This segment of the Active Outdoor Vegans series is a Q&A with Gordon of This Running Life. He is a vegan, runner, professor, father, blogger, and someone whose health and lifestyle have changed remarkably since going plant-based, showing us just what one can accomplish on this lifestyle! With a love of running, he has acquired a taste for marathon and ultra-distance races and shares many of his thoughts and experiences on his blog ThisRunningLife.net. He can also often be seen sporting an OrganicAthlete or other vegan tee at events, sharing and representing the vegan message well!
Where are you currently located?
I live in a small town equidistant between Birmingham, Alabama and Atlanta, Georgia. It’s called Jacksonville. I am a professor and department chair at a small university there.
What is/are your favourite outdoor activity/ies?
Running, by and far. I love the bike and I’ve dabbled in triathlon (finishing a 70.3) but running is what started me down this path and it is my first love. As hard as it can be, especially in the Alabama summer, I literally cannot live without it.
What got you started?
In December 2006, my kids got the flu very close to a trip we had planned to Walt Disney World. No matter how hard I tried to stay germ free, I awoke on a Saturday morning with red face, burning eyes, and thought surely I had contracted the flu from them. I rushed to the local doc-in-a-box clinic and told them I had the flu and begged for any medication they could give me to get over it quickly. I feared our Disney vacation would be ruined. I knew something was up when four different nurses took my vitals. Then the doctor stepped into the room and told me that my blood pressure was very high. She wanted me to take a pill and rest in a dark room to see if it would come down or else they would send me to the emergency room. Well, that didn’t help my BP much, but I did what she said and it came down slightly, enough for me to go home. I had a friend who was a doctor and he took care of me from that point and put me on BP meds.
At that point in my life I was active, I took yoga, spin class at the gym, even aerobics and refereed soccer games. But I was a 39-year old man who ate like he was 17. Nothing healthy. Huge portions. Lots of fried and processed food. I was 5’8’’ and weighed 250 pounds. And that was actually a little less than the 262 I weighed three years earlier. I was a ticking time bomb and something had to change. I recalled in high school that running had always been something we used on the football team and wrestling team to lose weight and get in shape. So in early 2007, I started running.
My God, it hurt to run a mile. But the feeling I had when done was amazing; the sense of accomplishment and pride and health was addicting. I ran 5ks and never considered running anything longer. I once told my brother-in-law that marathons were for lunatics. I’ve since run 12 marathons and four 50Ks.
Could you share a bit about yourself, as well as what led you to the plant-based/vegan path?
I am a native southerner raised on butter, fried foods, and lots of soft drinks. I was obese as a child, but played sports a good deal through high school. Southern mothers show their affection through good home-cooked food. My mom was no different. I never felt hunger. She grew up poor and was the daughter of a coal miner. She had to quit school in the 10th grade to support her family. She lavished my brother and me with abundant food and love. I’ve always been athletic but not always healthy. I teach history and research southern politics at a small university here in Alabama when I’m not busy chairing the history department. My veganism threw Mom for a loop. How could she show affection if I no longer ate fried chicken, ham, macaroni and cheese, or buttered potatoes. The cool thing is that she has adjusted to it and celebrates my health. And she has “veganized” many of the old southern dishes so that I can still eat them. That is what I call mother’s love!
Running took about 20 pounds of me pretty quickly. But losing weight by running alone just won’t work. You must watch what you eat. Two years after my first marathon and wanting to get serious about weight loss, I started eating healthier foods and counting my calories (I still count calories!). I realized that meat, dairy, and processed food had high calorie counts. So slowly I started eating less of that stuff and replaced it with more fruit and vegetables (which I had NEVER eaten as a child—my idea of a veggie then was green beans and a lot of fried potatoes, mashed potatoes, baked potatoes!). As I lost weight, I was more motivated to stop eating meat and dairy. By December 2009 I was vegetarian and by April 2010 I had become Vegan.
You have undergone quite a transformation. What health and/or athletic benefits have you experienced since going plant-based?
I found that not only did I run farther and faster as a lighter person, I felt younger too. Going from a 44 waist to a 31 waist was a trip. I slept better. And my body recovered so much faster because I ate foods that repaired and refuelled my body, not broke it down. I felt more energy than I had ever felt in my life. I was 42 going on 16. I know that I could run circles around my younger selves. I’m 48 now and look younger than that. I feel younger, too.
What motivated you most to continue with the plant-based/vegan lifestyle?
It became a lifestyle, never a diet. I entered Veganism though the health door, but the less animals I consumed, the more I came to love what they were to me. I saw the world differently. I embrace the entirety of the Vegan approach now, not just the health aspect. There’s a numbness that we have when we consume animals and we see them as objects and not creatures of wonder. Once we stop seeing them as a thing and see them rather as a fellow creature to be loved and protected, then the world looks different to us. I love that connection of all beings.
Do you have any favourite plant-based meals? And what is your preferred fuel during long training sessions or races?
I don’t eat it very often, only after a long run, but I love a Veganized version of shepherd’s pie. Total comfort food. And pizza! But mostly, I just love a big plate of sautéed (in water, no oil!) veggies.
How often/much do you typically train each week?
I run 4 to 5 days a week and anywhere from 30-70 miles a week depending on where I am in my training. My basic week is around 40-45 miles. On days that I do not run, I’ll ride my bike inside on the trainer. I used to swim a lot, but the pool is not close to home and my sons are teenagers with sporting events that I wouldn’t dare miss. So my pool time has all but disappeared as I devote my time to them.
How many races/competitions do you do per year? Do you have a favourite distance?
I guess my favourite distance is the marathon. I like ultras but the marathon is home. It was where I started and fell in love with the running lifestyle. I average maybe half dozen or so events each year. Most are at the marathon or beyond distance with a few shorter trail races sprinkled in. I am not a serial racer. I don’t like to race every weekend. The registration can get costly, and I also believe that the body has to recover and if you are always in a race you will push a little harder than you should.
What is your favourite part about attending races? And do you have a favourite race?
My all time favourite is my first marathon, the Disney Marathon of 2009. It took me 6 hours to finish. I had to walk a lot, I was depleted in the Florida heat. But the moment I crossed that line I wept like a baby. I had done something that I never imagined I could do. It proved to me that I could attain big goals, that I could commit to something meaningful. And if I could do this, anyone can.
My favorite recent race was last year at the Mercedes Marathon in Birmingham. I was the 5 hour pace group leader and charged with the task of getting those folks who wanted to finish at 5 hours across the line. It was an awesome responsibility and a privilege to be entrusted with their dreams and goals. I got to share my story with them and felt tremendous pride when we got a few folks to new personal records. I’ve run 5Ks with my sons and that makes me proud and I tear up just thinking about it.
That’s what I love about races. You get to witness all sorts of people giving their all to achieve something they have dreamed about. They reach for goals that transform their lives in so many ways, from fitness goals to the sense of accomplishment that can turn a life around. I want to volunteer at a race and be the person who puts the medals around the finishers’ necks. Wouldn’t that be a blast? Talk about goosebumps for hours.
What is/are your most memorable race or athletic accomplishment(s) so far?
Well, finishing the first marathon was huge. Without it I wouldn’t be here talking to you. But I’m proud that in a 2 year span between 2009 and 2011 I lost 75 lbs, went Vegan, and took my marathon personal best time from 6:12 to 3:28. What a crazy and wonderful two years.
I am proud of my first 50K finish, and will be pretty happy when I break the 50 and 100 mile barriers too.
There are a few trail races coming up in the fall that I plan to do (I don’t trail race in summer because of snakes and ticks. We got a lot around here! I trail race in the fall and winter). In September the Birmingham Stage Race has become a favorite of mine; 60 miles over three days in the three mountains that surround the city. In October I will attempt a 50-mile race. And I’m planning to lead pace groups at a couple of marathons in the fall and winter. My goal is to get appointed to the Clif Bar Pace team and lead a pace group at Disney’s marathon one day.
You have a website, thisrunninglife.net, that provides a lot of great running related info; one of my favourites is the “vegan protein sources” info-graphic :), and I really enjoy your thorough product reviews. What initially inspired you to start the site? And where else can people find and follow you on social media?
I started the site for show notes of a podcast I produced when I started training for my first marathon. “Running to Disney” chronicled my training for that race. I later renamed it “This Running Life” (a blatant ripoff from This American Life—apologies to Ira Glass!) when I focused less on Disney races and more on this new lifestyle of mine. I stopped producing the podcast in 2012 when kids and career demanded more time. The podcast linked me with many running friends across the country and a number of Vegans, one of whom became a dear friend who was instrumental in my running success and my transition to Vegan lifestyle. So I transitioned to the blog and decided to convert it from show notes to a full-fledged running blog. I did the protein sources because as Vegans we get the question all the time about where in the world will we ever get protein now that we don’t eat animals. It has become quite a popular page and helpful to friends who are interested in transitioning.
Thanks, Gordon, for sharing your inspiring story of just how you can change your life and what you can accomplish on a plant-based, vegan lifestyle!
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