Spencer Pumpelly is a pro racer and has been vegetarian since 2003 and a vegan since 2010. He most recently competed in the Rolex 24 at Daytona. Pumpelly also earned an Economics degree from James Madison University. Below is an interview with Spencer.
When did you decide to pursue a plant-based diet?
I first thought about changing my diet in 2003. My father had just had stents and I figured it was time for me to start taking some preventative measures while I could. I was 28 at the time and genetically we are pretty similar so I knew I would be on the same path if I didn’t make a change. I tried eating less junk food and fast food but I found “less” was something that was subjective and before long I was back to my old eating habits.
Then after talking with a friend who was a vegetarian I thought about trying it. I was lucky that there was a veggie burger at the lunch counter at the racing school I was teaching at the time and I was able to go a few weeks successfully. About three weeks later when I was traveling home from a race on a small plane my buddies grabbed food before the flight and we were airborne before I realized turkey was my only option. Not wanting to be hungry for four hours, I went ahead and ate it. The feeling I got in my stomach was so bad I decided right then that I was never eating meat again.
After years of being a vegetarian, I became more familiar with both the health benefits of a 100 percent plant-based diet and the concerns the animals right movement had with all forms of animal products. Going vegan was becoming the clear answer, but I always considered it too difficult given the fact that I am on the road over 150 days out of the year. During one race weekend in 2010, I decided to give it a try just to see if I could do it and of course, just like going vegetarian, it was a lot easier than I had thought. Since then, I have dropped my cholesterol 50 points, I have set personal best times in both the 5K, and 10K, I ran my first ever half marathon, and I had my best season of racing ever taking 5 wins and 10 podium finishes in 16 races. The best part is that I dropped almost 20 pounds – and in racing, teams will spend thousands of dollars to shave 2-3 pounds off the car.
What are some of your favorite foods?
Given my travel schedule I end up eating out a lot. I have found that Moe’s Southwest Grill with their whole grain tortillas, brown rice, tofu, vegan beans, and other whole ingredients is my go to when I can find one. Other good spots are Chipotle, Subway, and I sometimes do Olive Garden’s whole wheat pasta with marinara or even bean burritos at Taco Bell without cheese if I am really stuck. When I am home my wife (who is also a plant eater) and I make lots of fun dishes with fresh ingredients and we have several good vegan friendly restaurants in the Atlanta area where we live like Mellow Mushroom Pizza and Cafe Sunflower.
What sources of protein do you like?
I have to admit I am really into some of the fake meats and I love the 27 grams of protein in the Tofurkey Beer Brats and Gardein Crispy Tenders but I also go for grains like quinoa and I love beans and tofu.
Do you have any particular sources for iron you prefer?
I get a lot of iron from beans and tofu both at home and on the road but I really don’t pay close attention to iron as it is in almost everything I eat.
What do you use for B12?
I use NOW brand liquid B12 drops when I am at home. On the road I really don’t worry much about it as I get a lot when I am at home and my trips are usually 3-4 days at a time. I don’t physically feel a difference from the B12 but I know it is something I need to pay attention to so I don’t want to risk it.
Did you choose to start eating a plant-based diet for health reasons, ethics, or concern about the environment, or all of these considerations?
I started for health reasons for sure but as I have become more aware I can say that both the animal rights concern and the health issues are strong enough arguments alone to go vegan. I think when someone asks me about it I sometimes change my explanation based on what I think he or she will respond to, but all of these considerations are important. I am trying hard to get a leather-free fireproof racing shoe approved by the organizers so there is a lot of concern for animals as well as my racing performance. I think anyone with a sense of justice would have to conclude the status quo needs to be changed when animals are concerned.
Are people in your profession surprised when they find out you don’t eat meat?
Yes, but it is becoming less and less each day. I think “vegan” used to conjure up images of counter-culture types but recently there has been a big change in the number of athletes who are choosing to go plant-based and with that comes more acceptance. Most people don’t understand how physically demanding driving a race car can be but my heart rate can get higher than it does when I run and it stays there for up to a 3 hour stint in the car. The heat is extreme and the mental stress is equally draining. The other racers understand why I am looking for an edge and there are a few others who are or are considering eating plants.
What foods do you take with you when you are traveling?
I take Cliff bars for long plane trips but not much else. We have a great staff on our team that provides meals for the drivers and crew. At the bigger races like last weekend’s Rolex 24 at Daytona we can have 5 cars entered with 4-5 drivers in each car. We had 125 team members so the hospitality team has to be great and they take good care of my food needs at the track.
Were there any particular books, websites or movies that influenced your decision to follow this diet?
I am always finding inspiration from different places. I made this choice based on lots of informational sources and I appreciate all the people who fight for health and compassion with everything they do. I am a big fan of Forks Over Knives and I first heard about Farm Sanctuary through that movie. Farm Sanctuary happens to be 10 minutes from one of the tracks we race on twice a year so I was able to visit them and see the great work they are doing. Mercy for Animals really does a good job of exposing cruelty and I get a lot of good info from PETA and ADAPTT online. I also have read Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer and recommend that to anyone interested in learning more about what they are eating.
Are there any plant-based cookbooks you use currently?
My wife and I are currently going through Sarah Kramer’s cookbook La Dolce Vegan! Vegan Livin’ Made Easy and so far everything has been excellent. The veggie loaf has been our favorite so far. We cook at home when we can but with lots of great options in our area we eat out a good bit too.
Image Credit: Jeffrey Keeton from Birmingham, USA