To say that Scott Jurek’s memoir has had an influence on me would be a statement far too under played. As a high school runner and a vegetarian, reading about his experiences and changes in lifestyle managed to transform me into an ultramarathoner as well as a vegan.
As I have seen from a number of reviews online, some may see Jurek’s work as braggadocios, whether talking about the detriments of the current diet of America, hailing his veganism and how it has benefited him, or talking about his most memorable races and the struggles he overcame, but I believe that they are much more humble and relatable. His success never came from pure talent, rather it came from hard work and determination. A tall, lanky kid from Minnesota, with a struggling home life, whose father was overbearing and mother was declining in health, Jurek was a worker from a young age – hunting, helping around the house, studying to become his High school’s valedictorian, as well as training immensely to become one of the state’s best cross country skiers.
Not once in the memoir does Jurek talk about the ease that came to his accomplishments in life. Instead, he had to work with consistency for what he had – nothing came easy. Yet, he found that this is where his strengths began to shine. He may not have been the fastest or strongest runner, but when pain arrived through fatigue and stress, Jurek found that he was able to endure when others weren’t. When others began to lose their will to continue, a new found strength begin churning within him, pushing ahead of the competition. Once he began finding success within the sport, building an ego for himself, he had a greater will to continue succeeding – testing his physical limits, both through running and diet, learning from his mistakes, and constructing an ultrarunning repertoire that others could not defeat for some years.
However, Jurek does not allow for the ego to become overly saturated. The book begins with him puking in the middle of Death Valley, bonking hard during The Badwater 135. Puking until guttural, vomitless groans were coming from his then flushed stomach, he questioned everything that he had put so much faith in. Was it his diet? Had he not trained enough? Did he race too soon following his latest victory at Western States? Had he let his ego get the best of him, not listening to the advice about Badwater? Then, as he laid on his back, exhausted, staring at the desert, starry night, he came to terms with his situation. This larger than life failure that he was beginning to feel didn’t feel so bad. Neither did his worries about his ego and pride. When it came down to it, he was putting in the work, but the environment was beating him. Yet, the environment didn’t even think about him. He was nothing to the steaming pavement, the irradiating night, or the vast desert stretched out around him. That alone gave him strength – the restoration of the self in regards to the environment. As a runner, that feeling of when you and the environment become attuned is key. Yet, while it may seem antithetical that in becoming minuscule to your surroundings one finds strength – but knowing how futile your fatigue, pains, and worries are is something that frees you. For Jurek, as we learn later in the memoir, when he returns to the story, he gets up and chases down his opponent through the desert night, winning the race the next day.
Jurek proves that it doesn’t take a superhuman to attempt what he has done. A meat eating boy from flat-land Minnesota, turned into a vegan mountain runner. While the transition sounds unordinary, it isn’t impossible. The trials and tribulations of life brought Jurek along this path, along with the sense of calmness and understanding he found as he consumed a more clean diet, as well as running more and more miles. In pushing through the stress of being, he was able to find greatness. And, as he often quotes his father in the novel, “Sometimes you just do things.” This notion is something that any human can realize for themselves, when willing to take on such a commitment towards some end.
I know, for myself, taking the same chance, becoming a vegan and beginning to run ultras, I found much of the same clarity of mind. Two years on, and I still feel the same way.