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, or talking about his most memorable races/struggles, but I believe that it is a humble and relatable work.
Jurek’s success never came from pure talent, rather it came from hard work and determination. A tall, lanky kid from Minnesota who struggled with a father who was overbearing and a mother whose health was in serious decline, Jurek was a worker from a young age — hunting for his family’s meals, aiding in the necessary chores of the home, studying to become his High school’s valedictorian, as well as undertaking serious amounts of training to become one of the state’s best cross country skiers.
Not once in the memoir does Jurek talk about the ease he had in reaching his accomplishments in life. Instead, he had to consistently work and struggle for what he had. Nothing came easy.
As difficult as life could be, he found that he could mine strength from his pain and suffering. He may not have been the fastest or strongest runner, but when that pain reared its ugly head Jurek found that he was able to endure when others weren’t. When others began to lose their will to continue, a newfound strength begin to churn within the breadth of his belly, pushing him far ahead of the competition. Once he began to succeed within the sport, finally fostering an ego for himself, he had a greater will to continue win — testing his physical limits, learning from his mistakes, and constructing an ultrarunning repertoire that others could not compete against for some years.
Yet for all of his successes gained through strife, Jurek does not allow for the ego to become 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?
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. 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. While it may seem antithetical that you might find strength through becoming minuscule, the knowing of your fragility and futility — your fatigue, pains, and worries — sets you free from ego death. This proves true for Jurek, for, as we learn later in the memoir, when he returns to his Badwater story, he recovers 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. If anything, he is nothing more than a meat eating boy from flat-land Minnesota that turned himself 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 brought about by a clean diet, as well as running miles from the early morning, through the day, and into the night .
By pushing through his stress, 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.