Eirini Vourloumis for The New York Times
Scott Jurek running through Central Park. Jurek says he can break the American
record for a 24-hour period, 162 miles, held by Mark Godale.
May 12, 2010
I went running with Scott Jurek on a clear, chilly morning last month, an
easy four-mile loop in Central Park. He ran another few miles with 50 or so
adoring fans, then another few by himself, for a total of about 15. After that
he showered and came to my house to cook lunch before going for a late-afternoon
jog of another 10 miles or so.
That’s an easy day for Jurek, 36, an accomplished ultramarathoner. But one
might say he has been in a slump: he has not won a major race since the
2008 Spartathlon. On
the other hand, he set a personal record there, it was his third consecutive
victory on the 153-mile course between Athens and Sparta, and he holds the
fifth-, sixth- and eighth-fastest times in race history.
If last year was a wash, this year he is fit and psyched for the 24-Hour Run
world championship in Brive-la-Gaillarde, France, on Thursday and Friday. It is
a grueling race to determine how many miles runners can complete on a
1.4-kilometer road loop (about nine-tenths of a mile) in a 24-hour period.
Jurek says he can break the American record, 162 miles, held by Mark Godale.
(The world record, 178 miles, and just about every ultramarathoning record from
100 to 1,000 miles, and from 24 hours to 10 days, are, Jurek said,
“unassailably” held by Yiannis Kouros of Greece, who no longer competes.)
To win Brive, Jurek said, he must: “Get on it, crank around it, and get it done.
It’s all in a day’s work.”
It’s a long day, and one that raises a particular aspect of Jurek’s training
that makes him an especially interesting athlete: he is a
vegan, consuming no animal products.
There are other professional athletes who do not eat meat:
Milwaukee Brewers first baseman Prince Fielder, a vegetarian, may be the
best known, and Georges Laraque, who plays for the
Montreal Canadiens, is also a vegan. But it is difficult for some to
comprehend how this lifestyle is compatible with training weeks of 140 miles and
more, “easy” runs of 40 miles and interval training that includes uphill
three-mile repeats, all culminating in races that are often 100 miles or more,
sometimes through deserts or frozen wastelands or up and down mountains.
Jurek certainly looks healthy enough. He is tall, dwarfing most competitive
marathoners, not rail thin, with a quick smile and boundless energy. A few hours
after our morning run, he showed up at my house and began pulling things out of
the refrigerator and pantry with abandon: vegetables, greens, herbs, miso,
tofu, olives, shallots, lemons, nut butter and more.
He displayed knife skills and good culinary judgment, preparing a meal for me
and his girlfriend, Jenny Uehisa, a designer for Patagonia (he is sponsored by
Brooks Sports). We ate a Greek
tomatoes, loads of olives and seaweed; a stir-fry of vegetables with tofu
and a miso and cashew sauce; and a mound of quinoa.
Where did he learn to cook this way? And more to the point, how does he survive?
After all, I said to him, none of my running buddies, a group of nonelite but
defiantly dedicated marathoners who train in Central Park, maintain as rigorous
a schedule as his, and many claim to have trouble consuming enough calories even
while being omnivorous.
“The whole issue,” he said, “is exactly that: getting enough calories. The first
thing to worry about isn’t so much what you eat, but how much you eat. You have
to take the time to sit at the table and make sure your calorie count is high
enough. And when you’re a vegan, to increase your calories as you increase
training you need more food. This isn’t an elimination diet but an inclusion
Jurek grew up in Proctor, Minn., eating cookie dough, canned vegetables and his
share of fast food. When his mother, Lynn, developed multiple sclerosis (she
died this spring), he and his siblings began cooking, but the food was, he said,
“very Midwest — meat and potatoes.” In college, his diet began to improve, and
as he “saw how much disease is lifestyle related,” he began eating “real food,
eating the way people have been eating for thousands of years.”
He made the transition to less meat and more fish, then eventually knocked out
dairy and other animal products entirely.
“It’s really a mental barrier,” he said, and he obviously has experience
overcoming those. He said he needed 5,000 to 8,000 calories a day, “and I get
that all from plant sources. It’s not hard, either. I like to eat, and I don’t
have to worry about weight management. All I need is a high-carbohydrate diet
with enough protein and fat.”
He said he spent a great deal of time shopping, preparing and cooking food — and
chewing. He is among the slowest and most deliberate eaters I know, and there is
something about his determination at the table that is reminiscent of his
determination on the road: he just doesn’t stop.
He focuses on three main meals. Breakfast is key: it might be a 1,000-calorie
smoothie, with oil, almonds, bananas, blueberries, salt, vanilla, dried coconut,
a few dates and maybe brown rice protein powder. Unless he is doing a long run,
which for him is seven hours, or about 50 miles, he eats after his first
workout. Lunch and dinner are huge salads, whole grains, potatoes and sweet
potatoes, and usually beans of some sort or a tempeh-tofu combination.
“None of this is weird,” he said. “If you go back 300 or 400 years, meat was
reserved for special occasions, and those people were working hard. Remember,
almost every long-distance runner turns into a vegan while they’re racing,
anyway — you can’t digest fat or protein very well.”
Jurek said he hated running when he was in high school, enduring it only to stay
in shape for skiing. But when he was 20, a friend persuaded him to try a
marathon. He finished in less than three hours, good for second place and
astonishing for a novice. By 1999, he ran his first Western States 100. Formally
called the Western States Endurance Run, this is an up-and-down course in the
Sierra Nevada with a cutoff time of 30 hours. He set the course record in 2004,
15 hours 36 minutes; won the race seven consecutive times; and in 2005, two
weeks after finishing, ran and won the
Badwater Ultramarathon, a 135-mile race that begins in Death Valley and ends
halfway up Mount Whitney.
Looking back, he wondered, “Where was my mind?”
Which brings us to an obvious question: What is Scott Jurek trying to prove?
Of the few thousand Americans who consider themselves ultramarathoners, most
would be happy just qualifying for Western States, and most of those would be
ecstatic to finish before the cutoff.
Jurek, having proved himself in dozens of off-road races, is focused on the
24-hour record and looking forward to the flat race, “an environment where it’s
just me and the clock and the road under my feet.”
After that, he would like to run — and win — the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc, an
ultramarathon in the Alps at a distance of just over 100 miles; the record is a
little more than 20 hours. His best finish was 18th, and he dropped out twice,
so it’s a serious challenge.
“I haven’t had a great race there,” he said. “But though I want to win, the
running is a vehicle for self-discovery. I’ve been racing for 15 years, but I
feel like I’m still at my peak.”
Evidently, it isn’t his diet that’s slowing him down.
Mark Bittman, who is a vegan until 6 p.m. and a runner at various hours,
writes The Minimalist column for The Times, and can be found at markbittman.com.