Bags and bags of fruit, fresh and dried. Boxes of GoMacro and Nature’s Bakery energy bars. Loads of Maine-made Good To-Go dehydrated vegan camping meals. One huge tub of Snyder’s pretzels. All of it loaded into a jogging stroller.
This represents the bulk of what endurance athlete Brendan Walsh ate when he recently ran the 312 miles from Lubec to Kittery in 10 days, 4 hours and 18 minutes to raise $3,000 for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. After running close to 30 miles each day, he’d pitch his tent near the road at dusk, break out a camp stove and cook dinner. The sooner he could get to sleep, the better, as he was up at dawn to do it all over again.
Along the way, the Portland resident met all kinds of interesting people, witnessed Maine’s breathtaking beauty and contemplated the difficulty of living with the chronic condition of MS as he pushed his food- and gear-laden jogging stroller up one of the many hills on U.S. Route 1.
On the first day of his Rocky Coast Run, as he called it, he ran through a lot of wilderness, including along the 12,334-acre Cutler Coast Public Reserved Land, which parallels U.S. Route 191 in Cutler. The next day, he began to see more people and buildings and soon reached Machias, where he supplemented his provisions with a stop at Hannaford for more fruit and then the local Dunkin for a “second breakfast” of “hash browns and avocado toast and oat milk cold brew lattes in a big blast bottle.”
I learned all this when I reached Walsh on the telephone “somewhere around Columbia Falls,” near the start of his trip.
Walsh is a vegan and endurance athlete. In 2019, he set the Guinness World Record for the Fastest Crossing of America by Bicycle (north to south) when he pedaled the 2,288 miles from Madawaska to Key West, Florida, in 11 days, 9 hours and 33 minutes. The ride raised more than $6,000 for the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Wanting to bring the money up to $10,000, he then biked across Cape Cod and managed to meet his fundraising goal. Last summer, he self-published an account of his Guinness World Record ride called “For Those Who Can’t: The Story of the First U.S. North-South Bicycle Record.”
His athletic feats began in 2015, after “a really bad motorcycle accident.”
“It was the first time I was forced to stop,” Walsh said. “I got this idea in my head: ‘You’ve got to ride your bike across the country.’”
Then one day in 2017, without ever doing a single overnight bike trip, he packed all his gear on his bike, including a French press and a guitar, and set off from Boston for Seattle, a distance of 4,000 miles. He made it in 60 days, and raised funds for St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital along the way.
Since then, he’s learned to travel lighter (neither the French press nor the guitar made the recent trek), and he’s discovered the wide world of long-distance athletics.
In 2018, Walsh, who’d been a vegetarian in high school, became a vegan. The change was motivated in part by an encounter he had near the end of his cross-country trek, when he had the opportunity to bottle-feed a sick, emaciated deer, a “super powerful experience. At the same time, he was learning about athletes who use a plant-based diet to boost performance and recovery. Walsh said his rekindled compassion for animals coupled with the health benefits of eating plants placed him in a “positive feedback loop” with respect to a vegan diet.
Walsh and I spoke again as he ran through Brunswick. He told me he’d been enjoying vegan veggie subs from Subway, with one unusual request. “Sometimes I ask them to crush up a bag of chips on it so I can eat it while I’m moving,” he told me. “I always love to see their reactions.”
For the most part, though, Walsh said he based “all my food choices around buying as much fruit as I can every day because I love fruit and it keeps you going.”
Other treats that helped sustain him were almond milk chocolate pudding, vegan pop tarts and blueberry bagels from Dave’s Killer Bread. Dinners were typically a Good To-Go meal. “The Good To-Go dinners are pretty decent because it’s all organic and real food,” Walsh said.
Walsh started each day with vegan supplements geared to high performance athletes from his sponsor, Clean Machine. After running and setting up camp, he performed his nightly recovery routine, as he listened to NPR on a tiny portable radio. He used Maine-made RecoveryCBD topical ointment on his muscles, took a dose of CBD tincture, and massaged his muscles with rollers. He capped his routine off with a few yoga poses.
“We continue to be thankful for his support and love how he uses his passion for endurance sports activities as a way to raise awareness and funds to support people affected by MS,” said Gena Hyde, associate vice president of communications at the National MS Society.
Noting that a friend’s mother with MS recently died, Walsh said he was doing the run to support the society “because globally 2.1 million people are affected by MS every year.”
In recent years, some studies have suggested that the condition could be improved, or possibly even reversed, through a plant-based diet, among them one in the journal Science Advances that looked at isoflavones, microbiomes and legumes. Other studies have found correlations between high consumption of meat and saturated fat intake and MS; however, there has been no large-scale dietary trial to confirm these findings. In 2017, when Dr. Saray Stancic delivered the keynote address at the Maine Nutrition Council annual meeting, she spoke about how she reversed her own MS by eating a vegan diet.
“Every adventure I do, I do it with a cause because people will often ask me, ‘How do you do these things?’ or ‘Why do you do these things.’” Walsh said. “I feel like if you don’t have a good why, you’re not really going to do it.”
Avery Yale Kamila is a food writer who lives in Portland. She can be reached at [email protected]