Traversing the Gender Gap on the Appalachian Trail

In November, the New York Times featured an article written by women’s Appalachian Trail supported record holder Jennifer Pharr Davis. In print, it ran on page B11 under the headline “Gender Gap Narrows as Miles Add Up”. You can find it online in the sports section under the title “On the Longest Hiking Trails, a Woman Finds Equal Footing”.

A Record-Setting Summer

In the world of distance hiking, Jennifer Pharr Davis is a legend. She is the author of two books on the Appalachian Trail, and her supported record for the Appalachian Trail stood for nearly a half decade. This year Pharr Davis’ record was broken by a mere three hours by decorated ultra runner Scott Jurek. The focus of Pharr Davis’ latest article, however, is on another Appalachian Trail record. This summer Heather “Anish” Anderson decimated the self-supported Appalachian Trail record by four days. As the titles, both in print and online, suggest Pharr Davis questions the gender disparity in distance speed records longer than 2,000 miles.

Although the female domination of speed records over 2,000 miles has slowly accumulated over the past few years, from Pharr Davis’ initial record setting hike in 2011 to Anish’s domination of both the PCT and the AT in 2013 and 2015, the nearby world of ultra running has witnessed a blurring of the gender binary since Ann Trason’s domination of the sport in the 1990’s.

It is no surprise then, that this level of excellence bleeds over into the fastpacking world. Athletes like Diane Van Deren, winner of races such as the Yukan Artic Ultra, San Diego 100, Canadian Death Race, and Nikki Kimball, winner of the Ultra Trail de Mont Blanc, Marathon Des Sables, and multiple wins of the Western States 100 Champion, are setting Fastest Known Times on well known long distance hiking trails. Kimball with the Long Trail’s women’s supported FKT and Van Deren with the supported Mountains to Sea FKT.

The Gender Gap and A Shallow Pool

But even as top women emerge in the sports of ultra running and distance hiking, women continue to be a statistical minority in both sports. In 2014, only about 30% of ultra finishers were women. And on the Appalachian Trail, women make up only 25% of completed hikes reported.

Pharr Davis touches on this disparity in the men’s and women’s pool with her comparison of decorated ultra runner Scott Jurek’s record and her own, questioning the mere three hours that now separate the men’s and women’s records.

I was not shocked that Jurek broke my record; I was surprised that he beat it by only three hours. And after rethinking every five-minute pause that I could have eliminated on my hike, I was left with a larger question: How could I — a woman who has never won an ultrarace — compete with Scott Jurek?

This question throws into stark comparison the disparity in the men’s and women’s pools. What are the implications a .3% difference in overall time between the record holder in the men’s pool, arguably the most decorated ultra runner in the united states supported by several large running companies, and the record holder in the women’s pool, a women who has never won an ultra race supported by her husband? Unfortunately, we’ll never know if women continue to be underrepresented in ultra running, fast packing and hiking communities.

An Unlikely Champion

But we do know that champions can come from unusual backgrounds, and that adding to the depth of the women’s field can produce new champions. The subject of Pharr Davis’ article, Heather “Anish” Anderson, never competed in college or high school sports, and is a self proclaimed nerd – struggling with her weight until she found, then dominated, distance hiking.
Supported, self-supported, and unsupported records of long distance trails have fallen by days and even weeks as the sport has become more popular. These records will continue to fall as more folks add their talent, ingenuity, and sweat to the field. Pharr Davis’ recent article is significant because high profile record setting hikes by athletes like Heather “Anish” Anderson and Jennifer Pharr Davis normalize women hikers in a male dominated sport.

Maybe the question that Pharr Davis posits in her article is less important than the publicity it brings to Anish’s hike. Maybe her article will reach the next generation of women hikers. The Heather Anderson’s struggling with weight, the Jennifer Pharr Davis’ on their first thru hike, the Nikki Kimball’s battling depression, the Diane Van Deren’s navigating complications from brain surgery. The women who will become the next champions of our long trails.

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Comments 3

  • Katina Daanen : Nov 11th

    A very well written and thoughtful post. I read Jennifer’s NYTimes article last week and found it equally compelling. I wrote a piece for the Boundary Waters Journal last winter (Paddling with Daughters) when I first read about similar statistics regarding female participation and canoeing. “According to the most recent Department of Agricultural, Forest Service report released in March 2012 and entitled: The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness: Examining Changes in Use, Users and Management Challenges states that only twenty-five percent of all users in 2007 were female, a statistic that has remained flat since the first study was conducted in 1969.” The study goes on to state: “Socio-cultural stereotypes depict adventure and wilderness experiences as simulating ‘voyageur’ travels and opportunities for male bonding and infer outdoor leisure pursuits as not appropriate for women or their gender role due to their lack of strength, skill and experience.”

    But like most activities, the reality is that, with learned skill sets, canoeing [sic] or hiking presents few obstacles to female participation. Stacia Bennett also sums it up in her ATrials post: “Where My Girls At? A Look Into the Absence of Females in the Backpacking World.

    Reply
    • Caet Cash : Nov 21st

      Thank you so much for your thoughtful and informative comment! I was incredibly interested to read the Department of Agricultural Forest Service report’s statistics on women’s participation in ‘voyageur’ travels (I also love the term voyageur travels). I also applaud your piece Paddling with Daughters! Every time depressing statistics come out regarding women’s participation in outdoor sports and recreation, another amazing women authored women centric piece hits the stands to positive reviews by the multi gender hiking community. I’m so excited to be involved in a community that is so supportive of women’s participation – I can’t wait to see where it will lead!

      Reply
  • Claudia Wilson : Nov 27th

    Excellent article with informative links. At 62, I’m planning to hike this next spring, possible the Ouichita Recreation Trail.

    This column is just the type I’ve shared with my daughter, a 27 y/o instructor pilot of the T -38, through the years. It’s essential that girls and women change our perspective of what’s possible for our lives, it’s only then that we can utilize our whole being.

    After learning of these trail blazers, I’m starting this ‘Black Friday’ with a big smile on my face.

    Reply

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