I felt a little dirty when I interviewed ultramarathoner Scott Jurek this week.
It wasn’t the photos of his curly hair his publicist sent me or the sound of his boyish laughter on the phone. I’m a married woman, after all.
Instead, it was because as I listened to him talk passionately about healthy, mindful eating, I was eyeing the Diet Coke and candy corn on my desk.
Jurek, 38, is a legend in the running community – known for tackling, and winning, races of 100 miles or more. He’s won the Western States Endurance Run seven times, a 100-mile trek over the Gold Rush trails of the Sierra Nevada. He won the Badwater Ultra, a 135-mile race through Death Valley and up Mount Whitney. And he won the 153-mile Spartathlon in Greece three times. He also set a new American record for running the most miles in a 24-hour period: 165.7 miles.
His running achievements are remarkable. But he along the way, he transformed himself from what he calls a “redneck Midwestern Polack,” he grew up in Minnesota and lived in Deadwood, S.D., for a while, to a vegan who pushes the boundaries of his body with both fitness and food.
Jurek will be in Sioux Falls this week for the Festival of Books, to promote “Eat & Run: My Unlikely Journey to Ultramarathon Greatness.” The book chronicles his start as a runner – as a way to escape family issues and challenge himself. And the people he met along the way who inspired him to push farther and harder, and then challenged the way he thought about food, health and endurance. Along the way, he includes running tips on everything from how to count your steps to how to focus your breathing and recipes from smoothies to vegan burgers to homemade hemp or rice milk (both of which sound really easy, and about a hundred times less expensive than buying them in the store).
It’s easy to get drawn in as you read, to think, yes I’m going to be more mindful, less wasteful, less processed and treat my body the way I should. But anybody knows that thinking something and doing it are two different things. Though I did grab an extra orange the next day for work, so maybe the book did rub off on me. If nothing else, I walked away from the book thinking, that’s it, I’m buying organic milk.
Jurek was kind enough to answer my questions – and those that folks submitted to me – over the phone on Wednesday. Here are some excerpts.
What has been the reaction to your book?
I’ve been getting out to all kinds of cities, running with all sorts of people who were inspired who aren’t’ runners but who are interested in food and wanted to go plant-based. … The really cool thing is seeing how many people were so excited and inspired by the book. That was my goal to show them my life story as applicable to anybody.
Who is your biggest inspiration?
I have learned something from everybody. I’m an eclectic learner and somebody who gets inspired by bits and pieces versus just one individual. I was a backwoods Minnesota boy, there’s no way I’m going to show up in a yoga class and link my breathing to health and wellness. As far as wellness, spirituality, he (Andrew Weil, author of “Spontaneous Healing”) got me thinking differently. I grew up much like anybody in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. I wasn’t exposed to a lot of these different ideas.
You lived in Deadwood, South Dakota, in 1998.
South Dakota was training for my first 100-miler. It has a special place in my life, even though I was only there for a short amount of time. The Centennial trail was something I always did my long runs on.
How accurate was Chris McDougall’s depiction of you and the race with the Tarahumara Indians in his book “Born to Run”?
It was very accurate. Chris is a great storyteller, so he brings it to life and weaves it in a way that “this can’t be true.” I think that’s where a lot of people are surprised. But it was one of those experiences, where it was a trip, and when you travel, adventure happens. It brought together eclectic individuals who knew nothing about each other and went on this remote location. We just had a passion for adventure and discovery.
Do you think the best marathon runners would also make the best ultra runners? Or is there some skill set specific to great ultra runners?
I definitely think it can be learned. The beauty of the ultramarathon is that I’ve seen a lot of guys, very talented marathoners who on paper are faster than me. But there are some skills. It’s more than raw speed. It’s not just the fastest runner who wins the race. You have to be able to be in tune with intuition, make adjustments with your body. When they bring fast marathon speed into it, and put the pieces together, they can be some of the best.
Talk about the unique challenges of an ultra.
When you look at the ultra event, there is so much that can go wrong at 100 miles. That’s what makes it exciting, not only for me as a competitor, but this idea of what’s going to happen. This is to control your destiny more. You don’t know what you’re going to get as far as weather. You can get through that and still come out the other side, completing the race and being competitive. That’s what everybody gets to experience, not just the top runners. There’s so much learning that occurs.
After you finish Western States – in first place – you lay down on the side of the finish line and cheer in everyone else who finishes. Tell me about that experience.
So many people should get out and volunteer. You get to view things from a different vantage point. Sure there is the feeling that it was fun to help out and be part of that individual’s experience on a course, but being at the finish, soaking up that energy, it’s like being at a concert. At the finish line, just sharing that experience and seeing and being reminded of what it was like to come down that finish chute. We all kind of understand what we’ve all been through. This is why I do this sport.
What about for people who don’t run?
You can use this as motivation. People who are non ultramarathoners who come to these events, it’s so captivating. “Wow, I want to go for a run now.” … That’s what’s so cool about this sport. If you go to a marathon, it’s pretty amazing to see the ages and abilities and what people look like. It’s all encompassing.
In your book, you talk about your longtime friend and pacer Dusty Olson. Talk about the friendships in running.
We all need a little motivation from time to time. It’s a social experience. Everybody assumes runners are introverts, you like to spend time by yourself, but I think that is changing. We are social beings, and there is a social element to the sport, and it helps to have whatever motivation. If it means meeting a group and everyone does their own workout on a track. That’s why we do races and events. It reminds you, this is fun. In the morning, you wake up and it’s rainy, wet and cold, and you’re just tired and don’t want to go. You have to have a trigger to get you out there. In an ultra, you have to have a trigger that keeps drawing you forward and you have to put one foot in front of the other .And that’s where I think Dusty was instrumental.
Getting out the door is usually the hardest part.
Talk about how you keep going in a race.
I tell myself it’s perfectly normal to want to stop. To question why I’m out there doing this. But then I try to nip those emotions and feelings in the bud and try to put a positive twist on this. Figure out how can I make things better. What can I do to make this situation go in a different direction. After that, focusing on small goals. It’s more about I’m going to get to the next aid station, or the next shady spot under an olive tree. The struggle is part of it. The acceptance that right now, life kind of sucks. It’s a metaphor for life. The metaphor that I’m puking by the side of the road, things will get better. I’ve got to get through this situation. It’s not going to last forever.
The learning and the growth takes place on the difficult uphills. That’s where the transformation takes place.
You’ve really made a change to different eating than how you grew up. Talk about that and what you hope people will learn from your book.
I like to show people that vegetarian, vegan food can taste great. It can still have all the fun of the foods that you are used to.
Overall people understand how much success I’ve had on the diets, so the results are there. People are interested in eating and taking care of their bodies more than ever right now. We still have a long ways to go. There’s so many different approaches. I like to just try to tell people I eat real food and that happens to be in plant form. It’s pretty simple. It’s getting back to the roots, and the best foods are from the ground. My approach with the book is not to tell people there is only one way, but eating more plant foods is something anybody can do. It’s really key to health and longevity.
You mention some web sites for running music. Do you run with music?
When I am in the mountains, I usually don’t. I used to think oh you can’ t listen to music, you’ve got to be in tune with your body. But I think music can be beneficial. Out in the wilderness, it’s nice to know what’s around me. Definitely music can play a role in helping with pain mitigation. It can put a different mental spin. You can get a more calm feeling, or a more energized feeling.
Great runners often talk about how they disassociate while running. Do you do that?
I try to focus on something like my breath, or the competition. It helps to like switch out the focus. For me it switches. Sometimes I focus on technique, sometimes the breath, or sometimes music, or the competition. Or just getting lost in running, that meditative feeling of getting in the zone and getting into the flow of one foot in front of the other. It’s good to not have a focus. To break away, those are the real experiences, when nothing else matters but the moment. You don’t have to think about anything, will yourself to do it. There are times that it feels effortless.
That’s what I keep coming back for – those glimpses of ease, of effortlessness. Time melts away. It’s different from the runner high. It’s a feeling that artists describe. You get into a rhythm without even thinking about it.
If somebody could serve that up in a pill, I’m sure people would take that route. You have to get through the tough stuff to get to the magic of running and endurance sports, I think.
You talk a lot about building more activity into everyday life.
There is a part of your everyday lifestyle. In your errands, this is where unfortunately our work is very cerebral these days and it involves being in front of a computer, where before we would be getting our exercise out in the fields. Any way you can, instead of sitting in a car, running or walking that commuting time, maybe you drive into town and do your errands into town. Bike to work one direction or run or walk the other, or take a bus.
If we just look at exercise for those who are going to build it into their commute time, look at it a something you do like brushing your teeth. There are so many benefits. It’s one of those things, just looking at it differently. Build it into your routine. Do it as a family.
Where is your favorite place to run?
Anywhere where there is a bit of single-track trail, running through wherever I might be. I have learned to enjoy runs no matter where I am. But I love running on a tiny little ribbon of single-track, through mountains or desert. I’ve learned to run and be happy on the roads. One of my favorite places are the Alps. The Alps are a phenomenal place.
Who do you look up to in the running community?
One of my big heroes is Steve Prefontaine. He was such a legend in the sport. He just ran from his heart. He was a guy who had a lot of ideals outside of running. I really appreciate and relate to that.
Best advice you’ve received?
I would say, some of the best advice I’ve been given throughout the years, and it’s not just one person, but keeping an open mind and just always be willing to learn. I probably first learned that from my friend Hippie Dan. I’ve learned so much from people that weren’t necessarily like me. I think that’s important for a lot of reasons. No matter what kind of ambitions one has in life, to always be seeking out new ideas and new direction. That’s how we’ll learn to live in the modern world.
Here is a recipe for lentil burgers from Jurek’s book.
Here is an updated itinerary:
Friday, 9/28, 3:00-4:00 PM: Mass book signing, Holiday Inn –Atrium
Saturday, 9/29, 8:00 AM: fun run Runners Block (4827 S Louise Ave, Sioux Falls, SD 57106)
Saturday, 9/29, 12:00-12:45 PM: Presentation on Eat and Run, Orpheum Theater
Saturday, 9/29, 1:00-2:00 PM: Mass book signing, Holiday Inn-Atrium