Victorian adventure athlete and dedicated vegan, Jan Saunders, was looking to become the first Australian to run 866km through the French Pyrenees in an inaugural endurance event, the TransPyrenea challenge which began on 19th July. She’s still out there, competing but facing tougher conditions than imagined, she is now in the La Pastoral edition, an abridged section of the full course, that is still brutal at 450km+
This is an interview with Jan before she headed out, as seen in the latest edition of Trail Run Mag downloaded from www.trailrunmag.com/magazines.
What does it take to run 866km and climb 65,000 metres in under 400 hours (UPDATE NOTE: or even 450km!!)?
Fruit and vegetables. A lot of fruit and vegetables, according to vegan athlete, Jan Saunders, who will rely entirely on plant power to fuel her way through this audacious endurance challenge as the only Australian entrant in the inaugural TransPyrenea, a mega-trail running event to be held in France’s stunning Pyrenees mountain range.
The 54 year-old from Smiths Gully, Victoria, is no stranger to endurance efforts, having competed in numerous adventure events from the Costa Rica staged ultra (250km) to local endurance challenges including the 100km Alpine Challenge and the brutal seven-day XPD Expedition Adventure Race. Most recently Jan fast-packed the 230km Larapinta Trail in central Australia in just five days, a journey that is usually undertaken at a pace that takes more than double that time.
But nothing comes close to what lies ahead in the French Alps: Jan will have to run an average of 55km per day, climbing more than 3500 metres each day. Overall she will climb the equivalent of Mount Everest from sea level more than seven times over.
Unlike other endurance events around the globe, there will be no aid stations. Jan will be self supported allowed only one fifty litre re-supply bag that she will have to prepare and made accessible every 200km. The event’s race director expects only one quarter to a half of the 300 entrants to even finish.
The fuelling challenge will be a minimum of 6000 calories between drop bags somehow contained in a pack that, due to the ‘fast and light’ requirements of the challenge, will need to be restricted to approximately 11kg, barely more than a domestic flight’s hand luggage allowance.
Jan assures that being vegan makes no impact on sourcing the high calorific intake, pointing out that some of the world’s best athletes share her vegan lifestyle, including Serena and Venus Williams (tennis), endurance running legend Scott Jurek, Jason Gillespie (cricket), Carl Lewis (Olympian), Murray Rose (swimmer), Martina Navratilova (tennis) and recently feted bound for Rio athlete, Morgan Mitchell, a vegan bound for Rio Olympics after winning the national 400 metre titles.
“Being vegan has really helped with everything: energy, health, the environment. I am one of those people who actually cares. It’s what I chose to do,” says Mitchell.
Saunders agrees that protein and energy requirements demanded by either intense sports like Mitchell’s or endurance pursuits like her ultra running can easily be delivered by a vegan diet.
“On these hard ones, I aim for calorie dense foods – a minimum of 140 calories per 30g weight,” says Jan. “ My favourite is a rolled oats mixture usually with chia seeds, Vanilla Sunwarrior Raw Vegan Protein Powder, coconut sugar, good quality salt, raisin or goji berries, sunflower seeds, coconut shreds, and powdered coconut water. I just add a little water and then eat on the move. It fuels me super well.”
Since becoming vegan in 2012 for ethical reasons, Jan – a former member of Victoria Police Mounted Branch with 33 years of service – has investigated the culinary terrain of veganism by opening a vegan B&B in Victoria’s Yarra Valley, hosting guests who are seeking something a little different from beer and beef.
Jan’s guests will be well catered for in her absence with yet another plant powered trail running athlete, raw vegan John Salton, taking over the kitchen as she takes her plant powered approach to the French Pyrenees for what will no doubt be more proof in the vegan pudding of how plants can perfectly power extreme sporting pursuits.
Jan Saunders began her TransPyrenea challenge on 19th July. More race information (in French) www.transpyrenea.fr
Q&A Jan Saunders // Vegan Endurance Adventure Athlete //
Name: Jan Saunders
Age: I turn 54 the day before the race! Happy birthday to me.
Occupation: Vegan B&B proprietor
From: Smiths Gully, Victoria
The Race: Transpyrenea – www.transpyrenea.fr
Tell us a little more about the Transpyrenea, Jan.
It’s an inaugural running event taking in 866km with 65000m+ ascent along the GR10, a long distance hiking trail that weaves through, up and down the Pyrenees mountains in France.
Sounds tough, especially as a first edition event!
Yes, the cut off is 400 hours to complete it, or 16.5 days, which sounds like a lot of time but I know the time will slip away quickly trying to tick off 866km! There will only be 300 runners in the field – I’m the only Australian that I know of and the Race Director expects only 1/4 to 1/2 of field to complete within cut off times.
So no aid stations or support crews – how do the logistics work on that?
My goal is to complete on average 55km per day, dependent on total ascent, which on average will be 3500 metres, keeping in mind most days will have equal amounts of descent which can be just as tough on the legs, especially the quads!
In terms of supplies, I’ll have one 50L accessible approx. every 200km (or every 3–4 days) and mostly be self-supported. Being vegan I cannot rely on having the food I want to fuel me available in the public refuges and villages we pass by and through. So I will be carrying most of my four days’ worth of food for each section between drop bags with me.
Wow, so you’re running with a fair whack on your back, then?
My pack weight I anticipate – or hope – will not lurch over 11kg. But
It needs to include compulsory items of clothing for bad/wet weather, sleeping bag, safety items such as first aid kit, GPS and compass, map, head torches and spare batteries, water filter, portable charger, phone and minimum of 6000 calories between drop bags.
And sleeping – what is the plan?
I want to get an average of 4-5 hours’ sleep per night plus 1.5hrs-2hrs cumulative rest breaks to tend to feet and eat per day. I have a bivvy bag, a borrowed light sleeping bag, an Ultra Light Tarp from Terra Rosa Gear and a ultra light hip mattress that I used in XPD last winter.
What’s the eating plan look like?
Being vegan I don’t reply on anything external – be that the event organisers’ offering or on a race like this we go through villages and past refuges, so there is access to food in general. But I need to guarantee that I have vegan food, so I pre-plan and prepare. [Check out a list of Jan’s vegan race lunchbox in the break out below. Ed.]
In terms of how I eat on the run, I tend to graze. A little something every 30minutes to on hour keeps the tummy happy. I have something liquid early in the morning; I intend to hit the trail each day around 04:00 and eat my special oat mix when the sun is warm, maybe 8-10am.
So your nutrition seems well under control, what is the biggest threat to finishing? Blisters and tendon/ligament over use issues.
You seem to have a lifestyle that works well around your endurance training…
I’ve been training in a way for the Transpyrenea for two years starting with with Alpine Challenge 100km in 2014. I then undertook multi day solo hikes in high country and on the Larapinta trail plus competed in the XPD expedition adventure race in 2015. This year I’ve done a few more mini solo missions as well as a 48-hour adventure race and a second go along the Larapinta Trail – 223km end to end in 5 days with a 15kg pack. That was about 9000m ascent and averaged 50km most days on rough terrain and warm weather so was an excellent training session!
Have you always been an endurance athlete?
Not really. I only really started undertaking serious endurance challenges in my mid forties – I’m edging into my mid fifties now. I was always active with gym and aerobics in 80’s/90’s and a bit of running off and on. Then I got into some hiking in the 2000’s and did an Oxfam (100km trek) in 2006. Plus I trekked in Nepal and climbed Kilimanjaro in Tanzania around then.
My foray into Adventure Racing only kicked off in 2008 at 45 after deciding it would be fun to do something different as I’d stagnated a bit.
At that stage I had never paddled or ridden a mountain bike or navigated. In fact I hadn’t ridden a bike for 18 years!
Then the adventures just followed: I climbed Aconcagua (Argentina, 6962m) in 2009 and Ausangate (6384m, Peru) in 2011 and did the XPD for the first time in 2010.
Sounds like you jumped in the deep end – did you encounter any big dramas while navigating your way into the world of endurance sports?
I injured my back at work – I was a policewoman in the mounted (horse) division – in 2011 and had 18 months off recovering with plenty of setbacks. As an active person who had not long discovered a pure love for adventure sports, it was a difficult time full of doubt. But it was also a time where I reassessed a lot in my life – from my career to how I lived. It was the time, in 2012, that I became vegan for ethical reasons.
So you quit your job, went vegan, and started a vegan B&B – talk about a life change! How did you get back on track in terms of the ultra adventures?
In 2014 I signed up for the Coastal Challenge in Costa Rica, which capped off 11 months of backpacking the world. All the time while travelling I was getting stronger and deciding on what direction I wanted to take with my life as didn’t want to stay in the Victorian Police (I joined 1983). I finished 10th Female in Costa Rica and my back was great! So I ran a few more ultras in 2014 including GOW100, Buffalo Stampede 75km, Wilsons Prom 60km and another Alpine Challenge 100km. I’m hoping it all stands me in good stead for the Transpyrenea!
Lots of non-vegan athletes are skeptical about how you can maintain the required nutritional input from a vegan diet when undertaking endurance sports. How did you manage the transition?
When I found out late 2011 into 2012 that it is possible to survive without consuming any animal product at all it became a no- brainer that I would become vegan. But it didn’t really click over in my mind till a few days after my 50th birthday as I contemplated a leftover spit roasted lamb.
I suddenly really thought about who it was not what…I’d simply assumed without ever investigating it for myself that we needed to eat animals and milk and eggs to be “healthy”. After all, that’s how all the advertising and traditional health advice went. I just “swallowed” that, like most people do.
But once I knew it was possible I knew I didn’t want to be the cause of animals suffering and being killed simply because that’s the way I’d always eaten. So I stopped. I was relieved and excited though when I read Scott Jurek’s Eat and Run and Rich Rolls Finding Ultra, which gave me the confidence, that endurance pursuits and veganism were not mutually exclusive concepts!
You take that lifestyle a step further with your vegan B&B retreat…
I believe in leading by example and supporting people where they are at without sugar coating the facts. At my B&B, The Beet Retreat (www.thebeetretreat.com.au), I provide a safe and friendly space for people to sample the lifestyle and ask questions without fear of being judged or ridiculed. We have great conversations over meals and around the kitchen bench as I prepare food! I also use my endurance adventures as part of my advocacy to show a) what is possible and b) to fire people’s imaginations and awareness of both their health and the plight of animals and the many amazing organisations doing incredible work on their behalf.
I’m passionate about both animals and humans thriving and living a full and beautiful life. I have found my niche doing what I do although it is a juggle doing both the adventures and running a business!
Indeed – your Pyrenean adventure is in part about raising awareness and funds for?
Ah – glad you asked … five organisations that I am personally connected with: Animal Liberation Victoria; International Anti Poaching Foundation; Gunyah Animal Healing Sanctuary; Freehearts Animal Sanctuary ; Project Hope Horse Welfare.
YOU CAN HELP JAN REACH HER FUNDRAISING GOALS HERE:
Not just living the dream then Jan, but walking – or running – the talk!
I believe that to live a truly healthy, happy and meaningful life we need to not only be authentic, but to align ourselves to our deepest core values and live by them, not just in our down time but all the time. It won’t usually make you wealthy but it will make you love and be very grateful for your life and your place in the world
PLANT POWER IN THE PYRENEES
What does Jan Saunders endurance lunchbox look like?
- Calorie dense foods – minimum of 140 calories per 30g weight
- Jan’s favourite is 2 zip bags of a rolled oats mixture with chia seeds, Vanilla Sunwarrior Raw Vegan Protein Powder, coconut sugar, good quality salt, raisin or goji berries, sunflower seeds, coconut shreds, powdered coconut and water.
- Turbo Super Food mixed with the Sunwarrior Vegan Protein Powder and Vital Greens in a concentrated liquid mix.
- Tailwind for pick-me ups.
- Turbo and Hammer electrolyte.
- Various raw vegan bars or Fruit Leather I buy or make myself.
- A tube of Vegemite to suck on.
- Nut butters.
- Active Green Food bars. Hammer bars on occasion.
- Fresh and dried fruit. I crave fresh fruit and hope to source some at villages. If I can get avocado I will be over the moon!
- Salty pretzels and nut mixes at the end of the day.
- Coconut water in drop bag if I can fit it in!
- I never feel the need to cook or have warm things but if the weather turns bad I will have a couple of emergency soups and an instant cos cous to treat myself with.
Read Jan’s blog about her vegan and adventure life here: www.thebeetretreat.com.au/blog/