In each issue Vegetarians in Paradise presents the 24 Carrot Award to an outstanding person or organization that endeavors to practice or promote education, natural health, wholesome nutrition, and ecology techniques for the mutual benefit of humans, animals, and the earth.
Vegetarians in Paradise proudly presents its 24 Carrot Award to Ruth Heidrich, renowned ironman athlete, author, radio personality, and breast cancer survivor who has been an inspiration to vegetarians around the world. Ruth clearly exemplifies the positive aspects of a vegan lifestyle.
What follows are the questions asked by Vegetarians in Paradise (VIP) and the answers by Ruth Heidrich (RH).
VIP: What events in your life led you to vegetarianism? How long have you been on a vegan diet?
RH: There was one event that changed my life forever -- the diagnosis of breast cancer. In two hours I went directly from the Standard American Diet (SAD) to a low-fat, whole food vegan diet in July, 1982, 22 years ago. This happened within days of the diagnosis, because, luckily, I'd read about a research study on the role of diet and cancer being conducted by John McDougall, MD.
I decided I'd rather change my diet than undergo chemotherapy and radiation. With that "medical gun" to my head, it was an easy choice. I never went through a transition of vegetarianism on the way to vegan because the research protocol required the immediate elimination of all animal products.
VIP: What role has your diet played in your battle with cancer?
RH: I'm convinced that a vegan diet saved my life. By the time the breast cancer was diagnosed, it had become advanced and spread to my bones and left lung.. I'd had the surgery to remove the primary tumor, so I was depending on my immune system to handle the remaining cancer. My diet of 100% whole plant foods allowed my immune system to function more efficiently.
VIP: You have encountered many doctors in your lifetime. What are some of their reactions to your diet and exercise programs?
RH: First, my oncologist stated that diet had nothing to do with cancer. All the other physicians I saw, including radiologists, gastroenterologists, and other oncologists, all claimed that my SAD diet had nothing to do with my getting breast cancer. The gastroenterologist claimed I couldn't possibly get all the required nutrients on this vegan diet. Most of these doctors also thought that running was too hard on the joints, doing marathons and triathlons was excessive, and that I should be "taking it easy, and getting lots of rest." At that point I'd been a daily runner for 14 years and was already a marathoner. I didn't even tell them that I had already started training for the Ironman Triathlon, determined to be the first cancer patient to complete the Ironman.
VIP: We understand that you are also a raw food devotee? How much of your diet is raw? What were the primary influences that led you in that direction?
RH: After 18 years as a cooked vegan, I decided to see if there were additional benefits to being a raw vegan. I'd heard lectures that cooking food denatured protein and destroyed vitamins, so I gave it a 30-day trial but forgot and didn't notice when the 30 days were up. I've never been tempted to go back to cooking.
I found two major advantages. First, it made meal preparation so much easier, saving me time, electricity, and pot-scrubbing. Second, I found that fresh fruits and vegetables tasted so good that I didn't miss the taste of cooked food. My diet is all raw except for condiments such as salsa and mustard, popcorn for the "munchies," and occasionally as a special occasion when I'm invited over to a friend's home or a restaurant..
VIP: What motivated you originally to enter the Ironman Triathlon? Could you describe the three events involved in the Triathlon?
RH: When I was discharged from the hospital after my surgery and before going back to work, I just happened to turn on the TV and saw the broadcast of the February 1982 running of the Ironman. I was immediately totally transfixed. I watched all these young, fit athletes coming out of the ocean after a 2.4 mile swim, jump on their bicycles for a 112-mile bike race, and then take off running to then complete a marathon, 26.2 miles. Because I'd done several marathons, I thought that I had the hardest part handled and could easily add swimming and cycling.
I found, however, that those long distances involved in the swimming and cycling were a major challenge and were going to take a lot of hard work. When I found that then no woman as old as I (47, at the time) had ever done the Ironman, and certainly no cancer patient, that was all it took! With the added cycling and swimming to my daily running, I discovered that I felt even fitter and stronger than I did before the cancer diagnosis.
VIP: Could you give our readers a summary of your principal athletic accomplishments?
RH: Because I was a marathoner before the cancer, I decided that I'd do whatever it took to maintain that level of fitness throughout the cancer crisis. My last run with an intact body was the morning of my surgery, and my next run was two mornings later. I had already entered a 15 kilometer race before the diagnosis, so four days later, I won my first post-cancer gold medal with my slightly less "intact" body. With my new diet and a decision to re-invent the stereotypical image of a "cancer patient," I was on a roll. I entered every race I could find. I once did two races back-to-back, a 5 K run at 7 am, and a triathlon at 8 am, and got gold in both races. I did races both Saturday and Sunday, despite the admonitions from coaches that I couldn't possibly recover in that short a time. I did three marathons in three weeks, one of which was an ultramarathon of 50 kilometers (31 miles).
Another gold was won in the Run To The Sun when I raced the 37 miles from sea level to the top of Haleakala on the island of Maui, 10,200 feet altitude. I did three Ironman Triathlons (Kona, Hawaii, New Zealand, and Japan) all in the same year, another feat thought at that time to be impossible. It was actually four in 12 months because I'd done Kona both before, in late October, and after the New Zealand and Japan Ironmans in early October.
My record so far is 62 races in one year, a total of six Ironman Triathlons, and more than 67 marathons. I'm getting close to 1,000 first place medals in all the years since the dietary change and the cancer diagnosis. I've also been named "One of the Ten Fittest Women in North America" and set three age-group fitness records at the famed Cooper Clinic/Aerobics Center in Dallas, Texas.
VIP: What athletic events are on your current schedule?
RH: Aside from all the regular 5 K and 10 K races, I'm working on a book, Running 'Round the World, which will have photos of running in some of the most exciting spots in the world. I already have running on the Great Wall of China, Stonehenge, the Royal Mile in front of the Edinburgh Castle in Scotland, under the gigantic faces of Jefferson, Washington, Lincoln, and Roosevelt at Mt. Rushmore, the lowest point, 282 ft below sea level in Death Valley, in front of the Hubbard Glacier, and runs in more than 30 different countries.
This year I plan on running in Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and Finland and hope to get some great running photos in front of fjords and more castles. I've also been invited back to the Cooper Clinic to try to set a new record for the 65-69 age group.
VIP: What dietary and exercise regimen do you follow in a typical day?
RH: A typical day starts with an hour on the bike, an hour's run, and alternating between either a mile swim or a weight training session. Then breakfast consists of a large bowl filled with greens, a carrot, celery, a banana, a mango, nutritional yeast with B-12, and a little blackstrap molasses. Midday snacks consist of carrots, apples, and other fruit in season. Supper is more greens, carrot, tomato, bell pepper, cabbage, other vegetables in season, and salsa/mustard/ground flaxseed dressing. Dessert consists of blueberries, strawberries, and walnuts for my omega 3 fatty acids.
VIP: We have heard that osteoporosis runs in your family. Since you have not been drinking milk for years, aren't you also in danger of developing this dread disease?
RH: Because there was osteoporosis on both sides of my family, I started tracking my bone density at the time I went vegan, which, of course, meant no dairy products. What I found out was that my bone density back then was already way above peak bone density for women. This was obviously because of all my running. What I needed to track was the bone density after stopping diary products and through the menopausal years with no hormone replacement and no supplements, and found to everyone's amazement, that my bone density actually increased through my fifties and sixties. I was obviously getting all the calcium that my bones needed.
VIP: What reactions do your family and friends have to your diet and exercise lifestyle?
RH: Most of them think I'm absolutely crazy, and some can't even comprehend what is entailed in living the vegan triathlete lifestyle. Among my running friends, my diet is considered way too extreme. Among my vegan friends, my exercise program is way too extreme. Those who are neither have trouble understanding either.
VIP: You have also developed another career as an author. Can you tell us about your books? What additional books are you planning?
RH: As Dr. McDougall watched my progress, he strongly encouraged me to write a book. A Race For Life was the result of that first effort. People were always asking me for recipes, so I wrote The Race For Life Cookbook which has just been updated and is entitled, The Vegan Cook/Raw Book and is now available as an e-book. My third book, Senior Fitness: Empowering Your Golden Years, is in the final stages of editing. I've already mentioned working on Running 'Round The World. I've also written chapters in two relatively new books, Chicken Soup for the Fit Soul and Raw Power II.
VIP: What are a few of the most memorable speaking engagements that have taken you all around the world?
RH: The most exciting were the three International Vegetarian Union Conferences, in Edinburgh, Scotland in 2002, in Toronto, Canada in 2000, and in Chiang Mai, Thailand in 1998. I've also given talks on cruises in the Greek Isles and the Caribbean, and talks in Singapore, Malaysia, Japan, Korea, Australia, and New Zealand. In a way, the most memorable was the one that never happened. I had been invited to speak at the European Vegetarian Union Conference in Istanbul, Turkey, and got as far as London when it was canceled because of 9/11.
VIP: What is your response when people realize your age and ask when you are planning to give up your exercise program?
RH: Because we race by age groups, the race results always publish my age and I know most people are surprised. Because I "come alive" when I race and am so enthusiastic about racing, most people just know I plan on setting age group records as long as I am able, hoping for the 100-year-old record.
VIP: What can visitors expect to find when they access your website at http://www.ruthheidrich.com?
RH: First, there's the "Ask Dr. Ruth" section where I answer questions people ask about diet, exercise, and even a few confuse me with the other Dr. Ruth. Then there are a number of articles I've written on the most frequently asked questions such as the protein issue, running and knees, hormone replacement, and athletes on a vegan diet. There are photos from some of my recent trips such as Machu Picchu, the Galapagos Islands, the Hubbard Glacier, and the Florida Everglades holding a 3-year-old alligator. There is also a place to order my products such as books and videos.
VIP: Radio listeners in Hawaii hear your voice quite often. Could you tell us about your career as a radio personality?
RH: Back in 1988, Terry Shintani, MD, and I were asked to co-host "Nutrition and You," a radio talk-show started by Dr. McDougall in 1981. We're on every Sunday night and frequently have guests such as Howard Lyman, Peter Singer, Kenneth Cooper, MD, and speakers invited for the monthly meetings of our Vegetarian Society of Hawaii. I've also been interviewed on a number of other local and national talk shows.
VIP: We understand you were in a serious accident that almost ended your athletic career? Can you give us the details?
RH: It almost ended my life! I was doing a training ride on my bike when an oncoming truck with a load of kitchen cabinets almost passed this street and made a sudden left turn. Unfortunately for me, I was in the middle of that intersection. His bumper hit my left leg, shattering it in the process with the impact throwing me into the air. I landed on my right hip which broke my pelvis in three places. So there I was, lying in the middle of the street with multiple fractures on both sides of my body.
While I was worrying about how I was going to do my next triathlon in three weeks, the doctors in the ER where I was taken by ambulance were marveling that I hadn't been killed and told me that I was very lucky to be alive. (Their ideas of "lucky" and mine didn't quite coincide, I'm afraid.) They called in an orthopedic surgeon who put my leg together the best he could with the help of titanium and steel. He said that since there was no displacement in the bones of the pelvis, it would heal on its own as long as I didn't put any weight on it for six to eight weeks!
I could not imagine being flat on my back for that long. As it turned out, the pelvis healed in an amazing three weeks, but at the time, this was devastating news! But then it got even worse; he told me that my running and racing days were over. When I was discharged from the hospital three weeks later, I got a new orthopedist who prescribed physical therapy twice a week, and who I hoped could give me a more optimistic prognosis. When I still couldn't run, he told me I needed to find another sport, so I responded by doubling my physical therapy to four times a week and completed my first race four months later. Because I was the only one in the 60-64 age group, I got another gold medal!
VIP: What are some of the highlights of your education and career? How has your education helped you in your career?
RH: My formal education has been invaluable. My B.A. at UCLA taught me critical thinking, my master's degree how to both read and understand medical and scientific journals and research design, and my doctorate, about nutrition and exercise physiology. All of this training gave me the understanding of what was happening in our bodies as we eat and exercise. Before the cancer struck, I was a logistics engineer in the Air Force, involved in a variety of exciting projects and was being given training preparatory for the highest levels of logistics management. That all changed with that devastating diagnosis. I took a medical leave of absence and decided on a new career, that of vegan triathlete.
VIP: What are some of the significant awards and honors you have received?
RH: I think the "24 Carrot" Award is the neatest one of all. Being named "One of the Ten Fittest Women of North America" was also quite exciting. Runner's World magazine gave me the "Golden Shoe" award for athletic achievements in the face of breast cancer. I'm also grateful for the scholarships I received that helped me through college plus a Phi Beta Kappa award. I've also been honored by my story being written up in dozens of books, magazines, and newspapers all over the world. There's the front page large photo of me finishing the Ironman in the New Zealand Herald with the blazing headline, "Ruth, A Woman of Iron" and Japan's Asahi Shimbun, "American Woman Conquers Cancer, Conquers Ironman."
VIP: Of all of your personal accomplishments, which ones give you the most pride and satisfaction?
RH: Probably the completion of the Ironman. It represented a challenge that at first seemed an impossibility. Then I discovered that a fire had been ignited in me that I had no idea existed. During the final hours of an Ironman, I had to dig very deeply and decide that pain and fatigue could be overcome by sheer will. Crossing that finish line was an emotional high that has never been equaled.
VIP: You have been active in a number of vegetarian organizations. Can you tell us about some of the positions you have held?
RH: I was one of the seven founding members of the Vegetarian Society of Hawaii in 1990 which is one of the, if not the, largest in North America at 1600 members. I have served as president, vice-president, and director. I've also been a councilor in the Vegetarian Union of North America (VUNA) since 1995. I also belong to People For The Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), Physicians Committee For Responsible Medicine (PCRM), Humane Society of the U.S., (HSUS), Compassion Over Killing, (COK), on the board of directors for Dr. Michael Klaper's Vegan Study, the Fitness Advisor for VegNews, and am a columnist with http://www.vegsource.com.
VIP: What personal goals have you set for yourself in the coming years?
RH: I plan to continue competing in races to keep me motivated to put out my best performance and maintain my fitness, and speaking and writing to try to motivate others to live the healthiest, fittest life possible.
VIP: What leisure activities and hobbies do you enjoy?
RH: I love antiques and collect Chinese snuff bottles, old clocks, and jade carvings. I also enjoy traveling to foreign countries, learning through enrolling in all kinds of classes and seminars, and reading all sorts of non-fiction.
VIP: What person or persons have had the most influence on your life?
RH: I would have to say John McDougall for my diet and Kenneth Cooper for my running.
VIP: Have we overlooked anything that you would like to share with our readers?
RH: Although being a vegan triathlete is what I love doing, what I've discovered is that there is much more to life and that includes the lives of all animals and the lack of respect for their rights and the damage we are doing to our environment. We are seeing the payback of eating animals with all the chronic, degenerative diseases this causes, and now we are seeing new diseases such as Mad Cow Disease and Avian (bird) flu. The desecration of our natural resources from the grazing of animals and the waste produced in factory farms is staggering. If we could get everyone to be vegan triathletes, we would do the best for ourselves, our fellow earth inhabitants, and the planet.