Of all the things that could have broken Scott Jurek on a 2,189-mile run, it was a small tree root that crushed his spirit.
He was 38 days into an attempt to beat the speed record for completing the full length of the Appalachian Trail, the mountainous hiking path that snakes along America’s East Coast, from northern Georgia to the top of Mount Katahdin, in Maine. Jurek, one of the greatest ultramarathoners of all times, was in trouble. After battling through a succession of leg injuries, then slogging through Vermont’s wettest June in centuries, he had to make up ground over a particularly merciless stretch of the trail, New Hampshire’s White Mountains. Delirious from just two hours of sleep following 26 straight hours of hiking, he was stumbling along the trail when he encountered the root in his path.
“As I saw it coming, I didn’t know what to do,” Jurek recalls in his new memoir, North: Finding My Way While Running the Appalachian Trail, co-written with his wife, Jenny. “Was I supposed to step around it or over it? I just couldn’t remember.” So he hit it and toppled. “I’d forgotten how to raise my legs,” he writes. “How to run like a sane person.”
Jurek’s victories in punishing 100-mile races since the late 1990s—plus a starring role in the writer Christopher McDougall’s best seller, Born to Run—have made him a distance-running celebrity. But tackling the Appalachian Trail forced him to dig deeper than he ever had before. Five weeks in, he was down more than a dozen pounds, and his ribs were visible. His eyes bulged, feral and unfocused. His body reeked of apple-cider vinegar as his sweat excreted excess ammonia. And his mind was beginning to crack. Late one night, he was mystified by the lights of a house he spotted on top of a mountain. A running partner had to explain that what he saw was the moon.
Jurek joins a tried-and-true literary tradition: the extreme athlete telling a harrowing tale of making it to the edge and back. From Edmund Hillary’s account of scaling Mount Everest to the long-distance swimmer Diana Nyad’s Find a Way, the genre offers athletes a chance to articulate how and why the toughest humans on the planet are capable of persevering when so many others would give up. The implicit promise is that readers will get a chance to learn something about how far the rest of us can push ourselves. And while we’re at it, perhaps we’ll glean the insight we really want: how far we should push ourselves. But what if extreme athletes are the worst sources of wisdom, and that is precisely what makes them fascinating?
To hear Jurek tell it, forcing himself to the limit is purifying and transformational. “Though man’s soul finds solace in natural beauty, it is forged in the fire of pain,” he writes. But listen closely, and bodily transcendence is not exactly grist for motivational posters. Jurek’s pages are haunted by comrades who didn’t make it through the fire unscathed. He was joined for part of the trail by Aron Ralston, the hiker famous for amputating his own arm to free himself from a boulder. Jurek’s friend Dean Potter, a legendary climber and base jumper, died in a wing-suit accident days before Jurek began his trek. “I had known ultrarunners to finish races as their kidneys were shutting down and they were losing control of their bowels,” Jurek reports. He recalls a runner who fought through debilitating headaches to finish a 100-mile race and then died of a brain aneurysm.
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