Eat & Run

Scott Jurek on his career as a record-setting ultrarunner and the vegan diet that fueled it

Elizabeth Miller | Boulder Weekly

Scott Jurek lopes down the road before taking a seat at a table outside Boxcar Coffee on Pearl Street.

He sips water while talking about what he eats, how he runs ultramarathons and his new book about both.

When we’re done talking, he takes off with those long strides on down the street — as if our conversation was just a brief stopover, an aid station break on the ongoing marathon that’s his schedule right now. The ultrarunner who has set record times in 100-mile runs and record distances for 24-hour runs is currently juggling his training commitments with those of a book tour to accompany the release of his book, Eat & Run.

His parting words are, “Are we going to get you to do an ultramarathon? … So we’ll see you out there.”

His enthusiasm is infectious, and his solid belief that anyone can run for 50 or 100 miles is convincing.

And that’s exactly what he says he hopes will come from his book — that people will be inspired to get out there and change their lives in ways they might not have considered.

“I hope they realize that we all have the capacity to change our life, to do something that we thought was impossible,” he says. “Ultramarathons are all about going beyond the impossible in our own mind and breaking those barriers.”

It’s not preaching from a lofty pulpit. Before he became famous for winning long mountain races and doing it all on a vegan diet, he hated running and hated vegetables. Jurek grew up in the Minnesota woods, where dinner was hunted or fished from the forest behind the house and a workout was stacking firewood.

Running eventually became a way of staying in shape for the Nordic ski team he competed with in high school and college. His first 50-mile race was someone else’s idea: His friend Dusty Olson had run the Minnesota Voyageur before, and said he had to do it. So he did. He finished second place his first year.

“Never in a million years would I have thought I’d become a vegan or run ultramarathons,” he says. “I think that’s the lesson there — that we’re always learning and can evolve.”

Jurek has set the U.S. record for 24-hour distance on all surfaces, and won the Hardrock Hundred Mile Endurance Run and the Badwater Ultramarathon, setting new record times in both races. He won the Western States Endurance Run, which climbs 18,000 feet and descends 22,970 through the mountains of northern California, seven consecutive times. Those victories often came with that high school friend at his side as his pacer.

People had been asking him for a book for years — a book about running and a book that would reveal the secrets of the meat- and dairy-free diet that has fueled him throughout his career.

“There are two pivotal things that transformed my life: food and running, and I thought, ‘Why not put them together and then intersperse recipes so that I could satisfy everybody?’ So it’s got a little bit of everything, including some running tips,’” Jurek says.

He knows the power books have to inspire, both from watching the success of Born to Run, which features him, and from his own life, in which what he read played a key role in changing what he ate. He cites Spontaneous Healing: How to Discover and Enhance Your Body’s Natural Ability to Maintain and Heal Itself, by Dr. Andrew Weil, and Mad Cowboy: Plain Truth from the Cattle Rancher Who Won’t Eat Meat, by Howard Lyman, as transformative.

But the books he read, as well as the people he met who inspired him, found a capable foundation in a young man who had been a hard-working boy. Jurek was still a child when his mother was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. He took care of her and of his younger siblings, managing an increasing number of chores around a household that didn’t do TV dinners or take-out. The book has put some of those experiences in perspective, he says.

“The early part of the book is about my childhood and about my family life and how struggle has enhanced my life despite it being, you know, difficult, and it’s hard to put a positive twist on that at the time,” he says. “Writing this book, I realized those things made me who I am today. Life experiences allow us to do the impossible, to go beyond what we think.”

Eat & Run makes for a gripping read, many of the chapters paced with the pulse of the question of if he will finish a race and the ongoing wonder at how he does, time and again, get up off the ground and run to the finish line ahead of everyone else.

“Ultramarathons are a mental game,” Jurek says. “You’ve got to eat and drink, you’ve got to do all these physical things, but when it comes down to it, as I mention in the book, it’s about that drive, that will to survive, to get through obstacles, and it’s a lot like life.”

The lessons from his childhood run through the races he won. His father’s response to every question about chores, “Sometimes you just do things,” plays on repeat.

What sets people off running ultramarathons, himself included, is a little bit of everything, he says.

“I think life is about these triggers, these moments and experiences and people that we interact with,” he says. “It’s just little triggers, people, experiences, ideas that we kind of shape into something that resonates with us, and for whatever reason it creates a fire.”

Sometimes you just pick a certain path, he says. Sometimes, you just do things.

Of course, one of those people who became a trigger in changing his life is Micah True, or Caballo Blanco, founder of the Copper Canyon Ultramarathon and pivotal character in Christopher McDougall’s book Born to Run. Jurek’s book was finished just a few months before True’s death earlier this year. The portrait of True shows him as passionate to the point of coming across as “really out there” at times. But the lesson the Tarahumara brought to running — this idea of running in synchronicity with the earth, running as the thing human bodies were made to do — is one Jurek still echoes.

Perhaps Eat & Run will go out into the world and birth a new population of vegan runners, like Born to Run brought so many barefoot and minimalist runners. But Jurek says he’s not bent on converting people.

“My approach with the book is to take this middle road within two extreme activities, and just expose people to different personalities, different ways of thinking, and however they engage in that is their own journey, so to speak,” he says. “I think people who love the book

Born to Run hopefully will love this, but it just will be a little different twist and something new. But you can’t repeat good art.”

His book launched June 5 with a 50K run that circumnavigated Manhattan. He’ll be running with other book events, including one in Boulder on June 14, and training on top of that for the 24-Hour World Championships in Poland in September.

“I know it seems weird for a guy who loves to be in the mountains, but it’s a different twist and it’s the ultimate psychological challenge I’ve found,” he says.

“I still love training in the mountains, and I still run in the mountains getting ready for things like that, but there’s something about that 24-hour event.”

The man who has spent decades running right on the edge of breaking down is still out there pushing that line. Why?

“I think it’s getting glimpses of that kind of state of flow zone where nothing else matters. It’s like tapping into this unconscious state; running is just that vehicle for me right now. But there are times when I’m like, you know, maybe it would be good for me to learn how to play a musical instrument or get that through another form,” he says and laughs. “But there’s something, too, that just resonates with the body, and I think it’s instinctual roots that there’s nothing like running up in the mountains and just having to adapt to situations, not knowing what the weather is going to throw at you, not knowing what the course is going to throw at you, not knowing what the competition is like. It kind of taps into a more primal, instinctual way of being. And then from the meditative standpoint, it gets me away from all the craziness of modern life and just focusing on the present moment. … I get glimpses of it when everything is clicking, those are the times when like, the Tarahumara Indians say, when you run on the earth and with the earth you can run forever, and that’s kind of what happens. You just feel like you can go. And then sometimes, poof, it’s gone.”

But it’s there for anyone to taste.

Jurek points to his own scoliosis, a lack of perfect form and a slow marathon time as obstacles that could have set him on the couch for life.

“I think anybody can run and anybody really can run an ultramarathon,” Jurek says. “Sure, if you want to win a race and want to be the best, that might be a different story. … But in terms of finishing and putting yourself out there — I think life is so short that we all need to do that. We all need to put our self out there and ultramarathoning is just one vehicle for that.”