“When I felt stagnant and lost, I needed a new direction. So I headed NORTH.” – Scott Jurek
You’ve all been there, right? Collapsed on a bleak, desolate stretch of desert highway hot enough to grill a ribeye, in a place called Furnace Creek, a unique type of hellscape that can only exist in a larger place called Death Valley. A place where bleached-out skulls of dead animals are even more ubiquitous than live humans. Where even lethal rattlesnakes say, “Yeah, screw this,” and hide until sundown in whatever sparse patches of 100-plus-degree shade they can find.
Your internal organs, muscles, synapses, and bowels are all uniting in sudden, spastic, violent revolt. The soles of your sneakers are melting—literally—on the asphalt. And you’re wildly hallucinating that vultures are dive-bombing down through the cloudless, chalk-dry sky, holding little cartoon knives and forks in each talon, bibs around their necks, saliva dripping from their beaks, ready to devour you. Or maybe not. As a kid raised on Looney Tunes, that’s probably just what I’d be doing.
Anyway, you all know exactly how it feels to be dying this way, right? (Crickets.) Fair enough. That’s a trick question. You absolutely, positively don’t know how this feels. Few do or ever will.
But one half of my interviewee pairing today, Scott Jurek, does. All too well. And the weird thing is, he got himself into this predicament, and many others like it, on purpose.
Jurek, 45, a physical therapist by trade, is widely considered history’s most dominant ultramarathoner (“ultras” being any race over the typical 26.2 miles, and usually considerably more). He’s won virtually every conceivable ultra and endurance race known to man, some multiple times. Including the death-tempting race above—the legendary Badwater 135, billed as “the World’s Toughest Footrace,” starting 282-feet below sea level in Badwater Basin, in California‘s Death Valley, and ending at 8,360 feet at the trailhead to Mount Whitney.
More insane, the annual race is held smack dab in mid-July, when temperatures top 120 degrees—in the shade (sorry, rattlers). And despite having support crews who provide water, ice, food, gear, pacing, electrolyte drinks, and first aid, few runners actually finish. This includes veritable aliens like Jurek who, as just described, once collapsed at mile 75 of Badwater—hey, give him a break: (A) that’s about three full marathons, and (B) he’d just won the famous Western States 100 only two weeks prior—and would have died out there, if not for his diligent crew submerging him in a tub of ice.
Simply put, Scott Jurek is the Michael Jordan or Michael Phelps of ultramarathoners. A one-man John Wooden/UCLA-esque dynasty. And not shockingly, his sporting CV is an insane litany of ultrarunning’s elite trail and road events:
- The historic Hardrock 100
- His signature race—the Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run, which he won a record seven straight times.
- He was the U.S. record holder for the 24-hour run, jamming 165.7 miles into a single day (that’s 6.5 marathons, folks).
- He’s the only American ever to win Greece’s Spartathlon, a 153-mile race from Sparta to Athens (which he won 2006- 2008).
- The Washington Times named him one of the top runners of the decade. And he was UltraRunning Magazine’s North American Male Ultrarunner of the Year in 2003, 2004, 2005, and 2007.
And so on. But even with all of those accolades and literal survival tests under his belt, little prepared him for the greatest-ever challenge he and his wife of three years at the time, Jenny, 42—an accomplished runner and climber herself—set out to tackle in 2015: set the Fastest Known Time (FKT) Thru-Hike Record for the vaunted Appalachian Trail (AT). And do it the exact opposite of how everyone else, to-date, had attempted: south to north, not vice-versa.
With Jenny as his crew chief—a mentally and physically grueling job that’s equal parts Google Mapper, vegan chef and nutritionist, doctor, spiritual healer, van driver, physical therapist, Marine drill sergeant, loving wife, laundress, brutally honest ass-kicker—Jurek started the FKT attempt at the trail’s southern terminus, Springer Mountain in Georgia, on May 27 at 5:56 a.m. He averaged nearly 50 miles a day, crossing 14 states, and covering 515,000 feet of elevation change.
Oh, and it was a challenge they took on after—or perhaps in part because of?—the heartbreak of not one but two miscarriages. Because as you’ll see, that’s just how the Jureks roll. No looking back. Always moving forward.
What resulted, along with setting the FKT—no spoilers here, it’s been three-plus years, and his record has already been broken by their good friend and world-class endurance runner, Karl “Speedgoat” Meltzer—was a crisp, thrilling, honest chronicle of that adventure: “NORTH: Finding My Way While Running the Appalachian Trail”
(NOTE: It’s Jenny’s first book, Scott’s second. His first was the terrific, inspiring EAT AND RUN: My Unlikely Journey to Ultramarathon Greatness. Part memoir, part vegan cookbook, it mixes personal tales from his Minnesota childhood, including honest recollections of his mother’s battle with MS; adventures [and skepticism] in veganism; and the pros and cons of endurance athlete stardom.)
Often alternating chapters, which gives NORTH a refreshing, everchanging voice and tone, Scott writes from the perspective of attacking the trail, while Jenny writes from the crew chief’s POV, “project managing” his run, i.e. finding the trail heads, prepping and cooking meals, fending off enthusiastic fans and other randoms—invited or not—who joined the grueling journey to help Scott, and a hundred other jobs.
This past July, I personally flew the Jureks to Boulder for a one-on-two interview. Kidding. They’re neighbors and friends—Boulder is an epicenter of many noted endurance and extreme athletes—so they just walked over into my backyard. And in my first-ever Man-to-Man-to Woman, we talked about everything from the Appalachian Trail, writing and marital teamwork to parenthood, running, and what it means to be “washed up”.
BONUS: This is also the first time I’ve included video Q&A, so click on the links for expanded answers and additional thoughts from Scott and Jenny.
MARK ST. AMANT: What was your writing process on the trail? I know when I wrote my second book, JUST KICK IT, it’s not like I could keep a pad and pen under my helmet or shoulder pads. How did you guys manage to chronicle, from two perspectives nonetheless, most or all 2,189 miles of trail?
SCOTT JUREK: We actually didn’t. That’s the funny thing.
JENNY JUREK: People always told us, “Take lots of notes so you can write a book!” But we didn’t have time to write. We didn’t even have time for updates on social media…there was no time for anything. But for me, I had this guidebook where I wrote notes, time of day, and I had a map that I highlighted where we went, so looking at those would jog my memory.”
SJ: And everybody assumed, “Oh, you were journaling, right?” I didn’t have any time. Sometimes I’d get in around eleven, twelve, later than that, there was just not time. I had to prioritize like, get ice on my shins and knees, look for ticks.
MSA: Doing the “Terminator” full body scan for ticks?
SJ: Exactly. But when you have an experience like that, I feel it’s so burned into your memory, for us at least it wasn’t hard to recall—the highs and the lows, all the most important things, what things felt like, smelled like, sounded like. I felt like my senses were really in tune, even though I was death marching, zombie walking at times, it was pretty vivid and real even to this day Jenny and I feel like we’re back there. But it did help, when we got back, to compare notes on where we were when this happened, or we met this person or that person. But at best, we had rudimentary notes.
MSA: [To Jenny] You said in a recent event here in Boulder, that of the two undertakings—(A) trying to take on/beat the AT record itself and crew-chiefing and (B) writing the book afterward—you’d gladly do the trail again versus write another book. What was so grueling about writing the book?
JJ: Gladly! Send us back into the woods. I mean, he’s written a book before [Eat & Run] so he knows the drill. But it’s been what, five years? [Scott: Six years]. No one really gets excited to wake up and stare at a blank screen every day for eight, ten, twelve hours a day…knowing you’d committed to 80,000 words, which was SO daunting.
SJ: You know, a lot of writers say, sometimes you can write five or six pages and of that, there’s like a paragraph or two that comes out of it. Which is hard for people like us [ultra-runners], because on the trail it’s easy to measure progress, easy to see where we were going, where needed to get to, and what we needed to accomplish. Basically, it took 48 months to write it, but 46 days to do the trail. That’s daunting. And neither of us are writers by trade, it’s not our first job.
JJ: Plus, we had a one-year-old full-time [their daughter, Ravenna or “Raven”, now 2], so we’d have to split up time—I’d write in the morning, he’d write in the afternoon.
SJ: And then we’d write at night, or I’d pull an all-nighter, and then edit. So it kind of felt like we were back on the trail again.
MSA: [To Scott] What couple of words best describe your father?
SJ: Conviction, steadfast, hardworking.
MSA: That reminds me of your dad’s mantra from your first book, Eat & Run, that he obviously drilled into you: “Sometimes you just do things.” What does that mean to you now as an adult, and did it come in handy on the trail? And, did that mantra help in some way as a teen growing up with a mom battling Multiple Sclerosis?
MSA: [To Jenny] And you guys were both very candid in North about the challenges you faced getting pregnant, the miscarriages—and then you just up and decided to crew chief Scott up the Appalachian Trail. What’s wrong with you?! But really, how did those personal experiences play into the challenge of the AT?
MSA: Has there been one biggest surprise about becoming parents, something you both didn’t expect that didn’t come in the “owner’s manual” or from friends? (NOTE: Here, baby Evergreen has barged into the interview, to have “lunch”—Jenny)
SJ: I think the biggest surprise it that…everything’s a surprise. Every day, hour, minute, you really have to be adaptable. These are small humans that depend on you for everything.
Which is just the amazing part pf the process. It’s joyful, exciting, nerve-wracking.
And something like the Appalachian Trail has all those elements, too. Not that the trail prepared us for parenthood, necessarily, but it was definitely a good precursor from the sleep deprivation to managing the logistics to divvying up the responsibilities and just figuring out how you’re going to get everything done. And it prepared us a team, too…it’s a teamwork test. And we both say over and over in the book how it was true teamwork. It wasn’t just me out there working my butt off and Jenny meeting up and dropping off water for me. There were just so many other [teamwork] elements to everything.
MSA: Speaking of teamwork, was there something about you two as a team that made ‘Castle Black’ [the custom, black Sprinter van in which Jenny and Scott lived for the entire AT journey] a ‘fortress of solitude’ and made it difficult for outside people to assimilate?
JJ: For me, it wasn’t like we were SO CLOSE and everyone else was outside looking in. It was more just that every day we covered so much ground. We learned so much more each mile. And we got into this groove. So for people to come in out of the blue it was like ‘Whoa, whoa, we have to now and get them up to speed.’ And that was sometimes difficult because this was TOTALLY different beast than anything we’d ever done before. A lot of people [friends, fellow endurance athletes, fans] have crewed and paced and been Scott’s go-to’s, but this was unlike anything any of us had ever prepared for. So it was hard to relay that to our friends, even those who are super experienced.
SJ: And again, there just wasn’t time to step back, pause and give everyone an ‘Appalachian Trail 101’. You just had to be able to jump in and do your work. And most people were able to. I use the analogy of any work project: you have a team, and then you start inserting new team members at random points along the way, it can be a great thing or a bad thing. So there were all these dynamics going on, and it wasn’t always easy for them or us.
MSA: But these were people and friends from the endurance/ultrarunning world, so I assume this isn’t unfamiliar physical territory for them. People who have crewed Badwater or Western States. Right?
SJ: Definitely, they understood the psychology. They understand what it’s like to go out running or hiking with me [in a one-day event], but being able to to do that multiple days, on very little sleep, some ‘people had difficulty doing that because most of my events, like 100 milers, are done in a day, or shorter. So for them to jump onto the AT from everyday life was sometimes hard…but once they got into a rhythm, they didn’t want to leave! There was this very cool dynamic. Once they got into it—our friends, outsiders, everyone—they could feel the [positive] energy, and everyone getting into it, there was just a cool vibe of this journey going on. And everyone was energized by this goal we were trying to accomplish as a team. Again, it was more than just me busting my butt through giant spider webs and over jagged rocks for fifty miles every day. It was a true team effort.
MSA: One thing that was very cool in the book was people coming in and out of the AT, virtually every step of your journey, to help out. “Here are some vegan burritos” or just giving you other supplies or inspiration. But the [to Jenny] flip side of that—and you guys are nice people, so you didn’t want to just say, “Get the f*ck outta here, we want to run by ourselves and be alone”— so how did you find that balance between getting your “alone time” and wanting to embrace your fans and the community who wanted to help “push you up the trail”?
SJ: But Jenny had the harder job, being at the trailheads, dealing more directly with people, more consistently.
JJ: Yeah, at the beginning, when it was just me, and people would come out in parts of the woods that I’d never been to and didn’t know about, it was really a little bit creepy. I didn’t know if it was a fan or…I don’t know, being alone for long stretches wasn’t my favorite thing to have people just come up [to visit], especially when I’m trying to do all these things for Scott. Like, some people would randomly come up and ask me for food, or for rides. And I was like, ‘Well, there are no seatbelts in here [their van, Castle Black], and watch out for flying cans of chili.’
But, everyone was so nice and everybody means well. And I get they wanted to just be a part of it, and be a part of the magic. So I soon decided I just had to let go and realize: what started as our trip, was now everybody’s trip. And that was okay.
MSA: [To Scott] You say in the book that one impetus for trying to break the AT record was your worry that you were ‘washed up’. Almost too content. And [To Jenny] you’ve climbed ridiculously dangerous mountains and been an endurance athlete in your own right. So, what does “washed up” mean to you? Because to most people it’s like, “Welp, I pulled a hammy in the company softball game. Guess I’m done.”
SJ: It’s tricky because I was pretty content. And I wasn’t worried that I was now older and slower or anything, or maybe I am washed up. It was more the idea of, ‘Have I done everything I can possibly do? Have I gone to new places, figuratively, I need to go?’ I felt I had a lot left in me, but was I going to be the same athlete I was when I was twenty-five? No. But that was something I was comfortable with.. I was happy with the career I’ve had. But there were also things I still wanted to do, and if I waited any longer, would I ever be able to do those things?
And for me, at any age or stage of life, I always want to explore those things, and do so in new ways. So, yeah, maybe I wasn’t going to win the Western States 100 anymore, but I was okay with that. It wasn’t like I needed to DO more or WIN more. Which is a hard thing for people who’ve achieved certain things in life to admit, not just in sports, but in other careers—when do I just sit back and enjoy it, and ‘cruise’?
MSA: “Cruise” as in, retirement. So what does retirement look like for someone like you two? I can’t imagine you playing shuffleboard with the Seinfelds and Costanzas down at Del Boca Vista?
SJ: ‘Retirement’ is a hard word for me because I always be doing something with running. That won’t stop. Maybe I won’t be competing for time or in an age group, but retirement really isn’t a word in my vocabulary. It’ll morph into something. And that’s the fun and challenging thing about life: how do we morph and evolve into different ‘categories’ and re-prioritize our goals as we get older?
JJ: For me, when we’d have these arguments that essentially started this whole idea [of pursuing the AT FKT record, and the book], yes, I was worried he was ‘washed up’. And what I mean by that is he’d show up to these big races, and play the part, and go through the whole ‘Scott Jurek routine’ and have his food, and gear kit and everything else dialed—everything except the running! And it was just so noticeable because he used to put in so many [training] miles and do so many specific workouts.
So to me, it was more ‘washed up’ as in—you’re just plain tired of doing this. Find something else. Don’t just go through the motions, because I don’t find that inspiring. And it was hard to no longer see that passion and excitement sparked in him. I mean, that’s a hard thing to NOT see in your partner, watching that fire and spark go out. And he’s right: we were super happy with our life. But I could tell there were still some embers of that fire inside him that weren’t ready to be put out yet. And I wanted to see those reignited.
MSA: For those who haven’t read “North” yet: why the AT? Why did you decide the challenge to “re-ignite those embers” would be to set the Appalachian Trail FKT? And why south-to-north?
SJ: I think it was, to re-light that fire, I couldn’t just run off into the sunset into retirement of ultrarunning. I wanted to find that passion again. It wasn’t just something to train for, but [once out on the trail] something to get out of the van again each morning for another 50 bloodsucking miles. And the AT was so new to both of us. It meant seeing parts of the country Jenny and I had never seen before, let alone run or hiked. And it has such deep, storied tradition, history, the thru-hiking community and culture.
Plus, it’s probably the burliest foot-path on earth from the standpoint that—except for when you hit a very short piece of paved road or a small bike path—it’s the only true foot-travel-only path for almost 2,200 miles. No horses. No mountain bikers. So I needed something like that. Something SO completely new and different as I neared this ‘retirement’ or different phase of life. To rediscover that passion. And I mention this in the book, too, but I’ve found that volunteering and doing different things around running, and going out and speaking, can be just as rewarding.
[Scott is a frequent visually impaired running guide for everything from fun runs to 10K’s like the legendary Bolder Boulder to biggies like the venerable Boston Marathon. As he’s said in the past: “I’d always wanted to guide and thought it would be a great opportunity to give back to the community. My mother had multiple sclerosis and it affected her vision. She never became fully blind, but she did lose some of her vision, so it’s something that hit home. Being a runner and someone who spends time in the mountains running trails, vision is so important. It always amazed me how visually impaired athletes could do what they do.”]
MSA: Okay, another “Good Men Project-y “question: for both of you, what’s the worst decision you’ve ever made, personally, professionally, and how have you learned from it?
SJ: I don’t really have a ‘worst decision’ thing. I’ve probably made ‘less optimal’ decisions, but they were great learning experiences. It’s kind of like the Appalachian Trail: there were a lot of things we could have done differently, but in the end we never looked at it like ‘Wow, that was a really stupid decision.’ Actually, maybe going northbound instead of southbound on the Appalachian Trail, in late spring-early summer, that might have been stupid.
JJ: That’s how I feel, too—and not to be like, ‘Oh yeah, what he said’—but I also never like to look back with regret or live in the past or beat myself up about those things. Maybe I should, but I can’t think of anything that stands out in my mind as being, ‘That was a dumb move.’
MSA: [To Jenny] Do you think some of your rock-climbing mentality comes into play with regret or the temptation to look back on decisions, good or bad?
JJ: There are so many metaphors and analogies between life and running or rock climbing. But I really do feel like that running and climbing—especially when you’re lead climbing, and have to keep constant razor-sharp focus, and do all the route finding, and be on your A-game—always keeps you looking forward, never backwards. You can’t look backwards. Even in training, you always have the next goal to look forward to. That’s what I personally get out of these kinds of sports.
SJ: And for me, growing up with a mother who had Multiple Sclerosis, and the strain it put on her and our family, I’d sometimes be like, ‘Oh, gosh, why’d I do that?’ or be tempted to beat myself up about something. But what I learned from her was that the reality is, there’s always something next. You just couldn’t dwell on the past. And I could have those emotional outbreaks here and there, but you can only act like that for so long because life doesn’t care, it’s just going to throw another challenge at you, and then another—so not looking back works really well for life, and it turns out, for running the Appalachian Trail.
MSA: It seems like, in the endurance athlete and ultrarunning community, it’s a bit of ‘us against the world.’ Insular. Super competitive. But would you recommend endurance athletes get married? Reason I ask is, in my advertising life, I meet a lot of commercial actors and actresses, and they always say, ‘God no, actors shouldn’t get married or be together’ due to the constant competition, potential jealousy over success or failure, et cetera.
SJ: I think it comes down to personality. There are definitely those endurance athletes or adventure-seekers who haven’t worked well together. But it’s about finding your match and having attributes that complement each other as well as just making a great team. It needs to be a friendship where you know when to help and push each other, and when to lay off a little bit. And that’s why Jenny was able to do everything she did on the trail, and do it so well—because she knows that balance between tough love, and helping and caring for you.
And we say in the book, if you ever want to test a marriage or relationship, do something that pushed BOTH your mental and physical limits—so you have no choice but to work together. Hopefully you come out of stronger, which you typically do if you don’t give up. And out there [on the AT] there was just no giving up, for either of us. We didn’t come out here for two months for me to quit with an injury. It’s like with having kids—there’s never any quitting.
MSA: So why do you both run?
JJ: I never ran in high school or college, but I started running when I moved to Seattle [in 2000] and wanted to meet people. I saw a 5k advertised, but then I saw that running helped my climbing and fitness and gave me benefits I never realized. And then when I started running longer distances, I found that it just helped my mental clarity, happiness, my overall state of mind.
SJ: And for me, the only reason I ran was to stay in shape for other sports; it wasn’t something I loved to do in and of itself. But as I grew accustomed to finding the joy in running and found that it was a great way to explore my surroundings and being out in the woods and the mountains is where I just feel the most alive and content. It’s about staying in tune with what I think humans were meant to do, our primal, genetic code, so to speak. Enduring is part of our survival as a species. Endurance. Fighting through. So finding something that pushes you mentally and physically and even spiritually—and it doesn’t even have to be running—is important.
MAS: What did you mean in the book when you said you wanted the AT record to be “your masterpiece”?
SJ: I think a masterpiece is a culmination of one’s life and work, what we put into it. Not that I’m an artist by any stretch, but I felt this was just going to be a culmination of everything I’ve done thrown into one, huge, arduous task and journey. For me, a masterpiece is a pilgrimage, really a way to peer into one’s soul and other peoples’ souls, just something that seemed big and insurmountable. I knew I’d go through so much struggle. We both would. But we’d go through it together. We’d see each other at our highest and lowest points. So a masterpiece is something that just takes unbelievable dedication and effort. And it’s not even about the final product, because I could have not even broken the record, or could have ended up quitting, and it still could have been my masterpiece, you know?
JJ: When he said that, I remember being in the van with Luis [Escobar, friend, photographer and fellow ultrarunner], and he [Scott] was talking to a reporter and I heard him say ‘masterpiece’ and I was like, ‘Whoa, what did he say?’ Because it sounded so ridiculous at the time. Because the van was a disaster, everything was so haphazard, we were underprepared, so I was like, ‘What, this is his masterpiece? [Laughs] That’s news to me.’
MSA: So in other words, out on the AT, you saw the old Scott Jurek that you hadn’t been seeing at recent events?
SJ: [Laughs] Jenny would say I wasn’t ‘throwing down.’
JJ: It wasn’t just that, it was that his heart wasn’t into it, and I never care if he doesn’t win or whatever. But I wanted to at least see him try his best, give his best ‘Scott Jurek effort’. And he wasn’t even doing that. So this [the AT attempt] was above and beyond his best effort. Even to the point where I had to be like, ’Whoa, whoa, rein it in a little bit, buddy…it’s too much, too fast, too far!’
SJ: She was worried I wasn’t going to return the same person, mentally or physically.
JJ: He went to some really dark places, and I was worried that I couldn’t be the one anymore to say [she mockingly pats Scott on the shoulder] ‘Okay, you got this, honey.’ I couldn’t cheer him on anymore. I couldn’t physically push him out the [Castle Black van] door anymore. I wanted to slam the door and lock it and drive far, far away from the trail.
MSA: Who is the best man or woman you know, and why? Excluding each other…
JJ: That’s pretty easy for me: it’s our friend, Timmy O’Neill. He’s a climber, and just sees the world through eyes of someone who wants to give back. His whole life is about sharing his joy, giving, making people’s lives better. He’s just a wonderful person.
SJ: It’s tough because I’ve had so many individuals who’ve given me those pieces, and I write about some of them in the book. Like my buddy, Don Mukai, who I call my “sensei” in the book, and who Jenny always says is like a second dad to me. And it’d be easy to say my mom, but I’m drawn to that because I guess my mom didn’t get to be the kind of mom she wanted to be to me [because of MS]. But she went through life with a grace, because when you lose every physical ability—the ability to swallow, to take a breath of air—to see her go through that with such grace was inspiring.
I’ll let the copy from Scott’s website—scottjurek.com—sum up the man: More than just a champion, Scott is a true student and ambassador of the sport, known to stay at finish lines cheering until the last runner crosses. When not racing, he donates his time to many nonprofit organizations and is an avid volunteer in the areas of environmental conservation, fitness and health. A passionate advocate for vegetarianism, he follows a 100% plant-based diet, which he credits for his endurance, recovery and consistent twenty-year racing career. He believes that everyone can run an ultra and everyone can access their body’s innate capacity to heal. Through writing, public speaking, and consulting, Scott takes joy in encouraging people of all fitness levels to take the next step toward vibrant health. Scott currently resides in Boulder, CO with his wife, Jenny, daughter, Raven, and son, Evergreen.
And having gone through miscarriages, Jenny (and Scott) is a big supporter of Every Mother Counts “who work tirelessly around the world to make pregnancy and childbirth safe for every mother, everywhere.” And she’s running this year’s New York City Marathon on Sunday, November 3rd, to raise money and awareness for this great organization. So she asks that, if you’re reading this and are willing/able, you consider donating to EMC and help her reach her goal of $3,500.
Thank you to both Jenny and Scott (and Raven and baby Evergreen) for taking the time. Oh, almost forgot: remember that one Badwater race back in 2005, when Scott had to be submerged in ice because his whole system was shutting down and he was, you know, literally dying?
He recovered to not just win…but set a new course record.
That’s just how Team Jurek rolls.