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Trail Blazer: On and Off the Beaten Path with Record-Setting Hiker Jennifer Pharr Davis

By:  Jay Moye Apr 3, 2013
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Jennifer Pharr Davis

In July 2011, Jennifer Pharr Davis of Asheville, N.C. set the overall world record for hiking the Appalachian Trail, which stretches from Maine to Georgia. She completed the 2,181-mile trail in 46 days, averaging just under 47 miles a day.

After five grueling months hiking the 2,181-mile Appalachian Trail in the summer of 2004, a weary yet relieved Jennifer Pharr Davis approached the footpath’s finish line, touching the sign atop Maine’s Mount Katahdin.

“I’ll never do that again,” she lied to herself aloud.

Like many 20-somethings, Jennifer graduated college eager to embark on a last-hurrah adventure before diving into the workforce. An accomplished athlete, she played tennis at Samford University in Alabama and had recently completed her first Ironman triathlon – a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and a 26.2-mile run – when she decided to trek the AT, as it’s known among avid hikers. She thought it would be a breeze.

It wasn’t.

“I was very naïve going in,” she admits. “Within 48 hours, the trail had kicked my butt more than any race or competition ever could. It was relentless. And I was by myself, which meant I had no support network, let alone creature comforts like a shower or a hot meal.”

She underestimated the toll the experience would take on her – not just physically, but emotionally, too. “I was a different person when I finished the trail,” she said. “My values and what I wanted out of life had changed.”

Jennifer Pharr Davis

'The record on the AT has nothing to do with speed, strength or testosterone,' Jennifer explains. 'It’s about endurance and efficiency. It’s about minimizing mistakes, knowing the trail and your body, and loving it enough to do it when everything else goes wrong and everything hurts.'

Called Again

Later that year, Jennifer moved to Virginia and took a job at a museum. She enjoyed the work, but something was missing. During the museum’s low season, she completed long-distance hikes in the U.S. and abroad, including the Pacific Crest Trail in California, the Long Trail in Vermont, Mount Kilimanjaro in Africa and Machu Picchu in Peru. She thought about the trail nearly every day.

In 2007, she met her husband-to-be, Brew, and quickly fell in love. She figured the domestic trappings of married life would slow her down.

They didn’t.

A high school teacher with his summers off, Brew encouraged his new wife to pursue the women’s record on the AT of 87 days. He proposed doing a supported hike, which meant hooking up with Jennifer at road crossings to bring her food, replenish her supplies and set up camp for the night.

“We saw it as a way for me to do what I love and have an adventure together,” says Jennifer, who handily surpassed the record by finishing in 57 days. She calls it the best summer of her life.

Yet when they reached the end of the trail, Brew was the one to vow never again. “All the pressure was on him. He had to run all the errands – washing clothes, making meals, managing the logistics and shuttling the car to every road crossing,” Jennifer explains. “So after that summer, we thought that was it for us as far as records go. We figured we’d just hike and backpack together from that point on.”

A few years later, however, the AT beckoned once more. And this time, the stakes were even higher. Jennifer decided to pursue the overall world record of 47 days in 2011, a goal she never considered back in 2008.

The odds were stacked against her: all previous record-holders were men, and most were elite trail runners who had won 50 and 100-mile races. Nobody thought she stood a chance.

“But the record on the AT has nothing to do with speed, strength or testosterone,” Jennifer explains. “It’s about endurance and efficiency. It’s about minimizing mistakes, knowing the trail and your body, and loving it enough to do it when everything else goes wrong and everything hurts.”

Jennifer Pharr Davis

Jennifer (six months pregnant with her daughter, Charley) and her husband, Brew, finish a 550-mile hike through the Pyrenees mountains in southwest Europe. Jennifer has hiked more than 11,000 miles on six continents.

Now or Never

Knowing they wanted to start a family within the next few years, their window of opportunity was closing. “We didn’t want to wonder, ‘what if?’” says Jennifer as her four-month-old daughter, Charley, napped in her lap. In my mind, I saw the worst-case scenario as doing something I love with the man I love. Even if we only made it a few days, what would be so bad about that?”

As soon as she started the hike in Maine, the burden lifted immediately. No regrets, she told herself, before nearly eating her words a few days later after a brutal first few weeks back on the trail. On day 12 in Vermont, battling shin splints and hypothermia after hiking through a 48-hour sleet storm, she considered turning back.

“My body was stiff and I was mumbling… I looked like Frankenstein’s monster,” she recalls. “I punched three holes in a trash bag to use as a poncho, and I was wearing my spare socks as gloves. I knew the most important thing I could do was make it off the mountain, because all your body wants to do in that condition is curl up in a fetal position and shake.”

When she arrived at the nearest road crossing that night, her body was telling her it was done. She relayed the message to Brew, who convinced her to keep going with an uncharacteristically firm pep talk.

“It’s funny because I’m the endurance athlete who likes to test my limits,” Jennifer says. “I had no doubt he’d give me a big bear hug and take me off the trail to a motel. Instead, he looked at me and basically said ‘suck it up.’”

“If you really want to quit, that’s fine,” he told her. “But you’re not quitting now, because at this moment you feel too bad to make a good decision.’”

They agreed to reassess the next night. After a hot shower, dinner and a few hours of sleep, Jennifer was back on the trail the next morning. A dozen or so miles into the next day's leg, she started to feel better – and never again thought about quitting.

Jennifer Pharr Davis

Taking a break during the record-breaking hike. "I’d have about 15 minutes to consume 1,000 to 1,500 calories and replace my gear for the next stretch," Jennifer says.

Slow and Steady

Going in, Jennifer knew she would not run many miles on the trail to avoid injury and minimize stress on her body. This strategy meant waking up earlier and hiking later than the previous record-holders. She hiked from 5 a.m. until roughly 10 p.m. each day.

“I took the approach of the tortoise in the Tortoise and the Hare,” she says. “I knew it would take every ounce of my being to be successful and thought my body would last longer if I hiked the entire time.”

She still covered an average of just under 47 miles per day – nearly two marathons – for 46 consecutive days. Her biggest day was 60.2 miles, and she had a few days “in the 30s” in Maine and New Hampshire, where the trail is especially treacherous.

Her breaks – if you can call them that – were short. “The big misperception was that I got to kick up my feet and relax,” she said. “But in reality, I’d have about 15 minute to consume 1,000 to 1,500 calories and replace my gear for the next stretch. In many ways, breaks were more stressful than hiking.”

Eating was a major chore. Her body craved protein in the pre-dawn hours, so she fueled up with a few hard-boiled eggs. For an added kick, she drank coffee in the morning and Coca-Cola in the early afternoon.

On the trail, she’d scarf down granola bars and energy chews every hour. Smaller meals – prepared with functionality and efficiency in mind – awaited her at road crossings. She lost 10 to 15 pounds off her 6-foot frame during the hike.

“I was taking in over 6,000 calories a day, which is really hard to do,” adds Jennifer. “I didn’t have enough saliva to break down my food, so I became one of those speed-eaters who dunks their food in water, chugs it and chases it with more water. Eating on the trail is not fun… it’s your job.”

Jennifer Pharr Davis

Family and friends congratulate Jennifer on setting the overall world record on the Appalachian Trail in July 2011. She also holds the women's record.

‘I Belong’

All decisions – from what she wore, to where she slept – were meticulously calculated. They spent all but a handful of nights in a tent. “Everything is measured in minutes,” Jennifer explains. “We stayed in a motel only when we could find one just off the trail. Otherwise, you lose 20 to 40 minutes you should be spending hiking or sleeping.”

She drew inspiration from nature during her 17-hour days on the trail, which passes through 14 states. “I took in every sunset and every waterfall, even though I observed them in motion,” she said, noting that she saw 36 black ears on the trail that year, compared to zero in 2004.

Music and a few motivational phrases also kept her going. Mumford and Sons’ epic song, “The Cave,” which addresses identity and belonging through references to The Odyssey, played ad nauseam both in Jennifer’s head during hikes and on Brew’s iPod at road crossings.

“There was also a phrase I repeated over and over, in part, to convince myself because so many people were telling me I shouldn’t go after the record,” she said. “When those voices would become too loud, I’d say: ‘I belong.’”

Though she knew the record was within her grasp heading into the final homestretch, Jennifer never let herself get too comfortable. “When I got to Springer Mountain in Georgia, I was about a day ahead of the previous record,” she says. “But I knew with a sprained ankle or one missed connection, that lead would be gone. Also, I have a tradition of almost stepping on a rattlesnake on the second to last day of the trail – it has happened to me twice now within 50 miles of the finish – so I didn’t take anything for granted.”

After keeping her head and heart in check for the duration of the hike, all of her emotions collided when she reached the top of Springer Mountain on July 31, 2011. “I just started bawling,” she recalls. “Not sad tears or happy tears… everything tears.”

Jennifer’s story quickly made headlines across the nation. The New York Times published a piece on her, and she was interviewed for CNN Headline News, the CBS Early Show and NPR’s Talk of the Nation. National Geographic named her its Adventurer of the Year for 2011.

Jennifer Pharr Davis

On Max Patch bald in North Carolina, about 200 miles before the end of the Appalachian Trail-ending Springer Mountain in Georgia.

Best of All Worlds

The transition from the trail to everyday life has been relatively seamless and graceful, Jennifer explains, because she knows hiking will always be a part of her life.

“Instead of seeing it as an end and a beginning, it’s like another season,” she adds. “Because I love going home… I love taking showers and reaching into the fridge for a cold drink. But I know that next spring, I’ll be out on the trail again. I’ve been fortunate to reconcile those two aspects of my life and not feel like I have to give up one for the other.”

In 2008, right after setting the women’s record on the AT, Jennifer parlayed her passion into her profession, founding Blue Ridge Hiking Company in Asheville, N.C. She has built her company like she hikes – slowly and steadily – by minimizing her mistakes and staying focused on her mission to democratize the trail and “get people outdoors on their own terms.”

Her team of guides leads backpacking novices and adventure-seekers on trips through the Pisgah National Forest. Additionally, Jennifer has written five books – three North Carolina hiking guides and a pair of memoirs (Becoming Odyssa, which recounts her first AT hike, and the soon-to-be-published Called Again, which chronicles her record-breaking 2011 trek). She’s also an in-demand public speaker, customizing the universal story of the trail for audiences ranging from kindergarten classes, to nursing homes, to colleges, to Fortune 500 companies.

Jennifer Pharr Davis

Leading a guided hike in Pisgah National Forest through Blue Ridge Hiking Company, which she founded in 2008.

Spreading the Word

This summer, Jennifer, Brew and Charley are planning a 48-state speaking and hiking tour to promote Called Again and to encourage people to hit the trail. And while she admits that hiking the Appalachian Trail is not for everyone, she insists that getting out in the woods and exploring nature is a universal opportunity. Hiking is a free, low-impact form of exercise that’s accessible to almost everyone. It’s also one of the cheapest forms of therapy.

“I’ve always said there’s nothing a long hike can’t work out,” Jennifer adds.

Most people in the U.S. – including urbanites – are closer to a scenic trail than they probably realize. The AT gets within 30 miles of Manhattan, and Jennifer points out that her cousins in Washington, D.C. are closer to the trail than she is in the mountains of North Carolina.

“I’m known for setting the record, but my message is that the trail is there for everyone in all phases of life,” she concludes. “It’s not about how far you go or how fast you travel, but what you take from the experience.”