For 3,175 miles, Austin and Denver-based ultra-marathoner Robbie Balenger proved it’s possible to run an entire transcontinental route while maintaining a vegan diet.
“No animals were harmed in the making of this run,” Balenger says, smiling.
Proving it’s possible to accomplish such a feat — sans any sort of animal products — was precisely Balenger’s goal for this solo transcontinental journey.
Although Balenger, who regularly participates in long-distance races of the 50-plus mile variety, certainly didn’t start out with a dream of promoting a plant-based lifestyle by way of running from Los Angeles to New York City.
It was his girlfriend, now fiancé, Shelley Howard, who first suggested he start running with her several years ago. She selected a leisurely route to break him in, but Balenger barely made it 2.5 miles before having to take a cab back home.
“It was all I had in me,” Balenger remembers, laughing.
Then, as the operations manager at Bufalina Pizza, Balenger wanted to find a way to stay healthy and in shape, while also relieving some stress. Running seemed to make sense, and he kept at it.
He started with short distances, then eventually worked his way up to half, then full marathons, including the Austin Marathon. Next came the ultras — Balenger says he prefers the 50-mile races to shorter jaunts.
It was in 2017 when Balenger moved to accompany Howard, who was attending nursing school in Denver, that the thought of a plant-based diet intrigued him. He researched the negative environmental impacts of the meat and dairy industries, and both he and Howard simultaneously adopted a new lifestyle.
At about the same time, Balenger met ultra-marathoner Patrick Sweeney, who had also accomplished a cross-country run in 2015 at the Caballo Blanco Ultra run in Urique, Mexico. This planted in Balenger’s head — albeit unconsciously — the idea to do his own cross-country run.
“I was really looking for a way to make an impact in environmentalism,” Balenger says. “I thought I would have the best impact if I could follow my passion and use that as a platform. It felt so big, like such a monumental feat, that it would go a long way toward spreading my message.”
On March 15, 2018, he set a goal for himself: in one year, he would begin his cross-country journey. One year and one day later, his feet hit the pavement in Huntington Beach, Los Angeles for the longest run of his life.
He ran for 75 days. No scheduled days off, no late-night explorations of the towns and cities he passed through. Only rising between 5 and 7 a.m. and running for at least 11.5 to 14 hours per day, covering an average of 43 miles a day.
Balenger sped through the flat deserts of Arizona. He slogged up daunting elevation gains in Taos, encountering snow and scorching sun. Then, he passed over the rolling hills of the midwest and through countless cities and 15 states that welcomed him warmly as he spread the word about the impacts of a plant-based diet.
Some days were harder than others, he says. It was monotonous. There were days on end when the scenery never changed. And at times, he felt like he was just putting one foot in front of the other, reaching for milestones.
“There was a lot of psychological warfare going on between my ears,” Balenger admits.
Of course, Balenger wasn’t fully alone on his run. He had a team cheering him on, rushing to his aid when he experienced pain from shin splints and tendonitis in the first 20 days of the journey.
They also helped prepare his meals, which was no easy task considering Balenger was consuming 8,000 calories a day. He’d stop every five miles to refuel. The crew brought him porridge and coffee in the mornings, 1,000-calorie smoothies packed with kale, fruit, peanut butter and plant-based protein powder four times a day and also pasta, fruits and vegetables in between. For dinner, he would eat two Outdoor Herbivore vegan backpacking meals, and afterward would treat himself to a beer as well as NadaMoo! dairy-free ice cream.
The Austin-based company NadaMoo! was the sponsor of Balenger and his run. It was an ideal match, according to Balenger, who approached Daniel Nicholson, president and CEO of NadaMoo!, with the proposal.
While Balenger says he enjoys the brand of vegan ice cream personally, he knew a product like ice cream, even a vegan variety, is easy for people to get behind.
“Products like these are how people are going to transition to a plant-based lifestyle.” Balenger says. “Plus, it was a great bridge to start conversations.”
At his stops, Balenger and his team would hand out ice cream and openly answer questions about the purpose of his run and what a plant-based diet was all about.
Olympic athlete-run organization Switch4Good, a nonprofit, anti-dairy campaign, also came alongside to help support Balenger and his mission.
The goal: to help people feel more empowered to make positive changes that benefit their health. They introduced people to what a plant-based diet means, encouraged those who were experimenting with it and addressed that undying inquiry question associated with veganism: “Where do you get your protein?”
“This idea that we need protein, protein, protein is unnecessary. We get all the protein we need in a plant-based diet,” Balenger says.
He also explained that cutting out meat and dairy also lowers inflammation and decreases post-workout soreness, which is important for athletes.
Throughout his run, Balenger ran with family, friends and other plant-based athletes from all over the country. He conversed with strangers, and some eventually became friends. Through conversations with those who sped alongside him, he connected with his fellow man, saw through the labels slapped on people from L.A. to NYC and experienced more of the country — and the people at the heart of it — than he ever had before.
Finally, on May 29, Balenger took his last stride into Central Park and came to a halt in relief. He had completed his run across America in the exact amount of time he had anticipated, meeting the goal he had set for himself.
With the task completed, a surreal satisfaction remains as Balenger settles back into real life, back into the hustle and bustle of appointments and work and family commitments — but the sense of accomplishment remains, resting assured that no animals were harmed in the making of his monumental feat.