The last time Scott Jurek raced in Hong Kong, he was in his 20s and still a relatively unknown athlete outside the US running community. The year was 2002 and Jurek was part of the American Montrail Protrek team that won the city’s iconic 100km trail race, the Oxfam Trailwalker.
Fast forward 14 years and Jurek is set to return to Hong Kong. Now, aged 42, he is recognised worldwide as an ultrarunning legend and inspirational vegan athlete. He has won almost every major ultramarathon, starred in an international bestselling book (Born to Run, 2009) and has penned his own, the 2012 autobiography Eat Run.
His teammates following him to the territory this time will be his wife Jenny, and their four-month-old daughter Raven. Both Jurek and his wife will be racing in the Barclays Moontrekker on October 14, a 43km overnight trail race on Lantau Island.
“I’m really looking forward to coming back,” says Jurek on the phone from his home in Colorado. “I’ve always been mesmerised by Lantau Island. It’s just a spectacular and amazing place. Plus, the trail running community [in Hong Kong] is really fun, and from what I hear has grown and grown. I think it’s fabulous that people are finding the trails and getting out into the mountains.”
The Moontrekker’s charity partner, The Nature Conservancy, had invited Jurek to join the race. Last year, race participants raised a total of HK$1.5 million for the non-profit environmental organisation.
Jurek, having worked with the organisation for several years, raising awareness of protecting and conserving nature, jumped at the chance.
“The Nature Conservancy are doing amazing work, and I feel it’s a perfect combination: bringing awareness to conservation through recreation in beautiful places like Lantau Island with an event like Moontrekker,” says Jurek, who has a master’s degree in physical therapy.
Working with non-profit organisations and giving back to the sport through community events is increasingly occupying Jurek’s life. It’s a far cry from his younger days that were solely dedicated to training, competing and winning.
“I’m trying to find things in trail running and ultrarunning that motivate me and keep it fun, because after racing for so many years, it’s hard to stay at that level mentally and physically. I guess that’s what brings me to do something like the Moontrekker,” says Jurek.
“I’m trying to find ways that I can combine my passion for trail running and continue to inspire others. It’s interesting because it’s not always about me anymore. I’m trying to find that balance, having a family and a busy travel schedule while speaking and writing books. I’m trying to keep it interesting. It’s about the experience and the lifestyle.”
Jurek started trail running in high school as summer cross training for Nordic skiing competitions. Gradually, he started competing more in ultrarunning and over the next 10 years won nearly all of the sport’s elite trail and road events, including the 246km Spartathlon, the Hardrock 100, the Badwater 135-Mile (217km) Ultramarathon, and – his signature race – the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run, which he won a record seven straight times.
In 2006, Jurek travelled to Mexico’s remote Copper Canyon with a group of runners to participate in a race against the Tarahumara tribe known for their long distance running ability. Christopher McDougall’s bestselling book about the 2006 trip, Born to Run, significantly raised Jurek’s profile.
These days, however, Jurek thinks his competitive days in the 50- and 100-mile races are over.
“To be totally honest, I have probably reached my prime in those distances – maybe somewhat mentally too, because having raced those distances for so many years, it’s almost like I’m not hungry for that anymore. And I also feel physically I had my best years in my late 20s and 30s,” says Jurek.
“But I don’t look at that as a bad thing. I’m happy that was something I did for many years and now I’m finding the beauty and the fun in the sport that I love. I think now my strength lies probably more in the long multiday adventure runs and the 24-hour runs. I think I’m still in my prime for those.”
One of Jurek’s next goals is to get his record back in the 24-hour run. In 2010 in France, Jurek set a record by running 266.7 km in 24 hours. That was broken in 2012 by Mike Morton, who ran 277.6km.
He also plans to do more adventure runs, such as one he did on the Appalachian Trail in July last year. Jurek set the speed record on the 3,524km e trail that runs through 14 states from Maine to Georgia, averaging nearly 80km a day to finish in 46 days, eight hours and seven minutes. Recently in September, his friend Karl Meltzer broke that record – with Jurek giving running support – completing the journey in 45 days, 22 hours and 38 minutes.
Didn’t Jurek want to ensure his record held instead of helping Meltzer beat it?
“That’s what most people would think – it seems silly to want to help someone break your own record,” says Jurek, “but Karl and I are buddies, and I wanted to help him just like he came out to help me [on the Appalachian Trail] last year. That’s the beauty of the sport of trail running: the people involved make it so special, and friendships, I feel, come before competition and winning sometimes. It’s not about the record, but the experience.”
If Jurek sounds philosophical, fatherhood has probably made him so. He has been taking his daughter on the trails in a carrier, hiking as far as 33km across the Grand Canyon recently.
“Fatherhood has given me a new perspective on the trails,” he says. “Moving at a different pace now, I see a few things that maybe I didn’t see before. I show my daughter the texture of leaves and colours of things. Just simple beauty is something I appreciate more and more.”
Hong Kong’s trails present a different kind of beauty, Jurek says. He recalls being “blown away” by the thousands of concrete stairs he had to scale on the mountains during the Trailwalker. He also found the contrast of major city and wild, protected places “pretty amazing and really attractive”.
“The mountains [in Hong Kong] are rugged,” he says. “They’re not the Alps or the Himalayas, but they have their own difficulty. If you ran on the same type of trails everywhere you go around the world, it wouldn’t be as fun. So I’m looking forward to it – even if there’s some concrete in it.”
Just as well Jurek enjoys it: in the Moontrekker, the ascent up the 934-metre high Lantau Peak takes an almost entirely concrete path followed by hundreds of steps to the summit.