“Records are made to be broken,” says long-distance hiker Jennifer Pharr Davis. “It’s not the number. The method and the approach are what matters more at the end of the day.”
For the last 40 years, men have held the Appalachian Trail record. In the last 20, it's been confined to an elite club of ultra runners who typically covered the requisite 30 to 50 miles per day in an 11- to 13-hour period. Conventional wisdom suggested that breaking the record would mean running faster with the same strategy. And a new record holder would most certainly be male.
Pharr Davis, 28, took the standard strategy and turned it upside down. Moving from north to south, she covered the trail’s 2,181 miles by hiking for 16 hours a day beginning at 4:45 in the morning and walking well into darkness. To stick to an average pace of 47 miles a day, she slept on the trail or at road crossings to eliminate needless commute times to and from the trail. Her husband, Brew Davis, served as the support crew.
Pharr Davis trained by hiking rather than running—and the novel approach worked. By the time she reached the trail’s southern terminus at Springer Mountain, Georgia, she had trimmed 26 hours off the previous record with a time of 46 days, 11 hours, and 20 minutes.
“Exploration can be twofold. It can be going to a new location or it can mean pushing through a physical boundary,” says Pharr Davis. “We were exploring what people thought was possible, for what was possible on the Appalachian Trail, and what was possible for a woman and a hiker.”
Adventure: Why chase this record?
Jennifer Pharr Davis: In a lot of people’s opinion, the Appalachian Trail record is the toughest trail record in the world because it has such a long history of attempts. The idea was that my best was good enough for the overall record on the Appalachian Trail. I wanted the ultimate challenge. I didn’t want to do anything less or anything easier.
A: Why the fascination with the Appalachian Trail?
JPD: One, it’s home. There is a comfort when I’m in the Appalachian Mountains. Second, the Appalachian Trail and this mountain chain feel very wise. They are some of the oldest mountains in the world. The mountains seem to hold their secrets close. You have to work to discover them. Third, I had a life-changing experience the first time I thru-hiked the AT. I was 21. I hiked by myself. I really knew nothing about long-distance backpacking. I was not adventurer of the year; I was idiot of the year. I got struck by lightning. I had my eyes freeze shut in a snowstorm. I was followed by some male hikers I did not want attention from. I even came across a suicide on the trail. It was the hardest five months of my life. But as time passed I realized how much I had changed. I had experienced so much positive growth. It left me longing to go back to the trail.
I returned in 2008, then again in 2011. If we are able to have a family, I want to do it with my kids. And when Brew and I retire, I want to hike it again. My ultimate goal isn’t to set a record. It’s to have a lifelong relationship with the trail.
A: You had your doubters. There have been some high-profile but unsuccessful attempts at the record in the last five years, all by male ultra runners. Did that give you pause?
JPD: Most people told me this was impossible. That there was no way I was going to set the overall record; that common sense said that it had to be set by a male; that it had to be an elite trail runner. There was a solid group of people who believed in me. In the face of all that disbelief, having that support network was invaluable.
I just want women to know that they have the same options as men, whether that’s a thru-hike, a day hike, or a record, or going out for the weekend.
Trail records are a very fringe sport, but the interest and popularity are growing. I think as it continues to evolve, women are going to feel more connected to it now, because they know they have the ability to go out and do something amazing on the trail.
A: If you could pick just one highlight, what would it be?
JPD: Clingmans Dome in Tennessee. I got there just after sunset. There was this afterglow in the Smokies. You could see the lights of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge. Usually there are a lot of tourists, but I was up there all alone. It was still and silent.
Also, I love seeing moose. I love seeing black bears. I am a fanatic about animals. It was always a huge boost. It’s like taking an energy shot if I got to see a mama black bear and two cubs. I saw 36 bears. I really love to hike, all day every day.
A: Was there a low point?
JPD: I contracted shin splints on the fourth day. I’d never had them before. There were times where I would put my foot down and my leg would just buckle because of the pain. I decided I was going to walk until I could no longer crawl or stumble down the trail. I also got sick while I was in New Hampshire, in the hardest point of the trip. I was physically sick. I had terrible diarrhea. I was basically falling apart at the seams. I wanted to quit. My husband talked me past it. That was my lowest point, but it was also one of the highlights because, at that moment, my husband believed in me more than I believed in myself. Then there was never any looking back.
A: Any good-luck charms?
Having my husband there was my biggest lucky charm. My lasting memory of this summer is more than an athletic accomplishment. To me it’s a love story, the power of what two people accomplish when they believe in each other. He was my encouragement. If we missed a meet up or road crossing, he would know my thinking and where I would meet up with him. He was making such a sacrifice, it made me want to keep going. I was going to move forward until I physically could not. Overall, there wasn’t a lot of time for superstition.