Ultramarathon legend Scott Jurek finds same joys as weekend warriors in Wasatch Back

Published: Saturday, June 28 2014 10:10 p.m. MDT

From left, Meghan Schott, Kami Abercrombie, Heidi Hilgendorf and Whitney Lee cross the finish line with Team Viking at the Ragnar Relay at Treasure Mountain Junior High School in Park City on Saturday, June 28, 2014.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

PARK CITY — Ultramarathon legend Scott Jurek might not have known much about the Ragnar Relay's Wasatch Back when he agreed to join Team Clif BarBarbarian in this weekend's race. But he knows quite a lot about his sport's unpredictable and transformative magic.

“I really liked the idea of bringing people together,” said Jurek, who's won nearly three dozen major titles and set 16 course records in 20 years of running the world’s toughest — and longest — courses. “And I really liked that it wasn’t their normal thing.”

In other words, the fact that he was the only self-described runner on the team made the experience even more intriguing. In addition to Clif Bar founder and owner Gary Erickson, Jurek’s teammates included professional rock climbers Timmy O’Neill and Alex Honnold and free skier Caroline Gleich.

“Employees from Clif, other athletes, it was an opportunity to hang out in an unusual way,” Jurek said. “And it’s doing something that bonded us together.”

Normally running 20.8 miles wouldn’t be much of a challenge for the man who’s won almost every major ultramarathon in the country, including Badwater and the Western States 100. But Jurek, who is also known for showing up at races unannounced and helping support other runners, said a person doesn’t have to run 100 miles to find life-altering moments in the sport.

“I knew it was still going to be tough,” he said of the race’s format, which asks runners to run three different legs, hours apart, in a 12-person relay format. “Any time you stop running, wait for a few hours, and then go hard for another 7 miles, and then stop again, it’s hard.”

And it isn’t just the mileage — or the physical toll — that matters most for the more than 13,000 Ragnar participants.

“Running is an experience that people can learn more about themselves in all formats,” he said. “You can do that in a 5K, you can do that in a marathon, you can do that in an ultramarathon, and you can do that in a relay race like this. It’s not about making it the toughest or most difficult or something that only you get to experience. It’s about bringing people together to have that experience.”

It’s something, O’Neill said, he’d never even heard of until Clif employees asked him to join this weekend’s fun.

“I never even knew these (races) existed,” he said. “What’s interesting is that I’m not a runner, but I could see myself becoming a runner as a result of this race, wanting to improve my ability as a runner, wanting to come back and do this again, which I’m sure I will.”

He moved between edifying and inspiring moments peppered with sheer agony and suffering.

“The one story I would tell to embody my experience in this race would be the leg on my 45th birthday in the morning (on Saturday), when the clouds are above us and they’re lighting up with pink and it’s incredibly beautiful and I’m running past people, and I put my hand out, and they give me some skin, and I give them some skin, and it was really beautiful and then I had a really wicked dry heave.”

He doesn’t wait for the listeners to stop laughing before he explains why the mixture of pain and joy is so alluring.

“I’ll start really high and then I’ll remember how bad it was and then I’ll forget how bad it was, and I’ll only remember the good,” he said. “They call that Type 2 fun.”

He said his actual favorite moment came when Ragnar co-founder Tanner Bell, who drove for the team in his first Wasatch Back experience as a participant, were talking as they drove through the Ogden valley as everyone else slept.

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