Pharr Davis thrives on trail
Imagine starting your workday at 5 a.m. and finishing at 9:30 p.m. But your work isn't sitting at a desk in an office -- it's hiking some of America's most difficult terrain, averaging more than 50 miles a day, through rain, wind, sleet and extreme heat. You'll also have to work on minimal sleep and consume 6,000 to 7,000 calories. For 46 straight days. No weekend breaks, no days off.
That was the summer of 2011 for now-30-year-old Jennifer Pharr Davis, who set a speed record for a supported thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail by finishing the 2,181-mile trail in 46 days, 11 hours and 20 minutes.
Historically, only men had accomplished the record setting. Davis broke the 2005 record set by Andrew Thompson, who had hiked the Maine-to-Georgia trail in 47 days, 13 hours and 31 minutes.
The Appalachian Trail, which originated in 1921, has become a popular destination for hiking enthusiasts. Davis, a former Ironman triathlete and collegiate tennis player, had hiked the entire trail twice before, setting a women's record for the fastest thru-hike in 2008, when she completed the trail in 57 days, 8 hours and 13 minutes.
But her new pace set the speed record for men and women. Supported along the way by her husband, Brew, as well as various friends, Davis began on Maine's Mount Katahdin on June 15 and finished on the summit of Springer Mountain in Georgia on July 31.
National Geographic named Davis one of its "Adventurers of the Year" in 2012. And this month, Davis released a book titled "Called Again: A Story of Love and Triumph," chronicling the adventures and emotions of her record-setting summer.
Davis resides in Asheville, N.C., with Brew and their 7-month-old daughter, Charley, and is the owner and founder of Blue Ridge Hiking Company. Davis, who is on a book tour, took time to speak to espnW after an appearance in New York City.
espnW: When was the very first hike you ever took? What do you remember about it?
Davis: I grew up in the North Carolina mountains and I have two older brothers, and my parents did a great job of taking us on day hikes when we were kids. I have early memories of hiking, and we went to an educational forest within Pisgah National Forest where we lived and one of the exhibits is a nature trail where you come to certain trees, push a button and a voice comes out talking as if it were the tree. I know that I was hiking at a very young age because I remember being convinced that it was the trees that were talking. It was disheartening when I was 4 or 5 and realized they couldn't talk. When I was little, my dad owned a summer camp, so being outdoors and being active and on trails was something that we were all familiar with as a family.
espnW: What other sports did you participate in as a child/teenager?
Davis: I played basketball very competitively, and I played tennis in college. One thing I think I've always felt about being in nature is that it's a very natural taste. I remember even in high school, being really stressed out with school and commitments and social engagements and then, going into the woods, you can go as fast or as slow as you want. It's restorative. Even when I was young, the wilderness offered not only adventure but also therapy and peace: a place to be alone with your thoughts. So many times, we're bombarded by life, noise, commitments and it's hard to just be quiet -- the woods provided a place for that.
espnW: When did you first hike any piece of the AT?
Davis: Besides a few required school backpacking trips, I really didn't do many overnights until after college when I decided to hike the entire AT. I was 21, had just graduated from college and I'd certainly never spent the night in the woods by myself before. Then I set out on this journey by myself (in 2005).
My reasoning was twofold; I wanted an adventure, to do something that you could only do as a 21-year-old. I thought I'd have a 30-year career and a family, so I wanted to do something special before then. I also had a lot of questions about what I wanted to do, where I wanted to go, what career path I wanted to follow, and I thought the AT is a pretty inexpensive place to be for four to six months and try to figure out some of those answers. So it was partly a stall tactic and partly an adventure. I just never thought it would be a long-term adventure or turn into a career.
espnW: Were you in the kind of shape you needed to be to hike the entire AT?
Davis: I'd played college tennis and stayed very active through that. On the side, I'd started doing marathons and triathlons. I'd always had an interest of pushing my limits and was intrigued by endurance. One of the best feelings I had growing up was being completely exhausted at the end of the day after playing outside all day. My last semester of college, I completed an Ironman triathlon that I'd trained for while playing college tennis. So I went to the trail thinking I was in good shape, and thinking, "It's just walking." Part of the reason I fell in love with the trail is because it was so extremely difficult, more difficult than the marathons and Ironmans I'd competed in. Not just physically but emotionally it was a new challenge, as well. It really helped me to learn and grow in so many ways. A lot of people talk about the trail healing them, but I feel like, the first time, it humbled me, which I probably needed. It was a completely new way to experience the world and my body.
espnW: Had you always been a writer? Did you journal at all during that first thru-hike, since your first book, "Becoming Odyssa," came out afterward?
Davis: I kept a very lengthy journal on that hike. I'd always journaled and liked writing. I never set out to write a book about the trail, but, when I got to the end, I'd had such a unique journey. Also the fact that I'd just finished 21 years of school and then gone to the woods for five months and learned what I felt like were just as many lessons that were just as important that no one had taught me in school -- I really wanted to write them down.
espnW: What did you learn during that time, especially concerning your life, future, etc.?
Davis: It's funny because, at the end of that hike, my mindset about my life and what the future would look like really hadn't changed. I was ready to get off the trail and get a job because I was dirty, tired and exhausted. I moved to Charlottesville, Va., and worked in a museum and had a great job, working with fun people. But several months passed and all I could think about was the trail. I missed it and I wanted to go back and felt like I still had more lessons to learn from it. I talked to my boss where I was working, and we worked out an agreement where I could work for most of the year and then take off time in the summers to hike. So for several years, I fell into this routine of working, saving time and money, and going off to hike. That allowed me to explore other trails and backpack in other places in the U.S. and around the world.
What changed everything was when I met Brew, my husband, in 2007, because then I moved [to Asheville, N.C.] and changed jobs. We started dating in 2007 and married in 2008. I started my company and then, in the spring of 2008, I obtained the LLC and it became official. At that point, it became very clear that my passion was hiking and I wanted to do something with that long term, so I started my company: Blue Ridge Hiking Company.
espnW: How much of your hiking talent is natural versus learned?
Davis: I think I'm naturally a fairly fast hiker. I've certainly met hikers who can keep a higher cadence or hike faster for shorter stretches, but I think that's what gets your mind thinking about things. I had so many hikers give me feedback like "You're really moving" or "You're putting in high-mileage days," and I just thought, "I'm doing what's natural." Having that endurance, it piques your imagination and you think, "What is my body capable of if I really pushed it -- what would that look like?"
espnW: How did you first decide to complete a thru-hike of the AT and try to set the women's record?
Davis: Pretty much on our first date, I told Brew that that summer I'd do the AT again. So he knew from the very beginning that it's what I wanted to do. It was more the "how" that changed. I thought I'd go out on my own and I was going to try to see how quickly I could hike from one end to the other. But then, as our relationship developed so quickly, we both felt like we didn't want to be apart for three months. Brew wanted to be helpful, and so, at that point, we decided to turn the hike into a supported endeavor, which was pretty cool because I'd heard about the overall record of supported hikes in the past but had never thought I'd have the opportunity to experience something like that. It happened very naturally. Because that's the way these overall records are set, we said, if we're doing it this way, we should establish a women's record on the trail.
The trail in 2008 was sort of this crash course in marriage, communication and working together. It was a pretty steep learning curve -- we hit a lot of bumps and obstacles and had to work through a lot of miscommunication and the different expectations of what the summer would look like. But because we had that summer and could work through those issues and iron out the kinks, when we went back in 2011, it went smoothly because we both already knew what our roles would be. The 2008 experience was really integral and an important part of our success later on.
espnW: Did your life change in any way after you set the women's supported record? What about when you decided to go for the overall record?
Davis: No, life didn't change. I had averaged 38 miles per day, and I think there was a general sense within the trail community of "Oh great, now there's a strong women's record out there." My feeling was, "It's about time" because the overall record had been talked about and established for five decades and it'd always been men.
But then it was shocking when we said we wanted to go for the overall record -- that's where we received a lot more criticism. Record-holders are often criticized for not doing the trail the "right way," i.e., not appreciating what they're passing on the trail. We also heard from people saying we were really prideful in thinking we could try to set it since it'd been set by men and elite athletes for the past 20 to 30 years. Even people who loved us and were trying be supportive were saying, "Won't it look bad if you fail because you already have the women's record -- can't you just be happy with that?"
espnW: So, if you were hearing so much criticism -- why go for the overall record?
Davis: At that point, it was very clear that I loved the trail and I wanted to have a lifelong relationship with it. But I also wanted to experience the trail in as many different ways as possible. Exploration for me had always been going new places and doing new things, but also exploring new personal limits. I wanted to see what I could do, to explore my endurance and my athletic potential on the trail. And also I wanted babies (laughs). I started to get baby fever, and I thought, "There's no way I'm setting a record with a baby," so it was clear that if it was something we'd try, it was now or never. Thankfully, Brew agreed to support me, so we went back and decided, "This is it," our one try at the overall record. For me, trying was one of the most important parts of that summer -- not living in fear, not letting the opportunity pass me by. So for me, it was less about the overall record and more about doing my best and knowing what my best was.
espnW: In writing "Called Again," had you kept a journal on the trail? It seems like there wasn't any time for one.
Davis: I used to keep a very detailed, written journal, and that changed when I married Brew. He became my living journal. He kept a journal that summer and wrote down a lot of what happened. But it was also such an intense experience that I never struggled to remember what happened. You feel so alive -- you're hurting, sore and aching, but you're always feeling something. Because of that, you're really alert and aware of your surroundings and cognizant of what's happening and able to retain that information for a long time.
espnW: As you talk about in your book, you endured a lot of physical and emotional struggles. Was there a point during your time on the trail when you thought, "I can't do this"?
Davis: In Vermont at Route 4 near Killington -- I'd had horrible shin splits and hypothermia, and I felt like that was it, my body was saying no more. In my head, I was done, and never in a million years did I think Brew would disagree with me. That was the only time on any trail when I've ever quit. I had every intention to leave at that point, and it was 100 percent Brew who kept me going and wouldn't let me quit. That, to me, is one of the most amazing gifts he's ever given me. He said that I felt too bad at that moment to make a good decision and that if I really wanted to quit, I had to wait a day and a half, take some medicine, eat food, drink water and see if that helps. And it only took 12 more miles until I started to feel a bit better, and I never thought about quitting again.
espnW: You talk a lot in your book about food and all that you ate while hiking, including when you ate an entire pie in one sitting. You don't look like someone who had a lot of extra weight before you started. How much did you eat and how much weight did you still lose?
Davis: Food is like a torture device because hiking 47 miles a day is hard enough. And then you're trying to get down 6,000 calories a day. Every hour, I needed a snack, every few hours I had to take in a meal and it's just not food, it's fuel. You're not enjoying it -- you're seriously shoving it in your mouth and following it with water, juice or Gatorade. Food is something that ideally should be enjoyed, but it's not, it's just like "ugh." I think I lost between 10 and 12 pounds. I didn't have a lot to lose to begin with, but, with that type of exertion, only losing 10 to 15 pounds isn't bad at all. Brew was very proud of himself because he felt like he kept my body weight at a healthy place during the hike.
espnW: Was there anything that surprised you this time around?
Davis: The level of focus was different than I'd experienced in the past. There was no room for anything besides the record. There was very little emotional wiggle room, so it was breakfast, lunch, dinner, sleeping, waking, gotta keep moving, keep going. I think that was illustrated really well when, in New York, Brew had to wake me up in the middle of the night in the tent because I was literally trying to break out to keep hiking. I even dreamed about hiking at night. There was never any rest until we got to the end.
The other thing I didn't anticipate is how painful shin splints are. I'd had a lot of injuries in the past, on and off the trail, and I thought I could work through almost any injury. Those shin splits were excruciating. There were times I'd take a step and my leg would give out and I'd fall to the ground. I'd never had an injury that hurt that badly for that long -- a lot of times, I just told myself, "I will keep walking until I have to crawl." And that was a big possibility. I thought I might have to crawl out -- but until I do, I'll keep hiking. I'd hike downhill backwards because downhill was the worst for shin splints. I was taping, icing, taking ibuprofen. I also told myself the shin splints were really aggravated in Maine and New Hampshire with a lot of rock. I knew Vermont had dirt and mud and reminded myself it was softer there, if I could just make it to Vermont.
espnW: How often were you thinking about the record?
Davis: Subconsciously, the record was always there -- always the focus and the goal. Consciously, the primary thought and mantra was "one more step, one more mile, don't worry about this afternoon or tomorrow" because it was too overwhelming. I was trying as much as possible to live in the present. Part of what's demoralizing is starting up north in the technical sections of Maine and New Hampshire, it's expected that you won't hit your daily average in those two states. So you're already behind when you get to Vermont. So it's not like getting to Vermont and thinking 46 miles a day every day, it's being behind and thinking to yourself, you have 12 more states and have to average 50 miles a day through 12 states. That's really daunting.
espnW: Because of how focused you needed to be each day, how aware were you of the rest of the world and what might be happening, as well as the people who wanted to track/follow your progress?
Davis: I was very aware of the emotions of our support group and team, but, beyond that, I didn't know who was paying attention and the outside world didn't seem to exist. It was just tunnel focus. I didn't know what was happening in the national news -- it was like the whole world went away except for the trail for 46 days. It was interesting to get off afterward and see how many people followed me on Facebook or had been getting in touch with Brew because he didn't share a lot of that with me and I never once looked at a computer that summer.
espnW: At what point during your hike did you think, "I'm going to do this. I'm going to set the record"?
Davis: One reason I love this book and one of the most important aspects is that it's a sports psychology book. When I started, I had to constantly tell myself that I belong, I have a shot and I am supposed to be out there. To go from trying to convince myself that I belonged and had the right to set the record to a few days within the finish thinking, "Oh my gosh, we might actually do this," it was a gradual process. There was never a moment until the Springer Mountain parking lot when it felt like "We will set the record." The week leading up, there were glimpses of disbelief that we might actually do this. But at no point was there certainty until we were a mile below the Springer Mountain summit and Brew and I walked up together hand in hand. The progression of convincing yourself and getting to the end and realizing you've done something that everyone thought was impossible is an amazing mental journey.
espnW: Did you have a favorite moment or favorite day?
Davis: There are two good days when you're trying to set a trail record: the first day and the last day. Emotionally, I love them both because the first day, you know you won't live with regrets, you will have an answer, one way or the other. And the last day, you get your answer. That's my favorite part. The time in Vermont, when I almost quit, that was my lowest point, but it's also the pivotal point because that's where the comeback started. Where my husband loved me so well and convinced me to keep going.
Hiking is great because it's a lifelong sport and you're outdoors, active, so whether you call that a sport or a hobby or a recreation, I think the wording -- it's a great way to get exercise, and it can be as challenging as you want to make it. I had the background of playing college sports and completing an Ironman, which a lot of people think that must be one of the most physically challenging races out there, and I remember -- on a traditional thru-hike before I even dreamt of the record -- thinking, "This is so much harder than an Ironman." So, to have those experiences and be able to compare is helpful. Our bodies are made to move, and moving down the trail is one of the oldest, natural ways people have used their bodies. Doing 45 miles a day for 46 days, whether you want to call it a sport or not -- you can't argue that it's not athletic. I don't think many people can do it.
espnW: Since you set the new overall record, has anyone tried to break your mark?
Davis: There's been a couple of people who've tried to break the record, but no one has succeeded yet. You hear murmurs and rumors about it. There's no official rulebook for this endeavor, so, when I set the record, or decided I wanted to, I contacted the then-current record-holder and said, "I want you to know this is something on my radar" because I think that's the polite thing to do. It doesn't mean that the next person will contact me beforehand. I'm the first woman to hold the overall record, and I think that changes it for some people. Maybe now there are guys who are more hesitant to try for the record because they don't want to not set the mark that a woman set. There's been a lot more activity for the unsupported record of late.
espnW: Now that you've set the Appalachian Trail record, what are your next goals, hikingwise?
Davis: With the book tour and with the baby, my goals now are to hike in all 48 continental U.S. states on family-friendly trails that we can do together, either overnights or day hiking. Our daughter, Charley, is getting close to 7 months old. She was born Nov. 13.
I'm not in nearly the shape I was before the baby. But the thing I love is that I certainly haven't had to give up hiking because of her. She's been hiking with me ever since she was a week or two old, so we can do it together. We can still get out and be active and be outdoors and feel like we're leading a healthy lifestyle.
espnW: What inspired you to write another book? Have you always been a writer?
Davis: I had written about my first hike, and that book took five years to get picked up and published. I also authored three North Carolina guidebooks and knew at that point that I loved to write and wanted it as part of my professional experience. Because I didn't journal on the trail, writing is one of the main ways that I process the experience. Just a few weeks after returning from the trail, when I felt rested, I started writing it down. Having worked with a publisher and having good relationships there, we decided we'd want it to be a book. It's been about two years from the day we started the trail that the book will come out. It's amazing how much has changed in those two years. I'm really proud of the book and excited to tell the story. It really shows the message that the trail is there for everyone and there's a lot of different ways to do it.