There’s No Such Thing as Too Fast for Jennifer Pharr Davis
By Jennifer Olson
“I want to make the most of my time and ability ”
She’ll climb up frosted summits, stumble over exposed roots, tiptoe around wildlife, run over ankle-turning boulders, and walk—a lot. Her daily routine will entail slogging through snowmelt, and laboring down muddy trails will test her grit and punish her body. But Jennifer Pharr Davis is on a mission; this summer, the fastest woman to have ever hiked the Appalachian Trail (AT) will hike all 2,180 miles of it again—with her sights set on smashing the men’s record, too.
In what’s become her tradition, early on day one Jennifer and her husband, Brew, will set off together to the trail’s start at the summit of Mount Katahdin, Maine. From there, she’ll begin a 47-day march south along the nation’s longest marked trail toward its southern terminus atop 3,780-foot Springer Mountain, Georgia. The word “march”—even with its connotation of discipline and purpose—seems too mild a noun to describe what she’ll be doing. To break the current AT speed record, Jennifer will have to reach Springer’s summit in fewer than 47 days, 13 hours, and 31 minutes.
In order to do it: she’ll deprive herself of sleep, hike for 16-hour stretches, eat 6,000 calories a day, and bandage scraped knees and bruised elbows that will follow inevitable tumbles. But she’ll also pause occasionally to relish the “mountain top moments,” 360-degree views, and talk to trailside friends, including a species of orange newt she finds “cute.”
A self-proclaimed girly-girl, it’s not in Jennifer’s nature to enjoy being dirty or uncomfortable, but she’s always had wild ambitions and a knack for realizing goals. As a 21-year-old Classics major and college tennis player, Jennifer traded in her racquet for a hiking stick (a mop handle, actually) and completed the AT as a solo thru-hiker in 2004. Until then, she had no backpacking experience and only three nights of camping under her belt, but Jennifer transformed that summer from a cultured scholar and one-time beauty pageant contestant to a lanky, long-distance hiker known on the trail as Odyssa—the female version of Homer’s epic hero Odysseus.
In keeping with these contradictions in her personality, Jennifer felt more beautiful after days on the trail than she ever had in a beauty pageant, and she discovered an awe in nature and her passion for long-distance trails—a passion, she says, that some people misinterpret as an obsession. “The trail gets in your mind and haunts you,” she says. “You start thinking about it at unexpected times.” Unable to resist the call of the trail, Jennifer drifts to it every chance she has.
She’s so dedicated that she even created a lifestyle that allows her freedom to hike as much as she wants. “We work really hard during the [school] year so we can play during the summertime,” says Brew, a teacher in Asheville, North Carolina, where Jennifer is a “professional hiker.” She founded the Blue Ridge Hiking Company there to encourage and enable others, especially women, to hike. And she spends her time guiding, speaking, and writing about her beloved outdoors. “When we aren’t thru-hiking, we’re planning when we will be able to do it,” Brew says, pointing to a list of dream trips they keep on their refrigerator as proof.
Though she hasn’t always been a hiker, Jennifer has always been active. The former Division-1 tennis player, marathon runner, and Ironman finisher loves sports but really “felt the connection” during her first trip on the AT. Brew adds that speed hiking long distances combines everything Jennifer likes: challenging herself, solitude, and experiencing nature. “This was both literally and figuratively another mountain to climb,” Brew says, boasting of his wife’s natural athleticism and mental stamina. “She’s probably the toughest person I’ve ever met,” he says with pride.
Strength and resolve aside, as far as her goal for this summer is concerned, Jennifer says she’s not trying to prove anything about herself. “I want to illustrate what it means to do something challenging,” she says, explaining that she doesn’t shy away from challenge because discipline and hard work end with great rewards. “It’s good to try something my body hasn’t been able to do before,” she says.
It was that physical and emotional challenge of hiking that first lured Jennifer into the woods. “I had a lot to figure out,” she says. “My 2005 thru-hike was five months of stripping back the layers and finding out who I was.” Warren Doyle, the AT aficionado who founded the Appalachian Folk School and is a mentor for Jennifer agrees: “Every time she goes out there, she loses another layer of cultural conditioning.”
Since her 2005 journey, though, hiking has become more of a joy. “I still learn about myself on the trail, but it’s not scary to me anymore,” she says. Not much does scare her these days; she accepts that she’ll get cold and wet, and hungry and dirty on the trail. Having a modified expectation of comfort makes trail-life feel normal: “Once you don’t feel entitled to the things we have in our daily society, the trail starts feeling like home. Some people have beach cottages. I have my tent.”
Doyle understands Jennifer’s rebellion against convention. “Societal institutions by their nature limit us, group us to the lowest common denominator,” he says. “All the rules and regulations limit people who want to move forward and test themselves. We live in a 5- to 10-mile-a-day world. The only place where we can really expand or test our limits is out in nature.”
Testing her limits is important, but speed records weren’t Jennifer’s original goals for getting onto the AT. A series of casual encounters with more experienced hikers planted the speed seed, and curiosity drove her to hike farther and faster—putting up speed records on Vermont’s Long Trail in 2007, Australia’s Bibbulmun Track in 2008, and her AT record later that year. With this summer’s hike, she says, she’s exploring her potential and won’t forfeit the hike unless something out of her control forces her to stop. “I want to make the most of my time and ability while I still have them.”
Just knowing she did everything possible to attempt the record, though, will satisfy her. Whether she beats her personal record, the overall record, or no record at all, she’s grateful for the excuse to be on the trail, and the chance to say that she tried. “Just completing the AT for the third time is a feat in itself,” she says. “Only good things could come from it. Why wouldn’t I want to try something where all the results are beneficial?”
If Jennifer’s success on the trail doesn’t define her, what does? Brew says God and her faith take first priority, and that the trail is secondary to their relationship as a couple, too. Hiking doesn’t even rank third, though. “She’d say that the prospect of our family, of having kids, is more important than the trail,” Brew says, hinting that they want children soon. Until then, they’re tackling this summer’s record attempt as a team.
“Sharing the trail with Brew has made me a better hiker,” Jennifer says, laughing since it’s mostly true because he slows her down and balances the intensity of her outdoor experience. “I love hiking all day, but he wants to take a break and read or stop to cook.”
Without Brew around, there’s only one surefire way to get Jennifer to take an extended break: Stage a wildlife encounter. She’s seen close to 100 black bears on the trail and is proud of how she handled an emu charge in Australia. She especially loves a portion of the AT in southwest Virginia called Mason Highlands, where wild ponies roam the jagged and exposed landscape. “I get way distracted there, because I want to chase the ponies and take pictures,” she said, finally admitting her central weakness. “If you want me to stop hiking all day every day, then put an animal in front of me.” Andrew Thompson, take note.
Thompson is the trail runner who holds the current AT speed record. The two are friends but differ in their approaches to speed hiking. While Thompson ran 120 miles per week leading up to his record, Jennifer’s training plan includes mellower mileage—and plenty of gardening. She gets fit pulling weeds and mowing her expansive lawn but does work in runs, averaging a still-impressive 20 to 100 miles per week.
“I want to give myself every advantage possible,” Jennifer says, also explaining that her start date depends on trail and weather conditions in northern Maine. She’ll wait for most of the snow to melt from the mountains and only depart from Mount Katahdin with a clear forecast. Even if she’s lucky enough to start with blue-bird days, she expects hiking through Maine and New Hampshire’s grueling terrain to be “the ten most painful days of my entire life.” It’ll be full-contact hiking, she jokes: “You think hiking is with your feet, and then you get to southern Maine.” On top of the rugged trails, no one will be around to help boost her over boulders or pluck her from the mud, so positive self-talk will get her through those sections that make her want to sprawl across the trail and cry.
Her on-trail routine, which she plans to keep up for 47 days straight, includes hiking from 5 a.m. to 9 p.m., falling into her sleeping bag shortly thereafter, and waking up before sunrise the next morning to complete another 16-hour hike. All those pre-dawn to post-dusk days will add up to about 752 hours outdoors, not counting nights. Every day will exhaust her, so she’ll depend on Brew and other friends for support, mainly meeting her at road crossings with food and water. “It’ll be intense,” Brew says, “but relaxing, compared to the usual routine and life we have in Asheville.”
Finishing in record time will require their entire focus, and Jennifer just wants a fair shot at going fast without distractions or outside influences. To break 47 days, she’ll push aside the desire for comfort and any fear she’s let slow her before—like hiking in the dark. Her anxieties will only include things beyond her control. One of her big concerns is that, with so much media attention focused on the speed record, her hike will be interrupted by reporters looking for interviews. But there won’t be any time or energy to do anything but hike.
There won’t even be time, she hopes, for worrying what other people think if she starts to falter. “I don’t want to let society impact me while I’m on the trail. I don’t want anyone telling me that not finishing is a disappointment or that finishing in more than 47 days isn’t good enough.” She’ll try to resist societal influences that might corrupt her motivation or, worse, convince her that she’s trying to prove something to other people. “This hike is a personal endeavor,” Jennifer says. “Knowing and focusing on that truth will serve me well.”
Brew calls this summer’s effort her “last hurrah” as far as record attempts. Children are in their future, and Jennifer is eager for the day she has kids. “It’s hard to see all my friends building families when I still have dreams I want to pursue,” she says. “It’s lonely when you’re still waiting.” The couple wants to take their youngsters on the trail every summer. “But it’ll be different,” Brew says. “We’ll do day hikes and shorter backpacking trips.” He’s doing shorter hikes this summer, anyway. He trekked up to 20 miles a day during Jennifer’s 2008 record, but is recovering from an ACL injury this year. He’ll be lucky to hike 6 miles a day, and his diminished mobility leaves Jennifer uncertain about the strength of her team.
But his handicap is just one of the million little things, like black flies and mosquitos, that could affect Jennifer’s time on the trail. Only, she’s faced insects and setbacks before. She’s never completed a supported thru-hike without Brew being able to run in and alert her when something happened off trail, or boost her mood when she’s feeling lonely. At least he’ll be nearby because, as Jennifer likes to say, “It’s easier when you’re hiking toward the person you love.”
Many people, Jennifer clarifies, are faster hikers than she is. But the key to her record-setting success is consistency. And that’s where being a woman becomes an advantage. “It’s part of our makeup to just be consistent rather than competitive,” she says. “It means we’ll put in more miles than those hiking fast. I’ll just start hiking early and stop late. People who go faster get tired earlier.”
And despite her records, speed hiking is never the emphasis of her public talks or guidebooks—Jennifer ultimately aims to promote trails to women and children. She thinks positive outdoor experiences can help solve some of the problems she sees in society, like the overconsumption of food and material goods. “The biggest blessing of the trail is that it makes me more the person I want to be and teaches me about the quality of relationships,” she says. “It’s given me the confidence to go in my own direction and not worry so much about convention.”
Trail living impacts Jennifer’s lifestyle so hugely that she is bursting to share the perspective she’s gained. “For me, thru-hiking—whether a record or not—is about the lifestyle: being outside and playing,” she says, repeating that she’s not hung up on numbers. “All my spare time is spent being active outdoors.”
Jennifer hopes to share her outdoor passion and lifestyle with her children someday, too, and she lists that as a chief reason why she’s attempting the record this summer. “I want to be able to tell my children that I did my best,” she said. “Trying something out of my comfort zone is a great example to kids.”
As a role model, she’s now in a position to educate and encourage others to hike, but Jennifer once relied on maps marked with scribbled advice from Doyle. “My expertise now is in coaching and mentoring,” he says of his role in her final record attempt. So, just as Doyle coached her, Jennifer instructs others to reach beyond their current boundaries and try spending more time outside. “If you day hike, that’s great. If you feel okay spending a night in the woods, fantastic.”
This summer, Jennifer is exploring the far reaches of her own limits and answering a call from the trail to go farther and faster. “It’s not a publicity stunt. This hike is personal and precious,” she says. Most of all, she wants to try and eliminate all regrets. “I have to do it,” Jennifer says, “and I can’t wait.”
Category: Hiking & Backpacking