A new book, Grand Trail: A Magnificent Journey into the Heart of Ultrarunning and Racing, shares the stunning beauty and raw emotions of ultrarunning, paying tribute to the passion and splendor of the sport and lifestyle. Filled with powerful photographs and intimate stories, Grand Trail portrays ultramarathon champions and their extraordinary world.
Grand Trail features the icons of ultrarunning—people, places, and races—in spectacular color and black-and-white photography by Alexis Berg. Exploring iconic courses like Western States, Hardrock, Marathon des Sables alongside personal portraits of heroes like Kilian Jornet, Emelie Forsberg, and Scott Jurek, Grand Trail is as inspiring as it is beautiful.
Enjoy this chapter used with permission of VeloPress from Grand Trail.
The green samurai
An iconic American ultramarathoner for nearly 20 years, Scott Jurek runs to “access a state of being, a zone.” In 2015, this adept of veganism broke a legendary record—the Appalachian Trail.
“Go big or go home.” It was in late June 2015, somewhere in the middle of a dense, wet forest in Pennsylvania. After a few years with no major challenges, Scott, a living legend in ultramarathons, had decided to tackle the Appalachian Trail and had already gobbled up half of the 2,189 miles and 550,000 feet of vertical gain on the Appalachian Trail, running from south to north up the East Coast. The 40-year-old with the face and curly hair of a teenager wore a masklike expression. “I’m sick of the green. I want mountains, perspective, horizons,” he whispered, impatient to get out of the dim light of the undergrowth. That day, Scott was not alone; he had his buddies Rickey Gates and Karl Meltzer with him, two American trail running stars who came to cheer him on, as did the many nameless fans going stride for stride with him for a few miles.
“Go big or go home.” This is the mantra that kept Scott as the undisputed king of American trail running for nearly 20 years, helped him pull off some crazy feats, whether perched up in the mountains, roasted by the sun, or rolled out along the tarmac.
On July 13, 2015, despite an extremely painful knee, Scott completed his pilgrimage through 14 states in 46 days, 8 hours, 7 minutes—improving the record by 3 hours, 13 minutes. “Willpower is stronger than anything,” explains this American, who was born in 1973 and who claims, over the years and with his wins, to have created his own Bushido, the code of the Japanese samurais: “Letting go of the past and the future and focusing on the moment.” “When I was small, I would only run if I was running away from a mouse,” jokes this yoga adept. He had an uneventful childhood in Minnesota. His beloved mother was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a disease that left her trapped in an inert body. His father was a disciplinarian, and distant. But Scott had the advantage of a wild, natural environment as his backyard. “My father made me haul wood from the forest, hunt, and fish instead of playing. I had to do my share of chores. He was always repeating the same thing to me: ‘Sometimes you just do things!’ I don’t think they knew it at the time . . . but my parents were training me to be an endurance athlete,” emphasizes Scott, who has recounted his childhood, his training as a physical therapist, his uncertainties, and his wins in his book Eat & Run, a best seller in both the United States and Europe. Running was the first life-changer for Scott. “I started running in my teens. My cross-country skiing coach suggested the idea to me as a way of improving my endurance. I loved the feeling of freedom that it brought. I stopped skiing, and running very soon became a part of my self.”
Growing into a tall (6′ 2″), strapping fellow, he proved capable of running 30 miles, 62 miles, 150 miles, at one push. “Distance strips you bare. The ultra distance forgives fatigue, bad form, and illness. An ultrarunner’s mind is what matters more than anything. A bear with determination will defeat a dreamy gazelle every time.”
This matchless mental strength is what enabled Scott to reign for seven years over the legendary Western States (1999 to 2005); to win the diabolical Hardrock (2007) or the stifling Badwater (2005, 2006), as well as three golds at the Spartathlon in Greece from 2006 to 2008; and in 2010 to set the American record for the longest distance run in 24 hours with 165 miles at Brive-la-Gaillarde, in France.
The other mainstay of his balance is food: “Food was my medicine,” he says. In his book, Scott describes his eye-opening moment during physical therapy school while working as an intern at a hospital. A sick old man was grimacing at “salisbury steak drenched in something brown and congealed, instant potatoes . . . It was as though he was shouting. That’s when I heard part of the secret. What we eat is a matter of life and death. Food is who we are.”1
Since 1998, Scott has been eating green, avoiding animal protein, banishing any food taken from farmed animals, whether farmed animals or things tested on animals: “I am the living example, like many other elite runners, that being vegan is perfectly compatible with competing at a very high level. You find everything in plants, including excellent protein.” Scott, who lives with his wife, Jenny, in Boulder, the capital of trail running in the USA, is also convinced that running is built into human evolution: “We were meant to move swiftly over the earth. We knew how to run. If we could just return to that state of instinctive bliss, we would re-embrace the form and ease we had abandoned and run free from pain, fatigue, and injury.”
This approach, known as minimalism, has received extensive publicity in the United States, most notably through the book Born to Run in which Scott is one of the key figures. “Current heavily cushioned running shoes go against the natural stride, which lands on the forefoot, perpendicular with the pelvis. This so-called progress has led to all kinds of bad habits, like heel striking or long strides, and the sense that running is reserved for only a select few. That is a big mistake.”
From being a competitor, this serial winner has turned into a thinker. “Today, I am trying to clear the way to the unknown, find a way to my soul and my mind. I love to be in the mountains, explore new paths. It is like you are looking for your instinct when you run in the natural world. You have to focus on being in the moment, switch off your cell phone and blend in with the environment, like an animal.” Scott confesses to having a pronounced interest in the precepts of Buddhism and quotes the influence of the existentialists Sartre and Camus, who “described the plight of the outsider who felt like a stranger in an incomprehensible world,” or Hermann Hesse for his “search for the sacred amid chaos and suffering.”
This is how he found in his sport “the possibility of an inner journey to the limits of mind and body, achieving more than you ever thought possible.”
Winner of the Spartathlon (2008, 2007, 2006)
Winner of the Hardrock (2007)
Winner of the Badwater Ultramarathon (2006, 2005)
Winner of the Western States (2005, 2004, 2003, 2002, 2001, 2000, 1999)
Appalachian Trail record-holder (46 days, 8 hours, and 7 minutes)