At roughly 3500 kilometers, the Appalachian Trail is among the longest trails in the US. Jennifer Pharr Davis’s book The Pursuit of Endurance is about the little known craze of setting the Fastest Known Time (FKT) on long distance trails like the Appalachian and Pacific Crest. These are feats of extreme endurance. The best of the lot – Pharr Davis among them – average close to 50 miles (approximately 80 kilometers) of hiking a day for several weeks. In 2011, she set the unofficial FKT for the Appalachian Trail: 46 days, 11 hours and 20 minutes.
There are quite a few things that are beautiful about this book. It is not cast in a how-to-do-it fashion. Instead, it provides detailed portraits of some of the record holders – their background, their eccentricities, their approach to the trail, how many times they attempted new FKTs, how they succeeded – and through that provides a view, obliquely, of what it takes to do thru-hikes and FKTs. Each of these hikers is a personality distinct from the other. But there are some common strands. Approaching its subject so, the book makes these long distance hikes less of performance and more of a way of life. The protagonists are not angels; they compete, they scheme, they do many of the things you and I carry around in our heads as we try to get ahead of the rest. The difference is – they own up their nature. Pharr Davis’s book gives you a sense of competitors bared and to that extent, humanity restored.
That said, let me add – there is strategy and performance in this book. But it doesn’t hit you the way it does in a book written with the corporate side of running in mind. This is not stuff harking of ready; set, come on team, let’s go do it-sort of approach. This book is pretty down to earth. Sample this: I believed that consistent output over a prolonged period would be more efficient than short bursts of speed followed by lengthier rests. In other words, I wanted to hike, not run. I rationalized that walking would mean less impact on my joints, a reduced risk of falling and decreased recovery time; it just seemed like a more natural way to cover more than two thousand miles. In Pharr Davis’s book, strategy and performance are tempered by humility and honesty. Things go wrong on the trail and the paragraphs devoted to it hold nothing back about how setbacks and frailties unravel. That is exactly how it is when you are out hiking by yourself, pushing your limits. Although the Appalachian Trail has facilities for trekkers to halt and replenish along the way, a hike for FKT has none of the support found in regular ultramarathons. Once in several days, you rendezvous to meet with friend or family member to resupply and take stock of progress. Else, you are alone on the trail; wilderness and other hikers passing through, for company. Unlike city marathons and staged events where the human being assumes center stage, in wilderness, nature’s presence is larger than lone hiker can hope to be. That is also what makes these FKTs interesting. You cope with yourself and whatever happens for weeks. It teaches you nuggets rarely found in other books. For example – the difference between failure and stopping.
But the best aspect of this book was something else.
Thanks to the sort of world we live in with things in clearly identifiable silos, borderlands and transition zones have lost their attraction. Running means Usain Bolt and Eliud Kipchoge; it is distilled spectacle of performance with all else conspiring to support the act. You don’t have the luxury of controlled ambiance in hiking. To that extent, for some of us, the variables nature throws our way while hiking are distraction from aspiring for peak performance. For such perspective, hiking – like walking – is distinctly less glamorous than running. Yet for those loyal to the slow lane, one truth has been evident for long. You can go to the gym and shock your muscles into shape or as seen in the case of those doing physically strenuous jobs; you can embrace a life of physical toil and be in shape without seeking it, maybe even without knowing it. Similarly you can hike enjoying the solitude and the outdoors and having done it for long, develop a bank of endurance. But say that in the world of running and you may find your audience peeling off because as I said earlier, we live in a world in which the value of overlapping borderlands is poorly appreciated. Endurance has become firmly identified with running, cycling, swimming, triathlon etc. It takes a story about some elite athlete from Africa and how he / she walked long distance to school as a child, to remind us of the miracles walking can accomplish. Not to mention – the independence and self-reliance, hiking and the outdoors instills in you.
Pharr Davis is unapologetic of her love for the outdoors and hiking. Born to a family that valued the outdoors, she grew up around camps. Later she lived the active life. According to Wikipedia, she has hiked over 14,000 miles (more than 22,530 kilometers) on six different continents. In 2008, she set the record for the fastest Appalachian Trail hike by a woman – 57 days and eight hours. In 2011, she set the fastest time for both men and women on that trail (mentioned earlier in this review); the record was broken in 2015 by the well-known ultramarathon runner, Scott Jurek who covered the distance faster by three hours and 12 minutes. Juxtapose that improvement in timing on Pharr Davis popularly described as a long distance hiker and Jurek as an ultramarathon runner; it tells us something of the endurance levels of both. It tells us something of what hiking can be. You can’t help but commit some of Pharr Davis’s observations in the book, to memory: Hiking is not escapism; it’s realism. The people who choose to spend time outdoors are not running away from anything; we are returning to where we belong. And: I felt I was also tapping into something primal that said I am beautiful because I endure.
I found this book on the shelves of Modern Book Centre, that wonderful bookshop in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala. Anoop, who oversees the shop, remembered my taste in reading and pointed it out to me. It is a great book to have and lovely antidote for sport in present times lost to measuring and achieving. Its narrative has the quality of an embrace; just what you wish for from nature when you veer off human hive and step on to the trail. It makes endurance, relevant.
(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)