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Jennifer Pharr Davis on love, death and getting struck by lightning on the Appalachian Trail
Photo by Maureen Robinson
The night of June 20, 2008, I tossed and turned in my sleeping bag, rubbing up against the walls of my tent pitched at the base of Mount Katahdin (5268 feet), Maine’s highest peak and the northern terminus of the historic Appalachian Trail, a 2175-mile foot path stretched between Maine and Georgia. I lay awake, anticipating the sound of the 3:30 a.m. alarm marking the start of my Appalachian Trail (AT) speed-record attempt.
Many people thought of my record attempt as a run, while others saw it more as a hike. In truth, it would be both. Rather than classifying myself a hiker or a runner, I simply try to move like a deer—regardless of whether I am running or walking—moving gracefully and efficiently through the woods.
The previous fastest women’s time for hiking the AT from end to end (known as thru-hiking) was set 15 years ago by Jenny Jardine, who completed the colossal trek with her husband in 87 days. Most hikers spend only a weekend or week on a small section of the trail, which passes through 14 states and six national parks.
Over the previous three years, I had accomplished several long-trail thru-hikes, all solo adventures, starting with an AT thru-hike in 2005 as a 21-year-old. Ever since that life-changing, five-month adventure, I planned to return and set the women’s speed record in an entirely self-supported fashion—meaning I would receive no outside aid, carry all my camping equipment and purchase food at towns along the trail.
As I was preparing for my AT record attempt, an unexpected encounter impacted both my life and hiking plans. After I was introduced to my brother’s friend Brew Davis, a school teacher in Asheville, North Carolina, love quickly blossomed and five months later, we were engaged. Ten months later, we were married.
Brew’s job gives him summers free and, as newlyweds, we didn’t want to be apart for months, so decided he would support me during the AT speed-record attempt, which would put it in the “supported” category.
Brew would meet me wherever the trail intersected a road to replenish my daypack with food and supplies, saving me from carrying a heavy backpack and letting me move more swiftly.
Most thru hikers begin their journey in April, starting at the AT’s southern terminus at Springer Mountain, Georgia. But I started in June from the opposite end, in Maine, so that I could take advantage of summer’s longest days on the AT’s most difficult terrain, between Maine in New Hampshire.
Few people would choose to leave their family and the comforts of home for half a year to hike a long-distance trail through extreme weather with a heavy backpack and blisters on their feet. And almost no one would go back to that same long-distance trail with the goal of finishing it in less than two months. By the age of 26, I had done both.
Relieved when the alarm finally sounded, I emerged from the tent knowing I would cover a mountainous 45 miles before I would get to return to my tent’s cozy comfort. And that tomorrow I’d get up and face a 43-mile day. And so it would go for nearly eight weeks.
Brew and I watched the sun rise over the distant mountains as we hiked to the top of Mount Katahdin. My feet traveled quickly over the rocky terrain, but even faster were the overwhelming and anxious thoughts swarming my mind. This would be the hardest physical challenge I had ever faced and I worried about not finishing in two months—or worse—that I would get hurt and not finish at all.
“How do you feel?” Brew asked.
“I am excited, but scared. I keep wondering what we have gotten ourselves into.”
“We’ll find out together,” he said reassuringly. “After all, it’s too late to turn back now.”
Doubt lingered as I reflected on the past two years’ preparation, during which I ran a handful of ultramarathons, each time with the goal to merely finish. I was never the fastest woman and always took time off from running after each race. I thought that the men and women who consistently win trail ultras should be trying to set an AT record, not me.
And I was right. In a few weeks, the ultrarunning legend Karl Meltzer, who has won an unprecedented 29 100-mile races, was coming to Mount Katahdin to try to break the men’s record of 47 days. Realizing that I was attempting something similar to the great Meltzer psyched me out. Was I out of my league?
A chance encounter during my first AT thru-hike in 2005 also made me question my readiness. One rainy day while hiking down The Priest, a mountain in central Virginia, I felt completely isolated on the mist-shrouded mountain. I had encountered no one in 48 hours. Then a rustling sound startled me. At first I thought it was a bear, but then a man wearing short shorts came running out of the mist. “Here I am struggling to hike downhill and this man is running up the mountain?” I thought. When the tall, muscular figure looked up and saw me, he pushed a button on his giant wristwatch and slowed to a stop.
“Ya thru-hiking?” he asked enthusiastically with a charming southern accent.
“Yep, I’m going to Maine. Are you a runner?”
He laughed. “Yeah, you could say that. I like to run. And I really like to run on trails.”
“Have you done any races?”
He laughed again. “A few.”
“How far do you go?”
“Oh, 30, 50 or 100 miles usually.”
At the time, I couldn’t imagine running 50 or 100 miles at once. I was in awe of the discipline such a feat would require.
“Well, don’t let me hold you up,” I said.
“All right.” He restarted the machine on his wrist and resumed the uphill grind. Before rounding the next switchback, he looked back and yelled, “By the way, my name’s David Horton. Have a good hike.”
David Horton? David Horton? DAVID HORTON!
My jaw dropped. David Horton was the Michael Jordan of trail running. He had won countless races—and, in 1991, set an Appalachian Trail Record of 52 days 13 hours 31 minutes.
When I arrived at the mountain’s base I took a picture of his truck in the gravel parking lot. I assumed it was his truck because it sported several ultramarathon stickers. After finishing the trail, I sent Horton that picture, and since then we have been friends.
Pharr Davis raises funds for trail conservation and promotes outdoor recreation through her company, Blue Ridge Hiking Company.
In 2006, Horton invited me to run one of his races, the Promise Land 50K in Lynchburg, Virginia. I had never run more than a marathon and wondered if I would finish within the 10-hour time limit. But there I discovered that ultrarunning was a lot like hiking except that you don’t carry a pack, you can run the hills and there are aid stations along the way.
Shocking myself with a finishing time of seven hours, I decided that I loved ultrarunning, particularly spending an entire day in the woods surrounded by a supportive community. The problem was, though, it wasn’t enough. After seven hours, I wasn’t ready to leave the woods and my fellow runners, and return to sitting behind a desk on Monday morning. I wanted to live on the trails. I had no choice but to do another long-trail thru-hike.
“If you liked the AT, then you should do the Pacific Crest Trail,” said Horton when I asked him about other great American trails.
“But, David, that’s 400 miles longer!” I replied.
“You’re right, you’re probably too much of a sissy for that trail,” he said with a knowing smile.
So I saved my money, and, in 2006, took four months off from my museum marketing job to hike the 2663-mile Pacific Crest Trail from the Canadian border to the Mexican border. I finished feeling more in love with the trails than ever.
From that point forward my life followed a well-defined pattern of working and trail running, carefully saving my money for the next long trail. In 2007 and 2008, I traveled to Africa’s Mount Kilimanjaro, South America to hike the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu and Australia, where I traveled the hot, dusty, 620-mile Bibbulmun Track.
By the end of 2007, long-trail hiking had furnished me with considerable physical strength and endurance, though my trail runs were usually only between three and seven miles. Regardless, I entered my first 50-miler, the Mountain Masochist in Lynchburg, Virginia, that November, another of Horton’s popular trail races.
Surging through the final five miles of the Mountain Masochist, I passed a runner who called out, “With that much left, you should have gone faster in the beginning!” When I crossed the finish line in 9 hours 41 minutes 21 seconds, I was tired but could have kept going. I didn’t want to go faster; I wanted to go further. The race confirmed my suspicion that my gift was not speed but endurance.
Of course, a single-day race is far different than a multi-week expedition. Besides superior fitness, a long-trail speed record requires emotional fortitude, intelligence, familiarity with the terrain and a love of the trail. No matter how well I had prepared my body, if my heart longed to be elsewhere, I would have quit after one week. Having Brew’s support let me focus on my goal instead of yearning to be home with my family.
Other important elements are mental strength and perseverance. With no crowds along the trail to cheer me on, I had to fill each day with positive self-talk and encouragement. There was little room for mental lapse because if I stopped moving for even one afternoon, the record could fall out of my reach.
And if nothing else, I wanted to break the women’s AT speed record to inspire other women. Jardine had set her record in 1993 while carrying a backpack and receiving no outside support. No woman had challenged it since, whereas men were attempting a new record every few years (the current men’s time is 47 days 13 hours 31 minutes, set by Andrew Thompson in 2005).
When Brew and I touched the brown wooden sign on top of Mount Katahdin, it felt good to be back after three years.
“I’ll see you tonight,” said Brew.
“Right, I’ll see you in 40 miles,”
Then I turned to begin my long journey to Georgia. I looked back several times until Brew was out of view, then focused on the trail ahead and laughed out loud with nervous excitement. I did not know what adventures and hardships awaited me, but if this AT thru-hike was anything like the first, it would include both moments of both horror and empowerment.
The first two weeks of the speed-record attempt were the hardest. The trail from Maine to New Hampshire was saturated with rain and snow melt, it rained constantly and, when it wasn’t raining, the air was humming with black flies and mosquitoes. There were few places where the trail intersected a road, so at times I saw Brew only once a day or not at all. Midday breaks were few, but occasionally I stopped early so we could go to a nearby town for a large meal, shower and motel stay.
I would start the day as soon as it was light enough to see, and stop when it was dark. Even still, some days I was unable to reach the day’s mileage goal before nightfall and had to continue in the dark, in which case Brew would accompany me.
At each day’s end, my bruised and scratched arms and legs made it I look as though I had been in a fight. My ankle was the size of an orange and mud was everywhere. I often awoke in the middle of the night in fits of pain, my legs twitching in discomfort. In the morning, I dreaded leaving the tent. The pain, which was worst first thing in the morning, made me want to plunk down in the middle of the trail and cry.
At those low moments, I recalled the profound experiences from my first AT hike—those that taught me I was stronger than I thought.
The most intense of those moments occurred on New Jersey’s Sunrise Mountain. As the morning sun peeked over the horizon, I approached an open-air pavilion on the summit. That’s when I saw the body of a young man hanging from a rope tied to the rafters. Nothing was between his feet and the cement floor except three feet of air. My stomach churned as I ran back down the trail. What had I just seen? Was it really a suicide? Could it have been a murder or someone playing a sick practical joke?
I took out my cell phone and called the police. Between short, panicked breaths, I mumbled an explanation of what I had seen. A half hour later, policemen stood beside me, asking questions and handing me Kleenex with which to wipe my tears.
“What do you want to do?” asked the police chief.
“I want to keep hiking,” I said without hesitation.
I grieved the suicide and asked why God would let me come upon such a horrific scene. At first I thought that being alone would amplify these negative feelings, but being alone actually helped. I didn’t have to repress my emotions in order to be socially acceptable. I could cry, dwell on my thoughts and speak out loud to God. With no friends or family around, I sought comfort in creation. I found hope in each new sunrise, beauty in the kaleidoscope of wildflowers and peace in a young fawn wrapped around her mother’s leg.
Pharr Davis reached the plaque marking the AT’s terminus at Springer Mountain, Georgia, in 57 days 8 hours 37 minutes. Photo by Maureen Robinson.
As my internal unrest subsided, I felt compelled to turn my attention outside of myself and seek out the company of other trail users. Instead of asserting my independence by staying always alone, I realized that independence meant fully being myself in the presence of others. Putting aside my insecurities and fears of being judged, I reached out to make new friends.
I developed connections with adults twice my age, including extreme liberals and argumentative conservatives, some who had never graduated high school and others with Ivy League degrees. By the end of the hike, I had befriended a Michigan retiree and two college graduates from New England with whom I had nothing in common—except for being on the AT at the same time.
On that same trip, during a particularly bone-chilling downpour, I sought cover under a crowded three-sided wooden lean-to brimming with men. Stepping outside to discreetly change into some dry clothes behind the shelter, I huddled next to its sloping wall, struggling to pull my wet clothes over my head. That’s when it happened. I was struck by lightning.
The lightning hit the shelter’s roof and bounced over to me, sending a sharp, momentary pain coursing through my entire body, out my toes and into the ground. But by the time I realized what had happened, the pain had disappeared. I wiggled my toes and counted my fingers to make they were intact. Aside from a burning sensation in my ears, I felt OK. I was suddenly overcome with excitement. I had survived a lightning strike! At 21, I’d considered myself invincible, and after that, I began to think I really was.
While that experience gave me confidence, other events on the AT pointed to my vulnerability as a female solo hiker. I wanted to believe I was safe, but my thoughts often turned to 24-year-old Meredith Emerson, who, in early 2008, was hiking on a trail near the AT in northeast Georgia when she went missing. Within days of her disappearance, her kidnapper and murderer, Gary Michael Hilton, was caught.
Hilton was linked to multiple other trail murders, usually single women and elderly hikers. But Meredith stopped him. It cost her her life, but by physically fighting back, refusing to cooperate and giving him incorrect PIN numbers for her debit cards, Meredith left a trail of evidence that made it possible for authorities to track down and capture Hilton. She is a hero who saved many lives—perhaps even mine.
On July 3rd, 2008, after 14 days on the trail, I reached Hanover, New Hampshire, where the trail transitioned from the steep, rocky White Mountains to easier footing and gentler climbs. My body was adapting such that I no longer awoke in the middle of the night in pain, and with the effort required to hike 30 miles a day north of Hanover, I could now comfortably cover 40 to 45 miles.
More frequent road crossings meant I saw Brew more often and could carry less gear on my back. Also by this time, he and I were more comfortable in our roles of athlete and support crew.
“I am so glad that we are able to do this together,” I said to Brew as he handed me a banana.
“What do you mean?” he asked.
“Not many newlyweds can leave their friends, family and jobs and spend this much time together.”
Lifting his gaze from the road atlas, Brew asked, “Couldn’t we have done that on the beaches of Fiji?”
As hard as the thru-hike was for me, it was almost as difficult for Brew. One time in Vermont, a washed-out road left him no choice but to run several miles to hand deliver my supplies. In Massachusetts, a road listed in our guidebook did not exist, and again Brew ran in on an alternate trail to find me. He was responsible for all our supplies and food, calculated each day’s mileage and averages and, besides driving double the number of miles I hiked, he hiked with me an average of 10 miles a day.
Brew was also my emotional “I.V.,” forcing me to eat when I wasn’t hungry, encouraging me when I felt weak or disheartened and tolerating my childlike irrationality, which always surfaced around 8 p.m. when I was overcome with exhaustion.
After finishing over half the trail and crossing the Mason-Dixon line along the Pennsylvania-Maryland border, the trail finally offered a gentler grade and less rocks, making it possible to run much of the downhill and flat terrain.
As we approached the Smoky Mountains, Brew had to return home to start the school year, and taking his place for the final five days were three 60-year-old men: Warren Doyle, who had hiked the Appalachian Trail 14 times, David Horton and my father, Yorke Pharr.
The four of us worked together to push me to the trail’s end. Horton was the legs, Warren was the head and my dad was the heart. Horton hiked and ran with me as much as possible, while Warren’s unsurpassed knowledge of the AT aided our logistical strategy, and my dad anticipated my emotional and caloric needs with special treats from TCBY and Subway.
“How do you expect to react when you reach the end?” Warren asked.
“Five dollars says that she is going to cry with tears of exhaustion and joy,” responded Horton.
“I don’t know that she’ll be ready to stop,” said my dad. She has been hiking every waking hour of the past two months. I doubt she knows how to do anything different.”
“Well, Jen, regardless of how you physically react, I know it will be a deeply introspective moment for you,” concluded Warren.
My last full day I covered 65 miles. Surprisingly, despite the preceding 47-, 49- and 48-mile days, it didn’t hurt that much. The next day I walked up the final mountain with Brew by my side and friends and family behind us. By averaging 38 miles a day, I completed the AT in a new women’s record of 57 days 8 hours 37 minutes.
At the trail terminus on Springer Mountain, Horton cried, Warren was introspective and Dad lingered longer than the rest of us. I personally experienced no flash of light or great epiphany. I had reached deep within myself to get there, but at the finish my feelings were simple. I was tired, I was happy and I was ready to go home.
Jen Pharr Davis has traveled more than 8000 miles of trails in North America, including the Pacific Crest Trail, Vermont’s Long Trail, the Colorado Trail and the Appalachian Trail and holds three speed records. Her Appalachian Trail memoir, Becoming Odyssa, is due out in October. Pharr Davis resides in Asheville, North Carolina, with her husband, Brew Davis, and is the founder of Blue Ridge Hiking Company. This article originally appeared in our August 2010 issue.