Ultra athletes testify in new books
Two years ago I looked across the dinner table at my wife's big leafy salad and back at my plate and a second heaping helping of something far less healthful. I suddenly found myself saying outloud to her, the cook in our household, "You really shouldn't have to make different meals for me."
Next thing I knew, I was on the first diet of my life, and a gluten-free one at that.
As difficult as it was to avoid food containing wheat - I missed eating normal pasta and the occasional beer the most - I maintained the regime that summer and fall. And although my hope was the gluten-free approach would ease digestion before training runs and races, the real benefit was the loss of 15 pounds I didn't know I had to lose.
I've never worried about my weight, figuring so long as I was running, biking and skiing regularly I could eat whatever I wanted. But with the weight loss came better race results. Seems that being lighter on your feet and in the saddle can help you go faster, even for a 40- to 44-year-old age grouper like me.
I've since cut out meat entirely and flirted with veganism, finding it easier and healthier than trying to avoid gluten. This dietary turn came about gradually, but was given more momentum by my recent reading of a few new books by and for endurance athletes.
Before cracking open Finding Ultra by Rich Roll, published earlier this year, I was unfamiliar with the lawyer and recovering alcoholic turned Ultraman competitor. Roll twice completed the Ultraman (in 2008 and 2009) - a three-day, 320-mile double-Ironman distance triathlon - after giving up drinking, a sedentary life and all animal protein in his early 40s. With his Ultraman training partner Jason Lester, he came up with the EPIC5 Challenge: five Ironman-length triathlons to be completed in as many days (they managed to do it in seven days in 2010).
Roll now promotes his PlantPower Diet and, specifically, the Jai Lifestyle wellness company he and his wife founded. As a non-dieter, I'm wary of the evangelical sounding salesmanship. But Roll is persuasive and his approach dovetails, even name checks, Dr. Caldwell B. Esselstyn Jr., whose book Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease spawned the documentary film "Forks Over Knives: The Plant-Based Way to Health."
Roll also credits Brendan Brazier, creator of another nutritional product line called VEGA and author of the valuable 2008 reference book Thrive: The Vegan Nutrition Guide to Optimal Performance in Sports and Life, which I'm still (pun included) digesting.
Although he sold me on the wonders of avocados and Veganaise (but not apple cider vinegar in water as a recovery drink; yuck), Roll's dietary tips are, frankly, less compelling than his life story.
Released a couple months ago, Eat & Run: My Unlikely Journey to Ultramarathon Greatness by ultrarunner nonpareil Scott Jurek (with co-author Steve Friedman) is not as vividly written, but like Jurek himself, is oddly more accessible. And the chapter ending recipes, 25 in all, are well chosen. I've already made a habit of blending his Green Power and Strawburst Anti-inflammatory smoothies for before and after workouts, which has introduced me to ingredients such as spirulina, miso and Udo's Oil.
While vegans used to be hippies on the culinary fringe, it seems more elite level endurance athletes - including Tour de France cyclist Dave Zabriske - are making no secret of their success sans meat or dairy.
Of course the athletic extremes will always have room for the likes of Marshall Ulrich, whose run from San Francisco to New York in 52 ½ days in 2008 was fuelled by fried eggs and bacon, grilled ham and cheese sandwiches, pizza, fried chicken, burgers and (from the fast food chain Long John Silver's) fried clams and lobster bites.
According to his 2011 book Running on Empty (which is much better account of his cross-country trek than the documentary film "Running America" that preceded the book), Ulrich says he relied heavily on a Vita-Mix blender for the most of the 8,000-plus calories of Muscle Milk, whole milk and coffee he ingested daily.
Ulrich says he "doesn't buy" vegetarianism, arguing that the eating of meat and fat has fueled human evolution. Roll and Jurek have ready answers for that, of course.
Who's more evolved? I think anyone who takes a holistic approach to their health is on the right track. Dieting without exercising never works. Exercising without proper fueling is doomed to fail, too.
I may be late to trying to figure all this out, but I've already found many yummy solutions in some compelling books about the challenges faced by elite and citizen athletes alike.
Joel Patenaude is the editor of Silent Sports.