Ultrarunner Scott Jurek set a new speed record for the Appalachian Trail last week. He ran an average of fifty miles every day for 2,189 miles and finished in just 46 days, 8 hours and 7 minutes. This is a journey that takes most people a leisurely 5 months to complete. He was supported along the way by his wife and a crew team who helped to provide him food and supplies. This is after a career of winning the Western States Endurance Run 7 times in a row and wining the Badwater Ultramarathon through Death Valley twice, among other incredible feats.
Jurek is known not only for regularly winning 100-mile foot races but also for being a pioneer in the world of sports nutrition. His diet is full of plant foods like green smoothies, potatoes, rice, tofu, beans, corn and fruit. Jurek wrote a book about his evolution to ultra-marathon greatness and the role that his vegan diet played, called Eat and Run. The book chronicles his journey from a mid-western, meat-and-potatoes lifestyle to a record-crushing endurance athlete who breaks stereotypes of what athletes should eat to fuel optimal performance.
I read Eat and Run even before I started studying nutrition, and it played a major role in setting me on the path I walk today. For anyone who's looking for some summer reading, motivation to get up and run, inspiration to eat more plants, or just wants to hear a great story, I highly recommend this book! Get it, read it, love it!
Yet vegan greatness isn't limited to Scott Jurek. Julie and Matt Urbanski are doing all this and more! They've completed the 'triple crown' of thru-hiking - the Appalachian Trail, Pacific Crest Trail and Continental Divide Trail. They did the first two trails as vegetarians and more recently completed the CDT and several ultra marathons (ranging from 50-100 miles) on a vegan diet. I got the opportunity to ask them a few questions about their diet and the adventures they go on, and they are kind enough to let me share their thoughts with you. You can learn more about their various adventures from their website - Urbyville.com.
How long have you been vegan and what drew you to this way of eating?
I’ve been a vegan since 10/2012. It was a gradual process shifting from being a vegetarian (since 1996) to a fully plant-based diet. Caveat – I still eat honey. There wasn’t a single reason but rather a gathering of momentum from many angles. The first reason was health based. I love to eat. I am somewhat of a gluttonous eater and when cheese, ice cream, and pizza were on the menu, I could rack up calories quickly. Vegan was a strategy that naturally made consuming dense calories more challenging. It allowed me to eat a lot of food without necessarily racking up huge calorie counts. I’ve since found vegan foods with high calorie counts, but they’re not as easy to come by as a cheese pizza. Another reason relating to health is a family history of obesity and high cholesterol. At this stage in my life (early thirties), I’ve been focused on trying to develop habits that will serve me well later in life. Knowing my genetic inclination to overeating, and hyperlipidemia, I figured that a plant-based diet would be a reasonable habit in avoiding some genetic predispositions. Lastly, my sympathies and compassion for animals has grown over the years. The idea of not only killing an animal to eat it but also the idea of enslaving an animal for its milk or other products doesn’t sit well with me. I don’t have a fully entrenched ethical stance on this issue, but something about the whole situation of raising animals to feed me doesn’t feel right and this contributed to switching to a vegan diet.
I too have been a vegan since October 2012 after being a vegetarian from about 2003. I too eat honey and right now I'm 19 weeks pregnant so I've been eating Greek Yogurt and eggs for protein. My doctor said I could continue being vegan but I felt myself craving much more protein than I was already eating and thus far have been really happy I've included these items. I started out as a semi-vegetarian in college when I lived away from home and didn't want to eat the meat in the dining halls, and only ate it at home. Then I met Matt after college in 2003 and he was already a full vegetarian that cooked well, so I went fully vegetarian from there. I went vegan partially because it was simply easier to jump on the train that Matt was on, and because I felt that as a vegetarian, I could still get away too often with not actually eating veggies. Being vegan has forced me to really eat more fruits and veggies and less processed foods, and since being vegan, my bad cholesterol has gone down and my good cholesterol (which was actually too low beforehand) went up. I too have an ethical stance about raising animals to feed me.
What kind of travels and adventures have you been on since being vegan?
Since switching to a vegan diet, the biggest adventure we’ve undertaken was thru-hiking the CDT in the summer of 2013. Also in the endurance sport category, I’ve run multiple 100 mile running races as a vegan as well as other marathons and ultra marathons. We’ve done some international traveling as vegans as well, with a month in SE Asia as the most notable foreign travel.
Same for me, though I haven't done a 100 miler as a vegan yet, just 50 milers and marathons. I did my first 100 in February 2012 when I was vegetarian.
Do you always stick to a vegan diet while traveling/hiking, etc.?
I’m an all or none kind of person and have stuck strictly to the diet. Julie is a 99% vegan. She will make an occasional exception for fancy cupcakes.
I'm different from Matt in that I'm a "moderation is key" kind of person. I make an exception for a fancy cupcake here in Seattle about once every 2 months, and now that I'm pregnant I do greek yogurt and eggs. On the CDT, once we were about halfway, I started going back to vegetarian in trail towns. I wanted the ability to really load up on calories in town, which meant I had ice cream a few times and pastries like cinnamon rolls (quite possibly my favorite town food), as we started out thin on the trail and lost weight from there.
What are some challenges you've faced in maintaining this way of eating?
The only real challenges for me have been logistical. When we get into a town pretty much anywhere on the CDT, where there is one restaurant and one convenience store, vegan options are limited. Town stops no longer hold the same appeal as they did back in the vegetarian days. I remember sitting in a café in Augusta, MT watching my friends eat burgers and milkshakes while I ate vegetables out of a can. It wasn’t that I was suffering for lack of food, but rather that I no longer had options to eat with my friends at the table.
Traveling back home to Ohio gets a little difficult at times because it makes much more effort than here in Seattle, for eating out, groceries, family gatherings...we just have to plan ahead a lot more. We had a family reunion 2 years ago and over the course of 4 days we each lost at least 3-5 pounds because the days were jam-packed with activities, yet none of the food served was vegan. And it gets a little socially awkward when everyone has plates of food at a picnic and we have a plate with some pickles, lettuce and tomato, or we're asking if we can see labels. We've gotten better about planning ahead and picking up Subway or Chipotle along the way (the two best options in smaller towns in Ohio). Our parents have been fine with it and try to stock their kitchen with lots of produce and Matt's mom has tried her hand at a lot more vegan recipes.
Can you relate any health benefits to your diet?
The only noticeable difference for me was that upon switching to a vegan diet, my base weight dropped a few pounds. It wasn’t dramatic but my set point weight did drop by 3 pounds.
Definitely had a drop in my base weight by about 3-4 pounds, to where I was exercising the same and still being conscious as I was before about calories/portions, yet it was a lot easier to maintain that lower weight.
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Other Neat Things:
My friends Harpo and Groucho are some bad-ass thru-hiking vegans. Read their blog here.
Idyllwild is a favorite trail town for many PCT hikers. This online magazine has featured a few hikers and also keeps up with mountain-town happenings.
Future Dad is thru-hiking the Pacific Crest, Te Aurora and Appalachian Trails back-to-back-to-back, all in one year! He's also a really awesome story teller. Read his stories here.