Scott Jurek is an ultra runner and one of the characters in Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run. McDougall's book made Jurek famous outside ultra-marathon running circles. Jurek is introduced in Born to Run when he accompanies McDougall and some other runners to the Copper Canyons of Mexico to run Caballo Blanco’s ultra-marathon against the Tarahumara.
A self-described poor hick who grew up in rural Minnesota, Jurek’s story is archetypical rags to riches. He overcame a lot of hardship. A mother with MS. An emotionally barren, disciplinarian father. He had to make his own way every step of his journey. And the man got to where he is by sheer force of will. He gives new meaning to the term hard worker.
Each chapter of Jurek’s book tells a different story of his life. Childhood, the high school years, Western States 100 (seven time winner), Caballo Blanco’s race, etc.
And the story telling is decent for a sports autobio. Until he shoves each chapter’s themes and morals down the reader's throat. As a reader, I prefer to be led down a path with the story, and then left free to draw my own conclusions. I want to be shown not told.
For all of our sakes, I will avoid turning this into literary criticism blog. But I have just one more complaint about style to get out. “Sometimes you just do things.” “Sometimes you just do things.” “Sometimes you just do things.” “Sometimes you just do things.” “Sometimes you just do things.” “Sometimes you just do things.” This phrase must appear a hundred times in the book. Really, not exaggerating. (I don't blame Jurek; I blame his editor.)
“Sometimes you just do things” is apparently Jurek's mantra – the phrase he repeats to himself when it is time to put the hammer down. The phrase originated with Jurek’s dad who made the point when he gave boy Jurek some Sisyphean task that took the entire day to complete – something like forcing Jurek to stack firewood all day instead of skiing with friends. “Sometimes you just do things,” said father Jurek to his son.
When the going gets tough in Jurek’s 100 mile+ races in impossible conditions, he thinks of his dad’s phrase, goes to his dark place, and pushes through. “Sometimes you just do things.”
There was a fair bit of preaching about veganism. But I was prepared for that; afterall, in the title, Eat comes before Run! I completely agree with Jurek that eating better food helps you feel better and therefore run better. However, I found his use of the phrase “animal flesh” as a synonym for meat over the top. As was his declaration that he was so in tune with his body and the food he was putting in it that he could tell when a carrot was picked by how it tasted. I kid you not.
But I like Jurek. A self-made man, an individualist, a hard worker. I think he was a neat kid. He didn’t have any one at home who could teach him things with his mother being sick and his dad working and generally being very unpleasant to interact with. So when he needed to learn about stuff, he went to the library and checked out books. He learned about baseball, skiing, and other sports this way.
I loved Jurek’s stories about his races. Training for ultras, actually running them, and the logistics of it all. The support vehicles. The food, the hydration. The delirium. His pacers, especially Dusty, a major character in the book from the high school years forward. Now Dusty, this is a guy who could write a compelling autobiography.
The coolest thing about Jurek is that after races, he hangs around the finish line to greet and congratulate other runners. How awesome is that?
How do people run 100+ miles in one day? I think Jurek’s answer is that you can train for it if you are dedicated enough. He trained for ultras while working full time as a physical therapist. But training for an ultra is the easy part. The hard part is persevering in the race. I think Jurek would say that you get to the finish line of an ultra-marathon through extreme mental toughness. Untempered stubbornness.
All-in-all, I think the book tries to do too much. It is his manifesto on veganism. It is a how-to for beginning runners. And it is the story of his life. Who is Scott Jurek? I know what he wants me to think. But I don’t think he showed who he really is in this book.