Saturday, December 15, 2012

Interview with Registered Dietitian and vegan endurance athlete, Matt Ruscigno

When did you first get involved in ultra endurance sports and why did you make the decision to go vegan?

I got my first road bike in 2000 with the sole purpose of riding cross-country the next year after I graduated college. It was a Panasonic I bought from my friend's dad for $50! Then in 2002 I bike toured from California to Belize, so you could say my start was in bike touring. Then in 2004 I found double centuries and was hooked. It was only then that I comfortably started wearing spandex.... Like many people I know, my veganism started in the mid-90's when I was into hardcore punk. Bands like Earth Crisis and Chokehold educated me on how animals raised for food are treated and since I love animals I made the decision at 17 years old to go vegan and have been since.

What kind of reactions do you get when people find out that you don't consume animal products?

You know, most people are very curious and non-judgemental. I rarely get the protein question! I'm not sure why that is. I do get some surprise in that I'm not 130 pounds and rail thin. And while I'm very serious about my veganism, I'm also very careful when the topic comes up as to not appear judgemental. My approach has always been to be a good example and not to prosthelytize.   

It's the position of the American Dietetic Association that a well-planned vegan or vegetarian diet is both healthy and nutritionally adequate for all stages of life, yet stories of unhealthy vegans persist. Is it difficult to be vegan?

In science, and in life in general, it always take WAY more evidence to prove something that goes against mainstream thought. There is overwhelming evidence that vegetarians have lower rates for the leading causes of death- heart disease, cancer, stroke, etc- but the public fixates on stories about crazy fundamentalist families that happen to be vegan and starve their kids to death. It doesn't take much evidence for people to convince themselves they should just keep doing what they are doing. Another example isthe danger of cycling. We hear about all the tragic stories where cyclists die, yet we don't question automobile culture when people die in car crashes.

Once a bunch of us were visiting a friend who was in the hospital who had been hit by a car and was in really bad shape. We naturally rode our bikes to see him. Someone asked, 'how can you still ride here when your friend was nearly killed? Don't you see how dangerous it is?' I asked them if they drove to the hospital to see friends who were involved in car crashes. That connection had never crossed their mind.

Thoughts on genetically modified foods? Are they less nutritious and should they be avoided?

My biggest issue with GMO is that it takes power away from farmers and it puts it in to the hands of the few- primarily corporations like Monsanto. It's a power struggle and I'd like to see farmers have the self-determination they deserve and not be dependent on a corporation who makes the decisions about seeds, fertilizers and herbicides/pesticides. Like organic, it's a human rights issue.

Can you talk a little about your online documentary series, 'Day in the Life'?

Sasha Perry, the film-maker I work with on Day in the Life, is a good friend of mine and one day we were talking about how we know so many vegan athletes. Then it was obvious we should combine our professions, her as a film-maker and mine as a dietitian, to simply show people that yes, you can be vegan and a competitive athlete. She does a great job so each episode is like mini documentary movie! It's a cool project I'm thankful to be involved in.

Dutch scientists say they have recently created meat from cattle stem cells and the research even has PETA's approval, who claim it would be both more humane and environmentally friendly. Could this be the beginning of the end for the factory farm?

I'm not sure one product will have that effect, but the pieces are falling into place and the momentum is there to significantly reduce the amount of factory farming that happens. Even people who want to continue to eat animals see how harmful it is to treat a living, breathing, feeling being like a commodity.

Name one food item you couldn't live without?

Is a burrito one food? I love burritos so much and I'm not even sure why. Maybe it's because you get to eat the container?

Tofu, tempeh, or seitan?

Yes! Tofu for breakfast, tempeh in sandwiches and seitan in burritos and on pizza!

What are some of your favorite foods for fueling something like a 24 hour race? Do you have a favorite post-ride meal?

The most important part of nutrition for ultra-endurance events is consistency. You need to train with the same foods you race with and also eat consistently while racing. It's one of the biggest mistakes I see- people don't eat enough, then overeat, then get nauseous then quit. I eat a little bit every hour and then eat a 'meal' every 8 hours or so. On the bike I do bananas, dates and whatever is available- I never do drop bags with my own stuff because if I'm paying for a race, I want to eat their food! I once ran the marathon leg of a triathlon on just Clif shots and pretzels. Re post-race, how many times have I said burrito so far? Ha. And I love pizza. I often make my own and the vegan options these days are just unbelievable.

What has been the most physically demanding event you've competed in and what's next for Matt Ruscigno?

Oh man! The Furnace Creek 508 is one of my favorite events- I've done it solo 3 times now. But the last time I was way under-trained. I rode less than someone preparing for a 50-mile fun ride. That was an unfun 40 hours. Usually my suffering is somewhat fun because I've mentally and physically prepared for it. But that last 508 did me in and I didn't think I was ever going to finish. I've been running more and right now I'm signed up for two before the end of this year. I haven't quite figured out ultra-running. I DNF'd at mile 63 on my first attempt, the Zion 100, but I was getting over an injury and only ran a few times in the weeks leading up to it. I love the simplicity of running. And it doesn't come as naturally as cycling does so I definitely have to work harder at it. I like that.
Matt suffering through miles 325-381 of the Furnace Creek 508

Can you describe what your training consists of?

I'm not the best at training. If it's too structured it feels like a job and my punk nature rebels against it. I don't keep a log or wear a heart rate monitor, but I used to, so I have some idea of what I should be doing. I half-heartedly follow base-build-peak, but since I compete in so many different disciplines it's still a schedule that would make Joe Friel cringe. I'm on the very low-end of hours spent training compared to those I race with for sure. I also do yoga and pilates and I'm not scared to admit it!

Is suggesting the bicycle as an alternative form of transportation really a feasible reality or just smug idealism?

Like veganism, we have to do something because depending on personal automobiles and factory farmed animals just isn't sustainable. In Southern California we have freeways that are 14 lanes wide. The wider they get the more people drive- and those cars have to go somewhere when they exit. There just isn't enough space to maintain our current growth. I understand that not everyone can ride a bike, but what if 10% of people did 10% of their trips by bike? That's beneficial to everyone regardless of their own transportation choice. Just look at what Manhattan is doing! They know how valuable space is and are working to reduce automobile dependence. The rest of the country will follow suit, it's just a matter of how soon and how many billions of dollars are wasted in expanding highways meanwhile

It's another election year in which the two major parties and their candidates, both funded by Wall Street and big corporate money, will each offer their own solutions on how to fix the economy. Are any fundamental changes really possible within this context?

Every year it is becoming more clear that the ultra-rich are robbing the rest of us. The sooner we all realize this, the sooner we can make some real changes and improve the lives of the most number of people. Meanwhile we need to create alternative ways to live and exist as examples.

Imagine you're going to be dropped off on a desert island somewhere and you can only take one album, one book, and one movie. What are they?

Let's Get Free by Dead Prez and Siddhartha, that's easy. Not sure my favorite movie. Maybe Shawshank Redemption so I can dream about getting off of the island?

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