July 1, 2015, a glorious midsummer day in Maine, and he was supposed to be there, 100 or so miles from Mt. Katahdin and the end of the Appalachian Trail. Scott Jurek was supposed to be on the verge of shattering the speed record for hiking the AT’s 2,190 rugged miles. But he was nowhere close.
He wasn’t even in Maine. He had been walking and running and limping for 36 days, and he was still 442 miles from his goal. Shattering anything was out of the question. To simply equal the record, he would have to travel about 50 miles a day—for nine straight days.
Sleep deprivation had set in many weeks before. There had been a torn muscle, too, and a twisted knee, and a fever. Now he looked like a prisoner of war and his photos on social media had prompted anxious emails and phone calls to his wife, Jenny, who was driving a support van, from which she provided food and a place to sleep.
Jenny and Scott stood together on the trail in sloping woods, a day’s hike from New Hampshire’s White Mountains, where the trail was slick, twisty, narrow, and treacherous. He had just spent three and a half days slogging through Vermont. It had rained almost the entire time.
It was raining now, a chilly, stinging rain on a miserable afternoon in the woods outside Hanover. Scott and Jenny Jurek stood on the trail before what was supposed to have been a triumphant descent to Dartmouth College, where crowds would be waiting to cheer him on. He would get energy from his fans, he always did.
But he was behind schedule. And instead of striding triumphantly downhill, he cried. He held Jenny. He cried some more.
He was supposed to be invigorated, radiating the joy that only a long-distance hiker who has been outside for more than a month knows, oozing the kind of wisdom that only a man who takes on majestically painful and stupendously difficult tasks for no apparent reason, or at least for no reason that most people fathom, knows.
He kept crying, then apologized for all he had put her through. “Let’s just go home,” he said. “F--- it.”
Why didn’t they go home? More to the point, why did they leave home in the first place? Why did Scott ever consider racing the clock in one of the few places in America—the Appalachian Trail—where clock-racing was frowned upon if not held in contempt?
He had already cemented his reputation as one of the best ultrarunners the world had ever seen, winning the Western States 100 a record seven times in a row. He’d collected trophies at some of the world’s most grueling footraces, such as the Badwater Ultramarathon and Hardrock Hundred. What did he have left to prove? That he was faster than Jennifer Pharr Davis, the current record holder, a hiker with no ultrarunning medals? Was this just a stunt, a chance to gain some attention for his sponsors and plant a big exclamation point at the end of his running career?
Or was he looking for something else? Was he like the thousands of other thru-hikers who set off each year, seeking answers on America’s long trails? And could he find what he sought by going fast where others go slow?
For questions like these, it’s best to go back to the beginning. They had been planning to have children since before they were married. Less than a year after their 2012 wedding, Jenny miscarried when she was seven weeks pregnant. A month later, after emergency surgery, the couple backpacked a 100-mile section of the Pacific Crest Trail—a leisurely trek through the San Jacinto Mountains in Southern California. They talked about all the long hikes they would do with their children. This was just a speed bump on their path to a bright, family-filled future.
In spring 2015, Jenny miscarried again, at eight and a half weeks. Another couple might have stayed home and let the daily routine soothe the pain. Another couple might have embarked on a relaxing vacation, on which they could console each other and let Jenny’s body heal. This couple decided Scott would attempt to set a speed record on the Appalachian Trail—something they had talked about many times, but never under these circumstances. Jenny would handle logistics, food, communications, and everything else.
“We needed to get away from the hospitals, the clinics, the specialists,” Jenny says. “The thought of escaping into the woods for six weeks sounded divine to both of us. All the heartache and disappointment, all the pain and grief, the feelings of not being able to control something. I needed to get lost in the woods and reconnect with myself and with Scott.”
So two days after her surgery on April 30, Jenny found a promising-looking van online, and a few days later, against medical advice, she and Scott flew from Colorado to Chicago to pick it up.
They drove back through a snowstorm and went to work preparing the van. Many people spend a year planning such a trip. They spent about two weeks of 16-hour days building shelves, inserting solar panels and a bed, putting in flooring, rigging a propane stove. The van, driven by Jenny, would allow Scott to forgo camping (and a heavy pack), and spend nearly every waking hour making miles.
“I wanted to challenge myself and put myself through a difficult situation,” Scott says. “When you do that, you learn something. I love to be out hiking and doing long-distance trips. I’d never done a thru-hike and it had been on my list. . . So I wanted to mix things up in life, to try new things. Not to find something bigger and harder than anything I’d done—and obviously, this was—but to crack myself open, to learn something.”
To that end, Scott chose to start in Georgia and head north, which he considered more difficult than a southbound hike. (In 2011, Jennifer Pharr Davis had set the supported speed record going south. It took her 46 days.) Northbound, the hardest mountains present themselves only in the last quarter of the trek, when Scott’s body would be worn down.
Scott started on May 27, covering 53 miles on day one. Jenny joined him, running, for 8 miles. (She would frequently join him like this, but would spend most of her time shuttling the van.) The running community soon got word of Scott’s attempt, and the news quickly spread to the hiking community. Thru-hikers wanted to stop and chat, and Scott obliged. People wanted selfies, and he obliged. They wanted autographs. No one left disappointed.
“It’s one of his weaknesses,” says David Horton, a friend of Scott’s who has held speed records on the AT, Long Trail, and PCT. “He’s a good ambassador for running and stuff. But another hiker would have an easier time.” At many road crossings, 20 to 30 people waited, and they all wanted a picture with him.
Scott wanted the record, but, he says, he also wanted to inspire people to get outdoors, to hike, to run—to challenge themselves. He carried a GPS with him and posted his location, so that fans could track his progress. More fans, more inspiration. (And more publicity, it must be said.)
Clots of people would run with him. Parents would bring their children to hike for a mile with Scott. A man who had been in remission from cancer told Scott that he ran 30 miles as a present to himself for surviving.
But all this inspiration came at a cost: time. To make up for lost time schmoozing with fans, Scott had to travel later and later into the night, while still starting before sunrise every day. He was covering ground when others slept, breaking spiderwebs every morning, and breaking them again in the middle of the night. Hikers started calling him Web Walker.
He was called other things, too. Like anyone who seeks attention on social media these days, Scott collected trolls as well as fans. Many of them would point out that a “supported” journey like Scott’s wasn’t really thru-hiking at all, as he had a van to sleep in each night and someone to prepare him food. Purists argued that this is cheating, that the “self-supported” record is the real prize. The real heroes, they said, are people like Heather “Anish” Anderson, who currently holds the self-supported speed record on both the AT (54 days) and PCT (60 days).
The supported versus self-supported debate is a topic of spirited conversation among thru-hikers, even though no official records are kept and all times are on the honor system. And some critics think going fast is just wrong, support or not. As one AT hiker neatly summed up: “A talented musician could play Chopin’s Nocturnes faster than anyone else, but is that what they’re actually about?”
The rebuttal is captured in the unofficial motto that applies to all long trails: “Hike your own hike.” Scott not only knows it, he’s one of its evangelists.
“Look, there are some people who are diligent and never get in a car, and don’t even hitchhike between towns and road crossings,” he says. “Everyone has his or her own viewpoint of how the trail should be hiked, or run, or whatever. There are times when I want to go slow, there are times when I go for records. There’s no speed limit on the Appalachian Trail. There are a lot of ways to hike. My way isn’t better.”
But it was about to get harder.
Scott tweaked his right knee descending a stretch in the Smoky Mountains on day six. The next day, favoring that knee while coming down into Devil Fork Gap outside Erwin, Tennessee, he tore his left quadriceps. It was mile 310. Almost 1,900 miles to go.
He slept in a hotel that night, rooming with Jenny and his friend Horton, who had been with them the past three days and 132 miles. Scott showered for the first time in a week. He told Jenny and Horton he thought the trip was done.
Horton, who had faced injuries of his own on various runs, told him to trust his body—to run, or walk, or limp, or shuffle through the pain. Scott would “just have to find a way to keeping moving on the trail and let it heal as you’re moving.”
The next day, June 2, Scott hiked with Horton and made it 37 miles. Scott wore a compression band, grimacing and swinging his bad leg with each step.
He made 39 miles the next day. He was icing both legs every night and still in pain, but he was moving. He was also at least a day behind Jennifer Pharr Davis’s average of 47 miles a day.
On his fourth day post-injury, he made 50 miles. He did it again the next day, and again the day after. He was feeling good, stopping to chat with other hikers and fans who had been tracking his progress on Facebook. Scott always liked socializing, as did Jenny, and they both were aware that the more people who followed Scott, on the trail and on social media, the more people might buy his book about running and eating vegan (full disclosure: I was the co-author). So chatting up the other hikers represented business as well as pleasure.
But every day, more people wanted him to stop and chat, which meant he was covering less ground, which meant he had to spend more time on the trail in the dark, where he could make up lost time, which meant less time with Jenny. Even on the early-morning runs, the time the couple had set aside for themselves, hikers and runners would ask to chat, to run with them. Soon, the only time they had alone was in the van at night, and even that time was getting shorter, because Scott was running so long into the night.
During what little time they had together, they often discussed where Jenny might get ice, or why internet connections were so hard to find in the hamlets along the way. And Jenny hadn’t talked to her friends in weeks, spending most of her time wrestling their beast of a van down rain-slicked, unmarked mountain roads. Was this the journey they’d imagined in the days after Jenny’s miscarriage? Were they getting away from pain and grief?
Even though they had embarked on this journey together, they were on different paths. Jenny started to resent the time Scott was spending with others, because, in addition to reducing their time together, it was making his days longer and more difficult. Scott wondered what the trip would be like without distance quotas or trackers or watches. He thought how nice it would be to just be another thru-hiker, “so I could have dinner with Jenny and have a beer with my buddies at the end of the day and just hang around at camp.”
But you don’t win the Western States 100 seven times in a row by hanging around camp when things get rough. Scott, then 41, and Jenny, 38, are also competitive athletes (Jenny’s a climber). So while it was true they wanted to spend time in the woods, and to get away from “all that sorrow,” as Jenny says, and “inspire others,” as Scott says, their journey was wrapped up in a shared goal. They had a record to break. Sometimes Jenny had to be the one to remember that.
Through Virginia, Jenny reminded Scott during the 8 miles or so a day they would run together, when he would stop to schmooze with a fan. “You just spent 20 minutes,” she said. Twenty-minute stops, at five a day, means more than an hour and a half. Over 46 days, that’s two days of walking, gone.
“I’d be so mad,” Jenny says. “I’m like, ‘Stop talking to all these people. Stop.’ And then he’s like, ‘Well, if it comes down to just a few hours then I’ll blame the fans.’”
Some days, Scott seemed to have time for everyone but his wife. Any fan who wanted to talk, Scott talked to. Any fan who wanted a selfie, got a selfie. Jenny? Jenny, who also wanted to talk? Who just wanted to be alone with her husband? Who had been feeding him, wiping him down, fetching ice in towns that weren’t on maps? That was trickier.
On a warm afternoon in Massachusetts, day 31, during the only substantive argument they had the entire trip—neither will say about what—she mentioned that sometimes he seemed that he was paying more attention to his fans than to her. He explained that if the trip was going to help them both, he had to entertain the fans—it was partly business—but of course she came first. She grabbed the GPS tracker from him. She told Scott she was going to throw the device into the woods unless it was turned off.
“Me or the tracker!” she yelled. “Me or the tracker!” (Jenny says she wasn’t serious. At the time, Scott wasn’t so sure.)
“No,” Scott said. “No, don’t. It’s. . .”
Just as she turned it off, another fan appeared. Scott knew him. Would Scott mind running with him for a little while?
Jenny looked at her husband. He knew the look.
Scott asked the guy if he would mind running ahead 5 miles to the next crossing. Scott said he needed to work something out with his wife. And they worked it out over the next 5 miles and Scott promised he wouldn’t take her for granted anymore. And the tracker stayed off.
The next day, it was back on.
In Vermont, he became weak and feverish. Each mile was taking longer. He was returning to the van at 1:30 a.m., at 2 a.m. Every day he would hit the trail by 6:30. Rain and more rain. He looked cadaverous. His scent was changing. Jenny thought he smelled like compost, or something fermenting.
His deterioration was like nothing he’d known before. He had run 135 miles through Death Valley when temperatures averaged 120°F. He had raced over seven 13,000-foot peaks and up and down mountains for a total of 66,000 feet in elevation change—like scaling Mt. Everest and back. He had run for 24 hours straight. He had puked, hallucinated, trembled, and cried—and he had won and/or set records in each event. None demanded as much from him as the AT.
“It was way harder than anything I’ve ever done,” says Scott. “With shorter races, you know it’s going to last only so long. This goal seemed so far away. Getting out day after day, no matter the weather, no matter how my body felt, that was the hardest mental component.” No doubt that’s a challenge all thru-hikers, regardless of pace, will recognize.
By the time they crossed into New Hampshire, he was pushing his limit and was still only covering 44 miles a day. On July 1, day 36, they were due to arrive at Dartmouth College, where they were expecting to be greeted by scores of fans and friends. But the crowd was much smaller than they had anticipated. The rain had kept them away.
Scott was disappointed, but mostly worried because he was a full day off pace. He knew that to set the record, not only would there be longer days on the trail, there would be longer days apart.
Scott looked at his wife. They were supposed to be reconnecting, recovering. Maybe they’d been wrong. Maybe they should have stayed home as the doctors suggested. That was when he started sobbing. He grabbed her, put his head on her shoulder, and continued crying.
“I’m so sorry I’m putting you through this,” he bawled. “Let’s just go home. F--- it.”
But of course they didn’t go home. The dreams—for the record and for their future—that had propelled them to the start on Springer Mountain would prevent them from quitting before arriving atop Katahdin. Scott slogged through New Hampshire. Two miles after crossing into Maine, he scaled Goose Eye Mountain, with Jenny. It was early evening, and they had never seen such light. Soft, golden, shimmering. A single shaft illuminated the summit.
The next day, Scott arrived at the van smiling. July 7. Day 42. To Jenny, he seemed oddly cheerful. She didn’t know that he had been working numbers in his mind. He was exhausted, weak, and he had four days and 200 miles to go—twisting, climbing, dropping miles. He hadn’t managed 50 miles in a day since a week earlier in the White Mountains. It had taken him 20 hours. The math was irrefutable. Scott felt some relief.
“I screwed up,” he told Jenny. The numbers didn’t work out. “It’s over. I’m so sorry.” He regretted missing the record. But he was crushed at disappointing his wife.
Jenny didn’t say anything for a full minute. She just looked at her husband.
“No f---ing way,” she said. “We can do it.”
Day and night didn’t mean much those last 200 miles. He slept 20, 30 minutes at a time on the trail.
He hiked 22 hours on his penultimate segment, arriving at the van at 4:30 a.m. He craved sleep. It would be so nice to just stay in the van for four or five hours.
But he thought of Jenny. He thought of what she had been through, for the past 45 days, for the 45 days before the trip, and the 45 days before that. He was doing this trip for her. He was doing it with her. She was doing it for him, and with him. And Jenny said the math did work, but only if he kept going. He sat up at 5:30 a.m. and was breaking spiderwebs again at 6.
He covered 50 miles that final day, just as he had the previous three. He arrived at the summit of Mt. Katahdin on July 12, exactly 46 days, eight hours, and seven minutes after starting.
He beat the record by three hours.
A dozen people had followed Scott up the final mile or so, and at the summit, they and others who were already there shouted and cheered. A friend surprised him with a bottle of champagne and Scott shook it, and when he popped the cork, champagne sprayed and bubbled. There was laughter and more shouting. But what Scott felt most was not elation, or delight. Mostly, it was peace.
“Utter calm and stillness,” he says. Part of it was relief. “A feeling of I don’t have to keep moving forward.”
Scott took his time descending to the base of Katahdin, easing down over the course of four celebratory hours. Three Baxter State Park rangers were waiting at the bottom, and they handed him three citations: drinking alcohol, littering, and hiking with an oversized group. (The latter two charges were later dropped; Scott paid a fine for alcohol consumption, though he says he had only two sips and thought a ranger had OK’d it.)
The dustup with park rangers generated more mainstream news than anything he’d done on the hike. Social media lit up with criticism. That he was obsessed with fame. That he was in it for the money. That his huge ego and Ahab-like obsession prevented him from connecting to other thru-hikers and blinded him to the true gifts of the AT—the quiet moments, the slow moments.
“I couldn’t give a sh-- less if he’s just run 2,200 miles or whatever, he can wait until he’s another 10mi away to get all the media vomit over with,” someone posted on Reddit.
Baxter State Park officials posted a blistering note on the park’s Facebook page, suggesting Scott’s hike was a “corporate event” that had no place in the park.
Scott was indignant. He had been running ultramarathons long before he saw any prize money, and he had been backpacking long before the ultras. Not connecting to people? He had connected with so many people that Jenny had to scold him many times to cut the chatter and get moving. Going too fast? He had averaged less than 4 mph on the trail, not dawdling, certainly, but not sprinting, either. “I just walked for a lot more hours in a day than anyone,” he says.
The criticism rankled, especially because it missed the real reason he says he made the trip, the reason he didn’t fully understand himself until the trip was over.
“It was a way for us to digest and contemplate what life had handed us,” he says. “It was a way to reenergize ourselves, to deal with what we have in life. It was therapy for both of us.”
Jenny agrees. “Being on the AT with Scott really fortified our relationship,” she says. “It made me feel like if we can survive that, we can survive anything.”
But no matter how much Scott talked about healing and nature and inspiring others, he did have a name, and a book, and sponsors (who didn’t pay a nickel for the trip), and some people only saw those. They only saw a competitive cuss, obsessed with fame and fortune.
He could live with the misunderstandings. He had endured ticks and bears and rain and cold. He could endure overzealous park rangers and trash-talking trolls. What he still had trouble dealing with, though, was making Jenny sad. He felt bad for putting her through so much.
Jenny? Jenny was doing OK. She was climbing, working. This summer, they’ll be going back to the PCT. Another 100 miles, another big section, and they plan to take their time. They’ll go slow. Because they want to. And because they’ll have to.
When Scott and Jenny head into the High Sierra in late summer, they will be carrying more weight than normal. They’re fine with that. They’re more than fine.
Their child is due in June.
Steve Friedman's "Heaven Sent," about trail angels on the PCT, appeared in June 2015