Scott Jurek: “I’m Getting Tired of this Stuff. It’s a Waste of Time and Energy for Everyone.”
The ultrarunner’s speed record on the Appalachian Trail has been overshadowed by claims that he's contributing to the commercialization of wild places. After accepting a $500 fine for public drinking as part of a plea deal, Jurek speaks out against his critics.
After setting the speed record on the Appalachian Trail in July, covering the entire 2,160-mile journey on foot in fewer than 47 days, sometimes hoofing 50 miles in a single day, Scott Jurek should have been enjoying a spell of much deserved respite. Instead, he’s been exchanging fire with officials at Baxter State Park, who oversee Mount Katahdin, the trail’s northern terminus in Maine.
That's where Jurek completed his record run, celebrating by popping a bottle of champagne that has haunted him for the past two months. Baxter officials cited him for littering (the champagne touched the ground, though Jurek did collect the cork), drinking in public, and hiking with an oversized group. But they didn’t stop there. Park Director Jensen Bissell posted a scathing criticism of Jurek’s run on Facebook. Not only was the party inappropriate, Bissell said, but the record run was nothing more than a commercial venture designed to profit Jurek’s sponsors and exacerbated longstanding tensions between the park and the National Park Service about how thru-hikers on the trail are managed. Jurek fired back, accusing Bissell of hitching unrelated issues to his high profile run and waging “a personal attack on my character.”
The citation dispute went to court. Yesterday, in a plea deal, Jurek agreed to pay a $500 fine for the drinking (about $300 more than a typical public drinking fine), and Baxter agreed to drop the charges for littering and hiking in a too-large group. We spoke with Jurek shortly after the deal was announced to talk about how this all came about, and what he’s looking forward to next.
OUTSIDE: How are you feeling today?
JUREK: I’m just hoping I can be done with lawyers and false accusations. I’m getting tired of this stuff. It’s a waste of time and energy for everyone.
Would you call this a victory?
It’s a partial victory. It’s appalling that I had to hire an attorney and go through such efforts—wait for almost two months—to get two charges lifted that were false in the first place. This whole time, the Baxter State Park authorities haven’t made any statements saying they could’ve handled this in a different fashion. Jensen Bissell has been tarnishing my reputation and image. I’m not going to be able to get that back.
If he had wanted to send a more positive message I could have used my audience and platform to reach thru-hikers and day hikers. If he’d just cited me [without writing about the incident on Facebook], that would have been the better outcome. But he has an agenda he tried to promote.
Have you felt that negative attention in a concrete way?
Just look at the comments in the press articles. You can see people who were my fans, but now they’re angry with me because they read an article saying I littered on the trail and I have a disrespect for nature. And for people who didn’t know who Scott Jurek was before, it has an effect, for sure.
“As much as it may have seemed like I orchestrated the media frenzy, I didn’t have a publicist or a team working on this. I didn’t have time to think about how the media was portraying me during the run. I was just trying to focus on putting one foot in front of the other.”
You’ve said that your AT run was a personal adventure, but you ran with a GPS monitor, you had professional photographers on the trail with you, you had sponsors. How do you square the private and public parts of this?
You really can’t hide on the Appalachian Trail. As much as people try to be stealth about their runs, word gets out. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I think it’s important these days to use a GPS tracker. People are watching under a microscope and they’re skeptical if they can’t follow you. I think, from a record standpoint, when there’s no governing body or people checking, it’s important to be transparent.
But when you open up the public to a feat like I had attempted, there are costs that come with that. For example, having fans show up on the trail wanting to run with me didn’t help my pursuit of breaking the record. But I was willing to pay that price. I definitely enjoyed that, but the media attention took on a life of its own.
But weren't you encouraging that media attention?
As much as it may have seemed like I orchestrated the media frenzy, I didn’t have a publicist or a team working on this. I didn’t have time to think about how the media was portraying me during the run. I was just trying to focus on putting one foot in front of the other. The sponsors I had—I’ve worked with some of them for as long as 15 years. People have this image that it was a corporate event and that I was commercializing it. Not at all. Like any expedition or adventure that other sponsored athletes embark on, I was doing something I love and people became interested in it.
We wrote an article about how sponsored events like this are contributing to the commercialization of wild places. What do you see as the larger issue here, beyond Baxter and Bissell?
First of all, there was no organized event. I’m a sponsored athlete who embarked on a challenge, much like an expedition. Whenever there’s media attention, this comes up. Look at the effect of Born to Run, for example, which featured me prominently. After that came out and more people got involved in ultrarunning, some people said the sport is changing, there are too many people. It’s the same thing on the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail with A Walk in the Woods and Wild—some people might say there will now be too many people on the trail and too many thru-hikers.
But rather than single out individuals who are popularizing places, maybe the overreaching issue is that people fear we can love our outdoors and wild places too much. I believe getting more people out using our areas in a sustainable fashion is the best way to keep them wild because these users become passionate about the land and places they recreate. We see state parks closing their gates for lack of resources. The bigger issue isn’t so much one professional athlete, such as myself, it’s really whether we can encourage using these places responsibly. Saying that people are the problem won’t solve the problem.
Karl Meltzer said something similar when we asked him the other day about crowding on the Appalachian Trail. He helped you on your run and he’s attempting his own speed record next year. What advice do you have for him?
I don’t know if I need to give Karl any advice. He’s attempted it twice before so he knows what it takes. He came out for two weeks and told me on my attempt that he learned a ton crewing and said he realized how tough it is for everyone. It’s transformative. It’s a life-changing event.
How has it changed you?
It always amazes me how strong the human body and mind are. When I think I can’t dig any deeper I find a way through and that’s the magic of doing something like an Appalachian Trail speed attempt. Even hiking the trail in six months you have to get through those tough moments. It’s getting through those times of despair that makes it worthwhile. The transformation doesn’t come from a celebratory finish or success, it comes from adversity— through sheer determination and discomfort.
“The bigger issue isn’t so much one professional athlete, such as myself, it’s really whether we can encourage using these places responsibly.”
There were some indications that you’d retire from ultrarunning after this run. What’s up?
I hate the word retirement because life is a continuum. We evolve over time and a career morphs and changes. For me right now, racing 100-milers is probably something I’m retired from. But trail running and exploring my boundaries and doing more adventure runs like this, that’s where I’m more focused these days—not so much on structured events. But doing the AT had been a dream of mine.
Any other dream runs? What’s on your bucket list?
It’s a little too soon to know. I don’t have anything that’s gnawing at me right now. My muscles are still sore from this one. All I can say is it’ll be something a little bit shorter than the AT. I don’t know if my wife will agree to crew for me on another 46-day run like this.
I’m a big fan of history so I think the next one will involve traveling to another trail mecca much like I did when I completed the Bob Graham Round [a 24-hour run over 42 fells in Northern England] last year. But right now I’m just looking forward to getting out for some backpack trips before the end of the summer. People are begging for a book on this experience, and maybe I’ll get to that, but right now I’m just enjoying spending time with my wife and not pulling 50-mile days. But doing something like this does make me wonder what I could do next. I’m just waiting for that spark to ignite.