46 Days, 11 Hours, 20 Minutes
Breaking the Overall Appalachian Trail Record
A close family friend once told me, “If you don’t fail at something at least once, then you haven’t set your goals high enough.”
Photo courtesy Jenn Pharr Davis
Jennifer Pharr Davis is an ultra-runner and long distance hiker. She has completed over 11,000 miles on Long Distance Trails and she has traveled and hiked on six different continents. In the United States, Pharr Davis has completed the Appalachian Trail, Pacific Creset Trail, Long Trail, and Colorado Trail. In 2008, she became the fastest woman to travel the Appalachian Trail by finishing her trek in 57 days. This past summer, Pharr Davis went back to the trail and, with the help of her husband, she set the overall record, completing the journey in 46 days, 11 hours, 20 minutes—an averaging 46.93 miles per day.
A close family friend once told me, “If you don’t fail at something at least once, then you haven’t set your goals high enough.” I realized that failure was a huge possibility in returning to the Appalachian Trail (AT) for the overall record. And I didn’t care.
I hated the idea of not trying far more than the thought of not succeeding. I had finished my last AT hike with gas left in the tank, and no matter where my hike ended in 2011, I promised myself that I would leave the trail empty, unable to take another step. I wanted to know what it felt like to give 100 percent.
One day on a record attempt feels like an eternity. I told myself that the first two weeks of the trip would be the most painful fourteen days of my life. I was right.
The first four days of the trip were extremely difficult. My body was trying to cope with all the dull aches and sharp pains that come at the beginning. The bottom of my feet stung with each step, but I expected this. I knew that if I could work through it, I would then develop the desired numbness below my ankles that would last for the rest of the hike.
Despite the initial pain, I loved being back on the AT. The path felt familiar, and each day I looked forward to the upcoming terrain. On the morning of the fourth day, I was able to do something that I had always wanted to do. I forded the Kennebec. The wide river has a canoe ferry to help hikers across the fast-moving torrents – and for good reason. But with the help of my good friend and 16-time AT veteran, Warren Doyle, I crossed the river on foot. The water was chest high and even though the endeavor demanded a high level of exertion, I experienced a burst of energy upon reaching the opposite shore. I was experiencing the trail in a new way and I loved it.
I loved it, until day five, when I developed shin splints. I had never experienced shin splints before, and the pain was so intense that I was convinced I had stress fractures in both legs. Every step hurt. At times my legs would buckle beneath me, unable to support my weight. My hiking poles became crutches, and there were several times when I hiked down the trail sobbing because of the unbearable sensation in my lower legs. I knew that former record-holders had worked through shin splints, and I decided that I would try to do the same, at least until I was forced to crawl.
My shin splints stayed with me throughout the White Mountains, where I faced two straight days of sleet and rain. I fell countless times on the slick rocks, and at one point I looked at my leg and discovered there was more blue and purple than tan. When I finally reached Vermont hoping that softer terrain would heal my legs, I contracted a violent illness that forced me off-trail and into the bushes every half-mile. My body had not adapted to the challenge. I thought I was done.