I was always a good runner at school but I was also always anti-establishment so even when I beat the regional champion into second place by over 3 minutes in a 5km race the teachers never put me forward to any county or national trials. I don’t blame them for that, I was quite often in their face, telling them where to go; if I was in their shoes I’d have sold my talent short as well probably. I wasn’t a vegan then either, not even close, having been raised on a traditional English diet of sausage and mash, Spam, that sort of thing.
So I left school at 16 and like most of my mates stopped running when I discovered girls, parties and travelling and before I knew it I was a 35 year old fat, married manual worker who’s idea of exercise was walking down the pub on a Friday night then stumbling home early Saturday morning via the kebab shop.
There wasn’t just one thing that changed in me to make the leap from there to the 50 year old vegan athlete I am now, it was a mixture of happenings and realisations that just kept on building up, layering on top of each other. First was the realisation that I mattered, and that meant that what I did also mattered. If I said I cared about animals - and I did say that - then perhaps I shouldn’t eat them? I’d also started to see news articles about what the big corporations actually put into the food that I enjoyed. How could I really eat sausages, kebabs and burgers again after learning all that? And then there was another realisation, that even though I was only in my mid 30’s I just wasn't physically functioning as well as I used to. Getting out of bed after even the briefest lay down was often a problem, my back locked up all the time causing me great pain, and the beer and junk food had played havoc on my sex life. I really enjoyed sex, who doesn’t, and yet here I was married to a good looking girl, barely able to raise a smile most weekends. Not good at all.
For a year or so I played around with being a vegetarian, cooking the same sort of food that I was used to, curries, fry ups, etc, but substituting the meat out for mushroom protein or suchlike and still enjoying cheese. At the same time I got a great job offer to go to Sri Lanka for a month to report on the marathon there. It came out of the blue, I was an enthusiastic travel photographer in my spare time who’d submitted several articles to magazines but I’d never run a marathon before. So I said I’d go, as long as I could actually take part in the race. Then as now, I thought there are too many ‘bloggers/journalists’ talking about things they have no experience of and I didn’t want to be one of those, so if I was going to report on the marathon, I was going to run it.
The Sri Lankans agreed and I started training. Even though I was still on the dairy I began eating more fruit and veg and saw changes immediately. My back was cured, everything was ok again in the bedroom and I felt loads better about myself and the way I was living life. But eight months later, just two months before the marathon, as I walked to my mum’s in my home town on a Saturday afternoon, I got attacked by a gang of football fans whose idea of celebrating watching England play was to pick on somebody and offer them a good kicking. They gave me a ruptured spleen, broken ribs and a slim chance of survival. After three weeks in hospital, where the heart monitor flatlined twice, the doctors said I was still in danger but that it was best I go home. Hospitals are good if you’re dying but not if you want to get better, there are too many germs in the air for that. I really shouldn’t have lived, the doctors said, and that the reason I did was that I was so fit at the time of the attack that my body was able to withstand the internal trauma. It’s interesting, when you look back at life, to see the little changes in direction that end up making all the difference. The news items that had turned me off meat and towards a better diet, the invite to run the marathon that had got me back into the gym and starting running, there was no doubt in the doctor’s mind that ditching the meat and taking up running were the reasons I was still alive.
EAT AND RUN
Shortly after that I picked up Scott Jurek’s book ‘Eat and Run’ and discovered the mentor I’d been searching for. Here was a top athlete and a vegan giving me a clear understanding of how what I ate could affect how I performed athletically, and how being vegan could help me be the best I could be as a human being.
Scott’s book taught me that there was much more to running that just training and getting faster. You ran and you trained sure, but you also meditated, you did yoga, you became a student of all the subjects that you loved, you understood that it wasn’t just all about you, and you began to think, deeply and critically. And one thing I thought shortly after I read it was, I love animals, and I love running in nature and I know that animal agriculture is the biggest cause of climate change, so now I have a clear choice. Either I go vegan or I stop pretending I care. So I went vegan.
Either I go vegan or I stop pretending I care. So I went vegan.
I learnt that whilst eating a healthy vegan diet made me function better as a regular human it in itself didn’t automatically make me a stronger athlete. But since that sort of diet is full of anti inflammatory, immune system boosting foods it did help me stay free of injury and colds and enable me to recover quicker from my training. Which in turn allowed me to train more often, more heavily, and make faster gains. Rest days became optional, not a necessity. Quitting dairy gave me a huge boost. No more clogged throat, no more wondering why I was training hard and not losing weight, no more feeling sick inside and not knowing why.
At home I’m now 100% vegan but if I’m travelling, or at a work function, and the only food available has a bit of cheese on it I’m not going to pass it over, go hungry and potentially insult my kind hosts. But I do understand that eating it comes with a cost. I’m going to feel bloated afterwards and a little bit ashamed that I contributed to the suffering of animals in a small way by eating it, and I’m not going to be able to run at my full capacity for a day or so afterwards.
My race results began to show rapid improvement after I went fully vegan. I’d limped through my first marathon in just under 5 hours but a couple of years later, at the age of 44, I came 8th in the Great UK Trail Marathon and 2nd in the Staveley 17k, both run among the scenic but tough fells of the Lake District. I qualified for Boston at the Manchester Marathon with a time of 3:13. The next year I came 3rd in Endure 24, a 24 hour trail race where I clocked 120 miles. For the next 3 years I never finished out of the top 5% of any of the 40 or more races I took on, no matter the distance or size of field. And more importantly, even though I was racing often and training hard, I never once got injured so was able to really enjoy my passion to the max.
In 2016 I had my first win, in Athens, Greece, the home of athletics. It was a huge surprise as I was running a 10k which is not really my distance, but what a feeling that was, to cross the line with everybody cheering under a warm Mediterranean sun. I had a few ouzos that night, I can tell you. And then later that year I topped it all, running in the Canadian 24 hour Championships, up against 3 former champions in the men’s race. I was an unknown as I’d just moved to Canada in 2015.
I got a bit of stick at first in that race when people found out I was vegan, there were a few comments, ‘mmm, bacon’, and ‘you sure you’re getting enough protein?’
Nothing too heavy or nasty. The aid table had pizza on it and many runners took slices. I was happy, I knew it would slow them down. I just ate hummus wraps and took most of my calories in liquid format. I gained the lead after 12 hours and never gave it up. Up until that moment I think even my family had been worried that I wasn’t getting enough good food in me to be running as much as I did, but after I became a national champion at the ripe old age of 48 they had to reconsider everything, and to their credit they have. My sister and her husband have given up meat and dairy and say their aches and pains have gone and my Mum, who’s over 80, has also given up meat and is feeling the better for it.
I understand that food often won’t mean that much to younger athletes, when you’re young it can feel like you can get away with feeding yourself any amount of rubbish. I understand, I’ve now been lucky enough to hang out with many top, young athletes at big city marathons, and they often don’t seem to care about food either. I remember having breakfast with the elite Kenyans and Ethiopians before the Rome Marathon and they were all piling into the croissant, chocolate spread, milk, jam, cold cuts and goodness knows what else. They ran well on it too, mostly clocking around 2:10 to 2:15. I’m not sure how they’ll be running when they’re 50, though. Unless they go vegan, of course :)
"Nobody's an island, we all have a duty to keep ourselves as healthy as we can for as long as we can"
I also have several vegan friends who just switched their unhealthy standard diet for an unhealthy vegan one and are not much fitter for it. They know what they’re doing, they’re giving themselves a lower quality of life than if they ditched the donuts and went whole food based, but they’re vegan for the animals not for themselves so that’s what matters to them. Fair enough, it’s their body, although if they die early as a result of lifestyle choices I doubt their kids or extended family will think of it that way. Nobody's an island, we all have a duty to keep ourselves as healthy as we can for as long as we can, if not for us then for those who love us, right?
Race days used to be a bit of a trial. Even up to 4 or 5 years ago you’d go to an event and the food trucks would be offering the worst sort of burgers as recovery food. It’s better now, race organisers understand that more people are getting wise to what they’re putting in their bodies and that they have to be more thoughtful with the food they provide. The last trail race I went to offered fantastic food, loads of salad and a veggie burger, with the chicken option relegated to the bottom of the menu, where it should be. Gone are the days where most people thought that taking the skin off chicken was the healthy option, the more ‘woke’ among us don't tend to believe the meat and dairy industry lies too much anymore, thankfully.
I tend to take my own nutrition to races, dates or homemade gels for running (there are also some great vegan, wholefood nutrition products on the market now, such as 33 Shake or Cliff), then some wraps, fruit or nuts for after. Or better still, if I’m running in a place which has good vegan restaurants, I make a point of arranging a meal out with friends straight after the race. There are some who claim that you have to have this or that recovery supplement but I think that what’s best is a simple, well balanced meal. I don’t always manage that after a race as I’m generally high on the occasion and in party mode so if a veggie burger, fries and cashew ice cream cross my path then the salad tends to get forgotten about, but sometimes I manage to get it right…
MARATHON DES SABLES
I did the Marathon des Sables in 2017, a seven day ultra marathon through the Moroccan desert where you carry all your own food. I made all my own dry meals from things like TVP, coconut milk powder, oats and dried fruits and to be honest I got it wrong. The calorie counts were nearly ok but I didn’t pack enough variation or things to look forward to. Everything was functional and bland, and in the end that beat me, along with the fact that I loaded my calories on my breakfast and dinners, rather than on running fuel, which is what in retrospect I should have done. Lesson learned.
Another important lesson I’ve learnt about food and running is that every food decision you make is a race day decision. Breakfast, lunch or dinner, it all matters, even if the race is a month away. Sure, treat yourself if you need to. You might be a little depressed and feel like you need a bar of dark chocolate. But know it comes at a cost. Everybody is in the same race, and that race lasts throughout your season, and perhaps your life, and the one who makes the most correct choices will win.
CANADIAN NATIONAL CHAMPION
Some athletes are yet to ‘get it’, though, I guess they enjoy their bacon more than they enjoy the thought of doing their best. At this year’s Canadian National 24 hour Championship I was leading by 2 laps - about 3km - after 12 hours. I was the defending men’s champion but the young guy in second place had won the championship twice before a few years ago and was no slouch. To my surprise, and amusement, he spent about 2 hours running alongside me, trying to get me to buy a new nutrition product that he’d invented. It’d been well received by the running magazines, he said, and there’d been shipments going out to all corners of the world. It was hilarious, here was this guy telling me I needed the help of his potion of protein powders to do better, and yet I was beating him on a race day diet of bananas, hummus/black olive wraps and drinks made from pineapple juice, water, chia seed and salt. I thought, OK, give him a chance, it’s always good to keep an open mind, let’s see if his super food kicks in for him at any point. All through the night he was trying to catch me but I just jogged along, keeping him in sight as we did our laps, laying down 8 minute miles when needed, backing off when he tired. I set a new course record, he never did catch me, and I never did buy his product. Maybe I should've tried to sell him a bunch of kale?
More recently, during a trail race, I met up with a journalist who writes for one of the top running mags in the world. I’d stopped momentarily at the 2nd aid station for a couple of boiled potatoes and he arrived shortly after me. I was really impressed to see him running, usually running journalists just talk about running, they don’t actually do it very well. So I ran with him for a bit to chew the fat. He’d seen me take on the potatoes and some water and he starts talking to me about nutrition and how he’s been working on manipulating his glycogen levels, fat adapting and how it really doesn’t have to be a chore to eat smart. In fact, he smiled ‘I had a pizza last night, it’s all good, pasta too.’ And he went on about good fats and protein, and of course that fakers favourite, chocolate milk, and he never once talked about fibre. And you know what it means when people talk about nutrition but not fibre, that they really don’t have a clue. It’s all very well knowing about how to work best within the limits of your glycogen levels and for sure, it’s very useful info to have in your locker, but if you don’t know the basics in one direction (Fibre!!!) then it’s likely that you’re overlooking other basics too. Such as the way the cheese on a pizza helps make you sluggish and calcium deficient (brittle bones and easy injuries Margherita, Sir?) and clogs up your throat, so you’ll spend much of the next day’s run coughing up all manner of sickliness. Which is what he was doing, and which was why I dropped him after a short while. The forest is a lovely place, no point soiling the experience with the sounds of somebody trying to get to grips with last nights poison…
I’m 50 next year. It’s not just a number, it’s also a solid excuse to have some serious fun and try to take my running up to the next level. Eating whole food vegan gives me confidence that I can do that, and that I can train hard enough through this cold Canadian winter to go into the 2018 season’s racing ready to break my personal best times at all distances and enjoy the feeling that comes from moving as well as I know I can. There’s nothing quite like it, you know, running full pelt through the forest feeling light, powerful, natural and, well, as if you’re doing what you can to help keep this beautiful environment in good enough shape so that it’ll be around for many, many generations to come.