Jurek, whose memoir Eat and Run was released earlier this month (read our review HERE), is world-renowned as both an ultrarunning icon – his seven straight victories at Western States were unprecedented and remain unmatched in any race of Western States’ caliber – and a de-facto spokesperson of veganism, having observed a plant-based diet since before his first WS100 win. But he’s also a flatlander – ultrarunning jargon for someone who doesn’t hail from the mountainous terrain that usually favors athletes training for long, mountain-based endurance events.
Hailing from somewhere other than the mountain west is part of what made Jurek’s prowess as an ultrarunner unlikely. He grew up in Proctor, Minnesota, outside Duluth, and ran – slowly, by his own admission – for two seasons at the College of St. Scholastica. But as Jurek argues in his book, his upbringing in the frigid winters and humid summers of the north woods was inextricably linked to his success as an athlete, as well as his becoming the person he is today.
On June 19, Jurek will return to his home state when he visits Gear West in Long Lake for the Eat and Run book tour. You can get more information and buy tickets – as well as order the book – here (http://www.gearwest.com/scott-jurek-eat-and-run-book-tour-pr-9316439.html). DtB’s Alex Kurt caught up with Jurek in advance of his homecoming to talk about the book, his time in the local ultra scene, and his plans going forward.
Down the Backstretch: You tag your book as “My unlikely journey to ultramarathon greatness.” What about your background made your success unlikely?
Scott Jurek: Surprisingly, I didn’t run in high school at all - I just ran to get in shape for ski season. I went to Proctor High School, and the cross-country coach always wanted me to go out for the team, so one season I ran maybe three meets. But I decided I would rather be roller skiing and getting ready for ski season. I definitely just ran to get and shape, and to be quite honest I hated running.
In College I ran two seasons in Division III, at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth. I don’t remember my exact times in the 8k, but I can remember they were pretty unimpressive. I think maybe the best I ran was, like, 29 minutes for 8k. I wasn’t super enthusiastic about running back then either, which is probably why I don’t remember my times. I mean, the baseball coach was coaching the cross-country team, so it was hard to be enthusiastic in that kind of environment. Something made me stick with it for two seasons, though, and it was probably that community with guys and gals at practice. I have great memories of, you know, going to regionals in northern Minnesota in the late fall, but the racing part I wasn’t into as much. If I finished in the middle I was lucky.
DtB: Obviously something turned you onto running after that. How did you get intoSJ: ultras?
SJ: I started to get into ultras right at the end of my sophomore year. That was the summer when Dusty Olson convinced me I needed to run the Minnesota Voyageur. Dusty was the first person who got me excited about running just for running. We would run all these trails outside Duluth, piecing together bits and pieces of different trails, and two hours would just fly by. I wasn’t watching my watch the whole time, which was new. Dusty showed me that running could be fun.
DtB: You’re well-known for your exploits in big races out west, but tell us a bit about your experience racing in and around Minnesota.
SJ: I came back and ran the Superior Hiking Trail 50-miler in 2000 or 2001, and I remember thinking, “I remember running on these trails, but I don’t remember them being so tough.” Going back to the trails of Minnesota, it was tough getting used to them – to the rocky, rooty, quick-changing hills and terrain – after being out west for so long. I was used to smoother, long climbs where you can get into a rhythm, even though I had spent so much time running the Superior trail getting ready for Voyageur.
Minnesota doesn’t have any mountains, but there was something difficult and challenging about those trails. My first experience with a 100-miler was volunteering and watching the Superior 100 even before I thought I would try something like that, and I remember those trails and times people would post. There were no fast sections – no paved or flat dirt – sections mixed in.
(Note: Jurek ran the Voyageur 50, in Carlton, Minn., five times, winning in 1996, ’97 and ’98. He raced the Ice Age 50, in La Grange, Wisconsin, twice, placing third in both 1998 and 1999.)
DtB: The book answers this question more extensively, but what specifically about Minnesota – e.g. rising before dawn to train in below-zero temps – shaped you into a successful ultrarunner?
SJ: I would definitely say there were so many things, and I wouldn’t trade my upbringing for anything when I look back at it, even though I’ve had the opportunity to see some beautiful, mountainous places. But something about Minnesota definitely shaped me – my family, my roots shaped me like they did. I was so connected to the land, having a garden, hunting and fishing, and playing outside when it was 20 below as a kid. It’s amazing thinking back, the hesitance I might have now to train in that kind of weather. But the weather, the connection to the land, the survival instinct and survival attitude a lot of Minnesotans have – you find a way to enjoy the cold temps, as well as the heat and humidity in the summer.
All those things had a part. That’s what the book is about: taking those experiences, people, interactions, bits and pieces and forming them into a life and a lifestyle and learning process that continues. Minnesota definitely laid the foundation for me being an endurance athlete as well as someone who is connected to the land.
DtB: Speaking of that, you’re a well-known vegan. The obvious question is: how challenging is it to get adequate nutrition given your training and racing load? And what advice do you have in terms of handling the financial and time commitment of a plant-based diet for people who aren’t professional athletes, or whose time is otherwise more constrained?
SJ: I would say veganism is not challenging or expensive, and that it’s not what people perceive it to be in that regard. I had the same perceptions, that it’s too hard or too expensive. But after I got into it, I found it’s not that hard. Calorie consumption was never an issue. And some foods are more expensive, but anytime you eat local or organic it costs more. Part of the problem is that in this country we’ve gotten used to not spending as much on food as we used to; it used to be 20 or 25 percent of our budgets. Cheap food is part of our larger health problem.
The real lesson to draw from it is that you have to put an effort to eating whether you’re vegan or omnivorous – the choice is whether you want to put time and effort into cooking and eating quality sourced food. My goal with Eat and Run isn’t to transform the world into plant-based eaters – just to get people paying attention to what they eat, to put effort into preparing meals, to think about what they eat, and think about food differently. It’s really about the long-term view of health. It’s not hard, though you have to put some effort into learning any sort of new diet. But that’s also the fun part of it.
But that said, I’m from northern Minnesota, and I know it can be challenging depending where you are – your average diner where I grew up, for instance, there might not be many vegan-friendly options.
DtB: You’re still competing and still working with Brooks, even though it’s been a few years since you won a major race. I think the biggest question on many peoples’ minds is: what’s next for Scott Jurek?
SJ: Well, I still want to compete for a few more years. But this is my 18th year going as a competitive ultrarunner. As for competition, I’d like to chase that 24 hour world record [note: Jurek set the American 23-hour record in May 2010, running 165.7 miles], and there are a few more trail races I want to do. Realistically, I’ll probably retire after a few years and just do races for run, and keep giving back to the community.
This year a huge focus has been put on the book – my goal is to get out and inspire people to run, take care of their bodies, etc. In the long term it’s not about the races; they were a way to train differently and learn more about my body. Long term, I want to play an active role in getting out and helping people get out and be active. There’s lots of work to be done with the obesity problem, and educating people about food and lifestyle. And there are lots of ways to be involved.
Alex Kurt is Down the Backstretch's ultra-running contributor.
Alex Kurt is Down the Backstretch's ultra-running contributor.