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.
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.
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.
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.