No Meat Michele

Michele running her marathon PR this year.

Michele running her marathon PR this year.




Our running club, the South Jersey Athletic Club, has a lot of running stars.  Some are stars because they simply outperform everyone in their field.  Some are stars because of their longevity in running, with one of our group about to run Boston for the twenty seventh time.  Michele doesn’t fit either of these categories.  Her stardom comes from her personality, her drive, and her steady improvement as a blossoming runner.   She first introduced herself to our group about five years ago, for our Sunday morning runs.  She wasn’t fast, and she didn’t usually go the long route.  But that changed as she kept with her training and dedication to becoming a better runner.  She ran in the cold, ran in the rain, in the heat, early before the sun came up, and after dark, carrying a light to avoid potholes.  After our Sunday runs, a group of us will gather at the local Starbucks to chat, joke around, talk about upcoming races, and make the big decisions regarding club activities.  Michele is an active participant in this group, not least because she often plies us with homemade pastries, such as biscotti, or blueberry-spelt muffins, to refuel after our long runs.  Oh, and she is also a No Meat Athlete.  The term comes from Matt Frazier, who writes a blog by the same name and has developed a large following.

Michele, warming up after a cold run at the end of March.  Whatever happened to March going out like a lamb?

Michele, warming up after a cold run at the end of March. Whatever happened to March going out like a lamb?

I was curious what led Michele to become a vegetarian, and how she felt it helped her in her athleticism.  I also wanted to know her secret for dropping over thirty minutes from her previous marathon PR when she ran the Shamrock Marathon this year.  I put to her ten questions, and she was kind enough to answer them in a very thoughtful and serious manner.  Here are the questions and her answers:


1.  I assume you were not always a vegetarian.  Why did you decide to go vegetarian?
Short answer:  Ethical reasons.
For as long as I can remember, I was always an animal lover.  No one in my family is a vegetarian, and meat was as much a staple in our daily diets as I imagine any other typical American family. Lunch was always some sort of lunch meat style sandwich and dinner was always centered around some kind of meat. From a young age, eating animals never quite sat right with me, but I was at the mercy of my mother, who prepared all of our meals.  When I was 14, I simply decided one day that it was time I made the switch to a vegetarian life.  I stopped eating meat “cold turkey” (Brandon would love that pun). Within a year, it was just second nature to me.  After the first few months, I really never missed it.
2.  Which came first, no meat or athlete?
No meat.  I was certainly not an athlete in high school, although I occasionally pretended to be one, joining the lacrosse, softball, and soccer teams (I was terrible at both of these), and even cheer-leading one year. When I discovered running, I realized that I prefer sports that don’t involve much hand-eye coordination.
3.  What special dietary considerations do you need to know to get all of your nutritional needs met?
The two most popular (and annoying) questions most vegetarians are asked by non-vegetarians are “So, if you don’t eat meat, what do you eat?” and “How do you get enough protein?” Contrary to popular belief, protein is not an issue for most vegetarians and even vegans. A person eating a well-balanced diet, full of a variety of fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts, and legumes, will satisfy most of his or her dietary requirements.

There are only two exceptions that I know of that vegetarians and vegans should be a little more conscious of:

Vitamin D – important for bone and muscle health. Vitamin D is most plentiful in non-meat animal sources such eggs and cheese, as well as through exposure to the sun. A vegan would have to rely mostly on sun exposure, fortified foods such as nutritional yeast (an interesting type of food I have only recently discovered, most often used as a substitute for cheese, sprinkled on food or in sauces), fortified cereals, or supplements.
Vitamin B-12 – important for the health of the nervous system, as well as making red blood cells. The daily requirement of B12 for a healthy person is quite low, and the body can store it, so a vegetarian could easily get enough through sources such as eggs, milk, and yogurt. However, for vegans, it is a little more difficult, and one would have to rely on fortified foods such as fortified cereals, nutritional yeast, or supplements.

At this point, I still eat some animal products (occasional eggs and dairy products), and have never suffered any symptoms suggestive of a Vitamin D or B12 deficiency. As I move more towards a complete plant based or vegan diet, I am starting to pay a little more attention to these essential nutrients.


4.  When did you start running as a sport, and how did you get started?
Aside from the forced 2 miles we had to run every day for high school lacrosse, which I loathed, I really started running in the spring 2009.  Prior to that, my running history would go something like this:  Spring time arrives.  I make a vow to run every day.  I go out on day 1 and try to run a mile as fast as I can.  It is awful.  I do this 2-3 days in a row, and then give up because by then I’m hurting and it’s clear that I can’t run.  Swear off running.  Following year, start again.

In 2009 I was gearing up for the same old routine, but I happened to come across a clinic to train for your first 5K thought the Cherry Hill Recreation Department.  I think it was a 6 or 8 week clinic, and it was run by the Cherry Hill West track coach, Nick Mitidieri. Coach Nick was also Brandon’s high school track coach, and I’ve since bumped into him with his track team at some of our No Frills races.  My first week training with Coach Nick I learned the most important thing – how to pace.  That first night I ran a mile and a half and amazingly felt good at the end, much unlike my previous 1 mile solo runs.
5.  What was your first race?  How did it go?
My first race was at the end of that training clinic.  It was called the Run Your Own Life 5K (which no longer exists).  My main goal was to run the entire thing without stopping to walk.  I met that goal.  My finishing time was 31:56.  My husband was there cheering me on at the finish line, which was just amazing.  It was really the first time anyone had come to watch me in any of my sports, and it was such a great feeling having him there, supporting me.  After the race I could not wait for my next 5K!  I was, however, afraid I’d fall off the wagon, so I made a point to sign up for one 5K per month.  I knew if I had a race on the calendar, I’d keep training.
6.  What influenced you to try to run a marathon?
99% of my influence came from being around other runners, namely, SJAC members.  Before joining the club, the “marathon” was kind of some mystical fantasy in the back of my mind, which I thought maybe, just maybe, I could accomplish one day.  I gave myself a rough time frame of 5 years to complete my first marathon.  When I first joined SJAC in the fall of 2009 I was training for my first Half Marathon, and did many of my long runs with Sue Hamilton.  At the time she was training for the Philadelphia Marathon.  Over the weeks of running with Sue (and Heather), I realized that she and I ran similar pace, and seemed rather similar in our running abilities, and it made me think that if she could run a marathon, why couldn’t I?  That was when I first started thinking more seriously about the marathon.
7.  What was your first marathon?  Do you recall how it felt to finish?
Ultimately, my first marathon was in March 2011 (less than 2 years after my first 5K!).  It was the National Marathon in Washington, DC (I think this race was recently sold to the Rock N Roll series).  My time was 4:34:36, which remained my PR until my recent marathon.

Finishing was quite emotional.  I felt decent most of the race, until about mile 22, when I started a lot of walking/running.  In the last quarter mile, running up the hill to the finish line, all kinds of things started freaking out in my legs, and I think it was only the sight of the beautiful finish line that got me up that hill and kept me running at that point.  I don’t remember exactly how I felt when I finished, but I do remember being on the verge of tears, when suddenly Tom appeared before me, snapping me back to reality.

Side note about Tom:  He was, once again, a great supporter.  Spectating a marathon can be a little challenging, especially navigating around an unfamiliar city to hit as many mile points as possible.  He managed to make his way around the Metro and see me at a few different points along the race, including the finish.  Later in the day, when we were back at the hotel and I was attempting to find a position which didn’t hurt, he said to me, “Man, watching a marathon is really exhausting.”  Really?
8.  You recently ran a marathon PR by a huge margin.  How much was the margin, and to what do you owe this superior performance?
My first marathon remained my PR until this March, when I ran the Shamrock Marathon in 4:01:58, making the exact margin 32:38.  I did a lot of things this past year which I attribute to my PR.  2013 started out with me being injured and having to back out of the Shamrock Marathon.  My injuries were mostly the result of over-training. I found myself unable to do most forms of exercise.  I certainly couldn’t run, but also couldn’t bike or even do the elliptical.  The only form of cardio exercise I could tolerate was swimming.  At this point, I already was not happy with my weight and was terrified where my weight would go without being able to run.  This finally gave me the kick in the ass I needed to get some things in order.  I started paying better attention to my diet, focusing more on whole foods.  I also hired a personal trainer, who really seemed to appreciate the fact that I was an athlete, more so than most of his clients (his words, not mine) and pushed me really hard, changing up my usual gym routine, and adding in a ton  more core work.  The concentration on diet and change in exercise routine led me to lose about 18 pounds over the course of the year.  The weight loss just naturally adds some speed, and I found the cross training and increased core strength really helped my endurance.  Towards the end of the marathon, of course my legs felt beat up, but I never felt like I had to stop to walk or hit “the wall.” In my race pictures, even in the later miles, I’m still standing tall, not slouching from a weak, fatigued core like I often found myself in race pictures in the past.

The other thing was that through being injured, I really learned the difference between general soreness from training hard and actual pain.  I learned to listen to my body when something wasn’t right, and addressed those issues right away, before they turn into full-blown injuries.  I still battle a little bit with my IT band, but thankfully it hasn’t totally given out on me in quite some time, and I continue to work on strengthening the muscles in my hips, where the ITB issues originate.
9.  What keeps you running?
I love that I am truly only competing with myself.  When I played team sports, I always felt bad that I wasn’t good, like I was letting my team down.  In running, there isn’t that pressure, only whatever amount of pressure I want to put on myself. There is always another goal to achieve, whether that is to do a particular race, or to get a PR in a specific distance.  Running has also become an integral part of my social life, knowing that I have a weekly date with running friends. Everyone in the running community is supportive of one another, and there seems to me a mutual respect among all runners, regardless of abilities.  I am often amazed when other athletes, many of whom I look up to and would go to for advice, have come to ME for advice. There’s no competition or one-upsmanship – everyone simply wants their fellow athletes to succeed, whatever that means to them.
10.  If someone wanted to become a No Meat Athlete like yourself, what would be your advice? What would be the benefit?
It’s hard for me to say how one should transition from eating meat to not doing so, since I’ve been doing it for so long. But I would suggest perhaps making small changes. Cut out one form of animal product, for example, red meat, and go from there. One should focus one’s diet on eating more whole foods, eliminating most processed. As you get more into the plant based lifestyle, you can be more adventurous. Trying new ingredients that previously sounded too weird to try in a recipe start to become not so scary. (I discussed nutritional yeast in #3 above. This is something I avoided in recipes for years. Finally I took a chance, figuring if it appears in so many recipes, it can’t be that awful. Now it’s a staple in my pantry).

There are so many resources for plant based nutrition for both athletes and non-athletes. My personal favorites are:

The Thrive Diet:  This diet was created by vegan former pro-Ironman triathlete, Brenden Brazier. Brazier takes the vegan diet to the next level, by concentrating on foods that deliver the maximum amount of energy with the least amount of stress to the body. The basic principal is the fuel the body with nutrients that are easily absorbed and easily digested foods. If the body is spending less energy in the actual process of digesting the food, one has more energy for training. I have 2 of Brazier’s books, and follow several of his recipes every week.

Oh She Glows Blog and Cookbook: I discovered this blog about 6 months ago. It’s not geared towards athletes specifically, but all recipes are vegan and made with natural foods. The creator of the blog, Angela Liddon, recently released her first cookbook in March 2014. I pre-ordered it and have already made at least a dozen recipes from the book.

And of course, how could I answer an entire 10 questions without mentioning the No Meat Athlete website itself: This blog creator, Matt Frazier, also recently released a book, but I have not checked it out yet. While No Meat Athlete (NMA) has some recipes, the blog is designed more as just a general discussion of the NMA lifestyle. Lately I’ve been listening to Matt’s podcasts (available on iTunes) during some of my solo runs.

Michele atop the Philadelphia Art Museum steps (see my previous blog, "Rocky II, It's a Knockout")

Michele atop the Philadelphia Art Museum steps (see my previous blog, “Rocky II, It’s a Knockout”)

Rocky II: It’s a knockout!

Sunday, April 6, 2014

At the start of Rocky II, in front of the Running Company in Haddonfield

At the start of Rocky II, in front of the Running Company in Haddonfield


Haddonfield, N.J.  – Last Sunday morning, fifteen members of the South Jersey Athletic Club gathered in front of the Haddonfield Running Company for the start of Rocky II, a point to point run from Haddonfield to the finish at the top of the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum.  It was a perfect day for this type of run.  It was bit chilly at the start, around 37 degrees F, with the sun just starting to peak over the buildings on King’s Highway.  The runners stowed their gear in the bag carrier’s car and prepared to get going.  The bag carrier, Craig,  was the son of the organizer, and had offered his time in exchange for his Dad’s gratitude and the promise of brunch with the group.

The club, known as SJAC, has a usual Sunday run which is a loop of about 13 miles.  Every once in a while, though, a different run is proposed to add some variety and challenge.  The first Rocky Run was just about a year ago, so it was time for the sequel.  The route this year was very similar to last year’s route.  It follows the usual Sunday morning route up to Route 130, which is a busy highway on the edge of Camden.  This year, we went across 130 and past the Camden County Golf Academy, formerly known as the Cooper River driving range.  This has a sixty station, double-decker driving range where one is expected to hit the ball into the water.  Once merely a driving range, it is now home to Rutgers Camden’s golf program.  Moving on, we ran along Admiral Wilson Boulevard, where the memory of strip clubs and cheap motels, torn down for the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia in 2000 is fading.  Now, it is a rarely used park, with pretty rose bushes lining the boulevard, and a wide paved curving path along which few bikes or runners pass.  The park ends on a narrow sidewalk at the edge of the road, which takes one in to Camden City proper.

Leaving Cooper Hospital, and heading for the Ben Franklin Bridge

Leaving Cooper Hospital, and heading for the Ben Franklin Bridge

As we did last year, at the 7 mile mark we again went right through the main floor of Cooper Hospital, stopping for a restroom

Up the Ben Franklin Bridge walkway.

Up the Ben Franklin Bridge walkway.

break and water.  Then it was on to the Ben Franklin Bridge.  The road through Camden goes past the Rand Transportation Center.  Here, the PATCO line into Philadelphia, the River Line to Trenton, and the New Jersey Transit buses all come together.  It is a busy place, even on a Sunday morning, and we got a few amused stares by the locals as we ran by.  Nearby is the Walt Whitman house, where the famous poet spent the last eight years of his life.  We did not run by his house, but may on future editions of the Rocky Run (Rocky III, the Leaves of Grass edition!



The first real challenge of the run was the stairs up to the Ben Franklin Bridge walkway.  Three flights one must ascend to get to the walkway, and there were a few groans from our group, although nothing too serious.  As mentioned, we had a beautiful day for this run, and the sky was deep blue, a perfect backdrop for the cityscape of Philadelphia.  The bridge rises for three fourths of a mile before it turns down again.  We stopped as a group near the apex for a photo, and got a nice passerby to take the shot.

Near the top of the walkway, Ben Franklin Bridge, looking toward Philadelphia

Near the top of the walkway, Ben Franklin Bridge, looking toward Philadelphia

At the base of the bridge on the Philadelphia side we took a sharp u-turn down to “Old City”, and made the second change from last year’s route.  This was to take us by another landmark, the Betsy Ross House.  We took another brief stop to document our run.

In front of the Betsy Ross House on Arch Street in Philadelphia

In front of the Betsy Ross House on Arch Street in Philadelphia

Then, it was on past other landmarks in the city, the Arch Street Friends Meeting House, the Constitution Center, the Liberty Bell, and, of course, Independence Hall, where the Declaration of Independence was signed.  We continued down Sixth Street all the way to Christian Street in South Philly, home of the Italian Market.  Rocky Balboa made this spot famous in several scenes in his movies.  We didn’t try to replicate his movie runs.  In fact, to that, one would have to have magical powers.  If you’d like to see what it would take, writer Dan McQuade published an article in Philadelphia Magazine exploring the theoretical route.

After passing my favorite pizza and steak place in the Italian Market, Lorenzo’s, we kept on running to 16th Street, where we headed north all the way to the Ben Franklin Parkway.  The goal of the run was finally in view.  The Parkway is a great stretch of road, flanked by various museums, and lined by the flags of 109 Countries.  At the top of the Parkway, the Philadelphia Art Museum is a beautiful architectural achievement in its own right.  Situated where it is, braced on either side by Kelly Drive (formerly East River Drive) and West River Drive, and at the base of Fairmount Park, it is the epicenter of weekend outdoor activities in Philadelphia.  West River Drive is closed to automobiles on weekend mornings during daylight savings time.  Kelly Drive has Philly’s iconic Boat House Row, not just pretty to look at, but the base of a very active rowing community.  Every weekend, some type of race or organized activity is going on, centered around the Parkway and the art museum.  This day was no exception.  The first running of the Hot Chocolate 15k run was wrapping up as we finished our run.

We ran straight up the middle of the Ben Franklin Parkway to the art museum.  Starting at the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul, along the way, we passed the Parkway’s most famous fountain, the Swann Memorial Fountain, or the Fountain of the Three Rivers.  As we got close to the museum, we got funneled through the staging are of the Hot Chocolate race, and had to clamber over the barriers to get to our final goal.  I found an open barrier so I didn’t have to embarrass myself trying to climb over, but others in the group were much more agile.  Finally, it was up the steps to the art museum entrance.


Philadelphia Art Museum, and the "Rocky Steps"

Philadelphia Art Museum, and the “Rocky Steps”

Everyone made it to the top!

Everyone made it to the top!

Of course, what would a trip to the venerable art museum be without a stop at the statue of one of Philadelphia’s most famous citizens, Rocky Balboa himself.  Well maybe he wasn’t really a “citizen”, and I guess, maybe  he wasn’t “real” but he sure brings out people from everywhere to pose by his statue.

Giving the old Rocky pose.

Giving the old Rocky pose.

After we finished the run, we reconnoitered with a plan to have brunch at the famous Sabrina’s Cafe on Callowhill Street, about a mile from the art museum.  When we got there, the place was teeming with people with the same idea, many of whom had run the Hot Chocolate run that morning.  We wound up heading over to Friday’s on the Ben Franklin Parkway, not a unique Philly experience, but we were hungry.  As it turned out, breakfast was over, and they were serving lunch.  We were also almost their only customers.  We had a very nice lunch of burgers, a some had beers, and all were quite happy.

SJAC runners at Friday's after the Rocky II run.

SJAC runners at Friday’s after the Rocky II run.

After lunch, it was back to Haddonfield.  We had just enough room in a couple of cars to haul everyone back home across the bridge.  Now, we’ll need to start planning next year’s sequel.  As one of our runners, Brian, put it, the sequels really went down in quality after Rocky II.  Let’s hope the Rocky Run’s don’t suffer the same fate.

Randy says so long, from Philadelphia!

Randy says so long, from Philadelphia!

Uncorking Croatia


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