Every spring, hundreds of hikers tackle the Appalachian Trail, which stretches 2,175 miles from Georgia to Maine. Those who make it the entire length are called thru-hikers, and they usually complete their expedition in five to seven months.
Not Asheville-based hiker, ultra-marathoner, and author Jennifer Pharr Davis, who, starting in Maine next week, will attempt to break her own women’s record for an assisted thru-hike on the AT, which currently stands at 57 days, 8 hours and 35 minutes. (Just five men have finished faster.)
Supported by her husband, Brew, and several friends, Pharr Davis expects to set off from Maine next week, depending on the weather forecast, and average 46 miles a day before wrapping up in Springer Mountain, GA, sometime in early August.
In honor of Great Outdoors Month and National Camping Month in June, I spoke to 28-year-old Pharr Davis – who, after logging close to 9,000 miles hiking and backpacking on six continents, could be the poster girl for both – about her upcoming adventure. (You can follow her journey at www.blueridgehikingco.com.)
What made you want to break your own record?
About 10 months ago, I was going for a run, and I was thinking back to the trail and how proud I would always be of the record, but I was also thinking, ‘Yeah, I could have gone faster.’
And then I was like, ‘No, no, no, it was a hard sacrifice, it was time-consuming, it was hard on my husband,’ but I couldn’t shake it. And I thought, if I tell my husband, he would shoot it down, but he said, ‘Yeah, I know if you do it again you could do it better.’ I was stunned. And we have some very close friends who have been on the trail or in the sport for decades, and they said they would be willing to help. From that point, it went from a gut feeling to almost an obligation, with the time, support, and experience I have. Knowing that, it would have been a major regret not doing it.
What’s one of your biggest challenges?
The first two weeks are really a breaking-in period. As hard as you train, there’s really no way to prepare your body for 300-plus miles a week. It’s a delicate balance of pushing your limits but listening to your body and preserving your health and strength, because that’s the time frame you’re most likely to get hurt and compromise the rest of your record attempt. The first two weeks are the most important, and then there comes a point when your body will adapt to what you’re asking it to do.
Speed-hiking, or fast-packing, as it’s sometimes called, is all about getting from Point A to Point B as quickly as possible. How did you get into it?
I just love trying to be as efficient as possible. It happened very gradually. A lot of people don’t understand that I had close to 6,000 miles of backpacking experience before I tried a record attempt. This puts my love of nature and my knowledge of my body to the test, in a way, and it allows me to do the aspect of the sport that I loved the most – hike all day! I love moving through nature, and I’ll see these articles saying, ‘Oh, she’ll blow people off the trail.’ And I just laugh. People who see me on the trail will have no way to know I’m not a day hiker. I’m moving at a pretty good clip, but I’m not going as fast as a traditional trail runner, who’s out for an hour. I’ll be averaging about three miles an hour for the entire trail.
What are you most looking forward to about the experience?
The trail at this point has become a yearly tradition for me. It’s the time of the year when I’m able to recharge. I’m able to leave the very fast-paced day-to-day schedule of work and society and leave behind my cell phone and computer and spend time in a place that’s beautiful and renewing. You have a lot of time to think. It always amazes me that after a few days or weeks on the trail, you’ve done all this thinking and daydreaming, and your brain reaches this place of stillness – not emptiness, but peace. That’s something really special that I cherish. I always say it’s the cheapest therapy out there.
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