In a sport that already dances on the fringe of society, ultrarunner Scott Jurek is a true rarity. As one of the athletes who helped make ultramarathons—any race longer than 26.2 miles—mainstream (well, more mainstream), Jurek has smoked the competition in some of the world’s most punishing trail and mountain races. Not only did he take home the win at the prestigious Western States 100-miler seven years in a row, he also set a course record in 2005 for the Badwater 135, an epic 135-mile race through Death Valley—and it was 130°. In July, he completed a run across the entire Appalachian Trail, breaking the speed record by over three hours. He finished in 46 days, eight hours, and seven minutes.
On top of all this, Jurek also happens to be an accomplished home cook and vegan—he shared his story and favorite recipes in his book, Eat and Run. The plant-based diet, he says, has contributed to his success as a runner, allowing him faster recovery times and better endurance on the trail. So, with all this in mind, we were curious to chat with Jurek about how he eats on the run (heh, heh), what foods fueled his AT record, and what he likes to cook at home.
What’s your morning routine?
I exercise before eating in the morning, unless I’m doing some huge, six- to eight-hour run. I don’t need coffee or caffeine to wake up, so I’m more of a tea or yerba mate-type person. I do enjoy a good cup of coffee or espresso when I’m out with friends. For breakfast, I’m really into green drinks, so I might do barley grass, or blend greens into my smoothie—something as simple as kale, arugula, or spinach. If I have spirulinaor chlorella on hand, I’ll put those in, too. I make sure to replace the carbohydrates I lost on my run with banana, frozen pineapple, or frozen mango, and then I’ll mix it up with whatever berries I have. I use brown rice and pea protein for my protein powder, and I also incorporate 7 Sources, which is an essential fatty-acid blended oil. Sometimes I’ll throw in coconut or avocado.
One thing that’s misconstrued about a plant-based diet is that it’s all just fruit and nuts. People assume that you can’t get full off a plant-based diet, but it really comes down to the amount of food you eat, and getting enough healthy fats. I’m one of these people that likes to eat. That’s the beauty of a plant-based diet; unless you’re eating junk food, you get to eat a lot.
As an ultrarunner, your caloric needs are different from the average athlete. Can you tell us about that?
When I’m training to come out on top and win races, I’ll need 5,000 to 6,000 calories a day. But someone who’s newer to running—say, training for a marathon or triathlon—might not need that many. The key thing is you have to eat while you’re running; you burn through the glycogen [a form of glucose that is easily processed] as you exercise. Marathoners can squeak by with a gel or two, although I think they’d have better results eating more often. But when they move on to their first ultra—say, a 50K—they spend more time on the trail. More time on the trail means more calories. It really comes down to your brain and nervous system needing those carbohydrates. You have to find the type of food that’s easiest for you to digest, consume 25 grams of carbohydrates every 20 to 30 minutes, then wash it down with plenty of water and electrolytes. It’s based on body weight, though, so larger individuals need more calories per hour than somebody who’s smaller. It’s not a blanket recommendation!
When I race, I’m eating a lot of “sports food” that’s carbohydrate-dense, like gels and energy chews. One of the cool things I worked on with Clif during the last year was something called Organic Energy Food. It’s basically food in a pouch that’s blended to a consistency that’s easy to get down. There are even savory flavors like pizza and sweet potato.
On your longest races, you’re actually eating while running. How does that work?
People are shocked (and competitors are jealous) that I can eat a burrito at seven- or eight-minute-per-mile pace. It does take practice, but getting solid or real food down is so important. It’s about trial and error, though. In Eat and Run, I wrote about how I tried to drink straight olive oil during a training run before my first 100-miler. I hardly knew what I was doing, and I was like, “Well, olive oil’s this amazing food and I’m gonna need a lot of calories, so why wouldn’t I drink that on my run?” I ended up with extreme nausea, basically just puking in the bushes.
You lost a lot of weight during your Appalachian Trail run. How much were you eating?
I was on the trail for 13, 14 hours a day at first—and then, later, it became 16, 18 hours a day. Sometimes 20. I was getting less and less sleep, and my metabolism was just raging. I needed to consume 7,000 calories or more a day. A lot of that—around 3,000—of that was in Clif products. Jenny would supplement that with sandwiches or toast drenched in olive oil. Sometimes she’d get me hash browns or greasy home fries from a local diner. Or, after eating pasta with olive oil and vegan sausage, I would down a whole pint of coconut milk ice cream and it didn’t even make a dent. But my time was so limited, the question I’d have to ask was: “Do I spend more time on the trail or more time sleeping?” [Jurek’s wife and friends drove their van along the trail as he ran, and he slept there after logging his miles.] I know it looks shocking, but it’s the nature of activities like this. People might think, “Oh these crazy runners…” but I missed cooking so much.
I weighed around 173 going into the trail. I’m 6’2” and, as a larger individual, could afford to lose some of that. People were surprised I lost almost 20 pounds, especially when they saw pictures, but unfortunately that’s just what happens. The body is trying to get all the calories it can, and when you’re sleep deprived and put these huge stresses on your body, it goes after every little calorie it can get—even the muscles you’re not using. My body started cannibalizing itself a little bit, but that’s where the recovery comes in.
What was the first thing you cooked at home?
I think it was the Swedish pancakes. Well, the day before we had made a huge salad from the farmers’ market. I hadn’t been to a market all season, so being able to pick all these amazing vegetables, fresh here in Colorado, was so great.
Hikers and locals brought you food along the way, right?
Yes, some did. This one family from Pennsylvania brought us fresh fruit and meat substitutes, and it was amazing because we were having a hard time to find things I could eat at small grocery stores. Somebody delivered me two boxes of cinnamon rolls and caramel rolls from Vegan Treats based out of Pennsylvania. Just amazing. One individual brought me avocado maki and vegan pizza, which I was really craving. He hiked up a crazy technical trail for three miles to deliver these random foods. That was one cool thing about the AT. Even though it’s in a remote location, it’s a really social environment. It’s kind of amazing sharing that experience with people.
You mention in your book that you used food to woo your wife Jenny. How’d you do it?
Jenny was a typical female bachelor. She had basically condiments and frozen veggie burgers; very “cereal-for-dinner” type girl. I’m a big believer that food is the way to a woman’s heart, so it was pretty easy to woo her. Food was so integral to my family—with our garden, and hunting wild game and fishing growing up—and it was fun to share that with Jenny. She had never seen that side of me; she had always just seen me as this quirky ultrarunner.
Any parting words?
So many people think cooking has to be this exquisite, elaborate process, but it’s really about just getting in there. It’s about not being afraid to try things. My mom would say, “If you can read, you can cook.” As an athlete, I pay a lot of attention to how I fuel my body…but it’s also just really fun.