Bloomsbury Publishing is possibly most famous for taking a chance on a book that had been rejected by almost every other publisher in the land. It is all about a quiet, shy young boy who came from a difficult background which was full of challenges and who, it turned out, had magical powers allowing him to do things that no one else could. This shy young boy went on to do battle with fearsome foes and struggled with personal challenges, always giving his all in a pursuit of a higher ideal, whilst joined along the way by a cast of weird and wonderful companions who added colour to his already extraordinary life.
Who am I talking about? Well that description could apply to Harry Potter as easily as it could to Scott Jurek. This evening, however, it was Scott and not Harry that I was invited to see taking part in an interview at the Bloomsbury Institute in central London.
Eat and Run – My Unlikely Journey to Ultramarathon Greatness
Bloomsbury are the publishers of one of the most captivating and extraordinary books about the ultra running scene that I have ever read. Scott Jurek’s Eat and Run, describes the twin forces in Jurek’s life – his amazing ultra running and his conversion to veganism.
Scott appeared in the ultra trail running world with a bang in 1999, when he entered the Western States 100 and won it, beating ultra running legend Tweetmeyer in the process. In all Scott went on to win that race seven times.
Of course it wasn’t as though Jurek had never run a race before or hadn’t trained for the Western States – he had been turning himself into one of the worlds best ultra endurance athletes for years, through his tough, physical childhood, through a love of cross-country skiing and through a passion for trail running, driven to run ever harder by friends and acquaintances who saw the potential in him.
At the same time, Jurek had decided that he would run better if he modified his diet and ended up becoming a vegan.
Food and running – the perfect combo!
And this is what the book that Scott has written is really about – ultra trail running and veganism, both of which he seems to be particularly good at. In each chapter of the book there is a story about running which runs through the entirety of Jurek’s 20+ year career along with a number of vegan recipes at the end of each section. This is what makes the book such a fascinating read – not only can you marvel at the incredible athlete and what he has achieved… you can also have the same lunch as him.
At the event tonight, Scott elaborated on a few things in the book. He talked about the fact that he has been driven to be the best runner he can be for over 20 years and yet it is only after 17 or so of those years that he was able to make a living from being a full time athlete. He also talked candidly about the fact that he will be 40 in a few weeks and that he thinks long and hard about when to stop competing at the top level – when he will allow himself to run in the mid-pack and simply enjoy the experience of running rather than having to compete. Don’t worry though, that is not going to happen soon: Scott revealed that at the very least he would like to take on a few more iconic ultra trail races, regain his US 24 hour record and challenge the world record and try his hand at a few multi-day stage races. So that’ll take him at least another few years!
Jurek on Jornet
But talk of retirement also included a discussion about the new talent emerging into the ultra trail scene and one question from the floor asked Scott what he thinks about Killian Jornet and his Summits Of My Life activities. Scott said that he understands the concern in some quarters about the things that Jornet is trying to achieve, but like other friends of Scott, including Alex Honnold the climber and Uli Steck the mountaineer, there will always be people pushing the boundaries and that those people are necessary.
Scott Jurek’s approach to racing
Scott talked a little about racing and his approach. This was all part of a discussion about his scientific approach to racing. Scott talked about the fact that many in the trail running community in the US frowned upon his interest in, and use of, scientific testing to try to improve his performances. Scott had extensive testing done, looking into his VO2 Max measurements (between 97 and 98 in case you are interested) and his lactate threshold measurements. The former was very high while the later was decidedly average, suggesting that Scott’s background in cross-country skiing had driven his VO2 Max up but his sport was always going to be based in the endurance sphere as he doesn’t have much in the way of top-end speed. He admitted that his marathon PB is 2:38 and that he has often beaten runners with 2:15 PBs once they get on the trails.
Jurek also talked about how he fuels his races, again taking a scientific approach. He sets his alarm on his watch to go off every 30 minutes and consumes 25 grammes of carbohydrate so that he feeds his neuromuscular system as if it was on a constant drip of fuel.
The end of the evening
And it was perhaps the need for refueling that brought the questions from the audience to a close, signaling the end of the evening’s entertainment.
Scott, true to his nature, which is exemplified by his tradition of staying on the finish line of the races he runs to welcome home every other runner, agreed to sign as many books as required by the people in the room and allow each of them to have a photo taken. That meant that there was a steady stream of smiling people plunging from the Georgian splendor of Bloomsbury Publishers’ HQ into the cool night air, clutching their copies of the book and almost certainly inspired to do more – to follow in the footsteps of a man whose magical powers are actually not all that magical at all. Who really, for me, embodies much of what it is to be an ultra trail runner: modest, enthusiastic, a lover of nature as well as hard-working, competitive and determined whilst at the same time compassionate and friendly. I just wonder what he’d be like at Quidditch…