Scott Jurek has run 135 miles across California's Death Valley in 120-degree heat.
Sometimes delirious, sometimes clocking 5-minute miles, the ultrarunner won that race twice, finishing in 24 hours once, and 25 hours the second time. His team dragged along a coffin-sized cooler of ice water into which he occasionally plunged himself.
Among dozens of other victories, Jurek won the "Hardrock 100," a 100-mile race in Colorado's Rocky Mountains with more cumulative ascent than the distance up Mount Everest from sea level. He won that race — pay attention here — he won that race running with an ankle broken two days before while kicking a soccer ball with some school kids.
If you're not impressed yet, Jurek achieves what to most of us seems humanly impossible on a vegan diet. No animal products, ever.
How he does this and why — a question he asks of himself as often as others ask it of him — Jurek traces in a new memoir "Eat and Run." He includes recipes.
In a conference room at Houghton Mifflin, I met Scott Jurek.
Tall, rosy-skinned, wearing jeans and a hipster-like short-sleeved plaid shirt, Jurek at 38 is boyish with a broad smile and deep dimples. He's lean, but not too thin. He had just arrived in Boston from New York where, that morning, he'd run 24 miles through the streets of Manhattan — just a jog. The day before he'd run 31 Manhattan miles at an 11 minute-mile trot.
Houghton Mifflin had ordered lunch: pad thai, pad ki mow, ginger tofu, yellow curry with tofu and brown rice, and lemon grass stir-fry tofu.
"Competition helps with the pain," Jurek told me when I remarked on the dichotomy between his obviously extreme competitive will and the endearing, open personality that emanates from his writing. "It keeps you focused."
Jurek easily expanded on the abstract of why he runs: "Fear is what makes you come alive, the lure of the unknown — can I do this? — that's where the growth comes from, the pain. I don't remember the running effortlessly; I remember the hard times; adversity breathes transformation."
I asked Jurek why every top ultrarunner, observing his performances, isn't vegan; he claimed the effects of the vegan diet are not necessarily in straightforward finish times.
Initially playing with veganism, Jurek saw immediate results not in speed or endurance but in recovery; his muscles recovered from a 100-mile run much faster on a vegan diet.
"Recovery plays a big role in over-all health," Jurek said.
He spurns western medicine and processed foods, mostly carrying his own prepared dishes, such as onigiri (rice balls and seaweed) or homemade hummus and tortillas on long runs. Instead of ibuprofin, Jurek drinks tumeric soy shakes for pain (Turmeric is supposed to have anti-inflammatory properties.) He won the Hardrock 100 chugging turmeric shakes, his broken ankle bandaged in a black pepper, turmeric, flour and water compress.
Jurek grew up on his mother's meat and potato meals and trips to McDonald's. Early on, hunting and fishing became ways to escape the increasing stress and sadness in his home; his mother had begun to descend into the crippling grip of multiple sclerosis when Jurek was in elementary school and his father was an inexplicably angry parent.
A skinny, quiet kid, a good student in the buttoned-down shirts his mother insisted he wear, Jurek began distance training on his Minnesota high school cross country ski team. On a team retreat, he ate vegetable lasagna and home-baked whole wheat bread for the first time, and immediately recognized a change in his performance. That was the beginning of Jurek's connection to food as medicine.
Jurek is considered one of the world's most elite ultrarunners. I first learned of him, as perhaps many did, in the celebrated book "Born to Run" by Chris McDougall, a book that examines human evolution and running. "Born to Run" features the indigenous Tarahumara Indians, who live isolated in the Copper Canyons of Mexico, and who simply run. Men, women and children run for tens if not 100 miles.
In 2006, the recently deceased Micah True, who had left mainstream society to live with these people and learn their running secrets, finally succeeding in organizing a race between the Tarahumara and some of the world's elite ultrarunners, including Scott Jurek.
While Jurek and the champion Tarahumara, Arnulfo, could not communicate verbally, each recognized in the other's eyes the sharp glint of competition; each knew the other was his rival. In a Disney ending, the underdog wins, not the guy with the running shoes and years of professional training. You can feel the heat through the pages when Jurek comes in second to Arnulfo by 6 minutes. Six minutes in a 50-mile race is like 10 seconds in a 5K.
In "Eat and Run," Jurek retells the Copper Canyon story, and adds in a short last paragraph that he returned to the Tarahumara the following year and beat Arnulfo by 18 minutes. That paragraph says everything about that competitive glint in Jurek's eye.
Here's one of Jurek trail running recipes. He recommends omitting the garlic if you're eating it while running!
Kalamata Hummus Trail Wrap
3 cups cooked garbanzo beans
3 tablespoons tahini
2 tablespoons tamari, 2 tablespoons miso, or 2 teaspoons sea salt
1/4 cup fresh squeezed lemon or lime juice
1/2 garlic clove, chopped (optional)
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper (optional)
8 flour tortillas
chopped kalamata olives
Place the beans, tahini, tamari, lemon juice, garlic, and cumin in a food processor or blender. Process until smooth. Add a small amount of water to keep the mixture moving if needed. Season to taste with black and cayenne pepper.
For each wrap, spread a thin layer of hummus on a tortilla and sprinkle some of the olives in a line down the center of the tortilla. Roll the tortilla into a tight wrap and cut into two or three pieces, depending upon the size of the tortillas.
Pack the rolls in a small plastic bag and refrigerate overnight so they are ready for the next morning's long run. For a more substantial lunch, add lettuce, red bell pepper, and tomato before rolling wraps.
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Food for Thought runs weekly in the Times' Taste of the Times section and is written by Heather Atwood, an author and mother from Rockport. Questions and comments can be sent to Heather at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her blog at www.heatheratwood.com.