Photograph courtesy Maureen Robinson
In 2008, a junk food loving, Classics major hit the Appalachian Trail to have a big adventure and figure out what to do with herself. Appropriately, her trail name was Odyssa. She was such a hiking newbie she didn't even wear moisture-wicking socks. But the hike must have been her destiny because she managed to set a new women's thru-hiking record. Next week, Jennifer Pharr Davis will begin an attempt to break her own record on the AT, hiking an ambitious average of 46 miles a day. Here she discusses her trail strategy (which involves hiking at night), training on the AT, and how she may have figured out how to be a professional thru-hiker. —Mary Anne Potts
More: See our guide to the world's best hikes and trails >>
Adventure: How did your Classics degree prepare you to be a repeat thru-hiker?
Jennifer Pharr Davis: Actually, I have my Classics degree to thank for initially turning me into a thru-hiker. After graduating college my immediate thought was, Now what!? I had no idea what to do with my degree. So, it was the perfect opportunity to get out on the trail. Classical literature is full of adventure. After reading about Roman gladiators and epic Homeric characters, I decided that I wanted to have a great story of my own. My trail name is “Odyssa”… and I called my memoir Becoming Odyssa because it’s an account of how the trail helped form me into who I have become. Perhaps the AT is not what my professors (or parents) had in mind, but it certainly was an adventure!
Why try to break your own record? Why not do something new?
JPD: I think many record-breakers can attest that there is always a new level to aspire to. I do hold the women’s speed record on the AT, and I’m very pleased with that, but the overall record (for men and women) is still out there. There is a chance I could meet that standard. It's like being a high jumper: You want to keep raising the bar until you knock it down, otherwise you don't know how high you can jump.
You plan to do average 46 miles a day. How is that even possible?
JPD: Yeah, sometimes when I think about it, it does sound extremely daunting. But I plan to break the day up into sections so it makes sense mentally and physically…hiking some, running some, and getting proper rest periods and nutrition. It’s a game plan that gets me excited rather than overwhelmed. The strategy to break the day into performance sections is a good one, I think. I’m going to constantly be thinking about how I’m performing my best at each moment to put myself in the best place for the next stretch.
Also, I am actually more equipped to take on this challenge now than I ever have been. The first time I did the AT, I didn’t even have proper moisture-wicking socks. And I had horrible nutrition… I ate A LOT of Little Debbies. Now, I know a lot more about my body and what it needs to pull off 46 miles a day. With proper gear, nutrition, and support off-trail from my husband, I feel really confident. Plus, I’ve been planning this for some time, and over the past year I’ve been focused on training physically and mentally.
How much faster is that, on average, than your last record-setting AT thru-hike?
JPD: On my last record achievement I averaged 38 miles a day. This time I will have to hike and run eight more miles each day. My pace will be the same—hiking up mountains and running down them, when I can. On average, I will have to hike two extra hours each day. In 2008, I hardly did any night-time hiking. Sometimes the determining factor for when I stopped was not my physical capacity, but daylight hours. This time I am prepared to hike early in the morning and at night when I need to.
How have you been training?
JPD: Since I live near the AT in Asheville, North Carolina, I have the opportunity to train on the trail. Most of my training has consisted of becoming more efficient—and climbing! That is the biggest difference between my training in 2008 and now. The last time I trained mostly by running and I didn't seek out challenging terrain. I also spent a lot of time on roads. This time I have prepared specifically on trails with lots of elevation gain. I have actually been hiking more and running less. I never ran uphill in 2008, so I decided that I shouldn't practice running uphill in my training. Instead, I have been putting in longer days and running only when the trail and my body allows. I have also incorporated yoga into my daily routine to improve my breathing and flexibility.
How many pairs of shoes do you think you'll need to complete the hike?
JPD: I expect to rotate between six or seven Salomon trail shoes. I will have the luxury of switching out my shoes when I meet my husband at certain road crossings. I will mostly be using a new Salomon shoe I helped developed specifically for people who like to run their hikes. It’s called the Salomon Synapse, and refers to the connection between hiking and running. Since it’s designed to maximize a fastpacker’s natural motion, I will probably use it the most. But I’ll also be using the Salomon XT-Wings for the mountain running stretches and he Salomon XR-Crossmax for the flatter, faster stretches.
How many calories will you need per day? What's your favorite trail food?
JPD: I will need to get at least 6,000 calories per day at a minimum, and most days I expect to burn more than that. Nutrition has historically been a challenge for me, so I’m going in as prepared as possible this time. I don’t want to feel depleted. That said, chewing actually becomes a chore, so anything I can drink or chug is ideal. I love fruit juices and chocolate milk. Also, because the attempt takes place in the middle of the summer and I loose a lot of salt, I become a kettle chip monster!
The first time on the trail, you were a hiking novice. How do feel you are you different this time?
JPD: Some people learn to swim just by jumping off the dock. That’s pretty much how I learned to hike. Making a lot of mistakes the first time forced me to improve very quickly so I wouldn’t sink. Simply having a better idea of what to expect makes a world of difference. While each trail experience is new and organic, I now know generally what kind of animals, people, and terrain I’ll run into. So, I can be more prepared. However, this time around there are new challenges. The first time, I took my time, and left myself open to what the trail threw at me. This time, I’m trying to achieve a time goal. So, I need to remember to keep focused and relaxed and not let the weight of the project add too much stress. The trail doesn’t like stress! Finally, I’m different from who I was the last two times I hiked the AT. I’ve grown so much as a person. My experiences as a thru-hiker helped develop me into who I am today, and I’ve added new post-trail experiences to the development. I’m a wife now. I’m an author, a public speaker, and a business owner. So, in many ways, the entire third experience on the AT will be different because of my personal growth.
What parts of AT hiking culture are you looking forward to most?
JPD: Community! I’m looking forward to seeing some familiar faces. That may sound ironic on a supported record attempt, but many of my best friends from previous AT hikes will help me on this adventure. The AT naturally fosters a really deep bond between hikers, and it is nice to strengthen the bond with old friends and make new friends on each new journey.
What will be your greatest challenge on this thru-hike?
JPD: The weather is always a challenge. I’m going in the summertime, so I’m hoping for the best, but anyone who has hiked the AT knows that it’s always a mixed bag. At any time I could run into rain, sleet, snow, or scorching heat. The reason this could be the greatest challenge is that when I’m on the trail I’m going to be traveling without a lot of gear, so I need to leave camp each morning with a good idea of what the weather might bring that day so I’ll know how much gear to bring. I don’t want to be weighed down by too much, but I don’t want to be unprepared, either. The other challenge for me is getting enough sleep. I LOVE to sleep, and I sleep really well on the trail. That said, hiking 46 hours a day will cause several short nights. I hope that my body can continue to recover, even when I don't get 7 to 8 hours of rest.
What piece of gear is a must-have?
JPD: Well, since I’m going to be punishing my feet and legs all day long for a month and a half, proper trail running shoes are the most important thing. The other item you always feel is your day pack, so I am very lucky to have an assortment of Salomon packs that fit great and allow me to run and hike in comfort. Also, I’ll never go on the trail without a watch. I have used a Suunto Vector for the past four years. I love having an altimeter, barometer and compass on my wrist at all times. I like being able to monitor approaching storms as well as my location and how high I’m climbing or how fast I’m descending. Since I need to keep my eye on the weather, having real-time barometric pressure and elevation is key.
Is it possible to be a professional hiker? Have you pulled that off?
JPD: The jury is still out. I work VERY, very hard off the trail. I’m able to make my profession because of hiking, but that includes a lot more than just my own personal achievements on the trail. I own Blue Ridge Hiking Co, which helps get other people out on their own successful trail adventures. I wrote and published a memoir called Becoming Odyssa, as well as three hiking guide books. And, I do a lot of public speaking as well as workshops and clinics. Now, I’m helping Salomon design products that enhance the experience even further. So, I’ve been able to use hiking to create a career, but it has been a difficult path to pursue. It certainly would be a lot easier to find a job that demanded less, paid more, and provided health insurance.
What trip is on your Adventure Bucket List?
JPD: Babies are on my bucket list. Along with marriage, that will probably be the greatest adventure. That said, my husband and I both want to hike a few more trails before we start a family. We both share a love for the Alps, and it is a dream of ours to travel to New Zealand and Patagonia.