On Sunday afternoon, July 12th, after forty-six days of running and hiking, ultramarathoner Scott Jurek reached the summit of Mt. Kahtadin in Maine, bringing to an end what he called his “masterpiece,” a supported thru-hike of the 2189-mile Appalachian Trail that was three hours faster than the previous “fastest known time” by Jennifer Pharr Davis.
Only a few days earlier, the odds of Jurek setting that unofficial speed record looked pretty slim. Not only was he still dealing with injuries sustained early in the attempt, he had been slowed by historically wet weather in late June, and illness in the first week of July. In the last two days leading up to Sunday, he sacrificed sleep to keep moving on the trail, taking brief naps and sleeping for a couple of hours a night. And even with those extreme measures, as he set out from his campground on Sunday morning toward the final climb up Katahdin, the record was still in doubt.
For those following along via his GPS tracker and the Twitter hashtag #SJAT15, Jurek’s pursuit of the record made for compelling drama. I got caught up in it late in the game, but like many others, once I “tuned in” I was hooked. After returning form a long run Sunday morning, I found myself sitting in front of my computer repeatedly hitting Refresh to see whether the blue dot on the map had moved since last time.
It occurred to me that this was all very strange. Hiking the AT (which I have never done) is often described as a mystical and transformative experience. The challenge of hiking along its severe and wild terrain, let alone running it, is so great that it appears to foster an intense communal feeling. I gather that for the most part, the amateurs who traverse the trail do so obscurity. I had certainly never heard of Davis, or any other AT speed hiker, prior to this weekend.
But Scott Jurek is about as famous as anyone in the ultramarathon trail racing community. He is the seven-time winner of the Western States Endurance Run, two-time winner of the Badwater Ultramarathon, and author of a best-selling book, Eat and Run, about becoming one of the world’s most successful vegan endurance athlete. Jurek has 84,000 Twitter followers and 59,000 people who follow his Instagram posts. He lives comfortably in the world of social media, smiling in the spotlight as the comments roll in.
The strangeness I felt was the overlap between the very real drama of Jurek pushing the limits of human endurance, not to mention sanity, and the new reality that we can sit comfortably in our living rooms or in a coffee shop and be there with him as he does it. I got caught up in the drama because it seemed to me impossible that he would make it — how could he function at such a high level for so long on so little sleep? I was so sure that it was impossible, that when he overcame my doubts, and pushed on through the night and into Sunday morning, I began to care deeply about what would happen to him, and specifically, whether he would reach the summit of Katahdin before 5:15 p.m. in time to claim the unofficial record.
The Appalachian Trail Conservancy doesn’t recognize speed records so they won’t officially recognize Jurek’s accomplishment. I imagine they are not exactly thrilled with the idea that ultramarathoners might start treating the AT as just another race. But at the same time, it’s undeniable that having that record to shoot for changed everything. Would Jurek have hiked through the night those last few days had he not been shooting for the record? (Well, maybe — Sunday was his wife’s birthday and he had promised her he would be done by her birthday.) Would so many people, including people like me, have become so enthralled had there not been a record at stake?
What Jurek accomplished is impressive and inspirational in so many ways, that I feel a little guilty at having doubts about how we consume news of such an undertaking. As I sat glued to the screen, and as the Tweets poured in, I couldn’t completely suppress the feeling that it was weird that people, including me, were practically demanding that someone live stream his final steps up the mountain. When such a thing as a 2189-mile journey by foot through the wilderness of the Eastern U.S. becomes fodder for an insatiable public appetite to be entertained, I wonder how long such an undertaking can remain amateur, pure, and unique?