Records set on Pacific Crest Trail

The Pacific Crest Trail was a beautiful challenge for Heather Anderson. Courtesy of James Varner

Jack Haskel is a lifelong backpacker who's hiked the Pacific Crest, Continental Divide and Colorado trails. Combined, those three total 6,238 miles, so Haskel is no long-distance novice.

He also once did 56 miles in one day on the Continental Divide Trail, so he knows about speed hiking over mountain paths. But when Haskel thinks about what Josh Garrett and Heather Anderson did this summer on the PCT -- which takes hikers from Mexico to Canada -- he's in awe.

Just before midnight on Aug. 7, Anderson completed the 2,655-mile PCT in 60 days, 17 hours and 12 minutes, shattering the previous fastest time of 64 days, 11 hours and 19 minutes by Scott Williamson in 2011. One day later, Garrett finished his hike in 59 days, 8 hours and 14 minutes.

"Honestly, it's absolutely mind-blowing, the physical-endurance feat of hiking the PCT that fast," said Haskel, the trail information specialist for the Pacific Crest Trail Association in Sacramento, Calif., the organization that works to preserve the trail. "I don't know that there's anything that really relates to the people that are speed hiking these long trails, just how difficult this is.

"To be doing something that in a lot of ways is equivalent to an ultramarathon a day for months on end. It wears on people's bodies. It's a mental game. I'm super impressed with hiking 45 miles a day for two months straight."

Anderson left from the starting point east of San Diego on June 8. Garrett started on June 10. For each, it was their second trek on the PCT. This time, both wanted to see how fast they could go. Garrett had done the trail in 88 days in 2009, while Anderson had taken more than four months in 2005. Though they had different goals and motivations this time, Anderson and Garrett hoped to get to Canada in less time than it took Williamson, a legend in long-distance hiking.

To do so, each went through five pairs of trail running shoes, hiked anywhere from 16 to 20 hours a day, pushed through various aches, pains and blisters, and most often refueled on the move, eating while hiking through deserts and up and down the slopes of the Sierra Nevada and Cascade ranges.

Just what went into those journeys?

Garrett's motivation

After completing the PCT four years ago, the 30-year-old Garrett -- an exercise physiology teacher and track and cross country coach at Santa Monica College near Los Angeles -- had no intention of ever doing it again. But when Garrett met John Mackey, the CEO of Whole Foods and also a long-distance hiker, Mackey was impressed by Garrett's 88-day mark and suggested he might be able to break the PCT record.

After Mackey offered to support the effort and Garrett had time to think about it, he decided to go for it with the goal of raising money and awareness for the plight of animals.

"If I could make it worthwhile to help all of the animals suffering, then I could consider it," said Garrett, a vegan for two years. "So it really was about them, helping animals and trying to promote the vegan diet. That's what got me out there again."

So, he set up a page through the Mercy For Animals organization (mercyforanimals.org/veganhiker) and eventually raised more than $20,000. As a runner, Garrett always has been in shape, and before this trip he took long hikes in the Santa Monica Mountains for three weeks -- working his way from 25 to 43 miles -- to prepare.

He figured he'd have to average about 42 miles per day to set a record, but his start was rocky. The first 700 miles through Southern California's desert was the toughest portion of the trail for him, and his body had to get used to the hiking grind.

"I think you're using different muscles than you are when you're running," Garrett said.

In particular, his feet took a beating. He dealt with calluses, blisters, toe issues, skin cracking and Achilles tendon problems throughout the hike, but especially at the beginning. Plus, he suffered heat stroke and had to take 24 hours to recover.

"I'm very strong on the climbs and in the mountains, but the desert was what I struggled with the most," he said.

Garrett wore trail running shoes rather than traditional hiking boots because they're lighter and more flexible, and carried anywhere from 15 to 35 pounds in his pack. Mackey arranged for one person to support Garrett in his effort, meeting him at crossroads and trail intersections with food and equipment. But that wasn't possible for some mountain stretches of as long as five or six days.

He hiked 16 to 20 hours per day -- wearing a headlamp at night -- and ate and drank (water and electrolytes) frequently. He loved peanut butter packets and energy bars, and sometimes treated himself to vegan marshmallows, but tried to keep a variety of snacks on hand to replenish his calories.

One of Garrett's goals was to prove that vegans -- who do not eat meat, dairy or any animal products -- are strong and healthy. He attributes his quick recovery each night to his diet. One of the most difficult things he dealt with, however, was sleep deprivation. Many times he caught himself sleepwalking, drifting off while he was hiking.

When he finally reached the end of the trail at the border with Canada, his girlfriend, Karen Dawn, was waiting for him. It was an emotional moment, and he cried briefly, his head on the end-of-trail monument.

"It was a relief to know I didn't have to race off later that night to get a bunch of miles or get up early in the morning and have another long day," Garrett said.

Even two weeks after completing the hike, his feet and toes were still beat up, he says. He has no plans to ever do another thru-hike (the term hikers use for completing a long trail such as the PCT all at one time), and says the hike was the toughest thing he's ever done.

"It's such a huge mental aspect of a thru-hike, breaking through the low points of each day," he said. "And to do that day-in and day-out was quite the challenge. Nothing I've ever done compares to that."

But whenever Garrett had doubts he could continue, his cause pulled him through.

"I remembered the animals suffering, and that's what really kept me moving," he said.

Anderson's solitude

The 32-year-old Anderson is an ultramarathon runner and hiker who lives in Bellingham, Wash., and goes by the trail name "Anish" when she's on a trek. It's a nod to her great-great-grandmother, who was of the Anishinaabe people in the upper Midwest and Canada.

Though Anderson wasn't athletic while growing up in Michigan, that changed when she took a summer job at the Grand Canyon in 2001 and was invited on a hike with friends. She calls that first experience "painful," but she kept at it.

"It was exciting to see that my body could actually do something active, because I'd never done anything before," she said.

Two years later, she bit off much more than anyone thought she could chew by hiking the Appalachian Trail, a 2,180-miler from Georgia to Maine. She went from a know-nothing with equipment from Walmart and eBay to doing 25 miles per day. When she finished in four months she was ready for more.

"I said, 'Wow, I need to go do the PCT,'" she recalled. "Like, this was the most amazing thing ever."

After doing the PCT with a friend in 2005, she hiked the 3,100-mile Continental Divide Trail in 2006. Then in 2009, she began running and worked her way up to 100-mile races, including the prestigious Western States 100 in California's Sierra Nevada.

After doing the PCT for the first time, Anderson kept wondering how fast she could hike it. It was an idea she pondered for years. She wanted to test her limits, and when she finally set her mind to it this year, she organized her quest by sketching out daily goals on trail maps.

"I was like, Day 1, 42 miles. Day 2, 48 miles," she said. "I had written down where I was going to camp every night for 60 days. This was a 60-day hike, here's my itinerary. I carried those and it was kind of like a contract to myself that kept me from wussing out.

"Like I'd wake up in the morning and go, 'I'm doing 46 miles today. All right, I'm going here.' And so when it got late at night and I was really tired and I wanted to quit, I was like, 'No, I have to keep going to X.'"

Though she deviated slightly at times, it wasn't by much. She ended up averaging close to 45 miles per day. Like Garrett, she wore trail running shoes (the kind she wears in ultras), used a lamp at night and ate while she was walking, prompted by an hourly reminder from her watch to pull snacks such as granola bars, energy bars and cookies from her pack.

Anderson also wore what she always wears on long hikes: sundresses from thrift shops she says are light, comfortable and usually good for about 1,000 miles. Most days she hiked from 5:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Though she had some hard times with her feet at the beginning, she soon fell into a rhythm. She believes she was primed physically by previous thru-hikes, and mentally by her ultra runs.

Once into a flow, she had no doubts.

"Because I've run 100-milers, I know I can go for like 34 hours without sleep," Anderson said. And, she added: "I'm just plain stubborn, so that helps a lot."

Anderson hiked unsupported, meaning she had no one helping along the way with food and supplies. She mailed boxes to towns along the route with new supplies, and often had to hike from the trail and back to pick them up. If she forgot to include something, she paid the price -- like the time she forgot batteries, forcing her night walks to be rather dim.

Most days she carried 20 to 22 pounds; in remote stretches (between boxes) it would be 30. On her 60th day, she reached the end-of-trail markers alone.

"I came running in, I gave a yell and then I started crying," she said. "And then I was like, 'OK, done with that.'"

Anderson signed the trail register, noting her time -- everything is on the honor system -- then walked into Canada and camped. The next day she hiked out 8 miles to a road and was back home.

She's already resumed running and was planning to help pace a friend over the final 48 miles of a 100-mile ultrarun.

"I feel absolutely fine," she said. "Every once in a while my feet will give me a little twinge and, oh yeah, you kind of hurt. But it was really amazing. I didn't anticipate my body would handle it that well."

Assessing the records

Neither hiker knew of the other's attempt when they started, and they never met on the trail. Eventually, they learned from other hikers that someone else was zipping along. Anderson was surprised Garrett never caught her.

Each has great respect for the other, though many in the hiking world have weighed in with online comments that take issue with speed hiking in general, say Garrett's time should come with an asterisk because it was supported, or nitpick both of their efforts.

Anderson and Garrett don't want to get involved in any debate.

"Heather is an incredibly strong person, incredibly strong hiker," Garrett said. "[We] both, I think, managed an amazing feat and something that can never be taken away from either of us."

The website Fastest Known Time (fastestknowntime.proboards.com), which keeps track of long-distance records, now lists Garrett's as the overall fastest time on the PCT and Anderson's as the fastest for a woman and fastest overall for self-supported "thru-hiker style." Anderson says self-supported comes with more challenges.

"You carry a heavier pack so you're going to be slower and you add the time and distance of going into town," she said. "But yeah, they're both valid. They're just different."

Any records on the PCT are unofficial. Nobody's watching. As Haskel says, "The PCTA isn't in the business of verifying records."

But he says he has no reason to doubt Anderson or Garrett. As the numbers of thru-hikers increase each year -- Haskel estimates about 450 completed the PCT in 2012, far above totals from three to five years ago -- times are bound to fall. Perhaps very soon, in fact.

Williamson, the man who did the trail in 64 days and was the first to yo-yo the PCT (doing it up and back in one year) is back on the trail again.

"He's out there going after it, which I'm excited about," Anderson said. "My opinion is, if somebody's going to break my record, because he's doing self-supported style, I want it to be Scott. He's always been one of my heroes when it comes to hiking."