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December 18, 2012

Runner's High: An Interview with Ultramarathoner Scott Jurek

Running and vegetables inspire this author-athlete to new heights

All Animals magazine, January/February 2013

  • Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

There was a time when vegan ultramarathoner Scott Jurek—the man who won the 100-mile Western States Endurance Run a record seven straight times—hated running. Almost as much as he once hated vegetables. But it was his eventual love for running and vegetables that the athlete credits with transforming his life. And they’re the inspiration for his book Eat & Run—an uplifting story about a man who pushes himself to his limits and finds freedom and strength on the other side.

In this edited interview with humanesociety.org executive editor Katie Carrus, Jurek describes how a plant-based diet keeps him at peak performance and powers him through the long hauls.

What inspired you to write Eat & Run?  Having a book allows me to get my message out to other people. I decided to do a combination of nutrition and running---two things that have been central in my life. People would say, “When are you going to write the cookbook? When are you going to write the running book?” I decided I had to put them both in.

As an athlete, how has food been your medicine?  As a physical therapist who has treated a lot of runners, I know people want the quick fix. Pharmaceutical drugs are definitely quicker, but as far as long-term health and performance, as far as consistent recovery, this is where food basically can’t be surpassed. It doesn’t happen overnight. I read Dr. Andrew Weil’s book Spontaneous Healing, and his concept that the body has this intrinsic ability to want to stay healthy and that we can provide the means for that by incorporating a better diet really triggered me to switch up things and decide I couldn’t continue eating fast food four or five times a week.

Do you hope to have a similar impact on the readers of Eat & Run?  I’m a Minnesota boy originally from the backwoods. I’ve hunted and fished for a good chunk of my life. I grew up grilling anything and everything. So I’m really sympathetic to the people who aren’t going to be responsive to, pardon my pun, cramming it down people’s throats. But if I can kind of steer them in a little bit different direction then I will have done a good job.

You mention in the book that simple activities can bring a person bliss and freedom. How is food connected to that idea?  Food is so central to health as well as our social connections and our connection to our environment. And it’s thinking of food as fuel and maybe even health insurance or body maintenance so we don’t end up with chronic disease and all these things that really impact the enjoyment of life later.

Running is really hot right now, and it’s a simple activity. There’s a desire I think to maybe return to a more intuitive way of living. I think that’s really catching on right now in so many ways because people are looking for answers, because we lead these busy lives with technology, and work long hours, and we want to ask ourselves, “What is the point in all of this?” Finding that deeper meaning in an activity such as running can help so many people.

Are many runners you meet skeptical of your diet choice?  When you win a lot, they really can’t say anything. I think that’s important, having people who are excelling. It’s showing people this is something that’s going to benefit you long term, and it’s not going to affect your performance in a negative fashion; it actually is probably going to affect it in a positive way much like it has mine.

What advice would you give to an aspiring athlete?  Number one, I would say keep running and exercise fun. Find people who you can stay motivated by. Join a running club or running group once a week or twice a week or get a running buddy. On the food side of things, I think it’s key to look at a plant-based diet not as a deprivation and a diet of subtraction but rather as a diet of inclusion, of addition. Try one new food per week or try a new protein source once a week or eat plant-based for one day a week.

You have to look at food and diet as a fun journey, and it’s also great to have that psychological edge of knowing you’re engaged in your diet. Preparing meals, getting in the kitchen, and making meals were a huge proponent of my success. I knew what my body was being fueled with all the time, and I was engaged in that effort.

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