Of Bears and Gazelles: Scott Jurek on How Determination Wins Every Time

Born with scoliosis and a left foot that toes out, the running legend focused on distance, where length could forgive injury, fatigue, bad form, and illness. In an ultra, the most important thing is your mind—and your willingness to push on.

Scott Jurek

Scott Jurek     Photo: Wikimedia Commons

I knew my fourth try was going to be brutal. It was 105 degrees, I had a touch of the flu, and I was sure people were talking about me the way I had talked about Twietmeyer. The world was filled with guys like Ricklefs. I had been a guy like that. Maybe the past year someone had been holed up in a basement apartment on the outskirts of Seattle, emerging at night only to run Mount Si, back to back to back to back. Maybe that guy was faster than me, stronger. Maybe he was a better athlete.

If I thought biology was destiny, I would have given up a long time ago. I’ve got scoliosis, my left foot toes out, I had high blood pressure in elementary school, and my marathon time of 2:38 is nothing special. My height is a mixed blessing—good for stride length, bad for heat and technical trails—which makes my brain that much more important.

In a sprint, if you don’t have perfect form, you’re doomed. The ultra distance forgives injury, fatigue, bad form, and illness. A bear with determination will defeat a dreamy gazelle every time. I can’t count the number of times people have said, “I can’t believe he beat me.” Distance strips you bare.

So what if other bodies might be stronger? I would use my mind. Bushido.

“I want to make everyone work hard,” I told a reporter before the race. “I want to make them hurt.”

I loved ultrarunning and I loved ultrarunners, but even a super-polite vegan could be a dick during competition, sometimes even to a friend.

Dave Terry, the world-class projectile vomiter, was running on my shoulder by mile 15 of the Western States. Three years had passed since I’d first rolled to the finish line, and Dave and I had become pals. I had grown to admire his work ethic and the way he went out of the way to show kindness to everyone he met. Dave was a solid runner, often in the top three, but seldom a winner. He never let his frustration boil into anything like rudeness. What was most striking was the way he seemed to understand someone’s sadness before it was even mentioned. Dave always had a few wise words of encouragement to share—especially, it seemed, to those who needed them most.

“Hey, Scott,” Dave said as he pulled alongside. Such a sweet guy. I smiled.

“Hey, Dave!” I said in the same tone of voice I might have used if we had been sharing a beer at his kitchen table or discussing plans for a Saturday night movie.

And then, before he could answer, I said, “What are you doing up here? You must really want to hurt today.”

Then I took off.

No one called me flatlander anymore. No one opined (at least in my presence) that I was going out too fast or that Twietmeyer—or anyone else—was going to reel me in. When I wasn’t leading, I reeled others in.

It wasn’t just competitors who were treating me differently. People came into the store just to ask me questions—about what I ate, how I trained, and what shoes I liked. I had sponsorship deals from various footwear, clothing, and energy bar manufacturers, but that only covered travel expenses (not necessarily lodging or food).

It was all because I could run far, fast. And I could do that, I was convinced, because of what I was eating. I stopped the raw diet right after my 2001 Western States victory—the extra time involved in chewing was too much. I’m serious. That, combined with my concern about getting enough calories, drew me back to cooking. But I kept a lot of what I had learned: the smoothies, a large salad for lunch, paying attention to ingredients and preparation. Eating raw was like getting a Ph.D. in a plant-based diet—hard work, but worth it.

At the same time, due to losing a food sponsor, I started making my own gels. I mixed brown rice syrup with blueberries or cocoa powder and made it in bulk. I also experimented with kalamata olives and hummus on whole wheat tortillas for long runs.

My blood pressure and triglyceride levels dropped to all-time lows; my HDL, “good” cholesterol, shot up to an all-time high. I had virtually no joint inflammation, even after miles of pounding trails and roads, and on the rare occasions I sprained an ankle or fell and whacked my elbow or knee, the soreness left faster than it ever had before.

Was it the fiber that sped food through my digestive tract, minimizing the impact of toxins? Was it the food I was adding—the vitamins and minerals, the lycopene, lutein, and beta carotene? Almost every day a new micronutrient is discovered in plant foods that offers protective effects against disease. Or was it what I wasn’t eating, the concentrated carcinogens, excess protein, refined carbohydrates, trans fats? Factory-farmed animals are treated with growth hormones and steroids to encourage their rapid transit from birth to slaughterhouse. If we wouldn’t take steroids ourselves—or eat a bowl of transgenic, pesticide-soaked soybeans—why would we eat the flesh of an animal that has?

Or was the sum of a plant-based diet greater than its parts? Vegetarians are likely to have healthy habits outside the kitchen as well as more active lifestyles and less smoking. A major study shows that vegetarians watch less television, smoke less, and sleep more per night than meat-eaters.

I wasn’t sure of the answer, but my diet seemed to be working. So when I came across naysayers—and there were plenty—I weighed my experience against their theories. When I read Eat Right 4 Your Type, by Peter D’Adamo, right before my first Western States and learned that my blood type, O, was the least suited of all types to vegetarianism, I worried a little, but not too much. According to D’Adamo, my ancestral profile made me a “canny, aggressive predator” who preferred baby seal meat to bean burritos. But those burritos had fueled me through that first Western States as well as two others. (I wasn’t the only one who didn’t go along with matching diet to blood type. Dr. Fredrick Stare, founder of the Nutrition Department at the Harvard School of Public Health, calls this book “not only one of the most preposterous books on the market, but also one of the most frightening. It contains just enough scientific-sounding nonsense, carefully woven into a complex theory, to actually seem convincing to the uninitiated.”)

I maintained my smoothie habit. I made more friends at farmer’s markets. I soaked beans, baked bread, rolled oats. I entered other races, searched for new training routes. Even though I knew the Western States would be more challenging than ever, I was confident.

Before the race, Dusty had bet an old friend of his in Minnesota, Rod Raymond, one of the standout endurance athletes of Duluth, that I would win a fourth consecutive Western States. Rod took the bet. If Dusty lost, he would have to landscape the Raymonds’ front yard, a job worth $2,000. But if Dusty (and I) won, Rod had to give Dusty his 1984 Suzuki Tempter motorcycle.

The race was tough but not close. The last 20 miles, Dusty ran beside me, repeating over and over: “Vroom, vroom, c’mon, Jurker, gotta get my motorcycle.”

Later, Dusty called Rod and got his voicemail. He yelled into his cell phone. “You owe me a motorcycle, bitch!”

I won a fifth Western States in 2003 in 16:01, another 20 minutes faster, and UltraRunning magazine called it “Performance of the Year.” During that race, Dusty, behind me, screamed something as we were descending a dried creek drainage, headed to the American River, but I didn’t pay attention. It was 72 miles in and I was gliding, effortlessly. “Dude,” he said, “do you realize you just stepped on a rattlesnake back there?”

That was the race when Tonto died. He had been spending the week with Dusty and me, running every day. During the race, Tonto stayed at my friend Shannon Weil’s ranch, which was on the course. I saw Tonto at mile 55 when I passed the ranch. The next morning, after I had won, Shannon called to tell me Tonto was gone. After the awards ceremony, Dusty, Scott McCoubrey, and another friend and runner named Brandon Sybrowsky helped me bury Tonto just outside of Michigan Bluff, right next to the Western States Trail.

I won again the next year, in 2004, and set a new record of 15:36 (9:22 per mile pace), earning another “Ultrarunner of the Year” honor and, more importantly, accomplishing what I had set out to do six years earlier. Brooks Sports hired me that year to work with their design team on a new trail shoe called the Cascadia and to do presentations and store appearances. In 2005 I won a seventh consecutive Western States, something no man had done before (or since). I also trimmed off 14 inches of my hair to donate to Locks of Love, for children with cancer. It was no big ceremony, but it felt better than any other haircut I had ever received.

I treasured those races, but just as much I treasured the weeks before the competition. The local press sought out Dusty, and he always had a quote ready. In 2003, the Auburn Journal accidentally ran Dusty on the front page with the caption, “Scott Jurek five-time winner of WS100.” We laughed about it and even had him go up at first to accept my award. The WS board wasn’t happy. But we loved it.

At night, at the campsite Dusty and I had set up in the Sierra Nevada mountains, the temperature would drop into the 30s, and before turning in we’d look at the sky. Neither of us talked about the way Dusty had inspired me to run or the success that accrued to me because of that running. We didn’t talk about how being with each other was in many ways an escape for both of us. For Dusty, those weeks took him away from his peripatetic life, his wanderings in Minnesota and Colorado, chasing snowflakes and trying to eke out a living through odd carpentry jobs. For me, it was a refuge from a life of responsibilities I had never anticipated.

Not even 10 years earlier, I had been trudging snowmobile trails, dreaming big and spending big. I had planned on running hard, counted on winning. What I hadn’t anticipated were sponsorships with Brooks, Pro-Tec, and Clif Bar, delivering presentations, and attending trade shows in between races. But, as I had discovered, those were flags on the path of ultrarunning, markers on the path Hippie Dan had urged me to find. Or were they warning signs? I didn’t know.

I wanted more. I wanted to push myself, to crack myself open and discover something fresh. I wanted a new challenge.

“Of Bears and Gazelles” from Eat and Run by Scott Jurek with Steve Friedman. Copyright © 2012 by Scott Jurek. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

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