Adventures on the Appalachian Trail
By: Karen Kater
“I am woman, hear me roar!” Ok, that’s a little cliché, but how about “I am woman… watch me break a world record!” Recently, the eyes of the hiking world have been on Jennifer Pharr Davis of Asheville. In July 2011, Davis became the first woman to break the Appalachian Trail speed record. Her mental determination, physical fitness and spiritual strength led the way to beating the previous record by nearly a day. And to do that, she only needed to hike 47 miles each day, for 46 days straight.
Davis, 28, started her journey to break the record (previously held by runner Andrew Thompson) long before June 2011. Her first hike of the AT was in 2005, at the tender age of 21. Her love of the outdoors and hiking prompted her to travel alone, much to her mother’s dismay. That first time, she was (literally) struck by lightning, stalked on the trail by a sketchy co-hiker, and tragically happened upon a suicide at a trail rest stop. The trek took four and a half months and led her to author “Becoming Odyssa: Adventures on the Appalachian Trail.” Davis, a Classics major at Stamford University, chose her trail name ‘Odyssa’ as an homage to Odysseus, Homer’s Greek hero. In an excerpt from that book, Davis explains to a hiking coach her reason for thru-hiking the AT. “I feel like I’m meant to… I mean, I feel like I was made to… I guess what I’m trying to say is that I think I’m supposed to hike the AT. When I think about doing anything else, it just feels wrong… not a day goes by when I don’t think about the trail.”
Obviously, Davis’ intent was never in question. After the AT, she hiked such other trails as the Pacific Crest Trail, Colorado Trail, Pembrokeshire Coastal Path, Inca Trail, and a summit of Mount Kilimanjaro. She hiked the Appalachian again in 2008. Between Maine’s Mount Katahdin and Spring Mountain, Georgia, there are plenty of mountains, valleys, bugs, bogs and bears to keep anyone from even completing the trail. Even so, Davis, now married to fellow hiker Brew Davis, not only finished the trail, but she set the women’s record by completing the path in 57 days. After her second trip Davis started thinking of another record attempt. “It felt like a dirty secret, I didn’t want to admit to myself that I could have been faster,” she says of her second trip.
As the desire for a third hike grew, Davis acknowledged the inherent problems: she wouldn’t be running like other record setters before her. She would have to hike more consistently and for much longer hours than the men did on their previous attempts. To cover the 2181 miles, she’d have to put in 16-hour days, climbing up rock-strewn paths and sliding down on her bottom, from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day till she reached Georgia. The training would be grueling and she’d be sacrificing another summer that she considered hard-won by her husband, a high school teacher in Asheville. Brew had supported her every step of the way during her 2008 hike and would need to be captain of her “pit crew” for this attempt as well. Was she willing to risk pain, injury or failure for a bid at a world record? Davis explains her thinking: “I think in our modern-day society we tend to shy away from things that are hard or challenging. Things that we might not succeed at scare us,” she says. “But I believe that by pushing our limits, we are able to refine ourselves and learn about ourselves in a positive manner, despite the outcome. We can never accomplish anything excellent or new unless we are willing to try new things and test our boundaries.”
Prioritizing her life is one thing that does come easily for Davis. A devout Christian, she knows her relationships with God, Brew, her family and the trails are all intertwined. But her first priority is her faith. “Hiking the trail by myself was transformative—in society, we always have other people to go to, and on the trail, I don’t have that support network, so I go straight to God. It’s just this walking prayer… it makes you very appreciative,” she relates.
Her relationship with husband Brew was both challenged and strengthened, she says, by the difficulties of her record attempt. Starting from Maine on June 15, the first two weeks were physically torturous. She had to adhere to the scheduled wake up time of 4:45 AM and get on the trail by 5 AM. The sun wasn’t even up when Davis hit the trail looking forward to a day of trekking up to 56 miles. The New England trail was rocky and buggy. The weather varied anywhere from freezing rain to sunny, and the terrain could get really slick. Brew recounts how, one evening at a Vermont roadside stop, a woman commented on Jennifer’s bruised and bloodied legs, then shot him a scathing look. The Davis duo knew the truth of the terrain—that it can take you down and beat you up, but it wouldn’t get the better of them.
In fact, for a short time Davis did consider quitting in Vermont. She was ill with a stomach bug, making frequent “bush stops” necessary and sapping her strength. She credits her husband with encouraging her, not out of concern for the record, but concern for his wife. “He knew I didn’t really want to quit… he knew that deep down, I’d be heart broken if I didn’t give it my all.” Her husband’s service and devotion continued down the trail. He met her day after day, mile after mile to fuel her with food and news from home. Other “Pit Crew” members rotated in and out, among them family and fellow hikers and friends. Some days they would “hike in” and meet her to deliver sustenance. Other times someone would meet her at a crossroad to deliver pizza, burgers, wraps, ice cream or candy.
“Chewing became a chore.” Davis says. To maintain her weight and strength, Davis had to consume 6000 calories each and every day. No, that’s not a misprint… 6000 calories, shades of Michael Phelps in his Olympic swimming days. She recalls, “My first AT hike I ate horribly—lots of cheap, high-caloric foods, i.e., Little Debbies. The next summer on the Pacific Crest Trail I tried to go totally natural and ate lots of organic non-processed food, but I always felt short on salts and quick energy. Now I like to alternate my snacks on the trail. I usually start the day with a healthy breakfast and then snack every one to two hours throughout the day. After one or two healthy snacks, I’ll throw in a candy bar or potato chips. At the end of the day I just try to eat as much as I can!” Maybe that’s not every woman’s dream diet, but for the 6’ tall Davis, it was necessity.
As she grew used to the routine and demands of the hike, Davis found her enjoyment coming from nature, as always. She equates spotting wildlife—snakes, raccoons, deer or bear, to getting “a little vitamin shot! Sunsets motivate me, wildlife motivates me, seeing my husband at the next roadside motivates me. There is something very primitive about multi-day endurance records: living simply, working hard, going to bed with the sun and not being constantly stimulated by artificial noise and lights. It feels natural. When I am out on the trail, I do not think about an alternate reality. I don’t think about home, a warm shower, or soft bed. I accept the trail as my home and that helps me to be content.”
As the days rolled into weeks, the world record drew closer. Some days she hiked as little as 30 miles on the most difficult terrain, but on the day before she finished, she walked an unfathomable 60.2 miles. Most days, she averaged just shy of 47 miles. The shin splints that plagued her in New England were gone, giving way to hours of climbing up and running down trails. All of her training and previous hiking experience was paying off. Of her pre-record preparation, she says, “I tried to do all my training on trails, focusing on the steepest mountains, and I tried to go up and down as much as possible. I also purposely go out with wet feet and shoes, because that’s the reality of the trail.”
Davis knew she had prepared for physical endurance as well as possible, but the mental aspect was another story. She was, for the most part, alone with her thoughts for six and a half weeks. As her eyes focused on rocks, mud and roots, she worked to keep her thoughts homed in on the positive. “After the first two weeks, the remaining hurdles were mental and emotional. Mentally, it was hard because I never had a break. It is really difficult to maintain mental focus for 57 days,” she relates. But, as she neared Springer Mountain and her hours on the trail consistently increased, she knew the record was within reach. Encouragement came from everywhere, and her body was holding up well. On the morning of July 31, she was within site of the finish line, the summit of Springer Mountain, where a brass plaque inlaid in the rock is the official ‘touch point,’ the end of the trail. At 3 a.m., Davis started out on her final day of the AT speed record.
In his book, 46 Days, Keeping up with Jennifer Pharr Davis on the Appalachian Trail, Brew Davis described the final moments of his wife’s hike. Family had gathered at the summit to congratulate her. “When we reached the parking lot, below Springer Mountain I had Mumford & Sons’ “The Cave” blaring from our car. It talks about ‘strength through pain’, and it makes a lot of allusions to the Odyssey. Jen started sobbing. “I cried, too,” said Brew. We hugged and I said ‘You did it… and she said, ‘No, we did it…”
Finally, after 46 days, 11 hours and 20 minutes, Jennifer Pharr Davis, along with Brew, laid hands on the plaque, breaking the record for hiking the Appalachian Trail.
Davis is looking forward to a more restful 2012. She owns Blue Ridge Hiking Co. and spends most of her time writing, speaking, and guiding. As a motivational speaker, she frequently travels across the region to deliver talks such as “Emus, Llamas, and Ibex, Memories and Mishaps from 6 Different Continents” and “Six Months without a Mirror, Redefining Beauty, Success and Happiness Without the Help of Mainstream Media.” She still gets out on the trails as often as possible and wants to hike the Appalachian again, perhaps a bit slower, and hopefully with Brew and “little hikers.”
Although speed records are not officially acknowledged by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy or any national body, Davis holds her accomplishment very near to her heart. She used every ounce of stamina and determination to break a record previously held only by male runners. Yet capturing the record was never the ultimate goal; it was simply knowing she had left no question in her own body and soul that she could complete the journey, no matter how long and how far she traveled. Like Odysseus, the reward was the challenge of the journey and the homecoming.
Looking back, she says, “I don’t feel that my record hike is in any way better or more noble than the mom who takes her kids out to day-hike different portions of the trail near their house. The trail is there to meet you where you are. The purpose is to make it accessible to everyone that travels by foot—but that includes trail runners, speed hikers, and record setters. As long as you are respecting the trail, others, and yourself then you have a right to be on the famous foot path.”
Karen Kater is Marketing Coordinator at Summit Marketing Group.