The Greatest Runner On Earth
The word ‘unbelievable’ has forever been attributed to great human achievements, but how many of these feats truly defy belief? How about regularly running 135 miles across one of the hottest strips of land on earth at 50 Degrees Celsius? Or perhaps running a record-setting 2,180-miles in 46 days on the extremely dangerous Appalachian Trail?
Jurek consistently defies all notions of what the body can endure. Whilst sportsmen and women across the globe use blood doping to enhance their performance, Jurek simply gets up every day and puts one foot in front of the other in an incredible testament to human capability. Now aged 42, Scott Jurek, the runner that inspired the worldwide running cultural phenomenon Born To Run, sits down with us to talk about where he finds the strength to do what he does, and how he would like to be remembered.
You were raised in Minnesota, where you lived what you’ve described as an unhealthy lifestyle. You’ve even admitted that you hated running when you started. Looking back on it now how would you sum up your early life?
I came from a very traditional, Mid-West United States kind of background. I really came from nothing. I guess that the one thing that might have prepared me for ultra-marathoning would have been my love for being out in the woods, in nature, but as you mentioned I hated running. It wasn’t something I enjoyed doing. Whereas hunting and fishing and spending time in the outdoors was really what I loved to do. Life was really simple, and that simplicity and that background was just fun. I would build forts and built trails out in the woods and I found enjoyment through these simple things. So even though running wasn’t on my radar, I did it later in high school to stay in shape, and cross country skiing which was more my sport. My family wasn’t into endurance sports, but I did learn how to endure. My mother had multiple sclerosis so I had to deal with that, and my upbringing was very— yeah it was very tough. There were some challenges there that a lot of children maybe don’t grow up with, but it really prepared me to endure. So endurance was something I was embedded with, not from the angle of sport or competition. It was more about enduring life, and dealing with adversity and challenges.
But a lot of young people go through adversity. They don’t all deal with it by running ultra-marathons. Would you say that endurance sport has been a kind of catharsis for you?
Yes, definitely. And you’re right, most people don’t think, “Hey, I’ve got a really tough life so why don’t I make it tougher by running 50 mile track races.” But I think there is something to endurance sports and particularly endurance exercise. If you look at the research on depression even outside of the physical benefits, there are mental and psychological benefits that we’re just beginning to understand in terms of neuro-chemicals and the brain.
"I live a lifetime in a 100 mile race."
Were you depressed?
I wasn’t depressed, but I’m just trying to explain what running did for me. It gave me a better sense of myself. It allowed me to learn how to deal with tough situations, it gave me more self-worth, I felt stronger, more adaptable as a person, beyond the trails or the racecourse. That’s not something most kids do at aged 20.
I just finished the Appalachian Trail this summer, and thousands of young individuals who are trying to figure life out take to the trials and go on these two thousand mile journeys. Look at pilgrimages, throughout history, whether it’s for religious reasons or for life journeys or vision quests. There’s something to it. It’s unorthodox for twenty year olds to decide to go and run 50 miles like myself, but there are things we’re starting to find out scientifically. It may be happening at that neuro-receptor and biochemical level, there might be some benefits there that we’re drawn to, and there are some primal draws there too that we haven’t really understood yet. Humans are good at enduring. Why do people want to explore places? Why do people go on adventures? There’s some kind of primal desire there I think.
I was reading last week about these Japanese marathon monks who do like a thousand marathons in a thousand days and only forty-six of them have ever completed them. I don’t want to get too much into the spiritual side, but is there kind of a sense of looking for some type of enlightenment?
Definitely. I have a lot of friends who came from addictions and have since found ultra-marathoning. It’s definitely something that humans crave. I’ve definitely examined and thought a lot about the meditative aspects of the sport. There’s a benefit and there’s a benefit to going long. I mean everybody’s definition of long is different. There’s the person who gets off the couch and decides to start running, and for them ‘long’ might be thirty minutes. They might get a taste of that, or a sense of calm. Or maybe it is the anti-depressive aspect that’s part of a lot of the biochemicals that are produced in endurance exercise. There is more benefit the longer you go. With the Marathon Monks you mentioned, if you look to people who have survived extreme situations, whether they’re explorers, or people that have been searching for new areas around the world, something drove them to keep pressing forward through that intense struggle and pain. I think there is a spiritual aspect. When you put yourself out there and challenge yourself to the extreme, there is a sense of ease, enlightenment, whatever you want to call it. For somebody who isn’t spiritual it might just be that ease of movement, that flow, a feeling of effortlessness. That’s an amazing feeling, and it doesn’t have to be spiritual but some people have found that to be their understanding of it.
Let’s pick up on the word “flow”. What does that word mean to you?
I think to sum it up, I’d probably go back to the word ease. Sometimes it’s ease of movement, sometimes it’s an ease of brain activity. For me it’s a sense of being in the moment. It’s feeling like there are no other worries. I’m not looking ahead, neither looking back, I’m just focusing on that now element. I wouldn’t say I’ve mastered it, and I think that’s why I keep doing the sport. A lot of people keep saying, “why do you keep doing it?” or, “haven’t you learned enough?” I think you just get a taste of that flow, a taste of ease and a taste of just being in the moment, and you try to get better at it, much like master meditators. It does become a little easier to enter that flow, but how long it lasts really fluctuates. It’s an extreme challenge.
"Look at pilgrimages, throughout history, whether it’s for religious reasons or for life journeys or vision quests. There’s something to it."
Scott Jurek on the culture of ultra-running
So you’ve done the Badwater Ultramarathon a couple of times, the Western States 100 mile endurance run a couple times. For the people out there who perhaps don’t know what you do, first of all, can you describe the culture of ultramarathon running for those of us that don’t know so much about it? The camaraderie and the philosophy behind it.
The way I would describe the community is kind of like a movement of people, or a cultural— I don’t want to say revolution because that might be a little more extreme but it’s kind of just like an eclectic diverse group of individuals. You might have doctors and lawyers and engineers and computer scientists on one hand and on the other hand you have blue-collar workers. Young, old, male, female, we kind of all come together and celebrate a race. I always liken a race to a celebration. It’s not a band of hippies at all but it’s similar in that there’s such a diverse group of people all coming together for a kind of tour, and the tour is the next race. Some of those are the big races you mentioned like the Western States, or Badwater – Iconic legendary races like the iconic legendary music venues. You’re all out there experiencing the music, so to speak, out there on the trails suffering. Some are suffering longer than others, some are moving faster and some are moving slower, but we’re all going the 100 miles or the 50 miles together.
So often, particularly in the US, we have such a polarised political climate that people are put into categories. The thing I love about ultras is that afterwards I’ll be hanging out and having a beer with these guys and gals I’ve been running alongside, and chances are we probably would never hang out with each other normally in life. Maybe politically we’re on opposite sides but we’re all brought together. It’s wonderful to have that exchange occurring, and people helping other people, whether someone gets injured on the trail or they’re just having a bad moment. You still have the competition and the competition is useful but we’re a really tight-knit community. You crack open a beer and you have some good stories and laughs, even though maybe you’ve been fighting it out and making each other hurt during a race. Maybe the competition sometimes brings out negative things, but a lot of the time it can be very positive. It can push people. That social aspect is part of the reason I kept going back.
When everything came to light about Lance Armstrong and blood-doping for so many years, of course questions started to be asked about drugs in other endurance sports. Now it seems not a day that goes by that there’s a story in the papers about some athlete being suspected of using performance-enhancing drugs. Is that a subject that is brought up a lot in the world of ultramarathon running?
It definitely comes up. Part of the big thing with endurance training is pain killers. A lot of the time you’re in the best shape possible but it’s your ability to deal with a lot of pain that makes the difference, and some people are better at suffering than others. There’s not a lot of money in this sport, so if you’re motivated to win a race it’s more about ego. You’re not going to get rich in the sport of ultra-running. I’ve been tested and seen testing at events. At USADA I was one of the few ultra-runners who was actually tested, which is the problem in our sport. It’s so haphazard and so inconsistent. Are there people doping? I can’t say that there aren’t, but I can’t say that there are either. Once there becomes more money involved it’s much more likely. We found this in cycling.
I’m not even a fan of taking ibuprofen, but there are ultra-runners who take copious amounts of ibuprofen to try and numb certain pain, whether it’s an injury they have or whether they’re just like “gosh I hate how I feel at mile 80.” So that’s happening and that’s perfectly legal, but at the same time it’s kind of against my philosophy personally.
Have you been around people that have died doing this sport?
No but I’ve been around people who have been hospitalized, people that have had renal failure. And there’s a lot of debate in the endurance community about whether copious amounts of ibuprofen causes renal failure. Maybe ibuprofen is a contributor, but the reality is it’s just not good for your body. Part of the reason we’re out there is we’re going to be in discomfort. I’m not saying I love discomfort and I’m a masochist but if you’re taking something to numb pain while you’re out there, to me it makes no sense because that’s the whole reason we are out there. I think one of the beautiful things about this sport as I mentioned earlier is to be in an uncomfortable adverse situation. Why do we run races in Badwater in the heat of the summer? Why do we run Death Valley? Why do we run races in extreme altitude? Because that’s when the breakthrough happens. That’s when you get to that state of ease, and to get to the state of ease you have to go through a lot of discomfort.
"It’s your ability to deal with a lot of pain that makes the difference, and some people are better at suffering than others."
Scott Jurek on dealing with pain
What is going on in your mind during a 100 mile race?
I live a lifetime in a 100 mile race. I go through all kinds of lines of thinking and all kinds of crazy emotions. You go through those moments of total despair because in 100 miles something will go wrong. I’ve never had a race where it goes perfectly start to finish. I think living that lifetime is part of the beauty of it. You go through these intense highs and lows, sometimes thinking strategy and sometimes thinking the bare minimum. Sometimes I set alarms on my watch because it’s hard to remember when the last time that I ate something was. My mind wanders. Sometimes it plays the most heinous tricks on me and will try to get me to think “this is crazy, you’ve gotta stop, why keep suffering? Wouldn’t it be nice to be back at the finish line? Just call it good for today, you don’t have to do this.” Those are the things that I go through. Even after all these years I’m not immune to all that. I have the same thoughts as someone who has never exercised before, deciding for the first time and struggling. It’s hard but it’s the beauty of it. When you get to the finish line you’re on top of the world. You feel like you can do anything and that’s a powerful thing in life these days. There are few times in life where people can feel that. You can’t find it on the internet. You can’t get that via a device. You have to get out there and experience it, and when you experience it you’re like, “wow, there is a reason to keep pressing forward.” And you need to find a way to keep pressing forward, because life is hardly easy.
I first found about you when I read the book Born to Run. We interviewed the author Christopher MacDougal and one of the things he says about you is, “It’s not so much that Scott Jurek loves running, it’s that he’s a very good runner and he wants to be noteworthy and accomplish something. It’s a combination of the vocation and the need for distinction.” Would you agree with that?
I agree with it. I’ve tried to do things because I want them in my career and not because I think this is what I need to do. It’s kind of funny because people seem to think I had some kind of master plan. I’ve just tried to live my life and follow the passion I have for this sport, you know, this is who I am. I do these things because I love the sport, but it goes beyond that. I love the fact that someone can go out and run today because they got inspired, whether they read Born to Run, or whether they saw something else about ultra-marathons, that’s a magical thing.
For me I want to be the best person I can be, the best athlete, the best runner. But I want to come away from the experiences as a better person too. To me, running is life. I think a lot of people use other vehicles to learn about themselves and to get more out of life but for me it is running. Maybe that’s what Chris is trying to say. It’s not a job, it’s a passion. It’s not something I envision making a living out of, and in fact I have always had a regular job. Now I have the very fortunate opportunity to inspire people, to speak and to write, which I think is great. I get just as much out of that nowadays as winning races. Winning races is great but nothing beats having someone say, “hey, you really inspired me.” That’s awesome, and they’ll pass that inspiration onto someone else. That’s the beauty too, this is something to be shared.
You were the guy that was the Indiana Jones (Born To Run). You were the guy who went and got down and dirty with an incredible indigenous tribe who specialise in extreme running, the Tarahumara, which is basically every guy’s childhood dream right?
It’s funny because how Chris talked about it, like “oh you want to go down and have a real good old fashioned western battle with them.” It wasn’t like that. I went down there because I really wanted to learn. I’d read so much about them. I’d been a student of the sport and I loved the history, and an indigenous culture which had running at its core fascinated me. People might think it’s different because of Born to Run but at the core of it I just wanted to go and run with these legendary runners who have been living the same way for hundreds if not thousands of years. So for me it was a dream to be able to hang out and just run with them, not race them. It was like adventure travel, it wasn’t like race travel. Chris did a great job of telling a story but personally I was just fascinated with them as a culture and a people.
I read a report recently that said that 80% of Americans don’t get enough physical activity and it leads to 5 million deaths a year. You have one of the highest rates of cardiovascular disease in the world, which accounts for 48% of deaths. There’s this proliferation of inactivity across the world.
Yeah definitely. I try not to be too much of a pessimist but I’m there with you with that. How can this be happening? But as we started off saying in this interview, like 98% of Americans I used to hate running. The beauty of something like Born to Run is that it inspired so many people to get off the couch and start running. It inspired this whole new wave of runners saying, “I can do this. Running can be fun.” A major problem here in the US is that we have children growing up with an intense hatred for exercise. I think there are little success stories amidst all the facts and statistics of disease and obesity. I think that we can get people more excited and maybe change the viewpoint on something as simple as running, a beautiful form of exercise. You don’t really need anything to do it. That’s what I’m excited about, bringing the fun back into exercise as well as people finding better ways of eating, whether it’s vegan or just more local. I think there’s a lot of hope out there though you can’t help but get down when you look at the numbers.
"Sometimes I set alarms on my watch because it’s hard to remember when the last time that I ate something was. My mind wanders. Sometimes it plays the most heinous tricks on me and will try to get me to think “this is crazy, you’ve gotta stop, why keep suffering?"
You turned vegan in 1997. There are athletes like Tom Brady on plant-based diets and then you have companies like Hampton Creek who we’ve featured, making hugely successful plant-based products. Are we seeing a new dawn? Perhaps you can talk about your own experiences and what we can expect to see in the future on a more governmental level?
I think you’re seeing the power of the plant-based community with companies like Hampton Creek. I don’t want to be all conspiracy theorist but there’s a very strong meat and dairy industry, particularly in the US, and they’re tied in with government and heavy lobbyists. We’re seeing a revolution in that there’s a demand in the public for more natural foods and so a lot of larger companies who don’t sell the healthiest food are buying better foods. I’m not saying all natural based food companies are the healthiest, but they are inspiring people. If you have a plant-based diet you’re not going to turn into a hippy. I think that stigma is being erased which is great. And there are a lot of food scientists right now producing pretty amazing products. Again, they’re processed, but if you’re trying to get people to eat fewer animals, which we know we must, you have to be able to offer people options while they begin to change their habits.
The more individuals who are eating plant-based foods the better our planet will be, and the better the treatment of animals would be. If we could just get people even eating less heavily industrialised processed meat and dairy it would be a great thing.
But we are still continuing to live longer.
We are living longer for sure, because we have an amazing health-care system in the Western world. But we’re living longer with more chronic disease, and that’s a big issue. People are living longer but, you know, my own mother suffered with MS for over thirty years. Whether it’s CVD and diabetes when we know what we know that we can prevent a lot of it with exercise and diet. Even looking at cancer, it’s caused by a lot of things, but we know that what we’re putting into our bodies on the nutritional side does play a role into certain cancers.
You’re saying that’s conclusive?
I’m not saying it’s 100 percent, and I’m not the scientist, but there’s more and more evidence that there are certain things on a nutritional level that can contribute to causing certain types of cancers. To me the bigger issue is getting people to eat more whole foods.
Scott my last question to you is, what would you like your legacy to be?
I’ve lived a lot and done a lot of things. I’ve transitioned into a lot of different pathways, but to me I don’t look at it in terms of getting to an end point. I want to keep learning through life. Life is about learning, about transformation, and when you stop learning you stop living. I love being in the mountains, I love racing on the trails, but I also have this intense passion and interest in history. So I’ve done decathlons in Athens, I’ve done that three times, the Badwater one which was on road, the 24 hour race, and I was doing the Appalachian trail this summer. I’ve always wanted to keep trying new things, to keep learning, and to keep that passion. Right now I’m not as interested in running 100 mile races but these adventure runs, these long multi-day journeys. I want to be remembered for being willing to try all these different disciplines within the sport, as well as having an intense passion for the sport and the people around it, and giving back.
There will be a point where I don’t want to push my body as much. I’m 42 now. The thing I love now is going out to speak and volunteer my time, whether it’s working on trails or volunteering with the sport. I want to find ways we can improve others’ lives and also stay true to who I am. I think that’s the key. Transform myself, but stay true to who I am. I’m not a perfect specimen of an athlete, I’ve got one leg that’s shorter than the other, I don’t have the perfect gait, but I have this intense passion and desire to be the best person I can be and the best athlete.
Photos by https://luisescobar.smugmug.com/
I’m not all about racing, but the Pacific Crest Trail was something that inspired me. It goes from Canada to Mexico through California, Washington and Oregon. That trail was a big inspiration. It’s a 26 mile trail.
It was good because I read it during the time when I was first getting into ultramarathons.
I have a very eclectic taste in music. I was listening to this at the period of time where I really looked up to musicians who were carving out a niche genre in the Grunge era. Living in Seattle right after that era was something I’d never thought I’d do. It was a huge influence.