A few years ago, Robbie Balenger was your typical restaurant industry barfly.
“Work hard, party harder,” he says of the food and beverage industry’s predominant culture — even in a city like Austin, which identifies and markets itself as one of America’s most fit and health-conscious communities.
“It’s a really active, healthy town, but those communities haven’t merged together in a way that I hope to see it merge together,” he told the American-Statesman over lunch at Whole Foods a few weeks ago. “If you’re in the restaurant industry, you’re in your own world.”
His friend and industry colleague Philip Speer served jail time after four DWI convictions before finding himself, rock-bottom, at La Hacienda, a rehab facility in Hunt.
That’s where he discovered running.
At first, it was just for five or 10 minutes. He didn’t bother keeping track of time. But soon, he could run for an hour.
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“For me, it was a total Zen, meditative thing,” he told the Statesman over the phone from a vacation in North Carolina. “I needed to get out of my head. It was a way for me to ground myself.”
Four years later, Speer is an experienced marathoner. And now, in addition to starting Austin’s first Ben’s Friends chapter, he’s working to share the transformative power of running with Comedor Run Club, an inclusive late-morning meet-up group for both people in the industry and just about anybody who works alternative hours. The club is named for his new restaurant with chef Gabe Erales, who is also a runner.
“If you decide to wake up in the morning to run, chances are you’re going to go home to go to sleep (instead of out to a bar),” Speer says. “There’s a whole cleaner way of living.”
The industry-specific run group is something Speer and Balenger had talked about on runs for years, as Speer worked on his sobriety and Balenger, a former part-owner of Bufalina, struggled to find balance between the career he had built in the restaurant industry and the passion he’d developed for distance running.
“I care about this industry, I care about this community. It was so good to me,” Balenger says of the Austin restaurant scene. “I feel like I’m an entrenched part of the restaurant industry here, still. I had a lot of fun in my time in Austin, but I’ve realized over the years as I’ve found more balance in my life that fun doesn’t always equate to happiness. And I wanted to be a positive force and set an example for others in the restaurant community that there’s outlets you can use besides hanging out at the bar and late-night parties after work.”
When his girlfriend (now fiancée), Shelley Howard, who was also one of the original Bufalina employees, decided to go to nursing school in Denver, it was just the catalyst he needed to quit his job and pursue his fitness goals, which would unexpectedly have a greater focus on community outreach stemming from his time in the Austin restaurant industry.
Howard is the one who introduced Balenger to running about six years ago. He made it 2 miles with her on that first run and had to call a cab to get home. He was quickly hooked, though, and completed the Decker Challenge just a few months later, then raced the Philadelphia Marathon and a 50-miler in his native Georgia.
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After he quit his position as director of operations at Bufalina, he targeted the Caballo Blanco Copper Canyon Ultra Marathon in Mexico, a 50-mile race made famous in Christopher McDougall’s New York Times bestseller “Born to Run.” While training, he devoured “Eat and Run” by ultra-running icon Scott Jurek, a noted vegan.
A bad bout of food poisoning forced Balenger to drop out after 20 miles, but somewhere in the desert, the idea for a Forrest Gump-style cross-country run to promote a healthy lifestyle started to percolate.
He and Howard ate a mostly vegetarian diet at home in Austin, which progressed to full-time veggie once the couple quit their restaurant jobs and moved to Denver. When Balenger conceived of the plan to run across America, he decided to go full-force vegan in order to make advocacy about the benefits of a plant-based diet part of his running mission.
Not that it was easy.
Going vegan "was something that always gnawed at me,” Balenger says. “But I was a little apprehensive and, I think, defensive. I ran a pizzeria. I love mozzarella. Food is something that’s so personal, and people don’t want to be told what to eat.”
But the deeper he got into his training, the more a plant-based diet just made sense. He craved lighter, healthier foods with nutrients that made him feel stronger in his training, not heavy or depleted.
Through his connections in Austin, he partnered with NadaMoo, an Austin company that makes dairy-free, coconut milk-based ice cream, and created an itinerary for the journey. He would run 3,175 miles across 14 states in 75 days — from Los Angeles to New York City — averaging 43 miles per day. A rotating cast of three to six crew members would provide support and prepare his meals, which totaled a whopping 8,000 calories a day. The nutrition plan was mapped out by Balenger’s future sister-in-law, Jackie Stone, who has a certificate in plant-based nutrition and created a nutrition plan for her own five-month through-hike of the Appalachian Trail. The crew traveled in an RV van plastered with NadaMoo “Plant-Powered Mission” signage. The van pulled a camper where Balenger slept every night. Auxiliary sponsor Switch4Good, a dairy-free nonprofit advocacy group, outfitted the camper with banners.
As they made their way across the country (hampered only slightly by a mild case of tendonitis), the crew engaged with local communities through conversation, handing out simple vegan recipe cards and gifting free pints of NadaMoo ice cream. Balenger did much of his advocacy literally on the run by inviting locals to come jog a few miles with him.
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“I stopped every 5 miles for food and to rehydrate, and as I would come in, people would be there,” he says. “It was really empowering and cool to see that, one, the plant-based movement is happening; even in rural areas, people know about it. There were no naysayers, even the dairy farmers — maybe they weren’t ready to embrace it, but they were very kind. It comes from my approach. I’m not one to shove (anything) down people's throats, I’m more ‘lead by example’ and hope people pick up on what’s happening. That was our mechanism for talking to people along the way.”
His favorite memory is of the Navajo Nation, where he spent eight full days running through Arizona and New Mexico. The first person he encountered took a photo of Balenger and posted it on Facebook, and from then on, everyone knew who he was. A man named Wendall spotted Balenger on the road and whipped his truck around, telling the runner that “my wife told me, ‘If you see the tall, white, bearded man running across our Nation, you gotta stop and take a picture.’” People invited Balenger and his crew to eat dinner and sleep in their homes.
Balenger struggled with blisters and shin splints during this part of the journey and felt a sense of spirituality in the Nation that helped him overcome that pain.
“The Nation is so beautiful and so special, it really touched me. The second day (I was there), I was struggling with blisters, and every step felt like I was running with raw feet,” he says. “There’s something transformative that happened that day, and it felt intentional, it felt like… I’m a spiritual person. I don’t know how I define it, but there was something spiritual that day; it felt as though there was something testing me and helping me become a stronger version of myself. That really helped me a lot through the rest of the trip.”
To get through the endless miles, he enjoyed the company of running partners, audiobooks (specifically, the first "Harry Potter" book), music (Jimmy Buffet and the Grateful Dead) and the solace of his own thoughts, which turned to his friend Speer for motivation.
“Even as I ran across the country, Philip is someone who inspired me and showed that we’re all capable of something,” he says. “I knew Philip way before he found sobriety and found running, and the version I see of him right now is so inspiring.”
Balenger completed the run May 29, and one of the first places he traveled to was Austin, where he stopped by his old restaurant, Bufalina (now he eats the Harissa, a vegan pie), and jogged with Speer and the Comedor Run Club, which also features regulars from local dining establishments like Olamaie, She’s Not Here and Austin Java. Balenger has become sort of a cult figure among the friends.
“You look at someone who’s a friend of yours, someone you know well, and you’re like, ‘Wow, he can do that.’ As humans we can do anything,” Speer says. “It gets us out there every day. We can work our 12 to 16 hours a day and still get a run in, even if we’re tired or have a rough night.”
While his immediate thoughts are on his next endurance challenge with NadaMoo (probably something on a bike), Balenger can see himself partnering with local restaurants to incorporate more vegan-friendly menu items, or even opening his own vegan restaurant in the future — most likely in Austin. In the meantime, he’s happy to help Speer motivate his fellow industry veterans.
“People in the industry or those who have a hard-living, hard-partying kind of lifestyle, there’s something that really translates well into running,” Balenger says. “I think a lot of why I was able to succeed in running and pushing that envelope farther and farther was all the years of working and putting on a smile (while having) a really dirty hangover. People that live a hard lifestyle have a lot of endurance.”