Runners Book Club: North

This is how North begins:

“Scott Jurek is one of the greatest ultramarathon runners of all time and a living legend. North tells the story of his biggest challenge, undertaken at the end of a career full of glittering achievements: breaking the speed record for the Appalachian Trail, the famous path that runs for nearly 2,220 miles between Georgia and Maine, almost the entire length of the United States.”  

This tells you what you need to know about Scott Jurek, and is a good enough summary of North, but it is not a great way to start a book. It is not the prerogative of this story to tell me that Jurek is a living legend. It should show me, and let me make up my own damn mind. 

Of course, Scott did not write that line, but from the off it had me on defensive footing, worried about how ego, and hubris, might put the dampers on a thrilling tale of extreme physical, and mental challenge. 

Scott Jurek is an incredible runner though, that much is without a doubt. 

He knows it, too. He does have an ego, of course he does, and it is also fair to say that he does demonstrate a level of arrogance, and that he suffers for his hubris. These faults are evident in the text, and have consequences. It is nice that the story doesn’t shy away from these facets of his personality, as they have probably helped him become the long-distance superstar that he is, and you know, he’s human. No one is perfect.

It’s an overused phrase because it’s true. 

From the outside, Scott does not seem all that appealing of a character to hang about with. He takes on the Trail with a dangerous casualness, disregarding the danger that it presents to himself, and more importantly to the people around him, those who seek to aid him on his way. It is an attitude which earns him a number of detractors in the hiking/trail community.

Yet, his story is still an inspiring one. He summons something from the depths of his soul, and breaks the speed record. How he does it, whether you think Scott is a neat guy or not, makes for a great read, and Scott is a good writer of his own tale. 

The first thing he mentions is Jenny, and rightly so. She is more than his wife, more than his partner. Running is an intrinsically lonely sport, except for when it’s not. Early on he talks about the idea of moving quick, but easy, over long distances. It is a paradox. Quick, but easy? If it’s easy, is it quick? It’s more of a state of mind, that a physical fact. 

It becomes evident that this story is all about paradoxes, about balancing them. Can you submit yourself to something so all-encompassing, so demanding, and still be a good husband? Still be a good friend? 

Can you commit yourself to the trail, and still remember your commitment to the people who mean the most to you?

Jenny Jurek also writes her own sections of this book, and these sections elevate the tale. It’s one thing for Scott to write with brutal honesty about himself, about his darkest moments, but the perspective on those moments is limited. 

Imagine your hardest run ever, and now try and fully comprehend what you were thinking, what you were feeling in the moment, and try and accurately articulate those emotions, as well as describing the environment that you were in with enough detail to inspire the reader’s imagination. Describing that run would be like describing a dream, yes, you may be able to grasp the whole of it in a general sense, but the details are lost in the sweat, and the connective tissue is filled in by your imagination. Having Jenny there to provide an outside perspective allows for a much fuller, more interesting read, and she doesn’t hold her punches when it comes to some of Scott’s mistakes. Beyond that, her own struggles are just as inspirational.

So, I didn’t like how North began, declaring Jurek to be a “living legend” but what I didn’t realise was that this opening statement would also be proved to be inaccurate. 

It is not “his” story. 

It is Scott’s story. It is also Jenny’s story. And it is the story of all the other folk who come out to help, the wonderfully nicknamed Speedgoat, El Coyote, and Horty, it is all the unnamed strangers who come out to run the trail with Jurek, who leave him notes, piles of rocks, and bring him vegan treats to keep him going. 

It is a story of how when someone submits themselves to something that tough, it can never only be about them. 

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