Running for the Revolution: An Interview With Vegan Activist and Ultramarathoner James McWilliams

August 21, 2012

A few weeks ago, Alex and I lifted weights and did push-ups together while cheering each other on with reminders of all the personal and political empowerment that comes along with physical and mental health. As the only tattooed, scruffy-haired vegans at the gym, it felt bold and empowering to take back the image of strength we’d so often lost through implicit and explicit messages: that vegans don’t even possess baseline health, let alone strength; that there’s too much work to be done to waste time taking care of ourselves physically and mentally; that we simply don’t matter as much as the nonhumans and humans around us. We got to talking about how important it is to be strong and healthy if you’re going to work for justice. How you’ve got to stay present for the future—to have the strength required to get things done now, as well as to hold, with calmness and compassion, all the hope, vision, and space that’s required for a beautiful future to take shape. After all, you’ve got to have a strong body, heart, and mind to start a revolution.

In that spirit, we had the honor to pick the brain of somebody whose body, heart, and mind have figured all this out: James McWilliams. McWilliams is a vegan activist, historian, author, professor, and ultramarathon runner. You can find some of McWilliams’ wonderful writings at his Eating Plants blog.

CZ: Many folks know your work as an historian and vegan advocate, but many of your readers are probably not aware that you are an extremely accomplished runner. Can you talk about your history with running, why you started, why you continue, and what your current practice looks like?

JM: I ran in high school but, for some unknown reason, quit doing so when I went off to college. Eventually, I fell out of shape physically. I also fell out of shape mentally and emotionally, which was worse. Too much beer, bad food, inexcusable behavior. Then came my running epiphany, one of the few genuine epiphanies I’ve experienced, and my life changed.

One afternoon, after a physics exam (bombed it), I decided to go for a run. I’m not sure why. I left at five in the afternoon with the intention of running a few miles, but something happened.  A mysterious switch flipped and I entered a zone and decided I liked this zone. I lived in Washington, DC at the time—a beautiful city, especially at night. I ran until the sun went down and kept going. I couldn’t recall ever having run so far, ever feeling so present, so alive, so unified with my ideas. I got home at about nine PM having run about twenty miles.

I ran my first marathon a year later in San Francisco and I’ve run at least two a year, plus ultramarathons, since 1992. It’s now a central part of my identity. What’s perhaps the best part about running is that I enjoy it more as I get older. Everyone tells me my knees are going to quit, but until they do, I think they’re wrong.

CZ: I’m a big fan of the idea that the personal is the political—that our relationships to our bodies and food can’t be separated from politics and society. What connections do you make, if any, between your life as a runner and your life as a vegan?

JM: I ran for twenty years before going vegan, so for a long time, there was no obvious connection.  In retrospect, running proved to be excellent training for my transition to and advocacy of ethical veganism.

Long distance running is personal and political, but even more, it’s transcendental. You transcend “normal” behavior as well as your own expectations. Over time, this serial transcendence plateaus at a different idea of “normal.” Through this beautiful, empowering process, you locate and relocate your identity. You constantly create new conceptions of what’s possible and those new concepts become part of you. The key here is this: You then become more involved with the world as an agent of change. You rage a bit. And this entire process is modeled. Others witness it; many are moved by it—they change for the better.  In this ongoing empowerment and transcendence, you are a public model, whether or not you think so. When you start running seventy miles a week, the people around you will eventually take notice and become curious. It’s an exceptional thing.

A very similar scenario—this internalizing, identifying, witnessing, and modeling— happens with vegan advocacy. My chances of convincing a non-runner to run by declaring “run!” are the same as convincing a non-vegan to go vegan by declaring “go vegan!”  Basically zero. Yes, you have to make your case, and there are a million ways to do it, but ultimately you have to do so while putting yourself out there, by allowing yourself to be witnessed. It’s risky as all hell, but there’s really no choice. A long distance runner cannot hide her running identity any more easily than a vegan advocate can hide his vegan identity. Nor should they hide it. Exposure has its costs, for sure, but the rewards are sublime; just ask any ethical vegan or self-identified marathoner. In these ways, both long distance running and ethical veganism etch positive standards—personal and political—into the pantheon of unrealized possibilities.

CZ: Mental and physical health and its relationship to revolution: discuss.

JM: I may have touched on this connection in the last answer a bit, so let me swerve in a related direction. A revolutionary mentality demands several qualities: the ability to waver between individualism and community, the ability to not care when people you admire love or disagree with you (or end up hating you), the ability to choose peace over force whenever possible, and the ability to admit when you’re wrong and not gloat when you’re right.

I think running religiously has a way of imparting and nurturing the emotional preconditions of many revolutionary-minded qualities. I won’t go into precisely how for each, but I will say: In general, running teaches humility; greed for what’s good; inestimable self-assurance (but not arrogance); and a deep sense of what really matters. These attributes strike me as critical for any effective revolutionary mentality, whether collective or individual.

CZ: What do you say to folks who want to start running but don’t have the slightest idea how?

JM: There are a gagillion books out there that can answer this question better than me, but I can share an anecdote. I had a friend who never ran but, inspired after watching the Marine Corps Marathon in his home town of Washington, DC, decided he wanted to run a marathon. He consulted me for guidance. Our first run was a block and a half, and it left him keeled over, wobbling for air. I thought to myself, forget it. A year later he completed a marathon. What I failed to appreciate was my friend’s persistence. Not strength or power, but persistence. He ran regularly (not daily), gently nudged up his distance, listened to his body, ate and slept well, and stuck with it until that magic moment occurs when you run far and get high.

CZ: I’m sure you have some super inspiring running stories. Can you tell us one?

JM: You are right, I have a lot, and I often go back to them for inspiration. Running, for me, often inspires peak moments. When this happens, I often have to stop running because the force of the experience overwhelms me so much. It’s as if you cannot be more present in the world at that moment.  And the beauty is, you don’t need to do anything. Just exist. Every distraction evaporates and you feel completely, fully alive. This last happened to me while running trails alone in the mountains around Eugene, Oregon, about two years ago. (Actually, I had one two weeks ago on the Golden Gate Bridge, but I’ll hold off on that one, as I’m still processing it… boy it was amazing.)  It was an impossibly crisp day. My run began in the city and, as I dealt with traffic and noise, my mind started to clutter with the data of daily life: work, bills, deadlines. I was dealing with a sore foot at the time and feeling sorry for myself as I entered the woods. When I hit elevation, my breathing picked up. As I reached about twelve miles, I turned this corner on the trail. Next thing I knew I was so high-jacked by the beauty of the forest around me that I found myself leaning against a Douglas Fir tree in tears. Joyful tears. I get chills even writing about it.

(Of course, when I returned and told a friend about the run, she noted that those woods were full of mountain lions. I’m glad I found this out afterwards!)

CZ: Any book recommendations for folks, particularly vegans, who want to be healthy runners?

JM: Scott Jurek’s Eat and Run is a wonderful book on veganism and running.

CZ: What are your favorite vegan foods for staying a healthy, strong runner?

JM: Oh, the list would be virtually endless. I’ll put it this way: My recovery from long runs has improved dramatically as a result of eating a diverse array of nutrient-dense foods. It used to take me a week or longer to get over an ultramarathon while non-vegan. Now, as a vegan, I can typically go out and run the next day.  I seek out beans, greens, and nuts of all sorts, whole grains, fruit, seeds, nutritional yeast; lots and lots of avocados and blueberries; a ton of root vegetables; nut pastes;  burritos, porridges, and so on. In a good day, I’ll eat 20-30 different kinds of nutrient-dense foods (and on a great day, 40.) All the while, I try to avoid junk food and anything too processed—I go easy on vegan cheese and meat substitutes. I eat tofu regularly, but in small quantities. That said, I’m no food purist. I drink a boatload of beer and love coffee and chocolate with a rare fervor.

CZ: Obligatory minimalist running discussion: At this blog we’re pretty critical of anything that stinks of paleofantasy and use of the naturalist fallacy to justify ideologies and behaviors, as so many people do with carnism. To me, it seems like the recent trends in minimalist and barefoot running lend themselves to being embraced by animal-food-obsessed paleodieters and, by extension, advocates of “humane” animal farming. What do you think? Is minimalist running legit?

JM: You’re right that barefoot running, inspired by the book Born to Run, is a bit of hokey trend, and one very likely linked up with sordid pornographic paleofantasies involving endurance and  hunting game across the dusty tundra with self-fashioned spears. Personally, I think it’s all rather silly. As my friend from Burundi, who grew up running barefoot because he couldn’t afford shoes, says: “Why would anyone willingly do that?” That said, I do run barefoot on grass for a couple of miles a week to stretch out my foot. I find the experience to be pleasant and effective. Needless to say, I don’t dream about hunting a leopard as I go; I just want to keep my Achilles tendons healthy. Ultimately, though, when it comes to running, I say do whatever works. I once met a guy—a doctor—for an early morning run before he had to be at work for his 6 AM shift. As he got out of his car, he realized he’d left his running shoes at home. He thought about running barefoot but, recalling all the patients he saw with torn calves from barefoot running, decided against it. He ended up running ten miles in a pair of rubber Wellingtons from the trunk of his car. Whatever works.

CZ: This society kind of doesn’t want to admit that vegans can be strong and healthy. A lot of vegans internalize this message and it doesn’t even occur to us that we, too, can be bad-ass runners. Any words of wisdom for us?

JM: There’s no need to rush out and become sculpted models of athletic prowess. The health that vegans should want to share is a health that unifies a state of mind and a state of physical being, both of which are intimately connected. Running is one the purest and most authentic things I do. I hope the way I present myself physically to the world naturally reflects this—not through superficial markers like musculature or leanness or whatnot, but through overall bearing and presence. I realize that this all wades into the choppy waves of body-image, and in no way do I wish to downplay the complex turmoil of that concern. It’s just that I know many long-distance runners who you’d never guess, by standard conceptions of what runners are supposed to look like, were avid marathoners. On the contrary, no matter what their bodies look like, what’s always evident in their physicality is a quiet security and confidence. That’s what strong and healthy vegans should, in my opinion, seek to model.


Processed food: What are you talking about?

August 14, 2012

Can we start really thinking about what we’re saying when we use the term “processed food”, and when we reject or moralize about foods based on that phrase? This phenomenon has become central to anti-vegan discourse.

Just because it’s a vegetarian “meat-substitute” (although it might behoove us to just see it as good plant-based protein that exists in its own right, apart from the existence of meat) doesn’t mean it’s processed, folks– at least, not processed in the evil way neocarnist discourse always refers to. You know the conversation: processed = bad, not processed = good. I can’t really offer a definition of “processed” beyond that, as it’s currently used, because there doesn’t seem to be one.

Let’s break down some examples of foods that are currently trendy to preach against based on their “processed-ness”:

-Tofu. Let’s clear this up, folks: Tofu is made with a blender and cheesecloth from three to four ingredients including water, an emulsifier (a big word, but something that is used in countless simple foods, both vegan and non), and a bean. You can buy that bean GMO-free very easily; many, if not most, explicitly vegetarian products like tofu which involve soy are GMO-free now. What’s non-GMO as far as soy goes are a) those soy fillers in all kinds of other food products, including many animals products, and b) the unbelievable amount of soy that’s fed to farmed animals.

You can even get soy from sustainable farms like Vermont Soy and Eden Soy. Those farms might even be local (gasp!!!) depending on where you live.

Actually, you can make this kind of tofu product with many different beans, as I learned while living with Burmese folks, who often make and eat tofu from lentils.

Right in your own kitchen. Right next to those vegetables you process by… cutting and cooking them.

-Similarly fallacious is all the moralizing about the “process” that goes into making wheat gluten or tempeh. These are products that actually have very few simple, healthy ingredients and can be made easily. You don’t need a Bunsen burner or a mask.

-And to make an alternative “milk” such as soy or almond, the idea is similar. Two or three ingredients plus a blender. Same with any “cheese” alternative that’s made with these things. All of these products are less processed than even the most organic and “happy” cheese.

I’m not sure why so many neocarnists take a moral stance against these plant foods, but most likely it has something to do with things like unblinking Michael Pollan-ism and the Weston A. Price Foundation’s government lobbying, reactive anti-science, and fear-mongering (particularly in regards to soy). Some well-meaning folks, I think, often lump in foods made from Textured Vegetable Protein (TVP) with simpler foods made from tofu, nuts, or wheat gluten. TVP is made from soy flour and a significant number of steps are involved in its creation. Some TVP makers use hexane, which is controversial. But whatever one’s ideas about TVP, the current dialogue about it being an evil “processed” food cannot be removed from the influence of Michael Pollan’s hyperbolic, pseudo-scientific diatribe against TVP in The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Additionally, hexane is used in multitudes of animal foods. As always, do your own research and use your critical thinking skills.

From the minute you rip a vegetable out of the ground, to the minute you collect rice grains from a stalk, to the minute you bring them home and clean, peel, cook, cut, ferment, freeze, marinate, combine, and flavor them, you are processing foods. You process them in your mouth, too, as saliva breaks them down, and then in your gut, where they are dissolved into their component parts. Life is a process and so is the food that enables it.

If you want to talk about foods with ingredients that are made in labs, talk about that. If you want to talk about GMOs, environmentally unfriendly packaging, huge industries, awful companies, and how complicated that all is across huge realms of both plant and animal foods, please do. But don’t conveniently muddle those concepts with the mere existence of vegetarian foods for the sake of a political agenda or a romantic, lazy paleofantasty about what’s “natural” and what’s not. In short, it is incoherent to consider these veg foods processed yet not consider foods processed that require creating, artificially inseminating, squeezing, prodding, torturing, then slaughtering an entire animal. If you want to talk about excessive food processing–by which I mean the actual time, physical and psychological energy, and other resources that go into the creation of a food–and how it might have moral implications, talk about this: We literally destroy huge pieces of the planet to actually raise entire huge, individual, sentient, ambulatory beasts!!! We artificially inseminate them by putting sperm into their vaginas with poles or our gloved arms, cut off their inconvenient body parts such as penises, testicles, tails, and beaks while they’re still alive, kill them with complicated weapons and machines, drain their blood and cut off all their skin, cut off and throw away their heads, cut out and throw away their organs, pull their reproductive secretions out of them (often after starving and blinding them into laying), squeeze and prod them with hands or machines til the insides of their bodies finally give you inevitably puss-and-blood laced milk which is then turned into convoluted dairy products like cheese, butter, yogurt, and ice cream. Yet, incredibly, it’s a  loaf made of beans and water–no cutting off and throwing away a head involved–that’s called Frankenfood! While plant foods and agriculture are indeed complicated, there is absolutely no plant-food processing comparable–ethically, practically, environmentally, physically, psychologically–to the necessary extremities that must be visited while “processing” individual sentient animals for food. If they’re not the most processed food of all, I don’t know what is.