Tim VanOrdern won last Wednesday’s race up High Peak (see previous post, here). He finished it in 19 minutes and 13 seconds, more than two and a half minutes ahead of his nearest competitor. In the process, he set a course record. None of us regulars had seen him before. He came with a mini-van of runners from Albany, and not only was this the first time he’d run the course but, having only recently moved back east from California, he claimed it was the first time he’d run in high humidity (the Catskills in spring storm season is a tropical climate) in perhaps twenty years.
We figured something unusual was up with Tim by his clothes, which were emblazoned with the words “raw vegan” and “runningraw.com.” Back at host Dick Vincent’s house, where we shared home-cooked food, beer for those who desired it, and an incredible view back down into the Hudson Valley, we asked for – and received – ample elaboration.
The simplified sales pitch goes like this. Until he turned raw vegan just over two years ago, VanOrden was living such a sedentary lifestyle (in California) that he had developed chronic fatigue; after turning raw vegan, the subsequent transformation was so drastic that he not only took up running, but found himself one of the fastest hill/cross-country/building runners in the Country. As a result, he is now filming, blogging and otherwise proselytizing the revolutionary effects of his diet upon his health – and maybe upon yours.
The detailed story is inevitably a little cloudier. Tim was a major runner in high school; several of his friends went on to be Olympians. Along the way he developed the sort of injuries that force many a formerly fine young athlete into a sedentary lifestyle. But he had been vegan for many years before he became ill; he was actually macrobiotic at the point he contracted chronic fatigue. Naturally, friends and professionals alike advised him to resort to eating meat and other foods high in protein. He told me he would have been willing to do so if it would have changed his life for the better, but he decided he’d go one step further down the dietary chain first. Turning raw vegan, he says, involved an uncomfortable detox process, but the long-term effect was such a drastic surge in energy that he decided to give running one more try – with astonishing results.
As a nearly committed vegan, I wouldn’t doubt VanOrden’s metamorphosis. Every time I have stripped items away from my regular diet – which over the course of 25 years has involved, in order, meat, cigarettes, smoking, fish, dairy, and spirits, respectively – I have felt my health improve. I don’t doubt that if I went raw vegan, I would probably feel even healthier, and run even faster. I’m perfectly willing to believe that everything we need for a healthy lifestyle can be found right around us, without need for killing, milking, processing or cooking.
I’m not going to do it, however: I enjoy my wife’s cooking too much, I love my wine and beer too, I like the effects of caffeine in the morning and also, I find the occasional call for a pastry or dessert, and the more infrequent desire for free range eggs and hand-crafted cheese, far too tempting and satisfying to bring down yet more discipline upon myself. I also believe irredeemably that mankind has a natural tendency to spiritual, social celebrations that involve fermenting or otherwise digesting plants and fruit, and that as long as that process is kept in check, then even the inevitable comedown is a valuable part of the life experience. (Especially when you’re young.)
* In 2006, 1.5 million Americans died from dietary related diseases at a cost of $800 billion.
* Agri-business and food processing account for 60% of US oil consumption.
* The prevalence of obesity quadrupled in the past 25 years among boys and girls – currently 15% of the U.S. population. In minority youth, this statistic climbs to 20%.
* Type 2 diabetes accounted for 2 to 4 percent of all childhood diabetes before 1992, but skyrocketed to 30 to 50 percent by 2004.
Contrasting Tim VanOrden’s experience, Haruki Murakami, in an excerpt from his memoir What I Talk About When I Talk About Running published in the current New Yorker, talks about how the decision to take up running presaged his own change in diet.
“I began to eat mostly vegetables, with fish as my main source of protein. I had never liked meat much anyway, and this aversion now became even more pronounced. I cut back on rice and alcohol and began using only natural ingredients. Sweets weren’t a problem, since I have never much cared for them.”
Fortunately, Murakami has not gone as far in his dietary habits as Van Orden. Describing his running of the original Marathon course in Greece, he told Spiegel how he dealt with the heat:
I dreamt of an ice-cold beer… When I arrived at the finish I hosed myself down at a petrol station and drank the beer I had dreamt of.
I was relieved to read as much. For my own part, I’ve gone back and forth on the notion of how alcohol affects performance. For my first and third marathons, I abstained from alcohol a month before the race. For my second, fourth and fifth Marathons, I abstained for just the one week before the race. The fact that I ran each of my five Marathons successively faster suggests that my performances didn’t benefit from the extra three weeks’ abstinence, even as I’m absolutely certain they each benefited enormously from a single week of focused pre-race diet. I’ve been equally varied in my view towards beer as a carb-packing, sugary rehydrant – or wine as a reward. In my late thirties, I took up running more seriously but was not yet smart enough to think about the consequences of drinking before and afterwards – and frequently paid the price. I’ve subsequently learned to be far more respectful, especially in hot and humid weather; post-run, I drink enormous amounts of water and Gatorade, eat fruit, and stretch. I even try and obey the laws that say you should eat substantially about 30-45 minutes after your work-out, before your hunger actually kicks in.
But then this year, after running the Woodstock Races 15k on a warm Memorial Day morning, I decided, for the first time in three years of competing, to have a pint from the free keg of Sam Adams (see above), at 11:00 in the morning. And you know what? It tasted damn great – and it made me feel chipper for the day ahead, a lot more so than the hot coffee I tried sipping down an hour or two later that morning. Similarly, the Harpoon IPA I pulled out of Dick Vincent’s fridge tasted pretty good after the High Rock race and 5-mile looop down, too.
Dick himself doesn’t drink, nor do at least a few more of the people I most admire around these parts for their athletic abilities. I’m often tempted to follow them, at least for a while. But when I went to our Running Club’s annual dinner this winter, I was stunned at just how many of my fellow competitors – many of them much faster and sturdier than me, and all of them with little body fat to absorb the alcohol – could happily handle several pints over the evening. Our champion 63-year old ultra-runner – who competes in 100-mile and 24-hour races – ends almost every training run with a rehydrating, carb-packing beer. I’ve seen him do it at 11am on a freezing winter’s morning. And the guy who led a crew of us up and down five of the Catskills 3500ft Peaks last December, in snow and ice, pulled out a fifth of whisky at the top of the last mountain while the rest of us were struggling to breathe; he had finished it before we had driven back to the starting point. His ability to do so astonished me – but no more so than the fact that Paula Radcliffe dared eat any old New York restaurant’s spaghetti bolognese the night before last year’s New York marathon, got sick from it, threw up all night – and went on to win the race!
The conclusion? Not so much that there isn’t one as that we all have different bodies which experience different tolerance levels at different times in our lives. Haruki Marukami discovered that if you take up an activity seriously enough, your body will will you to certain changes in diet to improve upon it. Tim VanOrden discovered that if you make drastic changes to your diet first, you may find yourself so healthy and full of energy you resume a prior sport – and that you excel in it, too. And me, I find that the near vegan lifestyle agrees with me as I’m sure it would with you, too – but that I’m not yet willing to kick my beer and my wine and a few other “luxuries” just for the chance of catching Tim on one of those hills.