Powered by Plants, Ultra-Endurance Athlete Colin O’Brady Solo Transverses Antarctica
Feeling overheated lately? You are not alone–with temps and temperaments rising across the country, you're probably craving an ice-cold lemonade or air-conditioner on high. We follow The Beet’s Awesome Vegans interviewer Elysabeth Alfano, to Antarctica, or at least her interview with the ultra-endurance athlete and author of The Impossible First Colin O’Brady.
If you haven’t heard of O'Brady, here are just a few of his accomplishments: He is a ten-time endurance world record holder and represented the United States on the ITU Triathlon World Cup circuit, racing in 25 countries on six continents. In 2016 he set the Explorers Grand Slam and Seven Summits speed records. He became the fastest person to complete the adventurer's challenges (in 139 days and 131 days, respectively). In 2018, O'Brady set the speed record for the 50 US High Points in 21 days.
O'Brady tells The Beet about his two most recent extreme endeavors, explaining how he became the first person in history to cross Antarctica unassisted (although many have tried). In conditions of 24 hours of daylight (making it difficult to sleep), windchills of negative 80 degrees, and almost complete and total isolation while pulling a sled of food and supplies weighing over 370 pounds, O'Brady achieved the unimaginable: traversing of Antarctica on his resources alone. He credits his plant-based diet as the reason for his success where others have failed. He wasn’t the most experienced to try it, he explains, and everyone who has made the attempt trains equally hard. However, O'Brady found himself actually getting stronger as the days progressed, which he says was a factor of his diet.
Many plant-based professional athletes believe that a diet free of meat and dairy helps them to recover faster and perform better, particularly when coming back from injury or as they get older. Vegan Olympian Dotsie Bausch competed in cycling at the age of 39.5, taking home the Silver, and Tom Brady continues to play football well into his 40s now starting for Tampa Bay after winning six Super Bowl rings with the Patriots.
“Plant-based diets may offer performance advantages. They have consistently been shown to reduce body fat, leading to leaner body composition. Because plants are typically high in carbohydrates, they foster effective glycogen storage," according to a new study released by the National Institute of Health, and authored by Drs. Neal Barnard and James Loomis, the former doctor for the St. Louis Rams.
"Because many vegetables, fruits, and other plant-based foods are rich in antioxidants, they help reduce oxidative stress," the study explains. "Diets emphasizing plant foods have also been shown to reduce indicators of inflammation. These features of plant-based diets may present safety and performance advantages for endurance athletes.”
For O'Brady, a plant-based diet turned out to be what made the impossible possible. Here is a portion of Elysabeth’s interview with Colin O’Brady on making history by crossing Antarctica unassisted.
Elysabeth: I love that you decided to take on the personal challenge. So, tell me, I think you said it was fifty-four days, give me the conditions. You’re pulling something that’s like three hundred fifty pounds. It’s negative eighty degrees. What kind of challenges do you face on a daily basis when taking on something like that?
Colin O’Brady: "Yeah, the average temperature in Antarctica is about minus twenty-five, minus thirty, but the wind chill, as you mentioned, you know, it’s fifty or sixty miles per hour winds, so it can definitely get up to minus seventy and minus eighty. So, I’m pulling my sled with all my supplies in it. The sled started out weighing about 375 pounds. And from the food and the vegan angle, one of the most interesting pieces was how to maximize that weight, or basically how to maximize the best food and nutrition I could have in the sled without making my sled too heavy, because the people who had attempted previously, one person made it nine hundred miles and then fell ill and ultimately died a hundred miles from completing the crossing. Another guy attempted the crossing and ran low on food and supplies and had to be rescued.
"So, there’s kind of this complicated math equation of how much you can pull. Obviously, if you just brought as much food as you wanted you would have a thousand-pound sled and you could never move it on the first day. I worked with this company called Standard Process which is a whole foods supplement company to create this basically, specific plant-based food for me that they nicknamed the Colin Bars. We spent a year in a food science lab actually studying all my physiology, all my sort of metrics on my body and we came up with that.
"And although I have kind of opted towards a more plant-based and vegetarian diet throughout my life, I didn’t start them on that premise and say “hey this has to be plant-based.” I said “let’s look at all the options and see how we can optimize this. After all the research, all the testing, all the top doctors working on it, there were about twenty PHDs and doctors working on this, what they came up with that was the actual most optimal solution for my body, for my health, for my sustained endurance was entirely plant-based.
"And where a lot of people have attempted this project in the past, going back a hundred years, people have used something called pemmican which is essentially like bacon and animal fats and things like that. What they found over time-and kind of one of the reasons I was able to do this and no one in history had ever been able to complete it-was that over a long duration of time all that animal protein and fats were leading to some long term problems for people as the body got more weak and diminished. Whereas with me, I’m on a fully plant-based solution.
"Of course, people (who attempted this in the past) were losing weight because no one could carry enough calories to replenish all the calories. I myself was actually getting stronger and stronger and my body was recovering faster in between the days with a more, clean plant-based diet. I would attribute that to the huge amount of success in Antarctica.
EA: I’ve interviewed so many plant-based athletes and they all say the same thing, that they recover so much quicker and that allows them to get right back at it and either train or actually perform faster, harder. Is that true for you?
CO: "Yeah, it was amazing. I continue my work with the company. Also, we created a new derivative of the bars for my most recent crossing, the Drake Passage crossing with a rowboat. Same thing, completely vegan for that crossing as well, which was rowing a boat seven hundred miles from the southern tip of South America to Antarctica. You know, (that’s) 30 and 40-foot swells, icebergs, you know in a tiny rowboat, no motor, just me and five other people propelling it ourselves. And, you know, I was completely vegan for that project as well, and again it worked incredibly well, and again, that was something no one in history had ever completed either.
"So, it just goes to show people have attempted these various different challenges and expeditions over time and, you know, I think the mindset is key. I think other pieces of training are key, but nutrition is certainly one of the key factors. Being able to work with this incredible lab of people and Standard Process’s nutrition innovation center and come up with these plant-based solutions has been amazing to see what I’ve been able to do."
Maybe pulling a 375-pound sled across Antarctica by yourself for over 50 days in windchills of up to negative 80 isn’t your idea of a good time, but a whole-foods plant-based diet can help the weekend athlete have faster recovery times, stay uninured and keep on winning. It isn’t just professionals who benefit from less inflammation and faster recovery and you, too, can get your game on!