Jennifer Pharr Davis August 01, 2010 TWEET COMMENTS 0

The Long Lonesome: 38 Miles per Day, 57 Days - Page 2

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,”
I replied.

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.


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