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Chapter 19
I always start these events with very lofty goals,like I’m going to do something special. And after apointof body deterioration, the goals get evaluated down tobasically where I am now—where thebest I can hope for isto avoid throwing up on my shoes.

—Nuclear engineer and ultrarunner EPHRAIM ROMESBERG, sixty-five miles into the BadwaterUltramarathonA FEW DAYS EARLIER, in the tiny Seattle apartment he shared with his wife and a mountain oftrophies, America’s greatest ultrarunner was also confronting the limits of his own body.

That body still looked great; it was plenty fine enough to turn women’s heads whenever ScottJurek and his willowy blonde wife, Leah, were pedaling around their Capitol Hill neighborhood,hitting the bookstores and coffee shops and their favorite vegan Thai restaurants, a beautiful younghipster couple on the mountain bikes they owned instead of a car. Scott was tall and supplelymuscled, with soulful brown eyes and a boy-band smile. He hadn’t cut his hair since Leah gavehim a buzz cut before his first Western States victory, leaving him six years later with a headful ofGreek god curls that rippled when he ran.

How the gangly geek known as “Jerker” became an ultra star still baffles those who knew himgrowing up back in Proctor, Minnesota. “We harassed the crap out of him,” said Dusty Olson,Proctor’s star jock when he and Scott were teenagers. During cross-country runs, Dusty and hisbuddies would pelt Scott with mud and take off. “He could never catch up,” Dusty said. “No onecould understand why he was so slow, because Jerker trained harder than anyone.”

Not that Scott had much time for training. When he was in grade school, his mother contractedmultiple sclerosis. It was up to Scott, as the oldest of three kids, to nurse his mother after school,clean the house, and haul logs for the woodstove while his father was at work. Years later,ultrarunning vets would sniff at Scott’s starting-line screams and flying kung-fu leaps into aidstations. But when you’ve spent your childhood working like a deckhand and watching yourmother sink into a nightmare of pain, maybe you never get over the joy of leaving everythingbehind and running for the hills.

After his mother had to be moved to a nursing home, Scott found himself alone with emptyafternoons and a troubled heart. Luckily, just when Scott needed a friend, Dusty needed a sidekick.

They were an odd couple, but oddly well-suited; Dusty was hungry for adventure, Scott for escape.

Dusty’s taste for competition was insatiable; soon after he won both the junior nationals for Nordicskiing and the regional cross-country championship, he convinced Scott to join him in theMinnesota Voyageur Trail Ultra 50- Mile Footrace. “Yeah, I conned him into it,” Dusty said. Scotthad never run half that distance but revered Dusty too much to say no.

In the middle of the race, Dusty’s shoe came off in the mud. Before he could get it back on, Scottwas gone. He tore through the woods to finish his first ultra in second place, beating Dusty bymore than five minutes. “What the heck is going on?” Dusty wondered. That night, his phone rangrelentlessly. “All the guys were making fun of me, going, ‘You loser! You got dropped by theJerker!’”

Scott was just as surprised. So all that misery was leading somewhere after all, he realized. All thehopelessness of nursing a mother who would never get better, all the frustration of chasingtaunting jerks he could never catch—it had quietly bloomed into an ability to push harder andharder as things looked worse and worse. Coach Vigil would have been touched; Scott asked fornothing from his endurance, and got more than he could have hoped for.

Strictly by accident, Scott stumbled upon the most advanced weapon in the ultrarunner’s arsenal:

instead of cringing from fatigue, you embrace it. You refuse to let it go. You get to know it sowell, you’re not afraid of it anymore. Lisa Smith-Batchen, the amazingly sunny and pixie-tailedultrarunner from Idaho who trained through blizzards to win a six-day race in the Sahara, talksabout exhaustion as if it’s a playful pet. “I love the Beast,” she says. “I actually look forward to theBeast showing up, because every time he does, I handle him better. I get him more under control.”

Once the Beast arrives, Lisa knows what she has to deal with and can get down to work. And isn’tthat the reason she’s running through the desert in the first place—to put her training to work? Tohave a friendly little tussle with the Beast and show it who’s boss? You can’t hate the Beast andexpect to beat it; the only way to truly conquer something, as every great philosopher andgeneticist will tell you, is to love it.

Scott would never again linger in Dusty’s shadow, or any other runner’s. “Anybody who has seenhim running fast on mountainous terrain in the last miles of a hundred-miler will be a changedperson,” an awestruck trail runner declared on Letsrun.com, the number one message board for allthings running, after watching Scott shatter the record at Western States. Scott was a hero for avery different reason among back-of-the-packers too slow to see him in action. After winning ahundred-mile race, Scott would be desperate for a hot shower and cool sheets. But instead ofleaving, he’d wrap himself in a sleeping bag and stand vigil by the finish line. When day broke thenext morning, Scott would still be there, cheering hoarsely, letting that last, persistent runner knowhe wasn’t alone.

By the time Scott turned thirty-one, he was virtually unbeatable. Every June another pack ofgunslingers arrived at Western States aiming to take his title, and every year they found himwrapped in his sleeping bag by the time they had finished. “But so what?” Scott wondered. Nowthat he’d created this Ferrari of a body, what was he supposed to do? Keep racing the stopwatchand the gunslingers until they finally began to beat him? Running wasn’t about winning. He’dknown that ever since his lonely days as the Jerker, back when he was panting far behind Dustywith mud on his face. The true beauty of running was … was …Well, Scott wasn’t sure anymore. But by the time he’d sealed his seventh Western States victory in2005, he knew where to start looking.

————Two weeks after Western States, Scott came down from the mountains and made the long driveacross the Mojave Desert to the starting line of the infamous Badwater Ultramarathon. When AnnTrason raced two ultras in one month, she at least stuck to planet Earth; Scott would be running hissecond on the surface of the sun.

Death Valley is the perfect flesh-grilling device, the Foreman Grill in Mother Nature’s cupboard.

It’s a big, shimmering sea of salt ringed by mountains that bottle up the heat and force it right backdown on your skull. The average air temperature hovers around 125 degrees, but once the sun risesand begins broiling the desert floor, the ground beneath Scott’s feet would hit a nice, toasty 200degrees—exactly the temperature you need to slow roast a prime rib. Plus, the air is so dry that bythe time you feel thirsty, you could be as good as dead; sweat is sucked so quickly from your body,you can be dangerously dehydrated before it even registers in your throat. Try to conserve water,and you could be a dead man walking.

But every July, ninety runners from around the world spend up to sixty straight hours runningdown the sizzling black ribbon of Highway 190, making sure to stay on the white lines so the solesof their running shoes don’t melt. At mile 17, they’ll pass Furnace Creek, site of the hottesttemperature ever recorded in the United States (134 degrees). From there, it only gets worse: theystill have to climb three mountains and deal with hallucinations, rebellious stomachs, and at leastone long night of running in the dark before they reach the finish. If they reach the finish: LisaSmith-Batchen is the only American to ever win the six-day Marathon of the Sands across theSahara, but even she had to be pulled from Badwater in 1999 and given an emergency IV to stopher dessicated kidneys from shutting down.

“This is the landscape of catastrophe,” one Death Valley chronicler wrote. It’s a bizarre and sort ofTransylvanian experience to be running a race right through the heart of a killing field where losthikers claw at their blackened tongues before dying of thirst, as Dr. Ben Jones can tell youfirsthand. Dr. Jones was running Badwater in 1991 when he was hastily recruited to examine thebody of a trekker discovered in the sands.

“I am the only one of which I am aware who has ever performed an autopsy during a race,” heremarked. Not that he was any stranger to the morbid; “Badwater Ben” was also known for havinghis crew haul a coffin full of ice water out on the highway to help him cool off. When slowerrunners caught up, they were jolted to find the most experienced athlete in the field lying by theside of the road in a casket, eyes closed and arms folded over his chest.

What was Scott thinking? He was raised on cross-country skis in Minnesota. What did he knowabout melting shoes and ice coffins? Even the Badwater race director, Chris Kostman, knew Scottwas out of his element: “This race was thirty-five miles further than his longest previous race,”

Kostman would comment, “and twice as far as he’d ever run on pavement, not to mentionsignificantly hotter than he’d ever experienced.”

Kostman didn’t know the half of it. Scott had been so focused that year on sharpening his trailskills for Western States, he hadn’t run more than ten miles at a time on asphalt. As for heatacclimation … well, it didn’t rain every day in Seattle, but it might as well have. Death Valley wasin the midst of one of its hottest summers in history, with temperatures hovering at around 130degrees. The coolest part of the coolest day was still way hotter than it got in Seattle all summer.

A runner’s only hope of surviving Badwater was to have an experienced crew monitoring his vitalsand supplying digestible calories and electrolyte drinks. One of Scott’s top competitors that yearhad brought a nutritionist and four custom-equipped vans to leapfrog his progress down the course.

Scott, on the other hand, had his wife, two Seattle buddies, and Dusty, assuming Dusty recoveredfrom the hangover he still had when he rocked up just before the race began.

Scott’s competition was going to be as fierce as the heat. He was up against Mike Sweeney, thetwo-time champion of the sweltering H.U.R.T 100 in Hawaii, and Ferg Hawke, the supremelyprepared Canadian who’d finished a close second at Badwater the year before. Two-time Badwaterchamp Pam Reed was back, and so was Mr. Bad-water himself: Marshall Ulrich, the ultrarunnerwho’d had his toenails removed. Marshall had not only won Badwater four times, he’d also run thecourse four times nonstop. Once, just for the hell of it, Marshall ran all the way across DeathValley by himself, pushing his food and water in a little bike-wheeled cart. And if Marshall wasanything besides tough, it was canny; one of his favorite strategies was to have his crew graduallycover his van’s taillights after dark with electrical tape. Runners trying to catch him at night wouldgive up, believing Marshall was disappearing off into the distance when he was only a half mileaway.

A few seconds before 10 a.m., someone punched a boom-box button. Hands covered hearts as thenational anthem crackled. Just standing there in the full glare of the morning sun was unbearablefor everyone but the true Badwater vets, whose savvy showed in their shorts: Pam and Ferg andMike Sweeney, in silky shorts and muscle tees, looked totally unconcerned about the sun blazingoverhead. Scott, on the other hand, could have been entering a biohazard site: he was covered chinto toe in a white sun suit, looking every bit the Minnesota yokel, with his long hair knotted inside adoofy French Foreign Legion cap.

GO! Scott leaped off the line like Braveheart. But for once, his bellow sounded weak andplaintive; it was swallowed in the awesome vastness of the Mojave like an echo from the bottom ofa well. Mike Sweeney also had his own way of shutting Scott up: just in case Wonderboy had anyplans to hang on Sweeney’s shoulder and then get frisky in the final miles, Sweeney was going toopen an unbeatable lead right from the start. He could do it, too; in a sport not known foraggression, Sweeney was one of the true tough guys. In his twenties, he had been an Acapulco cliffdiver (“I’d pound on the top of my head to toughen it up”), and then became a bar pilot in SanFrancisco Bay, commanding a crew of seamen who guided massive freight ships. While Scott wasenjoying cool, pine-scented breezes in the mountains all summer, Sweeney was fighting a ship’swheel through gale-force wind and jogging in a superheated sauna for up to two hours a day.

Mike Sweeney was leading the field when he came through Furnace Creek shortly before highnoon. The thermometer had hit 126 degrees, but Sweeney was unfazed and kept increasing hislead. By mile 72, he had a solid ten miles over Ferg Hawke in second. Sweeney’s crew wasoperating beautifully. As pacers, he had three elite ultrarunners, including a fellow H.U.R.T. 100champion, Luis Escobar. As nutritionist, he had the perfectly named Sunny Blende, a beautifulendurance-sports specialist who not only monitored his calories, but hoisted her top and flashedher breasts whenever she felt Sweeney needed perking up.

Team Jerker wasn’t quite as well oiled. One of Scott’s pacers was fanning him with a sweatshirt,unaware that Scott was too exhausted to complain that the zipper was slashing his back. Scott’swife and his best friend, meanwhile, were at each other’s throats. Dusty was annoyed by the wayLeah kept trying to motivate Scott by giving him fake pacing splits, while Leah wasn’t too pleasedwith Dusty’s habit of calling her husband a fucking pussy.

By mile 60, Scott was vomiting and shaky. His hands dropped to his knees, then his knees droppedto the pavement. He collapsed by the side of the road, lying in his own sweat and spittle. Leah andhis friends didn’t bother trying to help him up; they knew there was no voice in the world morepersuasive than the one inside Scott’s own mind.

Scott lay there, thinking about how hopeless it all was. He wasn’t even halfway done, andSweeney was already too far ahead for him to see. Ferg Hawke was halfway up to the FatherCrowley lookout, and Scott hadn’t even started the climb yet. And the wind! It was like runninginto the blast of a jet engine. A couple of miles back, Scott had tried to cool off by sinking hisentire head and torso into a giant cooler full of ice and holding himself underwater until his lungswere screaming. As soon as he got out, he was roasting again.

There’s no way, Scott told himself. You’re done. You’d have to do something totally sick to winthis thing now.

Sick like what?

Like starting all over again. Like pretending you just woke up from a great night’s sleep and therace hasn’t even started yet. You’d have to run the next eighty miles as fast as you’ve ever runeighty miles in your life.

No chance, Jerker.

Yeah. I know.

For ten minutes, Scott lay like a corpse. Then he got up and did it, shattering the Badwater recordwith a time of 24:36.

King of the trails, king of the road. That 2005 doubleheader was one of the greatest performancesin ultraracing history, and it couldn’t have come at a better moment: just when Scott was becomingthe greatest star in ultrarunning, ultrarunning getting sexy. There was Dean Karnazes,shuckinghisshirtformagazinecoversandtellingDa(was) vid Letterman how he ordered pizzas on hiscell phone in the middle of a 250-mile run. And check out Pam Reed; when Dean announced hewas preparing for a 300-mile run, Pam went straight out and ran 301, landing her own Lettermanappearance, and a book contract, and one of the greatest magazine headlines ever written:

DESPERATE HOUSEWIFE STALKS MALE SUPERMODEL IN SPORTS DEATH MARCH.

Soooooo—where was the Scott Jurek memoir? The marketing campaign? The bare-chestedtreadmill run above Times Square, à la Karnazes? “If you’re talking about hundred-mile races, orlonger, on trails, there’s no one in history who comes close to him. If you want to say he’s thegreatest all-time ultrarunner, a case could be made for it,” came the judgment from UltraRunningeditor Don Allison. “He’s got the talent to put him up against anyone.”

So where was he?

Long gone. Instead of promoting himself after his glorious summer, Scott and Leah immediatelyvanished into the deep woods to celebrate in solitude. Scott could give a crap about talk shows; hedidn’t even own a TV He’d read Dean’s book and Pam’s book and all the magazine articles, andthey turned his stomach. “Stunts,” he muttered; they were taking this beautiful sport, this great giftof flight, and turning it into a freak show.

When he and Leah finally got back to their tiny apartment, Scott found another one of those crazye-mails waiting for him. He’d been getting them on and off for about two years from some guywho kept signing off with different names: Caballo Loco … Caballo Confuso … Caballo Blanco.

Something about a race, could he come, power to the people, blah blah blah…. Usually, Scott gavethem a quick scan and clicked them into the trash, but this time, one word caught his eye: Chingón.

Whoa. Wasn’t that a Spanish F-bomb? Scott didn’t know much Spanish, but he recognized cursewords when he saw them. Was this crazy Horse guy badmouthing him? Scott read the messageagain, more carefully this time:

I’ve been telling the Raramuri that my Apache friend Ramon Chingon says he’s going to beateverybody. The tarahumara are more or less good runners compared to the Apaches, the Quimaresa little more than less. But the question is, who’s more chingon than Ramon?

Deciphering Caballo-speak wasn’t easy, but as best Scott could make out, it seemed that he—Scott—was supposed to be Ramón Chingón, the Mean Mutha who was going to come down andwhomp Tarahumara butt. So this guy he’d never even met was trying to whip up a grudge matchbetween the Tarahumara and their ancient Apache enemies, and he wanted Scott to play the role ofmasked villain? Psycho-o-o-o-o …Scott fingered the delete button, then paused. On the other hand … wasn’t that exactly what Scotthad set out to do? Find the best runners and the toughest courses in the world and conquer themall? Someday no one, not even ultrarunners, would remember the names Pam Reed or DeanKarnazes. But if Scott was as good as he thought he was—if he was as good as he dared to be—then he’d run like no one ever had. Scott wasn’t settling for best in the world; he was out to be thebest of all time.

But like every champion, he was up against the Curse of Ali: he could beat everyone alive and stilllose to guys who were dead (or at least, long retired). Every heavyweight boxer has to hear: “Yeah,you’re good, but you’d never a’ beat Ali in his prime.” Likewise, no matter how many recordsScott set, there would always be one unanswered question: what would have happened if he’d beenin Leadville in 1994? Could he have whipped Juan Herrera and Team Tarahumara, or would theyhave run him down like a deer, just like they did the Bruja?

The heroes of the past are untouchable, protected forever by the fortress door of time—unlesssome mysterious stranger magically turns up with a key. Maybe Scott, thanks to this Caballocharacter, was the one athlete who could turn back the clock and test himself against theimmortals.

Who’s more chingón than Ramón?


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