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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Why I Love Trail Running and How it Can Make You a Faster Road Runner

I grew up in the southern part of West Virginia and since the Appalachian Mountains run through the entire state, pretty much the whole state is full of mountains, hills, and nature. I remember spending a lot of my childhood at state parks and walking on the trails with my mom, brother, or friends. My childhood friends and I would ride our bikes through trails and we would go for walks through the many wooded areas around where I grew up.

In other words, trails are nothing new for me. As an adult, I now live in North Carolina and have access to numerous trails near my home. If I get tired of the trails that are within walking distance of my house, I can always drive 30 minutes or less and get to many different trails at several different parks that I can run, walk, or ride my bike on. You should know when I say trails here, I mean everything from dirt trails that go past ponds, lakes, or creeks and have tree roots sticking out in random places to mulch-covered trails in wooded areas of parks that are less “technical.” I also run on asphalt trails, but that’s not what I’m referring to here.

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About 2 or 3 years ago I decided to do more trail running and I have to say it did not go well. I was running along a very thin dirt trail that was lined with giant rocks on either side. From the beginning, I didn’t have a good feeling about running here and I should have listened to my gut but I kept going. After some time, I fell and hit my face just below my right eye on one of the rocks. Fortunately I didn’t hit my head or do major damage to myself but it did scare me and I had a nice scar on my right cheek for quite some time. I couldn’t help but think if that would have been just a fraction higher, that would have been my eye. I haven’t been running on that trail since then and I backed off running on other trails after that happened. I have to add that I recently had a pretty bad fall when I was running on an asphalt trail and I got bruised and cut up much worse on the asphalt trail than on this dirt trail.

Last year I began getting my courage back up to run on dirt trails and began incorporating about one trail run a week into my weekly runs. This year I’ve found myself running on trails or portions of trails about 2 or 3 times a week and I’ve gotten more comfortable running on trails. I’ve found trail running can be a great way to beat the heat, as they’re usually very shaded and feel several degrees cooler than running on the roadways.

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A trail without much mulch but more gravel and dirt.

I also started noticing that when I would run on asphalt trails or on roads, my times seemed to be getting better; I have been getting faster. Maybe it was because I started a new training plan but maybe it was because I have been running on trails through the woods. Without changing where I run and not running on trails at all, there’s no way to know. Maybe it’s a combination of the two.

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One of the mulch-covered trails I sometimes run on.

Don’t just take my word for it that trail running can make you a faster runner. Runner’s World has an article on this very topic that you can read here.  In addition to helping you increase your speed on roads, running on trails has many advantages such as helping to make your ankles and legs stronger, helping with balance, and helping to strengthen muscles that often get neglected with road running. Running on trails is also great for those runners such as myself that are over the age of 40 because the softer surface is easier on your joints.

If you’re a bit nervous about running on trails, you can gradually ease into it both in distance and trail difficulty. Find some nice wide trails near where you live that are pretty flat without big tree roots sticking out or big rocks on or along the trail and run there for a short run. Gradually increase how long you’re running on trails like this until you feel comfortable. Once this seems easy, branch out and try a bit hillier trails.

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My daughter actually built and hung this bird house as part of a Girl Scout project in a park where I run trails!

Another thing you may be concerned about when running on trails is encountering wild animals. If you live in an area where there are bears or mountain lions or other large wild cats, I strongly suggest you run with a friend (or a few friends), a big dog if you have one, and talk to other runners in the area about where the safest trails are. Fortunately for me, snakes are the worst I have seen on a trail when running. Last weekend in fact, I came across what looked like a juvenile copperhead snake crossing over the path. One time I remember seeing a giant black snake lying across the trail and it wasn’t moving in either direction. I certainly wasn’t going to jump over it even it was a nonpoisonous snake, so I just waited for it to slither off the path before continuing on my way. Generally if you leave snakes alone, they will leave you alone.

The funny part of all of this is, I’ve never run a race on a trail. The closest I ever came to a trail race is when I ran a race on loose gravel and dirt along a river in Nevada. It was perfectly flat and more what I would call a small dirt road than a trail. The race was one of my least favorites, though, because it was so hot, not scenic at all in my opinion, and I was just ready to be done with that race. You can read about the Laughlin Half Marathon in Nevada my 11th state of my quest for a half marathon in all 50 states. Not that I’m necessarily planning on running a trail race but I guess you never know. It seems like most races on trails are ultras and believe me, I have no intention of running one of those!

Do any of you run on trails but consider yourself a road racer? Have any of you run a trail race and if so which ones are your favorites?

Happy running!

Donna