Just over a year ago, Tony Jordanek stopped eating meat, cold Tofurkey. He'd been studying nutrition for months in a desire to fuel his athletic performance, and his conviction on meatless diets had reached a climax. So on the morning of a track meet in California, he switched.
Later that day, the 27-year-old miler ran the fastest race of his life.
"Not that it had any effect," Jordanek says. "I just remember thinking to myself, there's no way, obviously." But even now, over a year later, you can hear the doubt in his voice.
Jordanek is like most post-collegiate runners: Type A personalities, they're continuously, meticulously planning and measuring and documenting their workouts, diets, and sleep. Because running can only vary so much, the search then expands to all the supplemental things. Altitude tents, ice baths, and myriad supplements are all part of listening to the faint circadian rhythm of their bodies. "You're always looking for something small to get you to the next level," he says.
Jordanek broke four minutes in the mile for the first time in 2010, the year after he graduated from Kent State, and since then has averaged a half-second faster each year. But then there was that meet in 2013, the day he converted to veganism: he ran 3 minutes, 38.85 seconds for 1500 meters, which converts to a 3:56 mile, or about three seconds faster than ever before. Veganism seemed like the answer, the last piece of the puzzle.
The problem is, for athletes of Jordanek's caliber, veganism is largely untested. There are a few notable exceptions—Carl Lewis claims that his 1991 season, which included a world championships gold medal and a 100-meter world record, was the result of switching to a vegan diet. But his four Olympic gold medals in 1984 were all achieved eating meat.
After Lewis, examples fall off quickly, and when the diet is lauded, athlete examples are largely confined to fringe sports with inferior competition and low participation—ultra-endurance events, primarily. Despite this, the vegan-athletic philosophy does have its proponents. Brendan Brazier, a former professional triathlete (an ambiguous term, as his results were largely regional in his home country of Canada), self-published The Thrive Diet in 2007, in which he claims that meat and animal products lower the body's pH, which adds stress and creates an environment for disease. Jordanek says that the book heavily influenced his decision. But there simply aren't the studies or the evidence to back up claims of elite athleticism on plant-based diets at the Olympic level, which is Jordanek's ultimate goal. His choice has been a voyage into uncharted territory.
It's been over a year since his switch, and Jordanek hasn't yet concluded whether his great experiment has worked. He ran his second-fastest time ever, 3:40.4 for 1500m in May at the same meet from last year (a 3:58 mile). He says that if he were to run faster than he ever has, it would be enough to convince him. Absolutely. But until then, he's not even comfortable recommending his diet to other post-collegiate runners.
Of his choice, Jordanek says, "It's bold, sure. But I think that's how committed I am. I want to be in that 3:36-or-faster range (3:51 mile), and I'm trying to do everything I can to do it. If it meant working really, really hard to find foods that weren't dairy or weren't meat, I was willing to work to do that. Even if it was a risk, I was hoping it was a risk that would get me somewhere."
[Photo: Jeannette Faber]