Ultramarathon runner Scott Jurek ran the entirety of the Appalachian trail – 2,160 miles of brutal, mountainous terrain on the States' east coast – last summer in 46 days, eight hours, and seven minutes, averaging 48 miles per day. So he knows what’s up with fitness gear that can withstand some brutal circumstances.
He’s an extraordinary athlete, and I recently had the chance to ask about the gear he used on his Appalachian long-haul, a list of which you’ll find below.
The interview, which has been edited and condensed, ranges from pneumatic compression boot, to Soylent, to where Jurek thinks technology fits in the running world.
How did you settle on the list of gear you took on your trip to Appalachia? Do you have trainers who recommend specific items?
Some of them are my partners, so I’ve been working with them for years, like Cliff Bar, I’ve been working with them for 12 years—and Brooks Sports, which is my apparel and footwear sponsor. Other stuff I actually bought. Individuals or companies send me products, and then some things I just did the research online, talked to people. Sometimes, I just took a chance. This is the first time I used a product by Delorme, the Inreach Explorer, which is the GPS tracking device that I used. It was a new device that I’d never really explored, so we figured things out along the way.
Is your gear list now different than what you ran with when you started out? Do you use a lot more than you used to, or are there things you originally didn’t have and now you feel like you can’t live without?
I’m definitely a minimalist, I don’t like to have a lot of gear, and the sport that I do is all about being light and going faster. So the gear I have with me definitely has to serve a purpose. A 46-day endeavour is definitely different than a 100-mile race that you finish in one day. So the gear is modified based on my needs, what functional attributes I need. For instance, Black Diamond Z poles, I don’t bring them on all my runs — I only brought them on this journey because I needed them. The Appalachian Trail is so rugged and hilly, and it has steep descents. So it depends.
That also goes for a GPS tracker. I used that technology a lot to keep people informed of where I was, and it allowed people to really watch at their desk at work. It was a way of showing the public what was going on. It was a great way for me to track my progress as well as a safety device, and it was good for accountability. People knew it was really the route I was taking. And my wristwatch was a Garmin GPS watch, and that is something I used every day.
Does it make you feel safer to broadcast your GPS coordinates to the public or is it kinda weird to have everyone know where you are at all times?
Someone likened my trip to The Truman Show, because I was living in this world where people were able to watch me. As an athlete I try to separate from that. My wife was my crew and she had my support vehicle that I’d sleep in most nights. It was weird for her because sometimes I’d have ten or fifteen people showing up on the trailhead, knocking on our van. Sometimes she wouldn’t have reception, but those people knew exactly where I was, since they’d come from the town. It was a little nerve-wracking in some ways: she was on these dirt roads in the middle of nowhere from Georgia to Maine.
Did you take a phone with you?
I did. I was using an iPhone 6, and it was my camera, it was my communication device. It seems weird, if you’d have asked me 15 years ago if I’d bring a phone on a run I’d be like, heck no, I’d never do that. But it does anything, and it allowed me to pull up the map the GPS was sending out. The phone is the ultimate tool. It became my music player, and I’d have it playing from the speaker, not headphones, so I could hear rattlesnakes rattling or bears crawling through the woods. I would try to do a few updates on social media with it while I was on the mountain — I actually had better service than my wife, who was on dirt roads or in small towns, because I’d be on a mountain ridge getting signal.
The technology can really enhance the outdoor experience, you just want to make sure you use it in a fashion that doesn’t disconnect you from the total experience.
My dad always yells at me for running with music, because he thinks the experience is more pure without it. You’re such a great runner, I was curious to hear if you felt that using technology complements the sport, or if it detracts.
There’d be times where I needed the music to motivate me, but other times I’d just take it all in. I was never all closed off, since it was pretty low volume, but it gave me energy sometimes. I never did any podcast listening or ebooks, but you’re out there for so many hours, for so long. And I talked to other hikers, and it’s how they communicate. Some said “We’re out here for six months, I know it sounds weird, but we stream movies sometimes. Sometimes you’re in your tent and you want a little of the outside world.”
I know purists might think that’s crazy, but it was fascinating to talk to other through hikers about how they use technology.
Do you stream music or do you have MP3s on your phone?
I used Spotify. If where I was, I wouldn’t be able to stream, I had stuff downloaded so I could listen offline.
Would you ever take the Apple Watch out?
I don’t think the technology is there. You still need your phone, so as somebody who travels lightweight, if I were to have one device, the Watch isn’t quite where it needs to be.
Are there any fitness gadgets popular with runners right now that you think are unnecessary?
I used to be an anti-music person. I believe in really connecting with nature, being aware of what’s around you. I never thought I’d bring a phone. And I think it’s up to the individual. You just need to be sensitive to other users on the trail; some people put their headphones in and they’re tuned out to everybody else, they don’t want to interact with other people, and they may be less polite. So you just need to be careful with technology, and make sure you’re aware of your surroundings. Be aware that some people aren’t into it, be a smart user of technology. Just like in everyday life, you don’t want people on the phone in certain situations. When you’re out in the wilderness, it’s not that people want to escape the modern world, but they’re going there for a different experience. There’s a politeness and an unwritten code about technology and how you use it.
Some people thought I had too much technology, like the GPS, they thought I was trying to publicise it and do it for my sponsors. So it’s a fine line. There’s always people who aren’t going to like the way you’re using technology.
Like my dad!
Yeah, so I’ve tried to be open to it. There are a lot of benefits from a safety standpoint, especially with this Delorme device. As devices like this get smaller, people think it’s something they’d use. It helps men and women feel comfortable out in the woods, especially women. Family members aren’t aware of where their family members go. [Delorme] lets you send for help, and that’s what I think is cool about these new devices. Delorme relies on satellite texting, so you can text from anywhere, you don’t need a signal. That can avoid a lot of problems with search and rescues, or just getting word out that someone is running late.
It’s like an anti-127 Hours device.
Exactly. With technology, you can still have adventure. And there’s times you need to call on it. But some people want to get lost and not be found, or all connected, and that’s fine too.
I read an interview you did in 2011 where you said you liked the barefoot running trend. I’m wondering if you still feel the same way, and if you’ve done a race in barefoot-tech shoes.
I still to this day, even though it’s not as trendy, think barefoot running can be beneficial in two ways. One, it can strengthen the foot and ankle. Two, it can be a way to learn more about your movement and running form, so technique is a benefit.
From a standpoint of racing, I’ve never run in a really thin sandal or barefoot-type footwear. Because it’s just not fast! When you feel that much of the ground, even on roads, feeling that much friction is not the most efficient. If you’re trying go the fastest, you’ll want some piece of footwear. I’ve always used a lightweight, minimal shoe, like a Brooks Racer ST racing flat, say, for 135 miles in Badwater. [Barefoot running] has its place, but I wouldn’t race barefoot or with too thin a shoe. Anyone who runs on rocky trails will tell you that, or on pavement where there’s the element of heating up your feet.
Do you use any anti-melting gear when you’re running in Badwater? Like extra padding on the bottom of your shoes?
The good thing is, nowadays footwear is able to withstand pretty high temperatures. I’ve never had issues. Badwater’s definitely hot – you can cook something in a frying pan on the pavement — but I was just using a lot of simple cooling technology, like ice bandanas and ice in my hat, and industrial water sprayers to simulate misting. I jumped in an ice cooler to cool my core down. People have tried all sorts of wacky ideas at Badwater, but as long as you have good footwear, you don’t need to worry about melting. I did work on a long-sleeve shirt with Brooks, and pants, for Badwater.
Were they designed to keep you cool?
Exactly. They’re designed to shield you from radiant heat, from heat bouncing off the pavement, as well as the ambient temperature. It’s the reverse of winter, where you bundle up to stay warm. Instead, you bundle up to stay cool. It’s almost like the Bedouin people, the indigenous people in the Sahara desert.
I know you’re a vegan chef, and I’m wondering what you think of Soylent.
I haven’t tried it! I saw all the buzz around it. I think it’s fascinating, because it’s like a sport food for everyday life. A portable, everything-you-need meal. It’s not like freeze-dried ice cream, but it starts to resemble things people would eat in outer space.
I just love food too much, and tastes and textures, to consume food like that.
If you could take a pill while you were running to keep going, would you? Or do you enjoy the process of eating and drinking on the trail?
On the Appalachian trail, I was having to eat 6,000-7,000 calories a day, so it would’ve been nice from a convenience standpoint. I love to eat, but when you’re running 50 miles a day, hiking over rough terrain, sometimes you just want to eat something that’ll give you the maximum amount of calories. That’s why I’d down a half-pint of ice cream with coconut milk, just so I could get 800 calories in one fell swoop. And on the trail, chewing and swallowing is difficult. While it doesn’t sound very healthy to just take a pill, sometimes you just need to get the calories in. So I might do that.
At this point I decide to ask about the NormaTec Recovery System, this bizarre-looking leg massage machine popular with athletes.
I’m curious about the NormaTec Recovery System. Do you use that when you’re done, or were you using it on the Appalachian trail?
I used it at the end of the day, though I guess I could’ve stopped mid-day. It was my version of a massage, since I couldn’t afford to have someone out there every day massaging me. It’s a way to flush my body, and the cool thing is, I had a solar panel on the top of our van, we were totally self-sufficient, so we were able to charge things. You can also plug it in, but we used the batteries. It was a cool portable system that allowed my body to recover.
Do you ever use the system to just have a relaxing massage? Would anyone ever buy it just because they felt like getting a leg massage?
The amount of compression is very accessible. I think there are all types of uses. You can set it for a really intense one if you’re an athlete recovering from a workout. There’s ten settings, and you can file through the intensity to bring it down to a light massage. Pneumatic compression has been used in hospital settings, and it’s been a very efficient modality for healing, and now it’s starting to take root athletes, from sport stars to endurance athletes. So it’s an interesting device.
I was hoping they had some kind of cape situation for back massages.
There’s one for your hip and thigh, which I use. They don’t have anything for the back right now.
Do you ever use a stimulator for your muscles? This is the most unscientific way to describe it, but it’s a machine—
Yes! Do you use it?
Research shows it’s beneficial, but I haven’t played around with it very much. It’s not bad science or anything. I went to physical therapy school and worked as a physical therapist for many years, and electrical stimulation can definitely be a healing modality, or conditioning for muscles who have gotten weak after surgery.
Have you ever done cryotherapy for recovery?
Definitely. I use it a lot. When I had a knee injury, I used ice. The cool thing with that, I used a compression wrap that Pro-Tec makes, where you fill up an ice bag and it sits so you can ice the knee as you compress. I hiked a little bit with that while my knee was really bad.
Was it difficult to hike with that strapped to your knee?
Kind of. It wasn’t the easiest, but it allowed me to ice on the move. I love to use ice baths and cryotherapy on a regular basis typically, but I didn’t have access. The creeks were warm, and it was hard to have enough ice handy enough to do cold soaks.
What are you going to do next? Or are you recovering from the giant run you just did?
I’m still digesting and recovering from this one. I’m looking forward to the next adventure, but I don’t know what it’s going to be.
Jurek’s top gear list is as follows:
- Brooks Pure Grit 4’s & Cascadia 10’s
- Pro-Tec Athletics shin and thigh compression wraps
- Ultimate Direction Signature Series SJ Ultra Vest
- Black Diamond Z-Poles
- Sawyer Mini Water Filter
- Anti-Gravity Gear profile maps & AWOL 2015 Northbound AT Guide
- Thermarest NeoAir XLite
- NormaTec Recovery System
- Zeal Optic Darby sunglasses
- Clif Organic Energy Food Pizza Margarita, Banana Coconut Mango & Clif Shot Gel Mocha