North: Finding My Way While Running the Appalachian Trail: Review

Following the success of a world-renowned ultra-running career and a best-selling book, Eat & Run, Scott Jurek looked like he had finally slowed down. Transitioning from a career in ultra-racing to one of public speaking and writing, Scott appeared to realize that he was ready for a life beyond the stage of professional running. Settling down with his wife, Jenny Jurek, the two began exploring the idea of starting a family of their own and exploring the Great American Trails without the having to consistently check their watches. However, while on a southern Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) hike, Jenny began earnestly poking at Scott’s ego, asking him just what he was planning on doing from here. She wondered whether or not the drive that once existed in this seven-time Western States 100 winner still burned brightly, or was nothing more than a bleak flicker.

Jenny’s questioning, and subsequent provocation, is what lead towards Scott’s successful attempt at breaking the Appalachian Trail (AT) supported fastest-known-time (FKT) record in the summer of 2015. Deciding to traverse the trail northbound (NoBo) rather than southbound (SoBo), something that many serious thru-hikers and FKT seekers found inane — going against the usual traverse for those attempting the FKT, Scott set out onto the trail with Jenny and some friends in tow, working round the clock as his active crew. Jenny, who would be meeting him at each trail head in Castle Black, the couple’s decked-out black van filled with both running/cooking gear and adorned with Brooks and Clif Bar advertising, would be Scott’s foremost point of support — cooking his meals, cleaning his clothes, and much more. The attempt, and record, would herald Scott’s name for time to come, but both it and the experience belonged to the Jurek’s and many more.

Scott’s new book, North: Finding My Way While Running the Appalachian Trail, which features Jenny as an additional author, explores the couple’s reflections upon the the AT record attempt — the time before, during, and after. Similar to the trail, Scott and Jenny’s narrative follows a emotional multitude of valleys and peaks. And for those times where they seem to come upon a plateau on the trail, there’s always a toe-snagging root, puddle of muck, or faltering rock that messes with the balance of things. This record attempt was no easy feat, and it was nothing like the 100 milers that Jurek had become so accustomed to.

Both Scott and Jenny realize, not very long into the AT, that they had been naive about their approach. Ultra-running friends, those that joined as spontaneous crew members, provided them with statistical information to help them understand just what lay ahead and what work was required of both of them. Those with an outsider’s perspective could see the wear-and-tear taking place on both of the Jurek’s bodies and minds, yet rather than ever allowing them to scale back their plans or call it quits, they always found the energy to motivate them each day. The experience of all those involved in the “2015 Jurek AT FKT” project was a shared one, providing whatever mental and physical energy could be lent to both Scott and Jenny. That energy, and the Jurek’s subsequent gratitude, is what allowed for this journey to continue even under the worst conditions, allowing the record to still be captured with little room to spare.

While having just Scott’s perspective would have still made for a good book — as had been seen with Eat & Run, adding Jenny’s perspective made it a wholly better book. While Scott might have been the one putting one foot in front of the other, staring deep into the valleys and high upon the peaks, dealing with the dichotomy of brutality and beauty that the trail is known for, Jenny was arranging every bit of his life that he hadn’t thought of, because she had already taken care of it for him. Her experience with the trail was caring for all of Scott’s needs off of the trail, dealing with weirdos at trailheads, navigating around fans who wished to meet Scott, and arranging meeting points with all of the close friends they had stopping by the AT to help crew Scott. As much as it might have been Scott’s run, it was just as much a record belonging to Jenny, thus making her perspective imperative in the telling all sides to this story.

This book still features the brand of motivational speaking found in Eat & Run, providing readers with tidy quotes applicable to trail running, nutrition, man vs. nature, relationships and work-life balance. Personally, this book wasn’t as impactful as Eat & Run, but I wouldn’t consider this to be a negative comment. A lot of the motivation and ideology presented by both Scott and Jenny can be also found in Eat & Run. That’s not to say that this book is just a rehashing of that E&R with a different narrative arc, it just means that it’s a perspective of his/theirs that I have read before, so it’s one that wasn’t as fresh this time around.

What makes this book worthwhile is the story it tells: The individual and shared experience of a married couple attempting to accomplish something they were, truthfully, under-prepared for. Further, it explores the relationships between people — partners in marriage, friends, fellow thru-hikers, and strangers — and how we communicate, whether verbally or not, to better ourselves each and every day.

In the epilogue of the book, Scott is hiking out onto the AT a year after he captured the FKT. However, rather than attempting to better his FKT from the previous year, he is out on the trail crewing for Karl ‘Speedgoat’ Meltzer, who was then making his own attempt at breaking Scott’s AT FKT. Speedgoat had graciously (and greatly) helped Scott during his FKT attempt, and Scott honestly had a lot to thank him for. Lo and behold, Speedgoat ended up breaking Scott’s FKT during this 2016 attempt, finally capturing it his third time around.

The fact that Scott helped Speedgoat along this FKT attempt only reinforces the message of this book: The trails are not something we venture alone; they are a path for which we, as a trail hiking/running community, come together to support one another along the way, without bias and with one thought in mind: We’re all in this together.

 

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