Forty-six days, 11 hours and 20 minutes — that’s how long it took Jennifer Pharr Davis to hike the Appalachian Trail in 2011. It took an average of 47 miles each day to break the previous record, set in 2005 by Andrew Thompson, who tackled the trail in 47 days, 13 hours and 31 minutes.
She’s the first woman to hold the record, and it earned her a spot on National Geographic’s Adventurer of the Year 2012 list.
You can meet the world-record holder during a couple of events in New Hampshire in May and June, where she’ll talk about her recently published book about the hike, Called Again, and also her first book, Becoming Odyssa.
Davis gives most of the credit for her record-setting hike to her husband, Brew. Davis’s was a supported hike, meaning that she didn’t carry all the equipment with her — her husband transported the food, the tent, the water and supplies via car, following Davis the entire way and meeting her when roads met with the trail. At one point, he convinced her not to quit when she’d fallen ill partway through.
“I honestly think our record has more to do with his support than my athleticism,” Davis said in a phone interview. “He took care of all my needs — he was my physical assistance while on the trail, and he provided emotional support whenever I was down or low. There was one time when I actually quit — I told him, ‘We’re finished, we’re going home.’ I didn’t think there was a discussion.”
He told her to give it another day and a half; if she still wanted to quit in 36 hours, they’d pack up and go.
“Clearly, after those few miserable hours and miles, I started to feel better. I no longer wanted to get off the trail. If it wasn’t for him, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have done it,” Davis said.
The 2011 hike was Davis’s third time on the trail. The first was in 2005, shortly after she graduated college, and the second was in 2008, right after marrying Brew. She finished the second hike in 57 days, a women’s record. It was a tremendous achievement, she knew, but she felt it could have been faster.
“I had something left. I knew I could do it in a shorter amount of time,” Davis said. “But it’s not a decision you make yourself. It’s a lot, asking my husband, who’s a schoolteacher, to help me out through the entire trail.”
For the second two hikes, Davis started in Maine and worked her way south. It’s the less-traveled route; most people start in Georgia and make their way north, often because for most people, it takes between four and six months to hike the whole thing, and in March, New England is covered in snow.
But Davis would only need a month and a half. This way, there would be fewer people on the trails and she’d be able to get through Maine and New Hampshire, the most difficult segments, while still fresh. Her days started before 5 a.m. and she hiked for 16 hours until after dark. There were no weekends, no days off; Brew followed her with food (sometimes restaurant food — she ate an average of 6,000 to 7,000 calories a day) and helped her get to the occasional shower. Each night, she slept on the trail for about six hours to save time.
Davis has a lot of experience long-distance hiking, and not just on the AT. She’s summited Mount Kilimanjaro, through-hiked the Pacific Crest Trail and Colorado Trail and set a women’s record on the Long Trail in Vermont. (She’s completed an ironman and a few ultramarathon events as well.)
She’s from North Carolina and grew up among the southern Appalachian mountains.
“It’s part of my heritage and who I am. I love the details of the Appalachian mountains, how old they are and how infinite they feel,” she said.
Davis and her husband are currently on a quest to hike in all 50 states during her book tour. They have a 1½-year-old daughter, Charley, who enjoys the hikes too.
“It’s funny, looking at the pictures when we finished,” Davis said. “They’re ugly pictures. I was crying, a total wreck, and I hadn’t showered in probably 300 miles. It’s one of those times in my life when it’s hard to explain how I felt. I had such a wide range of emotions. … There was a lot going on in that moment.”
As seen in the May 15, 2014 issue of the Hippo.