Anthony Rodale, grandson of American organic legend J.I. Rodale and president of the Sustainable Food Trust’s arm in the US, will be taking part in the Marathon des Sables in April, a gruelling 7 day, 150 mile trek through the desert sands of the Sahara.

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Anthony has kindly chosen to support the Sustainable Food Trust, with the funds raised being allocated to our work reconnecting people with their food system by promoting a better understanding of the links between farming practice, food quality and the impacts of both on our physical performance and health.

SFT Chief Executive, Patrick Holden, caught up with Anthony at the recent Food Tank Summit in Washington, DC. In the interview below, they discuss Anthony’s journey into ultra running and what it means to be fit and healthy.

To support Anthony, please visit his JustGiving page.

The transcript below is an edited version of the interview.

Patrick: Anthony, you will shortly be taking part in the Marathon des Sables, an incredible endurance run through the Sahara desert. Tell me more about what you’re about to do.

Anthony: This is going to be my third time running the Marathon des Sables – the first time was in 2011. It’s a 150-mile course, which takes place over seven days. For six days you have to be self-sufficient so you need to carry your own food and supplies, although we’re given water. It’s practically a marathon a day, so it’s an endurance event not to be taken lightly.

I never expected to be an ultra runner or even to run a marathon. Just five years ago I ran my first marathon, which led to someone saying, I know this race and I think you’ll be inspired by it. I had this fascination with running in Africa, in the desert.

Patrick: And how old were you when you ran your first marathon?

Anthony: I was 44.

Patrick: Do you think that’s a good time to start or do you now wish that you had run earlier?

Anthony: I think it’s a good age to start because I have a lot of friends around my age that have been running all their lives and their knees and hips are shot. Right now, I’m reflecting a lot on the milestone of turning 50 and thinking, wow, I’ve got some miles ahead of me here!

Patrick: I too ran a marathon in 2005 when I was 54 and I think it’s good to start quite late in life. What’s it like if you’ve been a half-marathon or marathon runner and you take it to this new level?

Anthony: It’s actually a natural step. It becomes less about performance, winning and speed, and more about a personal journey. It’s about finishing – it might take you longer but the goal is not to be fast. Patience is the key in running ultras.

Patrick: There’s a reason why you have chosen to support the Sustainable Food Trust with the money you’re raising during this marathon. Let’s discuss the issues behind that because both of us are deeply involved with the sustainable food movement and you are, of course, the grandson of one of the great founders of the movement, J.I. Rodale. The Rodale Institute is known throughout the world for its research and Rodale Press is a great carrier for these messages now. What do you think about the link, as your grandfather understood it, between farming, nutrition and health?

Anthony: It seems like a natural progression. That first generation was the catalyst for the organic idea, and each new generation takes the ideas further and broadens the explosion of health and food access. My contribution to this is a personal journey but I’ve also been a food activist for many years, working with farmers all over the world on how they can better improve their soils, grow more food for their families and become economically viable.

Ten years ago I realised I needed to look at myself in the bigger picture. Running became my means to transform myself out of one situation and into another, which you can parallel with a farmer transitioning their farm.

Patrick: There’s a sort of bridge here between the physical and the spiritual – the outer journey and the inner one. What is the link between what you eat and how you transform that into energy?

Anthony: It’s all about health. Someone has to say in their mind, I want to do this and I need to make a change. It’s like signing up for a race – as soon as you sign up you’re committed.

Patrick: We’re talking about vitality and nutrition as part of the building blocks. What are you going to eat?

Anthony: I’ve done this race twice before and I’ve been unhappy with my food on both occasions, so this time I’m making a commitment to eating and enjoying my food. I finally discovered some organic dehydrated meals, snacks and energy bars. It’s all about fuelling. You can run a marathon no problem with a limited amount of food, but in the ultra running experience, you need fuel to get to where you want to go. I’m realising that the fuel I’m consuming has to be really healthy – I’ve got to know where and how it’s produced.

Patrick: You say you’ve got to be really healthy. Are you talking about vitality? Nutrient density? Trace elements and minerals? Absence of harmful residues?

Anthony: You need proteins, carbs and fats, and they have to be organic, without pesticide residues. With meats, for example, I have to know that the salmon or the tuna jerky is sustainably farmed. The way the food is produced gives me the energy I need to perform. We’re also taking supplements, which are all organically produced. If the energy source is pure there is less room for toxicity.

Patrick: It’s also to do with minerals and micronutrients.

Anthony: Food today often has fewer nutrients and that doesn’t do any good for performance. There’s nothing worse than being on a race and having digestive issues. That happens all the time so again it’s about food safety and food quality.

Patrick: Do you feel more prepared this time?

Anthony: The first time you have beginners luck, the second time you refine what you did wrong the first time, and the third time you are much more knowledgeable and prepared. Again, I’m looking for a healthy food experience because it’s going to be tough – both mentally and physically – in the desert.

Patrick: How much meaning would this conversation have in the community of runners?

Anthony: Runners are obsessed with food. One of the most famous ultra runners, Scott Jurek, who wrote the book Eat and Run, has transformed his life from eating everything to being a vegetarian. There are 42 million runners in America alone that have made that commitment to run, whether it’s for performance or lifestyle or to overcome something.

Patrick: How can we follow you on your journey?

Anthony: I’ve created a blog at www.rodalewildbunch.com and will also be collaborating with the Sustainable Food Trust to raise awareness on its website. The race is in the first week of April so there will be plenty of time to ask questions, create a dialogue and keep training!

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