Running, diet, and the joy found therein
A couple of weeks ago I finished reading Scott Jurek’s New York Times bestselling book Eat and Run.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with Scott, he’s a record-breaking ultramarathoner. He’s been so dominant as to have won many of the most distinguished races in this sport including the Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run seven times in a row. In 2005 just two weeks after winning the Western States for that seventh time he took on what many consider to be the toughest race in this category, the Badwater Ultramarathon, a 135-mile path through Death Valley that covers three mountain ranges and climbs a total of 13,000 feet in cumulative elevation:
Imagine a sun so pitiless that it seemed to want to personally torture you. Imagine that every time you inhaled, the air was so hot that it seared your already parched throat and stung your lungs. Now imagine that a tall, cool, iced bottle of water was waiting for you, along with an aquamarine swimming pool and giant puddles of shade under oversized umbrellas and that fans were wafting cool breezes your way as you lay down on crisp chilly sheets. Now imagine that all that relief was only 110 miles away, and you had to run there, through heat every bit as awful as what you had just endured—maybe worse.
Temperatures during that race reached as high as 120°F and at mile 70 with 65 miles to go he bonked, meaning his body pretty much shut down and said, “Scott, you’re an asshole, therefore I quit.”
Now, I have had the pleasure of meeting and spending time with Scott since he and his wife Jenny joined the Every Mother Counts team to run the Kilimanjaro Half Marathon.
Scott is the antithesis of an asshole. In fact, he’s positive, bright and so friendly as to make you feel like he’s known you for years. His joyousness is contagious. It’s actually quite strange given his supremacy in this sport. I guess I would put it this way: Lance Armstrong is at one end of the spectrum of what a dominant athlete represents in terms of personality. Scott is waaaaaayyyyy over at the opposite end. And that end is so far away that the distance between the two is longer than the Badwater race.
Lance Armstrong. Ha. Haha. Jenny Jurek knows why I’m laughing, and she’ll never tell you why.
Not only had he fallen far behind several other runners in the race, his body was continuing to tell him he was out of the race completely. But then… Scott did what he is famous for. Somewhere he found reserves that most runners search for their entire careers but never find. He picked his body up off of the ground, ignored the involuntary dry heaving, and put one foot forward. He then went on not only to win the race but to set a new course record.
You can read all about that experience both in his book and in Born to Run, another bestseller that I’d recommend to anyone dressing themselves in gear to hit a trail on foot. In Scott’s book you’ll also find the incredibly moving story of his childhood in Minnesota and what he calls upon in his life and body in order to run these distances with such agility and endurance. Each account he gives of reaching mile 70 or mile 110 and how he overcame the obstacles ahead of him (not just distance but sprained ankles, complete darkness, and in one particular instance an actual goddamn bear) had me glued to the book. I’ve mentioned before that I’m oddly obsessed with the human body’s ability to withstand and overcome pain, and if you share that same interest, hoo boy. This book is THE book for you.
I mentioned last week that I want to continue running, that somewhere in the last five or six months I found the joy in it. That may very well be because I didn’t injure myself, because I trained the way I was supposed to train (well, mostly… that’s another post entirely). But when I got home from Tanzania I challenged myself to a quick five miles and felt very much like a kid. There were several moments during that run when I actually heard, “Whee!” scream through my brain.
He talks a lot in his book about getting back to the reason humans run in the first place, how as kids we ran boundlessly and effortlessly through woods and neighborhood and playgrounds. Remember those times? Remember when no one reported our parents to the authorities because we walked over two miles home from school? Alone. Sometimes climbing fences and trespassing through backyards. We’d always find our favorite tree, drop our backpack and climb its sprawling branches for a few minutes like a monkey on Adderall. We knew all the shortcuts: always cross the street when you pass Mrs. Cox’s house because her angry dachshund will run out chase you for at least a block.
He also talks in great detail about his diet, and that’s really why I’m writing this today. Scott has been meat free since 1997 and a vegan since 1999. He credits his diet with being an essential component of his success. Now, stop. Your email and comment fingers are already getting itchy, I know. If I write about or consider changing the food I put into my body ever again YOU’RE DONE. That’s it.
That will have been the line that I crossed. It’d be worse than exploiting my children for millions and millions of dollars on a mommy blog.
First, let me say: I’m not going vegan. Calm down. Reach up and yank your britches from between your butt cheeks.
But let me edit that: I’m almost already there. Minus the meat in my diet, I’d pretty much be a vegan.
There are a lot of reasons people choose to eat a vegan diet, but the one I think I’d subscribe to most if I ever decided to make that change is the same one I used when researching Paleo. It’s a way of eating that returns to the way we as humans evolved to eat. It’s the gathering of plants and nuts and fruits that would keep everyone fed until someone made a rare kill. Then they’d feast.
For reasons that I’m not entirely sure of I’ve drastically cut back on my meat consumption since January. It has not been intentional. I still eat meat occasionally and see myself continuing to do so here and there making sure that it’s raised ethically. But in the meantime I need to find alternative sources of protein to fuel all my workouts and runs. So I’ve been reading and learning and thinking and nodding and looking up recipes like a Mormon bingeing on a Pinterest board about crafty bookmarks for the scriptures.
And so I’m wondering what your experience has been if you are a vegan or a vegetarian. Mind you, I was a vegetarian for over eight years starting at the end of high school, but I ate nothing but processed crap and felt terrible all the time. Going Paleo helped me cut out all of that garbage and filled my plate with real food, and I love eating this way. I’ve never had second thoughts about making that change or the temptation to return to the way I used to eat. Scott’s experience as a vegan is so compelling that you come away from the account of it examining not just your diet but your life as a whole. You will examine and evaluate your humanity.
First up for me: adding beans back to my diet (my fellow Paleo eaters are screaming, “NOOOOOO! POISON!”). Started with one spoonful too many and nearly blew a hole in the ground big enough to swallow Wyoming. An exceedingly unpleasant experience. So I slowed that transition right the fuck down.
Also, you will not be the first running enthusiast to curse me for having the once-in-a-lifetime experience of running with Scott Jurek. Trust me when I say I know how very lucky I am, as lucky as I was to get to meet and hang out with his wife Jenny who brought me very close to injuring myself from doubling over with laughter.