My morning on June 11 started with me doing what many might suggest is the “typical” salesman’s dream – playing golf with his customers in Richmond, Virginia. Don’t get me wrong, I love my customers and socializing with them is always time well spent. But when people ask me, “What’s the best thing you’ve done to help your golf game?” My answer is usually, “When I gave it up and started doing triathlons!” You see, I am, and always have been, a runner.
I have been a fan of Scott Jurek since reading of his accomplishments in Christopher McDougall’s “Born to Run” and Scott’s own book, “Eat and Run”. I had been following his progress on his attempt to break the record for fastest supported Thru-Hike on the Appalachian Trail. I’m also a big fan of the AT, and being able to hike and enjoy the outdoors are two of the main reasons I maintain my fitness. As Scott was gobbling up the miles in Virginia, I watched in admiration as he approached my home town of Roanoke. Here was one of the greatest ultra runners ever, and he was going to be running right through the valley! Even better, he was moving at a pace that I could likely keep up with.
My employer offers me a great deal of flexibility which I appreciate, but I unfortunately could not blow off my date with my customers to be a part of Scott’s run through the valley. Much to my dismay, a crowd of 15-20 local runners met Scott at the trailhead the morning of the 11th and accompanied him up the trail to one of the AT’s most recognized views. But not me. I “had” to play golf. I was seriously bummed that I could not join Scott on his run up what I consider my “home course”.
I started the drive home the afternoon of the 11th tired from the far-too-many golf strokes I took and the day in the sun. Driving south on I-81, looking east to Apple Orchard Mountain and its unmistakable FAA antenna, it occurred to me that I was going to be driving pretty much RIGHT PAST Scott as he made his way north.
I quickly pulled off the road and opened up Facebook and my AT Trail Guide. Scott’s latest post had a picture of him standing on McAfee Knob and a shout out to the local Fleet Feet store for their hospitality. I called Fleet Feet and asked if anyone there had been on the run with Scott, and they gave me confirmation and a last sighting of Scott at US 220 at 2:00 PM. Perfect! I had a location, and a time, and I knew his pace was about 3-4 miles per hour. I was approaching Buchanan, Virginia from the north and he was approaching from the south. Above Buchanan, the AT criss-crosses the Blue Ridge Parkway numerous times before descending into Bearwallow Gap and then heading on to Jennings Creek.
I drove up Route 43 to the Parkway and picked the Sharp Top Overlook, knowing I could be there at least an hour before Scott would be there. When I passed through Buchanan, I stopped and filled every water bottle I had in my car with ice, as it was well over 90 degrees, and I thought some ice water would be a welcome treat for anyone on the trail. Getting out of the car and changing from golf shorts to running shorts and shoes, I donned a small day pack filled with ice water bottles and started to head south on the AT.
It was hot that day, but the shade of the trees and the lowering sun combined with my adrenaline to make the heat entirely bearable. Let’s also not forget I had a day pack full of icy bottles on my back! I passed several more thru hikers as I progressed, and none of them had seen Scott yet either. I offered each of them some “Trail Magic” by way of some ice or some of the icy water. It’s amazing how easy it is to make someone’s day with such a simple gesture on the trail. Each hiker seemed to be pretty excited about the fact that they were sharing the trail and their hike with someone trying to set the record.
Finally, I heard two male voices accompanied by the click-clack of hiking poles striking rocks. The trail straightened out and about 25 yards from me I spotted the man also known as “El Venado” or “Jurker”. His friend Luis Escobar was with him, Scott in front setting the pace. I felt like a kid who had just witnessed Santa Claus exiting the hearth, making his way to the tree! “I found you!” I exclaimed. Scott gave a look that said… “Yep, I’ve been here all day!” I quickly explained that I would have loved to have joined him on the climb up to McAfee that morning, but that I “had” to play golf.
“Pretty hot day to be playing golf!” Scott remarked.
“Pretty hot day to be running 50-some miles!” I replied. I asked if I could tag along and of course Scott and Luis encouraged me to do so. I fell in line behind them and did my best not to step on the back of Luis’ shoes in my excitement to keep pace. To my delight, the pace we were at was comfortably conversational for me. Scott and Luis were moving diligently on the steeper sections, both up and down, carefully picking their footing and using their trekking poles. But when the trail opened up or flattened out in the slightest, their strides lengthened and the trees began to blur. We discussed one of the challenges of the AT being that it is like most eastern trails, is single track, rocky, and rooty. Many of the western trails are more open, converted from fire roads and above the tree line. Then Luis, who lives in California, chimed in with his description of how the trails there are paved with gold and naked women serve cold micro brews at the top of every climb! No wonder it is so hard to get an entry for the Western States 100! Luis himself had taken a week off work to come run with Scott and was planning to return the California for work the next week and then compete in the Western States race June 27th. I guess spending a week running most of the state of Virginia fit into his taper plan.
We traded stories of the trail and I shared my favorite AT story, when I was once asked by a man, “Hey, how far does this trail go?”, to which I just smiled, pointed in one direction and said “Maine,” then pointed in the other direction and said, “Georgia”. It was about that time that we encountered one of the thru-hikers I had passed earlier. Blue Kazoo was her trail name, and Scott couldn’t wait to have her take a picture with him. I honestly don’t know who enjoyed that encounter more, Blue Kazoo or El Venado.
The run had me energized. Scott had 40+ miles in for the day at that point and he looked fresh and happy as could be. We approached the Sharp Top overlook and as the road and his support van came into view, Scott let out a “whoop whoop!” to let his crewing wife Jenny know he was approaching. He and Luis stopped long enough to get some fresh water, a little snack, and indulge me in my photo request. It was 8 PM and he still had 9 miles or about 2.5 hours ahead of him before his stopping point for the night.
The day started with my disappointment that I was unable to join Scott in his run up to my favorite peak. As it turned out, I was able to run with him and Luis like they were my two best running buddies, talking smack on the trail. Yeah, the Rolling Stones perhaps said it best. “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometime, you’ll find, you get what you need.” Thanks for the opportunity to remember that valuable lesson, Jurker.