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Scott Jurek is King of the Trail

Photos by Luis Escobar

Less than 300 miles into his A.T. trek, Scott Jurek sustained a knee injury and a torn quad that nearly forced him off the trail. Then in Vermont, he caught the flu. As his pace slowed, he felt the record slipping away. But Jurek rallied, and on July 12, he summited Katahdin and set a new Appalachian Trail speed record of 46 days, 8 hours, and 7 minutes.

Scott Jurek shared his thoughts on the record-breaking run with me this morning while recuperating in New England.

What are you doing to celebrate?

My wife Jenny and I have spent a few days in Portland, Maine, hanging out with friends, sleeping a lot, and eating really good food.

How did you injure your knee and quad in the Smokies?

Early on, I was feeling great and probably pushing a bit too hard. The stretch of the A.T. through Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of the toughest, with especially rugged and steep climbs and descents. In the Smokies, I felt a twinge in my right knee, and I began overcompensating with my left leg. So my left quad absorbed most of those punishing descents, and by the time I reached Big Bald, it was in worse shape than my knee.

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How did you endure 1800 miles on a torn quad and injured knee?

After I hobbled down from Big Bald to Erwin, Tennessee, I thought the hike was over. It was so painful. With two bad legs, I couldn’t even limp. I figured the record was out of reach, and I wasn’t sure I would even be able to finish the thru-hike.

But Jenny and Horty [David Horton] encouraged me to continue. The best thing I could do was to walk it off and give my body a chance to respond. The next two days, I backed off the mileage and only walked. I didn’t run a single step.

Muscles know how to heal themselves if given a chance. The body is amazingly intelligent and resilient. Slowly, the pain decreased slightly, and I started running again in Virginia. I wore compression bands and iced the quad every chance I had. It still hurt, and there was a knot of pain for the rest of the trek, but it was manageable.

Were there other rough patches?

I took several falls and bruised my left hip. But the quad and knee were the only major injuries. To deal with the pain, I focused on small goals — making it to the next road crossing or trail shelter. I broke the trail into a series of shorter treks.

In Virginia, I was able to get back on record pace. I felt my spirits lifting and my hopes renewed. I was also buoyed by all of the camaraderie and companionship. Dozens of friends and supporters joined me on the trail.

But then in Vermont, I caught a stomach bug and then the flu. My pace slowed to a crawl. I fell behind my mileage goals. After coming so far and getting so close, I felt the record slipping away once more.

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What did you think about during those dark moments when you had to dig deep?

Mostly I thought about Jenny. I thought about everything she had been through, and I knew that I couldn’t give up. She kept me going. She ran alongside me in the early mornings and late evenings. She was there for me, every step of the way.

I also thought about my mom and her struggle with multiple sclerosis, which left her unable to move. I thought, ‘Yeah, I might be in pain, but I am still moving. I am still alive. I can do this for her.’

As a vegan, was it difficult to stay fueled?

Jenny had hoped to do more cooking from our van, but with all of the other logistics she was handling, she didn’t have time. So she had to find things in grocery stores and diners like hash browns and French fries cooked in veggie oil, which wasn’t always easy in small rural Appalachian towns.

What were the highlights?

Those early morning and late evening runs with Jenny — and seeing her at the summit of Katahdin. I didn’t get the record — we got the record.

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