by Jennifer Pharr

I love hiking. I love going into the woods and spending the entire day playing in rivers, gazing across mountain vistas, and enjoying the camaraderie and solace provided by fellow hikers and a warm fire.

Those hobbies in themselves have provoked little criticism, but unfortunately my passion does not stop there, because, in truth, I also love going into the woods for the grueling test of endurance. I love waking up at 5am and walking before the sun is able to distance itself from the horizon. I love moving all day and stopping only to remove a snack from my pack or to collect water. I love feeling completely exhausted and depleted at the end of the day and stopping only when the sun dictates that its fading finale has concluded. And honestly, I love waking up the next morning and repeating the identical pattern over again. I get excited over 30-mile days, elated over 40-mile days and positively ecstatic at the rare 50 miler.

Unfortunately, the pervading desire to test my physical limits within the natural environment has been a cause of both dissention and condescension within the hiking community. After I set the unsupported women’s speed record on the Long Trail this summer, I was told that I am no longer “enjoying nature” and that I am “distorting the essence of hiking.”

The truth is that hiking “fast” is somewhat of a misleading nomenclature. Speed hiking is never about blazing down the trail in a dead sprint, but rather about efficiency, endurance, and intelligence. It certainly does not mean that I am heading out without a sleeping bag or first aid kit; instead it means that I simply leaving my camera and journal at home. It does not mean that I am running or racing down the trail, but it’s true that I am maximizing daylight, minimizing breaks, and finding a tolerable threshold of focused effort and athleticism to sustain throughout the day.

Endurance hiking is not about limiting my immersion within nature – it is about expanding it. I am spending less time in towns or submerged in my sleeping bag and more time exploring and interacting with my biological setting. I am keenly aware of environment, and even more appreciative of encounters with fellow hikers. Unlike my social or leisurely outings where I am distracted by people and campsite chores, in endurance hiking I commune mostly with the environment and enjoy the discourse of nature throughout the duration of the day. I exponentially increase my wildlife encounters by hiking while most backpackers cook, and proportionally my trail-to-town ratio is weighted to the former far more than that of the average hiker.

But those statistics do not add nobleness to my hike. I’m not going to question hikers’ loyalty to nature if they don’t spend 14 hours a day hiking, and I’m not going to criticize their devotion if they splurge on a night in town or take the afternoon to find a shower and hot meal down an intersecting road.

The beauty of the woods is that there is a freedom to enjoy it in a multitude of manners. There are many ways to experience nature, and my memories of endurance hiking the Long Trail will always be something I cherish, right along with the privilege of taking my 4-year old cousin Brianna on her first mile-and-a-half hike in the woods this past August. Both instances were full of joy and personal discovery.

In my experience, endurance hiking is one of the purest and simplest ways to enjoy nature and grasp the essence of being in the woods. Yes it’s hard, yes it hurts, but the more I give of myself—physically, mentally and emotionally—the greater my appreciation of Nature at the end.