I can’t decide if ultra runner Scott Jurek’s Eat & Run is a good run genre read or better judged as a cookbook. Proof is in the (vegan) pudding I guess, which means on both counts Jurek’s first book is a worthy read – it had me inspired to get out running more (to be expected I guess), it had me thinking about my approach both physically and mentally AND it inspired me to try some vegan cooking (very much not expected).
Indeed, to begin I was like, ‘Recipes? In a book about running? Really?’ and I skipped the first few ingredient rundowns thinking ‘well, I’ll finish the book quicker than expected now if I just read the running parts’.
But it wasn’t long before I was revisiting Jurek’s Chapter One Ongiri (Rice Balls) and Chapter Three’s Mushroom-Lentil Burgers.
Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against hippie-food. It’s just that my sweet tooth and fat-loving tastebuds have an inordinate amount of sway over what I put in my mouth. I love the politics of veganism. I agree with it all. I’m just not strong willed enough. Which is point worth pondering on. Willpower is a crucial element of trail running and mandatory for ultra running. Without it, you may as well go back to playing Backgammon in the bar.
The will to soldier on is a central tenant of Jurek’s book. But where the Karnases of the world – as inspiring as their stories are – tell tales in often hyped-up, uber-emotive fashion, with a focus on the hook: the pizza-on-the-run story, the marathon-off-the-back-of-a-drinking-binge yarn – Jurek maintains a much more down to earth approach in relating his journey from McDonald’s Cheesburger eating cross country skier, to Western States 100 wunderkind powered on a vegan diet of Apple Cinnamon Granola with Hemp Milk (awesome – Chapter 4) and Indonesian Cabbage Salad with Red Curry Almond Sauce (Chapter 12).
In between recipes that make hardened meat eaters actually drool enough to seek out the specialist ingredients required, Jurek relates his transition to veganism and the struggles he faced in the obvious problem of such a change: maintaining enough calories and nutrients going into his body to fuel amazing feats of ultra endurance. Once he made his dietary choice, he knew his proclivity (and by then livelihood) of running long meant he faced nutritional challenges than many non-running vegans didn’t. How would he maintain the balance of limited nutrient intake versus gargantuan energy requirements?
That journey parallels the physical one of his competing in ultras. For those not aware of Jurek, he was the golden boy of ultra in the early 2000s. He was an unknown when he took the lead in the Western States 100 in 1999, with all pundits dismissing him from that moment as a ‘bolter’: too hard, to early, the man’ll blow. He won that race and went on to win the Western States 100 an unprecedented seven years in a row.
All of Jurek’s ups and inevitable downs experienced as an elite (or any) ultra runner are captured in the book, giving an insight into his racing life that is always dressed in humbleness. This is a man who would win the WS100 and then stick around on the finish line, sleeping there, in order to welcome in the mid to back packers.
That sense of easy, if sometimes critical self-reflection imbues this read with a soft sense of humanity: in his own eyes Jurek is no superman. There is no chest beating. There is just running (and as the book suggests, eating). Being a man obviously in touch with the more emotional side, Jurek explores at length the why run, what from, what too, questions that arise for all ultra runners be it of oneself or others asking you.
For Jurek there is his childhood, the relationship with his mother who suffers from and eventually passes on after a long battle with Multiple Sclerosis; there is the father-son relationship that inevitably plays its part in the drive behind Scott’s need to endure; and there’s the personal relationships that weave in and out of Jurek’s running life – the people who inspire him, who support him, who he draws energy from.
There are of course the ‘drama, conflict, resolution’ moments we read books for – mid event, leading, ankle blown, stomach on the side of the trail…nemesis on his tail…will he keep going? Will he win this time?
So for purist run fans, even those who steadfastly nose-sniff at the culinary thematic of Eat & Run, there is still plenty of ultra gristle to keep eyes on page, including lots of great, straightforward practical advice excerpts covering everything from hydration, mental attitude and run technique to dealing with injuries.
Eat & Run is a balanced, well written (ghosted by notable journo Steve Friedman) account of one of the legends of the sport we love. It goes beyond the superficial, getting under his skin, inside his head and inside his life. What it shows us is that Scott Jurek is, indeed, like us. He’s normal. He gets scared. At times he is full of bravado with a fierce competitive instinct. But he’s human and has issues with his family, with his friends; he worries, he vacillates in his moods, he’s unsure, and he breaks. Perhaps where he is different – where we want to emulate him and why we read on (to learn how) – is that he gets back up again. He wipes the blood, the vomit, the tears away, and takes a step forward. On the trail. In a race. Beside a mate. In life.
That moment, where he takes the step, that’s what us, the reader is searching seeking an understanding of in the hope that it then imbues us with the same power.
In a sense, Eat & Run does this in some measure, even if flicking on a light somewhere that will flicker out on the trail.
And while other ultra books have me thinking about technique, motivation, nutrition, gear… Jurek has me thinking about life and the concentration of such that can be experienced through life-affirming prism that is ultra running. Even more impressive, his book has me thinking about what ingredients I need to buy today to make 8-Grain Strawberry Pancakes.
Eat & Run is out now at all good bookstores or order online.
Published by Bloomsbury