs were barely on anyone’s radar. Verifying records with GPS tracking wasn’t common. FKTs were set by the honor system and recorded on a rudimentary leaderboard website. The ignominy suited my introversion perfectly.
Which made the fall-out of setting the FKT on the PCT so massively difficult.
Suddenly, I was being asked to speak in front of groups about my experience. Strangers on the streets of Seattle recognized me. Media outlets clamored for interviews. I just wanted to go back to the forest. But at the same time, I was aware that perhaps this was why I’d just felt like I needed to do it. My entire life prior had imploded. Maybe FKTs were my path forward.
Then I tried to set the John Muir Trail unsupported FKT in 2014.
To say it was a disaster is an understatement. Nothing went according to plan from the very beginning and culminated with me getting altitude sickness and quitting at Red’s Meadow, 55 miles from the finish. That failed FKT attempt left me even more uncertain than before. What if this whole thing were a fluke? An accident? It fit my previous understanding of self much better than success did.
“Not a Real Athlete”
One hundred and eight hours before the rainy night on Wolf Rocks, I stood at the Mason-Dixon Line marking the southern border of Pennsylvania and readied my watch. The start of my outing was fraught with hitches that echoed those of my JMT attempt. I’d pulled my calf muscle nine days prior and five inches of rain fell in the forty-eight hours preceding my start. Due to the weather and shuttle issues, I didn’t even begin my attempt until 6 P.M.—handicapping me with an extra ten hours of wakefulness on an effort where I already knew I wouldn’t sleep much. To top it off, my twenty-eight weeks of training had been focused mainly on strength and rebuilding an aerobic base, not high mileage. In fact, I hadn’t covered more than thirty miles in one push in five years. The series of delays and misfortunes accompanying the start of this record attempt seemed to guarantee failure. As I was about to begin, I was glad I’d only told three people what I was doing.
My imposter syndrome grew. I am not like them. I’m not a real athlete.
In the past, these complications would have had me in hysterics. My mantra had become, “to succeed everything must be perfect!” I was a pro at creating spreadsheet after spreadsheet in hopes of obsessively controlling variables. But as I stepped away from the wooden sign into the rainy night, I found myself able to accept both injury and delay, managing my responses accordingly with a compression sleeve and a large Americano, respectively. Now I was treading close to New Jersey—on pace to take a day off of the men’s time—without obsessive spreadsheets.
After my PCT record, fastest known times began growing rapidly in popularity and going after them became a more mainstream sport, especially with accomplished ultrarunners undertaking them. My imposter syndrome grew. I am not like them. I’m not a real athlete.
I knew that I needed to disprove that doubt once and for all. Which is why, almost exactly two years after screaming into the darkness at the Canadian Border, I was standing on Mount Katahdin in Maine, ready to hike south on the Appalachian Trail faster than any other self-supported individual had ever done.
I succeeded on the AT and finally came to terms with the new version of myself. I decided to embrace the opportunity to share my experiences and growth, rather than hide. I threw myself into three years of continuous FKTs, long multi-day efforts, and fast and light mountaineering. These adventures fueled topics for the evenings I spent standing in front of audiences sharing my adventures and how they’d affected me at a much deeper level. I overcame the fear of vulnerability and crowds because I could sense that what I was doing—what I was saying—mattered. This most certainly was the way forward.
Eighty-two hours ago on the flanks of Darlington Ridge, having covered the first seventy-something miles of the Pennsylvania AT’s 232 miles in one continuous push, I was both surprised and grateful for my body. I hadn’t moved through the mountains all night since my last ultra in 2017, when I completed one loop of the Barkley Marathons. Now, I’d been awake for thirty-six hours—twenty-six of them continuously walking from the Maryland border through the undulations of South Mountain and across the broad Cumberland Valley. I was ahead of the men’s record by two thirds of a day, but I hadn’t slept. I can’t cover this entire distance without sleep. I lay down without an alarm, believing that I’d wake up when I needed to—trusting a body I had undervalued for so long.
The Price and Prize of Perseverance
By 2018, I was noticing signs of adrenal fatigue, yet it was the year of my capstone plan. Having completed the Triple Crown twice I wanted to do it a third time—all in one year—becoming the only woman to accomplish either of those achievements. This so-called Calendar Year Triple Crown had been a dream of mine for fifteen years ever since Brian Robinson first completed the feat.
So I ignored the warning signs of burn-out and spent eight months hiking well over 7,000 miles.
I arrived home a few days before Thanksgiving to discover my sister was very ill with advanced lung cancer. Six weeks later she was gone. Of all the people in my family, she was the only one to ever have effusively assured me how proud she was of all my accomplishments.
The physical burn-out that engulfed me was inevitable from so many years of pushing unrelentingly without adequate recovery, my mind telling me that by age forty I would be “washed up” as an athlete. Combined with the grief over the loss of my sister less than two years after my father was more than I could handle.
I forgot about FKTs. I wasn’t even able to carry my own fully loaded backpack. My athletic career was over right on schedule.
Perhaps FKTs were not the way forward.
But then, what was?
Back on Darlington Ridge, I slept a few hours huddled against the rain in a bivy. I woke up near midnight, shivering, and packed up. As I made my way gingerly uphill in the dead of night, I noted how much I needed to favor my partially healed calf. Uphills were already my weakness, and this added limitation slowed me down even more. In the past, I would have been angry and frustrated, but instead, I felt nothing but gratitude. Grateful to be here, grateful that my body was strong and wise, grateful that I was no longer impatient with this embodied gift.
Without FKTs I had felt misplaced. The sport was now firmly established, enfolding new athletes of all calibers and backgrounds. Routes were being added to FastestKnownTime.com daily. Though I was not actively participating, my experiences were still very much a part of who I’d become. My new mission was to channel the strength I’d cultivated through the voluntary suffering of my records and the hundreds of hours of training into something applicable to the very real-life hardships of grief, loss, and burnout followed in rapid success by a global pandemic.
The things that are difficult are very difficult. But they are not forever.
I embraced the lessons learned in those long hours of effort taught by Mother Nature herself and absorbed by my body and mind pounded malleable by miles. The first was acceptance. There was no changing the reality of encountering a thunderstorm on an exposed ridgeline or the complete dysfunction of my adrenals and HPA-Axis dysregulation. But I could control my responses.
Another was to lean into rest and death as part of life. I became more aware of the cycles of autumn, winter, spring, and summer all around me. There was always a time of rest before growth. There could be nothing new until the old was gone. Someday I too would be a memory, just like my sister. But for now, I still had the capacity to rest and grow—again and again.
In 2022, I began to feel like my body and mind had turned a corner. In synchronicity, I was brought on by the new owners of FastestKnownTime.com—Outside Interactive, Inc.—to host the FKT Podcast. As I interviewed athletes setting records in all modalities, I remembered how much I loved the sport. Maybe I do belong here. I began quietly planning my return on a familiar stretch of trail, in the style I’d yet to master. In attempting to set the unsupported FKT on the PA section of the AT, I offered two questions to my body and my mind:
Do I still have the drive to voluntarily do “hard things?” And, even if I was up to the challenge…did I want to?
North of Fox Gap, my watch turned to 109 hours, during most of which I’d been moving. I’d never pushed myself like this before. Over the past few days, I’d rapidly gained perspective on the capacity of my body and mind to voluntarily do something hard, especially when I remained curious and grateful rather than demanding and controlling. The previous five years dissolved in the drizzle. I was endlessly surprised to find that for the first time I could maintain the same equanimity I had when comfortable despite being cold, hungry, and operating in a massive sleep debt.
The things that are difficult are very difficult. But they are not forever.
The final morning was sublime—sunny and full of birdsong. I was relieved to click off my headlamp knowing that I would not need it again. The last mile was on road and finally I ran, albeit very slowly. I jogged along the pedestrian bridge over the Delaware River toward where the New Jersey line was painted in the middle. I wasn’t screaming or crying. I was simply happy. Pleased to have accomplished a new overall FKT of 4 days and 14 hours—shaving nearly a full day off of the previous record set by Gerrit Van Ommering in 2021. And pleased also to have done the entire thing with an attitude of thankfulness and joy.
In the rocks, I finally realized that FKTs are not the path forward—they are a path I enjoy traveling because they allow me to express the happiness, potential, and contentment that reside within me. I could finally see that, with them or without them, I was complete—and stronger than I would ever fully understand. They exist as small windows through which I can glimpse my own ability—opportunities for me to hone the mental resiliency needed to navigate this lifetime.
As I stopped my watch I felt like yelling, “I’m back!” into the sound of morning traffic rumbling by, but a quiet voice inside whispered instead, “You never left.”
About the Author: Heather Anderson, who goes by the trail name “Anish,” has thru-hiked the Triple Crown—the Appalachian Trail, the Pacific Crest Trail, and the Continental Divide Trail—three times each. The 2019 National Geographic Adventurer of the Year has seven fastest known times (FKTs) to her name, including setting the overall self-supported records on the PCT in 2013 and the AT in 2015. She’s also a professional speaker on a mission to inspire others to “dream big, be courageous” and is the author of two hiking memoirs, Thirst: 2600 Miles to Home and Mud, Rocks, Blazes: Letting Go on the Appalachian Trail and a preparatory guide to long-distance hiking, Adventure Ready. Find her on Instagram @_WordsFromTheWild_ or her website wordsfromthewild.net.