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Powered By Plants On The Ultramarathon Trail

Ultramarathoner Scott Jurek.
Ted S. Warren
Ultramarathoner Scott Jurek.

The Appalachian Trail (AT) runs from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine, crossing 14 states for a total of 2,189 miles. This past Sunday, ultramarathon runner Scott Jurek completed a thru-hike of the AT in record-breaking time: 46 days, 8 hours and 7 minutes.

Given that most people take five to six months to complete an AT hike, Jurek's accomplishment is stunning.

Jurek told NPR on Tuesday that he both hiked and ran on the AT, and described how he slept and ate on the trail. One cool thing that didn't come up in the interview? Jurek is a vegan.

When a vegan friend of mine posted on Facebook about Jurek's record-smashing pace on the AT, he asked, tongue planted in cheek, a variant of the single question vegetarians and vegans must hear more than any other: "But where does he get his protein?" (For some vegan humor, check out this great 2-minute video).

It is cool that the plant-powered Jurek is capable of such amazing athletic feats. He's exceptional in many ways, but not in the fact of running hard and long while eating vegan. This week, I asked two vegan ultrarunners why many people are still skeptical that vegan food can maintain robust health and support extreme athleticism.

Matt Ruscigno became an ethical vegan at age 17. He celebrated college graduation by cycling cross-country, solo — just for fun — and is now a vegan nutritionist, extreme athlete and author. He responded to my question by email in this way:

"There will always be skepticism with anything that goes against normalcy. And it's a part of science, too; we need way more evidence to change current thinking than to maintain it. People are always looking for reasons to not question their own actions. Scott [Jurek]'s insane success shows it is possible to be vegan, but those who are steadfast will just point to other successful athletes who do eat animal products.

"No one person's accomplishments will change the tide of eating animal products, but in the last 5 years there has been a surge in vegan athletes and we are collectively forcing people to accept it is possible to be vegan and an elite athlete. This helps people who are on the fence about giving up meat. And the science is coming along too — the future of nutrition is in preventing diseases and a big piece of that is eating more plant-based foods."

Ultrarunner and biological anthropologist Melissa Raguet-Schofield emphasized the cultural embedded-ness of the skepticism I asked about:

"I think that skepticism still exists with regard to vegan diets because the importance of meat consumption is so culturally engrained in many people's minds. The assumption is that protein is the most important dietary component and that consuming animal products is the only way to get enough of it. Personally, I try to stay away from these types of debates because I don't find them productive. No one likes to have someone else call into question their dietary choices and preferences, particularly when these conversations happen around the dinner table.

"Everyday runners like myself [*Barbara's note: Melissa routinely runs 50 miles at a time, so she's being modest here] tend to look to the elites to see what they are doing and how we might implement their techniques in our own lives. Jurek's record is important because it was highly publicized and is the culmination of a long career of ultrarunning success. I suspect that his achievement may provide the evidence that motivates people to investigate veganism, or at least be less skeptical of it."

When I write here at 13.7 about veganism, it's usually in the context of concern for animal suffering and, as such, I loved Raguet-Schofield's following comment:

"Many ultrarunners refer to the lifestyle their sport embodies, often citing a reverence for the natural world and a desire to live simply. This is very much in line with the perspective of most vegans and, for me, why the ultrarunning and vegan lifestyles fit together so well."

Bottom line? There's speed and endurance to be found in vegan diets.

Barbara J. King, an anthropology professor at the College of William and Mary, often writes about human evolution, primate behavior and the cognition and emotion of animals. Barbara's most recent book on animals is titled How Animals Grieve. You can keep up with what she is thinking on Twitter: @bjkingape

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Barbara J. King is a contributor to the NPR blog 13.7: Cosmos & Culture. She is a Chancellor Professor of Anthropology at the College of William and Mary. With a long-standing research interest in primate behavior and human evolution, King has studied baboon foraging in Kenya and gorilla and bonobo communication at captive facilities in the United States.

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