Monday, May 21, 2012

Book Review: Eat & Run, by Scott Jurek

Scott Jurek was, in his own words, “a shy kid with high blood pressure.” In school, he was spit on, called Pee-Wee and a target of bullies. Few could have ever imagined this scrawny boy would one day become a world-class endurance athlete and running legend.
Over the course of his nearly 20-year career, Jurek has won some of the world’s biggest and toughest ultramarathons, starting with seven consecutive victories at the Western States Endurance Run, a 100-mile trail race in northern California he dominated from 1999-2005. He’s broken the tape in the mountainous Hardrock 100, twice won the 135-mile Badwater Ultramarathon, and found victory three consecutive years at the 152-mile Spartathlon. In 2010, the versatile Jurek, who many had incorrectly dismissed as washed up, set a new American record for 24 hours, covering 165.7 miles in the IAU-IAAF World Championships in France. He ran in his mother's memory.

And he did all of that and more while adhering to a vegan diet—a diet devoid of animal byproducts.

Now, the 38-year-old Jurek has come forward with his inspiring life story, Eat & Run: My Unlikely Journey to Ultramarathon Greatness, written with Steve Friedman and published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. In this honest, deeply personal 231-page, 22-chapter autobiography, Jurek traces his evolution as a vegan, his spiritual growth and his unparalleled dominance as an ultrarunner.

Having met Jurek twice, he comes across as a guy with everything going for him. He has the looks, resume and persona, though one might also be struck by his humility—a virtue he likely developed as a child and through the travails of running super long distances in extreme conditions such as Death Valley in the dead of summer. Beneath it all, though, Jurek is a man who has suffered—and endured. Indeed, Runner’s World (in an unfortunate feature in 2010) once called him “The King of Pain.”

Born in 1973, Jurek grew up in a modest home near Proctor, Minnesota, eating “government cheese” (his own way of saying food bought with food stamps), while the “cake eaters” across town lived the high life. His mother, a caring woman and accomplished cook who dedicated herself to made-from-scratch meals, suffered from multiple sclerosis, while his disciplinarian father, who worked two jobs, pushed Scott and his younger brother and sister hard. They had little time for play. Indeed, Jurek recounts that one time he couldn’t play with a visiting friend because he still had a few more hours of wood-stacking. His father’s motto, “sometimes you just do things,” has, for better or worse, remained with Jurek his entire life—and is often repeated throughout Eat & Run.

Jurek grew up on a “meat and potatoes” diet, learning at a young age how to cook pot roast, tuna noodle casserole, fried fish (which he caught and cleaned himself), pies and the like. He tells stories of helping his mother in the kitchen and painful memories of her gradual decline because of MS, the first signs being her propensity to drop things in the kitchen.

A skinny adolescent who studied hard (he was high school valedictorian), Jurek avoided contact sports and instead gravitated to endurance activities such as cross-country skiing. Through his experience as one of Minnesota's top-ranked high school cross-country skiers, he took his first taste of a plant-based diet, discovering healthy dishes like brown rice and vegetarian chili, but remained a meat eater. In these formative years, he met a hell-raising, rebellious kid named Dusty Olson, who would become his lifelong friend and a key part of his success in ultrarunning. The two eventually turned to ultrarunning, perfectly complementing each other like yin and yang. Olson called his friend "Jurker," a nickname that has stuck over the years.

Olson, a very talented athlete, exposed the inexperienced Jurek to trail running. Even as he went to college full-time in Duluth and worked jobs to pay tuition, Jurek found time to run the trails in Minnesota, often fueling his recovery with greasy chicken sandwiches from McDonald’s since it was a cheap source of protein. He kept running and soon set his sights on the 50-mile Minnesota Voyager, which Olson had won in 1993.

Jurek won the 1996 and 1997 Minnesota Voyager and, fueled by ambition and competitive drive, later moved to Seattle with his new wife, Leah, a vegetarian he met in McDonald’s of all places, to work as a physical therapist and take his running to the next level (he did, however, return to Minnesota and win the Voyager many more times). Driven by a desire to win on the biggest stages, he logged hundreds of miles on the local peaks, transforming himself into a bona fide mountain runner. Now a plant-based eater, he thrived in the progressive Seattle and realized great benefits from conscientious eating and living.

After placing second at the challenging 1998 Angeles Crest 100-Mile Run, where he encountered a team of Tarahumara Indians, Jurek, ringing up debt to finance his goals, set his sights on his next challenge: the Western States 100. Of course, Jurek, with Olson by his side, won Western States in his first attempt, despite those who discounted him as a flatlander. Indeed, when he crossed the finish line, he yelled, “Minnesota!”

Jurek recounts many other races, as well, such as the 2007 Hardrock, which he won despite a sprained ankle. In that race, the in-your-face Olson had the audacity to taunt record-holder Karl Meltzer, the imposing, unflappable “King of Hardrock” and “Wasatch Speedgoat." Jurek eloquently writes of the Copper Canyon Ultramarathon, where he befriended a low-key guy named Micah True, a.k.a. Caballo Blanco, and was a central actor in what would become a best-selling book by Christopher McDougall. He shares stirring details of Spartathlon.

To his credit, Jurek also tells of the bad, such as when he paced Brian Morrison at the infamous 2006 Western States. Just 300 yards from glory, an exhausted, overheated Morrison, who was firmly in the lead but foundering, collapsed on the track and was later disqualified for being assisted by Jurek across the finish line (warning: that video is painful to watch).

Like many of the great ones at one point in their career, Jurek found himself lost (think Michael Jordan in a White Sox uniform). In 2008, his marriage to Leah crumbled. According to Jurek, she no longer found him fun or interesting and had developed feelings for other men. Having just gotten out of debt, Jurek now faced a nasty, expensive and embarrassing divorce. In the ultrarunning world, there are few secrets….

But things only got worse. In 2009, one of his closest friends, Dave Terry, an accomplished and beloved ultrarunner, took his own life, leaving many, including Jurek, devastated. Then his longtime friendship with Olson, who had paced and crewed Jurek in nearly every race, began foundering. Olson, in his own right an accomplished runner, was “tired of being Jurker’s bitch.” The two stopped talking.
In the face of crisis, a cynical, albeit heartbroken, Jurek retreated to the trail, hanging out with his pals, Ian Torrence, Hal Koerner, Anton Krupicka and Kyle Skaggs, and even considering “going off the grid” and working at an organic farm. In one touching moment, Jurek, still reeling from his failed marriage, writes of telling Krupicka that love wasn’t forever, to which the younger runner responded that love was everything (just makes me like Krupicka even more). At about this time, rumors that Jurek was washing dishes made the rounds. Critics said he had lost his edge.

Jurek also tells of a life-changing, redemptive experience in the Grand Canyon with his friend, Joe Grant. The two ran through the day and night, enduring harsh conditions and running out of food—and yet they reached their destination through sheer determination. There was, indeed, a light at the end of the tunnel. It was an experience that very much paralleled the state of Jurek’s life at the time—an experience that gave him hope.

Jurek soon rediscovered love when he met Jenny Uehisa, an employee at Patagonia. The two kindred spirits quickly bonded, and she was there with him when his mother passed away in 2010 after her long battle with MS.

The book’s final chapter recounts Jurek’s American 24-hour record attempt in France and what he endured as he ran countless loops and ultimately came to grips with his demons. Here we learn of his reconciliation with Olson, his visit with US troops in Afghanistan, and his feelings for his mom and dad. “This is what you came for,” he tells himself. His American 24-hour record still stands.

One miss I have to mention is the editing. Eat & Run, though a well-written and deeply personal self-portrait, could have used a more critical editing eye.

Eat & Run gets into the nitty-gritty of what it means to be an ultra racer, the sacrifices we must make to train, how to live and thrive on a plant-based diet, and how we ultrarunners do what we do. But it also explores what it means to be a human and to deal with pain and loss. In that respect, it’s a book for all audiences.

A few additional notes: I applaud Jurek for interspersing his favorite vegan recipes, providing reference notes in the end, and including a detailed index—something you wouldn’t expect in an athlete autobiography. Props also to Jurek for providing excellent photographs for the reader's enjoyment.

Eat & Run: My Unlikely Journey to Ultramarathon Greatness, due out on June 5, is highly recommended.


  1. Great recap...I can't wait to read it. That video of Brian Morrison getting helped by Jurek at Western States is brutal!!! It's too bad he got disqualified.

  2. I can not wait to pick up this book! Jurek is a huge inspiration for everything he has accomplished. Thanks for the great review!

  3. I'm glad you went into the detail you did, now I want to read it :) Not being much of a lowfat vegan sort of guy, I wasn't really that interested in a food book, but ultra history and Jurek bio... heck yeah. Sounds really interesting.

    That was probably my favorite part about my other recent running book, Born to Run: even though I'm more open than many to minimalism, you don't have to care about that to enjoy the back stories and history on running, shoes and the runners (including Scott) in the book.

  4. You've piqued my curiosity too, now I"m also more interested in reading the book. Thanks. --Nicole