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Adam Cook: Fuelling Ultras with Plants

Updated: May 16, 2022

Great to catch up with Adam to find out about his year of ultra's and how he fuels as a Vegan runner. We hope you enjoy the read.


I had never considered myself as a runner, let alone an ‘ultra runner’, that was of course up until Covid hit the nation 18 months ago and everything changed! I was an avid gym goer and believed that time doing cardio, was time wasted. Coming from an army background, running was always used as a punishment, it was so deeply ingrained in me that running equals pain and suffering, that it hadn’t ever occurred to me that people could actually enjoy it and do it for fun!

When the gyms shut, I was forced to try something else to keep me fit and active, and with pretty limited options on the table, I pulled out an old pair of trainers from the back of the wardrobe and went for a very modest-paced 5k, which nearly killed me. I was a hot sweaty mess laying on the kitchen floor, with my ever so sympathetic wife, Bec, pointing and laughing at me! I decided to persevere with it regardless as there was little else to do during lockdown and quickly built up to running 10km within a few weeks. Although I still hated the experience of running, it was very much a ‘needs must’ type scenario, to keep me ticking over till the gyms reopened and I could return to ‘proper’ exercise.

One day, I was chatting to an old friend who also happens to be a seasoned ultra-runner, she suggested that I might not be enjoying the running because I was running too fast (not to say I was a fast runner, just running too fast for my abilities and for it to be enjoyable, as I couldn’t breathe!) The next run changed my whole opinion on running, I dare say, forever. I set off on what I thought was going to be a 10k run, I slowed right down, smiled, took in the scenery, stopped to take photos and it actually started to feel amazing! I ran 18km that day which was the furthest I’d ever run, I had an unbelievable feeling of satisfaction when I returned home. That was it, I was hooked! I decided I wanted to run a marathon and quickly set about training, using a marathon training plan I’d found online. Being the only runner in my friendship circle, all of my runs tend to be alone, although if it’s around the 5-10k mark, I’m occasionally joined by my friend Aaron. He even sometimes joins me for the middle section of a longer run, he’s good for making me laugh and taking my mind off the pain. I have to say though, no offence to Arron, but I do prefer to run alone, I find it cathartic and use it as my headspace.

The day of the marathon came about, I’d decided to just head out, follow my nose and see where I ended up, then after about 13.1 miles, I’d turn and start heading back to home. I purposely decided to stay away from roads as I find road running a bit dull and much prefer to be surrounded by green fields, forests, hills and wildlife, which is now what the main attraction of running is for me. I stumbled back through my gate, 4:09mins after leaving, collapsed on the floor and can categorically say, that was the hardest run I’ve ever done, but I loved every second of it! I was finally starting to get why people put themselves through it, it’s a feeling like no other.

It was only a matter of time until an old childhood friend, Andy Clark, talked me into signing up for my first ultra. I was terrified, it seemed like a whole different beast to running a marathon. I signed up for the 50k Pilgrims ultra and the 70k Tyne trial south ultra, naturally I assumed that the 50k race would be first- wrong! Going from a 42.2k to a 70k is a bit of a leap, but I tried to stay focussed with training (even though I had been using a 50km training plan) and race day soon came about.

My race strategy was to aim for 6 mins per km for any running sections, which would be flat or downhill and then hike any hills, which seemed to to work ok. It was an incredible experience and for the first 50k I actually felt ok, until the mother of all hills appeared which very quickly took any remaining energy I had and it was a real struggle for the last 15k with plenty of moaning to go with the struggling! When I crossed the line at 9 hours 31 mins, I was overcome with emotion and actually cried a bit out of sheer relief of being finished. It felt so good to finally be able to call myself an ultra-runner. I finished that race middle of the pack (36th out of 78ish from memory), which I was proud of as my first ultra.

On the day of the 50k pilgrims ultra, I actually wanted to see if I could push the pace a little and maybe even have a go at racing, I didn’t want to be there just to make the numbers up, I wanted to challenge myself and see what I could do against a stunning 50km course along the coastline of Northumberland. I finished in a respectable 10th place out of 96 people competing at the 50k distance. I am over the moon with that and can’t wait to take on the next race!

When I run, I proudly wear my Vegan Runners vest as a badge of honour. Being vegan is a huge part of my life and I’m proud to say that I stand up for the voiceless victims of our society, the animals. Veganism isn’t just a diet, it’s a moral stance against the exploitation and killing of animals and it’s something I’m incredibly passionate about, so I wear my vest with pride and love the chance to discuss veganism with other runners. A lot of people are inquisitive and can’t fathom how they would fuel a long run without the use of animals based food products. I know fuelling for a run is a very personal thing and everyone does things slightly differently, some like purely gels, some like chocolate and some like pizza! I tend to eat what’s known as a ‘whole foods plant based diet’ which is essentially just fruit, veg, nuts, seeds, whole grains (such as rice, quinoa, wholewheat pasta) and legumes (such as beans, lentils, chickpeas etc). I find that eating this way really works for me, I feel nice and fresh after eating, I don’t feel stuffed or like I need a lie down after a big meal, I don’t have the ‘crash’ later in the day or hunger cravings on a normal day to day basis either. I try and minimise my intake of processed foods (cake, chocolate, pizzas, burgers, cheese, mock meats etc) and just stick with real food that grows in the ground or on trees and bushes - health is wealth at the end of the day and this is the healthiest way of eating!

Another thing people ask a lot is about protein, what can a vegan possibly eat that contains protein?! Most people find it surprising that all protein actually originates in plants and that every plant contains varying levels of protein, so even if you ate all of your daily calories from broccoli or carrots, you’d still be eating adequate protein. Humans don’t actually need anywhere near as much protein as you may think, there’s no such thing as ‘protein deficiency’ if you’re eating adequate calories, it’s just not a thing!

One of my favourite things on longer runs is when people show a genuine interest in discussing a plant based diet, I love taking the time to discuss food and nutrition with people, which also makes the miles tick over easier… result! My interest in food and nutrition prompted me to qualify as a nutritionist last year during lock down too.

During runs or races, I try and eat a mix of bars and gels, you can get some great whole foods bars, that are made from dates, peanuts, cashews, banana, raisins etc, they taste fab and give me no GI issues, which makes life easier on runs. The gels I use are just the standard carbohydrate gels that most endurance folks use, basically just a sugary gloop in a tube - yum! I try and alternate between bars and gels at 5-7k intervals, depending on how I’m feeling and how long the run is.

I definitely think eating the way I do aids in recovery, because on a cellular level, your body needs vast amounts of nutrients to recover, most plant foods are more nutrient dense than animal based equivalents, so it stands to reason that the more plants you eat, the more nutrients you eat, meaning the faster you recover. Even with ethics aside, I wouldn’t ever go back to eating meat, dairy or eggs, purely for health and nutritional reasons… you just get better ‘bang for your buck’ with plants. Try it, see what you think!

My advice to anyone thinking about running an ultra, would be to just throw yourself into it, it will be an amazing day out and you’ll make fantastic memories and meet great people along the way. I’ll also pass on the same knowledge that someone gave to me on the start line of my first ultra, which was ‘eat and drink way more than you think you need to, even if you feel ok!’ - that served me well.

So what’s next on the agenda? I’m a Nottingham lad and I’m fortunate enough to live less than an hour from the beautiful Peak District. I spotted a race online that I’m going to enter for next year, which is a 100km figure of 8 loop around the peaks, split into two 50k’s on consecutive days, this seems like a fantastic challenge to someone at my level. Running 50k is possible, I know that now, but can I do it two days in a row? I’ll find out…

Another great race that’s cropped up online is a 10k route around Belvoir Castle in Leicestershire, it’s a 24 hour race, of a 10k loop, with the idea being to complete as many full laps as you can. This interests me for two reasons, firstly, I’ve never competed in an ultra event in the dark… scared already! And secondly, I’ve always wanted to see how far I could travel in 24 hours under my own steam. So that’s what’s next!

The very best feeling I’ve had in my 38 years on earth (aside from the birth of my beautiful daughter Indie, 4 years ago) is crossing the finish line of an ultra, having worked your hardest for hours on end to get there… I want more of that and I know that I’ve only just scratched the surface of my running potential, which excites me greatly! It really is possible to go from couch (or gym!) to 70km in just over a year and who knows where I’ll be this time next year, but I can’t wait to find out!

Thanks to Sarah & Luke for catching up with Adam.

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