Think you’ve had a busy summer? You won’t after you meet 30-year-old Jennifer Pharr Davis. In June and July of 2011, she hiked all
2,181 miles of the Appalachian Trail in 46 days, 11 hours and 20 minutes. With that accomplishment, the North Carolina native broke the previous record — set by a male runner — and proved that ladies can come first in outdoor expertise.
“It’s not big muscles and speed,” Davis says. “It’s intelligence, and adapting to nature, because you’re never in control on the trail.”
She recounts the hike in her new book, “Called Again: A Story of Love and Triumph,” which she’ll read from tonight at Politics and Prose.
For Davis, the journey started well before that moonlit moment atop Maine’s Mount Katahdin, the northern terminus of the trail. It began with her childhood, which she spent exploring mountains as well as her own physical peaks.
Years of tennis and basketball paved the way for her hiking exploits, Davis says. She learned how to work through obstacles on her own in singles matches and developed a “never-quit mentality” by chasing balls. When she started competing in marathons and triathlons, she discovered her passion for endurance.
“I did a marathon, but my limit wasn’t at the end. I did an Ironman, but my limit wasn’t at the end. I found my limit at the end of the Appalachian Trial,” says Davis, who completed her first trip along the length of the legendary path the summer after her college graduation.
After setting the women’s record on the trail in the summer of 2008, Davis was convinced she could go even faster. So she started seriously training, which involved hikes with heavy packs, core work and weightlifting. Davis added yoga to improve her flexibility and to counteract the stress she was putting on her body.
Part of her strategy was to stick with hiking rather than running — an unorthodox approach for the trail.
“I knew I’d have to put in longer days this way, but I wasn’t as likely to sustain an injury,” Davis says. “Hiking is relatively low-impact. It’s not a contact sport unless you fall, which I try not to do.”
Her theory was tested just days into the hike, when she was hobbled by excruciating shin splints. It’s a common woe for Appalachian Trail veterans, however, so Davis accepted the pain as a rite of passage.
“I thought as long as I got out there, my legs would eventually get better,” says Davis, noting that the setback forced her to pace herself.
Since giving birth eight months ago, Davis has been forced to slow down again. But she still has trail fever: Her new goal is to hike in all 50 states (and D.C.) with her husband and baby. It fits in with the mission of her North Carolina-based Blue Ridge Hiking Company, which specializes in guiding women and children, who tend to be less confident on trails.
“As they become more comfortable, they can go longer, and go by themselves,” Davis says.
Hot on the Trail
Jennifer Pharr Davis knows every inch of the Appalachian Trail, and she’s particularly fond of some of the parts where it winds near Washington. Most folks know about Harpers Ferry, where she had a book signing over the weekend, but that’s only one sight in what she calls “a walking museum.” There’s also a monument to George Washington that she thinks looks like a milk bottle (in Boonsboro, Md.) and the Bears Den Hostel (in Bluemont, Va.) in the middle of the 13-mile trail section nicknamed “The Roller Coaster.”
Buy an autographed copy of “Called Again” ($25, Beaufort Books) at 7 tonight at Politics and Prose (5015 Connecticut Ave. NW, politics-prose.com).