Meet Jackie: Crew Chief, Plant-Based Nutritionist, and Athlete

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Nothing gets me more excited than a “Big Hairy Audacious Goal” (or BHAG). Seriously – I LOVE to think big and push myself to the next level. It excites me just as much when others take on monumental goals for themselves as well. I’m your biggest cheerleader if you’ve decided to run a marathon, or joined a fitness group, or decide to go back to school for that graduate degree. When people pause their lives and analyze their path and decide to do something about it I am inspired and on board. When people take control of their lives and feel empowered to extend past their comfort zone to learn more about themselves, I’m your biggest fan. I will encourage and support you because I fundamentally believe in the ever evolving human.

When Robbie approached me about running across the U.S., I was nothing short of ecstatic for him. What a big turn of events from managing a busy and booming pizzeria. His physical, mental, emotional, logistical and organizational demands would be monumental – but he would be pursuing a BHAG so it would sustain him! This transcon run would be big enough, daunting enough and exciting enough to keep his passion ignited and renew his motivation. I was stoked for his newfound excitement for really taking charge and creating his own life story. Robbie asked for my expertise in vegan nutrition planning as well as to act as crew chief for the epic journey of a lifetime and without hesitation I said “yes!”

A Little About Me

I’m from Austin, TX (yup! born and raised) and have been 21 years meatless. I more recently found veganism 5 years ago, and as my journey has evolved in the plant-based vegan world I only become more and more intrigued with the science, data, activist stances, and new recipes to try. When I gave up dairy in 2014 I suddenly stopped feeling sick after my meals! I remember having the realization that one could feel full AND feel satisfied – not sick. I never looked back. I discovered I was lactose intolerant and had been completely unconscious to how I was feeding my body. Once I started paying attention and becoming more aware, educated and conscious I could never include animal products in my life again.

“Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” —Maya Angelou.

That Maya Angelou quote really stuck with me and was a mantra for me. Since I knew better and had become much more conscious about the exploitation of animals and the health and environmental effects of using animal products for our consumption, I felt a fundamental obligation to do better. I had to walk the walk and embrace veganism fully. It was a solo journey for a while and at times was difficult without a like-minded community. My family was supportive, my co-workers intrigued, but largely I was forging my newfound vegan path on my own – spending a lot of my spare time researching and learning.

Once I became fully vegan I noticed my athletic recovery improved significantly. I found many new PRs and a Boston Qualifying marathon time all while sustaining a whole foods plant based diet.

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More recently I took a break from endurance running to pursue cycling. I had always LOVED cycling in triathlons, but hadn’t taken the sport too seriously until fall of 2017. I joined a local women’s team and noticed how quickly I was able to recover during a single race or in between races or workouts. This proved very important in the sport of bike racing as I only needed to spend a small amount of time recovering in the draft and could push again without feeling completely fatigued from the previous attack or big push, earning me many podium finishes. This was exciting considering it was a brand new sport to me and I knew my fuel sources played a role in my athletic successes.

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My Epic Journey

In the spring of 2018 my husband, Jamie, and I decided to push the pause button on our decade-long career of teaching and take a sabbatical year. We chose to thru hike the Appalachian Trail, a footpath that goes from Georgia to Maine through the Appalachian mountains to kick off the year. We hiked 2,190.9 miles on the trail with an elevation gain equivalent to summiting Mt. Everest 16.5 times while carrying all our own equipment and food to sustain us. It took us 5 months to complete the hike (which is considered to be on the quicker side) and we did the entire hike on a vegan diet. Our start date of June 16, 2018 was the first day Jamie decided to go 100% vegan. We plunged together into the wilderness and roamed the woods with lighter food weight than most and were lucky not to experience extreme weight loss issues.

I was so careful about planning our nutrition ahead of time. I knew that losing too much weight would be problematic and was a legitimate concern, so I spent a lot of time researching different foods and calculating their caloric density in my AT spreadsheet, aiming for high calorie foods. We needed to get between 2,500 calories and 5,000 daily calories (Jamie needed more calories than I did as men lose weight much more easily than women do on the AT). By the end of the hike, I weighed exactly the same as I did when I started, and Jamie lost about 12 lbs. Of note, he had intentionally gained 15 lbs before starting our hike in an effort to curb too much weight loss below baseline. We were able to stave off “hiker hunger” because of our incredible nutrition

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Becoming a Plant-Based Nutritionist

My experience with hiking the Appalachian Trail gave me a sense of what Robbie’s undertaking would be like with a Transcon Run. Though there are some pretty stark differences, I actually think there are more similarities than differences in our undertakings. Food weight and caloric density would not be a concern for Robbie, but he will also need to consume significantly more calories than we did because running 40 miles a day is significantly more taxing on the body than backpacking 20 miles a day in the mountains. He will be moving at a much faster rate than we did and therefore burning more calories. I think there is a lot of overlap in the mental game when planning or executing something of such grandiose proportions, and I think my experiences on the AT will help me significantly to crew Robbie.

The transition from completing the Appalachian Trail to becoming Robbie’s crew chief and nutritionist for the Transcon has been somewhat seamless. I have also decided to take classes online at The Center for Nutrition Studies to earn a certificate in plant-based nutrition and will complete the course right before the start of the Transcon. I aspire to use my experience as a vegan endurance athlete who thru hiked the AT as well as my experience with planning Robbie’s nutrition on the Transcon to help others who want to make the switch from eating animals to plants. For many people making that full switch can be daunting, but I know that the benefits are layered and can affect not only one’s individual health and well-being but that of the health of our planet.

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Stay in touch!
I wrote daily while on the Appalachian Trail and posted my thoughts and reflections on my blog: www.jackiejamie.com. Subscribe to my blog there to learn about my future endeavors as a plant-based nutritionist (coming soon!)

Please also stay in touch with me on Instagram: @veganathleteatx

T-Minus One Month Until the Start of the Transcon

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This morning I woke up in the back of my small travel van at a rest area somewhere in Texas about five hours north of Austin. I’m en route from my home in Denver to Austin to run the Austin Marathon, throw a post-race party with NadaMoo at Cheer Up Charlie’s, and retrieve the van that will end up towing my crew’s pull-behind camper for the Transcon. For the 2.5 months that it will take me to run from Los Angeles to New York City, this camper will act as our home away from home.

As I woke today, my first thought was that I was exactly one month away from starting this big run. The next thing that entered my mind was the song “Bad to the Bone” by George Thorogood. If this is a sign of what awaits me on the road, things are looking up. I very vividly remember listening to this song as a child in my mom’s white 1989 Transam Firebird, long before I was even able to see over the dashboard. I was sure that my mother and I were bad to the bone. 

This memory sent me down a nostalgic path contemplating how I ever arrived at this juncture in my life in the first place. I thought about what it was that possessed me to even dream about running across the U.S. I wasn’t thinking about it in such a literal sense, though. In my last blog post, I already told a story about my development into becoming a runner. I was reflecting from a much more fundamental perspective. Who in my life instilled in me the confidence and/or insanity to think it was a good idea or even possible to set my sights on something so extreme?

For now, I’ll explore my early influences: the people who provided me with the foundation of how I became me.

When I was 2.5 years old, my father drowned in a boating accident on Lake Lanier outside of Atlanta, Georgia, leaving my mother to raise me alone. I can only imagine the pain and suffering that all those around me must have felt around this tragedy. I was so young. Young enough that I barely remember it except for the sadness felt by those around me. What I do remember is the family members that came forward to fill the void left by my father’s absence. The pillars of my childhood, the most impactful figures of my youth, were my mother and my two grandfathers. 

My mom was always there and did everything she could to make sure I didn’t go without. I owe everything to her and can only imagine how scary and daunting it must have been to feel the weight of not only being my mother but also now having to fill the shoes of a father. I could go on for days about all the ways she put me first and taught me the ways of the world, but for sake of this story, I’ll just focus on one saying she used to recite to me often, “You can do anything you set your mind to.” She repeated this phrase all the time. It was empowering in its simplicity, and it has stuck with me always.

My dad’s dad (Papa) and my dad’s mom (we called her… Grandmother) owned a farm in the foothills of the North Georgia Mountains. Many times, Papa would pick me up from school on Fridays and take me up to their farm to stay for the weekend. As we departed on the 1.5-hour drive to the farm, we always stopped by the liquor store. He would run inside and come back with a bottle of Wild Turkey Whiskey in a brown paper bag. I remember asking, “Papa, what’s that for?” and he’d reply, “In case I get bit by a snake.” For years I was convinced that the pastures surrounding their house were full of snakes.

On these weekends he would often take me and my cousin fishing at the pond on their property. Sometimes he would just drive us around to help him check on the cattle, or maybe we’d help him tend the garden. I remember these times very fondly and knew without a doubt that we were loved. He would often cut up with us, pinching me on the stomach. I’d squirm, and he’d ask, “Are you tough as nails?” I’d do my best to stop squirming and take the light pinch, because I wanted to prove to him that I was. I was tough as nails.

My mother’s father (Pa) couldn’t have been more different from Papa, but I loved and respected him equally. My mom’s whole family (Pa, Nana, and her siblings) lived in Texas, outside of Dallas. Though they were geographically far away from where we lived in Georgia, we saw them often. Sometimes they came to visit us in Georgia, and every year, my mother and I traveled to Texas for major holidays and for a portion of the summer.

Pa was a business man. He was well-traveled, good looking, and dapper as hell. Nana and Pa’s home felt like a scene from the hit show of the time Dallas. It was a split level suburban mansion with a billiards room, bar, swimming pool, and massive chain link fenced yard with horses. They drove a Cadillac and a hunter green Jaguar. Pa would often take me along on his business trips to West Texas and Mexican border towns. I would accompany him in meetings and it wasn’t long before I’d intervene to remind him about a detail or point that he had missed.

He was a man of confidence, never short on humor, and was always the life of the party. He enjoyed Johnny Walker Red and was a big fan of old westerns, especially anything starring Clint Eastwood. From these movies of Texas gun slingers he derived a saying, “If you’re going to shoot, shoot.” He of course never meant this literally, but rather with the intention of teaching me that if I wanted to do something, I shouldn’t waste my time talking about it. Instead, do it. As with the other two sayings passed down to me I took this to heart. 

You can do anything you set your mind to. You are tough as nails. If you’re going to shoot, shoot. These three sayings are at the core of who I try to be. They are the cornerstones of virtues I hold dear. 

I can do anything I set my mind to. I am capable of anything. I am tough as nails. I am strong enough. If I’m going to shoot, shoot. I will follow through.

My Relationship With Running and How I Decided to Run Across the United States

Running hasn’t always been such a fixture in my life. In fact, I only started running around six years ago. With the encouragement of my girlfriend Shelley, we went on a 2.5-mile jog from our house to the downtown Daily Juice in Austin Texas. Afterwards we had to grab a cab home, because the thought of running back was unthinkable to me. It wasn’t long before I was going out for longer and longer runs – ones that didn’t require a cab ride home. I think the clarity and sense of accomplishment was so instantaneously gratifying for me that I actually started looking forward to lacing up my shoes and setting out for a run around the city. Around three months after that initial 2.5-mile run to Daily Juice, I ran my first half marathon. The following year, I bumped it up to a full marathon.

Having spent the majority of my life in the restaurant/bar scene, I had grown accustomed to and really good at the work-hard-party-even-harder lifestyle. In no way do I regret this time of my life, but I was getting bored with the routine: wake up late morning (or sometimes early afternoon), go to work, head to the bar, find or host an after hours get together, and then repeating it all the next day. Meanwhile, my job as general manager of the new and wildly successful pizzeria, Bufalina, left me with mounting responsibilities. I found myself searching for accountability and a more productive way to process stress and blow off steam. Running fit the bill. Running is like the opposite of a drug. When you do drugs you feel great in the moment and then feel like shit afterwards. With running, especially in the first months of training or getting back into shape, your body can feel pretty rough and at times downright shitty while you’re doing it, but you always feel great afterwards. One of the great things about running is that the more you do it, the more the rough or awkward physical feelings fade. Running eventually becomes flow and the experience can be amazing and blissful if you open yourself to that possibility. “I really wish I hadn’t gone for a run today,” said no one ever. Training runs became my go-to means to relieve stress, process daily challenges, and overcome obstacles that came with managing a business.

In January of 2015, shortly after opening our second location for Bufalina Pizza, I decided it was time to enter the ultra-marathon world. I naively signed up for a very difficult 50-miler called the Cruel Jewel in Northeast Georgia and in preparation, I completed my first ultra called the Hells Hills 50K in Smithville, Texas. Going beyond 26.2 miles and venturing into uncharted territory was exhilarating, and left me with a huge sense of accomplishment.

Then came the Cruel Jewel, a race set in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Northeast Georgia, about an hour away from where I grew up. Only now can I see that I entered the race totally unaware of what I was setting myself up for. The Cruel Jewel was an extremely challenging course with an elevation gain and loss of over 17,5000 feet — oh yeah, and the course was actually 56 miles long.

Based on my time at Hells Hills, I calculated that the Cruel Jewel would take me somewhere around 9 hours to complete. Oh, I couldn’t have been more wrong about that. The course was absolutely brutal. There was no reprieve, ever. If I wasn’t going uphill I was going downhill. I hit the halfway mark somewhere around 7.5 hours. My IT band was already acting up, preventing me from moving with any speed down the hills. Who am I kidding, the uphills were taking their toll on me, too. At that point, I took note of how long I had been out there to realize that this effort was going to take much much longer than I had originally expected. With this realization and immense fatigue, I sat down at the base of a tree and cried. I literally couldn’t fathom continuing to suffer well into the night. The course had essentially beat me to a pulp. I allowed myself about two minutes of pity, stood up, and pressed on. Upon crossing the finish line shortly before midnight with a finishing time of 15 hours and 24 minutes, relief and joy flooded through me in a way I have never experienced before in my life. I had accomplished something that the me 7.5 hours before had deemed nearly impossible. But I didn’t give in. I had persevered. The Cruel Jewel showed me how sweet the reward could be after pushing through something difficult and painful. I’ve learned that hardships and setbacks help me to feel truly accomplished.

I became really hungry for more experiences like the Cruel Jewel. I wish I could say that I immediately signed up for my next race and never looked back, but life didn’t work out for me that way. After reveling in my accomplishment on an extended post-race trip to Spain, I jumped right back into work. I managed to maintain some amount of weekly miles strictly as a stress-reliever, but I simply did not have the time to invest in higher mileage. Eventually I broke from the stress of work and I made the extremely difficult decision to leave Bufalina. With that decision came a commitment to myself to re-evaluate where and how I wanted to spend my time and energy.

My big decision came in tandem with my partner Shelley’s decision to enroll in nursing school in Denver, Colorado. Together, we decided she would move to Denver for school and I would join here there after some travel. On September 7th, 2017 Hurricane Irma hit the U.S. Virgin Islands. It was the largest and most destructive hurricane to ever come out of the Atlantic. The backstory here is that I had lived on St. John for several years in my early 20s and still had many friends on island. The island as I knew it had been devastated, and word of everyone’s safety was painfully slow to make its way to us mainlanders. Less than two weeks after the first storm hit, another hurricane struck. I immediately began making plans to travel to the islands to help with the recovery efforts.

Upon arriving on St. John I was floored by the devastation. It is one thing to see pictures, hear accounts from friends, and short video clips on the news. But to actually set foot on the island and experience it for myself was simply dumbfounding. I can only imagine the fear and anguish that my friends actually lived through. I stayed in the half-destroyed home of a friend and did what I could to help pick up the pieces, both literally and figuratively. People’s belongings were strewn about everywhere, homes were demolished, and boats were sunk. My friends were rattled and showed clear signs of PTSD. Paradise had been lost and there was enough sorrow and mourning to go around for a lifetime. Nevertheless, through all of this the human spirit survived. There was still laughter as people banded together and helped each other out. I hope to carry with me four major takeaways from this experience: 1) Things do not matter. We spend our lives working mainly to collect useless “things” that can be destroyed in a moment’s time. 2) The human spirit is resilient and beautiful. 3) All we have is our health. 4) Mother nature is pissed. Climate change has to be addressed and there is no time to waste.

As Shelley pursued an accelerated bachelor’s degree from the University of Colorado in Denver, I pondered what would be next. I kept wondering how I would fit running into this newfound lease on life. Without the stressors of a job, would I need or even want to run? The answer was absolutely yes. My maiden run around Denver was the freest I’ve felt in a long time and I never wanted to stop running.

I continued a routine of logging moderately long runs every day or so for the next month and a half. With each mile I contemplated my next career and every time I came up with a good idea, I was asking myself, “But when will I run?”

Soon came the Big Bend Ultra, a trail race in Terlingua, Texas that our friends and family have been attending annually for the past seven years. I placed 3rd in the 30K distance thanks to my new lease on life and my consistent training base! After the race I rolled through Austin to pick up our dog Kasha from Shelley’s parent’s house. The timing couldn’t have been more perfect. Chris and Clara greeted me with a big congratulations on my 3rd place male finish in Big Bend and then asked if I was interested in joining them on a trip to Central Mexico to compete in the Ultramaratón Caballo Blanco.

For those familiar with the book Born to Run, yes, it’s that race. For those who aren’t, the book tells the story of a race that takes place in the Copper Canyon of Central Mexico between the Tarahumara Indians and a small group of elite American ultra runners. The Tarahumara are extremely elusive, spending the majority of their time in cave dwellings high up in the canyon walls of the Barrancas del Cobre. There has been a small race held at the end on February since 2003 where those brave enough and savvy enough to travel to the start line have the chance to run alongside the Tarahumara.

How could I resist such an invitation! This was a once in a lifetime opportunity and I was absolutely thrilled to be going. Near the end of February, 2018 Shelley’s sister Jamie, Chris, Clara, and I made the lengthy journey (plane + taxi + train + bus) down to Urique, a small town at the bottom of the Copper Canyon of Chihuahua Mexico. Chris and Jamie registered at the last minute for the marathon distance (which ended up being more like 30 miles) and I excitedly lined up to run my second 50-mile race.

Upon arriving in the canyon I knew that this experience would forever change me. Most of the racers are Tarahumara, who are awarded vouchers at three checkpoints throughout the race that they can redeem for corn throughout the year. The rest of the racers are comprised up of a small group of gringos and Mexican nationals whose race entry fees are used to purchase the corn. The founder of the race was an eccentric man named Micah True a.k.a. Caballo Blanco who spent many years living in the canyon himself. His vision was to help sustain a whole people whose livelihoods had been threatened by the cartels that have a stronghold on the region as well as their farmland. I was intrigued to learn that so many of the gringo runners had discovered a way to make running the center of their lives. One of these people was Patrick Sweeney, who had visited the canyon many times over the past ten years and who had also run across the United States in 2015.

While in the Copper Canyon I was very loose with my food decisions, mainly because I wanted to go with flow and not be a burden on our hosts who provided us with 2-3 meals a day. To be an easy guest meant eating a lot of meat, way more than I was use to. Over the last year, I had begun to move towards a plant-based diet as the most optimal choice for my health and my performance. But I had not yet made a decision to completely abstain from meat or animal products. On the afternoon before the race lunch was provided by our host. Jamie, Clara, and I ordered the beef fajita dish and Chris chose the chicken. What came to the table were three chicken dishes and only one beef dish. We all agreed that Clara could have the beef dish and Jamie, Chris, and I would take the chicken entrees. Chris ate his whole plate, Jamie ate a little over half of hers, and I, knowing that I had a big race the next day, finished my own plate and the rest of Jamie’s. After lunch we went back to our room to lay out our clothes and gear for the next day and went to bed early.

Somewhere around 4am I awoke to intense stomach pain and a horrible bout of diarrhea. Montezuma’s Revenge had struck less than three hours before the start of the race. Chris and Jamie awoke feeling less than ideal, themselves. I decided to go ahead and attempt the race hoping that the sickness would pass and that the worst was behind me. The start line was exhilarating. Mariachi bands played continuously, and the announcer feverishly pumped up the crowds in Spanish. Soon, we were off and one-thousand one-hundred runners crossed the start line. I felt pretty weak and hoped that the excitement of running with the Tarahumara would carry me through. The Tarahumara are amazing runners. The men dressed in white loincloths and brilliantly colored capes, while the women wore bright dresses. Almost all of them wore their traditional sandals, and many of them can easily cover 100 miles in a day.

Soon it became very clear to me that my energy levels were dwindling rapidly. Around mile 9, just before what would be the first of many intense climbs, I was overcome with nausea and vomited up whatever else was left in my body. With this episode, I lost every bit of energy I had garnered up from the excitement of the race. I somehow managed to make it up the large climb and back down again, but I knew I was done for. When I passed back through Urique at mile 20 I called it quits. I was extremely disappointed to not have completed the race and was also overcome with gratitude for having had the opportunity to participate in such a beautiful community event.

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When I arrived back to Denver I was sure of two things: I was ready to transition into a 100% plant-based diet and I had to find a way to make running the center of my life. On March 15th 2018, I went out for my daily run around Denver. Less than two miles in, it struck me. I wanted to run across the United States. With the attention gained from tackling such a feat, I could start conversations with others about the importance of good food choices, both for their own health and for the environment. I imagined amassing together a band of like-minded and conscientious sponsors to join me in this mission. The first step was easy. I decided to start my transcontinental run one year from the day of its conception: March 15th, 2019. Figuring out every necessary step in between from physically training to logistics has been the majority of my work since.