Jeff Pearlman

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Scott Jurek

#54
America's greatest ultra-runner discusses the joy of the long run, the hell of the long run and why soda is Satan dressed in a bottle. POSTED June 13, 2012

Scott Jurek is crazy.

I mean this as a compliment, but primarily in “This dude must be totally out of his mind!” sorta way. I mean, how else to explain a man whose road racing resume includes victories in the 153-mile Spartathlon, the Badwater 135-mile Ultramarathon, the Miwok 100K and the Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run (he’s captured seven of those). Jurek is, without question, America’s greatest ultra-runner which, in my book, makes him one of America’s greatest athletes—period. Hell, try asking LeBron James or Sidney Crosby or Bryce Harper to run a mere 20 miles. Really, ask.

I digress. Jurek has been a star in running circles for years, but he emerged as something of a national athletic icon three years ago, with the publication of the runaway best seller, Born to Run (Jeff’s note: A truly fantastic work). Now, Jurek is out with his own book, Eat & Run: My Journey to Ultramarathon Greatness, which details his life as an elite athlete and vegan. In today’s Quaz, Scott discusses the joy of the long run, the hell of the long run, why soda is devilish, why Celine Dion ranks high and why an old, washed-up runner (like, ahem, me) can still PR. Scott is a prolific Tweeter, and one can visit his lovely website by clicking here.

Scott Jurek’s long journey is complete. He has reached The Quaz …

JEFF PEARLMAN: Scott, as one of the apparently 8 trillion people who read “Born to Run,” it’s thrilling to have you here. So thanks. First question is a basic one—how did “Born to Run” change your life? Like, literally, how are things different now than they were before its release?

SCOTT JUREK: Thanks for having me. BTR (now that I’m an author, I feel like I can speak in publishease) changed my life in some subtle and not-so-subtle ways. First, the subtle ways: Hanging out with the Tarahumara in Mexico’s Copper Canyons reaffirmed the things I had been learning the past decade or so—things like the value of being connected to the land, the joy and nobility of simple living, the health benefits of a plant based diet.

In terms of the way I actually live my life, BTR didn’t change it so much as it made others aware of it. Before BTR, ultramarathoning was viewed as really, really out there. Now it’s just really (singular) out there.  On a day to day level, more people recognize me in airports and on the trails, I pose for more pictures and it really grew my fanbase.

J.P.: I think of myself as a runner. I ran in college, I’m about to do my 12th marathon. Good, strong, above-average American runner. Yet even with my background, and devoting years of my life to this sport, I don’t get one thing: How the fuck can running a 135-mile race in 130-degree heat be fun? I mean, is “fun” an adjective that can even be used for the actuality of the competition? Or is it more fun knowing you’ve done it in hindsight?

S.J.: That’s a great question, and there’s nothing like an ultra to get at the nature of ‘fun.’ If you’ve run 11 marathons, you already know the answer to this one.  Hanging out with friends, socializing over good food and drinks—that is fun. No question about it. But running a marathon—or writing a book, or building a bookshelf, or committing to the hard work of loving someone—that’s fun squared, or cubed or multiplied to the nth power.

It’s not that every second of the activity makes you smile and sigh with delight. The opposite, in fact. It’s the deep, deep satisfaction you can get in doing something—in committing to something that requires your total concentration and effort.  I’m definitely, definitely happy when I’m done with a race. In fact, like every runner, I often think ‘never again’ the minute I step across the finish line. But a couple days, or weeks later, I’m ready to go again. It’s because the activity itself allows you to find your limits, and then to go beyond them. Fun, but much more than fun.

J.P.: I’ve experienced my own runner’s high—when I’m gliding along, thoughtless and, simultaneously, euphoric. But what’s your runner’s high? Do you even believe, literally, in such a thing? And is it at all quantifiable?

S.J.: “Gliding, thoughtless and euphoric” is as good a description as I’ve heard of runner’s high and it perfectly describes what I feel. I would add that I feel connected … to myself, to the land, to something outside myself. If that sounds religious, or spiritual, it’s because I believe that running can get you to the same place that prayer, or meditation does. In touch with something that we’re not always aware of.  I don’t just believe in runner’s high, I know it. The more studies are done on neuroplasticity and the brain, the closer scientists are getting to pinpointing the exact mechanism of the runner’s high. It pretty clearly involves dopamine and endorphins and synaptic transmission, but for now, I like the mystery and simplicity of this equation: Running hard=feeling high.

J.P.: As I write this, I’m drinking a Diet Pepsi, having just finished my dinner of salmon burger, salad and ice cream. You follow a 100-percent plant-based diet. A. Why? B. What does this entail? C. How has it helped you? D. Is soda the liquid devil from hell?

S.J.: A. It’s better for my body and it’s better for the planet and it’s better for a lot of animals who aren’t being tortured on my behalf (and I say that as someone who grew up hunting and fishing and would kill and eat an animal if my survival depended on it). B. Making more conscious decisions about the food I buy and cook and eat. And (this surprises people), eating food that tastes better and is more filling than a non-plant-based diet. C. I’ve gotten faster and stronger. My cholesterol and blood pressure have dropped. My ’good cholesterol’ has shot up.. Injuries that sideline others for weeks and months clear up within days. I sleep better. I’ve gained muscle and lost fat.  You name it, it’s gotten better. D. Yes.

J.P.: Your website notes that, for you, “everything changed” in 1994, when you ran your first Minnesota Voyageur, a 50-mile race in which you placed second. What does “everything changed” mean here? Who were you, as an athlete, before the Voyager—and what, specifically, snapped to make you a different athlete?

S.J.: That race marked the first time I beat the greatest natural athlete I had ever known, my best friend and, in many ways, polar opposite: Dusty Olson. Dusty is the guy who always egged me on to do more, and he’s the guy who was always pushing boundaries while I was always following rules. It was training for the Voyageur with Dusty that I fell in with distance trail running (up until then I had hated running and done it only as a way to stay in shape for cross country skiing.) Running for hours and hours with Dusty showed me that running could lead me to an altered state.

In the race itself, Dusty lost a shoe and I passed him. I had passed him before, but he had always recovered and then passed me. But in 1994, he couldn’t catch me. That was the race I realized I could beat Dusty. And if I could beat Dusty, I knew I could compete at the highest levels of the sport.

J.P.: Highest moment of your running career? Lowest moment?

S.J.: If you run ultras, there are lots of low moments, usually involving fatigue, hunger, dehydration and doubt. They’re almost invariably followed by high moments—which involve simply going on.

A more profound low moment came in 2010. I was a champion, a record setter, a sponsored athlete, but my mother had recently died, my wife and I had divorced, a good friend had killed himself and my best friend wasn’t talking to me. Even racing wasn’t giving me the sustenance it always had.

One of the highest moments of my running career followed that low point. It occurred when I ran the Tonto Trail with my buddy Joe. There was no stopwatch, no award, no first place … there was no race at all. It was just a friend, and me, and the desert sky and running. That reconnected me with the sport, and with myself. My best friend and I are pals again. And I’m getting married to the love of my life in July.

J.P.: I feel burdened. I really do. I’m burdened by wanting my two kids to be happy; by wanting my wife to find a great job; by the prospects of Barack Obama losing; by climate change; by taking my dog out to poop at 11 pm. This is sort of a guess from afar, but you seem jarringly un-burdened. Am I right? And, if so, how does one reach that point?

S.J.: I might seem un-burdened, but believe me, we all carry some heavy weight. It’s part of being human. I think the trick is to accept what’s inevitable—loss, age, death—and to fight as hard as we can to improve what we can—our health, the lives of those we love, the planet—and then the weight doesn’t seem so heavy. Plus, as you, Mr. 11-time-marathoner, know, when you’re running distance, and your muscles are loose and your breathing is steady, even the heaviest of burdens see to lighten. There is nothing like exercise to  improve everything.

J.P.: Do you fear the inevitability of death? Why or why not?

S.J.: No. See above.

J.P.: Your new book, Eat & Run, debuted last week. As a tortured writer, I must ask—why would you, a happy runner and eater, dive into the world of books? And what was the actual process like? Did you sit down with a laptop and write? Did you have a co-author collect your thoughts and cobble them together? And what’s the goal here?

S.J.: People have been asking me to write a memoir or a cookbook for years so it’s been on my To Do list, just not at the top. After Born to Run, some people in publishing thought my story would be interesting to a lot of readers, and that a lot of the lessons I had learned about running, and eating, and health and fitness, would be information a lot of people would want. I dove in because I actually like talking to people, and helping people, and I thought this would be a great way to reach a large audience.

The process went like this: My co-author, Steve Friedman, moved to Boulder and spent more than a month with me, hanging out everyday. We talked. And talked. And talked. He asked me about times in my life I hadn’t thought about for decades. I told him about races, and my childhood, and my pal Hippie Dan and the time I could see my puke evaporating as fast as it hit the baking pavement in Death Valley. (He loved that detail). We talked about bad times and good, love and loss, and, of course—eating and running. After that month, Steve started putting together the story of my life and sending it to me and then I’d say no, that didn’t happen that way, and holy shit, that’s exactly the way that happened. And then he’d write some more, and rewrite, and we’d talk some more. It was messy and difficult and exhausting and thrilling. Kind of like an ultramarathon.

J.P.: You were born in 1973. I was born in 1972. I’m feeling, slowly but undeniably, that my body is starting to resent me. It takes me longer to recover, my back aches, weight is harder to get off. Is this just the inevitability of becoming an old fart, or are there genuine ways to turn back the hands of running time? And can a man PR in his 40s?

S.J.: Yes, Jeff, there are definitely ways to turn back the hands of running time. Lose the liquid devil from hell. Move toward a plant-based diet. Read my book, naturally. And yes, I promise, a man can PR in his 40s.

QUAZ EXPRESS WITH SCOTT JUREK

• Have you ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, details: No, but Chris McDougall (author of Born to Run and a meat-eater) says if I did, he would eat my flesh, because it would be lean, grass fed and organic. I think that’s kind of weird, but Chris can be weird sometimes.

Rank in order (favorite to least): Celine Dion, smell of bacon, Alberto Salazar, Woodrow Wilson, The Godfather, Hall and Oates, iPhones, Eli Manning, chocolate bars, a cold beer: 1. IPhones (the only way I keep up with my emails); 2. Chocolate bars (as long as they’re dark); 3. Celine Dion (my mother’s absolute favorite); 4. Beer (IPA’s, really anything, hell I grew up in northern Minnesota in the land of Schlitz); 5. Salazar (running legend); 6. Godfather; 7. Smell of bacon (I grew up hunting); 8. Woodrow Wilson (Who doesn’t like the League of Nations?); 9. Hall and Oates; 10. Eli Manning (When I root for NFL teams, it’s for the places where I lived—the Vikings. Although I am forever scarred from their multiple implosions in the playoffs).

• New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg wants to limit soda sizes available in restaurants. Proponents say it’s a great idea that’ll help keep people healthier. Opponents say it’s too much government in our lives. You?: It is a great idea that will keep people healthier. Taxing it to pay for high health costs like cigarettes might be more capitalistic. As to whether it’s too much government in our lives, I’ll pass. I want all political persuasions to read Eat & Run.

• My wife recently bought a “running skirt.” I told her this was bullshit and no self-respecting runner would wear one. Am I right or wrong?: The short answer, it depends on how short it is! I have run through lightning storms and faced down mountain lions on deserted trails. I know danger. This is a dangerous question. I fully support you and your wife as you come to a loving, happy agreement. Whew.

• How do you remember Micah True?: I ran with friends searching for him in one of his favorite places on the planet, the Gila Wilderness. A sacred place for native peoples and for Micah. Despite the reason we were assembled there I can’t imagine a better way to send Micah off on his next journey.

• Five reasons one should make Boulder, Colorado his/her next vacation spot?: 1. Access to the mountains; 2. Fitness seems to be a civic duty; 3. 360 days of sunshine; 4. The farmers market; 5. Best Ethiopian restaurant on Earth.

• Weirdest place you’ve ever gone to the bathroom?: I’ll just say this—not in the bathroom.

• Is Steve Jobs more responsible for improving or ruining interpersonal communication? Both.

• Best joke you know?: Why can’t you play poker in the jungle?  Too many cheetahs.

  • http://earnyourdonuts.blogspot.com Brian

    Nice interview. 26.2 is enough for me (hell, after the marathon I’m signed up for next Spring, 13.1 or 10K is probably enough for me), but I really enjoy reading about the extreme races Scott and his competitors run. Appreciated the chance to learn more about him.

  • Just Me

    Scott Jurek, meh, he must be on performance enhancing drugs. Maybe some kind of blood doping. No way anyone can be that good at one thing…

  • Admirer

    Scott Jurek is one of my all -time heroes. Not just for his running (he’s only one yr older than me and that gives me hope for the long haul), but because adversity brought out the best in him. He could have chosen to be a ‘victim’ of his circumstances, but he chose a healthy way to deal with his pain instead. I want my older kids to read his book. Is it in audio? Couldn’t find it on Amazon, if it is. We are going on a road trip soon and I would love for my family to hear it. So inspirational, especially for those of us who didn’t have it too easy as kids!

  • BillS

    Eat and Run by Scott Jurek is available as an audiobook (I’m actually on Chapter 16 of 22 right now). I’m not a runner (was an avid bicyclist & plan to start again) but really enjoy Scott’s story. When I was wandering OneClickDigital for a fictional story I found this & wasn’t sure that I’d get into it. I thought it would be monotonous “do this & don’t do that” with a bunch of statistics. To my pleasant surprise, it reads like a fictional story but it’s non-fiction. Here’s the link, though I don’t know if your library subscribes to their service (the link is from my library service).
    http://morewi.oneclickdigital.com/Products/ProductDetail.aspx?skuid=30044

    Here is their website (which appears to be useless):
    http://oneclickdigital.com/
    They have iPhone, iPad, Android (I think), Windows, and Mac apps for listening.

    Hope this helps.

  • BillS

    Admirer,

    I found this in the sponsored links of Amazon after searching for Eat and Run.

    http://www.theaudiobookstore.com/scott-jurek/eat-run-my-unlikely_b008htfsqw.aspx

    Their homepage says you can download, stream, or rent. Hopefully you can find this in audiobook format from your library from my previous reply or you have the option of paying for it.

    Enjoy,
    BillS

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