28-year-old Ashville native shaves 26 hours from the previous mark.
On July 31, Jennifer Pharr Davis completed the fastest hike of the 2,175-mile Appalachian Trail, averaging 46.9 miles per day. “Until now, only runners have been going after this,” says Pharr Davis, 28, who trimmed 26 hours off the previous mark. “I’ve shown you can actually get the record by hiking.”
by Blaine McEvoy
Was this your first time on the trail?
This was actually my third time thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail (AT). I was 21 my first time, in 2005. I was very naïve: I had just finished college and thought it would be this great adventure. In actuality, it was the hardest five months of my life. It just broke me. When I finished, I said, “I’ll never do that again. I’m done with hiking.” But as I went into the real world and started working, I realized all the ways that the trail had changed me: I valued simplicity, quality time, and relationships more. I also valued preservation and conservation, and I loved being outside and working hard. I mean, my job was great, but it was a desk job.
Where were you working at the time?
I worked at a museum. I loved the job and the people, but it just wasn’t my calling. The trail was my calling. When I went back to the AT in 2008, I decided I wanted to see how quickly I could do it. At the time I thought that meant alone and with a pack on my back, since that was how I always hiked. But I knew that going for an unsupported record — where you can’t receive any help — would be very hard. I also knew my husband would want to help, especially if there was lightening or a thunderstorm. So we decided, together, to do a supported hike.
What was that like?
No woman had ever done a supported hike. The previous record for a woman was 87 days, and I broke that by 30 days. That was a really big deal at the time, because records on the AT have been recognized since the early ‘70s. But about 10 months later, the way my brain works, I stated thinking, “you probably could have gone a little faster here, you probably could have done a little better there. Knowing what you know now, could you have done it better?” And I hate that question — I can’t leave that open-ended. So it was just over two years ago that we started talking about coming back to the trail. The men’s record was super good: 47 days, 45.9 miles a day. I actually know the guy who set it. He’s intimidating: 6′ 3″ and built like a trunk. I thought, “how am I going to go against his record and all the elite ultramarathoners who set it before him?” But knowing the AT as well as I do, loving the AT as much as I do, and having the support of my husband, I felt I had a legitimate shot at the overall record.
How did your training differ this time?
Every year since 2005, I’ve completed at least one long-distance trail. That in itself is the best training. because on a trail, you get used to working hard all day, going to bed dirty and tired, waking up the next morning, and doing the same thing over and over again. A lot of men who approach the AT speed record are elite ultrarunners, guys who win 50- and 100-mile races. But at the end of those races, they get whatever food they want, they get a warm bed, and they get a shower. And they don’t run 100 miles the next day. So my background on the trails really helped. In 2008, I trained a lot by running. But this year I knew my training had to be more refined. The AT has a ton of climbing and a lot of gnarly terrain, so I was really focused on building my climbing muscles this time around. So for training, I would try to find the steepest, most difficult mountain in my area, and just hike up and down as much as I could during the day. I still ran, but I ran less, because I knew the only time I would be running on the trail would be during the downhills.
The mountains — where were they?
Ashville, North Carolina. It’s the best place to train in the Southeast. There are several 6,000 footers, and I was even able to train right on the AT. One day, I just walked out my front door and hiked, 37-miles roundtrip, all the way up Mount Mitchell, which is the tallest mountain on the East Coast.
Is that what an average day was like?
The average for the entire trip was 46.93 miles a day.
What was your single hardest day?
My first day in Vermont. Maine and New Hampshire are the hardest two states on the trail, and I came out of New Hampshire pretty beat up. My shin splints became swollen and inflamed, plus I got hypothermia from the sleet and high winds. That day started with a road walk out of New Hampshire into Vermont, and most hikers, especially speed hikers, would say, “oh my god! A road walk! It’s free miles.” But I was sobbing. The asphalt was killing my shins, so I was just walking down the road literally bawling my eyes out, it hurt so bad. When I got back on the dirt, my legs felt a little better, my pace started to improve, and I thought, “okay, this is it, I’m out of New Hampshire, things are going to get better.” Then, that very afternoon, I was struck with horrendous diarrhea. Which is always horrible, but especially horrible on the AT. That slowed my pace to less than one mile per hour, and left me feeling completely empty. I thought, “This is it. My hike’s over. I’m not going to meet my support team until after midnight, I’m going to be totally wasted, and I’m not going to want to eat. I’m not going to be able to recover from this.” And then, really serendipitously, I came to a gravel road that wasn’t in the guidebooks — one that I couldn’t remember on any of my other hikes — and I saw a car about 200 yards away. And I said, “I don’t care who this is, they have got to help me.” So I walked to the car, and I heard someone say, “hey Jen!” At this point, I’m sick, I’m disoriented, and now I think I’m hallucinating. But it turned out to be an ultrarunner from West Virginia who I met at a race last year. He gave me fluids, medicine, and food — everything I needed. If I hadn’t run into him, I’m pretty sure I would’ve had to stop.
What was your diet like?
Other than hiking, your job is to eat. I was trying to take in 6,000-7,000 calories every day. I always wanted protein in the mornings — my body craved it. So we would hard-boil eggs or make an egg sandwich. But I really had to work on my attitude towards food, since it’s hard to consume that much. I found I didn’t have enough saliva to get food down. So I would have to dunk stuff in water and follow it with more water. This was mostly high-energy food — granola bars, energy bars, and energy chews. But I was so nauseous the full last three weeks of the trip that I was gagging on all my food. Thankfully, I only threw up once, but I really think my body was trying to say, “okay, we’re stressed out, tired, and fatigued.”
What’s a typical day like on the AT?
Wake up at 4:45 AM, start hiking at 5:00 AM, and hike until 9:00 or 10:00 PM. Breaks were determined by road crossings, because that’s where I could meet my support team. It’s easy in the mid-Atlantic, where there’s a road every three miles. But there are other places where crossings are 15-20 miles apart. I would hike until I got to the next road, where I would eat more, get whatever I needed for the next stretch, and then continue on.
What’s your favorite section of the trail?
I love a section in southwest Virginia called the Grayson Highlands. It’s beautiful. Whereas most of the trail is under tree cover, this is exposed. In some ways it looks a little like Montana, because there are wild ponies. It’s very different from the rest of the trail, but it’s still very high, around 5,000 feet.
So what’s next?
For me, this was the ultimate goal. But the great thing about the trails is that they meet you at whatever stage of life you’re in. There may be shorter trails later that are suitable for me to go for another record, but the magnitude of something like this — you have to work towards it for years. I really feel like I’ve been working towards this summer, even though I didn’t know it, since the day I took my first step on the AT in 2005.
Did you feel callous toward the trail at all?
Since this was my third time, I approached it differently than first-timers. I was indignant during my first through-hike, because it kept throwing obstacles at me — I got struck by lightning, I got caught in a snowstorm, I had another hiker stalk me for a week, I came across a suicide on the trail. I thought, “why? I’ve been through so much!” But I was naïve, and the AT just rocked me. But I learned that the AT is intrinsically difficult. I learned I cannot change the weather. I cannot change the difficulty. The only thing I can change is my attitude and my approach. Once I realized that, I had a much better, much healthier relationship with the trail. And I’ve loved every step I’ve taken since then.
Did you have any run-ins with wildlife?
My first time, I saw zero bears. The second hike, I saw thirty. This time, I saw thirty six!
Any close calls?
Most of the bears this summer were mothers and young cubs. I was within six feet of some, but I never felt unsafe. They don’t want to interact, so whatever you’re doing, you should just continue. They don’t prey on humans, they just want to protect themselves and their young. The few times I’ve seen bears act aggressively, dogs always riled them up first. And it’s funny, because a lot of hikers think, “my dog will protect me from bears.” But I wouldn’t want to see a bear after they’ve had a dog encounter, because that’s when they’re really on edge.
Have you heard from the now dethroned record holder?
Andrew Thompson? Yeah, he’s a friend of mine. I hadn’t heard from him since the hike, and I was like, “oh gosh, what is he thinking? What is he going to say? But the other day, I checked my email for the first time since the hike finished, and there was a message from him with a smiley face. I opened it, and it said, “you bitch.” And I thought, “that’s so perfect. That’s exactly what I wanted to hear.” It sums everything up so well.