Episode 22 – Endurance for the Long Road with Jennifer Pharr Davis

Jennifer Pharr Davis knows a thing or two about endurance. Jennifer is a wife, mom of two, author, entrepreneur, and a record-setting long-distance hiker. In 2011, Jennifer set the record for the fastest completed hike on the Appalachian Trail, finishing the 2181-mile trail in 57 days, hiking nearly 50 miles a day. Jennifer stopped by to tell us about her new book The Pursuit of Endurance, the many parallels between entrepreneurship and life on the trails, the huge difference between stopping and quitting.

Jennifer Pharr Davis on Going Scared Podcast


Welcome back. I hope that you are having an amazing summer. I am actually in Alaska as you listen to this, if you’re listening to it when it launches. And that’s what makes today’s episode so much fun because it Jennifer Pharr Davis is an outdoor adventurer. She’s actually a professional long distance hiker, which I didn’t even know that that was a profession until talking with her. She’s an entrepreneur, author, and mom. She’s climbed everywhere from Machu Picchu to six different continents. And on top of it all, she set the overall speed record for hiking the Appalachian Trail in 2011.

She talks about the difference between stopping and quitting. And what draws Jennifer to life on the trails is that they give you what you need. And for her that cements self-discovery, maturity and resilience. It’s one reason that really got me outside and excited to go on our trip to Alaska. Give it a listen.


The Body-Mind Connection Is Real

Jessica: Hey, Jennifer. Welcome to the show.

Jennifer: Thanks so much for having me.

Jessica: I’m really excited to talk with you today. I was just laying on beach in Vietnam last week, and that is where I read your first book, Becoming Odyssa. And then I started on your most recent book, and it really made me want to go on a hike everywhere but Pennsylvania.

Jennifer: Well, that’s really funny because every time we take a hike, my husband wants to be on a beach in Vietnam.  Yeah, no. I love hiking and trails, and have hiked all over the US, and all over the world. And often my husband comes happily and willingly, but there’s typically a moment where he says, "Can’t we take a normal family vacation sometime?" One day, maybe.

Jessica: One day. You’ve got to reward him after this book tour that you’re on. I hear that you are on a four-month book tour. So, you need to wave a beach vacation at him for the end of the tour.

Jennifer: Yeah. Our reward at the end of the tour is actually our oldest daughter, who is five, starts kindergarten. So we are pretty pumped.

Jessica: Yes. That is a good reason to be excited. Oh my gosh. The moment your kid starts kindergarten or can get up on a Saturday and pour his or her own bowl of cereal, it’s life altering.

Jennifer: Yeah. I’m a little sad, and then I’m also like, "Okay. We need to go have brunch and go to the spa the first day this happens because I feel—"

Jessica: Oh, yeah. You do.

Jennifer: Huge milestone.

Jessica: Yes. Okay. Well, I wanted to hear your story behind your story. Because in Becoming Odyssa you really start with college and post-college, and don’t get too much into where this all came from.

So tell me a little bit about how you got into long distance hiking as, basically, one of your careers.

Jennifer: Yeah. I’m a professional hiker, and I work in the outdoor industry. And there’s no reason that I should because I didn’t grow up doing much hiking or backpacking, and for most folks it seems or feels really random. But I also think that there’s a large number of people who really just yearn in their inner being to spend time outdoors. And I know at 21, I graduated from college and knew nothing about nature. And along with that, I didn’t know what I was going to do, where I was going to live. Part of me didn’t feel like I knew who I was, but all of that was connected in some form or fashion with having this education that took place inside four walls and inside a box.

For me, I just recognized that for most of human history, individuals, men and women, they’ve spent time using their bodies outdoors. And folks have been nomadic, or following herds, or gathering, or working in fields. And I was 21 and didn’t know a maple tree or an oak tree. And so, I just felt like, I’ve got to get outside. Something is not natural in my life.

“I just recognized, that for most of human history, individuals—men and women—they’ve spent time utilizing their bodies outdoors. “ – Jennifer Pharr Davis

And I’d always heard of the Appalachian Trail. I grew up in North Carolina, and I just decided, This is it. This is my adventure. I will have a normal life afterwards, but for five or six months I’m going to go move through the woods.

And so then, I set off. And five months later I was a completely different person, and nothing’s really looked the same ever since.

Jessica: It’s so crazy to me that you’re like, "I want to go discover the outdoors. So, I am going to hike the Appalachian Trail."

Jennifer: Well, I think that’s the beauty of being 21, you know?

Jessica: It is. It is, which I have to say, and maybe we’ll get into this later, it takes a lot of courage to write a book at 21, knowing that you are going to change one trillion times between 21—

Jennifer: Don’t do it.

Jessica: But yeah. I really appreciated it because as I read your book I thought, You know what? She feels 21 in this book, and how that’s a real gift to a 21-year-old reading the book.

But then I loved reading your most recent book and seeing that transformation take place, and it just takes a lot of courage. One of my really good friends, her name is Jen Hatmaker, and she’s an author. I think she just wrote book number fourteen. And she writes in the first chapter of her most recent book that you don’t have to be who you once were, but to be that in front of everyone is really hard.

“You don’t have to be who you once were.” Jessica Honegger quoting Jen Hatmaker

Jennifer: Yeah. I didn’t realize that Becoming Odyssa would strike such a chord or have the success that it did, and it’s sort of trashed me as a 21-year-old for the past 14 years. So one reason I’m super motivated to try to push book sales for The Pursuit of Endurance is because (A) I think it’s my best work and I’m most proud of it, and (B) I’m like, "Please let me grow up. Please. I cannot stay 21 forever. This is horrible."

Jessica: Well, I think it’s brave and I love it, and so don’t despise that part of your journey.

So, you’ve gone on to hike in six continents. You’ve hiked Machu Picchu, which basically is the closest I’ve come to anything of a long-distance hike. That is the one thing we share in common is we’ve hiked Machu Picchu, and I did with giardia.

Jennifer: Wow.


A Journey of Empowerment

Jessica: Lots of kudos there, but I’m wondering what else . . . You say you started off on this journey. You didn’t know what it would catalyze in you, but it ultimately changed your life. Let’s talk a little bit about some of the things that it ultimately catalyzed in you, and what it has led to, even to your current day journey.

Jennifer: Well, I think it was a journey of empowerment, and being on the trail exposed me to a lot of options, and opportunities, and abilities, and capabilities, really, that I didn’t know existed beforehand. Part of the value of this first experience was being out there for five months, getting to really go through that process of self-discovery that I talk about in Becoming Odyssa, the first book. Learning about myself, really seeing my strengths, learning I’m more resilient, and becoming more comfortable with risk-taking—all that was super positive.

And then just interacting with people who were so, so different from me. Because I think without wanting to realize it, most of us exist within bubbles, and the Appalachian Trail is not a bubble. I was talking to people who just had very different careers, or alternative lifestyles, or lived very differently than I had thought about living. And I think that was really helpful for me to say, Hey, I thought I was on this path, and maybe there were a couple options, but now I realize there are endless opportunities. And I think that given my skill set, I can make something happen that might be a little out of left field given my upbringing.

So, I think it was just the exposure combined with empowerment that allowed me to put my life on a different course.

“It was just the exposure combined with empowerment that allowed me to put my life on a different course.” – Jennifer Pharr Davis


From Hiker to Entrepreneur

Jessica: Can you take me a little bit from your journey of coming home to where you are now? I know you’re a mom of two. You’ve written a couple other books. Take me on your journey, because I kind of feel like I was left a little bit at your 21-year-old self just because I’m only halfway through your newest book.

Jennifer: I finished the trail. I was 22 at the end. I had a birthday out there, and afterwards I got a job. My mom was really happy, and life looked how everyone thought it would look once I finished the trail.

But pretty soon, I just started missing the trail, wanting to go back. And so for a couple years I worked, but I basically just worked to save up money and go have other adventures. And then by the time I was 24, I just recognized that this was my passion. This is what I wanted to do, and so at the age of 24 I started my own hiking company called Blue Ridge Hiking Company. It’s in Asheville, North Carolina. It’s 10 years old this year, and we get over 1,000 people out on the trails every year for a guided hike.

I’m really proud of that, and again, you talk about this courage, but I’m really glad that I hiked the Appalachian Trail at 21, and I’m really glad that I started my own company at 24. And because of the youth, I know I’ve made more mistakes, but I didn’t have the same fears, or hesitations, or responsibilities that I might have had later. That, I think, was liberating in a lot of ways, and I always try to ask myself when something feels scary, Well, what is the worst-case scenario? In my mind I thought, Well, if this business, this hiking company doesn’t work, I’ll just go to grad school.

Jessica: Right. At least it wasn’t like, "I’m not going to be able to feed my children."

Jennifer: Right. Exactly. So at 35, it’s kind of the same thought process, but it’s working, and I write. This new book, The Pursuit of Endurance, is my seventh book. And I’m a speaker, and I get to travel to awesome places and share hiking stories that relate to life, and that feels like a dream gig. So, yeah. It’s been a wild ride.

And then I’ve kept hiking along the way, and that’s changed because, like you said, I have a family and two small children. So, I don’t get out the same way or as much, but that’s one of the things I love most about the trails is they meet you at every phase of life. We’re still on the trails constantly. It’s just one mile every two hours with a package of M&Ms to bribe my kids, but I still do it. It’s all good.


The Difference Between Stopping and Quitting

Jessica: Wow. In your most recent book, one of the concepts that immediately stuck out to me was this idea of knowing when to stop and not to quit. I immediately found that correlation with entrepreneurship, which is obviously a journey that you’ve been on as well.

So, tell us a little bit about this concept about stopping and not quitting as it relates to hiking, and then also as it relates to your own journey as an entrepreneur.

Jennifer: Well, the scene in the book, it’s set up so well. It’s so memorable.

When I went after the record on the Appalachian Trail, which was my third hike of the AT, it was just brutal. I was having to hike nearly 50 miles a day, and again, it was a dream of mine, but it was so hard. Several days in I had shin splints. I felt miserable. The weather had been just rotten, and one of my friends and mentors was out there helping me, and he came out to the trail to meet me, and I just basically collapsed down at his feet.

I said, "Man, how do you know when it’s time to quit?"

And he looked at me and he’s like, "Well, there’s a difference between stopping and quitting."

And in that moment I grabbed a snack, and stood up, and kept walking because with his answer I knew that I would be quitting. I would be giving up because I wasn’t forced in that moment to not walk. I still had the ability to do it. And if you have the ability and desire, then you should continue forward because anything else is quitting.

“If you have the ability and desire, then you should continue forward because anything else is quitting.” – Jennifer Pharr Davis

And in business, I think some of the best advance I got, honestly, starting out with Blue Ridge Hiking Company was just, I don’t even know if it’s true. It sounds accurate, but this guy said, "You know, most small businesses fail within three years."

Jessica: Yeah. That’s true.

Jennifer: "So, you’ve got to have a five-year game plan going into this."

And I was like, "Okay. All right. I can do that. I can do endurance."

And it was so true. I remember the first three years, I would just go on Craigslist and salivate over jobs with health insurance, but sticking it out has been so rewarding in the long run, and so yeah. Despite my obsession with endurance and long trails, I’m not someone who thinks that stopping is the wrong decision, but you don’t want to quit on a bad day. I will say that.

“Despite my obsession with endurance and long trails, I’m not someone who thinks that stopping is the wrong decision, but you don’t want to quit on a bad day.

Jessica: That’s so, so true. Sleep on it. Always sleep on it.

Jennifer: Yeah.

Jessica: Endurance is this whole idea of longsuffering, right? It’s the ability to take the long view to be able to not just be impulsive about how you might feel that day, and it’s something that requires time, ultimately, wouldn’t you say? You’ve got to be able to build up endurance, and then once you have it, you have to find the next thing that you’re wanting to build up endurance for. And so, you’ve spent a lot of the last 10 years building up endurance in various areas.

“[Endurance is] the ability to take the long view, to be able to not just be impulsive about how you might feel that day. And it’s something that requires time.” – Jessica Honegger


Building Endurance in Your Life

Jessica:  Do you find that you get a little bit restless? And what are you building towards endurance for right now in your life?

Jennifer: Well, that’s a really insightful question, I think. The way I look at it is that, basically, endurance is a language. It’s like learning a foreign language or a skill, and I really feel like I learned endurance on trail and from long-distance backpacking. And it is so hard and it is so brutal, and another definition I use for endurance is “the better-than-fun stuff.” The stuff that doesn’t come easily, that isn’t always enjoyable, but is somehow better. Like I said, I don’t do the long-distance backpacking that I used to now. I still get out a lot, but the language of endurance in my life has just been put towards work, and business, and parenting.

And oh my gosh, do those things require a whole lot of effort, and a whole lot of better-than-fun. And there are so many days it is so tough to be a working mom. No one really explained that to me before I entered this season of life. And on the days where I don’t get any sleep because my kids have been sick all night or just not sleeping, and then I go to work and give my best effort, and my best effort is not enough, and I just feel completely spent, and I don’t have any time for myself, and my best is not good enough.

And then I think about the trail, and all these times, and all these moments, and all these places where I had to find this inner strength, and this resolve, and this optimism in order to continue forward. And I use that same language and tool set, then, in my everyday life. So it’s been really, really valuable.

And then there come the unexpected things, like, if you have a loved one dealing with cancer, or you have a really close friend or family member going through a divorce, and there’s really times that just feel like such a grind. Endurance is this beautiful, beautiful gift that we all have. I think we all have it, and to be able to utilize it and feel confident that you have it is important in all facets of life.

Jessica: That’s so true.


Pour Your Energy and Effort into What You Love

Jessica:  So let’s talk about that record because I know you even speak a little bit about what that meant to you. I really appreciated your perspective, because it’s not like you set out to be this competitive, the first woman to complete the trail in this time. But ultimately that is what you did, and it is a title that you earned, and that you wear proudly.

So tell me a little bit more about what the titles and accolades have meant to you.

Jennifer: Yeah. I think I have to back up just a step to get into the mindset of the record because it is hard for people to understand. And it was such a gradual path for me, whereas I started and I thought that people wanting to hike close to 50 miles a day on the trail were crazy. But then, because my life changed off-trail, and I started a company, and I got married, and didn’t have enough time to do the trail the traditional way, a part of me still really wanted to do the full path. My husband— he was a school teacher at the time—he agreed to help me in the summer. And so the second time I did the AT, the Appalachian Trail, I thought, This is great because I can do it over the summer. My husband is going to help me.

And I always heard about these records, and obviously those people are crazy.But I was all about some girl power, and there wasn’t a women’s record on the trail. I was like, Well, there should be a women’s record, and if I go out and do this and don’t get hurt, then we’ll probably be successful and establish that.

So I did the trail in 57 days, and averaged 38 miles a day, and established the women’s record, and was completely unsatisfied at the end because I realized it took halfway or more than that to figure out that I wasn’t really pushing myself. I had limited myself from the beginning because in my mind, there were two categories. There was a men’s category and a women’s category.

Jessica: Wow. Okay.

Jennifer: Yeah, and what I was learning out there, doing this act of hiking all day and being this creature of endurance, and I was just thinking, You know, this is not about speed and strength. I began to think women are uniquely equipped for this. We hold onto our weight better. We have fewer caloric and hydration needs compared to men.

Jessica: I had never thought of these things of benefits until just now, so thank you.

Jennifer: Our hips are so much better for carrying packs than the guys’ build, and think about pain threshold. Woman have got to have an advantage there. I just think evolutionarily with childbirth and everything else. So anyways, in my mind I was like, I thought I was at a disadvantage. And then I got to the end and I was like, Okay. I know I limited myself, and now I think women can compete, or maybe we even have an advantage.

And so, that question and theory. And knowing that I hadn’t found my best, that’s what ate away at me, and that’s what made me want to go back and try for the overall record, and we were successful.

But like you said, for me, the best takeaway of that was the way I grew closer with my husband, and we learned to be better communicators along the way. That wasn’t always easy, but it was really important and good. And I can get into some of the lessons later, but I just think it’s really surprising for people when I say that one of the best days of being a record setter is the day someone breaks your record. It sucks on one hand. It’s super sad. But the thing is, the best part is nothing changes, and all those memories, and experiences, and lessons, and transformations, and new growth you had that is getting you through your everyday life, that’s all still there. So to me, that’s the value of the experience way more than the title.

“One of the best days of being a record setter is the day someone breaks your record.” – Jennifer Pharr Davis

Jessica: Did you find yourself along this journey wrapping up your worth in the title? Where have you struggled in your journey where you were getting identity and ultimately realized, "Wait. That’s a misplaced identity right there."

Jennifer: That was one of my biggest lessons on this hike, and one of the biggest carryovers to my everyday life now. Because in the beginning it did feel like it was all about the record. I had trained so hard, and I had talked myself up so much that, I can do this, I can do this. And yet everyone thought I was crazy, and I didn’t want to look bad, and I had a really low point.

The lowest point came on day 12, and I had gotten shin splints, and dealt with a bout of hypothermia, and then on top of all that, gotten pretty sick on the trail. And so, I came stumbling out to this road crossing, and I was behind record pace, and I was depleted, and dehydrated, and my husband was waiting there for me.

I said, "We’re done. We’re done with the trail. We’re done with the record. I just want to go home." Then he looked at me and he said, "If you really want to quit, that’s fine." And this gets back to what we talked about earlier. He said, "But you just can’t quit right now, because right now you feel way too bad to make a good decision. You’ve got to eat, drink, take medicine, and then tomorrow night if you still want to quit, I’ll take you home." He said that, and then he drove off.

Jessica: Wow.

Jennifer: It’s very difficult to quit if you don’t have a car.

Jessica: That took a lot of courage for him. He believed in you, girl.

Jennifer: Well, I don’t know. I think it was some of that. I think the gift in that exchange was that he knew me better than I knew myself, and he loved me, and I also think he was a little pissed because he was like, "I’m giving up my summer vacation. I don’t want to be out here. I’m doing this, this act is an act of love, and you can’t quit on day 12 if you can keep going." So anyways, it was love and I think maybe a little resentment, but yeah. By the end of the day I was like, Okay. I don’t think I can set the record. I still just feel so bad. I’m way behind where I should be, but I know now if I really want to I can keep going.

Then I had this big decision, and it was: Am I out here just for the record? I knew pretty soon it was like, You know, the point of this endeavor is not that I have to be the best, but I really, really deep down in my heart, and before I enter the next adventure of being a mom, and pregnancy, and all that good stuff, I just want to know what my best is, and I want to know what my body can do before I give it over to a greater cause. And so I decided to keep going for that main point, to find my best.

It was so funny because, really, the minute that I let go of the record, I realized how oppressive it had been. The first 12 days had been all about numbers, miles per hour, miles per day, how little sleep I was getting, how many calories I had to eat. I had always been comparing myself to the current record holder and racing him, and that was sort of ironic because he had set the record years before. He wasn’t out there. He was at home drinking beer, but in my mind I was racing him constantly.

“The minute that I let go of the record, I realized how oppressive it had been.” – Jennifer Pharr Davis

Then when I let go of that it became my hike, and as soon as I let go of the numbers and the comparisons, my miles and my performance immediately shot up, and my enjoyment shot up. I realized I was losing a lot of energy just through anxiety, and the numbers and comparisons. So again, in my work life and everyday life, there are times where there . . . For example, the day my book came out, the guy who broke my record by three hours, he put a book out the same day, and he-

Jessica: Oh, stop it.

Jennifer: He did, and he has like 200,000 friends and followers on social media, and I can’t compete with that. It makes me sad because I’m like, "Oh, man." But then I come full circle and think, But I know what I can do, and I love doing this, and I’m so proud of what I’ve done. I can’t control him, and I can’t control those numbers. But I can pour all my energy and my effort into what I love to do, and what I’m proud of, and the story I want to tell, and I can focus on that. When I do that, just like the trail, things go really, really well.

“I can pour all my energy and my effort into what I love to do, and what I’m proud of, and the story I want to tell, and I can focus on that.” – Jennifer Pharr Davis

I think with entrepreneurship, it’s so easy to get demoralized with the numbers and the comparisons because so many people are ahead of you, or they started before you, or you’re not where you want to be. But you also lose a lot of energy and just effort due to that anxiety and stress. And when you can redirect it and re-channel it into something positive, usually your results are a whole lot better.


Get Comfortable in Your Own Skin

Jessica: It’s so true, and it’s finding that tension with being competitive and not comparing. It’s tricky because it feels like it’s just one degree off. Because on one hand, this guy’s record is what got you on the trail, right? There is a competitive spirit that drives you to endure. It contributes to endurance, but then it’s just one degree when you find yourself in comparison, and then suddenly that energy is just being drained.

Jennifer: Yeah. I just want to agree. It is. It’s a hard, fine line because competition can be great. It can draw out to best in you, but it can also take something really negative away from it. So, somehow figuring out how to self-monitor that, and I feel like for the most part individuals know when something is healthy or detrimental. Just listening to your body and your wellbeing can be really important in navigating that.

Jessica: That’s so true, and with social media now, it’s just so easy to do. We’re constantly comparing ourselves.

Jennifer: Yeah. We are. I’m not going to lie, I think I love the trail even more now that there’s social media. It’s really great, and I love social media in some ways. I follow some awesome hikers on there. I love connecting with people. It’s a positive good community, but it’s also really nice to go into the woods. And this is what I feel like not just online, but throughout all our culture, we spend so much focus on community, and how important it is, and relationships, and I am all in. I totally buy into that.

But what I don’t hear, which I think is equally important, is this idea of you’ve got to be able to be by yourself too sometimes. You’ve got to be comfortable in your own skin. You’ve got to get to know who you are, because if you’re not able to do that, and if you’re not comfortable and confident with who you are and what you bring to the table, you’re not going to be able to be your best self within communities. Again, community is so important. I hear a lot about it, but I think people also need to consider the balance of that, which is some silence, and solitude, and you time.

“If you’re not comfortable and confident with who you are and what you bring to the table, you’re not going to be able to be your best self within communities.” – Jennifer Pharr Davis


From Comparison to Community

Jessica: Absolutely, and I love how you describe the community of the AT because it’s like you’re alone, but you’re not, because there’s quite a few people on the trail who are after a shared mission as well. I really appreciated how you’re able to hike with people, and then understand that, I’m going to go alone today. But yeah, it’s solitude. It’s almost like community when you’re secure in your community it almost enables you to be able to spend more peaceful time alone.

Jennifer: Yeah. I think it definitely goes both ways, and the trail is really neat that way. I love that you go out there, there’s no hierarchy. You’re not trying to impress anyone, and most of the time you don’t even get to know someone’s real name, because on the trail we all have trail names or nicknames. Instead of getting to know what someone does for work, or what car they drive, or who they vote for, or who they cheer for, or what they believe, you just get to know them really well for who they are and how they treat you. It’s such a deep relationship where you don’t have the distractions, either. You get to know people really well really quickly.

On my first AT hike I just remember there were a handful of times where a lot of the hikers out there are early into retirement. Just out of school or early into retirement are two main groups on the trail, and when a 70-year-old turns to you and tells you his or her biggest regret in life, that is such a powerful, valuable lesson that you never forget, and it struck me even back then. It’s like, This is more important than what they taught me in college. I need to remember this. This is a wisdom that you can’t really quantify. Those valuable lessons and the people who shared them with me, that has really been meaningful in my life.

Jessica: And it’s powerful because I feel like there aren’t a ton of opportunities where we mix generations and viewpoints. We’re all so siloed right now. It sounds like we all need to just go to the AT, Jennifer. Is that what you’re saying?

Jennifer: Yeah. Well, if you can’t go to an AT, go to a retirement home. That’s what when I get 28-year-olds who are like, "Do you need a life coach?" I’m like, "No. I’ll just volunteer at a retirement home and get way more out of it, but thank you anyway."

Jessica: That’s some really good advice.


Accepting the Risk

Jessica:  Let’s talk a little bit about Blue Ridge Hiking Company. You talked a little bit about how you started it, and where are you wanting to take it. What’s your vision and mission? Are you wanting to take hiking to the world?

Jennifer: Yeah. That’s a really good question, and we actually reflected a lot on that recently because we’re 10 years old this month, which is super exciting. When I started it, my goal was just to do something I loved, and create a sustainable part-time income, and help get people outside. The mission is really simple: it’s to make the wilderness accessible and enjoyable. And our vision is that the trail is there for everyone at every phase of life.

And this gets back to that whole competitive aspect of maybe being an entrepreneur. Things have gone really well with the business, and it’s grown every year, and not that there haven’t bet setbacks or hard times.

Probably the scariest thing with what I do is that we take people outdoors, and we have the best guides ever. They’re just such wonderful people, and we have the structure is all set up properly, and we have our insurance, and permits, and the LLC. And still at the end of the day, sometimes I go to bed just terrified that someone is going to get hurt or have a heart attack, and we’re going to get sued because it’s such a litigious society. In the end, just wanting to be able to take care of everyone in the woods where part of what we’re offering, you have to be able to accept some risk in that.

When things go wrong in the backcountry, you don’t get the same type of help or assistance that you do when an ambulance can come pick you up right away. So, there is that constant feeling of risk and liability, but because what I come back to all the time is just, gosh, this is such a powerful experience for so many people. And I love our company because we are so committed to helping beginning hikers and backpackers, and women, and families, and older couples, and people with special concerns. That’s our whole celebration for our 10 year anniversary is we have 10 scholarships for folks or individuals with special concerns who might not feel like they can get out on the trail, and we want to help them do that.

But what I’ve come to is that we do want to grow. We do want to help people, but there’s also this beautiful thing about feeling really organic, and really local, and we do have competitors in the area now who are big, either national or international tour companies. I think what I want is to be the expert in the Southern Blue Ridge and Appalachian Mountains, and there’s a reason we started the hiking company there. It’s my favorite mountains in the whole world, and that’s how all our guides feel.

They all feel like there’s nowhere else they’d rather guide, and I want people to have that type of experience too. Not just someone taking them to a destination, but someone welcoming them to their home and sharing why it’s so special to them. Yes. I’m still interested in growth, but I think local and sustainable growth, and we’re called Blue Ridge Hiking Company. So I think within that, the Blue Ridge Mountains, the Southern Appalachians is the place where we want to live, and thrive, and really contribute to the outdoor culture.

Jessica: I love that, and I have never been to the Appalachians, and—am I saying that right? I feel like “you say tomato, I say tomato.” And I just called it “the Appalachian.”

Jennifer: That is on the full podcast if you want to get into the correct pronunciation of the Appalachian Trail. It’s very regional. It depends on where you live, but yeah. Where I live and when I study the etymology of the word, I feel like “Appalachian” is probably—

Jessica: “Appalachian.” Okay. I’m going to totally own that. I tried to just mimic you so far in the podcast, but I have to admit it’s my first time to say “Appalachian,” but I just was like, We’re taking the cue from the expert.

Jennifer: I think that’s why they just say “AT” for the Appalachian Trail is because we can’t agree, so we just shorten it and it’s all good.


Using the Trail as Therapy

Jessica: Yeah, but you make me really, really want to explore that area of the United States. Where would I even begin? I’ve got three kids. I will say my husband, when we were dating, that was one goal he’d always had was to hike at least some of the AT. That’s where I first heard about it, but where would we even begin? We’re not a big hiking out . . . We don’t have all the gear. Where would we begin to plan a trip?

Jennifer: That’s sort of our niche with Blue Ridge Hiking Company and one reason we’ve been successful is because what I would say to you, or anyone else, or a close friend is you really don’t want to make that investment. Backpacking gear, figuring out all this stuff, it’s hard if you don’t know what you’re doing. It’s expensive. If you’re going to go into an outdoor store, chances are you’re going to buy all things that maybe you don’t need or you don’t want in another year or two. So, even if you’re not going with a guide or outfitter, try to borrow stuff. Try to start local.

There are programs that rent gear. Those are really helpful. And I’m speaking at a college tonight. Colleges are so great. A lot of them have outing programs. Some of them allow community members to come and participate, and there are also outdoor clubs all throughout the country. Those are good resources to start with, but yeah. One of the reasons I started my company is because I was like, There’s great programs. They’re long. They’re intensive. They’re expensive. What if someone can just come to us on a Friday, and we provide the gear, and the food, and the guide, and they leave Sunday, and then can go back to work?

That feels like something that most normal people can do, and that you can do with your family. So, we’re permitted all throughout Western North Carolina, but we do have 55 miles of the Appalachian Trail, and it’s cool. It’s not good for our business model, but we really love when people come and hike with us, and then they know what they’re doing, and they know what gear they’d want, and they can continue on without us. And so, some people start their first section of the Appalachian Trail with us. They’re with a guide, and then they can continue on on their own because now they have the knowledge, and a much better sense of what they want, and what they’re actually going to use on the trail as well.

Jessica: I so appreciate that you’re this record holder, and yet you’re really wanting to make hiking approachable for everyone, is what I hear. I think that that’s so beautiful. I interviewed the guys from I’ll Push You, and he is completely immobile from his neck down and his best friend pushed him through El Camino in Spain. I just learned so much from that interview, and there is just something powerful about getting out on a trail for more than just a day.

Jennifer: Yeah. It is. And again, I could go on, and on, and on. But why I feel so convicted about what I do is because I’ve seen just time, and time, and time again, the trail be this amazing tool in people’s life, this catalyst, this therapist, this agent of healing, something that ministers to people’s souls. To me it’s like, well, I’m not out there to really emotionally regulate what people get out of the experience, but there is this really common expression among hikers that the trail gives you want you need.

“The trail [can] be this amazing tool in people’s life, this catalyst, this therapist, this agent of healing, something that ministers to people’s souls.” – Jennifer Pharr Davis

It’s like, well, if I can just help people get out there in different ways, then I think a lot of people are going to find what they need. Not to over-romanticize it because that happens a lot, and the truth is when you go out there, it is hard, and it is uncomfortable, and it does rain, and you do pee in the woods, and that is the reality of it. But there is something magical about that reality. And so I do think that maybe it gets back to what we were saying in the beginning—that I think a lot of people, like most humans, might have this evolutionary urge, or at least connection to going outdoors, and moving, and using their bodies because that’s what humans have done for most of history.

Jessica: That’s so true.


What Your Mind Believes Is What Your Body Can Achieve

Jessica:  Well, why don’t we close it out with you describing the difference between stopping and quitting. Because I think we touched on it earlier, but I think that’s such a universal thought, and just with your latest book really being about endurance, I’m sure that . . . Do you feel like endurance is something that our grandparents just knew about a lot more than us? Things just come easier for us now, and humans tend to take the easy route. That’s kind of how we’re wired, and I know my book that’s coming out is really about choosing the uncomfortable. And I think choosing the uncomfortable means requires a level of learning about endurance. So, let’s close out with that.

Jennifer: Yeah. Well, I think it might be different for everyone, the small distinctions between stopping and quitting, but I think when you look at quitting, other words associated with it are “regret.” I think of regret when I think of quitting, and I think of not maximizing your potential, and I also think of letting circumstances, letting external circumstances make the decision for you instead of, really, that internal voice. Whereas stopping, and literal examples on stopping on the trail that are great reasons to not complete a through-hike are, well, what if someone at home, a loved one, really needs you? What if you get a once-in-a-lifetime job offer that’s not going to be there in three more months?

If that’s the better opportunity for you to live, and serve, and use your talents, then go do that and the trail will still be there. If you’re just developing a chronic long-term injury because you’re hiking every day, then stop. It’s not worth it. On the other hand, I think when you learn to walk that line between stopping and quitting, and realizing that there is something better than fun, and embracing the uncomfortable, and embracing the challenges, and not letting circumstances define you or your self-worth, then we realize that stop point might be a whole lot farther off than we once thought it was.

If there’s one thing that the trail has taught me, it’s what your mind believes is what your body can achieve. I went on this journey from thinking like, Well, women are going to not be able to compete with men, and my performance showed it. And then I thought, Well, women can compete equally with men, and I set the record. And some days I wonder what it would have looked like if I went back to try for the record, and I thought to myself, I think women have a big advantage. Then I’m like, Well, what would my body have done then? So, I would just say make sure to visualize yourself where you want to be and try to get there before you stop.

“What your mind believes is what your body can achieve.” – Jennifer Pharr Davis

Jessica: Mindset. Mindset definitely pushes your finish line, for sure.

Well, thank you so much Jennifer. Tell us where we can find you.

Jennifer: You can find me anywhere, hopefully. I’m online on Facebook at Jennifer Pharr Davis. Instagram and Twitter is @jenpharrdavis. And Pharr, it’s like hiking far, but it’s P-H-A-R-R. Then, come to Asheville. Hike with Blue Ridge Hiking Company and, yes, please. I’m so proud of my first book, Becoming Odyssa. You can read it. I was 21, but please let me grow up. Read the new book. I am so proud of it. I think it has just such great carryover messages no matter what your journey might be. So, that’s The Pursuit of Endurance, and yeah. It’s been out three . . . Well, probably just around a month now, so it’s still very new.

Jessica: Well, it’s super exciting. Congratulations. I can’t wait to finish it myself.

Jennifer: Thanks, Jessica.

Jessica: Thank you.


Imperfect Courage Is Coming!

Wasn’t that so good? I love this concept, that we need to learn how to stop and not just quit and be able to really understand the differences there.

If you enjoyed this conversation and really want to learn more about endurance and taking the long road—and I’m not just talking about fitness guys because you’re not going to catch me hiking some crazy Appalachian Trail—her book The Pursuit of Endurance really speaks to what it means to persevere and endure not just on a trail but in life.

So speaking of books, you guys know I wrote a book! I’ve been talking about it so much during different episodes in different interviews I’ve done. And we’re going to actually take a little bit of a break because I’m going to come back with you for a series, a podcasts series, and it’s called the "Imperfect Courage" podcast series.

So if you haven’t heard about Imperfect Courage, it’s the name of my brand-new book, and it is going to be launching in August. And I wrote it for you. I wrote it because I wanted to help you learn step by step how to walk through your fears towards a life of meaning and impact.

I love the tribe that we’re building around this podcast. This has been in the top 200 podcasts consistently. It debuted in the top 60. We’ve had such great conversations. And I’m really excited to take this podcast to the next level so you won’t miss us for too long.

We will be back in a couple weeks, and I will see you on the other side. Thanks again for tuning in today.