Eileen Francisco's 500-Mile Journey for Animal Welfare
Eileen Francisco is an ultrarunner, vegan, and animal welfare activist who believes that running and a plant-based lifestyle can change the world. To this end, she started Animal Run, a non-profit organization that fundraises for animal welfare organizations through eco-friendly running events.
While many start-ups rely on slick crowdfunding campaigns to meet their foundational costs, Eileen has planned something more audacious. At the end of June 2018, she will begin a 500-mile stage run around the San Francisco Bay in an effort to raise donations for Animal Run. I caught up with Eileen to learn about her motivations, background, and her vision for Animal Run.
Thanks so much for sharing your story, Eileen. So tell us a bit about Animal Run's mission? What are some of the goals of the project?
The main goal of the project is pretty straightforward. It is fundraising for animal organizations whether they are sanctuaries, clinics, or shelters. In essence, this 500 miler is my “Kickstarter” campaign for my for-purpose org, which is basically a fundraising machine for local animal welfare organizations all over the nation.
Animal Run’s 100% plant-fueled foot races will raise funds for animal welfare organizations, helping them save the lives of, find homes for, heal and comfort animal residents in need. Animal Run also helps runners see that supporting plant-based events and businesses promotes human health and a healthier world. We've made a video that quickly explains what we're trying to accomplish.
Start-up expenses rack up quickly! The $10,000 goal will help Animal Run with its business fees, equipment and the cost of the website. Also, the inaugural Animal Runs in California, Texas and Colorado require a small first-year boost to get started and keep the dream alive in subsequent years. For example, both Texas and Colorado volunteer race directors will need training materials and high-touch guidance, their own race equipment and promotion assistance. After this year, Animal Run will "run" on its own with the goal of raising millions of dollars in support of animals.
At the same time, it’s also about spreading the word and getting at least 300 registered runners to toe the line at the inaugural Animal Run race on August 26 and preparing for that amazing day.
Your method of raising seed money for Animal Run is pretty audacious! Even in an era when 100-mile races are increasingly common, running 500 miles around the entire Bay Trail is exemplary. How are you preparing for the event?
Agreed, it’s extreme. Everything about this portion of Animal Run is extreme. But to your point, it’s all about preparation.
First, I have a great coach, Bob Shebest. Bob had to take me from a knee injury, which finally healed in April to a June 29th start. He didn’t have much time to take me to 50K per day. He told me that I need to get a full night’s sleep cycle every night because my body will heal faster if do. That’s just one great bit of coaching advice that I’ll take to heart. I’ll do my best to make him proud of his work.
I was so overwhelmed by the enormity of mapping out 50K legs that I literally begged Shane Bryant of MTN PURSUITS to help me. He was the logistics expert for Pacific Coast Trail Runs before he started his business. When I approached him last year about this idea, he agreed to help. I count my blessings that he agreed to work with me … but Shane could only commit to the mapping the course, itself a tremendous effort. I’m still looking for crew support for my Monday – Friday runs. As I’m being pulverized by the bike paths, sidewalks, and streets, I’m hoping that some of my friends can help keep my mind off the pain.
Last, to save my body, I’m planning to wear the cushiest Hoka Bondi shoes throughout the month of July. I’m using on a run-walk strategy to stay aerobic to avoid the lactic acid buildup that I normally experience when chasing cutoffs. I’m taking every other day off to give the swelling more time to die down. I’m popping vitamins. I’m scheduling a handful of massages to try to keep my muscles happy. I will take ice baths to help my joints. I will plan out my meals to focus on nutritious vegan foods. But my secret weapon has always been my amazing partner who is a chiropractor. He has had the unenviable job of putting me back together after every gnarly race for the last few years. He’s agreed to help me out to keep the mission on track.
So with all of the above, that’s how I’ll accomplish this Big Hairy Audacious Goal!
Tell us a bit more about your planning for the event? How do you plan on breaking up the distance? Do the network paths, trails, and right-of-ways that make up the Bay Trail present any unique logistical challenges?
So first, I visited the San Francisco Bay Trail office headquarters last year to tell them that I wanted to do this crazy thing and ask them how best to go about it. They are such great people and they gave me lots of good advice. I left their office with a large wall map of the trail which I’ve been staring at for about year now.
From looking at the map, the fragmented state of the Bay Trail is pretty insane. Each of the 47 cities on the trail is responsible for closing the gaps which will take lots of time and money from park bond measures.
My route includes 358 miles of completed trail and 142 miles of planned trail. I originally wanted police escort for the planned and dangerous sections of the trail (Hwy 92 and Hwy 37) so I approached California Highway Patrol about the possibility of supporting this project. They said no. They also told me that it’s illegal for me to go where pedestrians are not allowed … I think because they thought I might still try it. Ha!
Because of injury, I simply haven’t had time to preview the whole trail. But from the reconnaissance I’ve been able to do since last year, I’ve discovered sections of the trail still underwater or overgrown. (Remember last year’s crazy rains?) Sections of the trail in Redwood City just disappear into the Bay. There are long segments in Alviso and Fremont that have been fenced off because the city didn’t want to mow the shrubs. I can climb over the fence, but I’m not bushwhacking.
So how am I going to cover 500 miles if the trail isn’t fully baked? In true ultra fashion, I’m confident I’m going to get lost (although I’m not looking forward to it) and add some miles that way. There are also lots of out-and-backs on paths to nowhere which will also add to my mileage. But my goal is 500 miles on the SF Bay Trail. If I haven’t hit that mileage by the time I finish the giant loop, I’ll re-run some of my favorite sections to accomplish the goal.
The plan is to cover at least 50k/day (31.1 miles) every other day or at least average that distance. This isn’t as hard as what I originally intended to do, which was run 50k/day for three days straight and then taking just one rest day, then repeating that 4 more times. But 50k per day every other day is still hard. I will begin by covering the hardest (unfamiliar) parts of the North Bay. I will cover San Francisco, the Peninsula, the South Bay and the East Bay on my own or with friends. Another challenge is that I will run out of water so I have to figure out where to hide my drop bags when I don’t have any crew. So you can see that the plan is still under construction. ☺
Are their any running experiences and personal strengths that you are drawing upon as you prepare to run around the San Francisco Bay? Do any stand out in your mind as learning moments that will help you this summer?
The one that stands out to me is my most recent 100 miler at Brazos Bend where I had to pop ibuprofen to keep the pain at bay. Of course, my whole body was destroyed, but the right knee, which was at 100% when I started the race, was functioning at 60% toward the end and only the painkillers kept me going. For this 500 miler, I need to avoid re-injuring that knee again because I can foresee a pretty painful future for myself if that happens. So being conservative and going even slower than I normally go (run-walk by feel) for the first few days should train my brain and body to prepare for the following days. And a knee brace should also help.
What do you see as the biggest obstacles for completing the 500-mile course? Fueling? Injury? Fatigue?
Yes, all those. And don’t forget to throw in stupidity and ego! Anything can happen. What if my drop bags are not where I left them? if I have equipment failure and I’m by myself that day? What if on Day 6, I feel a niggle in my knee? How am I going to respond to that? What I’ve imagined as the biggest challenge to overcome is waking up so sore and in pain and still having to suit up and accomplish the task at hand. I’ve never done a multi-day event before so this is going to be a new adventure for me.
Beyond the 500-mile run, what is your vision for Animal Run races? What will distinguish these events from others?
One unique goal is to have our race events be completely vegan. That means that our food, as well as the food of our vendors, will be strictly vegan, so no honey, meat or dairy will be served. Our raffle prizes will be vegan too, ie. neither wool socks nor leather bags will be on the table. One could make the argument that a Whole Foods gift-certificate prize isn’t exactly vegan since they sell meat, but I hope that during and after the race, people will mindfully choose to purchase more plant based products.
Yet another goal is to have an eco-friendly event. That means avoiding single use plastic utensils and single use plastic water bottles, Styrofoam and anything that lasts for centuries in a landfill or ocean. I’ll encourage runners to bring their own bottles and fill them up at the water stations. The race ribbon we use for flagging the course is biodegradable. I’ve asked our timing company if they reuse/recycle timing chips but they don’t … yet. So we are working towards being 100% green. We will eventually get there, once the technology catches up to us.
The last goal is to have a kick-butt race event that serious runners would want to attend. My standard is to be like Inside Trail Racing where the courses are professionally marked, everyone’s time is recorded accurately, top-notch volunteers are everywhere and everyone has a lot of fun being outdoors, running for fun or competing. I envision growing the distances over time. I don’t know when, but I can see holding a 100-mile distance or a 24-48 hour race eventually.
You are actually the second Peace Corp alumna that I have interviewed for the Breakfast Club! How did the Peace Corps experiences shape you and the current path you are (quite literally) heading on?
Oh my goodness, Peace Corps was the best decision I had ever made in my life, all the way until I discovered ultras in my 40s. Although I was born in the Philippines, my formative years were spent here, in the Bay Area Silicon Valley intersection of cultural diversity, first-world efficiency, and technology innovation. My Peace Corps experience was a much needed wake up call to what the “real world” actually is.
First, I discovered that America was mostly white. During staging in Miami, where I met my class of 54 volunteers who were flown in from all over the United States, I was surprised that I was one of three Asians and one African American in the room. Seeing a sea of blonde hair and blue eyes, all at once, just after attending San Jose State University where I took diversity for granted, was a little disorienting. But because of that experience, it taught me that people are naturally tribal and integration is the key to dispelling any assumptions about “others.”
Next, I learned to never complain about paying my taxes ever again. In the Dominican Republic, you could see garbage bags festering in city streets due to lack of public funding for scheduled pick ups. You could also see jerry-rigged electric wiring to get free intermittent electricity. Just having a paved road is generally paid for by a government agency. All this made me very appreciative of how government works for the people when the systems are in place to distribute services.
Last, I was in the Peace Corps 20 years ago when AOL email accounts was the technology breakthrough at the time. But apart from that, I learned that the only required technologies were farming and basic building tools. Humans are happy with very little. We need nutritious food, clean water, clean air, a roof, a social life, and access to medical care. That’s it. My house that I lived in for two years was 8 ft x 10 ft with walls made of leaves (I had to change them every 6 months) and a tin roof. I had my own personal latrine, which was a luxury. I had to fetch my drinking water filtered by the earth which was a 10 minute walk away. This knowledge and experience taught me that I can live very well in places other than the hyper-competitive Bay Area. So I probably won’t retire here.
How did you become involved in animal welfare activism? Was there a sudden "aha" moment that awoke the desire to advocate for animal welfare? Or did your interest in the issue develop over time?
I’ve always seen myself as an activist, even as a kid, but I wasn’t a very good one in practice. It’s difficult to do the “right” thing when the environment you’re in doesn’t make it easy. I pick up garbage, yet drive a gas-powered car. Until three years ago, I continued to eat meat when vegan options were available, but I just didn’t enjoy eating them at the time. It’s nearly impossible to avoid single-use plastic bottles, coffee lids and stirrers, grocery bags, etc., when that’s what’s all around you.
Then in 2010, I learned about a group called Project Kaisei (“Ocean Planet” in Japanese). That was when I first heard about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. That was my lightning rod. I don’t know what I did to come across them on the internet, but I was up all night reading every single thing I could about the organization, the founders, and the floating island of garbage. The problem was so enormous that it shocked me into action. I reached out to the founders and Doug Woodring responded. We have been good friends since then. He even did a brown bag at my company about the issue. Do you know why ocean researchers will find floating bits of white, blue, black and yellow plastic but not red? It’s because red plastic looks like food, so fish will swallow those first. The mass murder of ocean animals due to human pollution is extraordinary.
For me, animal welfare, the environment, and human health have always been intertwined. Ultimately, if people could focus on eating more organic plants, animals are better off (by reducing the demand for them, you reduce suffering), the planet is better off (by reducing the demand for animals, you reduce the environmental degradation that comes from feeding and farming them) and people are better off because you lose weight with a higher fiber diet and plants give you more energy.
Today, it’s so awesome that we have many more choices to reduce our environmental footprints. Hip vegan restaurants are thriving now. People are bringing their own bags to go grocery shopping. Electric cars are on the road! I hope to buy mine in the next couple of years. And I just want to offer people yet another option to help by participating in Animal Run events.
Getting to your day-to-day life as a vegan, how do you balance the avoidance of animal meats with the nutritional demands of distance running?
It’s pretty easy. I went vegan the same year I ran my first 100 miler. We all know that veggies are good for us, but not too many people know that veggies have all the protein we need to maintain and build muscle. Broccoli, beans, chickpeas, nuts, lentils, organic tofu are all yummy and packed with nutrition. The only thing vegans cannot get from plants is Vitamin B-12 so I take a daily supplement. But I’ll admit I have to eat better. I lean a little too hard on nice cream, white rice, and bread. I will never be that stereotypical pale, skinny vegan. :)
As a runner who recognizes that the ethics of eating animal-protein is highly fraught (to say the least), I am curious if you have any recommendations for folks interested in learning more about plant-based diets. Are there any books or resources you might direct folks toward?
My personal favorite book for plant-based eating and running is Scott Jurek’s Eat & Run and it comes with recipes. But if you have any non-runners reading this article, it took me 10 years from saying “I should stop eating meat” to actually making the leap, so I don’t have a go-to short list of sources that flipped the switch for me.
I believe that if you ask any young child to choose between keeping an animal alive or killing it for food, the child will choose to eat something else. We just don’t give kids that choice because 95% of parents wouldn’t know how to accommodate it. What I’m saying is, inherently, we already know what to do. But we’ve been mentally and physically programmed to believe that we’ll get sick and die if we don’t eat animals. I’ve found the exact opposite to be true. I haven’t been sick in the three years I’ve been vegan except for one 48-hour bout with the flu two years ago.
I believe people need to make the shift to plant based on their own terms. And the message is finally getting traction. More people are considering alternatives to eating animals. Veganism is finally becoming cool.