For many people, the Boston Marathon’s 26.2 mile course is a long, hard slog.
Imagine running that distance three to four times back to back.
While it may sound crazy to some, racking up miles like that is what the sport of ultramarathoning is all about.
Monday, I had the opportunity to speak with Scott Jurek, the world’s foremost ultramarathoner (Jurek competes in races of 100 miles long or longer but an ultra is anything over 26.2 miles).
Jurek, 38, will be in Boston this Wednesday to run, discuss ultramarathons, and also promote his new book “Eat & Run: My Unlikely Journey to Ultramarathon Greatness.”
Jurek will be at the Brattle Theater to discuss his book and journey to becoming an ultramarathoner to a sold-out crowd during a conversation with "Born to Run" author Chris McDougall, whose book focuses on ultra athletes, including Jurek.
Jurek is not only the North American record holder for most ground covered running in a day, but he completed more than 110 miles in 24 hours (four marathons back to back), each with under a four-hour average. He’s also one of the few elite athletes in the world who follows a vegan diet.
Having just started running myself, I was eager to ask him about how he got into the sport, and about his diet.
Q. How did you start running and when?
A. I dabbled in it as a kid, but really started doing it more seriously in high school to get in shape for things, like to stay in shape in the summer for Nordic ski season. To be honest, when I started running, I hated it. But then a buddy of mine, Dusty Olsen, who has had a huge influence on me and is just this wild and crazy guy who, dared me to do a longer race. When I ran my first 50-miler it was so different. We went on trails and of course Dusty gave me a hard time the whole way joking with me, but he made running fun and just put a different twist on it. At first, I said I’d never do that again, like we all do. But then I was like, you know what, maybe there’s more to this.
Q. How can someone get started with running?
A. It really helps to have a group or have a buddy or two that once or twice a week, even if you don’t run at same pace, you meet up with.. Just having someone to help motivate you to get out there can be one of the biggest things. And having those other runners run slower and teach you things also helps. I learn a lot from older runners. Technique is so important too, its not like gym class where you are running around with this huge stride – bounding up and down. Running for distance you take shorter strides. You’re taking about 85-90 strides per minute, and you’re really just lightly tapping your feet on the ground.
Q. When did you change to a vegan diet?
A. I was not raised vegan. I was raised hunting and fishing in Minnesota, and ate meat and potatoes. Corn, carrots, and peas were really the only vegetables I ate as a kid, and in college, working part time I ate junk food and fast food. Then, after reading Dr. Andrew Weil’s book "Spontaneous Healing, realized it’s really about a whole picture of nutrition and the maintenance of your body’s healing system. A friend of mine also turned me on to the book “Mad Cowboy” about the cattle rancher who won’t eat meat. It really just took a mental shirt to become more open and understanding that maybe I don’t have all the answers when it comes to my diet. I also thought of it as an integration of new foods instead of how most people think of diet – which are of elimination (I can’t have this, I can’t eat that.) And I pretty much just taught myself by going to local co-ops and asking for recipes and things like that.
Q. What’s a normal day for you look like food-wise?
A. For me, on race days, I do rich carbohydrates such as a brown rice, pasta, potatoes, a lot of times the night before a race there’s an option with a vegetarian sauce. When I’m racing out on the course, actually, most foods are vegetarian. The carbs are the safe bet, and afterwards protein becomes more a factor – but it’s really about carbs while running. Pre-race I’ll keep it simple with steamed veggies and I like to include tempeh or tofu for a bit of protein.
Q. Why ultramarathons? Why not just regular marathons?
A. For a lot of people, a 5K or 10K seems plenty long enough, but when you’re out there for so many hours, so many more things can go wrong that you have to deal with—the ultra marathon puts you out there for so many more elements: night day, altitude, cold, rain – and all of those just help to carve out this experience that you can’t get with a regular race. You don’t just end up with a race that is over and done with. I often say that with an ultra marathon you control your destiny. Humans are endurance animals, afterall, our strength lies in that, so we ultra marathoners are holding on to those genes.
After speaking with Jurek, listening to him describe the kind of awareness you gain about yourself all alone out there with little more than the noise of your own feet to keep you company I can't help but think it may be fun to try running such a great distance some day ...