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Record-setting hiker shares lessons

Record-setting hiker shares lessons

Learning on her feet

May 27th, 2018 by Helen Wilbers in Local News

<p>Helen Wilbers/FULTON SUN</p><p>Long-distance hiker and author Jennifer Pharr Davis shares stories from her time on the trails at the Runge Nature Center on Saturday. Davis set the record for the fastest through-hike of the Appalachian Trail in 2007, hiking nearly 2,200 miles in a mere 46 days.</p>

The former Appalachian Trail thru-hike record holder would rather her audiences learned from nature.

"I feel like nature teaches you a lot more and is better-looking than me," she joked at the beginning of her Saturday lecture at Runge Nature Center in Jefferson City.

Nature is where  Jennifer Pharr Davis has learned her own most important life lessons. She has hiked the nearly 2,200-mile Appalachian Trail three times, plus thousands more miles on six continents. She's also the mother of two young children, the co-owner of Blue Ridge Hiking Company and the author of six books. Her latest work, "The Pursuit of Endurance," came out earlier this year.

Davis didn't grow up hiking, but stumbled onto the Appalachian Trail at the age of 21 after feeling adrift following her graduation from college.

"I felt like if I could just go outside, I could find the answers," she said. "For a lot of people, there's this primal urge to go outdoors and use your body."

She set out from Georgia and finished in Maine five months later — already a changed person.

Davis said she learned to value relationships and the wisdom of others while interacting with other hikers on the trail. While all types of people hike the Appalachian Trail, the two main groups are recent grads and recent retirees.

"I think that's a great combination," Davis said. "If someone, let's say a man in his 70s, turns to you and shares his biggest regret in life, that's something you're going to remember. That happened to me multiple times."

She also learned to love being alone, and even bored, because that's when she truly got to be herself. Detaching from society taught her she was beautiful.

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"I based my self-worth a lot less on how I looked and more in what I could do," she said.

After finishing her first hike (chronicled in "Becoming Odyssa") and getting a job, Davis soon realized she wanted most in life was to hike more. She founded Blue Ridge and soon met and married Brew. As the two hiked together, Davis began eyeing thru-hike records on the Appalachian trail and wondering why no one had established a women's record yet.

She set out to do so herself, completing the trial in 57 days, with her husband aiding in resupplies along the way. But that didn't satisfy her. Davis knew she could finish faster, perhaps even fast enough to challenge the male record.

According to Davis, women may have physiological advantages when it comes to extreme endurance sports. Women are better at retaining body weight, so they don't become as emaciated during thousand-mile hikes. Their hips and legs can carry large amounts of extra weight during pregnancy, so carrying a 30-pound backpack is entirely possible. Plus, they have lower calorie and water requirements.

"I started by seeing myself as at a disadvantage, and now I thought I might be an equal," she said. "I realized I might even have an advantage."

She and Brew wanted to start a family, but Davis felt the need to do one more thru-hike and truly give it her all.

The hike began poorly.

Davis suffered through shin-splints, hypothermia and a major illness. She wanted to quit less than two weeks into the hike.

"Brew looked at me and said, 'If you really want to quit, that's fine, but you can't quit now,'" Davis recalled.

He challenged his wife to eat, rest, take her medicine and complete one last day. By the end of that day, Davis felt well enough to continue, but she'd let go of her goal of setting a record.

"I didn't need to be the best," she said. "What I really wanted and needed was to find my best."

That's what freed her to actually do it.

In 2011, Davis covered the entire Appalachian Trail in just 46 days — a rate of 47 miles per day.

While that record has since been toppled, the lessons she's learned along the way have stuck with her.

In her latest book, Davis asks other endurance athletes about lessons they've learned. Many of them, she said, didn't grow up athletes.

"They realized their bodies are a gift, and wanted to use it to their full potential," she said.

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Davis believes that anyone and everyone — from children to great-grandparents — can be a hiker. It's the best way to get around, in her opinion.

"If you go out to a trail and take a few steps, you're a hiker," she said.

She encouraged her audience to go out and give it a try.

Before the talk, she led audience members on a 1-mile hike around Runge. Fiona Hackler, age 7, and her mother Pam Hackler, of Holts Summit, were among those who went on the hike.

"I like seeing squirrels (on hikes)," Fiona said, adding the red kind are her favorite.

Pam said she was glad Fiona had a chance to listen to Davis' talk.

"I brought her to see a woman that has really succeeded for a good role model," she said.

Pam, an avid hiker already, said she found Davis inspiring and hopes to be able to complete a long trail herself someday — perhaps with Fiona along for the ride.

Learn more about Davis at