Many hikers planning to walk the entire Appalachian National Scenic Trail are already on the iconic path, having started out from Springer Mountain, Georgia, with intentions of reaching northern Maine in August or September.
While those hikers will be at times slogging through spring storms and muddy trails, Jennifer Pharr Davis will be at home in North Carolina putting the finishing touches on her gear and physical fitness. She won't be in a rush to hit the trail....until June, when she plans to hike from the trail's northern terminus atop Mount Katahdin to Springer Mountain in as few as 47 days.
Ms. Davis already has hiked the 2,180-mile A.T. end-to-end twice, and holds the women's speed record for thru-hiking the trail, having covered the distance in 57 days, 8 hours and 35 minutes back in 2008. Her first thru-hike in 2005 produced Becoming Odyssa, Epic Adventures on the Appalachian Trail, a book that laid bare much of her soul, at least the hiker within. This summer the book will be released in paperback form.
Many say hiking the A.T. end-to-end is a transformative experience, and for Ms. Davis her 2005 hike moved her from being a hiking neophyte to one who couldn't get enough trail miles under her feet. Not only has she hiked the Pacific Crest Trail end-to-end, but also Vermont's Long Trail, the Colorado Trail, up Mount Kilimanjaro in Kenya, and quite a few other trails.
Along the way not only has she grown as an individual and become as comfortable in the backcountry as if it were her living room, but she's parlayed her experiences into a career as a motivational speaker, guidebook author, and coach for those looking to train for either long-distance hikes or long-distance runs.
Her desire to eclipse the men's record for thru-hiking the A.T. brings up a few obvious questions, most revolving around whether her attempt has evolved from a desire to enjoy the backcountry of America's oldest long-distance trail to an athletic competition. After all, to surpass the men's record of 47 days, 13 hours and 31 minutes, she'll have to average 47 miles a day, no small accomplishment.
"I think in our modern-day society we tend to shy away from things that are hard or challenging. Things that we might not succeed at scare us," she replied when asked what's motivating her to chase the record. "But I believe that by pushing our limits we are able to refine ourselves and learn about ourselves in a positive manner, despite the outcome. We can never accomplish anything excellent or new unless we are willing to try new things and test our boundaries.
"I love being in nature. I love hiking slowly or running as fast as I can. The A.T. is an especially precious place for me, because I had a life-changing thru-hike on the path in 2005. In 2008, I loved setting the women's record with my husband's support; and I feel blessed - like I have been given a gift - to be able to have a similar experience once again."
Speed hiking, which requires one to rise before the sun and settle down for the night often long after it has set, can lead to blisters and sore muscles that never seem to get enough time to recover. While Ms. Davis' upcoming attempt will be somewhat easier than what the typical thru-hiker encounters because she'll have a support team -- including her husband -- to ferry her gear from hut to hut along the way, the sheer need to cover nearly 50 miles a day in a rugged landscape that's almost always going up or down reaches deep into her core and ignites something within.
"I know that I love pushing my limits on the trail... as if the more I pour out the more that I am able to learn and absorb," said Ms. Davis. "And by trying for a new, possibly better, record I will either: 1.) prove that there does not need to be a gap between the men's and women's record on the trail, 2.) improve on my previous time, 3.) finish the A.T. for a third time, or 4.) if nothing else - I will learn about myself and my limits while spending time on my favorite trail with my favorite person - my husband! All those scenarios sound good to me, and worthwhile!"
In her bid, Ms. Davis will have trail support from ultra-runner and former A.T. and Pacific Crest Trail speed-record-holder David Horton, as well as veteran A.T. expert Warren Doyle, as well as her husband, Brew Davis.
Asked whether speed-hiking the A.T. diminishes its significance as a foot path many spend months on, a landscape not to be dashed through, Ms. Davis said the approach is simply another way to enjoy the trail.
"Speed hiking is a different way to experience the trail. It is not better or worse than thru-hiking or section hiking. It is simply more concentrated," she said. "The A.T. is way too thru-hike centric. The trail was never created to be hiked all at once, and even though that has become a popular use of the route, that doesn't mean that it is the best or only way to enjoy the trail.
"I don't feel that my record hike is in any way better or more noble than the mom who takes her kids out to day-hike different portions of the trail near their house, she went on. "The trail is there to meet you where you are at. The purpose is to make it accessible to everyone that travels by foot - but that includes trail runners, speed hikers, and record setters. As long as you are respecting the trail, others, and yourself then you have a right to be on the famous foot path."
In the end, said Ms. Davis, the goal is not to tick off miles or chase a clock, but simply to take away something from the experience. How you decide to get that experience -- thru-hiking, section hiking, or speed-hiking -- in the end is largely irrelevant.
"The A.T. is there for every person, at every stage or life, and at every speed. After spending a day on the trail speed hiking I don't lose any sleep at night for not appreciating the trail or enjoying the path in a 'proper' manner," she said. "I love my time on the trail, and I always take something positive away from my time spent in the woods."
By going after the men's record, Ms. Davis hopes not only to learn a bit more about herself and to further cement her relationship with her husband -- "I know that we will grow in trust, communication and teamwork. Those traits not only serve us well on the trail, but in our marriage as well." -- but to raise people's awareness about the A.T. specifically and the outdoors in general.
"I hope to elevate awareness of the sport and the outdoors, and to get more people involved in sharing a similar passion," she said.