I was always that kid in gym class hiding in the back, feigning cramps, and wondering how long until theatre class. Since I was a frequent target of bullies, running around attempting to kick a ball in front of my mean classmates was the last place I wanted to be. Plus, I loathed exercise. I still do, to be honest — although Mariann would likely roll her eyes at that. Even as a college student studying acting, I did my best to avoid any physical exertion — except for the dance classes we were required to take.
Throughout the past 2 years, I have lost nearly 100 pounds — thanks to a whole foods-based vegan diet, along with intermittent juice-fasting. I was a vegan for many years prior to losing weight (in fact, I gained quite a bit of it when I first went vegan — which had a lot to do with a very demanding job that trumped any interest I had in taking care of myself). The problem wasn’t so much that I gained weight — since you can indeed be a healthy person even if you are larger, so long as you’re vegan — but I was not so lucky as to maintain my good health. My triglycerides were through the roof, and I was well on my way to heart disease. That was unfortunate and ironic, especially since veganism can be a gateway into preventing and reversing heart disease. Some people, I learned, need to take a few extra steps in order to ensure optimal health. I was one of those people.
Let me interrupt myself in order to say that the primary impetus for my veganism has always been, and will always be, animal rights. The truth is, I don’t actually care all that much if people are optimally healthy, and I certainly could care less if they are thin. There are slippery slopes there, some of which head right into fatphobia, and I have no interest in putting things out there that can potentially be misinterpreted, or reinforce an unfortunately deeply held belief that thin is better. I also will never refer to veganism as a weight loss plan. It’s not. So let me be clear: Be fat, be thin, be whatever — as long as you are vegan.
But, back to my own story: I lost the weight, and all of my ailments improved. My tryglycerides became normal, and other issues I had been having — fatigue, headaches, body aches, depression — all righted themselves.
A year into my weight loss — so roughly one year ago now — I started running. I am not entirely sure what propelled me, except for the fact that I had an abundance of extra energy that came with getting healthy, and I needed to put it somewhere. I was also concerned that my frequent juice “fasts” might be slowing down my metabolism. I started by running 2 miles a few times a week, along the gloriously beautiful Hudson River in lower Manhattan. I began to look forward to the time I was able to spend with myself, especially since it was the only time I would actually listen to music — a deep love for me (and so many of us), which inexplicably got de-prioritized as my life got busier. And though I’ve lived downtown for many years, I had, until that point, never really explored the waterfront. Even now, that kind of blows my mind. It’s astonishing when we think about the habits we allow ourselves to fall into, and the beauty we can miss because of them.
Life went on, with all its hecticness and fury. Somehow, my miles picked up a bit, and running became a part of my life. I was never particularly fast, and it was always a big to-do to get out of bed in the morning and leave for my run. At the time, I didn’t ever run two days in a row, and so whenever I finished a run, I would thank my lucky stars that I had the next day off. Indeed, it was a chore. But admittedly, it was one that had enough benefits to keep me out there, even on the coldest days. Sometimes, if I left early enough, I would get a jump on the bustle of the city. My favorite run I’ve ever taken was on Christmas of last year, at 6 a.m. Remarkably for New York, everything was closed — which was both eery and liberating. I ran through the middle of the streets, around Union Square, and past the big Christmas tree in Washington Square Park, which — in the early-morning emptiness of the city — I was sure was displayed for only me. That’s the kind of solitude and peace that can come with a good run.
This past May, I found myself as a guest on The Dr. Oz Show, discussing my weight loss. At the time, I had just completed my first race — 4 miles through Central Park. The producers of the show felt there was a story there: Young Woman Loses Weight, Runs Around. Um, okay… Whatever makes the grade. So during the segment, they showed a photo of me at the race. Dr. Oz proclaimed, “4 miles! Wow!”
And that’s when I said it. I remember the words coming out of my mouth as if in slow motion. I knew they weren’t true, but I also knew that if I said it on national TV, I would not let myself down.
“Thanks, Dr. Oz! And I’m training for a half marathon now!”
Um, I am?
Of course, that part of my segment wound up cut from the show. In fact, they cut almost everything except for a tiny clip where I only got to say “veganism” one time. (Perhaps not surprisingly, they also cut the part of the show where I talked about how and why veganism was important to me.)
But by the time the episode aired, I had already made the decision to follow through with my plan of running a half marathon — even though I had to google how long a half marathon actually was. Turns out a half marathon is 13.1 miles. No biggie. I had already run, like, 6? Once? (And it had hurt.)
By this time, I also knew that I was headed to Portland, Oregon for a few months. I figured that incorporating a training regime would be totally appropriate in the City of Roses, since I had heard that their running culture was taken almost as seriously as their coffee culture. I had no idea, however, how very serious Portlanders were about their running. I’d venture to guess that there are more runners and bikers on the road than cars. Driving around in Portland is a tad like a video game with the goal of avoiding killing the self-propelled people in fluorescent yellow clothing.
I happened upon the training program recommended by VegRun, which uses the regime set forth by No Meat Athlete. It did not hurt that, at around this same time, we had vegan ultrarunner champions Scott Jurek and Rich Roll on our podcast. Despite all of these inspirations, and all of the support around me, as my training regime began, I quickly became shocked — floored, really — by the intensity of the commitment. To put it mildly, I had no idea what I had gotten myself into. In retrospect, I’m flabbergasted that Mariann did not break up with me. I not only dove head first in to training — which was a commitment of 6 days a week — but I became, shall we say, obsessed. I am sure that the obsession had largely to do with my the fact that I felt that if I wasn’t focusing on my training with everything I had when I was not working on Our Hen House, I would not complete my race. I knew how quickly it could all just slip away, so I was holding on for dear life. As a result, I became very boring and monomaniacal. My conversations always veered into things like socks, arnica, and — yep — poop.
Miraculously, I began to notice the training regime begin to pay off. I was able to pick up my miles and was soon running more than ten at a time — and living to tell the tale. I also was taking Pilates, since cross-training is a necessary part of training for a long race. When I began to notice muscle tone in my arms, I wondered who that person in the mirror was. I thought of the kid in the back of gym class, the one constantly blinking back tears, and I found myself wondering who was who. Was I that kid, or was I this runner? The truth is, I am still not sure. I will go on the assumption that I am both. I know for a fact that the me-now has not erased that kid. This story is not one of “look what I’ve overcome!” It is more about evolution than accomplishment.
Two days ago — October 7, 2012 — was my race day. My friends Debbie and Beth picked me up at 5:30 a.m., and we headed to downtown Portland. It was still dark out, and the temperature was in the 40’s. I had been so concerned about the logistics — getting up on time, properly nourishing and hydrating myself, remembering essential things like my sneakers — that I had completely forgotten about the fact that I was about to run a half marathon. Up until that point, I had only ever run 12 miles. It wasn’t until I was downtown and staring at my corral full of similarly paced runners that I realized, shit, I am about to do this. It’s no longer just a fantasy. It’s going to happen.
Throughout the past week, my obsession had gotten the better of me. For the first time, I began to think about the connection between veganism and running, and found myself moved to tears by an interview that James McWilliams — historian, activist, and friend — had published on the blog, Myths About The Vegetarian Myth. In it, McWilliams says:
Long distance running is personal and political, but even more, it’s transcendental. You transcend “normal” behavior as well as your own expectations. Over time, this serial transcendence plateaus at a different idea of “normal.” Through this beautiful, empowering process, you locate and relocate your identity. You constantly create new conceptions of what’s possible and those new concepts become part of you. The key here is this: You then become more involved with the world as an agent of change. You rage a bit. And this entire process is modeled. Others witness it; many are moved by it—they change for the better. In this ongoing empowerment and transcendence, you are a public model, whether or not you think so. When you start running seventy miles a week, the people around you will eventually take notice and become curious. It’s an exceptional thing.
A very similar scenario—this internalizing, identifying, witnessing, and modeling— happens with vegan advocacy. My chances of convincing a non-runner to run by declaring “run!” are the same as convincing a non-vegan to go vegan by declaring “go vegan!” Basically zero. Yes, you have to make your case, and there are a million ways to do it, but ultimately you have to do so while putting yourself out there, by allowing yourself to be witnessed. It’s risky as all hell, but there’s really no choice. A long distance runner cannot hide her running identity any more easily than a vegan advocate can hide his vegan identity. Nor should they hide it. Exposure has its costs, for sure, but the rewards are sublime; just ask any ethical vegan or self-identified marathoner. In these ways, both long distance running and ethical veganism etch positive standards—personal and political—into the pantheon of unrealized possibilities.
On our podcast last week — Episode 143 — Mariann and I further discussed the possible connections between running and veganism. That conversation, which left both of us feeling somewhat vulnerable — as we had each opened up quite personally about our feelings — started what I believe is just the beginning of an ongoing dialogue I will continue to have with myself and others about transcendence, both personal and collective. The jury is still out regarding how I feel about the possible connections between running and veganism. I am still not sure if running is completely self-involved, or if it connects to a larger unity that ultimately brings about a greater good. At the moment, I tend to think the former — that’s it’s an intensely personal experience that begins and ends there. It does, however, open up the possibility of tapping into a very impressionable, almost cult-like group — runners — and advocating veganism. It also allows for the possibility of having discussions of things like wool-free socks and leather-free shoes, in mixed company. But then again, every circle in our lives can allow us to have these openings, if we let them. So I am not sure if that kind of advocacy relates to veganism in particular. This topic is one that I also chatted a bit about just last week when I was interviewed for the vegan episode of the podcast, Runners Roundtable (alongside Colleen Patrick-Goudreau, Amanda Lanza, Megan Storms, and Gordon Harvey). There is so much to ponder that it can almost be overwhelming. I wish there was a training regime for pondering.
I wound up finishing my half marathon. I ran my 13.1 miles. Some good friends came out to be with me during the race, and afterwards, to celebrate, we made some crazy good pancakes, thanks to Carrie On Vegan. Despite the ultimate success, there were some spots where I was far from optimistic. Around mile 10, my right knee started to hurt in unexpected and new ways — searing pain that did not die down. “Mind over matter,” I thought, as I tried my best to recall the various mantras that friends had told me about these past few months, little sayings that got them through long runs. Somehow, all the mantras became a mish-mosh in my brain, and I found myself unintentionally reciting: “I own my bread.” I was, by this point, delirious. Don’t ask me what I was actually trying to say. I have no friggin’ idea.
And so here I am. I did it. I ran my race and I am only limping a little bit today. I set my mind on something and I got there. I feel very proud, and also a tiny bit sad — a natural let-down that I imagine is par for the course. Kind of like December 26. The gifts have been opened.
The night of my race, we all went to a swing club, where a favorite band of ours was performing. A gallant gentlemen even asked me to dance. He was, of course, 20 years too late, but I said yes anyway — ignoring my unbendy knees. What a day.
All of that said, here is how I can currently boil down my thoughts: Running is so ridiculously wonderful, and so completely stupid. Both of these are, I believe, accurate. It is, after all, self-indulgent — at least to a degree. But, of course, I am also insanely proud of myself, and I feel energized, inspired, and — yes — changed.
Now that the race is over, I am also left thinking a bit about the need to pay attention to small victories, and how important that is for us activists. Though on one hand you could argue that my race was a somewhat arbitrary accomplishment, I really do look at it as a tiny victory. Honestly, it is almost masochistic not to. Transcendent or not, I accomplished it, and ignoring that would be almost as mean to myself as those kids who called me horrible names in grade school. What’s the point in working hard if you can’t have beer to celebrate? Or, if not beer, at least a self-induced pat on the back?
Same thing goes for working in animal rights. We are, in a lot of ways, racing our hearts out. There is no time to spare! Yet if we don’t at least slow down every now and then and notice how far we as a movement have come, we will put ourselves at risk for burnout. There is actually a lot to celebrate here, if we can put aside our sadness and anger for just a few minutes. One thing that gives me hope, for example, is the Vegetarian Resource Group’s recent study that says that 2.5% of US adults are vegan — which is up from just 1% in 2008! That jump, in such a short amount of time, is staggering! Let’s celebrate that! Sure, we could then say, “Yeah, but look at all the animals still being killed…” And that’s true too! But, for our own sanity, we need to stop and have that beer, or maybe just a smile. Just for a moment.
Of course, when talking about the possible connections one can draw between running and veganism, there is a lot that is also completely irrelevant. And I don’t mean to imply that running is as important — or even in the same ballpark or universe, really — as activism. Hopefully this goes without saying, but animal rights is, to me, the most important issue facing the world today, and it is our absolute moral imperative to do everything we can to speak up for those who can’t speak up for themselves (for animals of all kinds — humans and non).
There is so much to ponder, to act on, and so much to accomplish. For me, I’m finding that sometimes it takes a few sore muscles to get me thinking in new directions. It reboots me. I am ready. Let’s win this race.