Book Review: The Pursuit of Endurance: Harnessing the Record-Breaking Power of Strength and Resilience

The Pursuit of Endurance: Harnessing the Record-Breaking Power of Strength and Resilience, by Jennifer Pharr Davis. Viking, 2018. Book review written by trail runner Laura Clark for the Fall 2018 edition of our Trail Times newsletter. Laura is an avid mountain, trail and snowshoe runner who lives in Saratoga Springs, NY, where she is a children’s librarian.

I first met Jennifer Pharr Davis, her husband Brew and baby girl Charley when I had the good fortune to host them during their Becoming Odyssa Saratoga Springs book tour, which recounts Jennifer’s first Appalachian Trail thru-hike where she adopted the trail name Odyssa. She has since written Called Again, an account of her record-breaking FKT (fastest known time), Families on Foot, numerous guide books and now, The Pursuit of Endurance. One might expect that with all of her adventures, founding her own Blue Ridge Hiking Company and raising two small children, she would be justifiably forgiven for turning out several of those “written by Jennifer Pharr Davis with”…. fill in the name of a well-known author.

But this is not the case. Her observations are honestly hers: thoroughly researched, sincere and seamlessly executed. She comes across as one of us, an everyday person striving to do her best, make sense of her accomplishments, and deal with the “what-ifs” that go hand-in- hand with even the most extraordinary exploits.

In The Pursuit of Endurance Jennifer probes the psyches of many of the great Appalachian Trail heroes like Warren Doyle, David Horton, Heather Anderson and Scott Jurek. Throughout, the acronym HYOH, or “Hike Your Own Hike” applies. Jennifer acknowledges that there are many ways any one individual can enjoy hiking and speed is a goal only if you choose to make it so. As Owen Allen reflects on his 1960 record hike, “I’m glad I did it, but I don’t ever want to do it that way again!” And now in this current phase of her life, Jennifer is almost content to focus on her growing family, her hiking company and her writing and speaking commitments.

She was however, left with a desire to explore “…what it is that allows someone to continue through insufferable pain and push through staggering odds.” While Jennifer’s husband, Brew, continues to follow all the latest FKT attempts, she claims she is done with that, preferring to follow parallel paths.

What is truly humbling is how much all the FKT record holders are willing to help their “rivals.” Warren Doyle and David Horton offered advice and showed up on the trail at crucial points to crew for Jennifer. And while mentoring is a given in all sports, how many mentors would cheerfully help you break their record? And for that matter, how many have at one time held FTKs on the Appalachian trail? This exclusive group is a small band of brothers, always ready for new members.

I was impressed by how much research went into this project. Whenever possible, Jennifer not only flew cross country to hike with these record holders, but she also stayed in their homes and explored their towns, all to get a sense of what made each person tick. She discovered that what drew everyone, including herself, to this sport was the fact that being amateur, underground and somewhat disorganized, it was open to everyone. The sense that, as Jennifer so aptly puts it, “physical and mental barriers are your greatest adversaries.”

And so what did Jennifer learn and what can we take away from the experience of these extraordinary athletes? Jennifer learned that with all the possibilities of defining a record attempt: northbound or southbound, summer or winter, assisted or unassisted, male or female, etc. what truly matters is the effort of each individual participant. As a seventy-one year-old runner this is a lesson I embrace. While I regret that I am no longer as fast as I once was, I have learned that if I focus on the joy of being in the woods and mentally lighten my body, I can still achieve that glorious feeling that I am skimming over rocks and flying over the terrain—whatever my pace might happen to be. And that delight is truly all that matters.

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