An interview with legendary ultramarathoner Scott Jurek by Nell Alk. Photo #1 by Ben Moon. Book cover photo by Justin Bastien (jacket design by Martha Kennedy). Photo #3 by Jenny Uehisa. Photo #4 by Luis Escobar.
For nearly two decades, Scott Jurek has been calmly dominating the ultramarathon circuit. He’s won nearly every major race, including seven straight victories at the Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run, and set a new U.S. all-surface record by running 165.7 miles in a single day.
It’s hard to believe there was a time when he was mercilessly teased as “Pee-wee.” Born and raised in Duluth, Minnesota, Jurek grew up hunting and fishing, subsisting on the standard American diet in a meat-and-potatoes-heavy home. He wasn’t inclined towards most sports, but in high school began running to train for cross-country ski season. With an assist from his friend Dusty Olson, Jurek developed not only a knack for long-distance running, but also a passion for it, a dedication and drive that would take him farther—literally—than he ever dreamed. Along the line he figured out that a vegan diet fueled his body best and the rest, as they say, is history.
His debut book, Eat & Run: My Unlikely Journey to Ultramarathon Greatness, brings readers up to speed on his background and how he scaled life to such great heights. In addition to this inspirational story, which also includes some mouth-watering recipes and is now on bookstore shelves, Jurek featured heavily in another book, Born to Run by Christopher McDougall. This is significant not only because it chronicles Jurek’s running alongside the elusive Tarahumara Indians in Mexico, but also because this tale is set to be told through film, at the helm of actor Peter Sarsgaard.
The day before Eat & Run’s release, on a morning when Jurek would run the entire periphery of Manhattan and barely blink an eye, we spoke with the 38-years-young champion about his first book, the reasons he recommends a vegan diet, and that very exciting film project with Mr. Sarsgaard.
Let’s start at the beginning: Why did you start running?
I started running to get in shape for cross-country ski season. I really didn’t like it at first. In fact, I hated it. It wasn’t until my buddy Dusty [Olson] put a different twist on running. Something clicked. I really started to appreciate and fall in love with it. It’s cheap, you can do it anywhere, it isn’t complicated. It’s a really beautiful thing.
A lot of people are surprised to hear that you’re a vegan. What would you say is the single best performance benefit of the diet?
Body maintenance and repair, because athletes stress and tear down their body through training and racing. If you’re eating a well-balanced, plant-based diet, it provides your body with more micronutrients, antioxidants, all these beneficial components that allow for short- and long-term repair. Our bodies need the building blocks to keep us healthy and, as an athlete, it’s even more important because you’re stressing the body.
I must say, you’re a very young 38.
That’s a huge benefit of the diet. I’ve been putting my body through a lot of rigorous training and racing so, all else being equal, I should look a lot older. The reason I’m so consistent, energetic and can still put in a hard workout 18 years into my career—I started when I was 20—is due to diet. I don’t want to brag, but a lot of people say, “You look healthy, you look vibrant, your skin looks good.” Those are the effects. Most people want to stay active later in life and I think that’s where the plant-based diet comes into effect. There’s more to health than just exercise. Nutrition is key, and the long-term effects are huge.
How do you manage to eat well on the run, both literally and figuratively?
I mention in the book that it’s hard to find beans without lard when you’re in extremely remote places. There have been a few challenging situations like that. Otherwise, I’ve been able to navigate internationally and in the US without eating meat and dairy products. I call it modern foraging. It becomes this challenge. I enjoy it. It can be done. And more and more restaurants are becoming more vegan-friendly. I plan ahead, too. So many people say they can’t eat X, Y, and Z; they don’t think about all the things they can eat. It’s about being open to possibilities, new foods, tastes, and textures.
NYC must be fun for you, then. What’s your favorite restaurant here?
I love Hangawi. It’s so different from anything else I can get. It’s vegan and it’s mind-blowing!
Something else I noted in your book is that, as an athlete, not only are you consuming so many calories, but you’re also readily burning them. How do you address this issue for fellow active folks who want to maintain their weight or even gain weight? A whole foods, plant-based diet is generally seen as a step towards weight loss.
It’s true. Weight management is not so much a protein issue but a calorie issue. The more intense the exercise regimen, the more calories you need. For me, my fat intake will increase as a percentage of my diet when I’m training harder and need more calories. A mistake a lot of athletes make is to cut out so much fat. Fats shouldn’t be so frowned upon for active people. Having those calories is key. Nuts, seeds, avocados, cold pressed oils and olives are examples of great fatty foods.
It makes sense that your book would include not only the Scott Jurek story, but also recipes and training tips.
I couldn’t leave the eating part out. I couldn’t leave the running part out. At the same time, I felt like there was a lot more to my story than educating. I didn’t want it to be just an instructional book.
Can you tell me a bit more about the film being made based on Born to Run and how Peter Sarsgaard got involved?
It’s still in the works. They may film as soon as this fall. Peter Sarsgaard read the book, was just blown away with it, and heard somebody had optioned the film rights. He wanted to be part of it and will be making his directorial debut. I think the project is in good hands.
Have you ever thought about running Forrest Gump-style across the country to promote the film or your book?
I’ve always wanted to run across the country, so that would be one way to do it. Don’t hold me to it, though!