Jenny Jurek Comes Full Circle On The Appalachian Trail
In 2015, while crewing for her husband, Scott’s, successful Appalachian Trail speed record, Jenny Jurek began healing from the grief of two traumatic miscarriages. In 2021, she returned to the trail with their two young children in tow.
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On the morning of August 4th, 2021, Jenny and Scott Jurek hiked five miles to reach the summit of Mount Katahdin. There, on Penobscot land (Maine), Scott would begin his journey southward on the Appalachian Trail (AT), hoping to reclaim the speed record. To Jenny, the top of Mount Katahdin was unrecognizable from the bright and cloudless peak on which they had stood, victorious, six years earlier. Now, they could hardly see anything; fog shrouded the landscape around them—the sky, the forest, and the peaks—in an ominous gray.
During the last days of Scott’s 2015 run, he might as well have been sleep-walking. He could not remember the details of the rugged Maine forest around him. He would never know exactly how he looked—haggard and sleep-starved—nor the way he transformed, his eyes widening and legs quickening as he reached the base of Mount Katahdin and knew: the AT speed record would be his. But Jenny remembered everything. Now, six years later, as the sun came up and the gray receded, she felt all the emotions from that final day in 2015 wash over her again.
“It felt like we were coming full-circle from this journey that we had started in 2015,” she recalls. “That journey had been our healing process.”
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In 2015, Jenny had a lot of healing to do. When Scott started his journey northward, the couple was grieving the loss of two pregnancies, one of which had nearly taken Jenny’s life. In their joint memoir, North, Jenny tells it all—the hospitals, the tears, and the longing she felt for the one thing her body would not give her. As her voice weaves with Scott’s, the personal weaves with the logistical—the rugged mountain roads, the trail-side lots where she’d park their van for the night, and the vegan sandwiches she’d prepare for him. In pictures, Scott’s eyes are empty and his limbs skeletal as he clutches a bag of potato chips at a rest stop. But Jenny is full of life. Perhaps, this dichotomy is exactly where the healing came in; there is something therapeutic about being someone’s main lifeline, especially in a setting as rugged as the Appalachian Trail.
“You are totally in this bubble, this little myopic world where you forget about the outside world,” Jenny explains. “For me, that was the doctors and the lab tests. On the AT, Scott and I realized that we were enough as a family of two.”
Yet soon after they left the trail, that family of two expanded
A New Chapter
Scott claimed the FKT in July of 2015, and by September, Jenny was pregnant. In 2016, they welcomed their daughter, Raven. Their son, Evergreen, arrived in 2018. That same year, Karel Sabbe beat Scott’s northbound time by more than five days, completing the trail in 41:07:39.
It would take two more years and a pandemic for Scott, enclosed in the couple’s Boulder home with two young children, to feel a familiar itch. When he first expressed his goal to reclaim the speed record, Jenny did not plan to accompany him. Their son, Evergreen, had just reached the terrible twos, and she could hardly imagine a month in the woods with a screaming toddler. Then, terrible twos turned to somewhat-reasonable threes, and as both children expressed their desires to come along on the adventure, Jenny’s desire grew, too.
This time, they decided, a couple of key elements would change. Scott would travel south rather than north, chasing the southbound speed record held by Karl Meltzer, 45:22:38. Most notably, Jenny would not be his lifeline. Instead, their friend Tom would crew for Scott while she and the kids upheld an autonomous agenda, or lack thereof.
In the daylight, Jenny and the kids swam in lakes and drove toy trucks across the sand. If toys were not on hand, they played with sticks and acorns, or caught frogs to hold in dirt-caked palms. They ate cold, tofu hotdogs for dinner while sitting on the floor of their van, and munched on leftover chips for breakfast—the delicacies of a dirtbagging experience to which the kids immediately bought in.
The three adventurers learned the distinct rhythm of the Appalachian trail, a slower beat than Jenny had experienced six years earlier. At hostiles, the kids would chat with thru-hikers, learning their stories and names. Jenny—an esteemed outdoor apparel designer—set up a Patagonia Worn Wear pop-up on the side of their van, patching hikers’ gear as they passed by.
“When you’re out there, you don’t have time to fix [your gear], and you’re using it every day,” Jenny explains. “People were so grateful for an easy fix.” For Jenny and the kids, this experience was one of community and spontaneity, far removed from Scott’s journey of solitude and regimentation, even as they traveled a parallel route.
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When Scott terminated his attempt at the speed record on the seventh day, Jenny was not surprised. He had been moving poorly since day five, unable to shake off a quad tear and covering a miniscule 15 miles a day. Still, her knowledge of Scott’s imminent failure did little to lessen the many emotions she felt—anger, frustration, disappointment, and most of all, sympathy. At the same time, she questioned why he had to return in the first place: why put himself through such pain, just to leave the trail with more pain?
“At first, I was like, you had to wake the sleeping dragon? You couldn’t just leave well enough alone? But I know that’s not Scott,” Jenny reflects. “He had to go back.”
As Jenny relays this experience, she speaks from a cellphone at a farm in rural Vermont (the family used their early departure from the AT as an opportunity to visit friends). Her cheerful voice cuts in and out of clarity, but her message is transparent. While Scott never reached the goal he set out for, Jenny gained something herself: confirmation of the values that drive her own life and work.
“When you have kids, sometimes you feel like you need to lose yourself,” she explains. “Returning to the AT made us realize that we can pursue our own dreams while bringing our kids along. It made us feel empowered to follow those dreams.”
Jenny’s experience with miscarriage and grief inspired countless women. Now, she seeks to inspire in a different way: she wants families of all sizes—from one person and a dog to two parents and a van full of children—to get outside and explore. During the pandemic, she began working on a clothing line that centers the needs of mothers and families. She plans to launch this brand—Always Up, a translation of her maiden name, Uehisha—in November. Among the first products to launch will be a support belt that takes the pressure off pregnant runners’ bladders, allowing them to continue training in comfort.
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When asked if Scott will return for another attempt at the Appalachian Trail speed record, Jenny can only make a guess. Still, she knows her husband and she knows the facts: he still feels the burn of an unclaimed record inside of him. If (and when) he returns, will we see Jenny out there too, patching up hikers’ gear in between lake swims and toy truck jaunts?
“Count me out,” she says, the laughter in her voice unable to mask an earnestness. “At each trail crossing, every memory from 2015 came back to me. I just want to keep my memories from 2015 intact. I want them to be the memories.”