The Pursuit of Endurance: Harnessing the Record-Breaking Power of Strength and Resilience
Jennifer Pharr Davis
If you enjoy reading stories of Shackleton’s attempt at reaching the South Pole, or of plucky horses like Seabiscuit who succeed against all odds, then chances are good you’ll enjoy Jennifer Pharr Davis’s “The Pursuit of Endurance.” If you are an avid hiker but fear the idea of a high-speed through-hike, you’ll probably love this book, even as you shake your head at the feats of endurance it chronicles. And if you’re contemplating attempting an FKT (Fastest Known Time) yourself, then obviously this is a must-read.
For those of you who are wondering, an FKT is the fastest known time (because there’s no official measuring or record keeping body) that a hiker/runner has completed a long-distance trail such as the Appalachian Trail or the Pacific Crest Trail. This is not, as Pharr Davis discusses in some detail, an official sport, but a–hobby isn’t exactly the right word, but it’ll do for now–in which people try to cover hundreds or thousands of miles of trail as quickly as possible, often covering 40+ miles/day and sleeping only a couple of hours a night, purely for the sake of proving that it is possible to walk, say, the approximately 2200 miles of the AT in under 50 days.
Pharr Davis, as a former holder of the AT’s FKT and the first woman to set its overall FKT, is eminently qualified to write this book. She goes into the history of the major US trails, the various record attempts that have been made, the psychology behind FKTs and endurance sports in general, and the personalities of those who set some of the recent FKTs on the big trails. She managed to score interviews with most of the recent FKT setters, including some generally elusive ones, and describes their hikes–and her own, of course.
Indeed, for me personally the most interesting chapters were those about the FKTs set by women, including herself. While until recently it was assumed that women had no chance at keeping up with men, trailblazers like Heather Anderson and Pharr Davis herself have proven that that is not the case at all. In fact, after finishing the PCT for the first time with her boyfriend, Anderson “looked down at her washboard abs and strong legs, then she looked back at her gaunt boyfriend and took note. She surmised that women might be well suited–or even *better* suited–for long-distance travel than men.” While the jury is still out on that (although I tend to agree with Anderson), it is interesting to note that Pharr Davis mentions several times how her own main obstacles were mental: at first it simply didn’t occur to her to try an FKT, and then she assumed she had no chance of keeping up with the guys. After she set the overall AT record at 46 days, 11 hours, and 20 minutes, she worried that maybe she had left something on the table–after all, she walked rather than ran, and got considerably more sleep than most of the other, male, record-setters. When Scott Jurek beat her record by a mere three hours four years later, it was hard not to wonder “Should I have insisted on getting a full night’s sleep so often?” In any case, the experience of setting the FKT made Pharr Davis, she acknowledges, a “more outspoken feminist.” She felt at peace with what happened, though, and writes generously about Jurek’s successes and the troubles that being a celebrity athlete brought on him.
This is a book by, for (sort of), and about endurance athletes, but non-athletes can certainly enjoy it as well. Pharr Davis has a warm yet polished writing style, interweaving historical background, the science of endurance, and personal anecdotes into a highly readable narrative that is enthralling for the long-distance hikers and couchbound alike.