Ultrarunner Scott Jurek Sets New Appalachian Trail Speed Record
Team Clif Bar athlete runs his way into history, this time over a 46-day epic journey.
Words by Lisa Jhung. Photos by Luis Escobar.
There was the runner’s knee that flared up on day 7. The strained and likely torn quadriceps that followed, caused by overcompensating for the knee pain. The stomach bug that lasted days in Vermont, not to mention the incessant rain slowing progress — June marking the wettest month in Vermont’s history.
But for 41-year-old Scott Jurek, it was the day in New Hampshire that he thought the speed record of the 2,178-mile Appalachian Trail had fallen out of his grasp that he hit rock bottom. “I broke down emotionally,” he says. “I was just full of despair, anger and sadness because I was off pace for the record, and felt like I screwed up.”
But then, this is Scott Jurek, 7-time winner of the Western States Endurance Run and winner of the 153-mile Spartathlon, the 135-mile Badwater Ultramarathon, the Hardrock 100, the Miwok 100K and more. If anyone knows how to pull himself out of a tough spot and put one foot in front of the other, it’s him. And that’s exactly what he did.
The idea to attempt the speed record of the Appalachian Trail was born on another classic route. Jurek and wife Jenny took a trip to run on the Pacific Crest Trail in the summer of 2014, running miles together on California’s historic trail and talking about future plans. “I’d been wanting to do a National Scenic Trail for a while,” says Jurek. “And I’m just at that phase where I’m not wanting to race much. I thought, ‘What about a speed record attempt?’”
“We were hiking and I said to Jenny, ‘Gosh, maybe I should do the Appalachian Trail.’” He explains that he’d only been on 30 miles of the eastern classic trail, and thought it’d be a “cool adventure.”
“The Appalachian Trail just has so much history,” he explains.
The question of “why” turned to “why not” for Jurek, and in the fall of 2014, the plan to break the record — 46 days, 11 hours, 20 minutes, set by Jennifer Pharr Davis in 2011 — started taking more shape.
In early May, 2015, Scott and Jenny bought a van they’d use as a traveling home base, and drove it out to Georgia. They told only their closest friends and sponsors, not wanting media attention until Scott started moving and the record attempt began unfolding.
The plan was for Scott to run roughly 50 miles a day, with the goal of completing the trail in 42 days.
But as with most adventures, especially ones of such grand scale, plans changed.
After setting out on the trail from Springer Mountain, Georgia on May 27, Scott ran happily and on track. News of his quest quickly spread via social media, and fans started appearing on the trail to cheer him on, sometimes to bring him food, often to run with him. Jenny, meanwhile, would drive ahead to resupply points, estimating what time Scott would arrive.
“It was basically old-fashioned,” she says, noting that while Scott wore a tracker, the GPS and cell service didn’t always work. “I’d ask people who would come off the trail where I was waiting, ‘Hey, where is he?’ And I’d just wait.”
When Scott would arrive, she’d feed him, resupply his pack, and either let him sleep if it was at the end of the day, or shuffle him through as quickly as possible to get him back moving on the trail.
Scott, who fuels himself solely on a vegan diet, took in roughly 5,000 calories a day, sticking to a plan he employs while racing or on any long run — eating something every half hour. “During a 16-hour day,” he says, “I’d eat eight to 10 CLIF SHOT gels; six to seven packages of CLIF Bloks, three to four Organic Trail Mix Bars, one to two CLIF Bars, six Organic Energy Food products.” He’d balance that with sandwiches, mashed potatoes with extra olive oil, leftover vegan camp food that Jenny would prepare from breakfast or dinner, and snacks like avocado sushi rolls and vegan ice cream brought to him by fans.
All was going well.
But on day 7, an aching patellofemoral pain syndrome (known commonly as “runner’s knee”) on his right leg started bothering him to the point of a limp. He shifted the pain to his left leg, and soon suffered a partially torn quadriceps muscle. This, with over 1,800 miles left to cover.
“At that point I thought for sure the whole thing was done,” he says. “There was no way I was going to be able to do it.”
He decided he’d take the miles slowly, and see what happened. The next day, he power hiked 37 miles. The day after that, he power hiked 39 miles. He realized the pain was loosening up, and picked up the pace the next day…covering 50 miles, mostly running. “It wasn’t pain-free,” he says, “but I could tell it was gradually getting better.”
In the mid-Atlantic states, despite stifling humidity, he was logging 56–58-mile days, boosting up his average and getting ahead of the record. Word had spread, and at times, Jurek had 20 or so runners following him on the trail. He had become the Forrest Gump of trail running, having grown a beard and all.
Things were looking up…until Vermont. A stomach bug took hold of him, and the state was experiencing the rainiest June it’d had in history. The miles creaked by painfully slowly. He spent long hours on the trail, sometimes finishing the day at midnight, once at 2:30 a.m. “The only way to get the miles was to cut into sleep,” he says.
Once out of Vermont and into the rocky terrain of New Hampshire and Maine, he was off record pace and logging 24-hour days, trying to gain back time. Things didn’t look good. Sleep deprivation combined with despair of defeat took hold of him.
“It just broke me down,” he says. “I was seeing the record slip away. I’d go through moments where I felt like I could do this, then I’d get down the trail — it was so rocky and rooty and muddy, I felt like I was going through a swamp and mud pit — and I would just break down.”
He says that the feeling of having come so far, covering all those miles and not succeeding felt crushing.
Jurek credits his crew — at this point, others had joined Jenny — for reminding him that he could do it, for pulling him out of a hole. “I finally realized, ‘I can’t stop now. I’ve made it this far,’” he says.
And while his luck turned around in Maine and he was getting back on track — by moving one foot in front of the other and staying focused on the goal — Jurek was still cutting his record attempt down to the wire.
On day 46, he came into rest at 14 miles from the finish, thinking he’d get a couple hours of sleep. His crew didn’t want to take any chances. The terrain near Katahdin, and especially the climb up the 5,269-foot mountain is technical and slow-going, and Jurek had been moving two miles an hour. “I came in at 4:30 a.m. thinking I’d get a couple hours of sleep” he says, “and they [his crew] said I only got an hour and had to get back out moving.” So in the early morning of July 12th, 47 days after he started in Georgia, Jurek set back out on the trail with 14 miles to cover.
Like many athletes say they didn’t know they’d won a race until they broke the finish line tape, Jurek says he didn’t know he had the record truly in grasp until five miles from the finish. At Katahdin Springs Campground, he felt it.
“It was Jenny’s birthday,” he says, “and I thought, ‘Let’s go for a Sunday birthday hike.’”
That last climb — over boulders, rocks, sometimes “full-on climbing moves” — took about four hours, which was a quick enough “birthday hike” to make for a historic day. At 2:03 Eastern Standard Time, after 46 days, 8 hours and 8 minutes, Jurek broke the Appalachian Trail Record by 3 hours and 12 minutes.
“It was unlike any other finish throughout my career,” said Jurek, two days after finishing. “It was the ultimate finish line. You go through such an epic journey and struggle…seeing so many different parts of myself, the trail…it all culminated in the last few feet. And what an amazing place to finish it — on Katahdin, with 360-degree views and no other mountain around like it. There were probably 70 people or so up there cheering for me. It was really neat.”
A film crew had brought him a tempeh veggie teriyaki dish that he says was “really tasty.” He ate that with a beer, some snacks, and some vegan ice cream with coconut milk.
Despite a couple unsettling dreams of still being out on the trail and needing to get back out and finish, Jurek is resting with Jenny and reveling in being done.
“I can’t wait to come back home and lay on my couch,” he says.