Jennifer Pharr Davis says she never set out be a speed hiker.
When she first hiked the entire Appalachian Trail in 2005 at the age of 21, she was mostly looking for an excuse not to get a job right after graduating from college.
But she soon found she had a natural proclivity for hiking fast.
“I have this inner thing where I just love going all day on the trail as hard as I can,” Davis said. “I just really, really like the hiking part.”
Some people write journals on the trail, others linger at trail shelters over a game of cards with fellow hikers. But for Davis, an Asheville resident, it was all about the hiking: the physical act of moving through the woods and covering ground.
Three years later and with several other long-distance trails under her belt, Davis returned to the AT to hike it once more, this time at a record-setting pace for women.
Davis, who lives in Asheville and was born and raised in Hendersonville, completed the 2,175-mile trail in 58 days — just five days behind the men’s record and 30 days faster than any other woman. Only five men have done the trail faster.
To make that kind of speed, Davis had help, of course. Her husband shuttled her gear between trailheads, meeting her each night at points where the trail intersected with roads with food, water and tent and clean clothes. Her devoted one-man support crew allowed Davis to drastically lighten her load compared to the average AT hiker. She carried a small daypack or some days just a hip pack packed with the barest essentials. She was also freed from housekeeping details like setting up and striking camp, restocking groceries or doing laundry.
“Trust me, I am paying him back, probably for the rest of my life,” Davis joked.
Plotting meet-up points often meant relying on backwoods forest service roads, which sometimes led to confusion. Occasionally, she would arrive at the designated spot only to find he wasn’t there. Perhaps she had arrived early, making better time than expected. Or maybe she arrived late, and her husband had gone ahead to the next meet-up point looking for her.
On one occasion, the road was washed out and Davis’ husband had to load gear into a pack and run in to find her. Another time, the road they pinpointed on a map didn’t actually exist.
Expecting these missed connections, both Davis and her husband carried surveyor’s tape and a Sharpie to leave messages.
The thought of her husband waiting at the trailhead, often playing the guitar while he waited for Davis to show up, was one of the strongest motivators pulling her along the trail each day. The two had been married just days before embarking on the trip.
“I was crazy in love with my husband. I wanted to get to him as quickly as possible,” Davis said.
Of course, Davis also looked forward to the food he had waiting. At Davis’ record-breaking pace, she burned 4,000 calories a day, which meant she had a lot of consuming to do.
“If you are eating that much every day it becomes a job,” she said. “Honestly, I got sick of chewing.”
Davis defends her fast hiking to critics who question how much communing with nature one can honestly do at that pace.
“People say you didn’t appreciate it, you didn’t stop to smell the roses, you didn’t see the same things that people see when they hike slowly,” Davis said. “That’s not true.”
Davis ran some, but mostly just walked fast. She averaged 3 miles an hour, still a brisk pace considering the terrain and the inevitable bathroom breaks.
But by striking out at dawn and hiking through dusk, and moving quietly without companions, she saw more wildlife on her speed hike than three years earlier when she hiked at a standard pace — including 30 bears, compared to none on her 2005 hike.
Her final days on the trail became a whirlwind, however. Her husband, Brew, is a middle school teacher in Asheville and had to return home for the start of the school year. So two veteran AT hikers pitched in as a support crew in the final days. One of the trail greats enlisted was David Horton, the men’s record holder on the AT who completed the journey in 52 days after four tries. The other was Warren Doyle, who has thru-hiked the AT 15 times, more than anyone else.
She covered 205 miles her last four days, largely due to a perhaps overly encouraging support crew.
“What I remember is getting to the meet-up point just to see them drive off and say see you at the next road,” Davis said. She got in the car after finishing the trail and promptly fell asleep.
Davis doesn’t discount the possibility of another record hike, perhaps even going after the men’s record. Once the AT is in your blood, it’s hard to shake, she said. Not that she didn’t try after her first hike back in 2005. When she’d reached the summit of Mount Katahdin, which marks the end of the Appalachian Trail in Maine, she vowed never to repeat it.
“I climbed up that mountain and said ‘This has been a good experience. I am glad I did it, but I am never going to do it again — not even an overnight.’ Maybe a day hike but that was it,” Davis said.
She got a job doing marketing and special events at the Ash Lawn-Highland museum home of James Monroe, the fifth president, in Charlottesville, Va. But she soon found the trail calling.
“I was missing the simplicity of it. I was missing having everything I needed just on my back. I missed the self-reliance, looking to myself and depending on myself to make it through every day,” Davis said.
Davis, who graduated from Samford University in Birmingha, Ala., and played college tennis, also realized how much multitasking was involved in normal life.
“On the trail all I had to do was hike. It was so simple and I missed it,” Davis said.
Over the next three years, she hiked Mount Kilimanjaro, the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail, the 600-mile Bibbulmun Track in Australia, the Inca Trail in Peru, and the 272-mile Long Trail in Vermont.
She worked in between trips but always with the next hike in mind.
“I just worked to hike and worked to hike,” Davis said. “Obviously by this point it was becoming an addiction.”