Friday, April 20, 2012


One year ago, I finished reading Brendan Brazier's Thrive: The Vegan Nutrition Guide to Optimal Performance in Sports and Life and decided I was going to give a vegan diet a try. As with any nutrition book, this one made some pretty big claims, and the only way to verify them was to see for myself.

It wasn't that much of a stretch for me, really. I was already eating a pretty healthy and plant-intensive diet by that point. And I'd been toying with the idea of going vegetarian or vegan for a while. That's probably obvious, since I probably wouldn't have chosen to read that particular book otherwise.

So what started out as an experiment turned into a way of eating that I've decided I enjoy. I've been feeling better than I ever have before, and there are environmental and humanitarian benefits as well.

Here are some of my experiences from my first year of veganism.

It isn't hard. Many people expect that removing animal products from one's diet would be difficult. It really isn't that big of a deal. I eat nearly all of my meals at home or at work, so I have a lot of control over what foods I have at my disposal, and that helps. Sure, you have to pay more attention to what you buy at the grocery store or order at a restaurant. But it's probably a good idea to pay more attention to those things anyway.

And these days, there are so many options out there that you don't really miss anything. So-called plant-based food substitutes aren't going to taste exactly like their animal product counterparts. But if you forget about trying to make the comparison and enjoy the vegan foods for what they are, it's a great opportunity to enhance your culinary horizons.

It makes good choices easier. I used to struggle with the temptation to eat deserts at work that I knew I shouldn't have. Since the sweets our food service makes almost always contain dairy or eggs, I don't even have to think about it anymore. I just have a piece of fruit. There are plenty of vegan desert options out there (Whole Foods has some awesome house-made vegan chocolate chip cookies), but you generally have to make a conscious effort to seek them out. So it's easy to make those kinds of foods a special treat instead of a vice.

As for the main part of the meal, it's a no-brainer to choose healthy foods when the biggest sources of unhealthy fats are eliminated. One could still make sub-optimal choices by overdoing it on refined grains, etc., but I never feel guilty from over-indulging on vegetables. My typical lunch involves a salad of epic proportions dressed with mustard and balsamic vinegar. But I change things up, depending on what's on the menu. Today I had roasted cauliflower, sauteed greens with heirloom tomatoes and portobello mushrooms, and steamed wax beans. To me, that's a great meal.

It makes me feel great. Brazier's book claims that, among other things, a plant-based diet would reduce stress hormones in the body, increase energy levels, improve recovery time between workouts, and reduce the need for sleep by improving the quality of rest. These were the things that I wanted to verify. I don't know about my cortisol levels, but everything else seems to have been accurate.

These days, I get five days of strenuous exercise each week. I run on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays; I get a good workout on my bike on Wednesdays; and I go hiking on Sundays. Mondays and Fridays are my rest days. And while I can usually still feel the effects of my Saturday run when I'm out hiking, I never feel so fatigued that I'd rather skip any of these activities. So improved recovery time between workouts: check.

Aside from that, I bike to work daily, and I get through the day just fine with no caffeine. I do a fair job of keeping up with the kids and all the other demands of everyday life. Improved energy levels: check.

Given the compromises required between my schedule and those of the rest of my family, I have to do all of my workouts early in the morning before I take my daughter to school. That means having to wake up at 4:30 4 days a week. Lately I find myself waking up at that time on days when I don't have to. Granted, I typically go to sleep around 10:00, but I'm still firing on all cylinders with 6.5 hours of sleep per night. Compared to the 8 or more that I used to require, that's pretty good. Reduced need for sleep: check.

One unexpected side-effect of the dietary change happened within a month or two. I lost interest in drinking alcohol. I mean, I still enjoy a good beer or scotch now and then. But what had been a night cap every night has become a small glass once every few weeks. I might have a beer after a long day on the trail or when hanging out with friends (I don't get out often). But a New Belgium folly twelve-pack lasts in our fridge for months.

It is complete nutrition. People worry about whether a vegan diet can provide everything a body needs. Can you get enough protein, calcium, iron, and B12 without eating animal products? Yes, you can. In the interest of full disclosure, I do take a B12 supplement, but everything else comes from more-or-less normal food. I've had blood tests taken to check for everything that can be checked, and I'm not deficient in anything.


A lot of people say that they come to veganism for the health benefits, but they stick with it for the ethics. Having a positive impact on the environment and taking cruelty to animals out of the food supply chain are pretty big motivators. As for me? I guess that is a major part of it too. But now that the experiment is over, I'm really sticking with my vegan diet for the super powers.

Vegan Academy - Unlocking Human Potential from Jack Sam on Vimeo.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

A Better Place

The other day Jim said, "It would be really cool to be in a band that plays music that makes people happy." I'll never be in a band, but I agree that improving the lives of the people around you is a worthwhile pursuit.

Anyway, it got me thinking about music that makes me happy. When it comes to groups that are making that kind of music, I initially thought that the first obvious choice for me would be VNV Nation.

But I started thinking the whole thing over while I was out running. It occurred to me that I'm not sure their music makes me happy, per se. What it does is inspires a sense of hope that we can fight and work to make the world a better place.

Is Hope the same thing as Happiness? What is happiness, anyway?

That's quite a can of worms to be opening. I can't even begin to weigh in on the subject with an original contribution. Aristotle argued that happiness is the result of a life well-lived. As such, it isn't something that we can experience directly, but rather something that may describe a life once it is complete. It has been likened to an orchestral performance [1]: if the orchestra botches it in the final movement, the concert can hardly be called well-played. It is only a good performance once it has been completed well.

I think I mostly buy that. And if it's accurate, then the best we can do in life is work toward a happy end state. To me that means
  1. Taking care of the people I love.
  2. Experiencing all of the good things that I can.
  3. Learn something positive from negative experiences.
  4. Trying to inspire others to do these things also.
One of my core beliefs is that health, physical activity, and adventure lead to a more fulfilling existence. That's what Self-powered Life is all about.

Years ago, the slogan one would hear and read around wilderness areas was "Take only pictures, leave only footprints." But after a while, conservationists discovered that all of those footprints were wearing out our national parks and forests. So the current rallying cry is "Leave no trace." That's a pretty good policy, but we also have to undo some traces left by others. There's the odd bit of rubbish on the trail-side, dropped (I prefer to think) on accident, and it's just good citizenship to pick it up and pack it out.

I personally find litter terribly offensive. And yet in populated areas it's so common as to almost be invisible. But once you start noticing it, it can be maddening. And I've always assumed that there's some division of the municipal government that was responsible for picking it all up. But if that's the case, they're understaffed and overworked. At an intersection which I regularly pass while riding to work or running, I saw the same discarded YooHoo bottle sitting there for weeks. And the only time it moved was when it got blown off of a retaining wall and into the gutter.

So why not, I decided, bring some of the backcountry trail ethics to the urban environment? Along multi-use paths and in parks, one is seldom very far from a trash can; it is little inconvenience for a runner to snatch up a piece of trash and drop it in the nearest bin. So that is what I have resolved to do. Each time I go out running, I started cleaning up some litter along the way. I can't pick up all of it, but as they say across the pond, every little helps.

What if everyone did that? What if everyone identified some small measure that could be taken to incrementally improve our world, and then acted on it? Mahatma Gandhi said, "You must be the change you want to see in the world." I'd love to see what would happen if we all decided that we can and will make a difference to make the world a better place.

[1] Ten Philosophical Mistakes, by Mortimer Adler

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Cheating on Spring

We thought we had parted ways with Winter, put it out of our thoughts as we passed idyllic afternoons in the warm company of Spring. But Winter came to town for a visit, and we went rushing back like it's some kind of bygone romantic interest that we haven't entirely put behind us.

By "we" I mean the community of outdoor enthusiasts. This weekend has seen one of Colorado's typical Spring swings that brought cold rain to the lower elevations and snow to the mountains. (Why is there never warm rain here?) For some, this weekend was one last chance to hit the slopes for a bit of skiing before we're decisively in shorts-and-t-shirt territory. For me, it was an opportunity to give a winter hike to Chasm Lake one more try.

But let me back up just a bit.

Earlier in the winter, I wrote about being turned back while attempting to reach Chasm Lake. The weather was pretty bad, the trail was completely obscured, and I wasn't adequately prepared. Last month I went back on a nice, if overcast day and made it as far as Peacock Pool. Just past the pool there is a snow field on a steep slope which I was able to traverse. But the last pitch up to the lake, also covered in snow, intimidated me enough that I decided to call it a day. I needed more gear to tackle that one.

Yesterday, while the ladies were at dance class and a birthday party, my son and I went into Denver to the Wilderness Exchange. I really like that place. It's a half-retail and half-consignment shop for outdoor equipment right around the corner from REI. While I was talking to a salesman about how to choose the right sized ice ax, M had pulled a map out of the bargain box and was showing us the route to a lake and a nearby "spooky cave." The salesman told me all about crampons and the pros and cons of aluminum vs. stainless steel. The boy and I walked out somewhat poorer but much better equipped for that icy incline that has been nagging me for the past month.

I woke up at 4:25 this morning without an alarm. I ate some steel-cut oats I'd put in the slow-cooker the night before, and was on the road an hour later. On highway 36 between Boulder and Lyons, I saw a small herd of elk, and then a herd of deer. I was driving up the South Saint Vrain canyon, just approaching the elevation line that divided the previous night's rain from snow, when the sun came up and bathed the mountains in alpenglow. It's pretty to see from a distance; it's absolutely magical to be in the middle of it.

New snow had begun to flurry by the time I reached the otherwise empty parking lot. Longs and Meeker were enshrouded in clouds. Above treeline, the snow was blowing hard enough to make me break out the goggles and balaclava. But enough snow had melted away that I was able to make out the trail reasonably well most of the time. I had told myself that it was a waste of time and energy to bring my camera gear. There would be no good views. But of course I hauled it in anyway.

Wearing my new crampons, I felt all wobbly, like a girl wearing high heels for the first time. But ice ax in hand, trying to remember everything YouTube has taught me about self-arrest, I forged through the new snow on the traverse above Peacock Pool, and finally got to climb that slope to Chasm Lake.

The wind was whipping little shards of ice all around me. I sat with my back to the lake to eat a snack before heading back toward the ranger station. I was thoroughly exhausted already, not yet recovered from a 20-mile run the previous morning. The hike out was uneventful, though the wind abated only after I had reached treeline again.

The sun broke through for a little while, and I saw other people on the trail for the first time some way below Goblins Forest. From the parking lot, Estes Cone was briefly visible. But the clouds moved back in by the time I was pulling out. I never did see Longs or Meeker, even while I was right at their base. And I didn't snap a single photograph.

I'm not entirely sure if I enjoyed it, but it was awesome.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Springtime Hiking

Lately I've been kind of quiet here on SPL about my hiking day trips. Mostly, I felt like the weekend recap posts were getting kind of monotonous. But I've not stopped my Sunday forays into the foothills and mountains of Colorado.

In the last month or so, I've hiked on the Chasm Lake trail in RMNP; the Nighthawk and Button Rock trails in Lyons; to Estes Cone in RMNP; and the Beaver Brook/Gudy Gaskill trails in Golden.

Of these trails, only Estes Cone and Beaver Brook were entirely new to me. The latter, hiked last Sunday, was an especially nice trail, I think. And there's nothing quite like the smell of dirt and pine needles warming in the sun of a perfect Spring morning. On the other trails, I was able to explore sections I hadn't reached before.

Incidentally, I think getting to the trailhead for the Beaver Brook hike was the first time I've driven a vehicle on Lookout Mountain Road. It was kind of a strange experience and really made me miss my road bike.

And I've been working on getting used to my new camera. While I'm not yet the photographer I would like to be, I think the quality of my pictures is generally improving. Some of the shots above (the self-portraits and panoramas) were taken with my phone, but the others were with a Canon 60d. I feel like I need to start hitting the trail a little earlier to get better light, and my post-processing skills could definitely use some work.

There are plenty of cool things to do around here that can be accomplished in a single day. But it's hard to keep my mind off of the bigger adventures that I'm planning for the summer. All in all, I've got a lot of things to keep my enthusiasm high. I just wish there were more time to do all the things I love doing.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012


It is possible to believe that we can make everything even better without believing that nothing is ever good enough.

Not everyone can be a leader. Not everyone will achieve greatness. But anyone can strive to inspire those around them.

"Not bad" is a double-negative. If someone asks how you're doing and you're feeling good, just say so.

There are plenty of tough days. But on an absolute scale, very few days are actually all that bad.

It's easier to add something awesome to life than it is to make all the difficult things go away.

The right attitude is something which must be crafted, practiced, mindfully cultivated. Skepticism can be healthy, and cynicism can sometimes be funny. But apathy and negativity can only poison the spirit. Unfortunately, it took having the worst day of my life to make me realize that things are usually pretty good. And the good things in life must be treated with respect and appreciation. The more I look for beauty in the world around me, the more I find. I humbly stand in awe of the wonders that surround me.