Jennifer Pharr Davis to share stories behind record-breaking Appalachian Trail hike at upcoming library talk
photo by: Contributed Photo
It takes a skilled hiker an average of five to seven months to trek the entire Appalachian Trail, which stretches more than 2,100 miles from Georgia to Maine. In 2011, Jennifer Pharr Davis made the journey in just 46 days, 11 hours and 20 minutes, setting a new unofficial record for the fastest thru-hike along the Appalachian Trail.
On June 3, Pharr Davis will share the stories behind her adventures — and discuss her latest book, “The Pursuit of Endurance: Harnessing the Record-Breaking Power of Strength and Resilience” — during a talk at the Lawrence Public Library, 707 Vermont St. The event, slated for 2 to 3:30 p.m. on the library lawn, will also include a book signing, with copies available for purchase via the Raven Book Store.
Here, in a slightly condensed version of her interview with the Journal-World, Pharr Davis discusses her beloved Appalachian Trail, the biological advantages of female hikers and her goals for getting folks outdoors.
What drew you to the Appalachian Trail initially, and what made you want to go out and set a new thru-hike record?
I didn’t grow up doing much hiking or backpacking. But when I graduated from college, I felt like I still didn’t know really where I wanted to go or what I wanted to do, and I had a lot of unanswered questions. A big part of me wanted to spend more time outdoors because most of my life and education had taken place inside, in buildings and between four walls. And I think a lot of people sort of have a desire to get outside and use their bodies, and I was feeling that at age 21. I’d always heard of the Appalachian Trail growing up near it, but I had never been on it and had only spent two nights in the woods. But at 21, that didn’t stop me.
So, after graduation, I got my brother’s old Boy Scout gear and set out on my own from Georgia. Five months later, I made it to Katahdin, Maine, which is the final mountain in Maine (along the trail). And it was a life-changing journey. I didn’t expect it to redirect my course or change my life, but it was such a powerful experience for me that the trail kept drawing me back time and time again, even when I had a normal job in the real world.
Eventually I started my own hiking company, and that took more time off trail. And then I got married, and that took more time to know what my best (time) was on the Appalachian Trail. So, the second and third time I did it, part of my reason for wanting to hike it was to try to find my limits of endurance and to see what my body could do.
How did you prepare yourself — physically and mentally — for that record-setting thru-hike you took in 2011? And how did you keep yourself motivated?
Well, for my first thru-hike on the Appalachian Trail in 2005, it was really baptism by fire. I think I learned through mistakes, and I had to constantly adjust on the trail, and I wish I had prepared more for that first thru-hike. But in 2011, I had already hiked over 8,000 miles and knew what the trail would demand. And it was also my third time on the Appalachian Trail, to do the whole path. So, I was very dialed in as far as my strategy and gear, and I spent a year seriously training and trying to get in physical shape for the demands of hiking over 45 miles a day for a month and a half. It was very calculated and a long journey to the start of the trail.
Yeah, I think I’d read somewhere that you’d hike upward of 15 or 16 hours every day. Could you describe your day-to-day experience on the trail?
My time on the trail was pretty consistent. When I was going out for the record, I would usually start hiking at 5 a.m. Then I would hike until between 10 or 11 o’clock at night. So, they were very long days. I think a big misconception is that people think I was going fast, and the truth is I wasn’t running and I was rarely going over 3 mph, but I was putting in a lot of hours every day on the trail. So, I got less sleep, but the trade-off was there were some very beautiful and peaceful parts of the experience where I got to see every sunrise and every sunset that summer, and I saw more wildlife that summer than on a five-month hike. I had a lot of great solitude and times in the woods. I didn’t have to get off-trail to resupply because my husband was bringing everything to me. So, it felt like a very immersive, continuous experience in the wilderness, which I really enjoyed.
I think you asked about motivation, and it was so challenging physically and mentally, but I loved the Appalachian Trail so much. I knew I was in my favorite place, and I had the person I loved the most helping me. This was a dream of mine, and I realize that I was very fortunate to be able to try it and even get to attempt something like that, even if I wasn’t successful. So, I think it’s the realization that every day I got to wake up and live my dream. And yes, I had picked a very, very painful, hard, dirty dream, but it was, in fact, what I wanted to do. And that kept me really motivated.
You’ve written about some of the psychological and physiological traits women have that might actually level the playing field or even give female hikers an advantage in these kinds of high-endurance activities. Could you talk a bit about that?
I actually talk a lot about that in my new book, which I’m coming out (to Lawrence) to promote. In “The Pursuit of Endurance,” I go through my mindset of realizing some of the physiological advantages that females might have, such as that we actually hold on to our weight better, we have lower caloric and hydration needs on average, and we were built to give birth. We were absolutely (designed for) carrying packs. Our bodies are better built for carrying that weight and supporting that weight. I don’t have scientific data, but I just think women’s pain threshold is very high. And I started to see these physiological differences, I would say, between the sexes. Whereas I started hiking and assumed that guys would be faster or stronger, my experience and the illustrations I would see on the trail — just examples of other hikers — I realized that wasn’t necessarily the case.
photo by: Contributed Image
So, I don’t think there is a gender gap in efforts of extreme endurance, and more and more women are competing equally and coming out successful in these long-distance attempts at hiking or running or swimming or biking or whatnot. It’s exciting to see, and it’s really, I think, awesome to see an athletic endeavor where there doesn’t seem to be a gender gap. And I think that’s really empowering for a lot of women for their pursuits in everyday life as well.
Last year, you and your family — your husband and your two little kids — set out on a trek across the Mountains-to-Sea Trail. Do you think your kids have inherited the hiking bug? And do you have any advice for avid hikers looking to get their kids interested in the outdoors?
Hiking is part of our family identity and what we love to do, but we always try to make it fair and also fun for our kids. I hiked the Mountains-to-Sea Trail across North Carolina last year, and I did the entire path, every mile. But my kids would just meet me during the day for little, short sections or day hikes or picnics, or, if it was bad weather and there was something fun in the area that they wanted to do besides hike, then that’s what they’d do with my husband. That’s how we made it a family activity that we could all participate in. So, I think being able to meet your kids where they’re at, and not just pulling them along for your adventures and forcing them to do something that’s not age-appropriate, is really important.
My son’s only 1 1/2, so he’s still super happy to just be toted down the trail. But with my daughter, it’s been really cool to weave her interests into the trail. She really loves art, so a lot of times we’ll bring watercolors or crayons out to the trail, and we let her draw. We’ll take a break and let her do art. She loves telling stories, so we’ll make-believe stories as we’re hiking down the trail that incorporate the natural environment. The other thing is, if we bring a pack of fruit snacks or M&Ms, she’s usually pretty good to go for a while (laughs). Or, if we bring a friend. So, we might not win “parents of the year,” because we definitely employ bribery and peer pressure, but they’re very effective when hiking with small children. It’s really fun.
My husband and I are touring for “The Pursuit of Endurance,” but we also over a year ago released a book called “Families on Foot,” which we co-authored based off our experience not only as parents but having run a hiking company for 10 years and working with a lot of youth and families. We were drawing off that experience and other sources and resources to put that together. So, that’s a nice book for folks who want to get their families of all ages outdoors.
You were talking earlier about how encouraging it is to see more women competing in endurance sports. Do you have any advice for the person who isn’t super physically active or outdoorsy, but wants to try and just doesn’t know where to start?
I just think it’s more than OK to start small. I think a lot of times people can have negative experiences if they step too far outside of their comfort zone. There are so many great trails where you can get out for day hikes; there are trail hiking clubs and groups. We run a guiding service and we work with over 1,000 people a year, but a lot of them are beginners, and we talk about very basic stuff, like how to use the bathroom in the woods, and how to set up a tent, and what to do if you see wildlife. I think there’s a lot of really good resources out there, and I really don’t like when the outdoors are portrayed that it’s hardcore and you have to be hardcore. I think putting it into perspective and saying, “OK, can I walk down a sidewalk? Then I can probably walk down a path.” Just taking it literally one step at a time and, again, drawing off knowledge and experiences and resources that are available, can help people feel comfortable. I’ve found — and over and over and over again, this is what we hear — that a lot of factors preventing particularly women from going outside or doing more in the outdoors are really just misconceptions. They’re not truths. They’re things that have been built up in popular culture or in our heads, but they’re not the reality of the trail.
Your record for the Appalachian Trail was surpassed in 2015. Do you feel a need to go back and try to set a new record? Or, do you have a bucket list of goals you’d like to take on next?
No. I mean, my goal has always been to have a lifelong relationship with the trail. The record was a small part of that and a really special moment for me to discover what my body was capable of. But I’m super happy right now exploring with my kids and adventuring as a family and focusing on getting other people outdoors. That’s ultimately one of the reasons why I love the trail so much, is because I see still myself doing it when I’m 70 and 80. I just feel like the more different trails and more different ways I can experience it, the better. And that would be my bigger goal than trying to go back and set another record.