Running Raw: Vegan athlete tests limits of endurance
But unlike his competitors, he is only fueled by fruits and vegetables, some nuts and some seeds, and he eats them only in their natural state: uncooked, unprocessed and unrefined. He is a raw vegan athlete and has been for the past three years.
That is when a mysterious illness caused him to quit his job and try something entirely new. That is when he started running up mountains, then buildings, now in snowshoes and on the track.
More than 70 miles a week
Since then, he has sold off many of his personal possessions to finance his new passion, training more than 70 miles a week, often up mountains, and eating what he believes is the healthiest diet out there.
He is not selling anything, other than a lifestyle. He has created a Web site. He is working on a book and a documentary. He is trying to reach as many people as possible.
"I've done a lot of things in my life," VanOrden said recently at his parents' home in Bennington where he is staying, "and this just feels right to me. It's become a mission because it's made such a drastic difference, such a huge improvement in my life that I want other people to have access to it.
"I'm not telling people they have to do it, but I'm trying to set an example so maybe they'll choose to do it on their own," he said.
Although he is nearly 40, VanOrden looks much younger. His short brown hair shows no signs of gray or thinning. His slim, 5-foot-9-inch, 151-pound build is taut. He is California brown. Veins can be seen on his forearms and calves. It appears as though he is always flexing, even when he is relaxing and making a smoothie in his parents' kitchen after a morning 8-mile run on the trails behind the old colonial farmhouse near the Woodford border.
The smoothie is the staple of VanOrden's post-run diet. It starts out fairly typical, with a banana, some blueberries. But then seaweed is added, and hemp seeds and then unpasteurized honey. Finally, cabbage kale is added and some Vermont well water for extra minerals. The blending of the unfamiliar ingredients is the only processing VanOrden's food ever receives.
The Aon Center in Los Angeles has 1,377 individual stairs. This is what VanOrden's challenge is when he races today. On a Stairmaster last week, he set a personal record climbing the equivalent of 80 floors, approximately 1,777 steps, in 7 minutes 55 seconds. He is hoping for similar success.
Although he is considered one of the top three tower racers in the nation, he will have to push his body to its absolute limit to win. From the gun, he will go as fast as he can. He knows this will be a bad idea but he cannot say no to his adrenaline.
It is the same story every time, no matter if it is the Sears Tower (103 floors) in Chicago or the Empire State Building (102 floors) in New York. First, his quads will fail, then his gluteus. To compensate, he will pull on the railings until his arms turn to jelly, and then, it is back to the quads. It is always the same feeling.
"It's like you've been hit by a truck, been beaten with lead pipes, had a blow torch put down your throat and then somebody tears your arms out of their sockets," he said with a sinister laugh.
It is not just the physical challenge but also the stairwell air quality that adds to the misery. After all, who uses the stairs in a city skyscraper when the elevator is always just the push of a button away?
"The air is so dusty and dry it literally scorches your trachea to the point where it feels like you're going to die," VanOrden said wearing his self-designed, dry-fit shirt, with the name of his Web site, RunningRaw.com, printed on the front, and his slogan, Powered by Raw Foods, on the back. "You can't breath. Everyone who finishes the race is gasping and holding their throat, and they're screaming and moaning because it hurts so bad."
VanOrden said this feeling lasts for days, but, yet, he keeps getting drawn back. He races nearly every weekend, often up towers, fully knowing the pain that awaits.
"I don't do it because I like it," he said, again grinning with delight. "I don't do it because it's fun, cause it's not. I can't imagine a more painful, brutal experience. I mean you're literally torturing yourself, it's kind of like masochism. I do it because I'm good at it."
VanOrden's running journey started on the Paseo Miramar trail in Pacific Palisades, Calif., known for its steep climbs and scenic vistas.
He had been working in Los Angeles as an actor and photographer, adhering to a vegan diet on the advice of a woman who told him that all the movie stars ate that way to stay young looking.
However healthy his diet was he ate that way for six years the stress of living in Los Angeles finally caught up to him. Eventually, he could not get out of bed. Paralyzed by extreme fatigue, he quit his job.
VanOrden had met people who called themselves "raw foodists," but he never thought anything of it. Now, although skeptical, he was at the point where he was willing to try anything to get better. "At first, I thought why would I want to do that?" he said. "That's stupid, and what do you eat? Bird seed and wheat grass and carrot juice."
But instantly after eating raw foods, he felt better, and after six months, he told himself that he was going to eat this way the rest of his life. His family and friends were supportive.
"When I went vegan, they all thought I was crazy," he said. "It's like, 'Oh no, he's in California now, he's like one of those freaks,'... But when I went raw that didn't happen because they really saw a dramatic difference in me."
VanOrden also relies on his parents for financial support. His blog fell silent once after he had to sell his laptop to pay for his trip back home after a race. Every time he looks at his old photography equipment, he thinks about its price; maybe one day he will have to sell it for rent or food money. His financial situation makes him uncomfortable, but his supporters, his fans, have told him to keep going, to keep spreading the word about the benefits of a raw diet and exercise.
So that is what he will do, although never forcefully.
"I'm not trying to tell people that you have to do this," he said, "or if you eat meat or fried food, you're wrong. I don't want to say that because I don't believe that, but I do feel if people were to eat more fruits and vegetables, not even worry about becoming a raw vegan, they would see huge differences in their lives, in their fitness, weight and body shape."
VanOrden has credited his diet with making his sports-induced asthma disappear. He believes it has caused his hair to grow back and kept his skin wrinkle free. He also recounted stories where he believes the diet has cured diabetes and made a brain tumor vanish.
VanOrden was a runner at Mount Anthony Union High School and briefly in college, but 17 years had passed between the last time he ran competitively and when he started his new, raw diet. Two months in, at age 37, he felt like he had the energy of an 18-year-old and decided to go for a run.
"I thought, you know what, I haven't run in a long, long time," he said. "That's something I really miss in my life. I want to see if this energy translates into athletic ability."
He soon entered a half marathon on Catalina Island off the coast of California and finished fourth. His experiment now became a mission, a life's work. "It's 100 percent of my life," he said. "I'm not doing this to get famous or rich. I just believe in it. I finally feel like my life has a purpose."
VanOrden has been training like a man possessed, but he still only consumes about 1,500 to 2,000 daily calories, less than most inactive men at his weight. It is hard for him to eat more. The 2-pound salad he will have for dinner will only give him about 300 calories. His theory is that his diet has eliminated a large percentage of his caloric need, as he does not require the caloric energy most people do to break down processed and fatty foods.
On this limited fuel, VanOrden was hoping to qualify for the U.S. Olympic Trials in the 10-kilometer, but he realizes this goal is quickly slipping away. He has yet to break 30 minutes in the event, with 28 minutes 15 seconds the qualifying mark and the trials fast approaching.
He also knows his new goal will be tough, and most running aficionados would probably tell him he has no chance. He wants to be the first 40 year old to run a sub-4 minute mile. He ran a 4:35 mile last summer. His 40th birthday is next week.
Whether he comes close to reaching his goal or not, his journey will probably go on. He runs for himself, there is no doubt about that, but he also runs to inspire others. On his blog, he occasionally questions the path he is taking, but so far, he has always awoken the next day, full of energy, and laced up his running shoes to test his physical limits.
"It's difficult to know how much of an impact I'm having on this journey," he wrote in January. "I often wonder if people just think I'm crazy, especially when I turn down the free doughnuts, homemade chili, hot chocolate and stacks of pancakes that usually follow these races.
"But it only takes one person to approach me and tell me that I've affected them somehow to keep me going strong on this lonely road," he wrote.
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