Saturday, December 8, 2012

Eat and Run by Scott Jurek: A Review

Scott Jurek is known as kind of the patron saint of ultrarunners. Most people outside the ultramarathon world will know him as one of the profiled runners (you could almost say 'characters') in Christopher McDougall's best-selling Born To Run. With Eat & Run: My Unlikely Journey to Ultramarathon Greatness, Jurek shares his journey to becoming a world class runner and athlete, and as the title hints, much of the journey involves food.

The structure of the book is based around one significant physical event in every chapter, usually tied in with a significant person, like, say, his friend and pacer (and monster runner in his own right) Dusty, but also other interesting people pushing the limits of what the human body can do. So, he doesn't cover all the races he's run (though he does list them in an appendix in the back), but highlights, for example, winning the Western States 100 one year (the first “flatlander” to do so) and then coming back the next year and setting a new record for it. And he of course devotes a chapter to his race in Copper Canyon, described more thoroughly in Christopher McDougall's Born To Run, where he came in second to one of the native runners. Interestingly, almost as a side note right at the end of the chapter, (and this wasn't mentioned in Born To Run) he mentions that he returned the next year and won.

There are also to smaller 'threads' woven in: At the end of each chapter, he spends a page discussing some aspect of running and/or training—Helpful tips from a veteran. And, he gives a very tasty-sounding vegan recipe, for some healthy dishes that also double as good running food. I'm a vegetarian, and have always said that going vegan would be sacrificing to much in my enjoyment of food, but after reading these recipes, my diet seems bland. These recipes are my main argument for buying the book!

The more radical, and maybe risky, move Jurek takes in the book is to talk openly and earnestly (though never zealously, or in a preaching manner) about his veganism. He presents both scientific and ethical arguments for having a vegan diet, which I appreciate. I fear that this might turn some readers off, but I also know this will inspire others to at least question and think about their diets. His basic argument is that eating healthy is just plain smart, and no one can doubt after reading this book that Jurek isn't a smart runner. In fact, that may be his main legacy, that he was a smart runner, rather than one of those macho guys that just tries to muscles through races. Not to say Jurek doesn't have the ability to muscle through things—he won the Western States 100 with a torn ligament in his ankle (there's a picture of him doing it—as someone in the book says, his ankle is the size of a grapefruit!) It's his combination of determination and brain-power that makes him the monster runner he is.

Something I was personally glad to see was Jurek's openness to barefoot and minimalist running. He himself goes minimalist, or at least endorses 'running flats', and not the super science-fiction shoes out now, but he doesn't spend too much time lecturing people on the type of shoe they should wear, if any. Instead, he stresses the value of running right: shorter strides, but with faster cadence (in fact, his secret to running up hills is maintain the fast cadence and move the foot stride down to “granny gear”), which is the basic advice barefoot runners pass on to each other. He does say that regular running shoes tend to lead runners to over-stride and heel-strike. It was refreshing to read a running master not excluding the barefoot running world. In fact, if anything, Jurek comes off as open to anything that will make someone a better runner, and he encourages readers to experiment for themselves on what works for them.

Jurek is not without some puzzling contradictions: While in many places claiming he runs for the zen-like quality of running, the purity of the feeling it gives him, in just as many places, during races, he comes off as highly competitive, to the point of talking smack to people he passes and/or beats. He very much likes winning, exults in it, and I don't fault anybody for that, but sometimes he comes across as almost unsportsmanlike. This might, I think, be a by product of having the story 'filtered' through his ghost writer, Steve Friedman (not so ghost-y actually), where the words, said out loud, may have seemed more play-like, or friendly talking-smack-like, but when copied down, loose that humorous emphasis, as sometimes happens, say, with email. Sometimes I was left wondering if some sort of emoticon should have been used to let me know as a reader that what I was reading was supposed to be funny, and the only reason I started to maybe realize this was towards the end when Jurek talks about hanging out with some of those very same guys he seemed to be mocking years, and chapters, earlier, in races.

Also, after the chapters and chapters arguing for good, whole, non-processed, food, he'll pound the sports drinks, the shot-bloks, and the Clif Bars during races and runs. This is the one point where I would have like more explanation of why, or how those processed, sugar-loaded foods and drinks work, and/or how they're better than eating, say, fruits and nuts, and drinking straight water. And, as the poet Walk Whitman says, “If I contradict myself, well then I contradict myself.”

That said, what comes across more than anything is a man who is sincere, in both his desire to be the best runner he can be, and a healthy eater, and in the Buddhist idea (which he surely came across in his readings) or 'Right Living', of living in a way that is good for other people, and the world. In fact, Jurek shows that this is not only possible, but that one can also live the best life for oneself, and that the two forms of living are inseparable: to live the best life for oneself is the best way to live for others. Just like in Born To Run, the case is made that running makes us better people. It's not only good for us personally, it's good for the world.

[Note: Blogger doesn't allow me to use the ampersand '&' in the title or the labels/tags. If you want to search for the book, use the ampersand!]

[I'd love to hear your comments about this review, or the book, or Scott Jurek, down below in the comments section! —John]