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Vegan ultra-runner Robbie Balenger is doing the seemingly impossible: running across the entire continental U.S. And, yeah, he’s fueling with a 100 percent plant-based diet. Every day for more than two months, he’ll pound an average of 43 miles of pavement per day, from Los Angeles to New York City.
We caught up with Robbie to learn more about his plant-based journey, how running changed his life, and why the heck he’s running 3,187 miles.
So, Robbie, your fitness and nutrition are top priority now, but was that always the case?
I was an active kid and played sports in school, but I definitely didn’t think a lot about food. Growing up in a very small county in Georgia, we really didn’t understand the effects that processed foods and fast food had on our bodies. I just kind of ate whatever happened to be in the pantry, and as a result, was pretty chubby.
In college, I saw the documentary Super Size Me, and that changed everything. Not long after, I moved to Denali National Park in Alaska, started hiking every day, and really cut out processed food. Throughout the next six months, I dropped 50 pounds.
Eventually I ended up in the restaurant industry in Austin, Texas, and though that was definitely a very ‘work hard, party hard’ lifestyle, I started eating more high-quality, local foods.
I started running casually when I met my now-fiancé and got hooked fast. From there, my life and diet really started to transform.
What made you decide to go completely plant-based?
About a year and a half ago, we moved to Denver and I decided I was done with meat. We had already been staying away from it at home and I was curious about how going full-on vegan would affect my running performance.
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. With every passing day I am getting closer and closer to the departure date for my transcontinental run. . As one could imagine, I am consumed with thoughts of the many miles ahead and fully engrossed in preparations for its success. I have been also thinking a lot about strength and how strength can manifest itself in so many different ways. . I’ve thought a lot about the physical strength it has taken me to train to be where I am now, the mental strength to persevere through setbacks, and the strength of focus to wake up every day and check off necessary and pressing logistical boxes in order to be ready for my first day of running on March 15th. . Another aspect of strength I’ve been noticing is the strength I see in those around me and how collective strength continues to inspire me. . In my circle of loved ones and friends, I see strength everywhere. Those who possess a high level of athletic ability and use it to dominate in their respective discipline. Those accomplishing “firsts” (Iike first marathons, first ultras, or simply first time setting out on a run). Those who strive to get better every day. And especially, those who continue day after day to stay true to themselves by abstaining from habits that are unhealthy for them and for those they love. . Strength and positivity breeds strength and positivity. I am so thankful for all of the strength in positivity I see around me. Thank you for keeping me inspired. . 📷: @maxowitz
I instantly noticed that I recovered faster, had more energy, and just felt lighter. I could go for really long runs and not be sore the next day.
Once I’d made the switch, I looked at the production of animal foods more clearly, and the environmental and ethical issues became more and more important. It became about so much more than just me.
There’s a lot of buzz (and controversy) out there about plant-based and vegan diets. What do you want people to know?
I think there’s this idea out there that you have to go plant-based or vegan overnight—but to me, it’s all about small victories; trying to make better decisions one meal at a time. I did that for 9 or 10 months before going fully plant-based.
People think going plant-based is a sacrifice, but I think it’s really more about questioning the norms we grew up with. I was raised to think our bodies can withstand anything; that we could eat whatever and our bodies could figure it out. But research is really proving that wrong.
Ultimately, there’s no true negative about eating more plant-based. You’re getting healthier, reducing your risk of depression, performing better, looking out for the environment, and helping reduce the suffering of other beings on this Earth.
How has this played into your decision to run across the country?
Well, I really wanted to make running my central focus—but I wasn’t about to become an elite runner.
About two miles into a run one day after finishing this really iconic race in Mexico called the Caballo Blanco 50, it all came together. I realized that I wanted to run across the country—and have a positive impact while doing it.
So, I’m really running across the country to advocate for better food choices and be a catalyst for change. I want to show people what we can accomplish on a plant-based diet. I want to be someone’s Super Size Me.
It’s also essentially going to be a two-and-a-half-month-long meditation, and I know I’m going to have to really grow as a person to maintain clarity. Whoever I’ll be when I come out on the other side will surely be different than who I am now.
What’s your game plan for nutrition throughout the run?
I’m going to start out eating about 4,000 calories a day and ultimately ramp up to almost 10,000.
Luckily, I have a gut of steel and can run after eating without it bothering me. But every day I’ll have some oatmeal, this loaded coconut milk smoothie that’s like 2,000 calories on its own, a big baguette sandwich filled with hummus, tofu, vegetables, and sprouts, and some plant-based camping food.
What’s your advice for someone interested in eating a more plant-based diet but who may feel intimidated?
I really encourage people to focus on the little victories; better is better. You have three or four meals a day that give you an opportunity, so just take it one meal at a time. Go easy on yourself! You can’t wake up one day and think, “Today I am completely different than I was yesterday.”
It’s a slow process; we all grow and change over time. But that’s okay. Embrace it—you’ll get there.
Eventually, you’ll look back and realize just how far you’ve come.