Endurance is the ultimate human commonality. The longer we go, the more we are stripped down to this core.
Jennifer Pharr Davis set out on an investigative journey to find the traits uniting her fellow previous Appalachian Trail (AT) record setters (and endurance phenoms) only to circle back to this simple conclusion in The Pursuit of Endurance: Harnessing the Record-Breaking Power of Strength and Resilience (Viking, 2018). The book interweaves a deep dive into each record setter, told through JPD’s eyes as she visits them at their local abodes, and scientific summaries of the qualities needed to excel in endurance pursuits.
While JPD claims we can’t synthesize a coherent list of qualities needed to excel at endurance endeavors, the book uncovers maybe the most potent secret of all: no matter who you are, what your background, or what your innate talent, if you have the willpower (plus probably support from family and friends), you can achieve far more than you think.
Fear of failure builds the book’s backbone. Each AT record setter sheds insight on how to cope with this struggle. From Warren Doyle, 17 time AT thru-hiker and founder of the Appalachian Trail Institute (the catalyst for JPD’s own record attempt), we learn about the pitfalls of complacency. Endurance “isn’t the ability to overcome pain,” JPD gleans from his life, “it’s the ability to embrace pain with no end in sight.”
160-plus ultra finisher Dave Horton illustrates that you don’t have to conquer your insecurities to achieve greatness. Scott Williamson, who survived a bullet lodged into his spine that nearly left him paralyzed , shows that fulfillment is found in your ability to get up after failing. We all struggle. The key is to learn how to keep putting one foot in front of the other despite our imperfections. Andrew Thompson, who suffered through three tries to successfully break the FKT, takes this finding one step further; if you’re going to struggle, go enjoy it. From ultrarunning legend Scott Jurek, we learn that even when thrust into the public eye (and the expectations, pressure, and meaning that comes with it), satisfaction is found in the process. Your process.
The outcome: reframe your perspective on failure. Don’t be afraid of it. If you don’t fail, you aren’t setting your goals high enough. Endurance, by definition, is failure, after failure, after failure.
Like long distance bipedal pursuits, the book also forces us to grapple with conceptions of reality. On one hand, “record setters are all about alternative realities”. They refuse to accept reality as it is. On the other, JPD argues that the reality we share is largely wrong— and hence another is right. Despite common perception that doing things like completing the AT as fast as possible verges on idiocy, it’s in our DNA, as evidenced by the evolution of long distance thru-hiking. From Aboriginal Australia, where a six month walk signified the transition from boyhood to manhood, to the Athenian messenger Pheidippides, who ran the first “marathon,” the history of pedestrianism, pilgrimages, and persistence illustrate that the skills needed to do these activities help compose what it means to be human.
History also illustrates our inherent urge to cover long distances as quickly as possible, making the genesis of the FKT phenomenon not only natural but necessary. And controversial. The innate challenge of the AT crafts a “trail for dreamers.” Yet it’s also a path filled with doers, a natural testing zone for both the romantic and the competitive, the replete and the hungry. The FKT ethos butts heads with those of many thru-hikers and the AT Conservancy, whose stance on FKTs is evidenced by its refusal to authenticate records. But meaning is what you make of it, FKT setters’ journeys suggest.
The controversy between fast and slow blends into one between new and old. The AT is the most iconic trail in America, and JPD subscribes to her own romanticized notion of it and FKT culture in general, suggesting that we all do so in our own way. While she views FKT culture as a hiker’s game, a sport still floating in its own luddite sphere, recent FKTs on the AT suggest otherwise. Renowned ultra runner Scott Jurek broke JPD’s record by running it like a 46 day ultra. His friend and fellow ultrarunning “super star” Karl Metzler broke that the next summer. The history JPD paints, though, indicates that like the trail itself, its culture is meant to morph, to adapt and grow stronger with the tests of time.
The most raw and enthralling chapters encompass JPD’s own experience setting the record. That’s right, she set the overall FKT. For JPD, the biggest hurdle was surmounting her fear of failing in front of an audience. Her vulnerability about going after a seemingly unattainable goal and the perseverance necessary to succeed in doing so kindles fiery inspiration. Women, she contends, can and should compete with men. Through her tenacity and that of Heather Anderson, who shattered the self-supported AT record, JPD broadens gender boundaries, illuminating how intense endurance pursuits are “feminine” in their own right.
The Pursuit of Endurance also serves as a meditation on the roles of the outdoors and spirituality in our lives. Endurance pursuits are both mental and physical. JPD believes in calling upon higher powers: religion, her husband’s support, and “the vitality of the forest”-- something she concludes essential and therefore essential for us to fight for its preservation. In fact, the AT and conservation have gone hand-in-hand since the trail’s inception. As its founder Benton MacKaye said, “America needs her forest and her wild spaces quite as much as her cities and her settled places.” Mother Nature is the ultimate endurance athlete, and it’s a gift to emulate her— and a duty to protect her.
Rather than look at endurance as a fringe, unobtainable endeavor, activities like setting FKTs on the AT are really just extensions of a central human necessity: to go outside and outside of ourselves, to test our limits to feel fully alive.
by Abby Levene. Abby is a 10k track athlete--turned triathlete--turned trail runner for adidas who adores alliteration, is addicted to ginger chews, and is looking for a band-aid sponsor. Follow her on Instagram @aplevene and Strava.
Ed. note: Abby doesn’t have any FKTs on this site yet, but just wait.