Like a lot of people, internationally-acclaimed ultramarathoner Scott Jurek used to assume that athletes who push their bodies to the extreme need to eat meat. But after educating himself about nutrition, he made a change that so profoundly changed the way he performed in grueling, 100+ mile races, he never looked back. And he’s not alone–recently, more and more vegan athletes (like Rich Roll, who we spoke to last week) have begun to come forward and change the discourse, proving that a plant-based diet isn’t for wimps.
His new book, Eat and Run: My Unlikely Journey to Ultramarathon Greatness, which he wrote with writer Steve Friedman, is part running memoir (complete with grueling descriptions of runs that would make even the toughest athletes’ stomaches turn), part cookbook. Both a personal journey and a handbook for new runners looking to load up on clean, vegan food, Eat And Run is as much a resource as it is an inspirational story.
We interviewed Jurek to learn more about his new discoveries in nutrition, running, and why he thinks the vegan athlete has suddenly become such a popular trope in sports. Here’s our conversation:
How did you come up with the idea for the book, which is part cookbook, and part running memoir?
Well, people have been telling me for years: “You’ve got to do a cookbook,” because they know how much I love to cook and spend time in the kitchen and cook up tasty meals without a lot of extravagant affair. But, it was a hard thing because I’ve had a bunch of other people asking for years about a running book. So it was like, how can I combine the two of them, and give something for everyone? And that’s really the idea behind inserting the recipes between each chapter, and telling the story. Because really, it’s hard to tell the story with just one of those pieces. It’s two things I used to hate–I used to hate running, and I used to hate vegetables–that are also two vehicles of transformation for me. I couldn’t leave one of them out, really.
There’s been so much talk about diet and athletic performance recently—Lance Armstrong, Rich Roll—but there’s always a hesitation on the part of meat-eaters. Why do you think it’s so hard to believe that veganism can fuel athletes, when someone like yourself proves that wrong?
I think it’s the kind of age-old wisdom that we’ve grown up with. I grew up hunting and fishing in Northern Minnesota, and the idea was that you needed meat to perform, or just to live. It’s just been ingrained in our minds from an early age, and it’s prevalent throughout culture. I think it’s just hard to get over that hurdle–if we take something out that we’ve been told over and over again that we need, surely our bodies are going to wither away. And for me, it was huge, too. I was sitting there before my first Western States [a famous 100 mile run] in 1999 thinking “Was this the right decision?”
It’s really hard to shake that. But once you do, it opens up your mind to a lot of other possibilities, and I think that’s where it’s helped my running, too. It’s not only helped it physically, but from that mental component, too. Realizing that I can do this without this old myth that you need animal products to be fast and to be strong.