Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Scott Jurek Eat & Run Review

I was just beginning to run trails and longer distances when Christoper McDougall's Born to Run put the boom in the trail running boom. I read it twice and then reread various passages over again. I liked the blend of the non-fiction stories with the presentation of the case for minimalist running and the basis for running as an innate activity related to human evolution and survival. I don't remember if I knew who Scott Jurek was before reading the book or not, but I learned parts of his story from Born to Run and other sources on the Internet. I was immediately aware of his move to Boulder, Colorado where I live because I read Anton Krupicka's running blog; Anton was soon writing about runs with Scott after his arrival in town. When Scott's book Eat & Run hit the shelves I was ready for another book about running.

I read the book over a 24 hour period which seemed somewhat fitting in that many of his races lasted that long. He holds the American record for miles run in 24 hours. The book is by no means 24 hours of reading though; it is relatively short at 228 pages and that includes about 20 vegan recipes that appear like aid stations just when you need one. Like Water for Chocolate would come to mind every time I came upon another recipe.

One of Scott's early premises was that if he can do it (be an ultramarathon champion) so can you. I don't see that the premise was supported by the book though. Ordinary people can do extraordinary things when they have to or when forces push them. The reader understands the forces that Scott responded to. The world is full of people who have endured traumas, hardships, and even torments over the course of their formative years. A handful channel it appropriately to guide them to great acheivement, some rise above it to become successful functioning human beings, while many populate our world as the walking wounded medicating themselves however they can. I would agree that most people have the capacity to become physically fit enough to run an ultramarathon and could probably learn valuable lessons about themselves along the way. Many though, are so far off the path that such a challenge would seem inconceivable and much of the youth today find an escape too readily in virtual reality games. I ran a challenging 50K this spring; it was not that difficult in hindsight because I was conditioned for it. It was over by the middle of the afternoon. I was able to go home, take a shower, have a regular meal, and get a good night sleep. Nothing compels me to want to continue running into the night to face all the discomfort that sleep deprivation would bring.

Scott's childhood seem to provide him with the ability to stoically deal with responsibilities such that he had to do around the house because his father was working two jobs and his mother's progressive debility from Multiple Schlerosis which probably instilled in him a strong feeling of compassion. The mantra in the book "Sometimes you just do things." which was a quote from his father in response to a young Scott's distress at doing chores while other childhood activities beckoned tells us a lot about having to endure doing what you don't want to do. It is also implied that his ability to face the physical and mental suffering that come with the territory of ultrarunning came from channeling his mother's toughness in the face of her illness.

The implication isn't that we can all become great ultramarathoners but we could certainly become the best that we can be in whatever we elect to do. And it doesn't have to be our first choice. The suggestion was that Scott might have preferred to play baseball, football, or downhill skiing. Transportation, time, and money nixed those possibilities. Many kids at that point would probably have pouted and have an excuse to smoke pot. He chose to participate in the more affordable sport of cross country skiing. Distance running began as just a means to stay in shape for skiing. What he ended up being good at wasn't even one of his top four choices. He just did something. I read a quote not long ago to the effect of "most of those who are successful were probably good at plan B". He ended up becoming a physical therapist most likely because that was what life presented to him; he helped him mom her physical therapy.

Scott's longtime pacer, and much more talented fellow high school cross country skier and training partner Dusty seemed to channel anger. Rarely does that bring the success or satisfaction that one might seek in an endeavor, but a 30 or 40 mile trail run can certainly be a panacea for whatever ails a person. Scott endured childhood tribulations but I think he felt cared for and loved. Dusty's personality seemed more the result of dysfunction. If Scott believed that "anyone can do it" it's odd that he missed the evidence that his best friend with admittedly more natural talent couldn't get beyond himself to achieve greatness. A person's Aquilles heel can be hidden anywhere within their being.

A major point of Eat & Run is the importance of eating appropriately. Scott documents his slow evolution to veganism showing that he grew up eating like much of America, although he often killed and gutted the meat and fish that he ate as a youngster. He didn't eat fast food until he his own meager disposable income allowed him to discover McChicken sandwiches, etc. It took several years for him to give up meat and animal products altogether, with the impetus mostly stemming from his considerations of how to best fuel himself for extreme long distance running. It has been a couple of weeks since I finished reading the book and I am still eating a plant-based diet. He doesn't push it and that may make the coersion to switch all the more compelling. So much of American ill-health is a result of indulgence eating on a regular basis.

Scott writes about his training, hard work, and research to become a dominant athlete in his sport in a non-agrandizing manner. He recounts the stories of several of his ultrarunning feats as neutrally as if he were writing about a third person. Ultrarunners seem to have a greater respect for their competition than other athletes; they know what it takes to be out there, every person who's behind them is pushing and every person ahead is pulling. Runners who happen along side of one another in a race will likely carry on a conversation until one or the other pulls away or drops back. If you check ultrarunners' finish times you'll occasionally see a tie meaning they didn't try to outsprint one another at the end but shared the victory shoulder to shoulder. Much of Scott's running was in the lead by himself (this detail was lore before being recounted in Eat & Run), but after winning a race Scott would connect to all the other runners by hunkering down at the finish line to cheer for the others as they finished over the following several hours.

Any runner should enjoy Eat & Run and non-runners may find inspiration or at least models for a more satisfying life. I came away from the book with the feeling that if Scott were never able to compete as an ultrarunner again he would be just fine because he has the ability to find enjoyment in whatever he does. If you were to cross his path and have a five minute boring conversation with him, don't worry, it wouldn't have been boring for him.

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