Running, Eating, Thinking: A Vegan Anthology

I’m proud to have contributed to a new book called Running, Eating, Thinking: A Vegan Anthology.

The backstory: Martin Rowe, president of Lantern Books (and a runner and vegan), noticed the ubiquity of vegan runners these days, and asked, why? Suspecting there was something to the phenomenon beyond simply the idea that a plant-based diet is beneficial for performance, he sought to pinpoint that something.

So he asked 15 of us to answer the question, “What does being a vegan runner mean to you?”, and Running, Eating, Thinking is the result. I’m not big on the word delightful, but to me, that’s what this compilation is. A perfect bridge between the ideological and the easier-to-approach health and environmental sides of this lifestyle — presented in a series of digestible, single-sitting essays.

Today I’m sharing an only-slightly edited version of the first draft of my original submission — which, it turns out, was not what they were looking for; they used my What It Means to Be a Runner post instead. This first attempt is a little all-over-the-place, but it was an interesting stretch for me, and I’m glad to have found an opportunity to show it the light of day.

Following the essay is a link to the latest episode of NMA Radio, where editor Martin Rowe was my guest. We had a great conversation about the new anthology and what exactly it is at the intersection of running and veganism that has helped so many people find joy.

Hope you like it. And I hope more than anything that this post, the podcast, and the book inspire you to think about what’s at the core of your own identity — and that somewhere, you’ll write or speak or sing your own version of what it means to be a vegan runner.

What Being a Vegan Runner Means to Me

It takes only one word, really: this lifestyle, to me, is a practice.

I use the word in the way it’s commonly employed in the context of meditation, yoga, philosophy, or even religion — where “practice” means an activity done for its own sake, something that is not at first pleasurable (and in fact is often quite difficult) but that is unquestionably worthwhile for the foundation of character that it builds. Worthwhile, ultimately, because it purifies the soul.

Many runners run for the joy of running. Many vegans, since coming to this diet, have discovered a love for food and cooking they didn’t know existed. But neither of these describes me.

For me, both running and veganism involve personal sacrifices — sacrifices that are worth it, but sacrifices nonetheless.

I don’t run in order to feel good in the moment. Sure, I recognize that if I’m having a bad day, a run might help me put things in context, and feel better all around. But that’s not why I run — in simplest terms, I run because running is the least painful way for me to stay in shape. There’s some fun associated with it, but it must be qualified: “fun,” with quotes.

There’s more to it, of course. Over time, I’ve come to love the process of training for a certain time goal, or a distance that at one time seemed impossible. But in the moment when I’m spending a Saturday morning running 24 miles — not in a race, just in training — while the rest of the world enjoys their coffee and a crossword puzzle, I can’t honestly say I’m having fun. Not even fun-in-quotes.

My experience with veganism is very similar. Before I made the decision to stop eating meat, I loved cooking and looked forward every night to an adventure in the kitchen. I loved the act of going to the store, choosing the freshest ingredients to make the most authentic, luxurious version possible of whatever food I had chosen — usually an Italian dish, ever since a trip to Italy awoke the chef (and wine lover) in me.

But after I made the decision to eliminate meat and eventually any other animal products, cooking ceased to be my passion. I still enjoy making a good meal, but gourmet vegan cooking has never excited me the way more traditional cuisine did. I’ve accepted that for my palate, plants just don’t taste as good as animal products did, and more than five years after I last took a bite of meat, I still recognize this. Now that I’m vegan, the love of cooking I once had is all but gone.

If this is surprising coming from a guy who makes a living writing a blog about the intersection of veganism and running, that’s because it’s supposed to be. But if the story ended here, I wouldn’t be writing this essay.

Here’s the rest of it: If in the moment neither running nor being vegan is as pleasurable as the alternative, then whatever drives me to run and abstain from all animal products, day in and day out, must be pretty darn compelling. And it is.

Let’s return to that word: practice. It implies a sacrifice, not in return for something external, but in exchange for something far more valuable — inner strength.

When I train for seven years to qualify for the Boston Marathon, taking 100 minutes off my marathon time in the process, what does that teach me about my own capacity for change? And about the power of small, repeated actions, each with no noticeable benefit, until the tiny improvements over the course of years culminate in a result that was unthinkable before?

When I run 100 miles in just over a day, pushing on through the depths of pain and self-doubt, what do I learn about perseverance? About what we’re really capable of, when we stretch ourselves to the limit, which is far more than we could have imagined?

As for veganism: for years, there was an obvious inconsistency in my relationship with my food. When I looked into the eyes of my dogs, when I truly felt love for these animals. So how could I routinely begin my pasta al arrabiata by frying a half pound of flesh from an animal no less intelligent or sentient than my pooches? It didn’t compute, so I didn’t allow myself to think about it. I buried the thought deep in my psyche — out of sight, out of mind, but always there, an open loop.

When I finally made the decision to go vegan, that loop finally closed. During my first shopping trip as a vegan, I stood in the aisles of the grocery store diligently scanning ingredient lists, and was struck by the realization that this inconvenience felt incredibly, unmistakably right. At last.

With each meal and each day that passes — as any desire to eat animals ever again fades, and I begin to take a bizarre pleasure in the mild inconveniences that result from the choice to eat this way (having to prepare hummus wraps before a long car trip if we want to eat anything of substance, for example) — a feeling of completeness grows inside me. My values and behavior are aligned rather than at odds. And that, for me, far outweighs whatever momentary pleasure I give up when I choose to eat lentils and rice instead of rosemary-rubbed steak and mashed potatoes.

There are many people in this world who don’t know that human beings can run 26.2 miles — let alone 100 miles or more — without stopping. Likewise, there are many who don’t understand that it’s possible to eat a healthy, substantial diet that includes no animal products whatsoever.

On its own, either of these practices would be enough to create an identity — I’m a runner, or I’m a vegan. Being both puts you squarely in the realm of “freak” in many people’s eyes.

Those of us who do it tend to believe that the diet helps our running. But there’s still the inconvenience — that of getting enough calories to support this type of training, with foods that in general aren’t as calorically dense as meat or dairy products are. And the slight annoyance that at the aid stations of an ultramarathon — those oases of food and drink that punctuate long, lonely stretches of trail — the sandwiches, wraps, and cookies there usually aren’t for us. Almost nothing is. And at the finish, the pizza with cheese and soup with chicken broth aren’t for us either.

This isn’t a complaint. I don’t expect special treatment. It’s part of the practice of being a vegan athlete, one more tiny sacrifice to strengthen me.

When I think of the word practice, it comes with an undercurrent of simplicity. The Zen monk needs no tools to meditate, only a cushion on which to sit. The yogi needs only her mat. There is as little obstruction as possible between the experience of the practice and he or she who practices.

It’s for this innate simplicity that I choose running as my sport. There’s no two-thousand dollar bike to buy and maintain, no monthly membership fee, no hours at which the roads open and close. The dress is minimal — shorts and a t-shirt suffice, and in the past few years we’ve seen even shoes become optional, as runners return to the form of running we were born to do. Sure, you can get as 21st-century as you want, with GPS devices, heart rate monitors, sensors in your shoes, and of course iPods and watches, but none of these is necessary. The longer I run, the less I find myself interested in the gadgetry.

My veganism is no different. I flirted at first with gourmet vegetarian and vegan cooking, in an attempt to transfer my enthusiasm for omnivorous cuisine to my newly compassionate diet. But quickly I found that, for me, it didn’t take — I could only rarely get excited about vegan food the way I once did over long-simmered lamb ragout served over gnocchi with pecorino cheese.

And so, because I was committed for ethical reasons not to eat animals, I went in the opposite direction. For lack of a better term, I turned to what Italian chefs affectionately call peasant food.

Simple, one-pot, one-bowl meals, like rice and lentils, or “a grain, a green, and a bean.” Fancier, more processed snacks have been replaced by handfuls of nuts or raw trail mix, or some homemade hummus in a pita with a few spinach leaves. Fresh, raw fruit, and even plain, crispy vegetables — it’s amazing how your palate starts to change, and how amazing previously-bland foods start to taste once you get away from food that comes in packages.

And in simplifying my approach to food, I discovered a different aspect of cooking than I used to appreciate: the joy of cooking a meal that, instead of highlighting three or four or twelve flashy ingredients, showcases just one profoundly delicious, in-season food in all its glory, against a simple backdrop of supporting flavors. Butternut squash risotto. Fresh tomato soup. Spinach curry. Or my favorite, penne with cauliflower, a dish which prompted chef Mario Batali to perfectly say, “Sometimes a recipe can be so simple it seems, well, almost pathetic. But eating something that’s all about one simple, amazing flavor is what good food is all about.”

Luxury can take two forms — big, extravagant, and over the top, or humble, minimalist, and just perfect that way. I’m learning that for me, the latter is the luxury that life as a vegan runner offers.

Just as there are runners who live to run, there are vegans who love every aspect of being a vegan. They’re eager to share the joy they’ve discovered, and perhaps that’s why we’ve earned the reputation as a group that isn’t shy about letting others know we love this lifestyle and wish they’d try it, too.

But it has never been my shtick to tell people how they should eat, nor if I’m honest can I say that there haven’t been aspects of being a vegan (or being a runner, for that matter) that represent sacrifices, or at least a delay of gratification, when compared to the life that most people choose. And that, of course, is why I chose the word practice, instead of delight or joy or hobby.

I’m different from most other vegan runners in my personal experience with this lifestyle, but recognizing the sometimes-inconvenience and discomfort leaves me no less passionate about the choice. For me, the best way (the only way) to spread this message is to openly admit that it’s not a walk in the park — and to choose to do it nonetheless.

Running, Eating, Thinking editor Martin Rowe on NMA Radio

Podcast Radio2

Here’s what we talk about in this episode:

  • The connection between food and philosophy
  • Is there “a thing” about being a vegan and being a runner?
  • How the “veganism is a cure-all” message hurts the cause

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Comments

  1. “running is the least painful way for me to stay in shape.” — Love this.

  2. renee cormier says:

    thank you….that was beautifully said, stated and crafted. thank you for putting into words what i feel in my heart. i agree, luxury is simplicity.

  3. I loved this! The part about aligning your values and how it just felt right. While I have eliminated most animal products, dairy is the one I have yet to kick and the one I feel so guilty about. I’m also still trying to find a good protein sources but I’m learning as I go. Your site is so inspiring, keep it up!

  4. Such a wonderfully written post, thank you. And I agree on running as an efficient way to stay in shape. I also love the concept of simple food, celebrating one beautiful ingredient with accent flavors in a dish.

  5. Erin M. says:

    I love, love, LOVE this post. I think this is why my past attempts at a vegan lifestyle have failed – I would constantly ask myself, “why am I not loving this?!?” and eventually quit. Your mindset is dead-on, and one that I need to keep in mind. Like everything else I have achieved in life, going vegan will require a sacrifice – I am not going to necessarily “love it” 100% of the time, and that is OKAY. Remembering what the sacrifice is for, and that it is so much more fulfilling in the long run, is a truly important lesson. Thank you!

  6. Alice W. says:

    I have increasingly become aware of the need to simply eat intentionally as I’ve grown older. Now I’m eating because I need to feed my body to stay alive. I’m tired of the hype around food. I just can’t get interested in it any more. Eating is eating to me. I used to worry about feeling this way when I was no longer interested in food-centered activities and conversations. But I don’t worry about it anymore. Food tastes good, but I don’t expect so much from it. It is very freeing.

    I loved your blog. Practices, such as you describe them, are holy and keep us from feeling blown around by the wind – the distractions of the world and other people’s opinions. You are right on.

  7. I liked this, Matt. I suppose in some ways, eating vegan is an extension of the mindset required by ultra running in general. If it were easy, everybody would do it. But it isnt always hard either… its just a choice that I live with, and has become the norm. I don’t think about it alot these days- just do it. i have explored so many more complicated recipes, and, like you, have come back to simple meals. I don’t know that this lifestyle is a cure all or magic potion, , but it has definitely improved my health, and i have no doubt it enabled me to be the oldest ever female finisher of Hardrock 100.

  8. “One more tiny sacrifice to strengthen me.” I love this post because you are so true and honest to who you are and how you continue to strive and challenge your being. Great work! :)

  9. Amy Nawrocki says:

    One of the BEST articles I have ever read! I share so much of what you have written. Thank you for this and for continuing to inspire all of us!

  10. Thanks for a great post! I decided on a plant-based diet for the New Year (2014) and it hasn’t been all easy. The first couple of months were especially rough. But as you noted, one of the things I have really come to enjoy and appreciate is the simplicity of it. I no longer differentiate between breakfast foods and dinner foods…often I’ll eat a veggie burger for breakfast and a bowl of fruit in the evening. And while it was difficult at first reading labels for everything, I have learned that if I just focus on fresh whole foods (that don’t have labels) it is much easier to do. My tastes have definitely changed, and now I crave raw veggies. And as a runner I find that I actually do enjoy running more because my energy levels are better and I recover so much faster. :)

  11. Daniella Renee says:

    I’m not vegan. I’ve tried it in various forms and thus far, it hasn’t been the right fit or choice for me.

    But I love your blog, your philosophy and your approach to your practices. They’re real and honest. I’ve internalized quite a bit of wisdom thanks to your posts.

    One reason that so many people shy away from any form of practice, whether it be diet, religion or even fitness routines, is due to the rabid “my way is THE way” mentality of many devotees. Struggles and doubts, rather than being acknowledged and frankly discussed, are dismissed or rebranded as sacrificial badges of honor, pushing would-be practioners into less dogmatic realms. Ones with potato chips and ranch dip.

    Thank you for your honesty. What a shame this wasn’t the essay chosen for the book.

  12. Matt, that was amazing. Thank you for sharing. Honestly, I sometimes struggle with your posts, as I feel you set an ideal that I can never hope to attain. But this post was honest and refreshing and I feel a bit like you bared your soul. I especially like the idea of veganism as practice, as I struggle to maintain the commitment I had during Lent. I will use this idea going forward. And now I will return to my lunch of a grain, a green and a bean. :)

  13. This piece absolutely nails it. Exactly how I came to the life (practice) and nearly verbatim my sense of it….better put than I could ever do. Kudos and happy trails!

  14. Matt, you are one of the first blogs I started reading along with ‘Oh She Glows’ years ago. I have so very gradually moved to vegetarianism, pesce-vegetarianism truthfully. Living in Alaska it has been hard for me to completely convert. That is why this post really resonates loudly with me. It isn’t easy. Some days I just don’t want to run, but then I do and feel happy that I completed it. That I completed something others won’t or cannot. You and Angela have influenced my thoughts and habits and so in turn I am trying to be a positive role model to those around me.

    Thank you for all you have done. Love your blog and book and just your matter-of-fact attitude. Simplicity is the word. Thank you for sharing so much of yourself!

  15. Bernadette Couture says:

    What an excellent write up. Thank You so much for sharing!! :-)

  16. I’m not sure why this essay got rejected for the collection. It was awesome and I can say that as a professional author and publisher. Very honest and inspiring, about developing inner strength through the sacrifices. That is a large part of Jainism in the sense that their diet promotes harmlessness and the act of not simply eating everything the appetites demand, but paring down and eating with a higher purpose of harmlessness, I read that into your message and loved it. Thank you for sharing it!

  17. Jaime R says:

    Love this article! I like the rawness you put into this. Great job Matt!

  18. The Boston piece is much adored here and incites quite a bit of head nodding agreement. THIS essay is just the core-of-being truth that sparks a sudden stillness of recognition in my … soul? Wow, this essay is the response I would wish for when asked “Vegan, but… WHY?” When what really comes out is a stuttering disconnected litany of facts and reasons that just end with a big “It just works for me”. I don’t know what theme this anthology was shooting for but you should feel great that this was the result. Thank you for sharing and summing up what it feels like for so many of us.

  19. Chris K says:

    I enjoy reading everything you write because you make it real and not “pie-in-the-sky” perfect. Your “practice” IS what is “perfecting” you…in the sense it is making you the complete human being you strive to be which ultimately translates to happiness and peace. Thanks for being an inspiration to us all…and for being real.

  20. paulam2 says:

    Just the best essay ever. my thoughts on veganism and running exactly- only organised and written well! Many thanks.

  21. What a wonderful essay. The publisher was crazy not to put it in the anthology — it may not fit the party line about what the experience of going vegan is like for most people, but that’s exactly what makes it great. Thanks for posting it here.

  22. Great essay Matt – really enjoyed it.
    Thank you

  23. Well said! Great essay. Thank you for sharing. I’m not vegan all the time but that is the ultimate goal! Thanks so much for this very honest perspective.

  24. Stefani says:

    I relate to every word of this. I love your approach. Reading your blog & recipes helped me transition from vegetarian of 8 years to finally a vegan of about a year and a half. Thanks for sharing so much with your readers I always feel good after reading from you.

  25. Matt, all you need in life (if you don’t have it already) is the ‘Veganomicon’ from Isa Chandra Moskowitz and Terry Hope Romero to re-awaken that chef!
    I really like your honesty but as a bit of a gourmand myself i’ve really had to push through and learn what to do with those plants, beans and pulses and i can honestly say I’m more excited by my culinary options than ever….

  26. Rebecca Richardson says:

    Matt, Thanks for sharing this post. I think many of us can relate to the journey you are on. I personally love the simplicity of the food and became more excited about cooking or raw. As an athlete, I have more energy and recovery quicker as a result of my lifestyle. At age 57 I am getting faster still. Maybe because of wiser training or food choices? Anyways I love the way I feel.

  27. It seems that many people are headed in the opposite direction as far as running being a panacea. Many purported studies seem to “prove” that running a lot shortens one’s life expectancy. It seems to me and it is my doctor’s opinion that perhaps it is not running a lot that is bad, but running too much when one has plaque build up in the arteries. In this case, the heart has to work much harder to pump blood. Many people do perfectly fine when they do ultra marathons, but not everyone will. We shouldn’t be dogmatic either way. One good advice piece of advice might be to get a stress test or angiogram before one does ultra running. By the way, I bicycle everyday, usually at least an hour and sometimes up to 3 hours when I am off from work and I haven’t suffered any health problems as the result. My HDL is higher and my LDL is lower and I suffer no atrial fibrillation. My doctor suggested doing a lot of exercise. It also, along with a plant based diet and calorie control, helps to completely maintain my 100 pound weight loss. This weight loss has done nothing but good for my health. I also do a mostly Vegan diet for ethical reasons. I don’t as of yet avoid all dairy and eggs as ingredients in foods. I don’t drink milk or eat eggs as such, but they are in some of the food I eat. The high fiber content of my plant based diet helps with health and with weight control.

  28. Wendy LaPointe says:

    One of my all time favorite posts.

  29. It just feels good not to be alone in these journeys. Thank you for your honesty and being so willing to share. I love the lack of judgement :) of yourself and others, this too requires practice.

  30. This was perfect. As someone who is not plant- based, but exploring the lifestyle, this is great to hear. Many times, the reluctance is that you will not enjoy it, or that it will be too hard to do. However, knowing that that is true, and that I can STILL go in this direction is something I really want to think about more. Thank you for this website, and thank you for this article. I love it. It can in fact be, a spiritual practice. Thank you for reminding me of that.

  31. Michael says:

    As always, thoughtful and interesting. Whenever it’s a tough run or inclement weather I remind myself that it is in the tough part where I find growth, in fitness but also spiritually, or at least inexpanding the boundaries of my comfort zone.

    On a more practical level, PLEASE share your recipes, particularly the the risotto, spinach curry and penne dish you mentioned!

  32. Great job Matt! This article is one of my all time favorite posts.

  33. Cool!
    I like it, its honest and free of hippydippy BS that sometimes are spread by .. well .. those people. (“those” whoever they are).
    I love running and I do it cause I think its awesome, then again I’ve never ran more than 30k in one go (YET!) – admittedly I had more juice at the end but my feet were a bit over it.
    Haven’t eaten meat since I was 12, which is 18 years ago. Not sure what it gives me physiologically, cause I can’t remember how I felt when I was 12, cept prolly as full of energy as today.. But having a compassionate diet (and healthy! do’h) gives me so so so much fulfilment on a psychological level, and I hear nearly daily that people are surprised and impressed by my stamina, energy and happiness – so I must be doing something right.
    Last word in: how can one not love running? It just… baffles me. :)
    Summer smiles from Norway

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  1. […] Inconvenience Comes Strength Last week there was a post on No Meat Athlete called What Being a Vegan Runner Means to Me. Matt Frazier is really well-known in the vegan food and running community, and is someone I really […]

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