Scott Jurek knows pain.
At the 2005 Badwater 135-Mile Race in Death Valley, Scott Jurek was curled on the hot asphalt puking his guts out. Amid the intense, 100-degree heat, Scott’s body had broken down and finally collapsed on the side of the road. Runners passed him. Lying in puddles of his own pavement-baked vomit, he was ready to quit.
But he didn’t.
He eventually scraped himself off the asphalt and got to his feet. Over the next sixty miles, he chased down the leaders and set a new course record, becoming the youngest runner ever to win Badwater.
Since then, Scott has made several astonishing comebacks. In 2009, after his mother died and his marriage fell apart, he resurrected himself from a disappointing year of racing defeats to set a new 24-hour American distance record.
Last week, at age 41, Scott began his attempt to break the Appalachian Trail speed record. I joined him on the trail near Big Bald, N.C., six days and 300 miles into his trek.
Scott by his support van with his wife and crew leader Jenny Jurek, and former A.T. record holder and ultra legend David Horton, who has been meeting up with Scott Jurek along the trail to offer encouragement and advice.
He had a brace on his right knee when I met him north of Devils Fork Gap. His knee pain had started in the ragged, rugged Smokies, and he had been overcompensating with his left leg for the past 50 miles. By the time we reached Sams Gap, his left quad was on fire.
He soldiered up the steep climb to Big Bald. Atop the windswept summit, Scott could barely walk. He had torn his left quad and was reduced to a hobble.
“This is a game changer,” he muttered.
He limped down the back side of Big Bald in a downpour and finally staggered off the trail in excruciating pain near Erwin, Tennessee yesterday.
His thru-hike seems to be over. His record chase seems finished.
Except that this is Scott Jurek. If anyone can rise from the ashes, it’s the lone wolf from the Minnesota flatlands who transformed himself from an unassuming farm boy to the world’s greatest ultra runner.
If this torn quad is as debilitating as it seems, I hope Scott calls it quits. He’s already shattered countless trail records and left nothing unproven. He has elevated himself and the sport of ultrarunning beyond anyone’s wildest dreams, including his own. My admiration for him will only deepen if he listens to his broken body and it tells him to stop.
But never count him out. Today, Scott should have announced the end of his journey. Instead, he continued hiking 36 miles north on a torn quad.
Scott Jurek knows pain. But he also knows something more important: himself. As a physical therapist, he intimately understands the inner workings of the human body and knows better than anyone its ability to heal itself. He is also a lifelong student of the human spirit, honed by long, lonely miles in the woods, a Zen clarity of mind, and a Spartan inner discipline.
I’ve shared the trail with Scott many times—always far behind him. But once, near the beginning of the Promise Land 50K, I was within earshot of Scott and the lead pack. The race began before dawn, and the frontrunners’ headlamps flickered through the still, silent forest. Suddenly, from up ahead, I heard a piercing, rapturous wolf-like howl echoing across the mountains. It was Scott, and it was pure animal joy.
Scott Jurek knows pain. And he also knows how to transcend it.