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Ultrarunner smashes Central Park record, says plant-based diet was key

By Ben Church, CNN Video by Stefania Dall’Armi, CNN

It started with a two-and-a-half-mile run with his partner. Now it’s a lifestyle for Robbie Balenger.

He’s pushed his body and mind to the very limits by taking on mammoth endurance challenges, notably running 3,175 miles across the US in just 75 days in 2019 in order to promote the benefits of a plant-based diet.

More recently, Balenger broke the record for most laps around New York’s Central Park in one day.

His life now is in sharp contrast to when he was running successful restaurants.

“I lived in Austin, Texas, and was very much a part of the food and bar scene. With that comes a lot of partying and late nights,” he tells CNN.

“You work hard, then you blow off steam. I was still living that kind of lifestyle and quickly realized it wasn’t going to add up.

“All that partying wasn’t really going to make me a very good leader or someone that could fulfill the duties of my job every day in the way I wanted to.”

Then his now fiancee invited him on a run. The short jog triggered something in Balenger, who quickly saw the advantages of exercising as way of coping with the stresses of his job and coming up with new ideas for his restaurant.

Balenger gradually took on longer and tougher challenges; a half-marathon; a full marathon; and then found himself lining up on the start line for a grueling ultra-marathon.

“It definitely replaced that hard-partying lifestyle,” he adds. “[It was] much healthier but there was still something in there that felt kind of similar. It’s kind of a raw feeling.”

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Run across the US

Balenger eventually stepped away from the bar scene. He flirted with the idea of charity work or working in solar energy and he also liked the thought of being a wildland firefighter. But he always came back to running.

Then, after a chance encounter with another man who had run across the US, Balenger started prepping for the biggest challenge of his life — the transcontinental run.

“I completed it in 75 days, so that averaged out to 43 miles a day. So I was putting in an ultra[-marathon] every day,” he says, smiling.

The main drive behind the project was raising awareness of better food choices. Balenger says his vegan diet was his “superpower” for the run and insists it was one of the reasons he was able to complete it.

“Here in the US especially, we have a really bad obesity problem and people are just really unhealthy,” he says.

“I think I hit it at a time where people were willing to acknowledge and accept that there was an issue, and therefore, they were open to conversations because they were seeing people all around them who are unhealthy and getting sick.

“My thought was, ‘I’m just going to show that I can do this on a plant based diet,’ and along the way, I quickly realized not only could I do it, it was the reason I was able to do it.”

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Central Park record

After finishing his epic run, the self-proclaimed “plant-based alternative endurance athlete” had the taste for more.

In March 2021, he set a new record for The Central Park Loop Challenge, where he had to complete as many 6.1-mile laps of the park as he could within its opening hours.

From 6:05 a.m. to 12:55 a.m. the next morning, Balenger ran 16 laps — just under 100 miles — smashing the previous record of 11 loops.

“It was just super appealing to me coming out of the depths of Covid. It felt like it was a cool thing to do,” he says.

“It was on the first day of spring and then it really resonated with me because that’s where I finished my run across the United States, in Central Park.

“[I was] really excited to have accomplished it and then your legs seize up and you get really stiff and then you get really tired, and luckily, you can pass out right afterward.”

Balenger runs 10 miles every day in preparation for big challenges. Come rain or shine, he throws on his sneakers and goes outside. Consistency, he says, is key.

While the thought of heading out for a run on a freezing cold morning might deter many, Balenger has always found a way to overcome the doubts in his minds

It’s because running is more than just a physical challenge. It’s his sanctuary. It’s where he feels most at peace.

“Running is the most spiritual aspect of my life,” he says. “It’s where I go to be with myself and to explore who I am and the energies around me and who I want to be.

“There’s something that’s very beautiful in the discomfort of it […] feeling what some would call pain — I guess it is like a dull low pain.

“But what comes out of that, you feel very alive. You feel every ounce of your being. Every step you feel your feet, you feel your legs, you feel your toes and there’s something that is beautiful in that.”

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Spiritual connection

Balenger’s father died when he was very young, and although he enjoyed his childhood, he says he never had that male role model that so many take for granted.

As he searched for a sense of himself, Balenger went chasing a party lifestyle.

“I expressed it in a lot of ways and a lot were probably not very healthy. Like being a guy that went out and drank a lot,” he says.

“Partying like that was kind of embodying what I thought it meant to be a man. It was living hard and that was kind of where this masculinity showed itself.”

He says running helped him redefine masculinity, especially after watching athletes compete in the Hardrock Hundred Mile Endurance Run — one of the hardest runs in the US.

“I was like: there’s another version of a man that is just rough and tumble and got all of those qualities that I think I was trying to get from this bar scene,” he says.

“This is a way that is the healthier version of that. And so after seeing that, I wanted to embody that. And so that started this exploration of it and it’s something that’s still ongoing.

“I’m 36 years old, I’m still trying to understand what that is, and I do that through my running. It helps me to create an identity for myself that is healthy, and I think embodies a lot of what it means to be a man.”

Balenger is currently tackling another mammoth challenge, in what he has dubbed the “Colorado Crush.”

It involves running a marathon in June, a 50-mile run in July, and a 100-mile run in August.

In between these, he will also bid to complete the Colorado trail — which stretches for 500 miles — and summit 58 peaks that are over 14,000 feet.

During the challenge, he will be using neuroscience technology to see how it can optimize his sleep and help aid his recovery.

“I think the more we run, the more we move our body, we push ourselves, the clearer and higher our frequency becomes,” he says.

“I think encouraging other people to do that will only better ourselves and better our communities and better the world.

“I know I am the best version of myself when I have a goal, when I’m moving my body, when I’m taking care of myself and I’m eating healthy. I want that for everyone.”

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You can follow Balenger’s latest challenge on his Instagram account.

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