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'One record down, one to go'

Last modified: 11/14/2010 12:00:00 AM
Appalachian Trail women's speed record holder Jennifer Pharr Davis is preparing for another AT milestone.

The author of the new book Becoming Odyssa: Epic Adventures on the Appalachian Trail looks to best the men's record during a Maine-to-Georgia trek beginning in June.

'I love it,' she said by phone. 'That's the only reason to do it. It hurts too much, takes too much time and costs too much money. If you don't love it, don't do it.''

Pharr Davis loves the AT. At 21, she solo thru-hiked it in 2005 complete with a backpack of self-doubt, aches and blisters. But the Asheville, N.C., athlete/writer completed it in a coming-of-age journey chronicled in the book. She grew and morphed into a successful trail runner who logged the women's fastest unsupported time of 7 days, 15 hours and 40 minutes along Vermont's 272-mile Long Trail in 2007.

In 2008, she averaged 38 miles per day with no rest days to complete the AT from Katahdin to Springer Mountain in 57 days, 8 hours and 35 minutes. She was supported by her husband, Brew.

Now the 27-year-old is eyeing the men's record of 47 days, 13 hours and 31 minutes.

'Training is the easy part,' she says. 'Everyday life is the hard part.'

Pharr Davis runs with a backpack filled with logs and extra water. She also incorporates her love of ultra hiking and running into her work as a writer currently working on hiking guidebooks for North Carolina.

She's hiked in six continents, including a Pacific Crest thru-hike and Kilimanjaro summit.

Next summer she'll begin her AT quest in the states she considers the toughest.

'When I think of New England, I think of Maine and New Hampshire and they kicked my butt every single time,' she said. 'Starting a record hike up there allows you to do the toughest sections first. It is a big confidence boost to reach Vermont. Vermont feels more mild.'

Vermont touched her heart as she and Brew spent a portion of their 2007 honeymoon there sampling ice cream, maple syrup and cheese.

Romance aside, the region is tough on long-distance hikers.

'Every day I spent in New England was like a fight,' she said. 'I was bruised and bleeding somewhere. You have to pray for good weather. A bad storm in Maine or New Hampshire can have an impact on the rest of your trip.'

In 2008, Pharr Davis remembers hiking Mount Moriah with a thunderstorm nearby and tackling Mount Washington in the fog. Maine's 100-Mile Wilderness wasn't as remote as she expected, but she was thrilled to stumble upon a number of moose.

Even as an ultra hiker, Pharr Davis experiences plenty of animal encounters. On the trail by 6 a.m. and often hiking until around 9 p.m., she saw some 30 bears during her record run compared to zero during her 2005 thru-hike.

'When you hike earlier and stay out later on a record hike, it's more quiet and I felt a lot more immersed in nature than on the thru-hike,' she said.

Not only is the feat a physical challenge, but a mental one, too.

'It is such a mental challenge,' she said. 'You can't rest until you've achieved it. It is just as taxing mentally as physically. You are really immersed in nature and almost never leave the trail.'

While on the AT, Pharr Davis has experienced the trail magic - kindness of strangers - that comes with it. But while on a record hike, she'll leave the provisions and offers of hospitality from trail angels to the thru-hikers. She's supported. However, people have contacted her to help during record runs and sometimes they connect.

'I really appreciate the trail angels,' she says. 'Hiking the trail is a solitary experience. You have to be your own cheerleader. They make hiking easier.'

Pharr Davis is a unique AT hiker, having experienced it as a thru-hiker and record holder. She hopes to hike it one day with the children she'd like to have.

'The Appalachian Trail is for everyone,' she said. 'Whether you take six months to do it with a full backpack or do it in sections or even do it as day hikes with someone meeting you, you can do it. The trail builds self-esteem and self-confidence.'

She knows all about it.

(Marty Basch can be reached through onetankaway.com.)


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