For some people a 26.2 standard marathon just isn’t challenging enough. So they set their sights on something more extreme and more trying. These people are called ultrarunners and they run ultramarathons – that is any distance longer than a marathon. Amongst these ultrarunners there’s a growing contingency of plant-based athletes. In fact, it’s not just that a plant-based diet is ‘good enough’ for an ultrarunner but it seems optimal for the support. Here are six vegan ultrarunners (out of many) and some of their incredible accomplishments.
Few athletes have made an impression on their sport like Colorado-based Scott Jurek has made on the demanding sport of ultra marathon running. Scott won the Western States 100 mile endurance run seven times, the Millwok 100 km three times, Leona Divide 50 Mile four times, and set 10 ultramarathon course records. What’s more he’s won at least 24 ultramarathons between 77 km and 246 km, set the American 24-hour record with a run of 165.7 miles, and held the record for the 2189 mile Appalachian Trail.
Scott has been vegan since 1997 and practices and advocates a 100% vegan diet. He claims that what he eats is crucial in supporting endurance, recovery and health. In 2012, Scott published his book, Eat & Run: My Unlikely Journey to Ultramarathon Greatness in which he talks about his life and career — as an elite athlete and a vegan, and shows the power of an iron will and the importance of thinking of our food as our fuel.
Photo credit: Windriverwild, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Fiona Oakes has made great achievements in her running, which seem all the more impressive given her incredibly full lifestyle. This means that training competes with a number of other demands on her time and energy – including the running of Tower Hill Stables Animal Sanctuary, which she founded in 1993.
Fiona has set course records at marathons including the North Pole and Antarctic Ice marathons and has achieved top ten finishes at major world marathons. She has twice completed the Marathon des Sables – a brutal six-day, 250 km ultramarathon across the Sahara Desert in Southern Morocco. Fiona uses running to raise money to support her sanctuary.
“Turning vegan was a natural progression from vegetarianism and I did it as soon as I was able to make a conscious decision. I honestly believe that the most benefit to me being vegan is that I do not carry the burden of guilt that I would have to endure knowing that I abused others for my own ‘benefit’. I like to encourage people to think about veganism in a positive way.”
Photo credit: Martin Morgan, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Harvey Lewis is an American ultrarunner who has won some of the toughest events ever dreamt up by humankind. His victories include winning the notorious Badwater Ultramarathon twice, in 2014 and then seven years later in 2021. The 135 mile race takes place in California’s Death Valley, which punishes runners with extreme temperatures and massive height gain and losses.
In 2021 Harvey won the Big Dog Backyard Ultra, which is a race with no finish. Runners complete a 4.167 mile route every hour until they drop out. The winner being the last runner remaining. Harvey completed 85 laps to become World Champion and set the Backyard international record. He covered 354 miles and was halfway through the fourth day when he won. In 2022 he drove through the night and ran the 100 mile Long Haul ultra, taking the win. When he’s not putting his body through hell, he’s a full time teacher and uses his runs to work and back as part of his training.
“As an ultrarunner you do spend a lot of time philosophising on your own life and the exterior life. I think a lot in nature and I connect with the plants and animals and it makes me feel they have relevance as well. Knowing the ingredients you’re putting in your body and eating the incredible variety that exists in the plant world it’s so powerful, there’s just so many options. By diversifying you actually strengthen your longevity.”
Photo credit: Michael Wilson, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Damian Hall is a British ultrarunner and co-founder of the Green Runners. Damian took up running later in life, running his first half marathon aged 35. Attributing it to a midlife crisis, Damian spent the next years reaching astonishing heights in the sport. By 2021 he had seven records and FKTs (Fastest Known Times). He also represented Great Britain at the Trail World Championships.
Damian’s wins include the 142 mile Ice Ultra, and Ultimate Trails 55k (twice) and the 51 mile Ultra Tour Monte Rosa. In 2023, Damian won the Spine Race – a 268 mile race across the Pennine mountain range in the north of England. The course has 13,000 metres of height gain (greater than an Everest climb) and runners must carry all their kit. NO wonder it’s considered one of the world’s toughest ultramarathons!
“Over the past years I’ve felt very troubled by the ecological and climate emergency and what can I do about it. I couldn’t really think of anything so I’ve tried to make my running carbon negative (…) it’s things like giving up dairy and animal products, cutting down on travel. Being more responsible as an athlete in lots of ways, such as on social media promoting consumption and so on.”
Photo credit: Great Vegan Athletes
Lucy Bartholomew is an Australian ultrarunner who won the Tarawera Ultramarathon in 2023. TheTarawera Ultramarathon is an iconic trail running event held in Rotorua, New Zealand with races from 21 km up to 100 miles. Of course, Lucy ran the 100-miler and was the triumphant female with a time of 17 hours, 13 minutes and 27 seconds.
Lucy told Ultrarunner Magazine that curiosity led her to a plant-based diet:
“I had read quite a lot about it, and the ethical and environmental factors are really important to me, so it just made sense. I had to read and cook a lot of different meals to find what worked for me and that really made me fall in love with nutrition. A typical day may be eating oats in the morning, a smoothie after a run, then having a light lunch over avocado on toast. And in the evening, I would make some potatoes, tofu and vegetables.”
Photo credit: Facebook
Robbie Balenger is another Colorado-based ultrarunner setting amazing records. In 2019, Robbie set off from Huntington Beach in California, traversing 14 states moving an average of 43 miles a day for 75 days to cross the US and end up in New York City’s Central Park. According to his website, ‘’His mission was to create conversations with those he encountered along the way about making healthier food choices, while showcasing the efficacy of a plant-based diet.” Two years later Robbie set the record for the most laps run around Central Park during the park’s opening hours 6am to 1am the next day, or 19 hours. Robbie managed 18 loops, smashing the previous record of 11.
Of his vegan diet, Robbie told Switch4Good:
“I became more and more aware that a plant-based diet was without a doubt the most optimal for my health and performance. It wasn’t long before the positive environmental and ethical implications of my newfound diet became really important to me. Now, my reasons for abstaining from meat and dairy are in the reverse order. The ethical argument for a diet free of animal products has become my most motivating driver, followed by environmental and then performance benefits. The idea of harming another living being at my expense is unacceptable to me.”
Photo credit: www.robbiebalenger.com
Some content sourced and adapted with permission from Great Vegan Athletes.