UPDATE: He did it! Scott Jurek has set a new supported speed record on the Appalachian Trail. Read the story >>
The Appalachian Trail (AT) finally brought Scott Jurek to his knees—in a canoe. The 41-year-old ultra running legend paddled across Maine’s Kennebec River, a standard tradition for AT thru-hikers, on day 44 of his attempt to set a new supported speed record on the famed 2,189.2-mile footpath. It has not been an easy road. Jurek has suffered the whole time. He’s been sick. He soldiered on through a storm that brought down trees in Vermont. Most amazingly, he injured his knee in the first 250 miles and severely strained his quadricep trying to compensate for the pain. Running the trail requires a punishing 500,000 vertical feet of elevation gain—more than 17 times the height of Mount Everest—much of it steep, slick, up-and-down terrain. But he has simply kept going, each day covering more than 49 miles or longer if he has to make up for set backs. And now he has only a few days to go. (Follow Scott’s progress here.)
“Scott is really just building on what others have done before,” says Buzz Burrell, a champion mountain runner and brand ambassador for running-pack maker Ultimate Direction, who partners with Jurek. “His style and technique is the same as all other long-trail record holders: relentless forward motion. It’s not the speed that matters—it’s the time on the feet. You sleep, then you hike, then you sleep, eating when you can. That’s it. That’s your life for 46 days.”
But Scott is not doing this alone.
Ever since he started at Springer Mountain, Georgia, at 5:56 a.m. on May 27, he has been running with support. Not just a professional team aiding in logistics and resupply, but he has been attracting a growing group of followers that has made his quest part of their own. Chief among them is his wife, Jenny, his rock, who coordinates all of his resupply and all-important logistics while Scott is scrambling up loose rock and roots to the point of near collapse, often long into the night.
“I’ve been his support crew from day one,” she says. “I drive the van to the road crossings, have smoothies and food ready to consume when he gets there. Then I refill his water and energy foods and make sure he was all the clothes and gear he needs for the next leg. After he sets out, I drive around to replenish ice, food, gas, etc. I never have any downtime or time to myself, there are always things to do. I try to take naps during the longer stretches because I get the same or less hours of sleep each night. When he finishes each day, I do a thorough tick check, help with his recovery routine of icing, and get his stuff ready for the next day.”
While Jenny has been there for all of those logistical essentials and emotional support, she has not been alone either. Right behind Jurek in the canoe on day 44, and then pacing him when he began to run again on the shore, was Topher Gaylord, the former president of outdoor gear and apparel manufacturer Mountain Hardwear and himself an accomplished ultrarunner. And Gaylord, who flew out this week to join his friend, is just one of many outdoor-sport luminaries, runners, and everyday folks who are behind Jurek. Ultra-champ Karl Metzler, who holds the fourth-fastest time on the AT at 54 days, 21 hours, 12 minutes in 2008, but fell off the pace in an attempt to set the record last year, joined him for two weeks. Rickey Gates, who set the FKT (or fastest known time) on California’s Mount Shasta joined him. David Horton, who won the first two Hardrock 100 races, spent two weeks on trail with him. Big-wall climber and Patagonia ambassador Timmy O’Neill joined him for ten days from Massachusetts to Maine, working support and running on 27- and 40-mile sections of the trail with Jurek. Currently besides Gaylord, one-armed climber Aron Ralston, of 127 Hours fame, and Krissy Moehl, who holds a co-female FKT for a supported run around Mount Rainier’s Wonderland Trail, are getting him through the final miles. And so are a legion of fans and thru-hikers on the trail and at waypoints, cheering and wanting to help.
“Karl was amazing, he knows the trail and the roads so well,” says Jenny. “Rickey Gates was great because he’s so positive and we needed that energy when Scott fell behind his schedule.”
That bond of family and community is what it takes to be the fastest on the AT, beyond good luck when it comes to injuries and weather. The current record holder, Jennifer Pharr Davis—who completed the feat from Maine to Georgia in 46 days 11 hours and 20 minutes in 2011—relied on her husband, Brew. This feat made her one of our Adventurers of the Year. For her, the hike was inseparable from her relationship with her husband and a deep faith she felt by simply being on the journey. “I was surrounded by life and beauty. My soul was content, and my life felt full,” she wrote in her 2013 memoir Called Again: A Story of Love and Triumph, which tells the tale of her record-setting hike. It was the second time she set a record on the AT; the first came in 2008 when she put up the women’s record at the time. And watching a legend like Jurek push himself trying to set the mark only makes Pharr Davis’ achievement seem that much more impressive.
If Jurek topples Pharr Davis’ time it will not be the only record on the trail. And purists will have their quibbles. The gold standard for many hardcore hikers is Matt Kirk, who set the unsupported record (meaning he arranged all resupply logistics beforehand in true thru-hiker style) at 58 days, nine hours and 40 minutes from Maine to Georgia in 2013. And it’s an odd thing to set out for a record on this trail, where community is such an important part of thru-hikers’ identities—much like spiritual practitioners, they find their unique trail name while on route and often share miles on the pilgrimage with strangers—and the Appalachian Trail Conservancy refuses to recognize any records on the trail. But it is a sense of a higher purpose, something beyond simply hiking and record-setting that has rallied so many around Jurek as he approaches his goal.
“Scott’s in a place of spiritual, dark suffering. He’s repeatedly going deeper than he ever has,” says O’Neill. “He’s peeling so deep to the core, revealing this amazing vulnerability. But what’s most amazing is the courage to keep it going. The closer he gets to the end, the more vulnerable he is to failure and pain, the more courage it takes to sustain it. It’s absolutely inspiring.”
No matter what happens on this attempt, Jurek is already enshrined in the pantheon of trail running’s immortals. He won the brutal Western States 100-mile Endurance Run seven years in a row from 1999 through 2005. He set an American record for most miles run in a day, covering 165.7 miles at a pace of 8:42 per mile. He twice won Death Valley’s infernal Badwater 135, including a 2005 performance when set a course record despite collapsing on the side of the trail and vomiting uncontrollably half-way through. But many athletes can claim big accomplishments, Jurek’s true legend has grown out of his book Eat and Run: My Unlikely Journey to Ultramarathon Greatness, a statement of his dedication to a plant-based diet and a philosophy of dedication that leads not simply to winning races but also to personal transformation. “The point was living with grace, decency, and attention to the world, and breaking free of the artificial constructs in your own life,” he writes.
That grace has carried Jurek through. Six days into the attempt, Will Harlan—editor of Blue Ridge Outdoors magazine and 2009 winner of the Copper Canyon Ultra, a race Jurek won in 2007 and whose close loss to the native Tarahumara runner, Arnulfo Quimare, was documented in Chris McDougall’s bestseller Born to Run—joined Jurek in North Carolina’s Smokey Mountains. Jurek had tweaked his knee 50 miles previously and, while the two were on trail, he severely injured his quadricep. He told Harlan, it was “a game changer,” and seemed ready to quit the attempt, but then to Harlan’s surprise, Jurek just kept going.
“It’s hard to stay healthy for 50 days of mega-mileage, especially on rocky, muddy, messy trail. Blisters and foot rot are common. Rugged terrain with few switchbacks inevitably leads to muscle and ligament tears. Jurek has been dealing with all of these things over the past six weeks,” says Harlan. “I don’t know how he has hobbled 2,000 miles on a torn quad. It shows how mentally tough he is. He is the king of pain.”
As he gets closer to the end of the trail at Mount Katahdin, more and more crowds are showing up and cheering on and wanting to help. In the middle of the Mahoosuc wilderness, a young AT thru-hiker stood waiting in pouring rain near a lean-to waiting for Jurek. “Are you Scott?” he shouted out, as he approached with O’Neil. “Will you sign my book,” he said, holding out a copy of Eat and Run.
Later, a lone female on the trail saw him approaching. “Are you Scott?” she called. She joined him for a bit then handed the pair a vegan caramel bar and dropped off the trail. Jurek and O’Neill ate it on the move and headed into the dark, which they had to light with an iPhone since they did not have headlamps. And small moments like those have also been supplanted by the help of local legends like Joe Wrobleski, a veteran runner of the difficult Hundred Mile Wilderness section of the AT, who offered up his knowledge to Jurek.
“We could not have gotten this far without the support of the local running communities and our friends, they have been instrumental. Neither of us have ever done the AT before. Scott had run a handful of miles on it during a few ultras but I’d never been on it before so we have appreciated all the help and beta from the locals,” says Jenny.
Something has changed in the world of outdoor sports media and the closer Jurek’s gets to Mount Katahdin, the more his effort is becoming something beyond his singular achievement. Social media coverage has made record-setting attempts in outdoors sports that have been traditionally ignored by mainstream media dramatic events. This winter’s first free ascent of Yosemite’s Dawn Wall by climbers Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson shifted the paradigm of just how inspirational the efforts of traditional outdoor athletes can be. Casual observers watched the long minutiae of big-wall climbing transfixed but the physical prowess of the climb, but even more so by the backstory, by the inspiration of watching a human suffer and fight through these brutally, long, seemingly impossible achievements. Many of those causal observers picked up on something Jorgeson said and went out to find “their own Dawn Wall.”
When Pharr Davis set the record, she got some attention from those who know about the AT and made weekly updates followed by thru-hiker messages boards like WhiteBlaze.net, but Jurek is making daily Facebook updates on his page. That constant attention threatens to distract him from his goal and upset the low-key vibe of the trail itself, but it has also made the attempt to set a record on a long-distance hiking trail something that is has never been before—a source of daily inspiration in a social-media-centirc world flooded with political rants and bad news. As he gets closer to the end, the world will be rooting him on, in part for themselves.
“Like Tommy and Kevin, Scott has become a symbol, a placeholder, of how we can overcome our deepest adversity,” says O’Neill. “But this is different than big wall climbing. This is protracted suffering. It’s like being shipwrecked and trying to survive for 46 days.”
It’s still not certain if Jurek will break the record. It will certainly be close. He must reach the end of the trail by 5:15 p.m. on Sunday, July 12, but O’Neil was confident he would make it after ten days on the trail with him. And no matter what, the effort will stay with everyone rooting for Jurek.
“Scott keeps blowing my mind everyday with his effort and big heart, “ says Jenny. “He is fighting like a true warrior.”