Can you run long distances just eating plants?

Sisters Heather and Gemma Gordon attribute their high performance to a vegan diet

The Atacama Crossing is a gruelling week-long, 250km race over the driest place on Earth. Known as one of the world's toughest endurance races, competitors battle against brutal climate conditions, terrain compared to Mars, and altitudes that average 8,000ft.

However, none of these facts was enough to deter two Irish vegan sisters who took on the challenge last month.

Heather and Gemma Gordon, from Roscrea, Co Tipperary, competed among elite athletes as they experienced the unique Chilean landscape of salt lakes, lava flows, volcanoes and sand dunes.

They took on distances of between 38km and 76km each day after travelling two hours from San Pedro de Atacama 10,000ft into the desert the day before the race.


Heather (26) hadn’t started running when she learned about the race through her sister Gemma (28) – and only took up the sport about two years ago.

“I walked into Gemma’s room at home and she had this map on the ground and she’d her laptop open on the 4Deserts race series. At the time, I wasn’t even running and she was barely running,” she explains.

“I couldn’t understand why anyone on earth would want to do one of those races. I thought it was ridiculous, but she said, ‘one day I’m going to do one of these races’.”

Slow and long runs

The pair decided to sign up in February last year and Heather gradually built up her training after securing their entry to the race last winter.

“We kept it really quiet till about last December when we started properly training for it, just slowly building up the mileage with slow and long runs. I spent all winter going out in the dark weekends and the dark mornings before work,” she recalls.

“As well as the distance, I was building up the frequency of my runs. Earlier in the year, I did a week where I ran 130km – in March, I ran every single day. In the summer, I started training with my backpack and the weight on my back.

“I finished my training the bank holiday weekend in August. I ran 100km over the three days with 10kg on my back and after that I just tapered off, did more training with my backpack and we both did a lot of bikram yoga as well.”

The pair did all of their training “on empty” and changed very little in their diet, eating plant-based, whole foods as normal.

Gemma, a PhD candidate in neuroscience at Kings College London, said being vegan was "never a concern at all" as she had researched running on a plant-based diet before adapting to it three years.

"I was on the LSE (London School of Economics) university running team. I wanted to continue trying to be vegan, but I didn't want it to affect my health. Back then I really researched vegan athletes like Rich Roll, Scott Jurek, " she says.

“I looked into what they were eating and over the past three years, have modelled my diet loosely on what they eat. That was already in motion before the desert race, so nothing really changed dramatically.”

Training on empty

Heather, who works in finance recruitment in Dublin, says their training on empty stood to her when she was too sick to eat in the days leading up to the event and when it began.

“We’d get up in the morning and do our training first so our body was always running on empty and fat-adapted so it was burning fat as opposed to needing food to run,” Heather explains.

“We got our bodies used to getting up in the morning and running 20km, 30km on nothing. At the beginning, I was more hungry, but as the months went on my body got more used to performing with no food. I literally haven’t been hungry in months which is unbelievable.

“I was very conscious of making sure I was eating enough because I was never hungry. If I waited till I got hungry to eat, I’d have been waiting days.

“Day one of the race was a baptism of fire. It was just insane. I hadn’t eaten for three days and I was so nauseous I couldn’t even think about food – then we got caught in a horrific sandstorm. The winds were the guts of 100km/h.

“There were whirlwinds of sand and rocks hitting you on your arms and legs. We started to wonder what we were doing there and everyone else was so experienced. It was really tough. I survived the whole day on just an energy bar.”

Athletes must be self-sufficient during the race and are provided with no food, just boiling water. The sisters spoke to vegan athletes who had taken on the challenge in the past to get advice on how to sustain themselves on a plant-based diet while competing.

“We did a lot of research and I found companies that specialise in vegan freeze-dried meals. You can’t cook and they just give you hot water, so freeze dried meals are what everyone eats. We sourced ours from a really good company called Outdoor Herbivore. The ingredients are organic and natural,” Gemma says.

As the race continued, Heather and Gemma felt their strength increase as others struggled. Their finishing places improved as the week went on, with Gemma taking first in the under-30s age group and Heather behind her in second place (the overall female winner was 37-year-old German Angela Zaeh).

The Gordons attributed their quick recovery to their plant-based diet. “The long stage was on day five, 76km, which ran into the next day because the cut-off was 8am the next morning. We both finished really strongly that day and got to sleep the whole night, then had the next day completely off,” Heather recalls.

“Most competitors didn’t come in till the early hours of the morning. That was both of our best days. We’d covered 160km in the four days before that. Gemma finished ninth that day and I finished 21st.

“We just got better and stronger each day. We started off down the rankings and just climbed up and up. People were asking where we get our energy from. A massive part of it was our ability to recover really quickly – how fast your body can recover overnight so that you can go out and run the next morning with 12kg on your back.

“That’s due to our diet that our bodies are able to recover that fast. We never had any injuries. We had fresh legs every morning and never got really fatigued.

“The guy who won the race [American Alexander Mangold] is also vegan and he won every single day of the race. He’s 43 and just went vegan in the last couple of years and his athletic performance has gone through the roof.”

Cold weather

Gemma found the weather difficult, but promises the challenge isn’t just for “gifted” athletes. “I don’t like cold weather and, at night, a couple of times it dropped below zero. Water bottles turned to ice. For me, that was really tough. Some nights, you’re just lying awake. You can’t stretch or move too much because you’re in a tight sleeping bag. You’re trying to stay warm. Once the sun came out and it heated up it was fine.

“Running was the simplest thing. I found training more stressful – trying to manage work, emails, you’re thinking about things when you’re running. You’re trying to juggle things.

“When you’re out there [in the Atacama Crossing race] you’re just running. All you have to do is run, eat and sleep. I found it quite meditative just running all day,” she says.

“When I first heard about it, it sounds extremely intimidating. It sounds like something that’s only for elite athletes or special, gifted people. I have learnt that if you try to make small changes and try your best to commit to them and stick to it, it’s those little small, consistent changes that help you achieve bigger things.”

Race days: what the Gordon sisters did

The race began at 8am each morning after a race briefing advising athletes of what lay ahead for that day.

Before leaving, Heather and Gemma would eat a breakfast of shop-bought granola to get in some “real food”.

“For breakfast, I brought granola that I bought in the supermarket just because it was real food and there was lots of nuts in it which are really high in calories and good for energy,” Heather explains. “It was really nice just to have some real food every morning.”

Athletes must pack a minimum of 2,000 calories for each day of the race – but the pair only consumed about 1,500 to 1,600 a day.

“We had one, maybe two bars during the race and in the evenings we’d have dinner. We probably ate less than everyone. Most of the athletes were on 3,000 plus calories a day,” Heather recalls.

They sourced their energy bars from Near to Nature, a Limerick company that makes natural, plant-based snack bars containing ingredients such as hemp and tumeric.

The sisters would eat one or two of these throughout the day as they took on distances of 38km-76km.

“They were like our snack bars during the day. We wouldn’t even eat that many of them. We’d have one, maybe two, which wasn’t a lot at all compared to most other competitors who tried to get 100 calories in per hour,” Heather explains. “We were having about 300 calories over the whole day.”

In the evening they chose from a range of freeze-dried meals they packed which were high in protein – causing them to be the envy of the camp.

“They actually were very nice as well. The others’ meals were really bland and tasteless and they never really enjoyed eating them, whereas ours smelt great, looked great and tasted great. There was no rubbish in them either.”