By Jeremy Apgar: Trail Conference Cartographer, hiker, runner, and fan of inspirational people
During these summer months, amazing people complete their Appalachian Trail thru-hikes in either Maine or Georgia. On Sunday afternoon, a thru-hiker named Scott Jurek climbed Katahdin in Maine to reach the end of his northbound Appalachian Trail journey, which is a great accomplishment in and of itself; however, he also completed the 2,189-mile trek in only 46 days, 8 hours, and 7 minutes to set a new record for fastest supported thru-hike of this iconic footpath.
Scott Jurek completes his Appalachian Trail journey on Katahdin. (Photo credit: Luis Escobar)
For some perspective, that is 47 miles per day, every day, for nearly 47 days. Or like completing nearly 84 marathons consecutively, all the while passing through 14 different states and encountering more than 500,000 feet of elevation change. That’s akin to climbing and descending Mount Everest 18 times, on some of the nation’s most challenging, rockiest, root-crossed sections of trail.
Who is Scott Jurek? In the world of ultrarunning, his accomplishments have made him a superstar. He holds the U.S. record for longest distance run in 24 hours (165.7 miles… or 6.5 marathons in one day), has won the prestigious 100-mile Western States Endurance Run seven years in a row, and has won several other major events including the Badwater Ultramarathon (135 miles starting in Death Valley in mid-July, with 120 degree temperatures). In combination with his running, he is also a major advocate for plant-based diets (vegan since 1999), and he co-wrote the bestseller Eat & Run in 2012.
Scott Jurek guides blind friend Tom Panek on Bear Mountain. (Photo credit: Jeremy Apgar)
So on May 27, Scott began his journey from Georgia and methodically worked his way northward. Nearly a month after he started, Scott passed through the New Jersey and New York portions of the A.T., and I was lucky enough to join fellow Trail Conference staffers Josh Howard and Melissa McCutcheon on June 24 at Bear Mountain to welcome him to our sections of trail. Being able to run with Scott where the A.T. was established back in 1923 was an incredible experience. When we caught up with him near the summit, Scott was doing something we did not expect from someone attempting to beat a speed record: Wearing a bright yellow “guide” vest, Scott was leading his blind friend Tom Panek on the difficult climb up Bear Mountain. We joined in with the group of runners following Scott until we reached Perkins Tower, where Scott and Tom were met with news cameras; it turns out these two recently completed the Boston Marathon together, and Scott decided to guide Tom as a way to help raise awareness for his friend’s guide dog non-profit (Tom’s non-profit is working on training guide dogs specifically for running; read more about Tom, a Westchester County native, here: News12 Hudson Valley story, LoHud.com story, Observer.com story).
Scott Jurek leads a group of followers, including the Trail Conference’s Melissa McCutcheon and Josh Howard (green shirts at back of the pack), down Bear Mountain. (Photo credit: Jeremy Apgar)
After the interview, we all passed Perkins Tower (which Scott and his wife touched for good luck) and descended the east face of Bear Mountain. It was pretty cool being led by Scott down this section of trail, which includes more than 800 handhewn granite steps that were put into place with help from more than 700 Trail Conference volunteers. At the Bear Mountain Inn, Scott took a short refueling break before continuing on through the Bear Mountain Trailside Zoo (he enjoyed watching the two big bears playing around) to get to the Bear Mountain Bridge. Josh, Melissa, and I had been running with him for three miles and decided to stop at the bridge; Scott covered nearly 30 more miles that day. Later, we found ourselves in some of the News12 Hudson Valley footage from up at the summit; check out the short video here!
After leaving New York, Scott soon got to Vermont, where he faced thunderstorms and extremely muddy conditions. In New Hampshire, a combination of a stomach bug and the awesome terrain of the White Mountains slowed him down and established a question mark about his ability to get the speed record. Finally, Scott entered Maine, where he canoed a river crossing with help from locals, trudged through the 100-Mile Wilderness, and, after nearly three days of going without sleep, climbed nearly 4,000 feet to claim his victory and complete his personal journey. He called it, “The hardest thing I’ve done in my life!”… which is saying a lot, based on his extensive resume.
Over the course of those 47 days, Scott encountered challenges that many hikers can relate to: painful muscle and knee injuries, foul weather, knee-deep mud, and even a stomach bug for good measure. However, his determination to continue moving forward, his experience with ultrarunning and ability to keep going when physically–and mentally–drained, and his support from an excellent crew and hundreds of ordinary people along the way are what ultimately allowed Scott to complete what he has referred to as his “masterpiece” on top of a list of extraordinary accomplishments of human endurance and perseverance. And speaking of his support crew, led by his wife Jenny, I think Scott would agree that they played a crucial role in his accomplishment, and that surrounding yourself with other people who inspire you is a great way to help you reach your goals.
Beyond the amazing feat itself, Scott accomplished his goal to “inspire others to explore the outdoors and their own personal and life goals.” Daily updates on social media and an online GPS tracker helped inspire fans and keep them informed of his progress. Everywhere Scott went, people shouted words of encouragement, ran alongside him, or even provided vegan snacks. During our short time with Scott, we witnessed more than 25 people running along at one point or another, so who knows how many more hundreds of everyday people were able to directly feed off Scott’s inspirational journey. And through it all, Scott and his crew made sure to not let the desire to set a record supersede his desire to spread an inspirational message; with his down-to-earth nature and smiling optimism, he posed for hundreds of photos, spoke with and cheered on fellow thru-hikers all along the way, and, on the day we joined him, even guided his blind friend up to the summit of Bear Mountain. The previous overall fastest supported thru-hiker, Jennifer Pharr Davis, has been an inspirational ambassador for the A.T. since her trek in 2011, and I’m sure Scott will join her in this role. Jennifer still holds the records for fastest supported thru-hike by a woman, and fastest southbound supported thru-hike; furthermore, as a result of Scott’s journey, she has gained many new fans who recognize just how amazing her own journey was.
While refueling near Hessian Lake, Scott Jurek was gracious enough to pose for a photo with me and others. (Photo credit: Melissa McCutcheon)
Lastly, as a result of the high-profile coverage of this feat of endurance, many have expressed their personal opinions about hiking the A.T. and running the A.T. Some like to walk on the trails; others like to run on the trails. As someone who enjoys experiencing our region’s trails both as a walker and a runner, my favorable opinion of Scott Jurek is admittedly a bit biased, but I feel that the phrase “hike your own hike” is important to keep in mind. Especially along the Appalachian Trail, this phrase embodies the concept of being respectful of every person’s individual personal journey and not passing judgment, as long as it doesn’t restrict the enjoyment of others, harm wildlife or the trail, or promote illegal activities. Scott completed his journey through a combination of running and walking, often for 20-24 hours each day; many may not realize that much of the running was done at a pace on par with a fast walk, especially on uphill sections of trail. Walking, running, skipping… it is all using your feet to move forward along a foot trail to reach your goal, and each method allows one to enjoy and take in the beauty of being on a trail, however they choose.
So please join me in congratulating Scott Jurek on his incredible accomplishment! It was an honor sharing in 0.14% of his incredible Appalachian Trail journey!
Scott Jurek and his crew celebrate on Katahdin. (Photo credit: Luis Escobar)
Read more about this amazing journey here:
I’ll end this post with a great quote from Scott that we overheard from his Bear Mountain summit interview:
Reporter Question: What have been some of the struggles?
Scott Jurek: Some of the biggest struggles I would say are, each day, trying to get myself to get out and do the same thing over again. I mean, when I finish at night…I mean, two nights ago, I finished at 1 a.m. in the morning, and the next morning I’m waking up at 5:30 and hitting the trail again. And that’s the biggest thing, is every day I’m like, “Oh man, I just finished 50 miles!”, you know, so jubilant, and then I remember right away that I’m going to have to wake up and do that again. So, as much as I love being out here, it’s a struggle, and life is a struggle, and it’s in times like that that you learn the most.