Running on plants

Mark Johnson has never felt better. I met the 36-year-old ultrarunner about a year ago at a trail race in Canmore. I was skimming the race results when I noticed Mark admiring the performance-enhancing kokopelli tattoo on my right calf. We got to talking and I learned he had just moved to Red Deer from Edmonton for a job.

Mark Johnson has never felt better.

I met the 36-year-old ultrarunner about a year ago at a trail race in Canmore. I was skimming the race results when I noticed Mark admiring the performance-enhancing kokopelli tattoo on my right calf.

We got to talking and I learned he had just moved to Red Deer from Edmonton for a job.

Later on, I discovered we had much more in common than just mountains and dirt trails.

Mark runs on plants.

He adopted a vegan lifestyle about four years ago after grappling with some health issues.

Watching Forks Over Knives, a film on the benefits of switching to a plant-based diet from a meat-based diet, solidified his decision to make the life-changing move.

In case you were wondering, a vegan is a vegetarian who takes the herbivore diet to another level. A vegan does not consume animal byproducts such as eggs and dairy and eliminates products derived from animals like certain soaps or leather.

Many make the switch for ethical reasons and a political stance against the mistreatment and senseless killing of animals. Mark said his diet was influenced by the health benefits and the environmental impact.

No pun intended, he went “cold turkey” on meat consumption. Cutting out the meat got easier and easier everyday.

Friends and family including his dietitian stepmother, were very supportive despite the random, “Do you eat chicken or fish?” questions.

Mark said for every one animal he cut out of his diet, he replaced it with five foods such as squash, green peas, tempeh, seitan and quinoa.

Feeling great, Mark resumed running after several years away from the sport.

He had missed the freedom of the trail and the energy that fed his body and soul.

Once again hooked, Mark delved into ultrarunning — running distances longer than 42.2 km or a marathon.

And he got pretty good at it too.

Mark came in second in his first Iron Horse Ultra 100 in St. Paul in 2014 and snagged first place the following year. He came in ninth at the 2015 Canadian Death Race in Grande Cache — a 125-km mountain race — this year.

Not bad for a stereotypical weak vegan.

A vegan diet definitely made the jump to ultrarunning much easier, he said.

On the long runs Mark will pack gels, energy bars, bananas, hummus and bean burritos.

Recovery is better and there’s more energy after a long day at work. He finds protein in lentils, chickpeas, nuts, beans and vegetables.

“You really know your diet,” he said. “You know what works for your body pretty quickly.”

But Mark still brings his own fuel to the races because you never know what is on the menu at the aid stations.

“You are prepared for surprises,” he said. “Every race is different but I haven’t seen a shift at the aid stations. Some races are really excited about the local jerky supplier or something.”

But despite a little extra time reading labels and in the kitchen, a vegan diet is not as challenging as most people tend to believe. Today more and more grocery stores are beginning to carry vegan or vegetarian products.

Mark said it has no doubt helped with his running and his overall health.

“It’s way easier and more rewarding than what I ever imagined,” he said. “I would never go back.”

Next up in #RWR I talk to my colleague Paul Cowley about his love of streaking.

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