National Senior Games: Screaming Vegan Quietly on the National Stage
As the author of six vegan books, my publisher’s favorite line is “it takes decades to be an overnight success.” I have struggled with this one impatiently over the years trying to figure out new ways to get the message out. I've been a runner as long as I've been vegan… 41 years. I always s considered myself a middle of the packer… Not very fast but at least I could finish a 5K.
When I moved to Florida in 2004, I started going to local running club training sessions and befriended the coach of the girls’ cross country and track team at Manatee high school. She said, “you're clocking 8-minute miles. Why don't you come help me coach the girls and run with them in cross country?” I started entering races and joked that the reason I started winning my age group is because nobody else showed up. Although I realized that's not entirely true because as people retire to Florida, I would run into women who had nothing better to do than hire a UCLA coach to train them for events like the National Senior Games (NSG) which I started entering in 2013.
NSG offers competitive events that are available at the summer "real" Olympics every other year for anyone over the age of 50. Whenever I ran, I always wore my bright yellow neon shirt that had the cover of my first book “Eat Vegan on $4 a Day.” At one race circa 2011 when this book came out, someone came up and indignantly said, “You can't run on a vegan diet or race on a vegan diet!” We got into a lively conversation and in that moment the challenge was born to see just how many races I could place in. As of this writing, I’ve placed in 254 5K or longer races for my age group since 2006 “just” on plants. Seth Tibbott, the founder and CEO of Tofurkey, seeing social media posts, wrote, “What an inspiring and heroic journey you are on! I love reading about your mission to demonstrate the vitality of a vegan diet. Thank you for your pioneering work in the running community! Your story is both sexy and magazine cover worthy! Good luck and congrats on carrying on this noble mission.”
In May, I competed in my 4th National Senior Games. I was as I have been in the past, the only woman in my age group to compete in all seven track events: the 50, 100, 200, 400, 800, 1500 meters and 4x100 meter relay. This year, because I was one of the youngest in my 5 year 70–74-year-old age group, my odds were good and I placed in three of those seven races.
I’ve rationalized that the entire distance of all those races is less than a 5K, which is 3.1 miles. I got 3rd in the 800 meters. I was in the lead for first place the entire two laps until the last 100 meters when I dropped back, 6th in the 1500 meters, and 2nd in the relays. I do this because even racers who are faster than me say, “I could never do all that. What stamina.” It has all been to show vegans get plenty of protein, have plenty of strength, and mainly to address some of the local pushback I’ve received over the years. Hopefully, my racing results have set the record straight and prove to all who see vegans at these mainstream events, plants enhance.
Two months before the games, the largest online website for free classes for those over 50, Get Set Up, asked if I would be their first sponsored athlete. They paid my way in exchange for my social media posts and wearing their shirt (though I still wore my “vegan” headband). Our message is getting though.
The mainstream is definitely noticing. The Observer in SW Florida chose me as Athlete of the Week, and Great Vegan Athletes did a nice bit too. As I hashtag: #runningismyactivism. I hope you find a way you can get involved being the voice for the voiceless as well, whatever your skill or passion!
-Ellen Jaffe Jones