In It for the Long Haul: Tips from Scott Jurek

The world’s top ultrarunner shares his advice for staying motivated

Ultrarunning is a self-motivational sport, if ever there was one. For the better part of 100 miles—sometimes more, sometimes less—there’s nobody along the course to shout you encouragement or remind you of why you signed up for this. It’s just you, the trail and, most likely, a fair measure of pure suffering. (Maybe that’s why less than one percent of one percent of Americans have ever tried the sport.)

Of all the ultramarathoners to put one foot in front of the other in front of the other in front of the other, Scott Jurek is probably the most accomplished (even more so than that Dean guy). He’s won the Western States 100 seven times straight, as well as the Hardrock 100 in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains (complete with 33,000 feet of elevation gain), the 153-mile Spartathalon in Greece three times and the Badwater 135, which races from the lowest point in Death Valley to the highest point in the continental U.S. atop Mount Whitney.

“Running is fundamentally about joy,” he says. Jurek loves competition and the sense of accomplishment that comes with crossing a finish line, but sometimes even he needs a little extra something to keep on keeping on. We asked Jurek what keeps him motivated through the miles, breaking records still after 18 years in the sport.

“You have to really want it.”
One of Jurek’s goals in the Western States 100 was to knock 20 minutes off of his time each year. The first time he competed in the race in 1999, he won it in 17:34. He accomplished his personal goal each subsequent year, save for his final go-round in 2005.

Jurek says that accomplishing your goals is dependent on knowing inside yourself that you can do it, and tweaking your training to meet them.

“You have to stay humble.”
Even if you’ve been training for a specific goal, Jurek says you must still respect conditions that are out of your control. Sometimes that means embracing setbacks. “Injuries are our best teachers,” he says, noting that he sprained his ankle two days before the 2007 Hardrock 100. He still won the race in 26:08, but only by wearing an Aircast the whole time, and pushing through serious inflammation and pain.

“When you chop wood, chop wood.”
Jurek uses this Chinese proverb to stress the importance of being present in the moment when racing. He says runners must be aware of what they’re doing and not let their minds wander too far from the run. He also says that actively listening to your body and to others out on the course is an important part of staying in the here and now.

“Utilize small goals.”
There’s no doubt about it, 100 miles is a daunting distance. So Jurek breaks the race into smaller chunks, thinking about the race only as far as the next aid station. That way, he can focus on the next 20 or 30 miles, instead of worrying about the entire distance.

“This is what you came for.”
Jurek’s mantra, which his yoga instructor taught him, reminds him that long distance running is his own choice. No one forces him to push his body to these extremes. Jurek says runners should choose a mantra that reminds them of why they lace up, and repeat that mantra over and over when the going gets tough.

“Stay inspired.”
Jurek says part of running is finding inspiration and learning from other runners. That’s why he ran with the Tarahumara of Mexico’s Copper Canyon (see the below video), and why he shares his running experiences with the endurance community. That way, inspiration and knowledge run both ways.

Here’s Jurek in action: