Record-breaking hiker Jennifer Pharr Davis, Photograph by Alex Minkin
Take a Hike
Record-breaking hiker Jennifer Pharr Davis shares her love for the trail
Interview by Eric Crews
Among the regions countless devotees of outdoor pursuits, perhaps none are more lauded than Jennifer Pharr Davis. The Asheville-based author and hiker broke the speed record last fall for conquering the 2,181-mile Appalachian Trail, and was named one of National Geographic’s Top 10 Adventurers of 2011. To mark the recent release of our June Travel & Outdoors issue, we caught up with Davis to talk about her record-breaking trek, challenges, and advice for would-be hikers.
Q: Last year you hiked the Appalachian Trail in just 46 and a half days, breaking a record that many elite athletes have attempted. What motivated you to give it a shot?
A: It was actually my third time to complete the AT and there were several motivating factors that made me want to try for the overall record. I like to think it was 50 percent passion—wanting to test my limits, wanting to know what my best was, and never having to look back and wonder ‘what if?’ The other 50 percent was very practical. I love the trail and I want to be out there as much as possible. I don’t have quite as much time as I used to between my business and marriage, so I decided to just do it a little faster.
Q: During the course of your journey, you averaged about 47 miles per day. How low were the low points and how did you push through those periods and stay motivated?
A: The low points were very low. I struggled with a lot of obstacles, including illness and injury. The one thing that saw me through those valleys was my love for the trail, my love for hiking, and my husband’s support. He always believed in me even if I didn’t believe in myself. I feel like it’s just as much his record as my own.
Q: Did overcoming those challenges make the high points that much sweeter?
A: I have a lot of really great memories from last summer. Because I was giving so much of myself each day, I appreciated those wildlife encounters, gorgeous views, and the inspiring scenery all the more.
Q: What was it like coming down the final stretch and realizing you would most likely break the record?
A: I don’t think I really expected that we would break the record until I was literally a mile from the finish. I just started crying. My husband was there and, for the first time all summer, we just let go, eased up our focus, and embraced the moment. I definitely did a lot of crying. It was a beautiful experience. We had a lot of friends and family at the end to meet us. It’s a memory I will never forget.
Q: What advice would you give people who are looking to get outdoors and achieve their own goals?
A: Always approach the wilderness and trails on your own terms. There are no rules and everyone can appreciate it at every phase of life. Just go out there and customize the experience.
Jennifer Pharr Davis is the author of Becoming Odyssa, a coming-of-age story based on her first AT thru-hike, and Five-Star Hikes—Asheville. Her business, Blue Ridge Hiking Co., offers custom treks.