‘You Can Be Defeated’: An Ultramarathoner Deals With Failure

There are still four months to go in 2021, but it’s safe to say that this will go down as the year when many supposedly superhuman sports stars finally decided it was OK to admit they are human after all.

Simone Biles withdrew from the Olympic gymnastics team final because the pressure had caused her to lose the ability to track her body as she tumbled through the air. Naomi Osaka pulled out of Grand Slam tennis tournaments to address her own mental health struggles. The runner Noah Lyles talked about taking antidepressant medication.

Last month, a star ultramarathoner had his own reality check.

Scott Jurek, the seven-time winner of the 100-mile Western States race, set out to try to reclaim the supported speed record for the roughly 2,200-mile Appalachian Trail. Jurek’s Appalachian Trail record, set in 2015, stood for three years before Karl Meltzer broke it in 2018.

The goal was ambitious but doable: Jurek has a lengthy list of trail running achievements, including winning the 100-mile Western States race seven times. But he swears that getting the record back was not the primary motivation.

“It’s that drive of knowing I can do things better, and there was this pull to go back and explore everything that I went through again, the effort, the discomfort and the challenges,” Jurek said. “It’s this spiritual place you have to go to to perform.”

Jurek was 41 years old when he broke the record and is 47 now. He trained for months for this quest, on the trails near his home in Boulder, Colo., and on the track doing workouts that included strength training between intervals — plyometrics, box jumps, more push-ups and situps than he cares to think about — all in preparation for the rugged challenges of the Appalachian Trail — scaling boulders, hopping over downed trees and tree roots.

On Aug. 4, he was at Mount Katahdin in Maine ready to embark on his trek, with a support crew of two, plus his wife and two young kids. Achieving his goal would demand roughly 40 consecutive days of about 50 miles, translating to somewhere between 16 and 20 hours a day on his feet.

Everything started out fine, but on the fifth day, coming off the Bigelow mountains in Southern Maine, on a section of the trail filled with rocks and roots and little opportunity to actually run, Jurek started to feel tightness in his left quadriceps muscle. He tried to favor his right leg, which helped until the next day, when he felt the tightness in his right quad.

He attempted to work through the pain, stretching and massaging out the tightness, but his pace was soon down to less than two miles an hour. The next two days he dialed back his mileage substantially, putting his attempt at the record in serious jeopardy, but before too long, his leg felt like there was sandpaper between the muscle and the bone. This was something he knew he could not come back from. A few days of rest might have helped, but any hope for the record would be gone by then.

Eight days in, his quest was over.

Jurek has dropped out of races before, but this was something different, he said. So much time and investment had gone into the planning. His friends and family had upended their lives planning for a six-week venture.

And yet, he had to accept that sometimes there are limits to what even he can put himself through.

“I’m a big believer in finishing what you start, but sometimes it’s got to be OK to not put myself through the struggle to finish,” he said. “There are times when I don’t need to suffer that much to just get a finish.”

Since returning home, Jurek has been trying to figure out what he might have done differently. He decided to run from north to south this time, the opposite direction of his record-setting run in 2015, essentially trading oppressive heat for some of the most rigorous terrain at the start. Maybe that was a mistake, he thought. But there’s no easy way to do that many 50-mile days in a row.

Will Jurek attempt to set a new Appalachian Trail record again? It’s too soon to ask. He’s just now getting back to biking around the neighborhood with his kids. When he was unpacking the other day, he pulled a map of the trail out of his bag. He gazed at a spot roughly midway down and thought, “I should have been here at this point.” That was raw.

Part of him does not want to subject himself to this ordeal again, but his wife, Jenny, has already mentioned that he’s likely going to want to go back to “clean up my mess,” Jurek said.

“It’s good to be humbled,” he said. “Humans need to be humbled, to have those experiences where we need to adapt to things, because that is where the magic happens. How do we adapt to a struggle? There’s beauty in the struggle. The reality is you don’t always win. You can be defeated.”

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