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Chapter 19
I always start these events with very lofty goals,like I’m going to do something special. And after apointof body deterioration, the goals get evaluated down tobasically where I am now—where thebest I can hope for isto avoid throwing up on my shoes.

—Nuclear engineer and ultrarunner EPHRAIM ROMESBERG, sixty-five miles into the BadwaterUltramarathonA FEW DAYS EARLIER, in the tiny Seattle apartment he shared with his wife and a mountain oftrophies, America’s greatest ultrarunner was also confronting the limits of his own body.

That body still looked great; it was plenty fine enough to turn women’s heads whenever ScottJurek and his willowy blonde wife, Leah, were pedaling around their Capitol Hill neighborhood,hitting the bookstores and coffee shops and their favorite vegan Thai restaurants, a beautiful younghipster couple on the mountain bikes they owned instead of a car. Scott was tall and supplelymuscled, with soulful brown eyes and a boy-band smile. He hadn’t cut his hair since Leah gavehim a buzz cut before his first Western States victory, leaving him six years later with a headful ofGreek god curls that rippled when he ran.

How the gangly geek known as “Jerker” became an ultra star still baffles those who knew himgrowing up back in Proctor, Minnesota. “We harassed the crap out of him,” said Dusty Olson,Proctor’s star jock when he and Scott were teenagers. During cross-country runs, Dusty and hisbuddies would pelt Scott with mud and take off. “He could never catch up,” Dusty said. “No onecould understand why he was so slow, because Jerker trained harder than anyone.”

Not that Scott had much time for training. When he was in grade school, his mother contractedmultiple sclerosis. It was up to Scott, as the oldest of three kids, to nurse his mother after school,clean the house, and haul logs for the woodstove while his father was at work. Years later,ultrarunning vets would sniff at Scott’s starting-line screams and flying kung-fu leaps into aidstations. But when you’ve spent your childhood working like a deckhand and watching yourmother sink into a nightmare of pain, maybe you never get over the joy of leaving everythingbehind and running for the hills.

After his mother had to be moved to a nursing home, Scott found himself alone with emptyafternoons and a troubled heart. Luckily, just when Scott needed a friend, Dusty needed a sidekick.

They were an odd couple, but oddly well-suited; Dusty was hungry for adventure, Scott for escape.

Dusty’s taste for competition was insatiable; soon after he won both the junior nationals for Nordicskiing and the regional cross-country championship, he convinced Scott to join him in theMinnesota Voyageur Trail Ultra 50- Mile Footrace. “Yeah, I conned him into it,” Dusty said. Scotthad never run half that distance but revered Dusty too much to say no.

In the middle of the race, Dusty’s shoe came off in the mud. Before he could get it back on, Scottwas gone. He tore through the woods to finish his first ultra in second place, beating Dusty bymore than five minutes. “What the heck is going on?” Dusty wondered. That night, his phone rangrelentlessly. “All the guys were making fun of me, going, ‘You loser! You got dropped by theJerker!’”

Scott was just as surprised. So all that misery was leading somewhere after all, he realized. All thehopelessness of nursing a mother who would never get better, all the frustration of chasingtaunting jerks he could never catch—it had quietly bloomed into an ability to push harder andharder as things looked worse and worse. Coach Vigil would have been touched; Scott asked fornothing from his endurance, and got more than he could have hoped for.

Strictly by accident, Scott stumbled upon the most advanced weapon in the ultrarunner’s arsenal:

instead of cringing from fatigue, you embrace it. You refuse to let it go. You get to know it sowell, you’re not afraid of it anymore. Lisa Smith-Batchen, the amazingly sunny and pixie-tailedultrarunner from Idaho who trained through blizzards to win a six-day race in the Sahara, talksabout exhaustion as if it’s a playful pet. “I love the Beast,” she says. “I actually look forward to theBeast showing up, because every time he does, I handle him better. I get him more under control.”

Once the Beast arrives, Lisa knows what she has to deal with and can get down to work. And isn’tthat the reason she’s running through the desert in the first place—to put her training to work? Tohave a friendly little tussle with the Beast and show it who’s boss? You can’t hate the Beast andexpect to beat it; the only way to truly conquer something, as every great philosopher andgeneticist will tell you, is to love it.

Scott would never again linger in Dusty’s shadow, or any other runner’s. “Anybody who has seenhim running fast on mountainous terrain in the last miles of a hundred-miler will be a changedperson,” an awestruck trail runner declared on, the number one message board for allthings running, after watching Scott shatter the record at Western States. Scott was a hero for avery different reason among back-of-the-packers too slow to see him in action. After winning ahundred-mile race, Scott would be desperate for a hot shower and cool sheets. But instead ofleaving, he’d wrap himself in a sleeping bag and stand vigil by the finish line. When day broke thenext morning, Scott would still be there, cheering hoarsely, letting that last, persistent runner knowhe wasn’t alone.

By the time Scott turned thirty-one, he was virtually unbeatable. Every June another pack ofgunslingers arrived at Western States aiming to take his title, and every year they found himwrapped in his sleeping bag by the time they had finished. “But so what?” Scott wondered. Nowthat he’d created this Ferrari of a body, what was he supposed to do? Keep racing the stopwatchand the gunslingers until they finally began to beat him? Running wasn’t about winning. He’dknown that ever since his lonely days as the Jerker, back when he was panting far behind Dustywith mud on his face. The true beauty of running was … was …Well, Scott wasn’t sure anymore. But by the time he’d sealed his seventh Western States victory in2005, he knew where to start looking.

————Two weeks after Western States, Scott came down from the mountains and made the long driveacross the Mojave Desert to the starting line of the infamous Badwater Ultramarathon. When AnnTrason raced two ultras in one month, she at least stuck to planet Earth; Scott would be running hissecond on the surface of the sun.

Death Valley is the perfect flesh-grilling device, the Foreman Grill in Mother Nature’s cupboard.

It’s a big, shimmering sea of salt ringed by mountains that bottle up the heat and force it right backdown on your skull. The average air temperature hovers around 125 degrees, but once the sun risesand begins broiling the desert floor, the ground beneath Scott’s feet would hit a nice, toasty 200degrees—exactly the temperature you need to slow roast a prime rib. Plus, the air is so dry that bythe time you feel thirsty, you could be as good as dead; sweat is sucked so quickly from your body,you can be dangerously dehydrated before it even registers in your throat. Try to conserve water,and you could be a dead man walking.

But every July, ninety runners from around the world spend up to sixty straight hours runningdown the sizzling black ribbon of Highway 190, making sure to stay on the white lines so the solesof their running shoes don’t melt. At mile 17, they’ll pass Furnace Creek, site of the hottesttemperature ever recorded in the United States (134 degrees). From there, it only gets worse: theystill have to climb three mountains and deal with hallucinations, rebellious stomachs, and at leastone long night of running in the dark before they reach the finish. If they reach the finish: LisaSmith-Batchen is the only American to ever win the six-day Marathon of the Sands across theSahara, but even she had to be pulled from Badwater in 1999 and given an emergency IV to stopher dessicated kidneys from shutting down.

“This is the landscape of catastrophe,” one Death Valley chronicler wrote. It’s a bizarre and sort ofTransylvanian experience to be running a race right through the heart of a killing field where losthikers claw at their blackened tongues before dying of thirst, as Dr. Ben Jones can tell youfirsthand. Dr. Jones was running Badwater in 1991 when he was hastily recruited to examine thebody of a trekker discovered in the sands.

“I am the only one of which I am aware who has ever performed an autopsy during a race,” heremarked. Not that he was any stranger to the morbid; “Badwater Ben” was also known for havinghis crew haul a coffin full of ice water out on the highway to help him cool off. When slowerrunners caught up, they were jolted to find the most experienced athlete in the field lying by theside of the road in a casket, eyes closed and arms folded over his chest.

What was Scott thinking? He was raised on cross-country skis in Minnesota. What did he knowabout melting shoes and ice coffins? Even the Badwater race director, Chris Kostman, knew Scottwas out of his element: “This race was thirty-five miles further than his longest previous race,”

Kostman would comment, “and twice as far as he’d ever run on pavement, not to mentionsignificantly hotter than he’d ever experienced.”

Kostman didn’t know the half of it. Scott had been so focused that year on sharpening his trailskills for Western States, he hadn’t run more than ten miles at a time on asphalt. As for heatacclimation … well, it didn’t rain every day in Seattle, but it might as well have. Death Valley wasin the midst of one of its hottest summers in history, with temperatures hovering at around 130degrees. The coolest part of the coolest day was still way............
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