Found at http://www.samadhi-yoga.com/jai/yoglif.htm
Interview with Scott Jurek by Evets Sivad
When I first met Scott Jurek (pronounced, “yurek”) he had already been coming to my yoga classes for several months. With a strapping 6’2” frame and dark curly hair hanging halfway down his back, he wasn’t easily missed as he passed by the front desk of the studio. His silver bike helmet and auto-lock biking shoes were standard attire despite rain or shine. In class I noticed a high level of concentration and focus unusual for a beginning student. One morning after class I approached Scott to say I hadn’t seen him in several weeks and wondered if he had been out of town. He told me he had been in California competing in a race.
“Oh, and how did it go?” I replied off-handedly. “I won,” he said matter of factly. ‘Wow,” I said with surprise, “that’s great”. “What kind of race was it?” “It’s called the Western States 100,” Scott replied. “Is that a marathon?” I asked, my interest building. “It’s an ultra marathon” he clarified. “So that’s like 50 miles right?” I asked slightly incredulously. “An ultra marathon is anything over the standard marathon distance of 26.2 miles, this race was 100 miles,” he explained. “100 miles…and you won?” I gasped dumbfounded.
Needless to say, humility was not lacking in this student. Wanting to know more about this 100 mile race, I searched the internet for more information. The search revealed numerous articles from national newspapers and magazines telling about this extraordinary athlete winning this extraordinary race. Not only was the Western States 100 considered the most prestigious ultra marathon in the world, but it’s also the oldest and most difficult. It starts in Lake Tahoe and goes west over the Sierra Mountain Range ending outside Sacramento via 100 miles of mostly rugged trails through high elevations and soaring temperatures. Amazing, I thought as I read through the myriad of references; then the real shocker came. Scott Jurek has won the race every year for the last five years in a row! At the age of 29 Scott is already a legend in the world of ultra marathons. What I didn’t find out in the mainstream media, but from Scott in person, is that he is 100% vegan and has been since before his amazing winning streak. Maybe the mainstream media considered this too shocking for the meat eating public to digest.
Since my wife and I, are always trying to educate our students about the benefits of a vegan diet, I must admit I immediately saw Scott as a potential poster boy for the vegan movement. After all, who could possibly argue that there wasn’t enough protein in a vegan diet after learning about his amazing physical feats? Excited about this prospect, I asked to interview Scott about his training, competing, and diet in order to educate and enlighten our readers. What follows is the interview.
How did you get started running ultra marathons?
Well, I always loved cross country skiing and trail running so it was kind of a natural transition. On a whim one of my running and skiing buddies decided to enter a 50 mile trail race and won. He was so jazzed about it that it got me interested enough to give it a try. I placed second in my first competition which was a 50 mile trail race, and I was hooked. I love exercising in the outdoors and this was an opportunity to run for miles through beautiful countryside. Also, the trail running scene is much more laid back and enjoyable compared to your typical road race which takes place in or around a city. The popularity of trail running has skyrocketed over the last decade because it leaves the crowds, cars, smog, and pavement behind.
How old were you when you ran your first ultra marathon and what was your diet like then?
I was nineteen and my diet at that point had not changed from what I was raised eating. I grew up in Minnesota eating a fairly Standard American Diet (SAD) which could be loosely categorized as “meat and potatoes.” However, my mother was very much a home maker and made most everything from scratch. So we ate fairly well rounded, minimally processed meals, but they were always based around meat. I learned how to prepare meals at home and continued to do so when I went off to college. That is where I met Leah my wife, who introduced me to the benefits of a more holistic vegetarian diet. Over time, influenced by Leah’s diet and Andrew Weil’s books: Spontaneous Healing, and Eating Well for Optimum Health, I started to make a transition away from meat and dairy. The turning point came when some friends lent me the book Mad Cowboy, by Howard F. Lyman. This book really opened my eyes to the factory farming nightmare and how unhealthy it was for me, the animals, and the environment. I was so inspired after reading this book that I committed to cutting out all animal products from my diet from that point on.
What changes did you notice in your life after adopting a vegan diet?
I definitely noticed many changes, but these changes aren’t immediate. It’s not like you wake up the next morning and feel ten times better. The changes are more gradual and you can see them better once you continue down the path for a while and then look back. In regards to competing and training I noticed my recovery times had shortened, that I was less injury prone, and had a higher level of energy. Above all, the major changes were in my relationship to food preparation and intake. I became very concerned not just about veganism, but about proper nutrition. I’ve come across many vegans who are still drinking soda pop. The point is you can be vegan and still have an unhealthy diet. So I really got into the origin of my food to the point of grinding my own flour to bake my own bread. The changes were both profound and subtle on every aspect of my life.
Were there difficulties along the way?
A big block for me, and I know this is the case for others, is gaining a sense of confidence in your diet choice. Especially in the case of an athlete, there is always the fear, or doubt that can creep up about whether you are getting what you need to perform optimally. It takes a lot of experimentation and time to build this confidence because there is not a lot of support from the world at large. So many more people are still eating animal products that they immediately doubt you and your diet without them. That can get in your head and make you doubt yourself and all the work you’ve done especially when you’re 75 miles down the trail and feeling less than wonderful. These mind games are always going to be a factor so one has to be diligent in making sure you are getting the right nutrients, protein, sleep, etc. in order to minimize internal conflict and build self confidence.
What is your training schedule like and how does your diet support it?
I run an average of about 120 miles per week on trails with lots of elevation. When I’m getting ready for a race I do some weekend intensives like running up and down Mt. Si, three times as fast as possible. This gives me over 12,000 ft. of vertical gain in the course of 24 miles, it’s very convenient. Then I’ll run a 35 mile trail run with 10,000 ft. of elevation the next day. This helps to simulate the impact of a 100 mile race on my body. In terms of diet I just try to eat as much wholesome nutritious food as feels right. I love to prepare food and I love to eat. I don’t count my calories, but I have before, and I know I’m getting between 5000 and 8000 calories per day. My favorite foods are greens, especially dinosaur kale which I eat raw in my salads. Lately, I’ve been incorporating a lot more raw, unadulterated, fruits and vegetables into my diet which feels really great.
Optimal health is one of the obvious effects of a vegan diet, and the one that got you started, but how do you feel about the socio-political and environmental considerations?
Life to me is all about learning. The choices we make are in effect the lessons that we learn from, and what we learn accumulates as experiential wisdom helping to shape our future choices. I want to maintain this state of learning so I can be open to the lessons that come. Some people become vegan for a particular reason and they hold on to that reason alone. The reason for me started with my individual health. The impact of my original choice has expanded beyond my individual health to include the well being of people, animals and the environment. This is in line with my holistic philosophy and keeping aware of the bigger picture. I come from a family that has hunted and fished for generations and I respect the past, but now I have a different vision for the present and future that has big picture implications. Similarly, when I started running ultra marathons it was about maximizing my performance and having fun. I’m still having fun, but now the races have become a forum for me to connect with nature and people who are concerned about the health and well being of themselves and the planet. As a result of my success, I’m in a position of influence and these people look to me for inspiration. The choice to become vegan has changed my life and now those changes are rippling out to help change other lives and ultimately the world. I’m thrilled to have a positive impact on the world beyond myself. It’s what makes any personal suffering worth while.
With all your miles of training and during these intense 100 mile (20 + hour) races, have you ever had what you might consider a spiritual experience?
Definitely, there is something really magical that happens. In fact, its these little glimpses of what I call epic experiences that keep me going. I think this is a common experience for athletes of all kinds it just differs in how they describe it. For me it’s when all the craziness around me, the pressure to win, the physical pain and psychological suffering build to an almost unbearable intensity, that I’m forced to dig deep within. It’s at these junctures that something opens up and allows me this indescribable experience, and suddenly I feel not just unstoppable, but unlimited. Running these races has becomes a vehicle for reaching these states within myself that I haven’t learned to access in any other way. I’ve come to see these races as a spiritual journey condensed into a period of roughly 24 hours. The demons of your own mind come out to torment you forcing you to come face to face with the deepest sense of self. In order to overcome the many obstacles over the course of 100 miles I’m forced to find the part of me that won’t succumb to the suffering, but instead will rise above and be victorious. To do this I really have to dig deep.