By Scott Jurek, with Jenny Jurek
304 pp. Little, Brown Spark. $16.99.
In “North”, American ultramarathoner Scott Jurek, as well as his spouse Jenny Jurek (i.e., “JLu”), present impressive writing skills detailing their record breaking journey on the Appalachian Trail (i.e., “AT”). “Fun” is how I’d describe their tit for tat dalliances in these pages. Each chapter is divided into two. First, he chronologically recounts a memorable stage along the AT on his quest for the Fastest Known Time (i.e., “FKT”). Then, JLu, in the role of crew chief, presents her take on the same stage, in brutally honest fashion. When he performs well, she extends praise, and doesn’t shy away from being less kind when appropriate.
As North opens, it seems extreme ultra racing for 20 years had taken a toll. Father Time may have decided Jurek’s best running days (record 7 consecutive Western States 100-mile Endurance Run winner) are behind him. He’s struggling with life’s next chapter. Is he retired, or still racing? Is he more athlete now, or ambassador? Also, JLu’s recently experienced a miscarriage, at the time finding herself in medical jeopardy. Understandably, the couple struggles with this hardship. Jurek yearns for a new, different challenge. Spending much of his life in Minnesota or further west, he’s intrigued by his unfamiliarity with the east coast. He’s enamored by the notion of setting the AT FKT, and the opportunity such a journey would provide Jurek and JLu to personally connect.
Within a week into the 47 day journey, Jurek experiences great physical troubles (on his right side, Runner’s Knee, on his left, a laterally torn quadriceps). His AT progress is labored and slow. MANY reinforcements come to aid his pacing (both longtime running friends as well as strangers tracking his progress with the assistance of GPS tracking). He’s prodded forward by the encouragement of one friend, Horty, “Your body will find a way to heal itself. It has a memory. Your body will remember.”
Jurek impresses with his FKT ethic. There is no course cutting. With any step off the AT, he touches a marker, and reconnects with that same marker before further AT progress. On his feet sometimes nearly 20 hours a day, losing 20 lbs., protruding bones, and shaking hands, the debilitating abuse Jurek exposes himself to astounds. He becomes a shell of his former self. Also, Jurek’s mental state along the journey can be troubling. Nearing the end of his challenge, he miscalculates the number of remaining days available to him to accomplish the FTK goal and declares his surrender. (Quickly, he’s corrected by his wife and friend, Timmy, of the correct timeline, and that his goal is still possible.)
Constructive criticism? No doubt, upon covering 2,200 miles, much of it in isolation, deep and dark thoughts may creep in. However, most don’t choose a book seeking to experience a depressive account, and Jurek (also grappling with his early 40’s) can at times unleash his despair. “I had come face-to-face with the question that always, eventually, meets everyone on the trail (or on the highway, or in the office, or in class) as the initial thrill wears off and the rewards start coming less frequently. What’s the point?” In these pages, this mentality can appear in abundance, seemingly growing with each new stage of his AT journey. Ultimately, he’s repeatedly propelled forward by the simple notion: “This is who I am, and this is what I do.”
In North’s closing pages, with Maine’s Mount Katahdin on approach (Jurek traversed the AT northbound), his spirit’s are buoyed. However, there’s little time to linger. If Jurek is to achieve the FTK, it would be by a matter of hours. It’s also JLu’s birthday. At Katahdin’s base, with little time remaining, he announces he’s going for a birthday hike with his wife. Finally, consider first reading “Born To Run“. North is littered with references to it.
#DidYouKnow courtesy “North”: Spanning 1974 to the time of North’s writing, 11 people have been murdered along the Appalachian Trail. Unfortunately, that tally increased in May 2019.