A really long hike
Setting Appalachian endurance speed record helped shape Jennifer Pharr Davis' life
Jennifer Pharr Davis had never done much in the outdoors growing up.
The North Carolina native had just graduated from college in 2005 when she decided it was time for an adventure.
She thought she would try hiking.
“After college, I wanted to have just one adventure, and I didn’t know anything really about the outdoors,” she said. “That kind of bothered me.”
Growing up in North Carolina, she’d heard about the Appalachian Trail.
“I decided before I start my career, I’d give it a try,” she said. “It was the hardest five months of my life.”
Five months to go nearly 2,200 miles from Maine to Georgia.
That was an adventure.
“That trail changed my life in so many ways, so many positive ways,” she said.
The famous trail, which goes through 14 states, has become a major quest for many adventurers, some known as thru-hikers.
That’s the definition of people like Davis, who do complete hikes in one continuous trek.
The trail, and those agonizing five months, also changed her career path. After the epic hike, she started her own company, Blue Ridge Hiking Company.
“The goal is to get people out to enjoy the outdoors,” she said.
Davis, 31, was far from done with the Appalachian Trail, though. The trail would become her defining moment of determination, perseverance and accomplishment.
In 2011, she set the Appalachian Trail endurance speed record, hiking it in an astounding 46 days, 11 hours and 20 minutes. She was hiking 16 to 17 hours and averaging about 47 miles per day.
It was a truly spectacular accomplishment that didn’t go unnoticed.
She was selected one of National Geographic’s Adventurers of the Year in 2012 — one of 10 people to win the award — and UltraRunner magazine also selected her Appalachian Trail feat as the Female Performance of the Year.
Like any endurance test, the record did not come without agony, torment and a true test of Davis’ will.
“I wanted to quit at one point,” she said bluntly.
She developed shin-splints early in the hike and was pelted with hideous weather throughout Maine. Later, temperatures soared into triple digits with stifling humidity. Then, she became ill on the trail. She said the physical problems were to be expected when the body is being pushed to such extreme limits.
All those factors eroded her determination, and she hit a wall.
Her husband, Brew Davis, shuttled her supplies from one point to the next. When she told him she wanted to quit, Brew, who is a thru-hiker and endurance runner, had a firm discussion with his wife. He wasn’t angry. He simply implored her to keep going.
“He said, ‘I’m fine if you quit, you just can’t quit now,’ ” Jennifer said.
So, she pushed ahead for another agonizing day and a half. Then, she just kept going.
“I know I would have stopped if it wasn’t for him,” she said.
She still remembers the discussion out on the trail and how Brew’s tone and firmness surprised her.
“It was so out of his nature, I was shocked,” she said. “It was so weird, I knew I should keep going.”
That time on the trail was an emotional and mental test for her, and she admitted she shed plenty of tears over those 48 hours.
She said it was as much his support as her determination that helped her finish the hike.
She even sees the hike as a love story between her and Brew as much as a record-setting accomplishment.
It was an adventure of a lifetime.
Jennifer Pharr Davis will be in Grand Junction on Aug. 9 to speak about her adventures at Summit Canyon Mountaineering.
She has written two memoirs about her Appalachian Trail hikes, and Brew Davis also penned a book about his wife’s record-setting accomplishment.
Over the years, Jennifer has hiked more than 12,000 miles on six different continents. Her hiking résumé is as impressive as any. She’s done thru-hikes of the 2,663-mile Pacific Crest Trail, the 486-mile Colorado Trail and the 525-mile GR11 through the Spanish Pyrenees. She also held endurance records on Australia’s 620-mile Bibbulmun Track and on Vermont’s 280-mile Long Trail.
But it remains her first long trail that helped shape her life the most.
In 2008, she set the women’s endurance record for the Appalachian Trail at 57 days and eight hours. That’s when she thought she could break the overall record.
“It was always looked at that a man would be the record holder,” she said.
The memories of the trail and her record-setting trek still resonate with her.
“One thing I enjoyed was starting (each day) in the dark and ending in the dark,” she said. “It was scary at first, being out there alone, but then I really started to enjoy it. Every day watching the sunrise and every night seeing the stars come out was really special.”
During her quest, she went through seven pairs of hiking shoes. She saw 36 bears, 12 moose and countless deer, snakes and other wildlife.
Every night, her husband was waiting for her to arrive after darkness set in.
That was one of the truly special things about her hike.
“My husband and I really grew together more through the experience,” she said.
They’ve been married for six years, and Jennifer said that hike and spending time in the outdoors strengthened their marriage.
They hiked the Colorado Trail together in 2009.
Now that they have a 20-month-old daughter, Charley, Jennifer says her hiking time and distances have dropped.
“I don’t think I’ve hiked more than 20 miles a day since she was born,” she said with a laugh.
As the record-setting endurance hiker, Jennifer hopes people won’t lose sight of the ultimate message.
“It’s not about how fast you do a hike or setting records, it’s about getting out and enjoying the outdoors,” she said. “The message is to just get outdoors. It’s about the value of spending time outdoors, and you can do it at any phase of life.”
For Jennifer, the Appalachian Trail was a daunting goal when she was looking for an adventure. Over the years, the outdoors have provided her some of the most valuable lessons in life and love, she says
“There’s always a reward when you go outdoors, it’s always a positive experience,” she said.