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Speed Hiking

Do you really want to speed through Damascus? Photo: Johnny Molloy

Beginning this month, Jennifer Davis is attempting to set the record for fastest thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail. In 2005, she completed a traditional thru-hike of the A.T. An inexperienced hiker at the time, her thru-hike from Georgia to Maine was a classic trial by fire that weeds out most desiring to complete the hiker’s Holy Grail.

It didn’t take long for the ex-college tennis player from Birmingham’s Samford University to realize she wasn’t going to drop off the trail. The lithe and leggy Davis soon realized that she could hike longer than her thru-hiking counterparts — and have a shorter recovery time the next day. At night, while lying in her tent inventorying aches and pains, Jennifer couldn’t wait for the challenges the A.T. would throw at her the following day.

In a simple twist of fate during that thru-hike she walked into David Horton, world class trail runner. In 1991, Horton set the then Appalachian Trail speed hike record of 52 days (the current record is 47 days, 13 hours, 31 minutes). Their brief conversation left her in amazement of Horton’s trail running prowess. Next day, still northbound in Virginia woods, she ran into Horton again. A longer conversation followed. Davis learned Horton was training to set the speed hiking record for the Pacific Crest Trail.

The seed was planted. In 2008, Davis set the women’s record for a supported thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail – 57 days, 8 hours.

What makes people like Jennifer Davis and David Horton want to speed hike a long trail? Why do they reduce what is to most people the adventure of a lifetime into a race against the clock, where overlooks become blurs and spur trails to waterfalls are skipped entirely? Why do they want to be the fastest?

What is the hurry? Why don’t they stop and smell the wildflowers? What about campfire camaraderie with their fellow thru-hikers? What about appreciating the incredible mosaic of natural beauty strung along the spine of the Appalachians?

Benton MacKaye, the man who envisioned the Appalachian Trail, didn’t foresee this. Fact is, he didn’t visualize thru-hikers at all. He saw the A.T. as a local hiking getaway for weary townsfolk to escape city life. It wasn’t built for thru hikers. Appalachian Trail purists shudder at these speed records and the people who set them, and the people who subsequently try to break them. The Appalachian Trail Conservancy highlights “Noteworthy 2,000 Milers,” including the oldest thru-hiker, first female thru-hiker, and youngest section hiker. However, nowhere do they mention “fastest thru hiker.”

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