Plant power: Vegan track stars share how they compete in meets without meat

By Caroline Kurdej
Medill Reports 

Like 3 percent of Americans, DePaul University running stars Violet and Henry Harper self-identify as vegans.

On a recent Wednesday evening, the Division I athletes ambled into their student center.  The pace: a lot slower than last month, when Violet led her Blue Demon teammates in the Badger Invite women’s 6K and her brother led his in the men’s 8K.

Despite her black crop top, gray sweatpants, makeup-free face and messy bun, Violet, at 5-foot-8, looks like she could hit the runway. But for the freshman, who specializes in the 5K and 6K for cross country and the 3K, 5K and 10K for track, grass and Chicago asphalt are more like it.

At 6-foot-6, Henry — easy to spot because of his speed and his signature mane — towers over his sister. The senior races the 5K and 10K for track.

The plant enthusiasts’ fuel: vegetables, seeds, nuts and whole grains but no animal products. “I’m so bloated from the rice and beans I had for dinner!” Violet said, patting her six-pack abs.

Most Harper family members are vegan, though Henry and Violet’s dad is simply vegetarian. After getting diagnosed with colon cancer a few years ago, “he started eating an absurd number of veggies, more than us!” Violet said.

Over bottles of water, the siblings shared their thoughts about how their diet helps the planet and their performance.

How did veganism start in your family?

Violet: It was our mom! No! It was Ruby! [Violet’s fraternal twin sister]

Henry: Definitely not! It was mom! It was something that she had been interested about her whole life, but she just never really got around to it [until] 2015. It was a domino effect. I was doing a little bit of reading, then Ruby converted and then Violet.

At the start, it was 100% ethics. I just made that connection. I thought, “This is horrible. What’s happening? I can’t, in good conscience, participate in this.”

Violet: I was the last person that needed to convert to veganism. I would ask my mom for cereal before school, and she would pour soy milk on it instead of regular milk. And I would say, “Mom! What the heck! I asked for milk! You can’t do this!” She would reply, “Violet, it’s bad! You can’t partake in this.” I was really mad. I kept telling her that it was my choice.

Then I was realizing it’s not really my choice because the choices I’m making are affecting everyone in the world, even if it’s just for one person. All that goes into your plate had so much to do with so much production, effects on the environment and people.

Violet, your Instagram stories taught me the implications of food production on the environment, its impact on animals and the impact on us.

Violet: Milk is for nurturing a child, and only for nurturing a child that comes from you. Why would you be drinking another species’ milk? It’s literally titty milk! And you’re 60, and you’re still drinking it. And it’s not from your mother’s breasts! And you’re 60!

Henry: There’s nothing special about cow milk that’s magically good for us.

When you guys first turned vegan in high school, how did it affect your performance?

Henry: I immediately got way better. That year, I dropped 40 seconds in the three mile.

Violet: I’ve just gradually gotten better throughout the course of my high school career, and I ended with a PR [personal record] by maintaining a vegan diet over the course of four years.

Nothing super drastic that I noticed, except for the fact that I didn’t feel heavy, groggy, stuffed up or congested all the time.

Henry: That was huge for me. I felt way lighter, way more efficient and way less inflamed.

Did you guys drop weight once you became vegan?

Henry: I did drop a good amount. But that’s because that’s what was going to help me with running. I cut all of the excess and boosted my efficiency.

Violet: A lot of people try to go vegan and say, “Oh! I lost too much weight and had to stop.” It’s just because they don’t know how much to eat in a sitting—they need to know that you need more caloric intake in order to maintain your weight. But that doesn’t mean that it’s hard.

Do you miss anything?

Violet: Cheese is hard. It’s an addictive substance. Did you know that? I’d buy shredded cheese from Jewel-Osco, put it in a cup, and eat it with a spoon. Quesadillas? Lethal. Quesadillas were lethal—so easy! You literally put two pieces of flour together, layer on as much cheese as you want, five minutes, done.

Sometimes I guess I would miss a shitty pizza. It grosses me out now. The actual bodily secretions of an animal makes me kind of nauseous. It just doesn’t look appetizing anymore because I know where it’s coming from.

Henry: I actually don’t miss any of the food really, but I do miss the convenience. When you’re out late, what are you going to get? But it is getting a lot better. Even when I first went vegan in 2016, it was way harder then than it is now.

Violet: It’s nice that they now have Beyond Meat at Burger King with the Impossible Whopper, Taco Bell has a vegan menu, Chipotle has had vegan options for a while…

Where do you see the vegan trend going?

Violet: We’re going to have no choice at some point to have to cut our consumption down.

Henry: I’ve been telling people, halfway jokingly halfway not, you might as well go vegan now because you’re going to have to. You just look at the studies and it’s an unfathomably more efficient way of eating. It requires so much less land and so much less resources.

Violet: Where would you rather put your money? Your health bill, or the grocery store?

What do you say when people ask you about protein? 

Henry: Yes, you need protein. But if you eat food, you get it. I eat the essentials, I eat until I’m full, I eat what I want, and it works out.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Photo at top: Violet and Henry Harper reunite after the Badger Invite. (Courtesy of Violet Harper)