Book Review- North: Finding My Way While Running the Appalachian Trail by Scott Jurek and Jenny Jurek

I grew up on the east coast, specifically in West Virginia, which strangely enough is barely part of the Appalachian Trail (strange to me anyway). Nevertheless, I’m pretty familiar with the Appalachian Trail and have hiked through parts of it. The Appalachian Trail runs from Georgia to Maine and is about 2,200 miles long. It is often modified or re-routed, so the exact distance changes over time.

Imagine running this distance, through Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine in 46 days. That is what Scott Jurek did in 2015. At the time, he broke the current record for fastest supported thru-hiking, northbound. This was since broken by Karel Sabbe on August 29, 2018 who completed the trail in 41 days, 7 hours and 39 minutes. Karl Meltzer holds the southbound record for completing the trail on September 18, 2016, in 45 days, 22 hours, and 38 minutes.

This book also delves into the psychological aspects of completing such a task as completing a 2,200 mile-long trail in roughly a month and a half. Early on, Jurek doubted himself and his ability to complete the trail in record time. Those doubts lingered pretty much until the end was clearly in sight, and even then, the record was broken by a mere few hours. This, coming from someone (Jurek) who has won the Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run seven consecutive times, the 135 mile Badwater Ultramarathon twice, Hardrock Hundred and the 153 mile Spartathlon three times.

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I like how the book is broken into sections, beginning with the Deep South, then on to Virginia, Mid-Atlantic, New England, Maine, and the Epilogue. Each section of the trail is described in great detail, including the people the Jureks encounter along the trail and in the surrounding towns. It broke my heart a bit to read about some of the creepy people they met in the Deep South because that’s where I live, but I would hope it was such a small sampling of the people around the trail that it’s not the norm but rather the exception. I enjoyed reading about the outpouring of people who came to run along with Scott, bring him and his crew food, and just cheer him on. I’ve read in some online reviews that some people didn’t like how much Jurek kept referring to his vegan diet, but I wasn’t put off by any of that. I realize being vegan is a big part of his lifestyle, so it makes sense it would have a big part in the book.

One quote I liked from Jurek is “You train not to beat other people but to beat time and previous performance.” This emphasizes the camaraderie Jurek has with some other distance runners like Karl Meltzer, who currently holds the southbound record for the AT. Meltzer, among others, actually helped provide support when Jurek was trying to break the northbound record. The following year, Jurek went out to provide support to Meltzer when Meltzer successfully completed the AT in record time. These are guys who are absolute competitors on the ultramarathon course, but who shake hands at the end and have a beer together, regardless who won.

Stories of people not only enduring but conquering huge quests like this have always fascinated me, like the story of Shackleton in the book “Endurance” by Worsley and others like that, so it’s not surprising I enjoyed this book. I like reading what our minds and bodies are capable of when pushed to extremes. Recently, I wrote a review on Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance Book by Alex Hutchinson. This is basically a compilation of people pushing the limits in many different scenarios so of course I loved the book and highly recommend it.

I found myself not wanting to put this book away at night, which is ultimately my personal gauge if I really enjoy a book or not. Even though I knew how it was going to end, I still found myself pulled into the story and the characters involved. I also liked the unique aspect Scott’s wife Jenny gave by providing her side of the story.

You can find this book at Amazon, your local bookstore, or your public library. The book is 320 pages and also has some photos that were taken along the way on the Appalachian Trail, which I found added to the depth of the story.

Have any of you read this book or Scott Jurek’s other book, “Eat and Run?” Do you also enjoy reading about people pushing their limits and breaking records? Have any of you hiked part or all of the Appalachian Trail? If so, I’d love to hear about your experience!

Happy running!

Donna

 

 

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Book Review- Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance Book by Alex Hutchinson

I’ll cut to the chase here. I absolutely LOVED this book! It’s hands-down one of my favorite running-related books I’ve read in a while. This isn’t just a book for runners, though. It’s a book for any kind of person who is interested in gaining some insight into how the brain influences our bodies when pushed to extreme conditions. Be forewarned, though. If you’re looking for a training manual to help you increase your endurance, this is not the book for that.

There are a lot of scientific references in this book but don’t let that scare you away if you normally don’t like a lot of “science talk.” I’m a scientist and perhaps part of the draw for me was all of the science, but I don’t think it’s too over-the-top for most people. There are plenty of anecdotes and stories told throughout the book to keep things interesting. For example, the backdrop of the entire book is the 2-hour marathon attempt (Breaking2 documentary can be watched here) which the author comes back to every few chapters and helps keep the story going.

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The book itself is divided into three parts. In the first part “Mind and Muscle,” Hutchinson goes through the history of endurance research and the various theories used to explain it:  the “human machine” approach, Tim Noakes’ central governor theory, the psychobiological model by Samuele Marcora, and others. In the second part, “Limits,” he gives specific stories of people who have either intentionally or accidentally pushed or exceeded their limits in various ways such as pain, muscle, oxygen, heat, thirst, and fuel. Hutchinson vividly describes the experiences of polar explorers, Death Zone climbers, lost desert wanderers, and deep-sea freedivers among others as he looks for indications of which theories of endurance best fit the facts. In the third section, “Limit Breakers,” he explores various new approaches to expanding the apparent boundaries of endurance, ranging from mindfulness and brain training to electric brain stimulation, including accounts of his own experiences with some of them.

The last chapter of the book is about belief. The author states, “One of the key lessons I’ve taken away from writing Endure is that races aren’t just plumbing contests, measuring whose heart can deliver the most oxygen to their muscles. The reality is far more complex, and I think the first major post-Breaking2 marathon will be a great chance to see the “curious elasticity” of human limits in action.” Back to this chapter in a moment.

This book is 320 pages so it’s not a quick read. I found myself not wanting to put it down and I ended up staying up a bit later than usual sometimes when I read it before bed. Some of the stories are so engaging and thrilling, I found myself so engrossed that I just wanted to hear how the story ended before putting the book away for the night.

My take-away from the book is that we are capable of so much more than we realize. Sometimes our brain is just trying to protect us (if we’re running outside and it’s 90 degrees) but sometimes we have to take control and tell our brain that we CAN do this, whatever the current challenge is, even if it’s hard, or maybe especially if it’s hard. Positive self-talk is no secret and we’ve all heard how important it is for reaching our best effort, but we need to go beyond that if we want to push ourselves further.

I especially like one of the last pages of the chapter “Belief,” where the author states the following:  “This book isn’t a training manual. Still, it’s impossible to explore the nature of human limits without wondering about the best ways to transcend them. In the end, the most effective limit-changers are still the simplest-so simple that we’ve barely mentioned them. If you want to run faster, it’s hard to improve on the training haiku penned by Mayo Clinic physiologist Michael Joyner, the man whose 1991 journal paper foretold the two-hour-marathon chase:

Run a lot of miles

Some faster than your race pace

Rest once in a while”

Have any of you read this book? Are you interested in our brain’s involvement in pushing ourselves in any sport or activity? Do any of you have book recommendations for me?

Happy running!

Donna