Monday, February 3, 2014

1,852 miles on grass? Plant-based nutrition part 1 (of an indefinite series)

Feeling in the zone around mile 7 of 26.2!
Photo courtesy of Glen Delman photography and Gemini Adventures.

Last year, I ran my first marathon, the Desert R.A.T.S.marathon in Fruita, Colorado. Until then, the marathon was probably the most physically demanding event I had ever participated in. I learned tons during this race, mainly due to an inappropriate training plan I concocted, which incorporated a ton of distance but not a great deal of speedwork or hill workouts {a regret my quads and calves came to recognize around Mile 6}. 

Scott Jurek- Minnesotan, ultrarunner, vegan... how amazing could one man be?
He also writes a book that reads like a dream and makes you feel like his best friend.
Photo courtesy of Jurek's website.
While my training plan left something to be desired {mainly the ability to walk upright}, one part of my training plan lent itself to fantastic return on investment: reading some incredibly influential books, including Eat and Run by Scott Jurek.

Photo courtesy of

I was initially turned onto this book because I recognized Scott from Christopher McDougall’s book Born to Run. I somehow stumbled across Eat and Run in a Barnes and Noble and figured it was worth a shot. One sitting later, I had read the whole thing cover to cover and obsessively told everyone I knew that they absolutely must read this book. To put it hyperbolically simple, I loved Eat and Run. Here’s why:

Jurek's book made me nostalgic for my roots and where I learned to love running:
Home sweet home in Duluth, Minnesota.

My initial intrigue was Jurek’s personal story, which seemed so familiar that I'm convinced we lived parallel lives just a few years apart {minus that detail of me being one of the most amazing ultrarunners of all time}. Jurek grew up in Proctor, Minnesota and in his book, spoke extensively about my rival high school, Duluth East HighSchool {Go, Greyhounds!} and all of the accompanying idiosyncrasies that characterize the cake-eaters, especially in running and skiing races.  Jurek’s journey and exploration of Duluth through his young adulthood were reminiscent of my own: running taught him discipline and helped shape his values. From a Northlander's perspective, his book was especially relatable with his mentions of many a local Duluth staple, most notably Positively 3rd Street Bakery, the NordicTrack store at the Miller Hill Mall {{rest in peace}}, and the June race that has an equal chance of snow or 100-degree temps, Grandma's Marathon. I was captivated by his life story I swore I had also lived myself.

{Sidenote: Besides our parallel lives in the Northland, Jurek now finds himself calling Boulder home; as do I—total coincidence. Our paths have crossed but once in Leadville just before the 100. I was mountain biking and timidly making my way downhill. I saw Jurek and accidentally cut him off on the trail because I was starstruck. All I could muster was a, “Uhhhh, sorry!” as he nimbly ran by, unphased but possibly a little annoyed by the pigtailed junkshow he had to step over in order to continue his run}.

Food is beautiful fuel!

Beyond the conjured nostalgia, I was also intrigued by Jurek’s personal health story. Jurek went into great depth about his journey into plant-based nutrition. Once a junk food junkie, Jurek extensively researched and personally experimented with plant-based nutrition and its effects on his own athletic performance as he became a rising ultrarunner. Jurek’s story is inspirational on a variety of levels, and his experience, while perhaps superhuman, is actually quite relatable. Jurek credits his success in ultrarunning to his body’s ability to endure and recover efficiently, thanks to his plant-based diet. His emphasis on the recovery process and making deliberate choices about nutrition and viewing fuel as a long-term investment was inspiring.

Some favorite green concoctions!

From a scientific perspective, I knew a plant-based diet made the most sense for the human body in order to maximize nutritional intake, athletic performance, and recovery {a physiological hat trick!}. After reading the book, I conducted a bit of research on my own in this realm and started to make basic substitutions. Slowly and perhaps unconsciously, I moved in a direction of eating a fully plant-based diet. I never had it in my head that I must become a vegan {and in fact, I just prefer to say “plant-based”; it removes the stigma and focuses on what you are eating—real food, not substitutes, derived from plants}. If anything, I resisted the call of the vegan, or plant-based, realm thinking it wasn't for me... at least not yet. But, I started to make simple and deliberate changes in my own cooking and thought critically about what I was eating and more importantly, why. Really, I started to listen to my body’s needs and started prioritizing the investment of food.

The more I learned about food, the more I fell in love with it.
Blogs like Chocolate Covered KatieOh She Glows, and Tone It Up gave me recipe inspiration and made food fun!

For example, I never really cared for milk to begin with. It’s kind of a Russell thing—no one in my family drinks milk except for with cereal {actually, I'm pretty sure my brother and mom just eat it dry}. Swapping skim for almond or soy in all coffee, cereal, and any other baking endeavors? No problem. When it came time for meals, I started making simple choices. Do I need cheese or sour cream? Not really, and in fact, avacado rocks the socks off of these flavor-wise! Do you really need to cook with eggs? Actually, bananas, flaxseed, black beans, avocado, and coconut do pretty much all of that. An amazingly influential blog {Chocolate Covered Katie} introduced me to these simple and delicious substitutions. Subbing healthier plant-based items helped me dive into plant-based lifestyle with ease. I found myself more energized, happier, and less sore despite more exercise. I was hooked!

Some of my favorite home-run plant-based meals.
(Left): Black bean, sweet potato, wild rice, and collard green burrito with pineapple mango salsa and guac
(Right): Curried lentil soup with tofu, chives, and brown rice

Noticing positive results in my overall well-being, I opted to start eating more whole foods {not the store, although that seems to be where the bulk of my paycheck goes each month...}. Rather than pasta or heavy sandwiches, I ate whole grains as my “base” and found that if I had these midday versus for dinner, I could maximize my energy and focus. Eat great, feel great- a winning combo!  For mid-day meals, I started to meal prep for the week and combined dark leafy greens, seeds or nuts, some type of fruit, and a boatload of veggies. Along this transition from omnivore to plant-based, I still indulged in smoked fish or goat cheese or even {gasp} butter from time to time, and didn’t really think about it. It was never a “goal” to become fully plant-based and I never thought of myself as a vegan. Like Jurek, I just listened to my body and did what gave me the most energy… and when I wasn’t in charge of making food choices, I was flexible.

Take a number, ladies! This plant-based fella is all mine :)

What really pushed me from 90% plant-based to full-blown vegan was meeting Steve. Steve is wonderful for so many reasons, but one thing I admire about him most is his scientific and artful approach to eating. Steve loves food, and he is also very calculated about his eating habits. Steve has been fully plant-based for about 4 years and made the choice initially in part for his personal well-being, specifically to maximize his health and maximize his performance as an athlete. Steve is good at literally everything, but would probably identify himself as a climber, mountaineer, and triathlete.  Nowadays, he would say that eating vegan is also a way of living his commitment to the environment as well as animals.

You're vegans? So... you eat flowers and stuff...?

Together, Steve and I have so much fun with food! We love experimenting with new flavor combinations, ways to make sauces or spreads, as well fun aesthetics in every dish. Plant-based diets afford so much in the realm of creativity and making truly beautiful dishes. Being plant-based need not be limiting! 

While this blog will be primarily about my ride, fuel is an important part of my journey everyday and I wanted to give a bit of background on my own food style. Plant-based is my own choice, and probably isn't for everyone {just like My Little Pony probably isn't for everyone}-- and that's just fine! I love, love, love food and will be posting lots of fun recipes as they relate to nutrition in training and on my ride. Let me know what you think!

What are some of your favorite foods? 

What's your food story?