Jennifer Pharr Davis possesses an appropriate name for the task she just completed. Perhaps she’s got the right name for her life as well.
On July 31, Jennifer became the fastest person to travel the 2,181-mile distance of the Appalachian Trail through the eastern United States. She traveled close to 47 miles each day, every day, finishing the distance in 46 days, 11 hours, and 20 minutes. I’d be remiss without mentioning here that this new record surpassed both the women’s supported speed record—which was her own, set at 57-plus days in 2008—and the men’s record, which stood at 47-plus days. This summer, Jennifer traveled Pharr. Er, far.
I interview Jennifer on a Thursday afternoon at Salt Lake City’s Outdoor Retailer show. It’s, to the hour almost, four days after she completed her journey atop Georgia’s Springer Mountain, the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail, in the company of her husband, family, and a large group of friends. When we meet, she stands like a willow, lanky and tall. Every part of her body communicates fatigue, though, from her rounded shoulders to her slow walking gait. When she speaks, she’s lively, vibrant, and just plain goofy. Her body may be deeply tired, but her mind is firing on all cylinders.
My first question for her is probably the worst kind, intangible and far-reaching, but I just have to know how she’ll answer when I ask how she did it. Jennifer laughs, looks to her husband, and replies, “It was equal parts my hard work and that of Brew and the rest of my crew.” The couple exchanges love-y eyes, then giggles at her rhyme before she continues, “I almost quit in Vermont. Brew got me through that and everything else.” What Jennifer is saying is that she almost gave up on the effort early along the trail that stretches between Maine and Georgia.
“I was sick. And being ill made me so tired.” I ask Brew how he kept her in the game and he says, “I told her to get through the sickest days. Then, when she was well, if she still felt like quitting, she could.” Jennifer picks up where Brew leaves off, “And I felt fine after I got over that stomach issue.”
During her record attempt, Brew kept a blog (link:http://jenniferpharrdavis.tumblr.com) at which folks could get updates on Jennifer’s trail progress. I followed along with his posts, noticing that she was eating some wild stuff out on the trail. Two big hamburgers for a snack? You betcha. Chicken sandwiches from McDonalds? Down the hatch! I ask her about food and how she fueled this continuous attempt, “Calorie-dense foods saved me. I was eating 7,000 calories a day. That’s a lot of chewing.”
As we talk, a brief thunderstorm passes over. Fat raindrops splat on our shoulders and Jennifer says, “It’s just like the trail!” This is Mother Nature’s cue, I guess, to ask her about all those singletrack days. “To make it happen, I was on the trail by 5am every morning. If all went well, I finished by 9 p.m. or 10 p.m. at night to sleep. I stopped at road crossings along the way with my crew to eat. Those weren’t breaks, though. I used that time to stuff as much food in my mouth as I could.” When I ask about her experiences with nature, and she’s talking before I finish the question. “I love that trail,” she begins, “I love just walking, and walking, and being a part of it. Of seeing the deer and the bears and whatever else comes by.”
It must take serious motivation to go as far and long as Jennifer did. I inquire about what kept her going, “It wasn’t the big picture. That would have killed me to think about every day. On the trail, I thought about little accomplishments like one stretch of trail or one day. Or, maybe, if a friend was coming to hike with me soon, I’d think a couple days into the future.”
I pause, still wishing for the big-picture answer. I mean, a person’s got to be seriously driven to go hard for more than 46 days. When I wait long enough, she smiles affectionately and indulges me, “I thought that, if nothing big went wrong, I could probably do it. I thru-hiked the whole trail in four months as a 21-year-old. There, I made all the big mistakes and learned about my physical and mental capabilities. Then, in 2008, I broke the women’s supported record. At that time, I knew I could break the overall record. Only time showed that I would break it.”
Celebration after an endeavor as large as this, I imagine, must be huge. She tells me about hers, “We had a big party on Springer Mountain. Lots of my family and friends came out to support me, hiked up the mountain to be at the spot the trail ends.” Jennifer’s words trail off and I see in her eyes that her mind is back at that mountaintop moment. Brew fills in the quiet, “After we got home, she just slept. And did nothing. A lot of both for a couple of days.”
But, on the day we meet in early August, the pair is in the throes of a whirlwind press tour. When a lady does something bigger, faster, or better than all the girls and the boys, the world pays attention. Jennifer’s journey isn’t ending with the conclusion of her record-setting hike, though. She’s motivated by what she calls a higher goal. “I do this to inspire others. People don’t need to break records or do some sort of epic trip, but maybe they can set and break a goal that’s meaningful to them, like their first running race, their first backpacking trip, or their first hour in a wild place. I want to motivate others to go for it.”
After our time together is up, I shake hands with Brew first, then Jennifer. Her six-foot frame towers over me and her handshake is firm. The two of them walk away with that same, slow gait. She may be tired, but this girl is a mover and shaker. Though her record attempt is over, I’m certain that Jennifer Pharr Davis will keep going far.
Photo 1- Jennifer Pharr Davis set the record for the fastest supported hike of the Appalachian Trail on July 31 (photo courtesy of Jennifer Pharr Davis).
Photo 2- Jennifer hiked an ultramarathon a day for 46-plus days on the technical and rocky Appalachian Trail in order to set the record (photo courtesy of Jennifer Pharr Davis).
Photo 3- Jennifer Pharr Davis poses with her husband, Brew, atop Springer Mountain after she completed her hike (Barbara V. Pharr photo credit).