A Disappointing Date with Scott Jurek

Both kids went to end-of-school-year parties Thursday night, so Morgan and I had the opportunity for a much-needed dinner date. But I said sorry, I have a date with Scott Jurek. Bought tickets weeks ago to hear him speak at the Clif Bar HQ in Emeryville. It’s sold out so you can’t come.

It’s OK, he said. He’d rather watch a movie on TV than hear a guy talk about ultrarunning and veganism.

I’ve followed Scott Jurek’s ultrarunning career for a decade, ate up his story in Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run, and read and reviewed Scott’s own book, Eat & Run. No way I could miss this. So I left my husband with a twinge of guilt.

Walked into the industrial warehouse-style building that houses Clif Bar, thinking, This place is so cool, right here in the East Bay, who needs Boulder? Saw a half dozen friends from the trail and from Facebook. Got in the buffet line for a conscious-raising vegan tamale. Saw more friends, snapped photos, talked about upcoming races. Listened to a loud rock band as we waited for Scott Jurek to arrive. Bypassed the beer in favor of hibiscus tea and horchata, yet I must’ve been catching a contact high because I fleetingly considered looking on Clif Bar’s website to see if they have any job openings, because I’d like to join the Clif Team to put on events like this and make the world a better pace.

The crowd parted and I saw the curly hair and lanky figure of “El Venado,” the deer, the nickname given to Jurek by the Tarahumara he raced in Mexico’s Copper Canyons. Runners started taking turns to get a picture with him. I kept asking myself, Who does he look like? because there’s something about him that’s familiar, cute, boyish and slightly nerdy in an attractive way. That’s it! He’s a cross between Peter from the The Brady Bunch and Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory.peter and sheldon and scott

I waited for an opening and suddenly stood next to him, the guy who won the Western States 100 seven times between 1999-2005. Double wins at Badwater, 2005 and 2006. Three wins at the Spartathlon 245K, 2006-2008. New course record at Hardrock 100, 2007. Fame and fandom following his portrayal in Born to Run. American record at the World 24-Hour Championships in 2010.

I introduced myself, and then my mouth detached from my brain as I told him that I lined up behind him at my very first trail marathon on Mount Diablo in 2005 and he has inspired me ever since and now I force feed my family his lentil-mushroom burger recipe. He smiled back. And as my mouth babbled on and my eyes admired the flecks of gray in his curls, my brain registered the embarrassing fact that I have a crush on Scott Jurek and I’m starting to flirt with him. I shut my mouth and retreated to the auditorium.

A mí me gusta el venado.

A mí me gusta el venado.

Waiting for the talk to begin, I pondered what it is about a whiff of celebrity that can make us act like morons or groupies, and why do I in fact care about Scott Jurek? I like Scott because he’s the anti-celebrity, the foil to Dean Karnazes, the genuinely nice backwoods Minnesota boy who virtually raised himself while caring for his disabled mom, who discovered himself through running and a healthy lifestyle and became a champion in the process. Has he stayed true to those roots?

And I like him because he’s arguably not the greatest—or maybe he once was, but no longer is. I have an odd fascination with champion runners being eclipsed by new champions and managing the transition to middle age, perhaps because I’m a middle-aged, late-blooming runner with unfulfilled athletic aspirations. I’ve touched on the issue with ultrarunning legends Ann Trason, Dean Karnazes, Tim Twietmeyer and Geoff Roes as well as Ironman superstar Crowie Alexander. I wanted to know if Scott, who’s approaching 40, is struggling with burnout or a midlife crisis, whether the fame and book tour turned him soft, and whether he thinks he can set new records as a master’s runner.

If I had the chance, I’d ask him as delicately as possible, how did it feel to see Tim Olson run 50 minutes faster than your best time at Western States? Would you still toe the line there? And how did it feel when Mike Morton crushed your American 24-hour record last year (172.45 miles compared to your 165.7)? And why did you not race at all last year and then decide to go back for the Leadville 100 this August? What’s your time goal for Leadville? Are you getting ready for a comeback—or for retirement?

What I hoped for with this talk was an epilogue to the epilogue in Scott’s book. He wraps up Eat & Run with a lot of big questions: Why did he run? Should he quit or keep going? What’s the value in winning? What does it all mean? On one page he even quotes an interview I did with Ann Trason several years ago and then reflects on her words:

“[Ann Trason] lamented to a reporter, ‘I just wish I could go out and run every day. I think I took it for granted. I knew I’d slow down and get older, but I didn’t know there’d be a cliff.’ … Had I reached my cliff? … Was burnout—or apparently happy abstinence—the inevitable price of intensely focused training like mine? Could I succeed without my focus? Had I been lying to myself by thinking I was living a life of balance?”

Scott never really answers those questions in his book. He implies he finds balance and joy in running during a subsequent Grand Canyon traverse, and he finds a Zen-like rhythm to his running while achieving the 2010 24-hour record. He concludes he has been transformed by running and eating well.

But now what?

I sincerely hope the interviewer knows his shit and will ask good questions, or take questions from the audience.

I don’t catch the name of the Clif Bar guy who takes the stage to interview him. But I realize pretty quickly that he is a wannabe comedian who knows very little about the sport. He talks a lot about himself and how he can barely run three miles. Taking a deep breath, I brace myself for an “ultrarunners-are-so-wacky, I-don’t-even-like-to-drive-that-far” interview.

Scott on stage. Photo by Christopher Himmel.

Scott on stage. Photo by Christopher Himmel.

They spend the first half hour on Scott’s childhood. Read his book, it’s all in there.

Then the interviewer guy kind of, sort of asks about ultrarunning because it’s, like, so crazy!

Interviewer: “What did your parents think when you went to your parents and told them, ‘Hey I’m gonna be a runner?’ Did they understand? Like, I know my parents often didn’t quite understand—they’d hear a part of the story or part of what I was saying but I could tell they didn’t really understand and sometimes that was better, because I was saying something crazy! And I realized I kinda knew what I was gonna do but they didn’t understand really what it involved. So if you told them you were gonna do an ultramarathon, and they finally figured it out, what was their response? I think you’re crazy. Did they think you’re crazy? We all think Scott’s a little crazy, right? Like, he’s loveable crazy which is good, but your parents must’ve wondered.”

(I kid you not, that’s how he talks. I recorded it.)

Scott describes how he was basically living on his own when he started running long distances, but when his parents heard about it, “They definitely thought it was nuts.”

Interviewer: “How about a little history on ultrarunning—a really abbreviated history on how it got started—and then as you became involved?”

Scott: “The history of me, or the history of the sport?”

Interviewer: “Well it’s one and the same, right?”


Scott gamely gives a primer on the history of the sport, with appreciative remarks on Steve Prefontaine, Yiannis Kouros and Ann Trason. He reminisces about the days when UltraRunning Magazine was printed in black and white and was the only resource for news and race results.

Interviewer: “You actually said you hated running when you were younger. And here I am, an awful runner, and I don’t even know if I’d say I hate running—well, I do—so how does that happen, how do you go from hating running to being this fantastic runner?”

I lean over and ask my friend Debra, “Can this guy’s questions get any more stupid?”

Kudos to Scott for coming up with a thoughtful answer about his friend who motivated him and introduced him to trail running. “What really turned it for me was getting on the trails, in the woods. … That resonated with the Minnesota backwoods boy that I was.”

Interviewer: “I don’t think I’d ever do an ultramarathon, but I would like to do ultra something. I was wondering if you had any recommendations of what I could do in an ultra fashion.”

Scott, playing along, being goofy too, “The sky’s the limit, really.” He suggests an ultra eating contest or pole-sitting contest.

They talk about Scott’s long hair, his shaved legs. His volunteer work to help cure blindness in Ethiopia. I tune out. Until finally a question with some significance crops up, about Born to Run. The story behind the story of Born to Run is intriguing and yet to be fully told, since runners in the book are rumored to feel burned by how Chris McDougall described and quoted them, and now they’re worried about the forthcoming movie version.

Interviewer, asking about the Born to Run movie: “Is there a chance you will be playing you?”

Scott, suddenly choosing his words carefully: “Well, there was a good chance of that until things kind of took a different course with, uh, the management of it. But there was talk of me playing myself and Peter Sarsgaard, who was the director, he was very interested in having some real runners because we know sometimes Hollywood doesn’t depict running as the cool sport that it is; so he was basically saying, ‘I’ll make your lines as easy as possible and we’ll get this done so it has some cool authenticity to it,’ so I was looking forward to that. It would be fun.”

So … what happened? What’s this “different course with the management” all about? We don’t find out, because the interviewer instead asks, “So can one of us here at Clif play you?” He proceeds to show a montage of Clif employees dressed up like Scott with headbands and curly hair. Ha, ha.

Interviewer: Speaking of Chris McDougall, “He says you’ve won more and done more than any other runner alive on planet Earth.”

Scott, visibly uncomfortable, because he doesn’t like this celebrity fawning—he knows it’s a bad thing to rest on his laurels, and God forbid he comes across like someone with the initials DK: “He was being exceptionally nice and complimentary, but that’s going overboard.”

Interviewer: “I think the key there, though, is if you read between the lines, what I think Christopher is getting at here, is there are runners on other planets, and I’m thinking with the film, that’s something Hollywood would be all over. Is that something we could see in the Born to Run film?”

Scott, looking puzzled but still trying to smile: “Gotta make it Hollywood, right?”


Interviewer: “What’s the message you see in your book?”

Scott: He says it’s not just about eating and running; it’s “can we be better people and do bigger and greater things than we thought humanly possible? … I wasn’t super fast, I didn’t have a coach and trainer; I just went out and worked hard and did it, and that’s what ultra marathoning is: It’s not just about physical abilities, it’s can you break through the mental roadblocks that come up? Can you go beyond that? It’s about going beyond what we think is possible.”

Interviewer: “What’s it like being this recognizable celebrity in Boulder? Do you find that when you go out running, are people always trying to run you down or run with you or run past you?”

Scott, looking uncomfortable again: “I still find it kind of weird when you say ‘celebrity’ because to me I’m just somebody who runs these crazy races, maybe a little bit faster than most people, but it is kind of weird. … I never thought I’d live in a place like Boulder; it just has this presence and all these crazy cyclists and triathletes and road runners there …. I chose to go to a place like Boulder so I could get revved up again. A lot of people know I’m closer and closer to retirement; I’ve got 20 years in me. I moved to Boulder so I can soak in that motivation and energy.”

I’m fully alert again, hoping Scott will go deeper about this stage in his career and about training for Leadville. Maybe he’ll share something that will help runners like me with our motivation and training. Instead, he shifts back toward the superficial and the interviewer’s lame question about celebrity.

Scott: “People get a kick when they can pose with Scott Jurek on top of Green Mountain, and yeah, I enjoy it, but I just treat them like anybody else. Jenny, my wife, when we go on runs together, she runs behind me a ways, and somebody will go by and I’ll be like, ‘Hey, how’s it going?’ and then she gets them a few strides later when they’re like, ‘Holy shit that’s Scott Jurek.’ So, I don’t know, it’s still kind of weird.”

Interviewer: “So how about nipple chafing? How do you prevent it?”

Oh, for Christ’s sake, I skipped a dinner date with my husband for this?

They lift their shirts and show off Band-Aids over their nipples. Ha, ha.

Interviewer: “How about a running movie? Is there one running movie that every runner should see? I was gonna ask you, like, how many times should a new runner watch Chariots of Fire before their first race?”

Scott: “Well, if they’re running an ultramarathon, I would not recommend Chariots of Fire. That’s a sprinting movie.”

Interviewer: “Well, it looked good to me. I’d run to the beach and swim.”

What the fuck.

Interviewer: “I call 2012 for you a year of danger.”

Hmm? This sounds interesting. I didn’t think Scott raced at all in 2012. What did he do that was dangerous?

The interviewer flashes a picture on screen of Scott doing a TED Talk with Cookie Monster. “You’re the only person who has stared directly into the cold dead eyes of the Cookie Monster.” Ha, ha.

They talk for five minutes about what it was like to be on stage with Cookie Monster. I get up and walk out because I just can’t stand it anymore. But I pause to talk to a friend on the way out while the interviewer and Scott begin to talk about the awesomeness of the Clif Bar Team Athlete Summit.

And then, just as I’m leaving the auditorium, the interviewer finally asks what I’ve been waiting to hear: “What things for you are still to be done? What’s coming and what do we have to look forward to from you?”

Scott: “Well, I’m definitely racing this year. A lot of people are like, ‘Scott, are you no longer racing anymore?’ Last year I had this book tour and was crazy busy … so this year I’m racing the Leadville 100 coming up in August. That’s one of the reasons I can’t stay and play with you guys tomorrow; I have to get back to altitude. I’m really pumped about going back to Leadville; I was last there in 2004, and that’s when I had Seattle sea-level lungs and was doing the Grand Slam that year. I was second that year, a little over 18 hours; so I’m hoping to come back.”

Come back to win? To break your previous time? How are you training for it? No chance to ask those questions.

Scott continues: “I love doing this”—speaking—“perhaps even more than racing; I still love to race, but getting out and inspiring people and hearing their stories keeps me going.”

Haven’t I heard that somewhere before? Oh yeah, from Dean Karnazes.

“… As far as race goals, I could lie down and die—I feel pretty good about how things have gone in my career — but I could call it good if I could get a world record. That’s what I’d really love to do; as much as I revere Yiannis Kouros, I’d like to see that record [188 miles in 24 hours] go down. Because Yiannis has put out this bold statement ‘the record will last for centuries’ —who actually goes on the line and says that? So being the Minnesota boy who was gonna go and trample the Northern Californians and the stranglehold on Western States … what I’d like to do is see if I could make Yiannis eat those words, but it’s a tall order. That’s an 8-minute pace for 24 hours, and that’s bathroom breaks included. That’s like the ultimate. But really I foresee myself retiring sometime next year, so I’ve got a year and a half of racing. I turn 40 in October. Then I can be a middle pack runner. That’s what I look forward to: going out to a race, chilling out, and having fun and not racing to win.”

Time for the book signing, time for me to go.

I left Clif Bar wondering why I felt so bent out of shape with disappointment about this event. Blame it on perimenopausal PMS? I know a lot of people in the audience enjoyed it. One ultrarunning friend who was there, for example, shared this much more positive take on the night: “I thought it was very entertaining …. While the interviewer was keeping the questions benign and low key, we have to keep in mind that the audience was very broad and comprised of less than 50 percent runners of ultramarathons. It was a good summary of Scott’s youth, his way into the sport and, for me most important, it showed his social side (rather than the superstar’s side). I loved the setting, including food, drinks and the free book. I had a great night.”

Well, I can’t say the same. At least it cured my crush, although I still genuinely admire Scott Jurek and would like to learn more from him. Maybe he should write a followup book.

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19 Responses to A Disappointing Date with Scott Jurek

  1. ken michal June 15, 2013 at 11:22 am #

    Funny thing, I learned to use sports tape (not band-aids) for nipple chafing by seeing Scott run by at White River after he had ditched his shirt!! It was a super valuable lesson!!!

    All Day!

  2. Candice June 15, 2013 at 11:24 am #

    Too bad about the interview, how frustrating! I like your honesty, especially in the first few paragraphs :)
    Candice recently posted..165 Mile Tahoe Rim Trail FKT AttemptMy Profile

  3. Pete Ferguson June 15, 2013 at 12:27 pm #

    Well I’ve met Scott 4 times now, read his book twice so, I went with no expectations of any stop the presses, revelation. My highlight was
    1. Meeting you and able to chat without you blazing past me on the trail.
    2. The event was cool but the interview like you said was a bit silly.
    3. Some amazing looking woman are into Ultra-running…hence some new Facebook friends were made.
    4. Pretty damn good food and beer.

    After sitting listening to a lot of the same drivel, I got hideously bored and went over to a corner of the room with a comfy chair, drank maybe too much IPA, edited my pictures for Facebook and called my wife to chat.
    I think you should of been up there interviewing then we would of gotten something really interesting. Glad you got to meet Scott. He’s such a nice guy and kind of embodies what I’ve experienced in my short time hanging out with the Ultra community.
    Nice write up Sarah.
    Pete Ferguson recently posted..Bay Trail Runners Coastal Marin 50KMy Profile

  4. olga June 16, 2013 at 6:18 pm #

    That was a great write-up! I loved the style of it! Sorry the interviewer was so annoying and out of the place where we’d like him to be. Yes, I fear it may become a media-machine and at one side, I think he deserves it, and in another, don’t want it to happen, what it to be different…I want it old school underground, yet he needs to eat and live on something…his PT practice? Well, it’s not my choice, so, my best to this awesome guy. As well as to you:)
    olga recently posted..My journey to the best 100 miler.My Profile

  5. footfeathers June 17, 2013 at 6:24 am #

    Welcome to ultrarunning. Pass the potato salad.
    footfeathers recently posted..Coming Around and JT Upgrades Hat-wareMy Profile

  6. Ron June 17, 2013 at 10:47 am #

    This review has a slight smack of elitism, much like when a professional musician goes to see a well-respected guitarist in concert, only to be disappointed and critical when a certain arpeggio isn’t hit or worse, the guitarist “sells out” and sings! You had very high (and perhaps unreasonable) expectations that your particular questions would be answered by a legend, from your perspective as an ultrarunner with a full trophy case. You didn’t like the way that the sponsor tailored the presentation to the masses, including their use of a cornball moderator. And the kicker is that you lost out on almighty opportunity for a dinner date with your husband? Seriously? Put yourself in SJ’s shoes: legendary runner gradually transitioning from competition, trying to build a sustaining business out of his name while he still has time. (This is ok, right? We all have to make a living). This includes a major outreach effort by his sponsors to those who have never heard of him or events like WSER100 before, and this sometimes involves participating in these dog-and-pony shoes, however much uncomfortable they are to him. You don’t like the polished Karnazes approach yet you repeatedly point out awkward situations during the talk. Awkward is normal life unless the evening and Q&A have been previously rehearsed and choreographed. Uggh, who wants that? Instead of the criticism, c’mon back to the 10 minute/mile crowd for the evening and enjoy it for what it is, especially from the perspective that others are learning about SJ and your sport for the first time. As for those dinner dates, I now have extremely sky-high expectations of them! It doesn’t sound like anything less than a dedicated training run with Ellie Greenwood should tear you away from one of these again.

    • Sarah Lavender Smith June 17, 2013 at 12:43 pm #

      Thanks for your comment — I can see your points. It’s true I had high expectations and thought the interviewer should’ve done a better job, but I also figured a lot of others might have your take on it, hence the inclusion of the quote from my friend at the end who had a more positive reaction. But I was mostly just having fun with the dinner date remarks; I actually have pretty low expectations for those!

  7. Jeroen June 17, 2013 at 11:43 am #

    Nice writeup, I can imagine the disappointment.

    I don’t get the Dean Karnazes bashing though, why is being a succesful businessman and ultrarunner a bad thing?

  8. Jeff June 17, 2013 at 12:35 pm #

    …and now I’ll never be able to look at a picture of Scott Jurek without thinking, “Bazinga!”
    Jeff recently posted..The Four Factors of FitnessMy Profile

  9. Doug Harple June 17, 2013 at 7:20 pm #

    I got a chuckle out of reading your review, but I’m sorry that you had such a rotten experience. It’s a shame that you had to sacrifice a date night for Cookie Monster :-/. It’s hard to tell if the interviewer was just playing a fool for the laughs, or if he didn’t bother doing his homework.

    Thanks for the read!
    Doug Harple recently posted..Reflections on Minimalist and Imaginary Footwear, Part 1: ErosionMy Profile

  10. John Nguyen June 18, 2013 at 2:32 pm #

    I really enjoyed your post. I would have a little annoyed with that interviewer too. But in the end, there were some really interesting bits of information about Scott! I hope he does break that 188 mile record! And I hope he races well in the near future! I’ve only met him once, but like Ann Trason, he is one of my running idols!
    John Nguyen recently posted..Big Basin 50K Race ReportMy Profile

  11. Jennifer June 24, 2013 at 2:27 pm #

    Too bad that event killed your crush! I wouldn’t blame Scott; it sounds like he played along with some pretty dumb ideas from Clif.

    I’m finally getting around to reading his book now. All the Pine to Palm finishers last year got a personally signed copy. When I finished last year, he came straight over and served Chris and me cups of some homemade smoothie he had made. He asked about my race and was really warm and friendly. Then he hung around and signed books for everyone as part of the awards ceremony. It was cool, and I just got a very positive impression of the guy. Like he actually cares about mid and back-of-the-packers. I’m excited that he’ll be at Leadville this year.

    • Sarah Lavender Smith June 25, 2013 at 3:44 pm #

      hey Jenn, I’m glad you got to spend time with Scott in his element. I don’t blame him, just the Q&A, although I also recognize I had perhaps unreasonably high expectations. I’m excited to see how he does (and how you do!) at Leadville.
      Sarah Lavender Smith recently posted..Four Reasons to RaceMy Profile

  12. Mark Tanaka September 11, 2013 at 5:21 pm #

    That was a funny write up, even with (or maybe partially because of) the painfully stupid moderator questions. (Glad I was camping and could not have gone even if I knew about it.) Go back to your husband!
    Mark Tanaka recently posted..Cascade Crest 100 Mile 2011: Return of the Tunnel, Including a Bonus Bicycle-Riding Ex-Meth AddictMy Profile

  13. Marcel January 13, 2014 at 7:32 am #

    You raise some good points in this article but perhaps its not fair to judge Scott on one meeting. Maybe he was tired or just had an off day.

    I’ve had good correspondence with him through Facebook etc.

    In fact it was through a Facebook post that Scott inspired me to make his Tom kha (see my blog for details).

    It’s kinda cool how Scott has married Jen now. My wife and I go on two hour cycles for our date night but I betcha that Jen and Scott go for two hour runs. :-)
    Marcel recently posted..Scott Jurek’s Tom Kha (Thai Soup)My Profile

  14. Michael June 15, 2014 at 8:10 am #

    What you’re really disappointed about was that you didn’t get to play with his hair..

  15. Wendy@Taking the Long Way Home January 14, 2015 at 2:09 pm #

    I just read this as I’m preparing a book review of Eat and Run (I’m a little late to the party, but better late than never, right?) This is hilarious, and exactly as I pictured him. But I’d still rather spend an evening with him than DK….
    Wendy@Taking the Long Way Home recently posted..The Four Seasons of RunningMy Profile


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