I first heard about Jennifer Pharr Davis when BestHike.com blogged about her being chosen as one of National Geographic’s Adventurers Of The Year for 2012. It’s not very often that you hear of someone gaining notoriety for hiking at all. So when a hiker breaks the overall speed record on the Appalachian Trail, a record that has only ever been held by endurance runners, I think they deserve to be showered with attention.
Jennifer walked the 3,500 kilometre Appalachian Trail in 46 days, 11 hours and 20 minutes. How did she do it faster than those who run it? She walked for up to 16 hours a day (from around 5am to 9:30pm), averaging approximately 4.8 kilometres an hour. Of course hiking at those speeds isn’t unheard of, but what blows my mind is to do that for 16 hours a day, every day for a month and a half.
After reading Jennifer’s story, I was inspired and looking for more insight into what makes her tick. I dropped her a line and she was more than happy to answer a few questions for Bushwalking Blog via e-mail…
You first hiked the Appalachian Trail when you finished college, as a kind of journey of self discovery. What possessed you to do it two more times?
Ironically, I swore off hiking after the completion of my first AT thru-hike. However, after a few weeks and then months passed, I began to realize how much I had changed on the trail and how my heart longed for the wilderness. I decided that the path had changed me in all positive ways, and I knew I still had a lot to learn from the forest. I decided to do more hiking, but completed about 3,500 miles before deciding to return to the AT for a second trip. I was a newlywed on my second AT journey, and because my life had changed, so had my hiking. This time I hiked the trail quickly with my husband’s support. We didn’t want to be apart (but he didn’t want to hike 2,000+ miles in two months), so he met me at road crossings and encouraged me to hike as efficiently as possible. After finishing the trek and establishing a new women’s record, I knew that the overall record was in our reach. It took a few more summers and 1,000+ more miles of traditional backpacking with my husband before we returned this past summer to the AT to try for the overall record. I wanted to know what it felt like to give my all, to give every ounce of energy to the trail. The overall record gave me that opportunity.
Prior to your first attempt at the Appalachian Trail, what had been your level of hiking experience?
Hardly any! I had gone on one or two required overnights with camp and school, but I had never camped on my own before. I had never even slept by myself in a house, let alone the forest. I made A LOT of mistakes starting out. That said, I wanted to be on the trail, I learned from my mistakes, and I kept pressing on despite lots of adversity.
It sounds like you went through hell on the Appalachian Trail this time around, suffering from shin splints and even nausea and diarrhea at one stage… How do you manage, mentally and physically, to keep going in this situation?
Yes, I like to say it was the best worst summer of my life. It is such a juxtaposition to be doing something you love and hurting so badly the entire time. My husband was a huge emotional and spiritual support throughout the endeavor. He kept me focused on the positives and reminded me of my ability of succeed. I could have never done it without his support. i always prayed a lot, and I constantly reminded myself how lucky I was to be able to hike all day. It was extremely difficult, but I was getting to do one of my favorite things in the world, all day, everyday. I am drawn to trail records because it is such a holistic endeavor. It is about so much more than the physical challenge. When I was finished, I was mentally exhausted from having to maintain such a narrow focus for so long. At this point I can say that I don’t want to experience another trail the way I experienced the Appalachian Trail this past summer, but I am so grateful every single day that I had the opportunity to know the trail in this way.
Did you ever fear for your safety due to wildlife or the elements?
No. There was a sketchy photographer who jumped out of the woods at me and that was scary, but the natural elements were not life-threatening. They were however record threatening. I was stuck in a sleet storm and developed moderate hypothermia which caused some negative ripple effects for the next few days. I was also subject to extreme heat, and I had to be extra careful to monitor my salt and water intake. I LOVE the wildlife. I saw more wildlife this summer than on any of my previous AT thru-hikes – 36 bears, 10 moose, skunks, porcupines, wild boar, etc… It was awesome!
Aussie readers will be interested to know that you hiked Western Australia’s Bibbulman Track in 2008. What made you choose the Bibbulman? How was the experience?
I made a goal to hike on 6 continents before I turned 25 (I am not keen on Antartica since I hate cold weather). Australia was my last continent to visit – It took me a while to save up for the plane ticket. I was really interested in some of the famous treks in New Zealand, but when I started looking into the permitting and logistics it became a bit overwhelming. I like the idea of getting to a trail and being able to stay on that trail for several weeks. When I heard about the Bibbulmun Track it sounded perfect. Many people told me not to do it, because I would be hiking during January and it would be too hot. However, one hiker in Australia was familiar with the Pacific Crest Trail in North America and once he heard I had completed that trail and that I didn’t experience too much difficulty desert hiking through Southern California, he told me I should be fine on the Bibbulmun Track. I loved hiking the B.T. in January… I had the trail all to myself. There was one point where I traveled 3 full days without seeing another hiker. I loved all the new and exciting wildlife. It was really neat to end the hike near the ocean, but the walking was much more difficult there than I expected. That sand was super-soft and the winds were really strong. Overall it was a GREAT experience. I hiked the trail in 21 days. I wasn’t trying to set a record but I missed my husband (then fiance), and I just enjoyed hiking all day.
I have been known to be a bit of a hiking gear junky so I have to ask, is there one piece of gear that you couldn’t have done the Appalachian Trail without?
I had great new hiking shoes from Salomon called Synapse. They are specially built lightweight hikers and they are awesome! I also really appreciated my hiking poles – especially after I developed shin splints.
Aside from all of your hiking and running, I believe you’ve published some books. Tell us about them?
My coming of age/love story with the trail is Becoming Odyssa. If you think I went through a lot of challenges this past summer then you definitely need to read about my first thru-hike. It is a great book for all audiences – not just hikers. I also have written some guidebooks for the state where I live, and my husband’s trail blog from the summer just came out as well, it is titled: 46 Days: Keeping up with Jennifer Pharr Davis on the Appalachian Trail.
So what comes next Jennifer? Do you have any more big plans? Are you planning to try for any more records?
This summer my husband gets to pick our hikes and I think he wants to go to Europe. He lived in Switzerland for 2 years, so he loves the Alps. We would love to have kids someday and take them on hikes as well. I really believe that the trails are there for every phase of life and it is never about how far you go or how fast you go, but simply what you take from the experience.
A massive thanks goes to Jennifer for agreeing to be interviewed. I wish her all the best. If she doesn’t inspire you to go out and hike, you may need to check that you still have a pulse.
I’ll leave you with a video called “Odyssa” which was shot by Matt Kirk, when he joined Jennifer for a section of the trail. For those of us who haven’t been lucky enough to see the Appalachian Trail, the video gives an idea of what it looks like.
Do you have ambitions to do something similar? Or were you touched or inspired by Jennifer’s story? If you have anything to say, please leave a comment below. Are you interested in more from Bushwalking Blog? You can either sign-up for the e-mail newsletter, or get updates via the RSS feed, Facebook or Twitter.