At 3:26 p.m. on Sunday, July 31, ultra-hiker Jennifer Pharr Davis reached the top of Springer Mountain, Ga., to record the fastest time anyone—male or female—has completed the 2,175-mile Appalachian Trail: 46 days, 11 hours and 20 minutes. We caught up with the 28-year-old history-maker to talk about her accomplishment and motivation.
espnW: How did you stay mentally focused enough to break the record?
Jennifer Pharr Davis: Most days, even taking things "one day at a time" would be too overwhelming. My husband, Brew, re-supplied me at almost all of the road crossings so I tried to break it down mentally into a five-mile stretch here, an 11-mile stretch there. When things got really hard, I kept telling myself to take it one step at a time.
espnW: You had a rough start: a few falls, shin splints, stomach issues. How did you press through?
JPD: During the stomach issues, it took me almost five hours to hike a 10-mile stretch, and I told [my husband] I thought I was done. He said, "It's fine if you want to quit, but you shouldn't make that decision while your stomach hurts. Make it after." That made sense and I kept hiking and at the next road crossing, 12 miles later, I felt better.
espnW: You also accomplished something that none of your male predecessors could: taking a pregnancy test on the trail. What was that like?
JPD: There are all sorts of crazy side effects when you're pushing your body to the limit. For me, one is nausea, and it seemed worse in the mornings. So I thought maybe it was morning sickness. I didn't really think I was pregnant, but I wanted to rule that out. This is probably the last time for a while I'll be happy to have a pregnancy test say "not pregnant."
espnW: Overall, how did this hike compare to the others?
JPD: It was much harder. I've had challenges on all of my hikes. On my first AT thru-hike, I got struck by lightning, my eye froze shut in a blizzard and I basically got stalked by another hiker. I also came across a suicide in New Jersey. And when I hiked the Pacific Crest Trail, I forded rivers swollen from glacial run-off. This has been tougher than all of those, because the trail keeps coming at you. If you want to stay on record pace, you have to keep hiking 45 to 50 miles a day. It's tough physically, but it's just as tough mentally because you can't let up at all.
espnW: What life lessons did you take away this time?
JPD: Focus on the present. If I allowed myself to think about how many more hundreds or even thousands of miles I had, it would just be too daunting. The other big lesson would be: Don't be afraid to accept help from strangers. One of the AT's great traditions is unexpected acts of kindness from strangers called "trail angels." Some people drove to road crossings to cheer me on. Others came out and hiked with me. And there were tons of people sending me encouraging messages [online]. I definitely felt the love. And a lot of these people were total strangers. It was just incredible.
espnW: What's next on your agenda?
JPD: To focus on my family. My husband has been incredible. He's worked so hard and has been so selfless—and hasn't gotten much credit. And this is the second time he's done this. We're going to hibernate all fall and winter and watch tons of sports on ESPN. (Laughs) We'll go for trail runs when Brew's knee gets better—he tore his ACL playing basketball. Besides that, I'll get back to my coaching business in Asheville, promoting my book and traveling for presentations and workshops. Life won't be any simpler off the trail, but it'll definitely be easier.
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