Imagine running 100 miles, nonstop, save for dirt climbs usually reserved for mountain goats. Imagine running 100 miles across hill and dale, ascending 18,000 feet, descending 23,000 feet. Makes your quads quiver, no?
Imagine running said 100 miles faster than the other 399 entrants at last June's Western States 100, which starts in the wilderness west of Lake Tahoe, winning the race for the seventh year in a row, this time in 16 hours, 43 minutes, a 10-minute per-mile pace.
That's what Scott Jurek of Seattle accomplished in June, and that wasn't the part that is unfathomable.
Sixteen days later, the 32-year-old physical therapist/running coach/Brooks pitchman entered the 135-mile Badwater Ultramarathon for the first time. Jurek had previously passed on Badwater, not because of the notorious 125-degree, furnace-blast Death Valley heat, but because he doesn't do pavement.
Jurek showed up at Badwater, predicted he'd win, predicted he'd set a course record, not because he talks smack, but because someone asked, and, well, why sell false modesty? Sure enough, he shattered the course record, won by nearly two hours and became the first person to complete the Western States-Badwater double.
Advertisement "Obviously, ultra running is not at the top of the food chart when people think about endurance athletes," said Bob Babbitt, co-publisher of Competitor Magazine.
"But anybody who's an endurance athlete marvels at what they accomplish. For somebody to win Western States seven years in a row, that's a bad-ass run. Then to move on to Badwater 16 days later and it's 120 degrees in the middle of the day ... "
Normally never at a loss for hyperbole, Babbitt for once was rendered speechless. Tomorrow evening at SeaWorld, Jurek will receive the Runner of the Year Award at Competitor's 14th annual Endurance Sports Award Gala.
As to how Jurek morphed from a cross country skier to ultramarathon phenom, a background check reveals he's a product of his environment, both geographic and behavioral.
Jurek grew up in rural Minnesota near Duluth, specifically, four miles outside Proctor, population 2,779. He was the oldest of three siblings, and the kids were raised on three acres. Their spread became an athletic playground, friends and cousins being dumped at the doorstep.
The front yard became a baseball diamond, the side yard a soccer field and the entire property a cross-country course. Jurek took his big-brother role seriously, often awakening by 6 a.m. and plotting the day's athletic agenda.
"He did not need much sleep," says his father, Gordon Jurek. "Yet he had the stamina to go all day long."
Life was not all fun and games at the Jureks. When his mother developed multiple sclerosis, the children assumed additional household chores. Besides the standard cleaning, laundry and meals, there was wood to chop and three acres to mow.
"Everyone did their share," Gordon said. "Scott being the oldest, he did take on quite a bit."
Jurek ran some as a kid, primarily to prepare for cross-country skiing. When a buddy ran a 50-mile ultra, Jurek, then 20, signed up a year later, finished second and discovered his skill set.
Friends since they were teenagers, Dusty Olson knows Jurek well. He runs with Jurek late in races, pacing him the final 38 miles at Western States.
Asked what separates Jurek, Olson said, "I think he's just mentally tough. When things aren't going his way, even when he's on his hands and knees (throwing up) during the race, he keeps it together, keeps pushing."
Said Jurek: "I don't know what motivates me to keep going. There's some inner drive there, I guess, that knows things will get better."
Adopting the "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger" ideology, Jurek adds, "Those are the transforming moments."
Love of nature is part of ultramarathon racing's lure. But there are drawbacks to being surrounded by spectacular mountain vistas.
Jurek chased down one of his rivals at Western States, only to see the runner being stared down by a bear. Jurek raised his arms, screamed and the bear scurried away.
Another time he leaped over a rattlesnake stretched across a trail.
Jurek's success has not harbored resentment by his peers. He won his sixth straight Western States in a record 15 hours, 36 minutes (a 9:20 per-mile pace), then stuck around to the 30-hour deadline congratulating finishers.
He conducts camps, not just to supplement his income, but to share his passion for trail running, ultras, the merits of his vegan diet and trail conservation.
He celebrated his seventh Western States victory with a primal scream, then, in what has become tradition, rolling across the finish line seven times.
"Some people think what we do is so bizarre," Jurek said. "I want to show people that it's not so far out there. It's not impossible. It can be done."
He certainly doesn't do it for the money. His reward for winning Western States and Badwater?
A 30-pound cougar sculpture and a belt buckle.
Having collected seven cougar sculptures, he has passed some along to sponsors and running stores.
His living quarters restricted to a one-bedroom Seattle studio, Jurek said, "It's kind of hard to keep all those (30-pound sculptures) in one place."