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.
“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.”
Indonesian Cabbage Salad with Red Curry Almond Sauce
- 1/2 head green cabbage, coarsely shredded
- 4 stalks bok choy or 1 head baby bok choy, sliced into 1/4-inch pieces
- 1 carrot, peeled and cut into thin rounds
- 1 red bell pepper, seeded and cut into 2-inch-long thin strips
- 1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro
- 1/2 cup raw sunflower seeds
- 1/2 to 3/4 cup Red Curry Almond Sauce, recipe at right
Toss all ingredients to combine and let sit for 10 to 20 minutes or more before serving.
Makes 6 to 8 side-dish servings.
This easy vegan dish is one of ultramarathoner Scott Jurek’s favorite dishes.
Red Curry Almond Sauce
- 1/2 cup almond butter
- 1/2 cup water
- 1/4 cup fresh lime juice or rice vinegar
- 2 tablespoons miso
- 1 tablespoon minced fresh cilantro
- 2 tablespoons agave nectar or maple syrup
- 2 teaspoons Thai red curry paste, or to taste
- 1 teaspoon onion powder
- 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
- 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
Combine all ingredients in a small mixing bowl or blender. Mix well until smooth.
Keeps refrigerated for 2 weeks or frozen for several months.
— “Eat & Run” by Scott Jurek with Steve Friedman (Houghton Mifflin, June 2012, $26)