Scott Jurek (and other vegans I like)

Scott Jurek at Pacers in Clarendon

“Believe it or not, there were two things I used to hate–vegetables and running,” Scott Jurek says. ”

Which only goes to show you how much people can change.

Jurek is a vegan and one of the world’s all-time greatest ultra-runners — “ultras” are races longer than marathons, often much longer. Scott has won the world’s most prestigious ultras many times, including seven consecutive victories in the Western States 100-mile Endurance Run. In 2010, he set the U.S. record for most miles run in a 24-hour period by covering 165.7 miles, which is more than six marathons. Think about that for a moment.

The other night, Scott led a group of several dozen runners (including me) on a 3-mile jog from The Nature Conservancy headquarters in Arlington, Va., to Pacers running store in Clarendon, to celebrate the publication of his new book, Eat and Run: My Unlikely Journey to Ultramarathon Greatness. I’ve just finished the book–it’s an autobiography, a guide to running, a recipe book and, more broadly, a story about the importance of pursuing your goals, whether or not you achieve them.

Eating and running, he writes, are “simple activities, common as grass. And they’re sacred.”

Pilgrims seeking bliss carry water and chop wood, and they’re simple things, too, but if they’re approached with mindfulness and care, with attention to the present and humility, they can provide a portal to transcendence. They can illuminate the path leading to something larger than ourselves.

This isn’t to say that running will solve the world’s problems, or yours. But, as Scott writes

Move your body and fill it with healthy food and you will be transformed.

I’ve met Scott a couple of times now, and I have to say that I am impressed, not so much with his extraordinary accomplishments as a runner (which strike me as near-superhuman, and therefore not relevant to the rest of us)  but with his thoughtfulness (he’s smart, inquisitive and well-read) and  his purposeful approach to life, notably his plant-based diet. The fact that he’s a world-class runner and a vegan may well be coincidental–though I don’t think that’s so–but at the very least he is proof that a plant-based diet is no obstacle to good health and athletic stardom.

Scott is also a down-to-earth guy. “Racing ultras requires absolute confidence tempered with intense humility,” he writes. That’s Scott. He often spends hours at the finish line of races, greeting and congratulating other runners.

None of this came easily. Scott, who is 38, grew up in northern Minnesota, hunting and fishing. His mother suffered from MS. His father was a distant figure who grew to weigh more than 280 pounds. (After winning the 135-mile Badwater Ultramarathon in Death Valley in 2005, he writes: “When it was done, I sat in the pine needles, and I thought about my mother, who would never walk, and my father, who had never seen me run.”) He found his way to running by accident, while training to be a cross country skier, but he found his way to a vegan diet through experimentation. Working as a physical therapist after college, he came to believe that too much meat and processed food was keeping his clients sick. After first eliminating meat and then getting rid of all animal-based products from his diet, he saw that his vital signs (blood pressure, triglyceride levels, cholesterol) improved. He also recovered quickly from long, grueling, pounding runs on roads and trails, as well as from scrapes, bruises and the occasional broken bone.

What made the difference? Maybe it was the variety of fruits and vegetables he was eating. “Almost every day,” he writes, “a new micronutrient is discovered in plant foods that contains protective effects against disease.” Or maybe it was the stuff he kept out of his body, like the growth hormones and antibiotics fed to factory-raised animals. “If we wouldn’t take steroids ourselves–or eat a bowl of transgenic, pesticide-soaked soybeans–why would we eat the flesh of an animal that has?” He wasn’t sure, but he felt great.

The other, big reason to shift to a plant-based diet is that it’s good for the earth. “Part of the reason I went vegan was to live lower on the food chain,” Scott said the other night. Eating less meat is one of the easiest things we can do to lighten our environmental footprints. Scott, who lives in Boulder, says, “I run in the mountains all the time. I feel connected to the land. I want to take care of it.”

Later this month, Scott and Mark Tercek, The Nature Conservancy’s CEO, will travel to Kenya with a group of Team Nature runners to run the Safaricom Marathon and Half Marathon. “I’m going to run a marathon and probably get my butt kicked by a bunch of East Africans, which is totally fine,” Scott said.  The event raises money for wildlife conservation and community development.

As for the other vegans I like, they, too, are accomplished. Neville Isdell is the retired chief executive of Coca-Cola. (See my 2008 blogpost, African, vegan, ceo.) My friends Sibley Simon and Nina Simon, who live off the grid in Santa Cruz, are not only professional successes–Sibley’s a digital entrepreneur and Nina is executive director of The Museum of Art & History in Santa Cruz and author of The Participatory Museum–but in great shape. Last month, on the day I visited, Sibley won the Santa Cruz Street Scramble and Nina’s an excellent rock climber and beach volleyball player.

Then, of course, there’s Bill Clinton.

Scott writes: “The better I ate, the better I felt…I was eating more, losing weight and gaining muscle–all on a vegan diet.” What’s not to like?

Scott at the 103-mile Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc. Note the bloody knees.

Comments

  1. Marc, thanks for this post. As a fellow sustainability professional and vegan, I appreciate this introduction to Scott. I am very familiar with Brendan Brazier (vegan triathlete) but was not familiar with Scott’s background.

    Off to get the book!

  2. Marc,

    Thank you for the reminder. I heard this story on NPR last week. This vegan approach to eating as I understood it was not an all or nothing thing when he first started. He eased into it initially.

    I am a swimmer and biker due to the low impact on my legs and feet. I love the runners high. Becoming a vegan might allow me to run some in the future. We will see.

    I started my Juice Plus business a while back. Take a look at http://www.lauriedunlapjuiceplus.com. navigate to the bottom of the page and click on Hear what they are saying. The David Phillips video is 1 minute 30 seconds.

    We would love to get Scott to look at this and make him our customer as well.

  3. So many takeaways; where to start?

    This profile is all the more powerful because there is no preaching; only example and experience. The lessons are displayed for the reader to grasp and apply to his or her own life ~ meeting them figuratively on the individual’s road.

    Inspiring. Thank you for such a well-written piece to Scott, for walking ahead of us on the path. Best, M.

  4. Thanks for the post! I really wanted to go to the Pacers event in Arlington and run with Scott as well as get a signed book, but I was busy. I didn’t really know what his book was about and I considered getting it, especially if I could’ve gotten it signed by Scott.

    But, after reading an article about Scott and reading your post, I think it’d be a great book to purchase (and will definitely buy one), especially since it’s not only about running, but also healthy living and motivation in life, on top of being an autobiography of a great runner and person.

    Will buy it soon. Can’t wait!

  5. We are flattered that you mentioned us, Marc, and as with the other posters, I’m inspired to read about Scott. I have so much respect for anyone who achieves anything by (and perhaps because of) a path other than following the cultural norm or conventional wisdom. Surely that is the evolutionary process within human achievement.

    That’s what is most inspirational to me – I think we can all stand to do more making of decisions based on looking for ground truth from a blank slate rather than starting with the norm and adjusting from there when we absolutely have to.

    Thanks Marc!

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