“Believe it or not, there were two things I used to hate–vegetables and running,” Scott Jurek says. ”
Which only goes to show you how much people can change.
Jurek is a vegan and one of the world’s all-time greatest ultra-runners — “ultras” are races longer than marathons, often much longer. Scott has won the world’s most prestigious ultras many times, including seven consecutive victories in the Western States 100-mile Endurance Run. In 2010, he set the U.S. record for most miles run in a 24-hour period by covering 165.7 miles, which is more than six marathons. Think about that for a moment.
The other night, Scott led a group of several dozen runners (including me) on a 3-mile jog from The Nature Conservancy headquarters in Arlington, Va., to Pacers running store in Clarendon, to celebrate the publication of his new book, Eat and Run: My Unlikely Journey to Ultramarathon Greatness. I’ve just finished the book–it’s an autobiography, a guide to running, a recipe book and, more broadly, a story about the importance of pursuing your goals, whether or not you achieve them.
Eating and running, he writes, are “simple activities, common as grass. And they’re sacred.”
Pilgrims seeking bliss carry water and chop wood, and they’re simple things, too, but if they’re approached with mindfulness and care, with attention to the present and humility, they can provide a portal to transcendence. They can illuminate the path leading to something larger than ourselves.
This isn’t to say that running will solve the world’s problems, or yours. But, as Scott writes
Move your body and fill it with healthy food and you will be transformed.
I’ve met Scott a couple of times now, and I have to say that I am impressed, not so much with his extraordinary accomplishments as a runner (which strike me as near-superhuman, and therefore not relevant to the rest of us) but with his thoughtfulness (he’s smart, inquisitive and well-read) and his purposeful approach to life, notably his plant-based diet. The fact that he’s a world-class runner and a vegan may well be coincidental–though I don’t think that’s so–but at the very least he is proof that a plant-based diet is no obstacle to good health and athletic stardom.
Scott is also a down-to-earth guy. “Racing ultras requires absolute confidence tempered with intense humility,” he writes. That’s Scott. He often spends hours at the finish line of races, greeting and congratulating other runners.
None of this came easily. Scott, who is 38, grew up in northern Minnesota, hunting and fishing. His mother suffered from MS. His father was a distant figure who grew to weigh more than 280 pounds. (After winning the 135-mile Badwater Ultramarathon in Death Valley in 2005, he writes: “When it was done, I sat in the pine needles, and I thought about my mother, who would never walk, and my father, who had never seen me run.”) He found his way to running by accident, while training to be a cross country skier, but he found his way to a vegan diet through experimentation. Working as a physical therapist after college, he came to believe that too much meat and processed food was keeping his clients sick. After first eliminating meat and then getting rid of all animal-based products from his diet, he saw that his vital signs (blood pressure, triglyceride levels, cholesterol) improved. He also recovered quickly from long, grueling, pounding runs on roads and trails, as well as from scrapes, bruises and the occasional broken bone.
What made the difference? Maybe it was the variety of fruits and vegetables he was eating. “Almost every day,” he writes, “a new micronutrient is discovered in plant foods that contains protective effects against disease.” Or maybe it was the stuff he kept out of his body, like the growth hormones and antibiotics fed to factory-raised animals. “If we wouldn’t take steroids ourselves–or eat a bowl of transgenic, pesticide-soaked soybeans–why would we eat the flesh of an animal that has?” He wasn’t sure, but he felt great.
The other, big reason to shift to a plant-based diet is that it’s good for the earth. “Part of the reason I went vegan was to live lower on the food chain,” Scott said the other night. Eating less meat is one of the easiest things we can do to lighten our environmental footprints. Scott, who lives in Boulder, says, “I run in the mountains all the time. I feel connected to the land. I want to take care of it.”
Later this month, Scott and Mark Tercek, The Nature Conservancy’s CEO, will travel to Kenya with a group of Team Nature runners to run the Safaricom Marathon and Half Marathon. “I’m going to run a marathon and probably get my butt kicked by a bunch of East Africans, which is totally fine,” Scott said. The event raises money for wildlife conservation and community development.
As for the other vegans I like, they, too, are accomplished. Neville Isdell is the retired chief executive of Coca-Cola. (See my 2008 blogpost, African, vegan, ceo.) My friends Sibley Simon and Nina Simon, who live off the grid in Santa Cruz, are not only professional successes–Sibley’s a digital entrepreneur and Nina is executive director of The Museum of Art & History in Santa Cruz and author of The Participatory Museum–but in great shape. Last month, on the day I visited, Sibley won the Santa Cruz Street Scramble and Nina’s an excellent rock climber and beach volleyball player.
Then, of course, there’s Bill Clinton.
Scott writes: “The better I ate, the better I felt…I was eating more, losing weight and gaining muscle–all on a vegan diet.” What’s not to like?