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.
Vitamin B12 is a nutrient made by bacteria that is essential in our bodies. A deficiency can lead to problems like anemia, neurological disorders, and damaged blood vessels. The bacteria that make B12 blanket the earth and also live in the digestive tracts of animals (and people, too!). Eating these animals is one way that people get this vitamin. The B12 that human gut bacteria makes is actually found too far down in our digestive tract to be readily absorbed, so we need to ingest it from an outside source.
B12 deficiency can be kind of tricky and go undiagnosed or misdiagnosed for a while. Sometimes it's mistaken for depression or a personality disorder. It's actually common in both omnivores and vegans, since one of the main barriers to getting enough is a problem with absorption. Recent studies suggest that only those taking supplements or eating B12 fortified foods are getting sufficient amounts of the nutrient. The amount of B12 found in supplements is so high that it is practically impossible to not absorb enough. Luckily, once it's absorbed, our bodies are very efficient at storing B12.
Back before the age of sanitation, people used to get B12 just by being closer to the earth. It was readily available by drinking unfiltered water from mountain streams and wells, and eating unwashed vegetables straight from the farm. The dirt left on these vegetables (and sometimes even small amounts of animal feces) contained the bacteria that produces the vitamin. In western society, we're surrounded by chlorinated water, hand sanitizer and antibiotics that kill off this bacteria. So getting the vitamin just from drinking water isn't an option anymore (and neither is cholera, so that's good). This is definitely a step in the right direction in terms of public health. But in our evolution away from feces-covered vegetables, we must also evolve towards the safest way to get vitamin B12, which is either supplementation or fortified foods.
If you choose to take a supplement, you can find this at most any pharmacy or supermarket, usually under the name cyanocobalamin (you can also find methylcobalamin, the active form, but it's a little more expensive). Our bodies need only about 4 micrograms per day, but since not all of what goes in is absorbed, a daily dose of B12 is about 250 mcg. There is also the option of taking a weekly supplement of 2500 mcg. In addition, there is a whole world of B12-fortified foods to choose from - everything from cashew milk, Red Star brand nutritional yeast and breakfast cereal to Clif and Luna bars. Look for foods with at least 25% of the daily value on the label. Eating three servings a day (separated by several hours) of these foods will provide a sufficient amount.
B12 deficiency can be a serious issue for those who are not aware of the need. Luckily, it is an easy problem to prevent. For individuals who choose to avoid all animal products for an extended period of time, it is definitely a good idea to take a supplement or eat fortified foods. That way, you can maintain a diet that is protective against chronic diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, digestive problems, obesity, and much more, but still avoid any chance of developing a B12 deficiency.
To learn more about vitamin B12, check out this article by Dr. McDougall, or this video from Dr. Gregger.
In honor of our upcoming one-year anniversary of beginning a southbound thru-hike of the PCT, here are some stories from our days in the North Cascades.
July 8, 2014: Rock Pass, headed towards the Canadian Border
When we reach Rock Pass, the trail follows a ridge for a short time and then switches back, sharply, disappearing below a wall of snow. It points us down the north side of the slope, but gives no more guidance than that - down. It’s the steepest slope we’ve seen so far. I feel as though I’m on the rim of a giant bowl and I can’t see the bottom.
“I don’t see many options, I think we should glissade.” Mud tells me.
We see an outline of the trail about 20 feet below us, if we can get to that, we can cross the slope of the bowl and get to the lower ridge. Mud begins his slide, slowing himself with his ice axe, shooting snow up on either side as he goes. Seconds later he recovers, stands up and waits for me. I grasp my ice axe and sit down. Hesitantly, I let go of the grip my feet have on the mountain. Down I go, pushing scree out of the way, depending more on my heels than my axe to slow me at this point. I am not graceful, but I manage to stop myself before gaining too much speed. If I’d taken a second to look around me and assess the situation, I may have felt scared. But I don’t. Instead I get right up and follow Mud across the slope. One thing at a time. One step at a time. My steps are the only thing in the world.
And then one step dissolves below me and my body lands hard against the mountain, sliding down the bowl, picking up speed and heading straight towards the bottom that I can’t see. I hear Mud yell as I tumble but the words don’t register. The mere sound of his voice makes me recall what he’d said just an hour earlier in preparation. Get all the pointy parts into the slope! Knees. Elbows. Axe. I dig into the mountain with all my might, then dig again. Finally I slow and stop, finding myself hanging by my shoulder joint, my hand holding hard on the ice axe.
I pull myself up and sit, trembling, looking down to where I could still be falling. Now, I am scared. I think back to the last time I walked this pass. I wound down and around over the loose rocks, following the trail across the 60 degree slope with careful steps. It was nerve wracking even then, and there was no snow in sight. Now, snow is everywhere. Where there’s not snow, there are washouts – sections where the mountain has come apart. Rocks and boulders have given way and tumbled down the slope, leaving a giant ditch of loose gravel and enormous pieces of granite.
I sit in the vastness. There’s nowhere to go, no option to quit. Every direction looks impossible, impassable. My heart still races from the fall as I get up and try to walk towards Mud. We proceed on the path where it looks like the trail might be at times, but mostly, we traverse over thick snow. Step by step, I put each foot into a dent in the slope that Mud kicks in for me. This is both helpful and not. His steps are bigger than mine. I sometimes get confused as to whether it’s a right foot or a left foot, and loose stride of his footsteps. We proceed in this manner of slow steps in the snow, alternating with steep scrambles over loose rocks.
At last we arrive at the lower ridge where the trees offer a respite from the snow and rocks. We sit for lunch. I can’t eat but Mud makes beans and mashed potatoes on his JetBoil. My stomach is full from stress. We watch through the trees and see a black speck moving reluctantly across the slope we just crossed.
“I hope that guy’s okay. Looks like he’s not on the trail. I wonder if he knows.” Says Mud.
Just then, the black speck begins to slide down the mountain. He stops and continues onward. He is far down into the bowl, hundreds of feet below the trail. We wonder if he’ll ever get back on track. We wonder if he is even trying. Mud yells at him, but he’s clearly too far to hear. There isn’t much we can do.
We shoulder our packs and continue towards Canada, now on the velvet dirt path, protected by trees on either side. I am content in believing that the hard part is over.
July 14th, 2014: Glacier Peak Wilderness, headed towards the Mexican Border
In the morning the earth is quiet and we’re on our way again. Here in Washington, in the Northernmost corner of the country, the trail is rugged. As soon as we’ve made it down into one valley, past the river, we’re immediately climbing again. Up, down, up, down. There’s no messing around. We are on our way up again, just to go back down when we get there. Yet each time we climb, we don’t know what we’ll get. How will the snowpack affect the trail? How did the winter tear it apart?
Just an hour into the morning, Mud has pulled far ahead. There are a few washouts here, even this low in the forest. But there is no snow yet and the trees give a sense of protection. I cross a washout where the trail has been built up on either side – boulders are arranged to mark the ditch, requiring that I climb up a few feet before actually crossing it. I step onto a rock, then on the one above it. Just as I shift my weight to descend across the ditch, the rock I’m standing on comes un-nestled from its groove among the others. I lose my footing and tumble into the ditch, followed by two loose boulders that crash down on top of me. I’ve landed on my back and my legs are pinned beneath rocks the size of microwaves.
Shit! AHH! Fuck. I am stuck beneath two rocks. Before I even feel pain, tears well up in my eyes and I realize I am not breathing. My pack is still attached and I lean my face towards the whistle on my chest strap. Maybe if I blow it I’ll get Mud’s attention and he’ll come back to help. But there’s no air in my lungs. I give up and lay my head back. Finally, air. After a moment I wipe the tears from my face and push the rock off my left knee. Then I push the other rock off my shin.
Oh. I’m fine! I push myself up with my hands. A sharp, radiating pain rushes through my kneecap. My hip creeks and aches. I step tentatively along the trail. My kneecap feels as though it is attached sideways, shifting uncomfortably with each new step. Mud is nowhere in sight. I have barely processed what happened but I am aware of the need to walk. Just walk. So I do. The endorphins of climbing help with the pain, but every time I bend down to climb under a fallen tree, sharp needles radiate through my knee. The trail is a narrow tunnel of pine trees when I finally see Mud ahead, waiting on a rock.
The sight of him makes me cry again and it becomes hard to breathe. He gives me a hug as I try to explain what happened between wheezes. Everything is fine, I know, logically. Yet I still feel shaky and panicked. Trauma? Shock? I’ve never had rocks fall on me before.
“I don’t think I broke anything. Now I know my bones must be really strong - they don’t even break when rocks fall on them.” I tell him. “It’s because I’m a vegan.”
“I’m sorry I wasn’t there to help.” Says Mud.
After a while I am breathing normally again, so we continue. My knee still hurts, but it’s nothing I haven’t walked through before. When the trail takes us up above the tree line, we find Henrik just packing up his tent. He camped here with Chris on the hillside among panoramic views of the Glacier Peak Wilderness. Streams and melting snow trickle all around us and we can see the next snowy ridge we’ll traverse.
The trail is in tact in places and I step carefully, digging in with my poles. By now the sun is high in the sky and some of the snow is melting, as it does in the afternoon. I dig in with my left pole and am just about to take another step when it sinks, unexpectedly, 2 feet down into the snow. This throws me off balance and I slip off the trail. My left hand has a strong grip on the pole, sunken sturdily into the mountain, but the rest of me is hanging off the slope. My body is set to tumble into the brush and rocks.
“Ross!” I shout, with a surprisingly steady voice. Luckily, Mud is close ahead and turns around. It’s only been a few days since we started using trail names. In this moment of desperation I couldn’t take the risk of calling him Mud, for fear he’d forget to respond. He turns around to see what I’ve gotten myself into.
“Woah Bug, what happened? Okay, hold what you got.” He walks towards me and pulls me back onto the trail by my free hand.
“Thanks.” I tell him.
“Why’d you try to fall off the mountain again? You gotta stop doing that.” He jokes.
We continue on as the snow begins to cover more and more of the trail. Soon we’re high enough and there’s nothing but white for miles. We traverse. I slip and slide and lose my balance several times. Every now and then my foot, which I think is steadily on the ground, plummets through the crust of snow below it and I wrestle myself out of the hole it’s created. It becomes frustrating - never knowing if the step you’re taking will support you. The earth has been a stable force beneath my feet my entire life. Now, suddenly, it is not.
Henrik passes me on the slope, walking effortlessly without microspikes.
“Quite the puzzle, huh?” He smiles. Henrik is a mountain goat.
After a couple hours we’ve only covered 3 miles, but we’ve finally reached the wooded descent where the snow subsides and the trail is clear once again. We plod down the mountain and I think of what’s to come – a dense, overgrown path that will lead us towards another rushing, silty river. After that is the ascent towards Mica Lake. I wonder what it will look like this time of year. I bet it’s beautiful.
At this point I’ve reached what I think is my limit. I won’t hike through the snow anymore, says a voice in my head. Yet nature has other plans for me. The snow comes in patches at first, presenting a minor obstacle then disappearing. Then there’s another patch. And then a longer patch. And then the patches become the path and I walk in Mud’s footsteps through the wet, dense snow. Soon there are no trees left for protection and I see him stopped up ahead.
“Maybe we should go up there.” He points towards the snow-packed mound ahead of us. “I don’t know where the trail goes any more, but we can probably figure it out from the top.”
We begin to scramble upwards. At the top, laid before us, is an endless sea of white – rugged and untouched, sprawling in every direction. It is both beautiful and menacing. The landscape is convoluted and complex with slopes that seem to lead nowhere but to more slopes. We look down to see a flat circle indented into the snowfield – Mica Lake. It is the pale blue color of ice, surrounded by radiant white. I try to remember the boulders that encircled it and place them, in my mind, beside the lake. Then I try to remember the trail. Where did it go? Where did it come from? I can barely put the pieces together.
“I don’t want to go anymore. I’ll just stay here. I can’t do it.” I say.
“That’s pointless.” Mud replies and moves forward in the snow.
To get around the lake, we cross a slope just south of it. I carefully put my feet into Mud’s footprints but slip and fall, yet again. This time the slope is steep enough that I pick up speed, heading straight towards the frozen lake. DIG! SCRATCH! SCRAPE! Goes my ice axe. I slow to a halt, hanging by my shoulder.
“You’re getting good at that.” Says Mud.
“Ugh!” I’m tired of falling down mountains.
Around the bend we see Henrik and Chris, enjoying the view. They don’t know which way to go and have been waiting for us.
“I think we’re supposed to end up over there, by that ridge.” Mud says, looking at the GPS on his phone. “Is that what you remember, Bug?”
I try and try to remember, but it all looks so different. “Yeah, I think so.”
Henrik and Mud pull ahead, moving effortlessly over the snow. Chris and I follow their steps, not talking at all. Finally we’ve inched our way up the ridge. I climb and scramble straight up, grabbing at plants, rocks, branches – anything I can find. Where there are no plants, only snow, I dig with any part of my body that will dig. All I can do is hope the snow supports me. Finally I’ve crested the ridge where the boys are waiting. A short, wooden sign pokes out of the snow, reading “Glacier Peak Wilderness”. It feels like we’ve gotten somewhere. We did it!
Henrik takes pictures with his fancy camera while the rest of us snack. Looking around, I remember exactly where we are. I picture this landscape without the snow and it is familiar. I can see the trail in my mind and know which way we’re going now.
“To the left!” I tell the others. The walk down is a celebration. Slipping and sliding works to our advantage. We trudge through the snow, seeing bits and pieces of the trail as we get lower. Mud glissades down 100 feet, fearless in the face of gravity. Chris follows, trying to control himself without an ice axe, but ends up breaking his pole in the process. Henrik floats effortlessly wherever he walks. I follow with caution, sliding a few feet and then stopping, getting snow all up in my pants. Down we go, towards the river where we will find a patch of dirt and call it ours for the night.
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