Memoir chronicles vegan extreme-runner's journey and evolution

Eat and Run
Proctor, Minn. native Scott Jurek grew up hating to run, living on a meat and potatoes diet. However in his late teens he discovered not only his ability to run great distances, but a rising interest in how his diet could help his running. Jurek is now recognized as one of the top ultra-marathoners in the world.
Image courtesy Houghton Mifflin

As a boy growing up in Proctor, just south of Duluth, Scott Jurek hated to run. He also hated vegetables. Now he is hailed as one of the world's top ultramarathoners, and regularly wins races of 50, 100, or 120 miles in record times.

And he does it entirely on a vegan diet. His new memoir, "Eat and Run," describes his athletic and dietary evolution.

People are incredulous when they hear about Jurek's career. He has heard nearly every question there could be about being an ultramarathoning vegan. He lays them out in the book.

"Why, when I could stay in shape with a 25-minute jog, do I train for five hours at a time? Why, when I could run a perfectly civilized marathon, would I choose to run four of them back-to-back? Why, instead of gliding over shaded tracks, would I take on Death Valley in the height of summer?" Jurek said. "Am I a masochist? Addicted to endorphins? Is there something deep down inside that I am running from? Or am seeking something I never had?"

Are there any simple answers?

"I don't think there is," Jurek said.

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A tall, slender man with tightly curled dark hair, Jurek's whip-like body is shaped from countless miles of running in all conditions, all over the world. Why he runs began with wanting to win and to see just how far he could go, he said.

Scott Jurek
Scott Jurek's memoir "Eat and Run: My unlikely journey to ultramarathon greatness" combines Jurek's story with running tips and vegan recipes.
MPR Photo/Euan Kerr

"But then I think later there's a deeper aspect," he said. "It's been a vehicle for me to explore not only what my body can do but my mind, and maybe even beyond that.

"That's really the definition of the ultra, is going beyond — going beyond the body, going beyond the mind. And for me, it's maybe a way to explore the unconscious realm or something else, whether that's soul, or spirit, or, I don't know, guts. Whatever people want to call it."

Jurek only took up running as a way to get in shape for cross-country skiing in high school.

"I used to hate running," he said. "Running was something you did when you got in trouble in gym class."

However, he learned that when he did run, not only did he have the stamina for distance, he actually had the capacity to get faster the further he ran. When his close friend and training partner Dusty Olson suggested they enter the Minnesota Voyageur 50-mile race in 1994, he was dubious. But then Jurek finished in a time of seven hours and 44 minutes. It was the toughest thing he had ever done, Jurek said, and a career philosophy was born.

"I think discomfort and pain are part of ultramarathoning, but it's also part of life."

"Eat and Run" describes how Jurek stretched himself further, moving around the country to take on increasingly tougher runs. Fifty-mile races became 100-mile races. He ran the Western States 100 mile endurance run in 2000 and won — his first time out — with a time of 17 hours, 15 minutes. He also ran in the first Copper Canyon Ultramarathon, made famous in Christopher McDougall's book "Born To Run."

Copper Canyon run
It was only when Christopher McDougall's popular book "Born to Run" chronicled Scott Jurek's run in the Copper Canyon Ultra marathon against the legendary Tarahumara Indians that Jurek became more widely known. Pictured, Scott Jurek is running with Tarahumara champion Arnulfo Quimare who beat Jurek in the first race in 2006. Jurek won the following year.
Image courtesy Houghton Mifflin, photo: Luis Escobar

In 2005, Jurek ran the Badwater Ultramarathon — 135 miles through Death Valley where the temperature can reach 120 degrees in the shade. He collapsed after 70 miles, writhing in agony from heat and dehydration. Jurek's book starts with a description of him as he lay on the road and wondered whether he should give up.

"Maybe this would help me with humility. Maybe dropping out and being defeated would renew my spirit. Maybe cutting one race short was a good thing. If only I could have made myself believe that."

With his best friend, Olson, screaming at him to get up, Jurek made himself go on. He won in a record time of 24 hours, 36 minutes. He credits Olson and his own stubborn Polish roots.

"And then, of course, my upbringing here in Minnesota. I think Minnesotans we are just bred tough," Jurek said.

Jurek will discuss his book at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Gear West in Long Lake. He will also talk about studying the effects his diet had on his running and how he made the shift to a completely plant-based diet. A lot of people told him that as a runner he needed meat as a protein source. But Jurek fuels his runs with whole grains and bean burritos, and says being vegan gives him a competitive edge.

"Over time, over a few months I started noticing my energy levels were higher. I recovered faster from workouts," Jurek said. "When you train for these hundred-mile races you run 20, 30 miles on Saturday, 20, 30 miles on Sunday. You kind of simulate what your legs will feel like at mile 80 and after those workouts my body bounced back very quickly."

The diet is not for everyone, Jurek said, and he just wants to offer an alternative. There are dozens of recipes in the book, as well. At 38, he realizes his top-level competition years may be coming to an end, but he intends to continue putting in the miles because running ultramarathons is now a way of life.