Dean Karnazes vs. Scott Jurek: The Different Faces of Ultrarunning

As ultrarunning gains notoriety and popularity in our culture, two very different ultrarunning superstars have formed: Dean Karnazes and Scott Jurek. Although both men have accomplished awe-inspiring feats of distance travelled on foot, they have markedly different styles and attitudes. Observing the vastly different approaches, beliefs, and practices of these two ultrarunning greats is interesting, as it serves at an excellent example of how ultrarunning attracts people from any and all walks of life.

A 2006 New York Times article highlighting Karnazes referred to him as “the world’s more famous ultrarunner.” Karnazes could also be called the playboy of ultrarunning – at least in his heyday. Known as much for his handsome Greek appearance (at least to female fans) than his impressive running accomplishments, Karnazes capitalized on his fame quickly and expertly.

Karnazes began his ultrarunning career later in life. As he outlines in his first book, Ultramarathon Man: Confessions of an All Night Runner, Karnazes wasn’t even a casual runner until the night of his 30th birthday, when he returned home from his birthday party and found himself giving in to the compulsion to run. He ran all night and had to call his wife from a payphone the next morning to pick his sorry and sore ass up. Despite having extreme difficulty moving the next several days, Karnazes had found a new passion, and one he happened to be really awesome at.

Pretty much from the get-go Karnazes was winning races and gaining respect and fame within the ultrarunning community. Karnazes’ long list of ultrarunning accomplishments include running a marathon on the South Pole in -40 degree Farenheight weather, winning the 135-mile Badwater Ultramarathon in Death Valley, winning and setting records multiple times at the Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run, competing 10 times in a 200-mile relay solo, and running 50 marathons in 50 days. Clearly, this guy is a machine, but he is also something else – a successful entrepreneur knowledgeable in capitalizing on attention.

Almost all of Karnazes’ running accomplishments, especially in the second half of his running career, have been publicized events. Yes, he is certainly a philanthropist and has used the attention to raise awareness and funds for his favorite charities, he also expertly created the world’s first super star of ultrarunning – himself. He has always played the part very well and is clearly comfortable on camera and speaking to large crowds. He is enthusiastic, energetic, encouraging, and charismatic; a perfect spokesperson.

Scott Jurek, on the other hand, is…different from that. Definitely more awkward. He is the stereotype of distance runners: tall, extremely thin, quiet, nice, and shy. Jurek’s running accomplishments are at least as impressive as Karnazes’ – and many would argue that they are far greater – but his media presence is markedly different.

Some of Jurek’s most notable running accomplishments include winning: the Western States 100 seven years in a row, the Badwater ultramarathan, the Hardrock 100, the Spartathon three years in a row, the Montrail Ultra Cup Series twice, and setting a U.S. record for running 165.7 miles in 24 hours.

Thanks to being featured in Christopher McDougall’s 2009 bestselling book Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen, Jurek’s name became widely known beyond just hardcore distance fanatics. He became the modern face of ultrarunning – whether he was ready for that or not.

Since the greatly increased recognition a few years ago, Jurek has been bantered enough by fans to finally write his own book, titled Eat and Run: My Unlikely Journey to Ultramarathon Greatness, about his running career and his decision to live, train, and compete on a 100 percent vegan diet.

Jurkek also made the rounds on daytime and nighttime talk shows; but no matter how much he smiled and laughed, he couldn’t hide the fact that he seemed nervous and out of his element. Clearly, in front of the camera was a bit too far away from the trails for Jurek.

The two arguably most famous faces of ultrarunning, Karnazes and Jurek, couldn’t be much more different, and yet their disparities are a perfect representation of the world of ultrarunning. It is all-inclusive. While other sports, and even marathoners, tend to attract specific types of people, ultramarathons  are unique in the plethora of individuals that participate in them. There are runners from their teens to their nineties, men, women, tall, short, thin, muscular, heavier, hardcore, and people with something to prove to themselves. If you’re considering trying out the trails of an ultrarun, rest assured that whether you’re more of a Karnazes or a Jurek, you will fit right in at an ultrarunning world.

By Audra Rundle