'Eat & Run': Scott Jurek is one ultra-amazing athlete

Endurance athlete Scott Jurek has run, and won, some of the world's longest and most physically demanding races, including the Badwater 135-mile ultramarathon through Death Valley, where the temperature can slide past 120 degrees even in the shade; the Spartathlon, a 153-mile foot race that traces Greek messenger Pheidippides' historic run in 490 B.C. from Athens to Sparta; and California's rugged 100-mile Western States Endurance Run, which he won a record seven times in a row. Yet as he concludes in his winning new memoir, "Eat & Run: My Unlikely Journey to Ultramarathon Greatness," what matters more than victory is what you do to reach it, and how.

"Eat & Run: My Unlikely Journey to Ultramarathon Greatness"
By Scott Jurek
Houghton Mifflin ($26).

"No one wants to win more than I do," he writes about the grueling sport of ultrarunning, a niche but increasingly popular sport in which he's become a superstar. "What I've learned in ultras, though, is that where I finish is merely an outcome. Have I prepared? Am I focused?" And, perhaps most importantly, "Have I pushed myself as far, and as hard, as possible?"

As you learn in Mr. Jurek's introspective and at times painfully honest book, the answer is a resounding "yes."

Page 1 finds the Minnesota-born athlete 70 miles into his first Badwater, vomiting his guts out on the side of the road, certain he can't take another single step let alone keep running 65 miles in the soul-sucking heat. But "quit" is not in this 38-year-old runner's vocabulary.

He not only powers through the pain, but does so in record time, winning the race in 24 hours and 36 minutes. Even more amazing, and the focus of much of the book, is that he did it on a vegan diet.

Mr. Jurek's deep connection with food started early, albeit in a different direction. Midwesterners are known for their love of hunting and fishing, and he learned both at a young age, along with what to do with the spoils. His mother developed multiple sclerosis when he was in elementary school, requiring him to take on many of the household chores, including cooking. His disciplinarian father, who had to work two jobs to make ends meet, wasn't the type to listen to complaints.

"Sometimes you just do things" became his mantra.

It wasn't until high school, we learn, that he started running, not so much as an escape but as a way to build up his endurance for the high school cross-country ski team.

In college, he discovered he had a talent for chugging monster distances of up to four hours. In 1994, he ran his first ultra with his friend and training partner Dusty Olson, the Minnesota Voyageur 50, and finished second. And a side career to his job as a physical therapist was born.

Books about nutrition can be boring, but Mr. Jurek is a talented storyteller, weaving his discovery of the vegan lifestyle into an inspiring tale of how a skinny, poor kid who had everything stacked against him -- including a mother who couldn't walk for most of his life -- learned not just to adapt, but to draw strength from life's difficulties.

Drive, ambition, dedication -- Mr. Jurek reveals he has all of that in spades, along with a single-mindedness about running that's sometimes hard to believe and just might make weekend runners feel like total slackers. (In 2007, he ran, and won, a 100-miler on a sprained ankle and he did the same in an even longer race in Greece with a broken toe. Seriously.)

With his breezy prose, Mr. Jurek -- a sought-after motivational speaker -- at times can seem somewhat simplistic as a natural-born athlete with an almost freakish ability. But that's also what makes the book such a fascinating (and fun) read.

He also appears to be a pretty good plant-based cook, which is encouraging for those trying to eat more vegetables and whole grains. He gave up meat in 1997 and became vegan two years later.

Experienced runners might wish he had included more of the dirty details of running ultras. For instance, do you really get blisters in places you can't fathom, and how many miles must you log before your toenails fall off? It's also disappointingly short on his supporting role in 2009's best-selling "Born to Run," which detailed the 50-mile race Mr. Jurek ran with the elusive Tarahumara tribe in Mexico's Copper Canyon in 2006 -- an event that significantly raised his profile among non-runners. (He devotes fewer than 10 pages to the race.)

Still, there's plenty of dish for people who want to know more about the sport of ultramarathoning. Each of the 22 chapters ends with a favorite plant-based recipe, and peppered throughout are nutritional tidbits and studies. The book also includes practical training and technique tips, the biggest of which is this: You can be serious about your running, and have to be if you want to succeed, but don't take yourself too seriously.

"Racing ultras," he says, "requires absolute confidence tempered with intense humility."

• • •

The following is Gretchen McKay's conversation with ultramarathoner Scott Jurek, who lives in Boulder, Colo., and is on tour to promote "Eat & Run: My Unlikely Journey to Ultramarathon Greatness."

He was speaking on June 7 from his hotel room in Chicago, where his book signing/talk with fellow author/runner Chris McDougall quickly sold out. Parts have been edited for clarity.

Why a book now?

People have been begging for it for years. When are you writing a nutrition book, a running book, a cookbook ... But I didn't have the time, and knew how much effort books take, so I put it off. Then a friend said, 'You have to do it,' and I got me on the mindset.

I feel there's a lot of similarities in my life people can relate to in the book. It's not just, 'Scott's a crazy ultramarathoner and only eats plants!' It's really about the journey of life, and how it can take you in different directions and shape you into the person you're going to become. I'm testament to that.

How so?

I didn't come from a family of endurance athletes. I grew up hunting and fishing and my mother couldn't walk for most of my life. Everything was stacked against me. But the experiences I had in my childhood and through life, and the people who inspired me, they changed that way of thinking. That's what it takes - once you believe you can do something, once that switch turns on, it's amazing.

But not everyone can run as fast as you.

I've run races where people take twice as long as I do, but they're on the same course and the same journey. That's the important thing. You're on your own journey and headed toward your own destination. Everyone will have struggles in life. I experience pain and discomfort just like anyone else. It's not all smooth sailing for Scott Jurek.

Ease in life comes with learning how to adapt. It's through struggles and challenges that you learn the most.

How easy was it to go from eating meat to a plant-based diet?

It was challenging. The Internet was barely being born when I started, so I really had to dive into the research. But I learned you can get everything you need, including protein; once I turned on the switch, it was like running -- not that hard. Ultras aren't easy on the body, but on a plant-based diet, my recovery times went down, I'm more energetic, I feel younger. I look at it as cheap health insurance.

And now?

It's second nature.

Everybody should be thinking about their diet, whether it's plant-based or not. But our society doesn't emphasize that; you just drive up to the fast-food window. The goal of my book is to get people to think about their diets. You have to be aware of what you're eating.

Where can the rest of us start?

The first step is to pick a new food, then try a couple of recipes with it throughout the week -- maybe a vegetable or new protein source such as tempeh [made from fermented soybeans]. Ideally, you want more whole sources, such as whole-grain brown rice. Also, incorporate beans and legume, which are high in fiber.

Does a vegan diet provide enough calories for someone who's running up to 40 miles a day?

When you switch to a plant-based diet, the tendency for some athletes is to eat less because you're thinking, 'I can't eat this or that.' So that's the thing: you have to learn to incorporate calories. For instance, I probably burn between 5,000-6,000 calories on my longer training runs, which can take up a big chunk of the day.

You can't survive those runs on energy gels and Clif bars, obviously.

You have to practice fueling and hydrating while you run, but yes, I eat real food during races. Rice balls, hummus wraps, bean burritos. Also rice milk and protein drinks to break up that constant carbohydrate stream.

Is there anything you miss? Do you ever feel deprived?

Not really. I just enjoy the tastes and flavors of the food I am able to eat.

Isn't ultrarunning really hard on the body?

I've had my fair share of blisters, but the body adapts to those things. Calluses form, your feet toughen up. You learn that not all pain is significant. You get used to things and your knees don't hurt as much. It's all about practice and learning how your body responds.

I've had very few injuries, other than ankle sprains and knee problems. I don't have the perfect stride, in fact, I have scoliosis on one side. So I'm testament you can learn to run within your own body. You just have to be willing to listen to it, and when injury happens, learn to deal with it.

Why has ultrarunning gotten so popular?

I think it's because it is a very simple form of exercise. You don't need team or equipment, or a lot of fancy clothing. You don't need to rely on others, though it's a very social community. Also, it's exciting -- during races, people are smiling and having fun. You meet all these people you normally wouldn't hang out with.

Still, it takes a certain kind of person ...

A lot of people think ultrarunners are quirky and eclectic, and it does tend to draw addictive personalities. But it's more that willingness to explore your potential, the desire to explore the unknown.

What's your favorite race?

The Hard Rock 100 [in Silverton, Colo.]. It's extremely difficult, but there's something about the magic of the mountains and how big they are, and how small it makes me feel. It's humbling but inspiring.

In the book, you write about the difficult relationship you had with your father. Has he seen you run?

He has, one race. He's just now getting to understand it, and is very proud of me, much like my mother was [who died of MS in 2009].

Are you still competing?

Yes, but not as often. With my busy schedule, I'm picking my battles right now. I've been racing 18 years now, and physically my body is holding up, but mentally it is hard to put that extra oomph into racing and training. There's a few more things I want to do, but I'm taking it down a notch. I'm planing on running in the [International Association of Ultramarathoners] 24-hour world championships in Katowice, Poland, in September.

And then?

I want to get more involved in nonprofit work. I'm headed to Kenya for a nature conservation project and will go to Ethiopia this winter with a group that provides cataract surgery. In the long term, I want to do more with the country's exercise movement. It's great when I race, but I want to pass the excitement of running onto others, with the importance of taking care of your body.

One last question. What brand shoes do you wear?

Brooks. PureGrit for trails, Racer ST or Green Silence for road events.


Gretchen McKay is a Post-Gazette staff writer: gmckay@post-gazette.com. First Published June 17, 2012 4:00 AM


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