Tag Archives: Scott Jurek

“Footnotes: How Running Makes us Human” by Vybarr Cregan-Reid

When I posted a link to my review of Scott Jurek’s “Eat and Run” on an earlier incarnation of this site, someone commented that they couldn’t stand Jurek and his “knit your own snacks bollocks”. Bit harsh I thought. I liked Jurek’s book – especially his guacamole recipe, which I make to this day – although I found sections of it troubling, and I’m not convinced anyone has time to mill their own flour.

Still, the phrase has stuck in my head. Anytime I read a running book that wants me to worship the earth beneath my toes, subsist entirely on wild leaves, or is just generally pretentious, I mentally write “knit your own snacks bollocks” in the margins.

Vybarr Cregan-Reid is an English Literature lecturer and ‘psychojographer’, and his book explores the links between the body, movement and landscape. Footnotes interweaves his personal running journey, scientific research, philosophy, and ideas from literature and history. Throughout he explores why the simple act of motion brings us such extensive but elusive-to-define rewards.

Footnotes came highly recommended, but I have to admit it trod a very fine line for me, teetering between knowledgeable and knitting needles. It doesn’t help that Cregan-Reid is a barefoot running advocate, with all the certainty of a convert. The idea that there is a “right” way to run (or to eat) irks me, particularly when writers seem by implication to be condemning the rest of us for our foolish high-carb eating, trainer-wearing ways. Both Running Free and Natural Born Heroes annoyed me for the same reason. As he later admits, Cregan-Reid is not someone who enjoys races and the competitive club-running side of the sport, which colours his outlook and makes him a different sort of runner to me.

The book is saved by the fact that the more scholarly elements are genuinely interesting and accessible. I learnt that a ‘black mirror’ was the colloquial name for an 18th-century gadget called a Claude Glass. It was a pocket-sized convex mirror, with a tint that gave landscapes a ‘painterly’ quality. Artists would turn their back on the landscape and look at the scene in the mirror instead, just as today’s tourists view the world through smartphones. Distracted Claude Glass users were known to fall off cliffs, showing that nothing changes.

The section on the history of treadmills is arguably the best part of the book. As all those who love running know, the treadmill is an instrument of torture, used as a last resort when it is impossible to run outdoors. What I didn’t know was that the treadmill was genuinely invented as a tool of punishment. In 1778 the Hard Labour Bill set out the concept that, instead of sitting in restful confinement,  prisoners should undergo toil of ‘the hardest and most servile kind, in which drudgery is chiefly required’. However, this couldn’t mean taking work away from the innocent and free, so in 1817 Sir William Cubitt invented the ‘treadwheel’ or ‘Discipline Mill’, on which up to twenty men would climb on together. It’s most famous victim? Oscar Wilde, who worked the treadwheel for as much as six hours a day and wrote about it in the Ballad of Reading Gaol:

“We banged the tins, and bawled the hymns,

And sweated on the mill:

But in the heart of every man

Terror was lying still”

Overall, I’m giving Footnotes the benefit of the doubt and saying it stays on the right side of the KYOSB divide, but it’s a close-run thing. Curious to know what others think. Comments below the line please…

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“Ultramarathon Man: Confessions of an All-Night Runner” by Dean Karnazes

You’re supposed to be a bit snobbish about Dean Karnazes. According to ‘Born to Run’ and sites such as LetsRun.com (other running forums are available), ‘real’ ultra-runners see him as too self-promoting, too keen to blow his own trumpet about his achievements, many of which are not unique.

His critics argue that he doesn’t even enter proper races anymore, taking on self-declared ‘challenges’ instead, such as running 50 marathons in 50 days across 50 states, or seeing how many miles he could run in 3 days non-stop (300). They suggest he’s not a proper racer, but instead is just very good at marketing himself, something the purists say is against the low-key ethos of the sport.

Well balls to that. I’d rather spend 300 pages in Dean’s wacky life than Scott ‘Eat and Run’ Jurek’s. And it certainly is a weird life. He didn’t start running properly as an adult until his 30th birthday, when he got tanked up on cervezas and decided to run 30 miles. In the middle of the night. In tennis shoes.

‘Ultramarathon Man’ describes his subsequent journey into running, his training for ultras such as the Western States 100, and the logistical problems of getting pizza delivered to you in the middle of a midnight run. Some of the best sections discuss his attempts at Badwater, a 135-mile race so hot that participants’ shoes can melt mid-run. When he first attempted it, Karnazes collapsed halfway through, and narrowly avoided being revived in a coffin of ice water. The following year he came back and won the event. After that he decided to become the first man to run to the South Pole. And so on.

All of this might sound like a nauseating list of one man’s superhuman achievements, but Karnazes is affable company and happy to talk about the times when things go wrong, such as the time he chundered all over his new company car following a 50-mile race. It’s quite refreshing to read a running book where the narrator doesn’t have much in the way of internal demons – he just really likes going for a run.

He might not compete much anymore, but then he is 50. There is also some evidence that he actually IS superhuman – as mentioned in a Guardian profile last year, tests have shown that he never reaches his lactate threshold, and therefore can run without ever getting muscle fatigue. Plus (full disclosure here) I met him at the NYC marathon last year and he was a very nice man indeed.

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“Eat and Run: My Unlikely Journey to Ultramarathon Greatness” by Scott Jurek

It won’t take a reader of this book long to realise that Scott Jurek is not a normal person. Or a normal runner, for that matter. Jurek is one of the greatest ultramarathon runners of all time, having won umpteen races of 100miles+, including the suicidal-sounding Death Valley Badwater Ultramarathon (135 miles in temperatures of 40 degrees plus?!) and the Spartathlon in Greece (152 miles). This is a man who can unleash 7-minute mile-ing at the 90-mile mark of a race. And all this while living on a strict vegan diet.

Having become famous off the back of “Born to Run”, Scott has clearly been encouraged to cash in on his fame. Part memoir, part race report, part training guide, part recipe book – “Eat and Run” is a curious mix, but an enjoyable tour through Jurek’s life nevertheless.

The memoir takes you through Scott’s tough early upbringing in Minnesota, his difficult relationship with his dad and his love for his MS-suffering mum. We learn about his cross-country skiing schooldays, and his first forays into long-distance running. He gets married, takes up veganism and conquers the ultramarathon world. After a while, the unanswered questions start stacking up:

– What has happened to his brother and sister? They’re not even mentioned when their mother dies.

– Why does he fall out with his best friend towards the end of the book? Scott makes it sound like he’s somewhat baffled by it, but you get the feeling there’s more to it than that.

– And how on earth does Scott hold down ANY kind of personal relationship doing the kind of training he has to do? I struggle to maintain run/work/life balance when training for a mere marathon. What was his first wife doing for all those years?

Scott’s an amiable presence throughout the book, but the questions like the ones above mean you can’t help getting the impression that sometimes he can be a bit of a…well…dick. There’s a comment later in the book about overtaking a fellow runner suffering from hypernatremia that had me gasping at its callousness.

It’s the discussions about food and veganism where the book really comes into its own. (Disclaimer: I’m not a vegan, although I would call myself a ‘friend of vegetarianism’. I’ve been a pescatarian at times in my life, and often do fortnightly vegetarian streaks…although pork and pork accessories always lure me back). Jurek is a passionate vegan, and highlights how a runner can function perfectly well on a plant-based diet. I have to say, it does seems to involve a lot of beans, which makes me fear for his fellow down-wind runners. And what the hell is “nutritional yeast”? I’m sure I’ve got that growing in my trainers.

He claims it has made him healthier, faster, and quicker to recover, and I believe him. However, it seems to be almost as much of a full-time vocation as ultramarathon running. He mills his own flour, travels miles to health-food markets, and involves a lot of experimentation. I really enjoyed reading these sections, as he talks about his successes (the joy of discovering avocados) and failures (a flask of olive oil does not make for good in-run hydration). And I loved his (serious) reason for giving up a short-lived attempt at a raw food diet (it was taking too long to chew).

So while I don’t think Jurek’s diet is for me, there are certainly things we can all take away from his thoughts on food. His recipes for chocolate adzuki bars and smokey refried beans are already on my “to cook” list.

Overall, this is a breezy, thought-provoking read, and Jurek will inspire you in one way or another. I can’t help thinking the man has a dark or selfish side that gets glossed over, but hey, nobody’s perfect.

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