There has long been a prevailing wisdom in the mainstream that if you stop eating meat, your sport and athleticism will suffer. For a while vegans have always been regarded as ethical animal-lovers, who display admirable restraint in a world that includes bacon, halloumi and Haagen-Dazs, a meat-free diet had never been associated with sporting prowess or athletic endeavour.
Fast forward to now and many of the world’s top sporting titans have come out as vegan, including the tennis player Venus Williams and boxer David Haye, while others, including the footballer Lionel Messi, follow a vegan diet during competition season. Sportspeople shunning meat and animal products is by no means widespread, but mindsets are slowly shifting.
"He was often putting in 50 miles of running per day, a feat he kept up for almost seven weeks"
The American ultrarunner Scott Jurek has always been ahead of the pack on this. In 2013 he published his autobiography, Eat and Run, which chronicled his experience as a multiple ultramarathon-winning vegan athlete. It was a bestseller, and very much changed the conversation of what athletes should eat to perform at their best.
Jurek turned 40 the same year his book came out, but instead of quietly retreating from the punishing sport of ultrarunning he decided, like a hero in a heist movie, to take on one last challenge. He planned to run the Appalachian Trail (AT) in a record time and then bow out of the sport on a high. A feat he managed to achieve though only just, having faced injury setbacks at the start, and intense physical and mental fatigue towards the end. He’s now released a book about the experience titled North: Finding my way while running the Appalachian Trail. The title a nod to the fact he chose to run the trail from south to north.
“Nothing about the map – or the Appalachian Trail itself – invited even the contemplation of speed. For starters there’s the magnitude of it…2189 miles long…imagine running 84 marathons. Consecutively over the gnarliest and oldest mountains in the world…"
The AT runs between Georgia and Maine through a combination of deep, dank forest, wild grasslands and rocky mountain stretches. It’s thought to be the longest hiking trail in the world and as one of the oldest National Scenic Trails has a quasi-mythic status in American public consciousness. Over two million people are said to hike at least a section of it each year; it’s rarely something people attempt to run.
When I caught up with Jurek last month, he told me the AT had thrown up some interesting challenges for his veganism. “We were in remote locations. Down in the Deep South or even in the mid-Atlantic, where you’d think it might be easy, [finding vegan supplies] was difficult and challenging because we were so rural a lot of the time. You’d find cafes and a grocery store in town, but you don’t get the selection." Especially compared to what he was used to back home in vegan-friendly Boulder, Colorado.
“I was craving Thai food, especially coconut curry but it was very hard to come by, so anytime we were close to a town I’d say to my poor wife Jenny: ‘Can you go get some Thai food!’ I’m also a big fan of Japanese food. I like things centred around tofu or tempeh, really simple food, so that my body and stomach isn’t irritated, but trying to find these ingredients in these small towns was tough."
At home Jurek usually does the cooking but it just wasn’t possible while running the AT, as he was often putting in 50 miles of running per day, a feat he kept up for almost seven weeks. So it was left to his wife to cook from their campervan, where the two of them slept, Jenny having driven to their pre-designated rendezvous each night. Sometimes even dodging creepy stalkers along the way, as they both discuss in one of the more unsettling sections of the book.
"A stubborn, lingering vinegary scent was actually his body digesting its own amino acids"
Jurek needed to take on a lot of calories, at least 6-8000 a day, which was not an easy task. He says: “It was always about the density of calories. Jenny was adding olive oil to my pasta, and avocado and extra vegan mayo to my sandwiches to try and increase that calorific content. Smoothies were big too. She’d pour coconut milk in or a little extra flaxseed oil. They already had fruit and carbs but fat was really important."
It took a lot of planning, even for a race nutrition pro like Jurek who had competed as a vegan throughout his 15-year plus ultrarunning career, which had included multiple wins in the Badwater Ultra, Hardrock Hundred Miler and Spartathlon 152-miler in Greece amongst other victories.
At one point in North he describes realising that a stubborn, lingering vinegary scent was actually his body digesting its own amino acids. He also mentions a photographer who joined him at the start and end of his challenge finding him almost unrecognisable physically from the person he’d been at the beginning of the AT.
Jurek hadn’t grown up vegan. “I was definitely at the other end of the spectrum," he says, and then proceeds to paint a picture of an idyllic wild and nature-filled childhood. “I was a hunting and fishing boy from northern Minnesota. I lived out in a really rural area. I didn’t have neighbours or kids close by, so I had to find ways to entertain myself and that meant going to the woods behind my house, building forts and chasing animals. I would go out for hours at a time, relatively close to home but I always had the freedom of exploring the surroundings."
Does he think that feeling of being comfortable in nature helped him later with his ultrarunning, especially in the kind of brutal conditions you can encounter on the AT? “Oh definitely. That adaptability and connection to nature, and just valuing that time outside and understanding it as such an important part of being a human being."
Jurek tells me he didn’t like running as a kid. He did local cross-country races and watched the Olympics but was more into basketball and baseball. “Running was kind of punishment for a lot of the sports that I did, you’d be sent off to do laps," he says. In high school he got into cross-country skiing and was told to run in the summer to stay in shape, but he still wasn’t keen. “I remember dealing with all the side-aches and runner’s trots, having to go to the bathroom all these things, I really didn’t like it."
But then in college in his 20s, his skiing friends introduced him to trail and ultrarunning. He says: “I’d looked up to these individuals for their free thinking, eccentric lifestyle and I thought: ‘Wow this sounds kind of wild and crazy, and kind of stupid…’ There was something attractive and appealing about it."
"You have to suffer for a little bit but you come away from it a changed person with a different perspective"
Jurek placed second in his first ever 50-mile race, a phenomenal result and surprise to many of the officials as he was very much the long-haired hippie rather than serious-looking athlete at the time.
“It was the hardest thing I’d ever done, amazing and agonising at the same time. Right away I said: ‘Never again, one and done!’ but then it started dawning on me that maybe this is my thing, maybe I should explore it a bit more."
“I loved running in the woods, so it was kind of a natural progression to be able to handle those things and have fun. It seemed more appealing than just going out and running on pavement."
A sentiment he still holds: “I’ve done some road races but even in my darkest times on the AT there was still always a beauty to the trail, and things to be happy about, like the orange newt running across the trail or the views."
"Even in my darkest times on the AT there was still always a beauty to the trail"
In North, Jurek writes of the wonder of running through green tunnels of vegetation, of seeing fireflies on the trail at night and the pretty blue smog given off by the plant life. He talks of taking power naps on rocks and in patches of leaves. He describes his fear when stumbling upon a black mama bear guarding her cubs and blocking his path north, and his amusement at a naked hiker who had a strategically-placed sign which read: ‘Hey Scott Jurek, this sausage is vegan!’
He also mentions a stretch of the AT around Bear Mountain, where he guides his friend Thomas, a blind runner, for two miles. I ask how that went? “I’ve paced blind runners in ultras and marathons before and it really is one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had because I’m getting to see for two people."
“So I’d try to relay for him what I was seeing, and also giving him all the strategies like we’re hitting a hill, there’s a hole, but I was also trying to give him the experience of other senses so it’s like the rain is really doing this… I found it to be a really interesting perspective in a sport I’ve been doing for a long time."
For Jurek veganism and ultrarunning have always gone hand in hand, as he got into them both around the same time, but he had to ditch a love of junk food first. He says: “In college I was eating McDonald’s at least once a day. I was running and skiing so I could get away with it, but then some of my friends influenced my thinking on food. I started looking at more wholesome foods, more wholefoods… It was interesting for me to think how can I do this now with a plant-based diet? I found reading the research behind it fascinating."
“At the same time I’d been working in hospitals, my mother had suffered with MS. I wanted to avoid chronic disease but also maybe help my performance along the way. There has been this ingrained mentality of: ‘If you want to be strong, you have to eat meat and have animal protein.’ But I’ve been able to test that. [Being vegan] has made me stronger and actually feel better. It takes a bit of learning and a bit more planning initially, but it’s opened my eyes to what I can do for my human body to allow it to perform at its best."
Does he think being vegan has helped him run faster? “My energy levels increased. I did lose a little extra body fat but my muscle mass stayed the same, all those were great things to have happened but it’s really been the long term benefits. It’s helped with my recovery, and longevity in the sport, which is very applicable to the AT. I was 41 years old, towards the end of my career but still able to do something as demanding and gruelling as that. Diet isn’t everything, it’s just one piece of the puzzle but it’s a very important piece of the puzzle."
Jurek is a humble guy, who doesn’t see himself as extraordinary, in spite of all evidence, the records, the race-wins, to the contrary. He tells me an ultramarathon is within reach for all of us. He says: “A lot of people assume: ‘Oh I can’t run very far, I’ve got bad knees…’ but unless you have bone on bone osteoarthritis or something significant, for most people their knees or joints get better when they run. You have to be willing to challenge yourself, it’s really about getting over that mental hurdle, and starting to open your mind to the possibilities of what you can do. Even I struggled with that on the AT, it was hard to get out there and put myself in that situation day after day [for 46 days…] but the rewards are exponential."
"Diet isn’t everything, it’s just one piece of the puzzle but it’s a very important piece of the puzzle"
“Nowadays our lives are so comfortable. We live in climate-controlled buildings, drive cars that allow us to travel at great speeds… we don’t have to challenge ourselves much to achieve. So putting ourselves in the arena of challenge and adversity, those are transformative experiences; something you can’t buy or obtain by hitting a button on a computer. You have to suffer for a little bit but you come away from it a changed person with a different perspective."
It’s a compelling mindset, and the fact Jurek has achieved all that he has without eating meat or animal products makes it even more impressive and inspring.