We all have moments in life when we wonder what we’re capable of. If we truly tapped into our own potential what dreams could we achieve… what part of us could shine through? Leave the dead end job, end the unfulfilling relationship, ask for the promotion, sing at the songwriter’s night, travel to that foreign country, venture into the wilderness alone, maybe even set a record. Every day in many different ways we confront our own strength and resilience, unconsciously challenging ourselves by asking, “What can I do?”
For Jennifer Pharr Davis that question fueled her to become the first woman to accomplish an overall speed record on the Appalachian Trail (AT) in 2011, with a fastest known time (for a male or female) of 46 days, 11 hours, and 20 minutes, a feat that went unbroken for four years.
Since her first thru hike of the AT at age 21, Jennifer has logged over 14,000 miles of long distance trails on six continents, and hiked in all 50 states with her daughter…by the time she was two. At 24, Jennifer started her own business (now in its tenth year), Blue Ridge Hiking Company, enabling her to make a living doing what she loves while inspiring others to get outside.
Also a sought after speaker and a National Geographic Adventurer of the Year, Jennifer has authored seven books. Her latest, The Pursuit of Endurance: Harnessing the Record-Breaking Power of Strength and Resilience, shares the personal life stories of athletes who have set speed records on America’s long trails, written humbly through the lens of her own experience as a record-setting hiker. Each person highlighted has accomplished the seemingly impossible, yet none of them started out thinking they would set a record. Jennifer writes, “In order to excel at endurance, you have to peel away the layers to discover what’s already there.” Their stories are more relatable and real than one would imagine, without the hype of outdoor magazines, which often strip the humanity from these individuals by making them seem larger than life.
At a stop along her book tour, Jennifer shared her own story of how she started hiking and what led her to become a record-setter. As a fellow hiker and as a woman, I was deeply struck by her story and inspired to ask myself some questions. Am I doing everything I could be doing to achieve the dreams I have in life? Are there ways in which I could focus less on myself and reach out more to others? How is my self-image shaped? Is my life too cluttered with stuff? How can I be more diligent about staying physically active? What fears do I have about the outdoors that are not based in reality? Do I limit myself because of my gender?
I found things in the woods that I didn’t know I was looking for… and now I’ll never be the same. – Jennifer Pharr Davis
There is a saying among hikers that “the trail gives you what you need.” For Jennifer, fresh out of college at 21, the trail provided the lesson of learning to value simplicity by carrying everything she needed on her back. “When you realize you don’t need stuff, you can invest in adventure and relationships.” One unique aspect of the AT is the two largest groups of people hiking the trail each year: young adults just out of college and recent retirees who impart a wealth of life experience along the way. Jennifer shared, “When a 70 year old tells you their biggest regret in life, you never forget that. That is an education you won’t get in college.”
Hiking the AT was the first time in Jennifer’s life when she didn’t need to perform or produce, but simply be who she was. In the midst of feeling filthy, dirty, and smelly she came face to face with her own beauty. Choosing not to carry the weight of a mirror for her entire hike, she saw herself instead through her interactions with others and as part of nature’s loveliness. Self-worth was based on what her body could do, not how she looked.
The notion of women seeing themselves in a different light while outdoors is relatable. Many female hikers talk about how empowering it is to reach a point where what they look like doesn’t matter as much as what they’re able to accomplish. If only we could see ourselves that way every day. There is no greater feeling than standing on a mountaintop looking at a breathtaking landscape, knowing that your thighs brought you there – those same thighs that you shame in the mirror when you see their cellulite. If we lived in a world without mirrors and assessed our self-worth based on how we love the people around us and where our bodies could take us, would we understand ourselves better and have a truer vision of who we really are? Sometimes it takes having time alone to achieve this realization so we can practice intentional self-acceptance in our daily lives.
Carrying the life lessons she learned on that first hike, Jennifer returned to the AT in 2008 with the goal of setting the women’s record. She says she limited herself from the very first mountain because she assumed there was a women’s record and a men’s record. The women’s record left a lingering lack of fulfillment and curiosity about her abilities… the question “What can I do?” ringing in her heart. In 2011, with her husband providing trail support, she broke the overall (for a male or female) speed record on the AT. Since then, hikers like Heather Anderson, Liz Thomas, and the 189 other badass women listed on Fastest Known Time have proven that there is no gender gap when it comes to extreme endurance.
As women, none of us is immune to falling prey to thoughts about how our lives might be different if we were men, compliments of the way the world has operated for eons. Jennifer learned she had to stop thinking there were certain advantages or disadvantages because of her sex. “In my mind I imposed limitations, and didn’t even realize they were there as part of who I was or how I felt. There was self-doubt and insecurity, but my body was what encouraged me to do more and take bigger risks. I thought only guys could do 50 miles a day and set records, but when I gave my body the chance to just try it, it showed I could do more than I thought I could. My legs carried my mind.” The message here is powerful. Don’t stop yourself from trying new things by sabotaging abilities that have yet to be revealed.
After earning total equality on the trail, Jennifer saw herself in a new light. There was no gender gap in terms of what she could accomplish compared to the men who were out there. It was a boon to how she valued herself as a woman and as an individual. She writes in The Pursuit of Endurance: Harnessing the Record-Breaking Power of Strength and Resilience, “And maybe that is the best definition of feminism I can offer, to be able to embrace your gender identity without societal or self-imposed limitations.”
Most of us will never achieve record-setting levels of athleticism, but Jennifer is quick to emphasize that many people run their own feats of endurance that have very little to do with fastest known times, owning the right gear, or finding sponsors for support. As a business owner and mother of two young children, her priorities in life have changed. The record is no longer the most important thing, and motherhood has brought its own avenues of endurance. Her advice to moms who want to get their kids outside is to find a way of incorporating the outdoors into everyday life by seeking out local parks, playgrounds, and greenways. She says, “It’s quality time that’s healthy, free, wears them out, and makes me happy.”
For women seeking outdoor adventures of their own she believes, “One trip can give a solid foundation. Many fears are misconceptions and not rooted in reality. Once you do it once, there’s no more mystery and you realize you can handle it.” The very reason she started Blue Ridge Hiking Company was because she saw women in the southeast who were interested in getting outside, yet didn’t feel comfortable and wanted help. She realized that the greatest tool or asset for people to feel safe outdoors is personal experience.
The underlying message of Jennifer’s The Pursuit of Endurance: Harnessing the Record-Breaking Power of Strength and Resilience is one of encouragement and inspiration; that everyone’s path is difficult but we’re all capable of more than we realize…
“When Brew and I are in the car and we pass a runner or walker on the sidewalk, it is natural for my husband to make comments about how fast or slow they’re going and what their stride looks like. My rule of thumb is that you never judge someone else’s pace or form, because you don’t know how far they’ve come or what they’re still planning to do.
We all have our long trails, and most of them do not include much hiking or running. Outside the forest, our paths take the form of higher education, climbing out of debt, navigating a career, staying married, undergoing divorce, surviving tragedy, and coping with illness. It behooves us to not come to quick conclusions about other people’s paths and instead approach each individual with encouragement and compassion. We might be on different trails, but we are all midjourney.”