I run hundred-mile races. I eat only plants and vegetables. Each of those sentences might shock some people. Read together, they might shock a whole lot of people.
What might shock them even more is to learn that I decided--with quite a few concerns--to change my diet just a few months before the most important race of my life, at a time when my workouts and recovery time were critical, in an event that I knew might define my career.
There is no more fabled trail footrace in North America than The Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run. It attracts the strongest trail runners in the country and offers some of the most punishing terrain. Veterans puke and occasionally pass out. More than a few are told to stop by doctors who wait at medical check points on the course. Only one non-Californian had ever won the men's division. The champion usually spent a lot of time training in the mountains. The five years before I entered, the champion lived in the mountains. His house was next to the course. Though I wanted to be a great runner, and though I knew I had to compete against the best in order to test myself, the fact is, I had never won even a single 100 mile race. And I grew up in Minnesota. The flatlands.
I was a total longshot, an unlikely champion.
I was an even more unlikely vegan.
When I was ten my dad had bought me a 22 caliber rifle with a polished walnut handle and a barrel made from burnished steel. His instructions were simple: If I wounded an animal, I killed it. If I killed it, I skinned it, gutted it, and ate it. We often had venison for dinner. By the time I was in sixth grade, I could yank a batch of Walleye from a lake after lunch, clean them, roll them in breadcrumbs, fry them in butter and devour them before sunset.
I loved roast pork, baked chicken and broiled steak. During high school I worked as a short order cook at a place called the Dry Dock Bar. My specialty was a kick ass Philadelphia Cheese Steak. In college, my roommate and I spent many a night on our back porch, feet on the banister, barbecued brats or burgers in our mitts, downing a tin of Planter Cheese Balls and a box of Malted Milk Balls in a single sitting. My nickname was the Grill Master.
It wasn't just meat. I loved fast food. I grew up in the country, and there were times when we had to shop with food stamps, and I ate government cheese. Restaurants were for birthdays. So being able to buy a burger--or chicken sandwich --whenever I wanted felt like freedom.
I started to cut down on meat and to ramp up on fruit and vegetables when I was in physical therapy school, influenced by my reading (especially Andrew Weil, MD and Howard Lyman, my friends (a guy named Hippie Dan, aka The Unabaker, showed me the joys of wheatgrass and whole grain bread and talked a lot about solar energy and minimizing our carbon footprint) and the illness I saw every day in my work as a physical therapist. Along with the illness, I saw a lot of processed food and meat. I suspected there was a connection.
I learned that the three most common causes of death in our country - heart disease, cancer, and stroke - have all been linked to the standard Western diet, rich in animal products, refined carbohydrates, and processed food.
Even as I made the transition from Grill Master to vegetarian diet, I had reservations. One was money. For a backwoods boy from Minnesota, the idea of pricey groceries was anathema. When my girlfriend would show up with organic apples, or milk, and I would see the price tag, I went berserk. I'd yell, "You paid how much for that?! What's in it, gold dust?!"
Another concern was performance. I was an athlete, and I was committed to protein, and what I thought was the fastest way to get it--through eating dead animals.
My third worry was taste. Even after giving up meat, I was reluctant to let go of dairy. My sweet tooth was enormous. Cheese pizza never let me down.
Still, when I considered the increased stress to my kidneys, not to mention the chemicals and hormones injected into the country's food supply and the environmental degradation caused by cattle farms, the decision was easier. I even cut out fish when I realized that unless I caught it myself, in a body of water I knew was clean, I was likely going to be getting some hormones and other chemicals along with my salmon).
So that was it. No meat. No chicken. No fish. No dairy. No animal products of any kind. During my life, once I committed to something, I was all in. (That's a trait I share with many ultra-runners).
So even though I was about to compete in the toughest race of my life, even though I'd be running against men who trained year round in the mountains, and even though I didn't know whether the theoretical benefits of an animal-free diet would translate into a winning time, or if I would have to drop out from exhaustion, I went totally vegan.
Five months later, I shot off the starting line and into the lead. "He'll fade," I heard volunteers mutter at aid stations. "Wait until the champ catches him, then he's toast," I heard others whisper. "The tall guy went out too fast," specatators said. "Typical rookie mistake." For 90 miles, I heard people predict that "the flatlander" would soon collapse. But the last 10 miles there were only cheers. I led the entire race, from start to finish. I won that Western States, and the six after, setting a course record along the way. I won the 135-mile Badwater Ultramarathon, run in 125 degree heat through Death Valley, setting a record there, too. I even raced (and eventually defeated) the greatest member of the legendary Tarahumara Indians in Mexico's Copper Canyons. I won a lot of other races, too, including the 153-mile Spartathlon from Athens to Sparta and the Hardrock 100, the most difficult one hundred mile trail race in the world.
My performance wasn't the only thing that improved.
When I went vegan, my blood pressure and triglycerides levels dropped to all time lows, and my HDL, or "good" cholesterol shot up to an all-time high. I had virtually no joint inflammation, even after miles of pounding trails and roads, and on the rare occasions I sprained an ankle or fell and whacked my elbow or wrist, the soreness left faster than it ever had before.
So it turns out, an athlete, even one who trains up to eight hours a day, can do just fine with a plant-based diet. It also turns out that spending a little more time and money to eat healthy is incredibly cost effective; I think of a plant based diet as essentially the cheapest health insurance around. Being vegan wasn't a matter of subtraction, but addition. I discovered foods I had never known existed and experienced flavors and textures I had never imagined. Have you ever tasted a juicy lentil mushroom burger, or a savory bowl of veggie chili? If not, you should.
That's something to think about: A delicious, affordable diet that will make you healthier and support the most difficult physical challenges you could ever encounter. Now that's shocking.
Scott Jurek is the author of Eat and Run: My Unlikely Journey to Ultramarathon Greatness [Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $26.00].