Scott Jurek, Al Howie and Elective Challenge
Updated: Mar 5, 2021
My expectations were minimal when I arrived in Ridgefield, CT to listen to Scott Jurek speak. Of course, I was stoked to see him in person. For those that don't know, Scott is America's greatest ultrarunner, hands down. He won Western States seven times, won Badwater, and set America's fastest time on record for 24 hours with 165.7 miles. But, having worked in the theatre on Broadway for several years, I had long become friends with the old adage: "Beware of getting too close to your heroes." However, after hearing Scott speak on Saturday, I decided to buy a second copy of his book (hardcover) just to get him to sign it and have the chance to speak with him. It was clear over the hour and half that he spoke that the AT had transformed Scott Jurek.
He made it clear in the beginning: he was not going to rehash his greatest runs, not going to give tips for diet or training, and not going to go in-depth into his runs with the Tarahumara. While those are fascinating topics for runners, he was about different business. He was their to make a point. North, the title of his new book that documents his record-breaking battle with the Appalachian Trail, is about way more than covering 2,000 miles faster than anyone before him. It's about elective challenge.
In Scott's book, we see him do something we don't expect: fall. Jurek made sure to include that in the slideshow as well, most of which was chock full of adversity. And, there lies the heart of his message, to chose this battle, to own it, to embrace the journey, the road less traveled, to throw down before yourself a rubicon for growth. We see him injure himself, shrivel before our eyes, and show us his doubt! He tells us he too swore never to run another 50-miler after completing his first, something we've all done in running, ultrarunning, or in our lives in general, when we've pushed ourselves further then we expected. Elective challenge, he calls it. His message is a warning against complacency: don't wait for the challenge to come to you, you might wait forever. Look for it; you need it to grow. His book then becomes a mighty metaphor for living a "deliberate life," harkening back to Thoreau and his search for his own North.
The line was long. It wrapped around the glass windows, across the podium area and snaked out into the hallway near the restrooms. Each waited for their moment to meet the man they had just listened to talk about finding meaning through struggle and the battles and bonding of a marriage tested by records, rocks and rain. It moved slow. The event director paced in the hallway, checking her watch. The bells eventually went off alerting us that the library would soon be closing. Getting to Jurek, it was clear why the line was moving so slowly: he didn't let anyone go unless he had connected with them. "When are you going to go for your first ultra?" I heard him ask the lady in front. "It's not about records or winning or losing, just get out there." In his handshakes and kind smiles was something meaningful.
I was too overwhelmed to say much to him. I just wanted to drink it all in. He greeted me with the same energy he did everyone else. As he signed my book, I played with my book on Howie that I had brought with me. I hoped to give it to him but wasn't sure he would accept it. I asked him if he'd ever heard of Howie. He had, and looked up as I spoke about Howie's experiences with elective challenge, choosing to run 4,500 miles across Canada for charity when he could have run the Sydney to Melbourne for a whopping $40,000 prize. And then, Jurek surprised me: "Let's get a picture with that book." I didn't even say yes. I was frozen like a Popsicle with a massive grin on my face.
In powerful moments, I tend to try and escape, and this time was no different. I just wanted to slide away. For some reason, when great things happen, I shy off. I just said, "thank you," and turned.
"Writing is hard isn't it?" he said.
I looked back. "Yeah, it is."
He pointed at the book. "Thanks for working on this."
"Thank you," is all I said. I wasn't trying to be short or rude - I was just uncomfortable. It was only as I was walking away that it hit me how similar elective challenge was for Scott and for Howie.
Both men had chosen to put themselves on the line, to go against what others had done before them and strike a blow for originality. Howie had chosen to cross Canada East to West, not because of any advantage, but because it was harder. He started in St. John's Newfoundland, the farthest eastern point of Canada and run all the way to Victoria on the Pacific Coast - the farthest point to the farthest point. But, what always baffled me was that only two weeks after, he was at the starting line of the longest race in the world, the daunting 1,300-mile "Impossibility" race. And, he broke the world record. (His own)
There was something about that I'd never been able to come to grips with, to put into a nutshell. It was ineffable. But when I heard Scott describe choosing to attack the AT from South to North, knowing that it was much harder and that all the other records were in the opposite direction, it came to me. Both Howie and Jurek had transcended the original attention of their journeys; it was the very definition James Joyce laid out for the highest form of art. Their epic runs were art. Scott's battle with the AT, like Howie's back to back feats, goes beyond words, beyond the explanations of the mind, it opens us all up to the greater things in this world, the deep places within that define who we are and will be. Scott Jurek came away from his journey carrying the highest ideals of the sport, and everyone in that library that day saw a generous spirit that wasn't content keeping it all to himself. Jurek has indeed earned his spot as ultrarunning's greatest ambassador.