What Is Wrong With People Who Race Across Death Valley?

The quest to build better people.
May 28 2013 12:11 PM

What Are Extreme Runners Thinking?

The addicts, obsessives, pain seekers, and euphoria nuts who choose to race 100 miles.

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Scott Jurek running the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc, a 103-mile race crossing the Alps in France, Italy, and Switzerland, in 2011

Photo by Jean-Pierre Clatot/AFP/Getty Images

Ultramarathon running god Scott Jurek has a deep, gnawing pain. The familiar assault begins 30 miles into a 100-mile race. His legs feel like they’ve been beaten by a baseball bat, and his suffering will only increase over the next 70 miles. Sooner or later he’ll contend with a pitiful triad: vomiting, dry heaves, and stomach pains from the stress of sweating, eating, and drinking while running continuously. And that’s the best-case scenario.

Jurek’s ultimate mind-numbing race was done on a one-mile oval track for 24 hours. He pounded out 165.7 miles—the equivalent of 6 1/2 marathons in one day—and set an American record. At a race in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado, Jurek ran the 100-mile course on a sprained ankle, climbing and descending a cumulative 66,000 feet in elevation over 11 mountain passes—and still won. A third of the way into a 135-mile run across Death Valley, in torturous heat that singed his nose hairs, he took a reprieve and crawled inside a coffin-size, ice-filled cooler because, Jurek said, it “felt like my internal organs were liquifying.”

Why is Jurek comfortable with being so uncomfortable? Is he crazy? Or is he superhuman?

Distance running has a long history of attracting addicts, obsessive personalities, the hopelessly selfish, those who endured tough childhoods, or any combination thereof. Jurek writes about those folks in his book Eat and Run: My Unlikely Journey to Ultramarathon Greatness, and he shares the story of his own thorny upbringing in northern Minnesota. As a kid, chores ruled his life. Jurek’s mother was disabled from multiple sclerosis, and he describes his father as extremely demanding. From the age of 6, Jurek had to stack firewood for hours before taking a rare break to play with a friend. By sixth grade, Jurek did most of his family’s chores, including laundry, cooking, gardening, and yard work. In middle school, the stress of his home life gave him such high blood pressure that his pediatrician prescribed immediate treatment: He could take medication or have downtime. Jurek chose the latter and took to running on woodland trails behind his home.

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Running itself can be an addiction. Research on rats has shown that they love running so much they can run themselves to death. A runner’s high is a real thing. Exercise triggers the release of endorphins and endocannabinoids, naturally occurring reward chemicals in the brain. But just what kind of person becomes hooked on ultrarunning?

You might think that such an absurd sport attracts only absurd people. But I had the opportunity to run with Jurek recently in Laguna Niguel, Calif., and almost nothing about him comes off as weird. We went for a 5k run on a paved trail one day. Another day we covered the same distance along the beach and through a neighborhood. In both cases we ran at an eight-minute-per-mile pace, and he seemed fine with that. Tall and rangy, Jurek looks like a typical athletic guy. At 6-foot-2 and 165 pounds, he’s big for a runner. His best marathon time is 2:38, which is swift but not enough to win the 26.2-mile race. His left foot juts out when he runs. He’s exceptionally outgoing and friendly. He even wears the same off-the-shelf running shoes I do. Maybe the only thing that seems a little quirky is the strict vegan diet he follows and his vegan evangelist ways, which raises the question an interviewer once asked: “How can he run so far and so fast on vegetables?”

Jurek has a healthy ratio of confidence and humility. He says extreme running has made him a better human being. “I’ve learned a lot about myself and how I tackle tough situations,” he said. “When people look at it on paper, it doesn’t make sense: ‘Why do you put your body through all that and your mind?’ But I think because in the end, I come out a different person, and I look at life differently.”

He also seems to perceive pain differently. He has learned both to mask pain and to use it as a motivator. Pain-easing music helped him get through the last few hours of his 24-hour running record. But mostly he accepts pain as a given. He runs toward it. Pain has rewards for Jurek, and he considers it a tool to “pry myself open.”