Ultrarunner Scott Jurek: Returning to the Roots

After 20 years of chasing a passion, can you still have that same fire as when you first started? And upon rediscovering that passion, could it lead you back to your roots?

It was a standard-issue day in late May amidst the dense forests of Georgia. The weather wasn’t anything out of the ordinary: hot and humid, with threats of thunderstorms and bits of sunshine sprinkled in. Underfoot was a mix of jumbled roots and jagged rocks peppering lung-bursting uphills and muscle-wrenching downhills. I had covered thousands of miles like this throughout my life so in some ways it was like brushing my teeth, something I just did. And sometimes I didn’t know why.

I was running and hiking 50 miles today and I knew why, at least superficially. It was day one of an adventure that would take me 2,189 miles from Georgia to Maine, following a ribbon of singletrack known as the Appalachian Trail. The mileage today wouldn’t be unique as I was aiming to run 50 or more miles the next day and the next day and the next day after that, all the way to Maine, hoping to break the supported speed record of 46 days.

Scott Jurek

I had run 50 miles many times before. For the past 20 years I have been running 100-mile trail races, tackling and winning many of the world’s toughest road and trail ultramarathons. However, something was definitely different today. Deep down as my muscles ached, my tendons tightened and my bones absorbed the vibrations of the trail, I could feel a difference in my stride and a renewed mental drive. Maybe it was subtle, but running and hiking down the trail felt almost novel. My wife, Jenny, even noticed something was up when I met her at road crossings to resupply my pack and enjoy a bit of lunch. She remarked, “You look like you are genuinely having fun—I can see the joy in your face!”

Jenny’s words struck me. I couldn’t help but wonder what was different today and what I was rediscovering. Today I truly felt like a kid again. I was transported to my youth and the woods behind my northern Minnesota home where I traced the animal footpaths to tree forts and teepees I would build. I spent all day on those trails mimicking the light bounding and precision sprinting of the animals I tried to chase and follow through the dense woods. I galloped like the horses that my Native American heroes rode, envisioning a high-speed chase, cornering as fast as I could without sliding off my feet around the corners. I ran laps around the house with my parents timing me as I tried to beat previous times. Running wasn’t something I had to do for punishment, like running laps when getting into trouble at soccer or basketball practice. Running was pure fun. Running was freedom.

Thirty-five years later in the ankle-deep mud of the Appalachian Trail, I felt that same freedom. Around every corner was something new and something undiscovered. Having only seen less than 40 miles of the 2,189-mile Appalachian Trail, every day, every mile would be a new adventure. That sense of heading toward the unknown was like a magnetic pull, stronger than the seemingly unbearable muscular and mental fatigue. Just like as a kid, it didn’t matter how tired, wet or cold I was; there was always that yearning to explore and push beyond the edges. Decades ago those edges had smaller boundaries, but I still loved seeing how far I could go into the woods despite my parents’ and grandparents’ lack of approval when I went further than I was allowed to. That yearning to explore still rings true today, as I love seeing how far I’ve traveled on my map and while atop mountain overlooks looking back over the ridges from where I came from and towards the places I am headed.

I didn’t know it as a youth, but there was something to that mimicking of animal-like movements. That rhythm of putting one foot in front of the other is my focus and I feel a primitive drive to move forward. Only the present moment matters, with the worries and stress of everyday life melting away. I lock in to a survival mode, something that exists in all of us humans. And the trails force me to stay locked in, their ankle-twisting roots and rocks insisting I stay focused. “Stay present, stay alert, stay tuned-in!” they shout out.

Scott Jurek

Not only do the trails, woods and mountains keep me focused, they keep me humbled just like the small, defenseless yet inquisitive child I once was. When I am out running free in a vast landscape, I am reminded of how small I am in the expansive fabric of land around me. I am no different or special than any of the living flora and fauna that survive amidst the nurturing and sometimes cruel hand of nature. This especially rings true when I’m dealing with drastic weather shifts and changing conditions. In a day and age of central heating and the ability to adjust the temperature with the flip of a switch or swipe of a phone, we may be losing our primitive ability to adapt. It is a humbling yet empowering fact that I alone am responsible for my survival. Being uncomfortable and “dealing with it” could be a blessing and not a curse. Adaptability may be our greatest gift from Mother Nature.

It was no different that day in May as I adapted to the torrential downpours, stifling humidity and mud soup of tangled roots and slimy rocks. But for reasons I now fully know, it didn’t really matter. I was grinning ear-to-ear just like that 7-year-old Minnesota woodsman. I was just embarking on my long adventure, but on that first 50-mile day I was already remembering what I first loved about running the trails. Somehow I had a feeling that those reasons would become indispensible as I tested my body and mind 2,100 miles northward.

Scott Jurek

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