Scott Jurek: How Skiing Molded His Ultra Career

Audrey ManganJune 13, 2013
Scott Jurek. (Photo: Ben Moon)
Scott Jurek. (Photo: Ben Moon)

“The skiing background definitely helped me. The mental toughness, the training — the mountain races I do aren’t strictly running, they kind of blend that mountain, woodsy perseverance you have to have …  Road racing is much different than running ultras in the mountains, and I think skiing prepared me for that.”

 Scott Jurek

BOULDER, Colo. — In the world of endurance sports, Scott Jurek is one of those athletes whose accomplishments speak for themselves. As an ultramarathon runner, the Minnesota native has built his career and reputation around running races of 100 miles or more at a pace faster than most can complete a 5 k.

Because it’s summer, and every skier is inherently a runner, I decided to find out whether the man who ran 165.7 miles in 24 hours in 2010 to set a U.S. record had anything relevant to say to our target audience about mental toughness and love of sport. I already knew, from reading his recent book Eat and Run: My Unlikely Journey to Ultramarathon Greatnessthat Jurek began competitive racing as a member of his high school’s cross-country ski team in northern Minnesota, and that he credits skiing with instilling in him the qualities necessary to excel at running long distances.

Jurek’s skiing background and subsequent ultra success is not the only reason I wanted to interview him. As a recreational runner and casual fan of the sport, I was curious to find out what keeps someone so inspired throughout a long career. For nearly two decades he has dominated the ultra scene, winning 35 major titles and setting 16 course records.

Now 39 years old, Jurek has probably reached the height of his career; when he turns 40 later this year and becomes a master, he’s said he doesn’t expect to continue racing as much as he in his earlier years. But he when he lines up to start the Leadville 100 in August, a race in which he was runner-up in 2004 and where he has since paced other runners, he will still be considered a favorite.

As with every athlete that becomes successful, people want to hear Jurek’s story. Aspiring runners want to know his origin story and his running secrets so they can replicate them. Friends told him for years that he should write a book, and last year Jurek finally published Eat and Run, three years after featuring prominently in Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run.

Upon meeting Jurek, I could see why so many admire him. He is good as his job, of course, and aspiring athletes look up to the best. The amount of time he’s spent at the top of his sport is enough to make him a hero to masters and teenagers alike.

Jurek’s sport requires so much effort and force of will to train for and compete in. The idea of simply completing 100 miles is staggering. But at the height of his career, Jurek was the very best. A recent article in Slate about the people who seek out the pain of ultras began by calling him “an ultramarathon running god.”

Beyond his accomplishments, Jurek’s philosophy about running and life have made him into one of those athletes the ordinary weekend warrior can relate to. Part of his point about running, skiing or any life pursuit is that you have to love what you do for what it is, not just when you have success.

“Whatever quantitative measure of success you set out to achieve becomes either unattainable or meaningless,” he writes in Eat and Run. “The reward of running — of anything — lies within us … We focus on something external to motivate us, but we need to remember that it’s the process of reaching for that prize — not the prize itself — that can bring us peace and joy.”

In a sport that pushes his mind and body to their limits for large stretches of time, often while he’s alone, Jurek has found this approach to be especially important. He describes his book as the story of his transformation; he didn’t always look at competing as part of a process, just as he didn’t always follow a vegan diet. Jurek’s career is filled with experiences that taught him hard lessons.

During the 2005 Badwater Ultramarathon, a 135-mile race through Death Valley, Jurek’s crew had to submerge him in a cooler full of ice to cool down his core temperature at the 48-mile mark. Jurek acknowledges in the book that he underestimated the race. As he writes many pages later, “To run 100 miles and more is to bring the body to the point of breaking, to bring the mind to the point of destruction, to arrive at that place where you can alter your consciousness. It was to see more clearly.”

Eat and Run was published in 2012.
Eat and Run was published in 2012.

Jurek ended up winning Badwater that year and set a course record in the process: 24 hours, 36 minutes. And it was on the ski trails of northern Minnesota that he first learned to push his mind and body past their limits.

Jurek began skiing as a sophomore at Proctor High School in 1989 under the tutelage of Glen Sorenson, who coached the program until he retired in 2010. As Jurek explains it, he became fully invested in skiing after his introduction to the sport. He went to Team Birkie ski camps at Telemark Lodge in Cable, Wisc. He went to Junior Nationals as a high school senior in 1992 in Rumford, Maine. When he began college at St. Scholastica, before it had a ski program, he continued to train for local races and the American Birkebeiner.

“Skiing was a sport that I really loved and really got passionate about,” Jurek says.

To stay in shape for skiing in the summer, he ran. A lot.

“I didn’t have a good bike and couldn’t afford rollerskis, so I just ran,” Jurek said. “Prior to that, I didn’t really like running.”

What started as a training tool in high school eventually became his life’s focus. The transition was gradual at first — after high school Jurek still trained for ski races — but at a certain point he realized he didn’t have the finishing speed for races that only took an hour or less. He was in the market for another competitive outlet, and ultramarathoning came along at the right time.

“I was really loving skiing, but had that realization that I was just not at that level where I needed to be,” he said. “I didn’t have that top-end speed for 5 k’s, 15 k’s, even 25 k races. Ski marathons I did better [in], but I started hitting that point where I was like, ‘OK, this is not something where I’m going to be able to hit that elite level’ … I was at that phase where I was looking for something else to satisfy that athletic desire and passion.”

Jurek’s friend and training partner, Dusty Olson, invited him to do a 50-mile running race in 1994, the Minnesota Voyageur. Jurek placed second and found his calling. Today, he is grateful for his path to ultra running through skiing.

“The skiing background definitely helped me,” he said. “The mental toughness, the training — the mountain races I do aren’t strictly running, they kind of blend that mountain, woodsy perseverance you have to have …  Road racing is much different than running ultras in the mountains, and I think skiing prepared me for that.

“The people I met through skiing also prepared me, from a mental standpoint,” he continued. “Training, work ethic; they were just a unique breed of individuals. There are never two nordic skiers alike and I think that helped shape me, too.”

Jurek thinks his background in skiing has given him a competitive advantage over runners who come to ultrarunning from road racing.

“There’s a huge strength and power component,” he said. “It’s not just the smallest, lightest individuals who are winning ski races. It’s definitely a power sport, and ultramarathoning is like that, as well. You have to have the stability and strength to navigate the rocky trails, the technical descents, and power yourself uphill. And that power walk uphill that I learned in skiing, that comes in handy in ultramarathoning.”

These days, Jurek occasionally gets out on skis. Running six hours a day or more takes up a lot of his time, as do the speaking and outreach engagements he has increasingly dedicated himself to as he’s transitioned more into the giving-back phase of his career.

We talked for over an hour in a coffee shop about his approach to running and life, his vegan diet, the changing nature of the ultrarunning scene, and the up-and-coming athletes that are now taking up his mantle. I must have confused him with the variability of my questions — wasn’t I supposed to be writing a story for a ski-specific audience? — but he gamely gave thoughtful answers to each of them. Halfway through it I noticed my half-drunk coffee was cold and the fan-girl nerves I’d experienced at the start of our conversation had evaporated. I suddenly had the urge to go home later, put on my running shoes and spend the remainder of my afternoon galloping through the Flatirons.


The remaining interview has been edited and condensed.

FasterSkier: You’re probably the most recognizable name in the sport of ultrarunning, thanks to the longevity and success you’ve had throughout your career. You’re 39 now. What are you training for these days?

Scott Jurek: I’m running the Leadville 100 in August, staying local. I’ve only run one other time, in 2004, when I did the Grand Slam and placed second there. It’ll be fun. Now that I’m a Coloradoan — I’ve been here for a couple years — I figured I’ve got a pretty good chance at altitude.

FS: When you line up for these big ultras, are you still considered a favorite?

SJ: This sport, it’s interesting. My strengths are not 50 k and 50 miles any more. I’m going to turn 40 this year. While it’s still young, I’ve been racing for a lot of years and I’m not as fast at the shorter distances…There’s so many new people coming into the sport that sometimes I feel like I can hold my own in the longer races but I wouldn’t say I’m always the favorite. In the shorter races, definitely not…

I’d say now, winning is great, but at this point in my career — sure I want to win a couple things, it’s good to have motivation and that drive and that ego to want to excel and win. But now I’m at the point where I love being out there and inspiring people and now I’ve taken on more of this role where, I’ve done a lot of speaking and education throughout my career, but now I feel like I’m transitioning, dedicating more time and energy to that. The amount of travel to speak really takes away from just training. It was easier, I think sometimes, when I was working full time 50+ hours and had my own physical therapy practice, and training, than like now, traveling the country and speaking and still having to train and find time to do all these things.

It’s a little more complicated now, but I feel like it’s still rewarding. I think with all careers and all passions you transition to different phases, and I’d say right now, probably, I’m transitioning into less competition eventually in the next couple years but will still be involved in the sport and continue to speak and volunteer.

FS: Are there any young athletes you feel like you’re passing the torch to right now?

SJ: I run with a bunch of younger guys in town like Tony Krupicka and Dakota Jones. Dakota is 22 now. Like, I’m practically old enough to be his dad. I think in general, maybe I’ve influenced the sport and some of these younger guys and gals in the sport.

But Kilian Jornet, to relate it to skiing: he’s super special. He’s an amazing athlete. He does ski mountaineering in the off season. He’s better than I ever was, probably, because of his ability to do vertical kilometer races to ultramarathons to ski mountaineering. It’s just amazing, the range that he has and what he can do with it.

But I wouldn’t say there’s one person. There was never a point where I felt like it was being passed onto me. It’s like, follow these people and somebody’s going to rise to the top. And how long they stay with it, that’s one thing you’ll see with ultramarathoning, you’ll see all these young guys and gals come in in their 30s and 40s, they train and race really hard for a few years and then they get tired and burnt out and they just decide not to do it anymore.

So I think like longevity in the sport will be interesting to see. I talk to my buddies, ‘Do you think you’ll be running really hard in your 40s still?’ And they’re like, ‘Oh yeah, I’ll be doing this!’

I think that’s key, just to keep that passion burning for longevity in the sport, is make sure it’s part of your lifestyle. And that’s something I think I’ve done. I have a pretty healthy relationship where it’s not just about competing and winning. I just love to be on the mountains, running on trails. I love to be out in the woods and even running on pavement. Just finding that rhythm, that stride, of being happy where you’re at, not having that focused, ‘If I can’t race at the top level does that mean all this training and racing I do is for naught?’ I don’t think that’s a healthy attitude.

A lot of people, when they slow down, so many continue in the sport longer. I remember skiing with people like Charlie Banks when he was in his 80s. Just legends in the sport — George Hovland back in Minnesota. That’s neat, and when I think of the sport of ultramarathoning I think it’s key to have this long-term outlook on it and be inspired by that. Because so many people think, OK, if I can’t race hard like I used to, they get really frustrated and get depressed about getting old. You just have to ratchet back and remember what’s most important about the sport.

That’s why I moved to Boulder, too, is to run with my younger buddies and be inspired by them and get inspired by the community here, from the skiers to the climbers to the cyclist and triathletes. That helps me, being around that environment.

FS: Boulder is also an environment that makes it easy to have an alternative diet. Your veganism is featured heavily in Eat and Run, and you attached a vegan recipe to the end of each chapter. How would you sum up the way you talk to people about your diet?

SJ: I would sum it up as this, because I think some people think, ‘Oh, Scott is totally plant-based, he’s a vegan, and that’s not for me.’ The biggest thing that I would say is that you need to be eating more whole foods, more traditional foods. Get away from the processed. That was the biggest thing for me, going vegan, was that I learned about all these other foods. I went towards more whole grains, legumes, vegetables and more fruits. I was a meat-and-potatoes, hunting-and-fishing type of guy from Minnesota, so it opened up this whole new array of eating.

I think there’s so many distractions out there in terms of, what’s the best diet? Rather than try to say that my diet is the best, the best diet is just any one where you are eating super clean, whole foods in the traditional state, more organic. Basically, the way our great-grandparents ate is the way that I like to describe it to people. And I think that the more plants you eat, the more benefits you’re going to get. We see that in research studies. You see a lot of fads, whether it’s Paleolithic right now, or low-carb, those things help people because they stop eating a big chunk of the processed food. When you look at long-term effects of those things, there’s nothing wrong with carbohydrates. I think maybe people need to realize that okay, maybe it’s not the white sugar and white flour carbohydrates, but there’s nothing wrong with whole grains, legumes, fruits that have fiber and are rich with carbohydrates.

It’s easier now [to access whole foods], but I don’t think that was a drawback when I initially transitioned because I really embraced the learning process. And I think that’s important because when someone wants to learn to eat better, or exercise better or take care of their life and lifestyle, you have to be involved in it and engaged. It’s easy to go and buy food somewhere that is prepared for you.

That’s what I tell athletes, too. Putting effort into your diet is just like making an effort in your intervals or long workouts. It’s another part of that, it’s another component of the training system. I think it’s underestimated. I had buddies, even skiing buddies, who subsisted off of soda and little Debbie bars. You can get away with that when you’re young and it probably doesn’t affect the teenager who is training. But long-term, you see a lot of athletes who end up with cardio problems. You see heart attacks and diabetes. It’s a long-term outlook. For me, I want to keep running and going out in the woods skiing, and being able to do that is important to me.

Most people that I talk to want to know how they can keep training into their sixties, seventies, or eighties, and it’s such an important part of their life. Whether it’s running or skiing, it’s kind of their thing that they need to keep in their life for mental balance and there’s so many components to it. In order to keep doing it, you need to take care of your body, and nutrition is really important.

FS: You say in the book that you doubted for a while that it was possible to be competitive, athletically, if you weren’t eating meat. When did that change?

SJ: It was right after I won my first Western States in 1999. I realized that if I could have success, it was just mental doubts. I think that is the biggest hurdle when people transition to a new diet, whether it’s a plant-based diet or some other diet – it’s something that’s in the back of your mind for a while. You have to just let it evaporate. For me, I was getting enough, but I still had my doubts. For years, we were told that you have to eat meat and animal protein specifically. It was a worry that didn’t pan out. I mean, you can definitely have a vegan diet that’s imbalanced, but if you’re paying attention to it and you’re involved in the process, then it’s not an issue.

The benefits are huge for me. On race day it’s probably not going to make much of a difference, but in terms of recovery and day-to-day training and avoiding illness, it’s a big part of it. We’re tearing down our bodies and having to build it back up, and the more years you do it on a poor diet, it’s going to catch up to you. And the longer you go in a season, too, you have to provide your body with good fuel so it can recover and repair itself so you can go out and train hard the next day, the next year.

FS: You’ve been in this sport a long time. How is ultrarunning different now from when you started, whether in terms of participation, sponsorships, prize money, those kinds of things?

SJ: There were a couple athletes in those early years — Ann Trason, for instance — that were sponsored. But there was little to no prize money in the sport. In the ‘80s there was prize money but then the sport decided to go in a different direction. There was no prize money and [a desire to] just keep it true and pure. So there was that movement when I came it that, you know, ‘We’re going to stick to our roots and not have prize money.’

And then that’s gradually changed. It’s an OK thing for the sport. Some say we shouldn’t have it, it’s going to change the atmosphere, but all sports change with time. It’s not like a ton of money and regardless, you have to have a passion, you have to enjoy the sport when you’re out there training. Like with skiing, you’re out there four to five hours a day… There’s so much time dedicated to it. On the weekends I’ll go for six, seven, eight-hour runs. So if you don’t love what you’re doing and you’re just doing it for the money, it’s going be a problem in ultrarunning. That’s not the sport.

I’ve been fortunate lately, but it’s only the last four to five years that I’ve been able to be, quote, a professional athlete. I’ve always worked 40-50 hours a week for my job in addition to my training. So that’s different now; there’s more athletes able to live off the sport, live a very simple lifestyle. It’s kind of like in nordic skiing; certain groups can make a living at it but …most end up working a full or part time job just to keep doing what they’re doing.

FS: Is there an ongoing discussion within the ultra community about development?

SJ: Ultrarunning is in a real growth spurt as well as growing pains right now. The governing body is technically U.S. Track and Field. But most ultras, because most of them are on the trails, most ultrarunners don’t belong to U.S. Track and Field. They don’t see that as supporting the sport.

Because it’s a longer distance, we don’t encourage kids to compete. However, I get a lot of kids when I go around to schools time to time, kids who really want to do an ultra because they think it sounds cool. They run their 10 ks and they want to run a half-marathon, a marathon. I’m not even sure that’s best. I think skiing does a good job of getting kids on the right path as far as distances.

But you look at countries like Ethiopia where kids run twelve miles plus a day, just to and from school. So if it’s done at the right intensity, I think kids could run longer distances. But I’m not sure if how to think about, okay, how do we get kids into ultra running.

In general running is on a big boom right now, with marathoning and half-marathoning and even kids running cross-country and track. I think if you can just keep it fun for kids, that is the most important. And keep it fun for adults! I think that’s why ultrarunning is growing. People are looking for something different from the road races they have been doing. They want to get out. Maybe they love skiing or hiking or backpacking, or fishing or hiking, and they get into ultrarunning because it allows them to connect with the outdoors and get out into the woods or the mountains, and get away from the concrete of the city.

That’s something that we don’t want to lose, the fun aspect of the sport. Most people, I think, I’m sure they love the race, to have a goal, but it’s the day-to-day, getting out for the hour run, or the two-hour run on the weekends, or the three-hour run in the mountains. That’s something to live for. So as long as we keep it fun, and don’t just focus on the competitive side.

Audrey Mangan

Audrey Mangan (@audreymangan) is an Associate Editor at FasterSkier and lives in Colorado. She learned to love skiing at home in Western New York.

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