"If the furnace is hot enough it will burn just about anything."
This pithy little statement, along with a list of others, has been a dictum of many a distance runner. And for the most part it seems correct. We, as running enthusiasts, love to hear tales about Bill Rodgers' love for pizza (with mayonnaise!), Steve Prefontaine's passion for beer, Don Kardong's belief that without ice cream there would be chaos and darkness.
All of these, and most importantly Dean Karnazes' infamous "pizza/burrito" mash-up, provides us a justification (and for every action, we know there is an equal and opposing justification...) for the dietary indiscretions to which we engage.
Perhaps you're less indiscreet with what you eat than I.
Frankly, I have my loving wife to thank for my diet. Without her I probably would dine on Chinese food, especially the unhealthy items, six days a week...and twice on Sunday. I'm an omnivore of the highest order; the less-expensive and more-quickly prepared, the better. But as of late I've started to think a lot more-critically about what goes into my body. Part of it has to do, not so much with any particular medical issue, but the painfully-obvious fact I'm aging.
As part of a pre-retirement financial planning session, I decided to purchase a supplemental life insurance policy for Suzanne's benefit. Unlike the group life insurance which I have through my employer, this insurer wants me to take a physical examination. Not a particularly harrowing one, but one which includes laboratory work and weight. It's not so much the couple of excess pounds that scare me as much as what might lurk within my bloodstream.
Ignorance, yes, is bliss.
Journalist and food writer Mark Bittman recently posted a 'blog in Outside magazine, titled "Real Men Love Kale." Six years earlier, he'd received the wake-up call from his physician; his "numbers" were all on the bad side. It came down to a choice between medication and modification. Bittman, at that point, was unwilling to give up "cheese, carnitas and chicken biryani" completely. He became what can best be described as "flexitarian." From the moment he awakened in the morning until 6 o'clock in the evening he would engage in a vegan diet. After six p.m. he could eat like any other omnivore, in moderation.
I have friends who run the entire spectrum of vegetarian...from nominal pescatarians (vegetarians willing to eat fish for protein needs) to full-blown vegan. Until I read the Bittner article, the overwhelming majority of vegans seemed to me to be the kind of person who not only wouldn't eat meat, but also demanded you make concessions to suit them. Thoroughly unhappy persons. Given the choice, if forced at gunpoint to change my diet so that I could never eat meat, I would have gladly told the offending person to pull the trigger.
In the past year I've trained a young man who has been a vegan for several years. He's got the "typical" long-distance runner's build. We've talked at length over a few beers (thankfully, beer is a universal foodstuff) about how choosing to not eat animal-based foods affects his training in specific and life in general. Here's what I have taken away, especially in light of the most-recent discussion:
First, it is thoroughly possible to be vegan and have a lousy diet.
My first thought was, "well, of course. Sugar is a plant, right?" But when we look closer at the "typical American" and the separation of up to six degrees between Kevin and his bacon (or his eggs, or his veggies, for that matter...) there appears to be a spectrum - might even look like a bell curve - which runs from "bad diet" to "bad diet."
How much processing are we willing to tolerate for the sake of convenience...is that really 100-percent chicken in my chicken nugget? How much of that "pink slime" is there next to the processed cheese-like substance between the hamburger buns?
And why, in heavens' name, amy I paying for it?
And this willingness to settle for speed and convenience on the one hand is offset by an attitude...a willingness to spend the same amount I used to spend twenty years ago on beer, but get one-sixth the beer, which better be quality.
Second, it doesn't hurt to know how to cook, and well.
My loving bride is a good cook, hindered only by two things, time management and - for want of a better term - recipe compliance. When she follows the instructions to a "T," like baking sugar cookies with the grandchildren, the end result is a wonderful thing. If she's rushed, let's just say the meals are an adventure.
I'm not complaining, mind you. Anything that comes out of the kitchen by my wife's hand has been prepared with the intent to keep me healthy. And my response, like any wise and prudent man, is to sing her praises.
So I cannot bear to go completely over to the vegan side of "the street," like Scott Jurek I am more than willing to be more mindful of what I shove in my mouth, somewhere closer to Dean Karnazes...which means I don't get to try that "pizzarito" until my first ultramarathon...
Michael Bowen is a training specialist/running coach who lives and trains in the Pensacola, FL area. He works with runners of all ability levels, remotely and in-person. He and his wife, Suzanne, trael frequently to New Orleans to participate in and support running events and triathlons. He also writes two blogs, "If I Were Your Coach..." and "Red Polo Diaries."