I ran with a living legend. For a few hours, somewhere in Pennsylvania, for about 25 kilometres, I accompanied Scott Jurek as he was attempting to beat the record for crossing the Appalachian Trail.
It all started with a Facebook message from Frédéric: “Do you know anyone who could make an airport run for Alexis? He needs a lift from JFK to go meet Scott Jurek on the AT to get some photos for Grand Trail.”
Let’s see: a seven-hour drive from Montreal to New York… at least five hours from New York to some unknown point on the Appalachian Trail, which we’d only find out about from Scott’s wife Jenny once we were on our way… sleeping on-site in the car… following Scott to get the photos… then heading back to Montreal. And all in the middle of the week?
“Sure, I can do it!”
My friend Frédéric and his brother Alexis were working on their book Grand Trail, a magnificent tome entirely dedicated to the world’s most wonderful ultra-trail courses, as well as to the champions of the sport. Among these champions, of course, is Scott Jurek—a frequent winner of the Western States, Hard Rock, and Badwater races, among other achievements. A veritable iconic figure in the field. And a unique opportunity I just couldn’t pass up.
So off I went. One hour later, I was dealing with an incredulous border agent who wasn’t too convinced with either my story or my attempts to explain it in broken English. “You’re going to drive hundreds of miles to pick up a Frenchman at the airport, and then go take pictures of a guy in the forest?” Yup… well, when you put it that way, it does sound kind of shady.
Navigating the suburbs of New York to meet Alexis a few minutes after he got off the plane required a bit of divine intervention… but it was nothing compared to our hunt for Jurek. You see, the Appalachian Trail is quite narrow, crossing through mountains and forests. At certain points, it will cut across a road before making its way back into the greenery. We had to find a runner who might be on the move or asleep, in the middle of the night, in light rain, at one of these anonymous intersections in the darkest depths of Pennsylvania.
As we more or less drove around in circles along country roads, through the drops of rain on the windshield, I suddenly saw two minivans parked under the trees just off the road. I hit the brakes, parked, and we got out. There was Scott Jurek, half-naked, rinsing off after his twenty-first day of running. Alongside him were his wife and two other ultra-trail legends, Karl Meltzer and Rickey Gates. We made it! At dawn, it would be time for the photos!
“Go big or go home,” Scott said as we talked during the few kilometres I spent in his company. To end his career on a high note, he didn’t just want to do things halfway. Beating an incredible record that was too many years old seemed like a worthy idea: a 3,500-kilometre trail, starting out in Georgia and ending in Maine… a daily ultra-marathon for 46 days in a row.
If you think running is hard, try doing it like Scott… that is, doing a succession of ultras alongside unknowns (like me) who join up throughout the day to accompany him, encourage him, congratulate him, or talk to him. And Scott, depending on the mood, would smile, answer, or stay quiet… always moving on ahead.
Throughout it all, Jenny, alongside him all the way, had to manage the media and friends who came to help out for a few hours or a few days, navigating from one trail crossing to the next with the minivan to resupply her ultra-marathon runner husband at regular intervals, taking obscure forest roads unrecognized by any GPS, feeding the animal and taking care of him from morning to night.
Once Alexis’s mission was accomplished and my fantasy of sharing a few steps with an authentic champion had come true, I turned on my car’s navigation system to see how far we were from Montreal, since I had to be back at work the next morning. Click, click, click… 950 kilometres. Oh…
The next day, completely exhausted but happy, I logged on to Facebook and posted a photo of Scott and me valiantly cutting through the dense American forest. Since I hadn’t told any of my friends about this little getaway, many thought it was a gag. But the truth is, I was there!