By Candus Thomson, The Baltimore Sun
2:56 PM EDT, June 18, 2011
When Jennifer Pharr Davis makes her way though Maryland on the Appalachian Trail this summer, don't blink or you'll miss her.
The North Carolina hiking specialist is trying to break her own speed record of 57 days, 8 hours, 35 minutes — an average of 38 miles per day — as she attempts to go from Maine to Georgia. Davis, who began her trek Thursday, expects to cover no more than four miles every 60 minutes, uphill and down, in rain or sun, alone or in the company of others, from sun's first light until it winks out below the horizon.
That makes Maryland, normally a two-day walk in the woods, a half-day dash.
"It's not about going fast. It's about being smart and efficient," she said in a telephone interview. "It's about being consistent and making the most of your time."
The odds of her breaking her own mark are good. But Davis would like to own the men's mark of 47 days, 13 hours, 31 minutes, set in 2005, as well.
The 2,181-mile footpath is almost as familiar to her as the walkway in front of her Asheville home. Davis hiked end to end (called a thru-hike) from south to north in 2005 before setting the speed record three years later going north to south.
"You would think I would have had my fill, but I love it more each time," she said. "It feels like a gift to be able to do it again."
A hobby, a career and an affirmation of life, hiking is what makes Davis tick. She stood atop Kilimanjaro, Africa's highest peak, in 2006. That year, she also trekked the 2,663-mile Pacific Coast Trail. And she holds the speed record for Vermont's grueling Long Trail, covering the 270-plus miles between Massachusetts and Canada in seven days, 15 hours.
Suffice it to say, Davis is fairly well-grounded.
She has set aside seven weeks for her attempt. After that, she hopes to turn her attention to a more domestic agenda — writing and running her guide service, Blue Ridge Hiking Co., and starting a family with her husband and fellow hiker, Brew Davis, who will act as her support team on this adventure.
Her first thru-hike, which came after college graduation, took nearly five months. She made lots of mistakes, confronted horror, met a bunch of people — some wonderful and some creepy — and put it all in a book, "Becoming Odyssa," which came out this year.
Each of the 21 chapters carries a single descriptive title — truth, ineptitude, inspiration, mortality — that mirrors the roller coaster of emotions Davis faced as she struggled with physical and emotional challenges before finally standing atop Maine's Mount Katahdin in triumph and realizing that her homecoming wasn't as fulfilling as her time in the wilderness. She had become Odyssa, her trail name, and there was no going back.
"I found things in the woods that I didn't know I was looking for," she wrote. "And now I'll never be the same."
This time she knows she has detractors, who have accused her of turning thru-hiking into a record-book grab. But those folks are ignoring the fact that she already did it the crockpot, slow-cook way and prefers the challenge of a microwave moment.
"There's a huge amount of criticism for what I'm doing," Davis acknowledged. "I'm not breaking any rules. I'm not leaving any trace. I'm not looking to make this a publicity stunt. This is the way I want to experience it. Someday, if I have a son or daughter and they ask, 'Did you do your best and try your hardest?' I can tell them I did."
The first two weeks in northern New England figure to be the toughest. Maine's 100 Mile Wilderness and New Hampshire's White Mountains will test her mettle.
"If I can make it through there in 12 days, it will be a huge burden lifted from my shoulders," she said.
Vermont and Massachusetts may be a battle of mind over voracious black flies and mosquitoes, in that order. With its rock scrambles, farmland rambles and river walks, Connecticut is one of her favorite states.
"It's the AT condensed over 52 miles," she said.
Then comes the 160-mile sprint through New York and New Jersey.
The rock fields of Pennsylvania are "demoralizing," she said. "Emotionally, it's one of the hardest sections. Once you get to the rocks, that's all you can remember."
Maryland "is a rewarding state. There's so much history: South Mountain battlefield, the original Washington Monument, the C&O Canal. You feel so close to our capital," Davis said. Plus, "it's not Pennsylvania."
West Virginia also provides a short respite before she faces Virginia, which contains more than a quarter of the entire trail. Then it's the 381-mile stretch through Tennessee and North Carolina, and the final 76 miles in Georgia to stand at the trail's southern terminus atop Springer Mountain.
Davis expects to kill a pair of running shoes every 400 miles, consume 6,000 calories a day and still lose about 20 pounds off her 6-foot frame. If her cravings remain the same, salty kettle-style potato chips will be her go-to balm with ice cream a close second.
"The thing I like about ice cream is you don't have to chew," she said, laughing. "It's almost impossible to keep your weight up, and you're taking in so many calories that you get tired of chewing."
Davis said she's looking forward to, once again, being immersed in nature.
"Even though I want to break a record, the trail is in control," she said just before we hung up. "I'm just along for the ride."
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