CrossFit South Rockland

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Diet and Exercise to the Extremes

Day 25... Five more days left of the PALEO challenge.... What's five days???

May 12, 2010
Diet and Exercise to the Extremes

I went running with Scott Jurek on a clear, chilly morning last month, an easy four-mile loop in Central Park. He ran another few miles with 50 or so adoring fans, then another few by himself, for a total of about 15. After that he showered and came to my house to cook lunch before going for a late-afternoon jog of another 10 miles or so.

That’s an easy day for Jurek, 36, an accomplished ultramarathoner. But one might say he has been in a slump: he has not won a major race since the 2008 Spartathlon. On the other hand, he set a personal record there, it was his third consecutive victory on the 153-mile course between Athens and Sparta, and he holds the fifth-, sixth- and eighth-fastest times in race history.

If last year was a wash, this year he is fit and psyched for the 24-Hour Run world championship in Brive-la-Gaillarde, France, on Thursday and Friday. It is a grueling race to determine how many miles runners can complete on a 1.4-kilometer road loop (about nine-tenths of a mile) in a 24-hour period.

Jurek says he can break the American record, 162 miles, held by Mark Godale. (The world record, 178 miles, and just about every ultramarathoning record from 100 to 1,000 miles, and from 24 hours to 10 days, are, Jurek said, “unassailably” held by Yiannis Kouros of Greece, who no longer competes.)

To win Brive, Jurek said, he must: “Get on it, crank around it, and get it done. It’s all in a day’s work.”

It’s a long day, and one that raises a particular aspect of Jurek’s training that makes him an especially interesting athlete: he is a vegan, consuming no animal products.

There are other professional athletes who do not eat meat: Milwaukee Brewers first baseman Prince Fielder, a vegetarian, may be the best known, and the hockey player Georges Laraque is also a vegan. But it is difficult for some to comprehend how this lifestyle is compatible with training weeks of 140 miles and more, “easy” runs of 40 miles and interval training that includes uphill three-mile repeats, all culminating in races that are often 100 miles or more, sometimes through deserts or frozen wastelands or up and down mountains.

Jurek certainly looks healthy enough. He is tall, dwarfing most competitive marathoners, not rail thin, with a quick smile and boundless energy. A few hours after our morning run, he showed up at my house and began pulling things out of the refrigerator and pantry with abandon: vegetables, greens, herbs, miso, tofu, olives, shallots, lemons, nut butter and more.

He displayed knife skills and good culinary judgment, preparing a meal for me and his girlfriend, Jenny Uehisa, a designer for Patagonia (he is sponsored by Brooks Sports). We ate a Greek salad with cucumbers, tomatoes, loads of olives and seaweed; a stir-fry of vegetables with tofu and a miso and cashew sauce; and a mound of quinoa.

Where did he learn to cook this way? And more to the point, how does he survive? After all, I said to him, none of my running buddies, a group of nonelite but defiantly dedicated marathoners who train in Central Park, maintain as rigorous a schedule as his, and many claim to have trouble consuming enough calories even while being omnivorous.

“The whole issue,” he said, “is exactly that: getting enough calories. The first thing to worry about isn’t so much what you eat, but how much you eat. You have to take the time to sit at the table and make sure your calorie count is high enough. And when you’re a vegan, to increase your calories as you increase training you need more food. This isn’t an elimination diet but an inclusion diet.”

Jurek grew up in Proctor, Minn., eating cookie dough, canned vegetables and his share of fast food. When his mother, Lynn, developed multiple sclerosis (she died this spring), he and his siblings began cooking, but the food was, he said, “very Midwest — meat and potatoes.” In college, his diet began to improve, and as he “saw how much disease is lifestyle related,” he began eating “real food, eating the way people have been eating for thousands of years.”

He made the transition to less meat and more fish, then eventually knocked out dairy and other animal products entirely.

“It’s really a mental barrier,” he said, and he obviously has experience overcoming those. He said he needed 5,000 to 8,000 calories a day, “and I get that all from plant sources. It’s not hard, either. I like to eat, and I don’t have to worry about weight management. All I need is a high-carbohydrate diet with enough protein and fat.”

He said he spent a great deal of time shopping, preparing and cooking food — and chewing. He is among the slowest and most deliberate eaters I know, and there is something about his determination at the table that is reminiscent of his determination on the road: he just doesn’t stop.

He focuses on three main meals. Breakfast is key: it might be a 1,000-calorie smoothie, with oil, almonds, bananas, blueberries, salt, vanilla, dried coconut, a few dates and maybe brown rice protein powder. Unless he is doing a long run, which for him is seven hours, or about 50 miles, he eats after his first workout. Lunch and dinner are huge salads, whole grains, potatoes and sweet potatoes, and usually beans of some sort or a tempeh-tofu combination.

“None of this is weird,” he said. “If you go back 300 or 400 years, meat was reserved for special occasions, and those people were working hard. Remember, almost every long-distance runner turns into a vegan while they’re racing, anyway — you can’t digest fat or protein very well.”

Jurek said he hated running when he was in high school, enduring it only to stay in shape for skiing. But when he was 20, a friend persuaded him to try a marathon. He finished in less than three hours, good for second place and astonishing for a novice. By 1999, he ran his first Western States 100. Formally called the Western States Endurance Run, this is an up-and-down course in the Sierra Nevada with a cutoff time of 30 hours. He set the course record in 2004, 15 hours 36 minutes; won the race seven consecutive times; and in 2005, two weeks after finishing, ran and won the Badwater Ultramarathon, a 135-mile race that begins in Death Valley and ends halfway up Mount Whitney.

Looking back, he wondered, “Where was my mind?”

Which brings us to an obvious question: What is Scott Jurek trying to prove? Of the few thousand Americans who consider themselves ultramarathoners, most would be happy just qualifying for Western States, and most of those would be ecstatic to finish before the cutoff.

Jurek, having proved himself in dozens of off-road races, is focused on the 24-hour record and looking forward to the flat race, “an environment where it’s just me and the clock and the road under my feet.”

After that, he would like to run — and win — the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc, an ultramarathon in the Alps at a distance of just over 100 miles; the record is a little more than 20 hours. His best finish was 18th, and he dropped out twice, so it’s a serious challenge.

“I haven’t had a great race there,” he said. “But though I want to win, the running is a vehicle for self-discovery. I’ve been racing for 15 years, but I feel like I’m still at my peak.”

Evidently, it isn’t his diet that’s slowing him down.

Mark Bittman, who is a vegan until 6 p.m. and a runner at various hours, writes The Minimalist column for The Times, and can be found at

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: May 17, 2010

An article on Thursday about Scott Jurek, a vegan who runs ultramarathons, included an outdated reference to another athlete who consumes no animal products. The athlete, Georges Laraque, was released by the Montreal Canadiens in January; he does not play for the N.H.L. team.

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