In case you were wondering why I'm suddenly eating Ezekiel bread and running laps around Prospect Park, blame it on Scott Jurek. I spent the fall and winter working as a research assistant on Scott's memoir Eat and Run. Here it is, hot off the presses:
Eat and Run chronicles Scott's journey to ultramarathon stardom, from his childhood as a tightly-wound child in the Minnesota backwoods to his friendship with the irrepressible Dusty Olson to his unprecedented reign as the seven-time champ of the Western States Endurance Run, a 100-mile trek over grueling mountainous terrain. Scott holds the current US record for distance run in 24 hours: 165.7 miles.
He's done all this on a 100% plant-based diet. Growing up in Duluth (a somewhat grim northern city that is also my husband's ancestral homeland) Scott became convinced that the chronic illness and obesity he saw around him were linked to a diet high in meat and processed food. He found that the lower he went on the food chain, the quicker he recovered from his races. Every chapter of the memoir concludes with a tip on running technique and a delicious vegan recipe.
My writing teacher Steve Friedman was the co-author for this book. I have always looked up to Steve for his rhythm, comic timing, and general excellence. He was a great boss and was kind enough to hire me despite the fact that I was due to donate a kidney one month into the job. I told Steve I would recover quickly, and I did, partly due to Scott's influence as a sort of wellness genie. I ate an entirely plant-based diet throughout my recovery, and I ran my first half-marathon less than six months after the surgery. Victory is assured when you know how to eat and run.
Here's a partial list of the books/papers I read for this project...
The American Dietetic Association's Position Paper on Vegetarian Diets: A great place to start! The ADA is a fairly conservative, mainstream organization, and they give their wholehearted stamp of approval to vegetarianism and veganism in this short position paper that also outlines strategies for supplementation. Give it to nervous parents who think you're going to starve by going vegetarian.
Mad Cowboy: Plain Truth from the Cattle Rancher Who Won't Eat Meat by Howard Lyman with Glen Merzer: One of the books that started Scott on his path. A harrowing story of what we do to our meat in America.
In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto by Michael Pollan: More thoughtful than Bittman. Statistics aplenty about why eating plants is the way to go.
The Food Revolution: How Your Diet Can Help Save Your Health and Our World by John Robbins: An updated version of Robbins' seminal Diet for a New America, this manifesto about the health, environmental, and ethical benefits of going plant-based will brainwash you in a pleasing way.
The China Study: The Most Comprehensive Study of Nutrition Ever Condicted and the Startling Implications for Diet, Weight Loss, and Long-Term Health by T. Colin Campbell: The brainwashing continues with this blustery book that claims all diseases are caused by meat.
Good Calories, Bad Calories: Fats, Carbs, and the Contraversial Science of Diet and Health by Gary Taubes: I wanted to read a book from the obverse, carbs-are-evil-and-you-should-just-eat-steaks position. Taubes outlines the dangers of "metabolic syndrome," in which excess consumption of sugar and refined carbs leads to paradoxically malnourished/obese people. This was one of the most boring books I've ever read, and it made me scared to eat muffins.
Spontaneous Healing by Andrew Weil: Another game-changing book for Scott, this inspiring read will convince you to look for a doctor who believes in your body's innate capacity to heal. I thought this book was going to be cheesey, and I was really pleasantly surprised.
The Book of Five Rings by Miyamoto Musashi: "Do not let your mind stand still even when you are in repose, but do not let it speed up even when you are involved in quick actions...Act so that your opponent cannot understand your mind." In his most difficult races, Scott has been sustained by the philosophy of Bushido.
Marathon Monks of Mt. Hiei by John Stevens: I had to go to the special reading room of the NYPL to read this gorgeous out-of-print book about Japanese monks who run a marathon every day plus do austere fasting until they are ready to levitate off the planet. I wish Shambhala would reissue this.
Bone Games by Rob Schultheis: One man's quest to recapture an accidental moment of transcendence. This is Scott's manifesto.
Meditations from the Breakdown Lane: Running Across America by James Shapiro: My personal favorite of the running books. It reads like Travels With Charley only without the dog or the vehicle. I tracked down Shapiro and did a phone interview with him from his Zen retreat in California. He's running a Brooklyn middle school now and speaks as eloquently as he writes. Check out his brilliant Sports Illustrated essay "It's Seven O'Clock in the Morning" on his experience of a 24-hour run.
CC Pyle's Amazing Foot Race by Geoff Williams: The entertaining history of a star-crossed 1928 footrace across America that laid the foundations for today's ultramarathons.
Indian Running: Native American History and Tradition by Peter Nabakov: Somewhat meandering assemblage of stories about running in Native American culture. I have no way of knowing how accurate this book is, but it's written with love and has great photos.
The Runner's Guide to the Meaning of Life by Amby Burfoot: This sweet little book by the Runner's World editor convinced me to give up my headphones and listen to the world as I run through it.
Running and Being by George Sheehan: They've reissued this book, but dig the cover of the 1970's original! This is a strange and beautiful book that contemplates the role of athletics in personal development, tackling big questions like "Is sport an artistic endeavor?" "Is winning important?" and "Can athletics bring you closer to God?"
Running Wild by John Annerino: A heartbroken bachelor runs the Grand Canyon, contemplating the misery of those who have gone before him. Good politics, great scenery.
To the Edge by Kirk Johnson: A New York Times reporter runs the Badwater ultramarathon in honor of his dead brother. Predictable but still affecting.
Why We Run: A Natural History by Bernd Heinrich: A zoologist exploits the secrets of the animal kingdom to increase his own efficiency as a runner. Unlike some of these memoirs, Heinrich is a true expert and has a lot to say about the science and art of running. This is a terrific read.
Surviving the Extremes by Kenneth Kamler: An amusingly gruesome book about what happens to the body in extreme environments like the desert or the arctic. Useful for the age-old debate "would you rather freeze to death or be burned alive?"
The funnest part of the job was interviewing Scott's friends, family, and fellow runners. It was a unique window into the odd and beautful world of ultrarunning. I had to remind myself not to turn into some kind of weird stalker, because I fell in love with almost everyone I interviewed and very much wanted to ask them out for malted milkshakes. Here are a few of my favorite people from Scott's life story...
Dusty Olson: Scott's pacer and boyhood mentor. The Falstaff to Scott's Hal. The Dust Ball is a man of mysterious allure.
Shannon Weil: One of the co-founders of the Western States Endurance Run, Shannon is an avid horsewoman and fount of local history and race lore. She's also the niece of the famous (and infamous) Bradley of the eponymous NYC jazz club.
Grandpa Ed: Who asked me if I was Finnish.
Barb and Rick Miller: The couple that runs together stays together.
Donald Murkai: A lovely man who channels the Bushido code.
Glen Sorenson: Scott's high school science teacher and cross-country ski coach. We should all be lucky enough to have a teacher like this. He is now retired and ready to take you on a wilderness adventure.
Brandon Sybrowsky: Life off the grid suits this free spirit who has a Ph.D. in pain and transcendence.
Laura Vaughan: You think you're tough? Laura won the Wasatch 100, one of the toughest endurance races in the country, multiple times. She ran it again, shortly after giving birth, stopping to breastfeed at the aid stations. Laura is an inspiring, warm survivor who was the guinea pig for her father's inventions of Power Bar and GU.
Hippie Dan Proctor: I could have talked for hours with this modern-day Thoreau who abjures motorized vehicles, recycles everything, and manicures the Duluth trails with hand tools so as not to disturb the pastoral splendor. I read Dune on his recommendation.
WHAT I LEARNED FROM SCOTT
One day when I had Scott on the phone I sheepishly asked for running advice. I felt guilty doing this, kind of like cornering a doctor at a cocktail party and asking him to tell you if your mole looks cancerous.
To my surprise, he seemed delighted to talk about my pathetic attempts to run around the park.
"You're not pathetic," he said.
I continue to be amazed at the satisfaction he takes in helping regular people discover the joy of running. He is as much a great teacher as he is a great athlete.
From him I learned to take shorter steps and to focus on turning over my feet quickly, in a rhythm of 85-90 strides per minute. This was a revelation. I realized I had been feeling so heavy on my feet before, kind of banging away at the ground.
Once I turned the feet over faster, running became much more pleasant. Sometimes I use a playlist of music with about 90 or 180 BPM to help me get the feet moving in the proper cadence. Here's my playlist. Some of these songs are aesthetically reprehensible but they get me going:
Lose Yourself, Eminem
So Ambitious, Jay-Z
Family Affair, Mary J. Blige
Gold Digger, Kanye West
In da Club, 50 Cent
Ruff Riders Anthem, DMX
Imma Be, Black Eyed Peas
Bang Bang Bang, Mark Ronson and The Business
Monkey Wrench, Foo Fighters
Winner, Jamie Foxx
Dancing With Myself, Billy Idol
Get Em High, Kanye West
Livin' La Vida Loca, Ricky Martin
Hip Hop, Mos Def
Talkin' 2 Myself, Eminem
The Seeker, The Who
On to the Next One, Jay-Z
Love Like Woe, The Ready Set
The Gambler, Kenny Rogers
Scott recommended channeling all my running energy into forward motion. I realized that when I run I'm sort of too deferential and am constantly veering off to the side to avoid other runners and walkers. I started experimenting with running along one of the straight painted lines on the road through Prospect Park and not moving unless absolutely necessary.
Sometimes I imagine I am a little choo-choo train, chugging away with great efficiency.
Finally, Scott hipped me to the phenomenon of "free speed," which is Dusty's terminology. When you're on a downhill, you just let your legs go, lengthen your stride, and run fast. Running is controlled falling, so you should let yourself fall down a hill, using gravity to your advantage.
But the most important thing Scott told me was that I could do it.
"I can jump rope for a really long time, but I can't even run a mile," I told him. My cousin had convinced me to sign up for the half marathon, and I honestly didn't know how I was going to do it.
"Oh, if you can jump rope, you can run," he said.
He said it with such certainty that it was impossible not to believe him. I think Scott's voice had the power to dispel a lot of negative voices that were bouncing around in my head. Voices that said things like "go ahead and eat that bacon double cheeseburger" or "you'll never finish 13.1 miles."
It's my hope that this book will carry his voice into the world so he can help more people the way he helped me.