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Book review: Pursuit of Endurance, by Jennifer Pharr-Davis

Cover of media copy

I assumed The Pursuit of Endurance: Harnessing the Record-Breaking Power of Strength and Resilience, by Jennifer Pharr Davis, would be about her record-breaking hike of the Appalachian Trail in 2011, when she (with the help of her committed husband, Brew) finished the route in a mind-blowing 46.5 days, an average of about 47 miles per day. It’s the obvious story to tell, and the description by publisher Penguin Random House seemed to support my expectation:

Screenshot from the publisher Penguin Random House

Review: Pursuit of Endurance

In reality, some of Pursuit is about Jennifer and her feat, but most of it’s not.

For those wanting a play-by-play of her epic, Pursuit will leave you wanting more. It’s written in the first-person and infused with personal anecdotes, but Jennifer dedicates only one chapter (out of eleven) exclusively to experience, and those pages are shared with biographical context that offer a “why” and “how” for the “what.”

In Pursuit, Jennifer mostly writes as an insightful journalist, not the stellar athlete that she is. It may have been more aptly titled, Profiles of Endurance, as she flies around the country to interview and share the stories of a dozen long-distance superstars with ties to the Appalachian Trail.

The who’s-who list includes Warren Doyle, David Horton, Scott Williamson, Andrew Thompson, Heather Anderson, and finally Scott Jurek, who broke Jennifer’s fastest known time (FKT) in 2015 and who released his own book about it in April, North: Finding My Way While Running the Appalachian Trail. Each of these individuals get their own chapter.

The three remaining chapters are dedicated to the history of speed records generally and on the Appalachian Trail, the psychology and science of endurance (which rely on interviews with her former professor, Dr. Czech, and of Shawn Bearden of Science of Ultra), and the future of FKT’s.

At the end of the first chapter, Jennifer more accurately describes the thrust of her book:

Scan from chapter 1

While it was not the approach that I expected, I bet it probably worked better for Jennifer. I imagine that retelling her AT FKT proved difficult: within a few months of her finishing, many of the details that make for a rich read were probably foggy or forgotten entirely, and sadly they were not captured at the time by a chronicler or camera crew. I also wonder if her head and heart were no longer into it — she and Brew were probably ready to define themselves in another way.

Her approach probably worked better for Pursuit, too. By returning to FKT’s foremost as a researcher and writer, Jennifer was able to produce a personable, colorful, interesting, and sometimes funny read, rather than a tediously boring and shallow trip report. It turns out that Jennifer is a skilled story-teller, and she’s able to get at the heart of what drives her subjects and to effectively share their stories. Perhaps ironically, Pursuit will remain relevant far longer than most speed records.


Meet Jennifer at Neptune Mountaineering, June 10

Jennifer will be speaking at Neptune Mountaineering in Boulder on Sunday, June 10 at 5pm. Event details.

Brew and their two children will be there as well, and afterwards Amanda and I will likely to be heading next door to Southern Sun or Under the Sun for dinner and a beer. Please join us.


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4 Responses to Book review: Pursuit of Endurance, by Jennifer Pharr-Davis

    • Andrew Skurka June 6, 2018 at 1:29 pm #

      I believe that book is only about her first AT thru-hike, not her speed record attempt.

  1. Ryne Anderson June 6, 2018 at 9:15 pm #

    Halfway through her new book and loving it.

    She did write about her FKT. https://www.amazon.com/Called-Again-Story-Love-Triumph/dp/0825307457

  2. Sean June 25, 2018 at 2:35 pm #

    All three books are fantastic!

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