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Scott Jurek: 'If you have that desire, you can do it'

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Scott Jurek: 'If you have that desire, you can do it'
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Scott Jurek’s brow is furrowed. He’s searching for the answer to one of the toughest questions an ultramarathoner can face: how many miles are on your clock? For a man who has been going beyond the standard 26.2-miler for almost 20 years, it’s not an easy calculation.

“I tried to figure that out once before,” he says. “It’s tricky. But if I were to say an average, on the basis that for ‘x’ number of weeks I run 100 miles per week and I’ve been racing ultras for almost two decades, it would probably be somewhere in the range of 40-50,000 miles.”

If he was a car, you’d be thinking about trading him in right about now – but Jurek isn’t ready for the scrapheap yet. The 40-year-old has been a dominant force in ultra-running (any distance beyond the 26.2 miles of a marathon) since completing his first 50-mile race in 1994. Despite having run his first marathon just a month earlier, Jurek crossed the finish line in second place. His immediate reaction to achieving such a feat? “I said: ‘Never again.’” Four years later, however, Minnesota-born Jurek was standing on the start line of his first 100-mile race in southern California. Once again, he finished second. And the fuse had been well and truly lit.

When Sport meets him in a London hotel ahead of a talk he’s due to give at a gathering of ultra-running enthusiasts, Jurek extends a large hand of welcome our way. At 6ft 2ins, he’s a long, languid figure.

He’s lean, as one would expect from a man used to racking up hundreds of miles a month. But he is without the haggard, frail look you might assume would belong to a man who goes such distances on a regular basis.

In fact, Jurek is still beaming with the glow of having achieved his long-held dream of running in the Lake District – the place he calls “the birthplace of modern trail running”. He is still a little travel-weary three days after landing in the UK, but explains: “I flew in on Friday morning and then jumped straight on a train to the Lake District to sneak in a run, before coming back to London at about 1am the next morning. I only ran 16 miles, but after an eight-hour flight and then a four-hour train ride, that was plenty.”

With Jurek’s engine up and running, we steer him on to the topics that have fuelled him for thousands of miles so far.

“At the Badwater Ultramarathon in 2005 [a 135-mile race through Death Valley, known as ‘the world’s toughest footrace’], there was a point I had to pull myself up off the pavement. It was after 70 miles. It was an hour before midnight, 105 degrees and I was puking by the roadside with 65 more miles to go. Those stories you hear about eggs frying in the heat? They’re true. You can put a skillet [pan] on the pavement and it will fry an egg. It’s crazy hot, like walking into a sauna. You just feel yourself breathing in that air. Most people wear pants [trousers] to shield themselves from the heat, but when you take them off it’s like blowing a hairdryer on to your legs.”

“I ran sub-three hours for my first marathon in 1994, which is a good time for a first one. I have complete respect for the distance – it was tough but I felt good the last 15 miles, so it gave me confidence. I assumed that if I could stay mentally strong, I could do a 50-miler. But there are a lot of unknowns in stepping up, for sure. You’re going twice the distance, you don’t know what’s going to happen, and mentally it is hard to get over that barrier. I always tell people that you don’t have to train that much harder for an ultra than for a marathon – it’s really just about flipping the switch in your brain to say: ‘I can do this; I really want to finish.’ If you have that conviction and that desire, you can do it.”

“The 24-hour race [Jurek ran 165.7 miles in 24 hours to set a US record in 2010] is incredibly tough because you’re running around the same one-mile loop over and over again. Mentally and physically, you’re at the edge of what you think you can do. The worst part for me was around hour 18, with six hours still to go. To get through it I would reward myself with music at certain points. I’d also focus on my breath and on technique – anything that kept me focused for a while, and kept my mind off the monotony and the discomfort. It’s all about filtering out the noise. Then, as soon as the sun starts coming up, you get this sense of rejuvenation.”

“My first 50-mile race hurt like hell. I was dehydrated, I was cramping and every time I went up a hill in the last 15 to 20 miles, first my calf would seize up, then my hamstring, then my quad. The cramping kept moving around. I didn’t have my nutrition down back then, either. Energy gels hadn’t come out yet, so the first year I was just using PowerBars, energy drinks and having some watermelon or bananas at aid stations. I didn’t know what I was doing out there really, but I never let it get in my head that I wasn’t going to finish – even though at times I was like: ‘I can’t do this. It’s too hard.’”

“I wasn’t thinking about performance when I went plant-based [vegan] in 1999. It was more of a long-term health decision, but nutrition has played a huge role in the consistency and longevity of my results. There are a lot of athletes who compete for a number of years and don’t pay as much attention to nutrition – they stay at a high level for a while, but eventually it hits them. Does being plant-based make me faster than someone who ate meat on the day we hit the starting line? Probably not, but in terms of recovery times and being able to bounce back, I think it’s a huge factor.”

“When I’m in peak training for a 100-miler, I’ll run around 100 to 120 miles per week. I do a lot of tempo runs and lactate threshold workouts. If I’m preparing for a mountainous race, then I’ll do those uphill – 45 minutes at lactate threshold pace, come down, then go back up. It’s about trying to train yourself to get used to the muscular fatigue. My long runs will be anywhere from 20 miles up to as high as 40 miles sometimes. And some of those will be back to back, so I’ll do a 25 or 30-mile run one day, then do the same distance again the next day. That way, you’re feeling in your legs what it’s like to run on consecutive days. Most people never do a 60 to 80-mile training run in one go. If you do that, it’ll take a couple of weeks to recover.”

“The competition and the winning is what pushes me to explore my boundaries. If I didn’t have the other racers or the time goals to break records, I wouldn’t push myself as hard. The goal of winning and bringing my body to that edge is an important part of racing for me, but it’s like that quote: ‘It’s not the destination, it’s really the journey.’ In an ultra, you have a lifetime’s worth of experiences over 100 miles. The competition is just one element to push me a little further. That’s why some races are held at high altitude, in extreme heat or in environments where you have to run in a circle. It’s to test you physically and mentally to the extreme; to force you to break down, then build yourself back up. To survive.”

Sarah Shephard @sarahsportmag

Eat & Run by Scott Jurek is published by Bloomsbury. Available in paperback now, priced £8.99