The Longest Mile

You gotta be a fanatical runner—or crazy—to run an ultramarathon. Seattle’s Scott Jurek is a little bit of both.

By Sean Leslie April 22, 2009 Published in the May 2009 issue of Seattle Met

IT’S SEVEN O’CLOCK on a rainy November morning, and I’m sitting in my car in the parking lot of the Seattle Asian Art Museum in Capitol Hill’s Volunteer Park waiting to meet four-time Ultrarunner of the Year Scott Jurek. We’re supposed to go running, and I’m confident this is the last time I’ll have to wait for him today.

Ultrarunning is a subset of distance running that involves races of more than 26.2 miles, the distance of a traditional marathon. Most ultramarathons are at least 31 miles in length, and some extend well past 100 miles. Also, just in case those distances aren’t challenging enough, most ultramarathons stretch out on trails over jagged mountains, through dense forests, and across scorching deserts. But masochistic as it may seem, ultrarunning has recently started to shake off its status as a fringe sport for the competitively insane. “It’s getting huge,” says Tia Bodington, editor of the Denver-based UltraRunning Magazine. “In 2007 we had 14,251 people who ran ultramarathons, and we had 17,139 in 2008. These days, the online registration for some races fills up in less than 15 minutes.”

Jurek makes the punishing—and sometimes treacherous—races look easy.

Image: Blake Wood

These are the races that Jurek dominates. Among the Seattleite’s many victories: Colorado’s Hardrock Hundred, a 100-mile race that begins and ends in Silverton, Colorado, while setting a new course record of 26 hours and eight minutes; he’s the only North American winner of Greece’s Spartathlon, a 153-mile race from Athens to Sparta, and he’s won it three times; and he’s a two-time winner of “the world’s toughest foot race,” the 135-mile Badwater Ultramarathon from Death Valley to Mount Whitney, California. Bodington says Jurek brings to mind another, slightly better-known American endurance athlete. “I would say Lance Armstrong,” she offers when I ask her to compare him to a mainstream sportsman. “The Western States 100 is the mecca of ultrarunning. That’s our Tour de France, and Scott’s won it seven times.”

So Jurek is the Lance Armstrong of ultra-marathons, and I’m about to run with him.

I’ve never raced any distance longer than a 10k before, but I still think I can keep up with Jurek this morning. At about five past seven, his tall, lean form materializes through the rain, jogging easily across the parking lot in shorts and a long-sleeve polypropylene T-shirt. He ran here from his Capitol Hill home. “Sorry,” he says, a sheepish grin creeping across his suntanned face. “I’m running a bit late.” I can forgive him—he’s a busy guy. When he’s not punishing himself on the trails, he’s working as a physical therapist and managing his coaching business, Beyond Running.
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The Hardrock Hundred is just as scenic as it is challenging.

Image: Blake Wood

We follow one of Jurek’s favorite training routes in the city—from Volunteer Park through the Arboretum and along Interlaken Boulevard—and his easy and generous pace allows me to appreciate his effortless navigation of the slippery rocks, wet leaves, and gnarled roots that litter the trails. For me, the pace over the eight or so miles is comfortable enough that I can ask questions as we run. This is a terrific ego boost, until Jurek later confesses over coffee at Capitol Hill’s Top Pot Doughnuts that we’d been running significantly more slowly than his competitive speed. (To answer your question: Jurek’s a health nut—no surprise—and a vegan, so no, he didn’t have a doughnut.)

So, could a lowly yet-to-be first-time marathoner run an ultra?

“It’s really not that big of a step up,” Jurek says. “I mean, I did my first marathon, and a month later I did my first 50-miler. That’s one of the unique things about it: You don’t have to run a marathon before you run an ultramarathon.” That’s a little hard to swallow, but Jurek says an ultramarathon, while longer, can provide more opportunities for recovery than a traditional marathon. “A lot of times, people will hop into a 50k that’s on trails where they’re out there maybe twice the amount of time you are in a marathon, but they’re not running the entire time,” he says. “If it’s on trails, you’re getting a variety of power walking, running, and hiking.”

But what makes a sane person want to run 100 miles? Isn’t a marathon hard enough?

“I think most people just want to see what they can do beyond the marathon distance,” Jurek says. “For me, part of the attraction was certainly the ‘Wow. Can I do this?’ It was the mystery of pushing my boundaries, of exploring my limits. So as people become more comfortable with marathons, they go, ‘Well, I’ve run a marathon. Can I go five more miles? That was cool, but what’s next?’ ”