Plant Power: Scott Jurek
by Nicole Rivard
Bill Bryson’s novel, A Walk in the Woods, was not exclusively about America’s 2,189-mile Appalachian Trail—it also emphasized the life-changing impact the AT can have on those who hike it. Vegan ultrarunner Scott Jurek knows exactly what Bryson means.
On July 12, 2015, Jurek became the fastest person to thru-hike the Appalachian Trial. Fueled by his plant-based diet, it took Jurek 46 days, eight hours and seven minutes to travel across 14 states from Georgia to Maine, beating the record by three hours and 13 minutes.
“Being able to break the record despite all the obstacles and challenges—it still kind of blows my mind that just when I think I don’t have enough strength or just when I think I can’t dig deeper, somehow I find that strength,” said Jurek, who grew up running through the wooded trails of Minnesota. “I think that’s a big take away for me. I have a greater appreciation of what we as humans have the capacity for, and also the potential we have. That’s what I learned and how I was changed. ”
Just four days into his attempt, Jurek suffered severe knee pain and a subsequent quad strain. “You don’t go through a journey like that, 50 miles a day, without having self-doubt. You just have to get through it,” said Jurek, who has been able to strike a balance between being humble yet powerful throughout his career. Jurek’s outstanding competitive résumé includes victories in nearly all of ultrarunning’s elite trail and road events, including the 153-mile Spartathlon in Greece and the Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run, which he won a record seven straight times.
He credits his plant-based diet for his superior endurance, recovery and overall health and believes everyone can run an ultra and access their body’s innate capacity to heal. Jurek transitioned to a vegan diet for health reasons. “I grew up hunting and fishing…I was not the typical plant-based convert,” Jurek said. “But I saw chronic disease in my family. My mother had multiple sclerosis for 30 years before she passed away recently, and I was working at hospitals as a physical therapist. I was just seeing a lot of chronic disease around me and wanted to avoid it.”
Jurek was convinced that processed, low-quality food was keeping his physical therapy clients sick, so he decided to adopt a vegetarian diet in 1997 and a vegan diet by 1999. After that is when he notched his string of Western States 100 victories. He hadn’t thought much about the impact a plant-based diet would have on his athletic performance. “But I lost extra body fat, my skin got healthier and I felt like I could bounce back from hard workouts quicker,” Jurek explained. “I think the fact that I have had such a successful career for so many years—I’ve been doing this sport for 22 years now—I think that is where a vegan diet plays a huge role, long-term performance and recovery and just having a lightness and stamina”. “It also provides a psychological advantage too because you know what’s going into your body. You know it’s going to perform better because the fuel you are putting into it….so I think that is a big advantage mentally.”
Addressing the protein question, Jurek says athletes do need enough amino acids to repair muscle, but getting enough calories is most important. “If you aren’t getting enough calories you are going to feel low energy. I think the big misconception is that you need tons of protein, but in a lot of cases people should be asking themselves if they are getting enough calories,” Jurek said. He had to pack in at least 6,000 calories a day while he was on the Appalachian Trail, so he sometimes ate vegan junk food like donuts and pizza.