The Comeback

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At the 2005 Badwater 135-Mile Race, Scott Jurek was curled on the baked asphalt puking his guts out. Amid the intense, 100-degree heat, Scott began vomiting uncontrollably and finally collapsed on the side of the road. Runners passed him. Lying in puddles of his own pavement-boiled vomit, he was ready to quit.

But he didn’t.

He eventually scraped himself off the pavement 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 incredible comebacks. One of his most memorable was in 2009. After his mother died and his wife left him, he resurrected himself from a disappointing year of racing defeats to set a new 24-hour American distance record.

He topped that performance with an even more amazing comeback last month.

The 41-year-old ultrarunning legend began his A.T. speed record chase from Georgia’s Springer Mountain. I joined him on the trail near Big Bald, N.C., six days and 300 miles into his trek in early June.

I’ve shared with the trail with Scott a few times—usually far behind him. But once, at the Promise Land 50K, I was within earshot of Scott and the lead pack. As we approached the summit of a steep climb, I heard a piercing, rapturous howl. It was Scott, and it was pure animal joy.

But when I met Scott on the A.T. in June, he was anything but joyful. He could barely walk. His knee pain had begun in the ragged, rugged Smokies, and he had been overcompensating with his left leg for the past 50 miles. He soldiered up the steep climb to Big Bald, but by the time we reached the windswept summit, he was reduced to a hobble. He had torn his left quad.

“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. His thru-hike seemed to be over. His record chase seemed finished.


Except that this was Scott Jurek. If anyone could rise from the ashes, it was the lone wolf from the Minnesota flatlands who transformed himself from an unassuming farm boy to the world’s greatest ultra runner.

With a torn quad, Scott continued soldiering ahead the next day. He backed off the mileage for two days, and then resumed his record-setting pace toward Katahdin. For the next 1,800 miles, he pushed through injury and pain, and on July 12, he set the new A.T. speed record of 46 days, 8 hours, 11 minutes. It was only three hours ahead of the previous record held by Asheville’s Jennifer Pharr Davis.

As a physical therapist, Scott understands the human body better than anyone. But he knows something even more important: himself. He is a lifelong student of the human spirit, honed by Zen clarity and a Spartan inner discipline. Scott knows pain. And he also knows how to transcend it.

After tearing his quad only a week into his A.T. record chase, Scott had every reason to call it quits. But he reached deeper than the pain to pull off one last incredible, career-capping comeback. Atop Katahdin, he howled once more.


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