Athlete Spotlight: Vegan Hiker Josh Garrett

JPCT-hiker-Josh-Garrettosh Garrett shattered the world record for thru hiking the Pacific Crest Trail in 2013, finishing the grueling 2,650 mile trail in just under 60 days. He credits his vegan lifestyle for quick recovery and the ability to average a phenomenal 45 miles per day! Phytomaniac caught up with Josh after his most recent expedition to the Himalayas (Josh is a vegan hiker and former cross country coach and exercise physiology teacher at Cal State Los Angeles).

Phytomaniac (Ph): How long have you been Vegan ?

JG: I’ve been vegan for five and a half years. My ex girlfriend rescues two lucky turkeys every year at Thanksgiving. After meeting her rescued turkeys in 2011 it didn’t take me long to fall in love with them, and after that my consciousness shifted. It didn’t make any sense to stop eating turkeys but continue eating other animals. It also didn’t feel right to call myself an animal lover while I was eating animals. The day after Thanksgiving that year I watched Forks Over Knives and haven’t eaten animals or animal products since.

Ph: How has being vegan affected your athletic performance ?

JG: It has helped with rebound time. Hard running workouts used to thrash me. It would take me up to three days to recover from them. These days it doesn’t take me that long to recover. I can bounce back at a high intensity in less time. I’m nearing 35 years old and am running faster 5k times than I was in college. My ability to recover on the PCT with so little sleep was incredible. I’d knock out 50-55-mile days for weeks on 3-4 hours of sleep each night. When I woke up each morning my body felt somewhat fresh and ready to go again. I was surprised by that.

Ph: As an exercise physiologist,  what are the challenges you have with athletes relative to diet? Do you include diet in your work with athletes ?

JG: The biggest challenge is that most of the athletes that I’ve worked with have been programmed (as most of us have) to believe that protein exists only in meat and that one needs meat in order to be strong. And most of them are college students, so many of them don’t have an income. That ideology combined with their socioeconomic status leads to them to eat a lot of fast food and other junk. I provide dietary tips often, but influencing change in dietary habits is difficult when working with the college student population. There are other factors involved as well such as familial and peer pressure. Many students live at home, and often with many other family members so eating healthy isn’t always easy when someone else is doing all of the cooking. And when with friends many people just don’t want to go against the grain.

Ph: Have you ever had problems with deficiencies ?

JG: Ironically enough I was mildly anemic when I was in high school, a time when I was eating a lot of meat. The doctor’s orders were to eat more dark green, leafy vegetables and beans. In other words he told me to make a higher percentage of my diet plant-based. That was not a very common recommendation from doctors back then which would have been in the 90’s. Anyway, I’ve been fully plant-based for five and a half years and haven’t had a single deficiency since becoming vegan.

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Courtesy of Trail Runner Nation

Ph: How did you come to know about the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) ?

JG: My uncle introduced me to backpacking. He taught me about gear, how to use a map and compass to navigate, food, hydration, and many more essentials. I went on my first trips in the Sierras with him. One day we were discussing gear, and he mentioned some gear that people who hike the PCT from Mexico to Canada use. I didn’t know that people hiked from Mexico to Canada. I had never heard of the PCT. I couldn’t wrap my head around hiking that far — it seemed like such a long distance. He told me more about the PCT and about the annual PCT kickoff event near the southern terminus of the trail. I was very interested, so we went down to the kickoff in 2008 and met a bunch of thru-hikers. I hiked the first 40 miles of the trail that year and set a goal of thru-hiking the trail the following year, which I did in just over three months.   

Ph: What interested you in setting out to complete the trail?

JG: In 2009 I just wanted the adventure. I felt like I needed to do something big in order to feel like I wasn’t wasting my life. There was a lot that I didn’t know about what was ahead of me on the trail, but the thought of that filled me with excitement and anxiety. That made me feel like I was really living life.

In 2013 I set out with a much more specific purpose — to raise money for Mercy For Animals and to promote veganism by showing what can be done on a vegan diet. I wanted to prove that a vegan diet gives us everything we need for health, strength, and endurance, and I wanted to make the hike worthwhile for the billions of animals suffering on factory farms and in slaughterhouses.

Ph: How did the interest in going for the record come about ?

JG: In 2013 I went on a hike with John Mackey, the Founder and CEO of Whole Foods Market. He was impressed with my hiking ability and offered me a personal sponsorship. He told me that if I was interested in attempting to break the PCT speed record that he would fund the attempt. I didn’t know what to say. I was a bit overwhelmed by his generosity. I thought about it for many days and finally accepted his offer. The pace was definitely something to consider (the record was about 41 miles per day), and that was factored in later when going through the logistics.  

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Mather Pass – Photo credit: Kat Davis – Image courtesy of PCTA

Ph: How did you handle it logistically and how did you prepare?

JG: John Mackey hired a person to meet me at road crossings with food and drinks. Her name is Tish. Tish came over to my house about a week prior to the start of the hike and we plotted out the points on the trail where we were going to meet. She handled all of the logistics as a good support crew should. But she was only one person, and her job was difficult. She had to read all of the maps and navigate those mountain roads and arrive at our meeting points before I did. That’s a stressful job and she was good at it. I think we only missed each other twice, but we knew each other well enough to know what the other person was thinking so we knew to continue on to the next meeting place. I saw her most days. The longest I went without seeing her was the 6-day Sierra stretch from Kennedy Meadows to Reds Meadow.

I physically prepared by doing long hikes in my local Santa Monica Mountains starting one month prior to the PCT hike. All of the hikes were on the Backbone Trail which is a 68-mile trail that runs from Will Rogers State Park west to about Pt. Mugu. I started with 25 mile hikes and ended with 40-45 mile hikes. I’ve always been a distance runner, but nothing prepares you for 40-45-mile hikes with a pack than hiking 40-45 miles with a pack.

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Ph: What issues did you face on the trail ?

JG: Early on in the desert it was so hot, well over 100 degrees, that I couldn’t eat anything as I had no appetite. The body needs fuel in order for it to be able to cool itself, but I was depriving it of fuel, so, on the third day, I collapsed with heat stroke. I remember falling onto my hands and knees, vomiting, and then curling up into the fetal position and shivering uncontrollably. It was over 100 degrees and I was shivering and not sweating a drop. I was unable to move. After a couple of hours I worked up the energy to walk to the road where I was to meet my support. She took me to a hotel and threw me into an ice bath. I stayed in that hotel for 24 hours and convinced myself that the record was out of reach. But after hearing some motivating words from my ex girlfriend and eating some calories I hit the trail and began chipping away at the record little by little. She essentially told me that if I were to quit that I wouldn’t be able to come home. That is, she wouldn’t allow me to. She wasn’t going to let me come home so that I could just sit on the couch and mope about quitting for the rest of the summer. It was tough love that I needed at the time. I am of course very grateful for her. If I had quit then I would have been giving up on the animals and that would’ve been difficult to live with. After that foot calluses and sleep deprivation became the biggest problems. Walking, particularly on rocky terrain was very painful. Every now and then a sharp rock would poke through my shoe in just the right spot and nearly bring me to my knees. Sleep deprivation became so bad that I, on one or two occasions, nodded off while walking. And sleepwalking on some of the more exposed sections of the PCT is particularly dangerous. Luckily I only drifted into a few trees and bushes and not off an edge.  

Ph: What about trail hazards: Rain, lightning, animals, running out of food, giordia, dehydration, cold, snow.

JG: 2013 was a very dry year with very little rain and snow. I think it rained twice from Mexico to Canada. I saw a lot of animals. Bears, deer, rattlesnakes, elk, a porcupine, so many different kinds of birds, and even a young mountain lion. The only issue that I had with animals was with a very curious and bold deer who came into my camp in the middle of the night. I always cowboy camp (sleep outside) when the weather is good, and this will inevitably lead to at least seeing more animals. I’m not sure what this particular deer wanted but she kept getting closer and closer. When she came within five feet of me I stood up and she ran away. To this day I wish that I had stayed on the ground. Perhaps she would have let me touch her.

Ph: What causes are you involved in?

JG: Animal rights and health. Billions of factory-farmed animals are suffering horribly and being slaughtered when we don’t need to eat animals or animal products for health and strength. They need our help desperately. And the leading cause of death among humans in the US is heart disease. It kills about 600,000 people per year. This is a disease that can be reversed and prevented by adopting a whole foods, plant-based diet. Disease is rampant in the US. Diseases such as heart disease, obesity, type 2 diabetes, and certain cancers are dietary-related and can be reversed and treated by adopting a more plant-based diet without medication. Whole plant foods are free of cholesterol and unhealthy fats and contain a lot of fiber, a nutrient that is lacking in the standard American diet. Instead of, “Where do you get your protein?”, the question should be, “Where do you get your fiber?”    

Ph: Do you see veganism growing? Do you see meat eating growing at the same time ?

JG: Veganism is becoming more popular here in the US, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that more people are becoming vegan, though statistically I think more people are. What I see is more people adopting diets that are more plant-based. Their diets now consist of a higher percentage of plant-based foods, but most people don’t want to give up animal products altogether. So what’s happening is that food companies are starting to develop foods that are so similar to meat in texture and taste that one cannot tell the difference. And the meat industry has started to invest in these mock-meat companies because they know that they are the way of the future. And meat is starting to be produced in laboratories. This cultured meat will compete with mock-meat and I’m not sure which will be more popular. Either way it’s a win for animals. And there is a plethora of non-dairy milks, cheeses, ice creams, butters, yogurts out there. There’s even a vegan egg. So there’s obviously a demand for these meat and dairy alternatives because they are selling and Big Meat and Dairy are starting to invest in them. That’s all good news for the animals and for the environment. The negative impact of animal agriculture on the environment is staggering.

Unfortunately, I think meat consumption is increasing globally. As more people in places like Asia become wealthier, meat consumption increases too. But there are awesome groups working in various countries around the world to increase awareness of the benefits of a plant-based diet, and their efforts seem to be well-received.

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Phytomaniac: What issues do we continue to face to get people to move toward veganism? Especially athletes?

JG: Habit, convenience, tradition, and taste. Habits are hard to break. I cut out all animal products out of my diet overnight and never looked back. I don’t miss or crave those foods. Not everyone is that committed and disciplined. Small steps such as Meatless Mondays (leaving meat off the table just one day a week) are great. Sometimes even smaller steps are a good way to start. For example leaving meat off the plate just one meal a week. The recidivism rate among new vegans is unfortunately high. Veganism should not feel hard. It is not hard. But oftentimes people don’t know what to eat or they don’t have time to prepare meals, and they feel like they are limiting themselves too much and don’t want to live that way so they return to their old ways. When people start slowly they are more likely to stay with it. If people want to cheat once in a while then I tell them to cheat. If they find veganism too limiting then they won’t stick with it. Being mostly vegan is better than nothing at all as far as the animals, the environment, and one’s health are concerned. Another big issue is that most people aren’t aware of all of the meat and dairy alternatives that are out there. For every hamburger or grilled cheese sandwich or sausage or pizza or ice cream, there’s a vegan alternative. Those who don’t have veganism on their radar aren’t necessarily aware of that because they aren’t looking for those products. And if people don’t like a particular brand of vegan meat, cheese, or milk, then there are plenty of others to choose from. I think that if people were aware of all of the tasty vegan options out there then they would find veganism more convenient and less limiting, and wouldn’t even feel the need to cheat.

There are always the misconceptions about protein and soy. Most people don’t know that plants contain all nine of the essential amino acids. Most people don’t think about the fact that the animals whom they are eating are vegan themselves. Most people don’t think about the fact that the largest animals (elephants, giraffes, horses, rhinos, hippos) on the planet are sustained by vegan diets. Protein is a non-issue that’s been made into an issue. In fact we as a society eat too much protein. It’s next to impossible to be protein-deficient unless you are starving yourself. The meat and dairy industries want us to think that we’re not getting enough. But milk doesn’t do the body good, and neither does meat, according to the latest research.

Soy gets a bad rap for no good reason at all. Foods like tofu, soybeans, and tempeh have been eaten for thousands of years by many Asian cultures. I’ve traveled all throughout Asia and am yet to see a male with breasts or meet a male struggling with abnormal estrogen levels. Asians tend to be healthier than Americans do. They don’t struggle with the same dietary-related diseases that we do. Only when American food companies such as McDonalds and KFC set up shop in Asia do Asians become unhealthy.

Also, veganism is still associated with tree-hugging and weakness, but that’s starting to change now that more and more athletes and public figures are making their vegan diets public.   

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Phytomaniac: Why is veganism important to you?

JG: Veganism is important to me because animals and the environment are important to me. I believe that enslaving and slaughtering sentient and intelligent beings is wrong, and I try to live in line with my values, so I choose not to participate in those atrocities. Animals want to live. Their lives are important to them. And they have just as much of a right to live as humans do. Everything on this planet — the animals, the air, the oceans and waterways, the soil, the mountains, the forests — would flourish if our species vanished. Knowing that I think that’s it’s important to tread lightly. While we’re here, why not teach our young ones to cause as little harm as possible? Why not teach compassion for all beings, not just some? It would be a kinder world.   

 

Phytomaniac: What’s your best 1500 meters ?

JG: 3:50, the equivalent of a 4:08 mile.

 

Phytomaniac: What’s next for Josh Garrett?

JG: Not sure yet. I just returned from hiking in the Nepal Himalaya, and that was great. I have to reevaluate my life and think about what I really want. I’m afraid it might be time to start getting serious about making a living. But the adventures will continue…

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