Chad Weller, a Miami-based ultra athlete and running coach, has kept to a vegan diet for 18 of his 35 years on earth. He's been an endurance runner for 15 of those, and has competed in more than one hundred races to date, 10 of which were 100-milers. He's got 20 races and two more 100-mile competitions scheduled for 2013 after the invitation-only North Face-sponsored trail 100K (62 miles) he's slated to run in Amphoe Pakchong, Thailand on February 2nd. And his simple philosophy on endurance running extends to his outlook on veganism: If it feels right, don't question it. Just keep doing it.
The Ohio native has been an athlete all his life, playing team sports like basketball and baseball during his childhood and teen years. But strangely enough, it was as a result of his modeling career, beginning in his late teens, that his interest in both the vegan diet and in long-distance running became piqued.
Growing up, Weller's family ate a typical American diet. His grandparents and his great grandparents were all farmers, and as a youth, he ate more than his fair share of livestock. "I grew up with meat and potatoes seven days a week, pork chops, and chicken around the dinner table," he explained. But toward the end of his high school years, while he was playing Division I basketball and taking his first modeling gigs, he began meeting a new crowd, some of whom had alternative views on food. That's when he first encountered the idea of veganism. "I said, 'Hmm, that's interesting.' I always love a challenge. So I started putting down meat and chicken gradually, then I started taking out fish. And I felt I could breathe easier and that I was lighter, and I gained more awareness of what my health could be, and what I wanted it to be," he said.
Then, when he was 20, a modeling job brought him to Milan, Italy, where the curious youngster started doing wandering runs around town without a clue or a care about where or how far he had gone. "When you're lost, you end up running a little bit further than you expected," Weller laughed. He had racked up countless no-pressure high mileage adventures before he decided to put a stop watch on his wrist and chart a pre-meditated course. "Because I enjoyed it so much, I decided to start competing in marathons." But it all stemmed from a genuine and light-hearted desire to explore. "With my feet on the ground, it's a journey you can't enjoy the same way if you're in a car, on a train, or in a plane," Weller said.
As one of the top-ranked professional ultra athletes in South Florida, Weller now logs anywhere from 75 to 110 training miles each week. The 6'1", 165-pound runner has perfected an unconventional whole-foods vegan eating style to fuel his epic treks. This involves gorging on vegan pancakes and waffles before, say, a 40-mile training run, and toting along saran-wrapped root vegetables (yes, you read that right), apples, and other snacks most glucose-swilling ultra athletes would consider too bulky for the road.
"I'll take a sweet potato, cut out the middle, and put salt in there with dates and agave. I store it in a backpack that I wear during the race. Then I eat the whole thing along the way like it's an apple." He does the same thing with rice and bean burritos and hummus wraps. He eats these "meals on the go" toward the beginning of his races (which means before mile 25), saving the more concentrated energy sources for the later part of his race.
"Fifty or 60 miles into the race, I'll eat some Clif bars, some Vega bars, power gels, definitely more sports-stuff. You really don't want to be too heavy toward the end of the race, because you want to win," he said, adding that there are a few whole food fuels, like dates, that work even for the later miles of the journey. He squirts some agave into the middle of the dried fruits and keeps them wrapped up tight until he's ready to pop them into his mouth as he runs.
As a health-conscious vegan, Weller said he can never rely on the typical junk food-stocked aid stations to keep him in the running. "It's important to have my own stuff," he said. "[Other runners are] going to get that sugar high like when you were a little kid, like 'Whoo, I feel so great!' But realistically, you still have 90 more miles to go. So that brownie and that Mountain Dew is not going to do so well.
"If you get the right nutrition, the amount of carbs you need, the amount of protein, and drink the right amount of electrolytes... I've found it's a lot more reassuring." And racing on a vegan diet, just like existing on a vegan diet in general, goes a lot more smoothly with proper planning, Weller said. "I already know what kind of apple I'll be eating on mile six."
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The North Face 100K will take runners through fruit plantations, past Thai temples, and into wild and somewhat unpredictable territory. But it isn't the possibility of poisonous snake bites or even running out of hummus wraps on the trail that concerns Weller the most --- it's the heat. The projected temperature for the 10-plus hours Weller will be running is 104 degrees. "It's going to be pretty hot. And I have passed out during a race before," Weller said. But he seems pretty nonchalant about even this most serious consideration.
What's kept him on the vegan path all these years, and the reason he recommends that others try it, isn't as much a deep compassion for animals as it is a deep love of produce, he said. "Fruits and vegetables come from the earth, so you can think and feel lighter. And meat's something heavy, and there are so many things that have to happen for you to get the meat to your table. Vegetables, you just pick them out of the garden, and you either grill them or eat them raw."