Friday, August 17, 2012

Two Books Have Me Wondering if Vegans Make Better Ultra Athletes...

So, inspiration can come from a book.  I am sure that is what the authors hope will happen - that they will reach out and touch someone, make them think.  But ever since leaving school, I have been more or less a read-and-run type of person.  Two books recently have really got me thinking, however.

The past few weeks, I have been devouring two food- and running-related books that I happened to buy for Hubby for Father's Day this year.  The first was Scott Jurek's book Eat and Run and the second was Rich Roll's book Finding Ultra.  It's been a long time since I have had to write a book report, so I won't even pretend that I know how to anymore, but I will try to do them both a little justice.

Although I never really started out with the idea of comparing the two books to each other, their similarities cannot be denied.  Both books are written by ultra-endurance athletes who considered themselves unlikely candidates for such at one point in their lives.  And, they both happen to be vegan (that is, they eschew all animal products).  Both Jurek and Roll are convinced that their food choices positively influenced how far they have been able to come in their sport of choice.  Finally, both books are deeply personal accounts of the authors' respective lives and some of the hardships they have been dealt.

I'd say that is where the similarities end, however.

In Scott Jurek's book Eat and Run, Jurek recounts how he went from a meat-eating, hunting and fishing Minnesotan to a vegan seven-time winner of the Western States 100, as well as American-record holder for the 24-hour race, and more.  His childhood troubled by a dysfunctional family life in part resulting from the impact of his mother's MS diagnosis and poverty, running started out as a means to keep in shape for the cross-country ski season, the one thing he found he was really good at.  Eventually, running morphed into the main focus.  Even after starting to run ultra events, though, and becoming good at them, he had to deal with the insecurities that come from being the outsider - the flatlander attempting to win (and then succeeding to win) one of the most esteemed mountain races in ultra history.

The decision to turn vegan came somewhat slowly for Jurek, having been influenced by some people in his life, as well as his own research on the topic.  Being a physical therapist, he recounts working in a hospital and watching an elderly gentleman turn his nose up at the hospital food and just sort of having an "aha" moment.  His own research and experimentation then eventually led him down the path of whole-foods veganism.  (As opposed to junk food veganism, which is possible.)  Although the transition seemed to be slow, by the time he toed the line for his first Western States, he was completely on a vegan diet.

Food, recipes, and his choice to become vegan are woven throughout the book, and the clear message is that to improve health, this is the way to go.

Rich Roll's book Finding Ultra has less to do with being a roadmap to veganism as a way of life in the ultra world, and more to do with his fight to overcome addiction.  Although I haven't struggled with addiction myself, I found it a powerful and compelling story of someone falling down that particular rabbit hole, only to finally pull himself out once he hit rock bottom.  The choice to become vegan was simply a further step in redefining who he was.  After conquering his alcoholism, the next step was getting healthy.  Rather than being a slow metamorphosis, Roll experiences some scary moments where he feels he's being given the opportunity to change.  A self-proclaimed all-or-nothing guy, he jumps into veganism and exercise with a vengeance and doesn't turn back.

His story of going basically from couch-to-Ultraman (double distance Ironman triathlon) in middle age is compelling in its apparent lunacy.  Having been a competitive swimmer in high school and college, before alcohol took that away from him, he did have a leg up in at least one triathlon event.  However, running and biking did not come naturally for him, and he credits eating healthfully and really paying attention to what he put in his body for allowing him to make that leap.  I would argue there was some innate natural ability as well.

Now, I was interested in picking up these books for a couple of reasons.  First, Hubby's recent foray into ultra running has spurred the need to investigate nutritional tactics more closely.  Additionally, being long-time vegetarians, we have flirted with veganism off and on through the years but have never really been able to make the commitment.  I wanted to see how it should be done.  For us, any attempts at eating vegan in the past were half-hearted at best.  That is to say, we didn't put a lot of thought into it.  Rather than seek out the healthful way to do it, we just yanked out the dairy.  Eating spaghetti?  Just leave off the parmesan cheese.  After reading these books, however, we've both been moved to clean up our food act, to make every bite count.  So, lately, we've been buying a lot less simple-carb loaded stuff, and investing more in nutrient-dense, high quality "superfoods."  Look in our fridge and you will find kale, beets, berries, tempeh, and sprouted tofu.  Our pantry holds quinoa, barley, sprouted lentils, and brown rice.  And, we're actually eating the stuff, not just looking at it!

I hate getting into discussions about food choices, because for some reason people feel very strongly about the way they eat.  Many will take it as a personal attack if they think you are criticizing what is on their plate.  I will say, however, that personally when I eat a healthy, vegan diet, I do feel better.  I feel I have more energy, less fatigue, and even recover from runs better.  Is it the "right way" to eat?  I don't know.  There is a lot of talk about how some elements in a vegetarian diet are not good for you, and maybe there is some truth to that.  The Paleo folks would have you believe it.  (And I don't pan paleo altogether.  I even subscribe to a paleo blog.) But, I also know that there are a lot of anecdotes of people doing super things on a healthy vegan diet.

Back to the books, however.... Even if you eschew the idea of going meat-free, I think both books have something to offer.  They may not definitively answer the question of whether or not vegans make better ultra athletes.  However, the info on healthy eating gives you food for thought, even if you don't want to give up the flesh.  And, the personal stories of two very amazing athletes are an interesting read.  In a way, both books offer messages of hope.  Rather than just leaving you with the feeling that you have read an interesting account of someone else's feats (that you could never do), both books left me at least with the feeling of wanting to look around and see what my challenge could be.  I may not ever win the Western States 100, or run it for that matter.  And, I may never take on Ultraman or any other triathlon, but I do wonder what things are just beyond my reach.  What kind of challenges can I take on?  And I think they might do that for you too.

Have you read any running-related tomes lately?  Recommend your reading list here!


  1. Eat and Run is on my to-read list, but I hadn't heard of the other one. It also looks like it's worth checking out. I have been buying way to many treats and snacks lately, which does not work for me when it comes time to decide what to eat for the day. Have-to-prepare healthy or easy snack? The snacks win. I have to do better at that.

  2. I read both of those books and really enjoyed them. I have to say that I was a little more inspired by Rich Roll's book: I think it was the whole "average guy turns into superathlete" theme. :-)

    I've been on a gluten free "diet" (diet is the wrong word, I know) for three years and recently adopted a vegan lifestyle. One benefit of both changes is that in both cases, I diversified the types of food that I eat. Dinner is rarely boring anymore, and cooking with new-to-me foods is fun.