My Vegan MarathonBy CHRISTINE FRIETCHEN
Nine years ago, when I trained for my first marathon, I did everything by the book. I built my mileage over the course of 18 weeks; I stretched, I rested on the days I was supposed to rest, and I ate everything the running books told me to eat: yogurt smoothies in the mornings, lunches of fruit, cheese and crackers; dinners of whole grains and vegetables, along with turkey, skinless chicken and fish.
On marathon day, things went pretty well at first. The morning dawned bright and sunny, I was excited to be running the New York City marathon. I felt great -- at least until Mile 22. That's when my legs turned to iron, my mind was clouded and I barely noticed the cheering crowd. I finished the race doing what I called a "survival shuffle," coming in a good 30 minutes later than I'd hoped, with a time of 5:06:03, Though I certainly felt proud of my achievement, it didn't inspire me. It was six months before I ran again at all, and I didn't run consistently again until two years ago.
Part of my dismay about my first marathon experience owed to the fact that I hadn't lost a single pound during my training. I thought that 16 weeks of marathon training would have made a dent in my lifelong battle with the scale, but it didn't. Exasperated, I figured I'd probably never lose weight, but I could at least focus on eating better. If I was never going to be lighter, at least I could be healthier.
I started cooking more, mainly vegetables from the farmers' market, using less and less meat without really trying. To my surprise, I no longer felt as stuffed and bloated after meals. I started running again, just a dozen or so miles a week.
I'd always been so jealous of people who said they just cut soda from their diet and dropped 20 pounds. I wished for a similar quick fix in my own diet. (I didn't drink soda, so that wasn't an option.) But it dawned on me one day as I sprinkled Cheddar over my veggie tacos that hardly a meal passed that didn't include some type of cheese. I would sprinkle Cheddar on a salad, melt mozzarella on pizza, spread cream cheese on a bagel. Turns out I'd been using cheese as a condiment. I gave myself a three-week trial: no cheese, no milk, no butter, no yogurt.
It didn't even take three weeks for my nagging heartburn to disappear, and the needle on the scale began to creep lower. I was also having a running "honeymoon." To my disbelief, I started running faster, down to a personal best of 7:40 a mile from 10-minute miles nine years ago. I began to daydream about another marathon.
But could I train for a marathon without the fuel of animal protein? I knew I wasn't having a problem running 15 or 20 miles a week, but would I have the stamina for 50 miles a week on a vegan diet?
Turns out there are plenty of athletes who don't eat meat, dairy or eggs, and after a screening of the film "Forks Over Knives," I knew that a marathon for me was possible. I learned that Ruth Heidrich has completed 60 marathons as a vegan; Mac Danzig, a mixed martial arts fighter, is vegan. (Both are featured in the film.) Gene Baur, a vegan advocate who is a founder and the president of Farm Sanctuary, completed his first marathon this year in 3:28:03. I also met Ellen Jaffe Jones, a vegan running coach who at age 59 still runs eight-minute miles. When I asked her about meatless marathon training, she said, "Just keep doing what you're doing -- lots of beans and whole grains."
I'm not perfect; I slip up with an occasional smear of butter or a scrambled egg once a year. I'd be lying if I said I still didn't salivate at the smell of bacon. Cheesecake in a shop window still calls my name. Two nights ago, I dreamed I was eating fried chicken.
My Midwestern family doesn't really get it, though they are trying. I screen restaurants before accepting invitations. But these are all minor issues -- they're nothing compared with how good I feel.
In May, I ran my second marathon, this time in Long Branch, N.J. To my amazement, the finish-line clock read 3:58:46, a full 74 seconds under my goal and an improvement of more than an hour from my time nearly a decade ago.
I can't be sure how much of a role my diet has played in my improved running performance. It may just be that I'm 30 pounds lighter. Or perhaps I was more determined and trained harder this time around. But whatever the reason, I felt great running a marathon fueled by a vegan diet.