For nearly two decades, Scott Jurek has been a dominant force -- and darling -- in the grueling and growing sport of ultrarunning. And yet, perhaps even more impressive than his extensive list of race victories and course records is the fact that he achieves these astonishing accomplishments of endurance on an entirely plant-based diet.
In his memoir Eat And Run: My Unlikely Journey to Ultramarathon Greatness, Jurek opens up about his life and career -- as an elite ultrarunner and a vegan -- and inspires athletes at every level.
By Scott Jurek
Death Valley had laid me out flat, and now it was cooking me. My crew was telling me to get up, that they knew I could go on, but I could barely hear them. I was too busy puking, then watching the stream of liquid evaporate in the circle of light from my headlamp almost as fast as it splashed down on the steaming pavement. It was an hour before midnight, 105 incinerating, soul-sucking degrees. This was supposed to be my time. This was the point in a race where I had made a career of locating hidden reservoirs of will, discovering powers that propelled me to distances and speeds that others couldn't match.
I had just run 70 miles through a place where others had died walking, and I had 65 more to go. I hadn't thought that would be a problem. Not for me. I'm an ultramarathoner. So I compete in any footrace longer than the marathon distance of 26.2 miles. In point of fact, though, I have fashioned a career from running and winning races of at least 50 miles, most often 100, and every so often 135 and 150 miles. Some I have led from start to finish; in others I have stayed comfortably back until the point when I needed to find another gear. So why was I on the side of the road vomiting, unable to go on?
Moments of questioning come to us all. It is human nature to ask why we put ourselves in certain situations and why life places hurdles in our path. Only the most saintly and delusional among us welcomes all pain as challenge, perceives all loss as harsh blessing. I know that. I know that I've chosen a sport stuffed with long stretches of agony, that I belong to a small, eclectic community of men and women where status is calibrated precisely as a function of one's ability to endure. Hallucinations and vomiting, to me and my fellow ultrarunners, are like grass stains to Little Leaguers. Chafing, black toenails, and dehydration are just the rites of passage for those of us who race 50 and 100 miles and more. Cramps don't merit attention. Unless nearby lightning makes the hair on your arms and head stand up and dance, it's nothing but scenery.
Sometimes we stumble from exhaustion and double over with pain. We run with bruised bones and scraped skin. It's a hard, simple calculus: Run until you can't run anymore. Then run some more. Find a new source of energy and will. Then run even faster.
Now I couldn't walk. And I wasn't sure why.
As a child, I ran in the woods and around my house for fun. As a teen, I ran to get my body in better shape. Later, I ran to find peace. I ran, and kept running, because I had learned that once you started something you didn't quit. Eventually I ran because I turned into a runner, and my sport brought me physical pleasure and spirited me away from debt and disease, from the niggling worries of everyday existence. I ran because I grew to love other runners. I ran because I loved challenges and because running taught me it wasn't how much money I made or where I lived, it was how I lived.
Could I quit this race and not be a quitter? "You've done it before," Rick, one of my crew members whispered, kneeling beside me. "You can do it again." I appreciated the optimism. I also appreciated its idiocy.
Not moving felt good. It wasn't nearly as shameful as I had imagined. Why go on? Why not rest? I deserved a rest, didn't I? Why shouldn't I rest?
If it had been a movie, this was the place where I would close my eyes and hear the faint, strangled voice of my bedridden mother, telling me she loved me and that she knew I could do whatever I wanted, and I would have flushed with shame, and then I would have heard the authoritative voice of my father, telling me, "Sometimes you just do things!" I would have risen to my elbows, shut my eyes, and pictured all the middle school kids who had called me Pee-Wee, and they would have melted into all the naysayers who had questioned me at the beginning of my career, who said that I was nothing to worry about, I was nothing at all. In that movie I would have risen to my knees and suddenly remembered who I was -- I was a runner! -- and I would have pulled myself up, stood tall, and started walking, then loping, into the thick desert night, chasing down the two seasoned veterans in front of me as a wolf chases doomed field mice.
Instead, I dry heaved, then rolled onto my back, gazed up at a glittering desert sky.
I had been schooled by nuns, raised by a mother who had been sprinkled with holy water from Lourdes, hoping it would help her rise from her wheelchair. Now it was me who couldn't rise. I had been a runner for such a long time. What if I couldn't run anymore? If I wasn't a runner, what was I?
I looked again at the stars. They had no opinion on the matter. Then, from the desert, a voice, an old familiar voice. "You're not gonna win this ------- race lying down in the dirt. C'mon, Jurker, get the ---- up." It was my old friend Dusty. That made me smile. He almost always made me smile, even when everyone around him was cringing.
"Get the ---- up!" Dusty yelled, but I couldn't get up. I wouldn't. "The leader is out there dying, and you're gonna take that dude. We're gonna take that dude!"
I looked at my friend. Couldn't he see that I wasn't going to take anyone?
He squatted, folded himself until our faces were inches apart. He looked into my eyes.
"Do you wanna be somebody, Jurker? Do you wanna be somebody?"
-- Excerpted by permission from Eat And Run by Scott Jurek. Copyright (c) 2012 by Scott Jurek. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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