The Long Lonesome: 38 Miles per Day, 57 Days
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.