Scott Jurek ran 2,189 miles in just 46 days in 2015, and set a record for the Fastest Known Time attempt for the Appalachian Trail. That's an average of about 50 miles a day. Or, in more comprehensible terms, 84 back-to-back marathons. He just did it.
In North, out last spring in paperback from Little, Brown Spark, Jurek and his wife, Jenny Jurek, describe the resilience and exhaustion on their plunge into the wilderness, and readers hitch a hike for the mucky ride. The Jureks portray what becomes possible when you work to make a dream into a manifestation.
Jurek promised himself that he would retire from running competitively by 40, yet he couldn’t bring himself to quit. Many athletes struggle with finding their identities once they retire from their sport. A saying goes that athletes die twice, the first time after retirement. What happens when we reach the end of an era? Where do we find our meaning?
He embarked on his journey in an attempt to answer the question, "So, what's next?"
Six days after embarking on his journey, Jurek acquired significant injuries to his right knee and left thigh. In the midst of the mental trials he faced, he found himself facing another question. As the initial thrill wears off and the rewards start coming less frequently, what's the point?
His thoughts, writing process, and runs take readers on a journey of self discovery, a journey toward true North. His memoir doesn't apply to just athletes; it encourages readers to stop and truly contemplate the direction of their own journeys. What is the purpose, the drive, the motivation behind what we do? And in moments of intense adversity, where do we dig for strength?
Jenny Jurek confronted her husband with a dire question: Where are you, and where do you want to go?
"Everyone wants the champ to keep winning. We all want heroes to be immortal; we don't want to watch them slow down or become weaker," Jurek wrote in response to his wife's incessant questions--the very questions that challenged him to dig deeper, and embark on the Appalachian Trail.
How did the idea of writing the memoir first surface?
Scott Jurek shared, “When Jenny and I went on this adventure run and I was setting off to set the record on the Appalachian Trail, we hadn’t even thought about writing a book about the journey and the experience. Quite honestly, I had been working on another potential project and was trying to motivate myself to write again. After the first book I had a bit of hesitation, and writing isn’t something that comes easy for me, and I don’t always set aside a lot of time for it. I was working on that project and letting it sit.
"We did this big adventure together and while I was out there, my literary agent said to me, ‘This would make a great story and it would make a great book. Have you ever thought about it?’ At the time, Jenny and I were in the middle of, I forget what state, maybe Virginia, and I just said, ‘I can’t even think about writing a book right now.’
"But at the same time, I thought, this could peak the interest of readers, and this could make quite a story. It was such a great adventure, and just a crazy amount of compressing a lot of things into a month and a half, and we had so many amazing experiences that it made for great material. But, we hadn’t made any plans while we were on the journey.
"Everyone had asked us, ‘Did you take notes,’ or, ‘Did you journal?’ There was no time for any of that. There was only time to survive. It would have been nice to have some of those notes, but at the same time, we were able to jog our memories. We had notes about where we stopped and started each day, but outside of that, we had to really pull from the memory bank, and the emotions we went through.
"It was a great experience going back and reliving it; it was very cathartic. But, it’s a tough grinding process, like any book project.”
The Jureks describe days running on minimal sleep, with mental and physical exhaustion taking over. There was no way they could’ve carved time out of the day to write notes on top of striving to break the Appalachian Trail record, when they were struggling for basic survival. How did they navigate going about the writing and running processes?
“We went back to those places in the writing process by looking through photos and little bits of video and things that we had catalogued with phone Pics and people that came out... we really were able to piece things back together and bring us back to that emotional state of what was happening at that moment-how we were feeling. That was a really interesting process. I think that it helped us, because we didn’t have pages and pages of notes, things to cull through, edit through that ... . We were actually able to realize that and the things we remembered were the things that were the most important to write about.”
Throughout his 46-day, 8-hour, and 7-minute journey, Scott Jurek faced mental and physical exertion beyond comprehension, and life-threatening situations. The advice he shared from his transformative 7-week journey extends beyond his incredible feats as an athlete, and into the everyday trails of life.
“There’s still so much more to experience and so much more to push on, and keep struggling, keep fighting, keep grinding away, and the capacity for the human body, mind, and soul ... it’s immeasurable.” The body and the mind possess the potential for greater resilience than we could fathom. As one of his favorite Zen proverbs states, “When you get to the top of the mountain, keep climbing.”
Caroline Kurdej is a Graduate Student at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. Last spring, Kurdej worked as an intern for Dzanc Books, and currently provides writing services to iMiller Public Relations. You can find her work online at carolinekurdej.journoportfolio.com.