Look at the photo of the man crossing the tape, arms raised in victory, mouth frozen in a primal yell.
He hardly looks as if he’s just run 135 miles, through 115-degree desert heat, from the lowest point in the United States to the slopes of one of its highest points, Mount Whitney.
You wouldn’t know that this was his first time racing the Badwater Ultramarathon, or that he shattered the course record by more than half an hour, or that he was a full two hours ahead of his closest competitor.
But the accomplishment is all over Scott Jurek’s face.
On July 12, in 24 hours, 36 minutes and eight seconds, the Seattle man won the Badwater, one of ultrarunning’s toughest events. Before the California race, Jurek had never run more than 90 minutes on pavement. Nor had he trained for the intense desert heat, except for arriving a week early to the Death Valley start area. And, he’d just come off of winning another world-class ultramarathon two weeks earlier — barely any recovery time between two colossally demanding endurance feats.
Jurek, who won his seventh Western States 100-miler in a row in June, says he conquered the Badwater by respecting the heat and biding his time.
“You have to be very patient in a race like that,” said Jurek, who lives on Capitol Hill. “They’ve had lots of fast runners go in and think they can just hammer out 7-minute miles from the get go. But, it’s a really long day. That’s the longest that I’d ever run in my life in one shot.”
Some say the Badwater is the most extreme running race in the world. Just 81 runners attempted it this year, and only 67 finished the course, which started 282 feet below sea level in Death Valley and finished 8,360 feet up Mount Whitney. Many competitors take almost as long as the 60-hour cutoff, and some will sleep or rest for hours at a time.
At 31, Jurek is considered young for a world-class ultrarunner, and was the second-youngest in the entire field.
Jurek, a physical therapist, running coach and consultant for Brooks Sports Inc., paced himself with 9- to 10-minute miles during the heat of the day, saving his reserves for the evening, when the temperatures sank below 100.
Before the race, he probably shook things up a bit when he predicted he’d win and set a record time. Though some veterans thought that a little presumptuous, Jurek felt calm and confident.
For more than half the race, Jurek ran in third place, about eight miles and 40 minutes behind the leader. And, around mile 75, he began feeling queasy, then vomited.
That was the mental trough of the race, the point at which he questioned whether to continue.
“My stomach wasn’t feeling very good and the heat was starting to drag me down. And, I definitely started to think, gosh, after Western States, why am I doing this so soon?”
Jurek stopped and lay down for about five minutes, but his support crew of nine helpers and pacers, including his wife, Leah, urged him on.
“There’s no aid stations out there, so your crew is your lifeline,” he said.
Jurek, who’s fought through such lows many times, told himself, “I’ve been here before. I can get through this.”
“You dig down deep, whether it’s the deep recesses of your body or your soul. It’s very soul-searching in a way,” he said. “Even though everything else seems to be unraveling, you try to find a way, a source of strength. And, you don’t always know where that comes from.”
Throughout the race, he kept cool with ice — in his hat or bandanna, or pressed against his skin. In 24 hours, Jurek went through about 350 pounds of ice. He also sprayed himself with water to combat what felt like a hot hair dryer blasting him all day.
During the peak hours of heat, Jurek drank 16-20 ounces of water every mile. When evening came, he curtailed that to 8-12 ounces per mile.
For food, Jurek, a vegan, ate energy bars and gels, potatoes and rice balls, chased by soy protein drinks and electrolyte capsules. He consumed 60-120 calories every 20-30 minutes, mostly on the run.
That night, when the temperature eased a bit, Jurek made his move. He gained ground on a long downhill, then closed it out. He said the finish — 5,000 feet uphill over 13 miles — was one of the toughest he’s experienced.
Badwater race director Chris Kostman said he’s impressed with Jurek, who had little experience racing on pavement or in such heat.
“There are some people who thought the record was unbreakable,” Kostman said. “He’s definitely raised the bar.”
Now, people are starting to think the race can be done in less than 24 hours, including Jurek.
For now, he has no specific plans for another ultramarathon. He’ll skip next year’s Western States, but says he might run the Badwater again in the next few years.
But back to that photo of Jurek crossing the finish line. He said that moment almost felt like fireworks going off.
“It’s this sense, almost like, you’re unstoppable,” Jurek says. “You’ve reached this state where you feel on top of the world.” ©1996-2005 Seattle Post-Intelligencer