Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Book Review: Eat & Run, by Scott Jurek

By Alex Kurt

“Sometimes you just do things!”

It’s a mantra Scott Jurek repeats throughout his new memoir, released today – a life lesson instilled when he struggled to understand, as a child, why his dad was making him stack wood instead of letting him play with his friends, or when he took on extra chores around the house when his mom’s MS got worse – and understanding this mantra is the only plausible way to understand how Jurek has done what he’s done.

Jurek’s book, Eat and Run, begins with an episode familiar to those who know him from Christopher McDougall’s  Born to Run: he is face down in Death Valley, dry-heaving, unable to move on in the 135-mile Badwater Ultramarathon. His foul-mouthed friend and crew member Dusty Olson is yelling at him, but he is convinced he can’t go further.

It’s a prelude Jurek will revisit later in the book, which unfolds chronologically from there. He recounts his early days, growing up on a dead-end street outside Proctor, Minnesota, reveling in the escape from a rough childhood in the nearby woods, and ultimately discovering his knack for longer races in the middle school mile and rising through the ranks of high school Nordic skiing. It was through skiing that he met Olson, the slacker and ne’er-do-well who would become an unlikely best friend, and through whom he was introduced to the idea that the foods we eat can be a key factor in our health and performance.

The book takes us through his first attempt at an ultra, at the Voyageur 50-mile in Carlton, Minnesota, where he beat the talented Olson for the first time, as well as through his winter training for his first Western States 100 – any Minnesota runner will relate instantly to his retelling of waking up before dawn to run through crunchy, ankle-deep snow – and ultimately, his experience of winning the iconic race seven times and his exploits at Badwater, Hardrock, and the Spartathlon later (plus his own perspective on the events from Born to Run).

Given Jurek’s quiet, introspective persona, this first-hand account of his peak competitive years was compulsively readable; indeed, much of the anticipation surrounding this book is due to the fact that the man who has had so much written about him, who has been the subject of so much speculation, but who has never been one to talk about himself, is finally telling his whole story in plain terms. In recounting, honestly, his youth, his development into and dominance as a ultrarunner, and his personal life at its highs and lows, it doesn’t disappoint.

Yet the book is not simply a step-by-step account of his life. The narrative is interwoven with introspection and home-spun philosophies, some the result of his experience in the meditative world of ultramarathoning, some the recounting of wisdom ascertained through fellow runners, figures in his life, and long-dead writers. He quotes Gandhi, John Muir, and Japanese proverbs alongside Kurt Cobain and Tupac Shakur. And he weaves in the story of how he transitioned from carnivore to vegetarian, and ultimately to vegan. He espouses the benefits of this lifestyle – even offering vegan recipes at the end of each chapter – but doesn’t preach. It is clear, he simply points out, that it has worked well for him.

Overall, the book reads with the sort of approachability you might expect Jurek espouses in his day-to-day life. It’s humble, honest, and bursting at the seams with Jurek's own doubts about his abilities - whether he was, in the words of commentators, "the real deal." At times, the writing style mimics Jurek’s running form, which is to say it varies in its elegance, but it gets the job done surprisingly well.  

“One of the great pleasures of an ultramarathon [is that] you can hurt more than you ever thought possible, then continue until you discover that hurting isn’t that big a deal,” he writes while recounting the 152-mile Spartathlon in Greece. “Forget a second wind. In an ultra you can get a third, a fourth, a fifth even. I still had 40 miles to go, but that’s a second wonderful thing about 100- (and plus) milers. You can trail, and despair, and screw up, and despair more, and there’s almost always another chance. Salvation is always within reach. You can’t reach it by thinking or figuring it out. Sometimes you just do things.”

Here lies the great strength of Jurek’s memoir: it provides significant life lessons, and draws heavily on running as an analogy for other struggles, but the reader isn’t overwhelmed with the sense that that’s what the book is trying to do. Jurek didn’t set out to be a vegan and win Western States the first time he laced up a pair of running shoes – those things followed. Here, the book tells us a story about running, and the rest – the lessons, reflections, and even vegan recipes  - follows. 

In other words, Jurek just does it.

Alex Kurt is Down the Backstretch's ultra-running contributor.

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