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Collage of Bobby Howland

I don’t really do things halfway. I’m an all-or-nothing guy, and my health-and-wellness journey has been no exception.

Though I played baseball in college, I became less active when I started work as a manager in a large company. I didn’t think much about my health.

After about a year in the workforce, I had gained some weight and realized something needed to change. Even though I had always hated running, I had some friends who enjoyed it, and I really admired their fitness and dedication. Having seen their success, I wanted to give running a real try.

I almost gave it up a bunch of times. My form was terrible; I wore the wrong shoes. I ended up developing shin splints and experiencing knee and back pain. But I kept going, and with time, I kept improving. One of the most encouraging moments was when I realized I could wake up and run eight miles — a distance that would have seemed impossible to me five years earlier.

I began to love the clarity and stress relief I felt from running, too. I started thinking, OK, maybe I can actually do this. In 2009 I completed the Chicago Marathon and was hooked for good.

But even then, something was miss­ing. It felt good to be physically active, but I wanted to do something bigger, with a more meaningful purpose.

Finding Hope

About six years and several marathons later, I was still searching for that purpose. Then I learned about JAR of Hope, a New Jersey–based foundation started by Jim and Karen Raffone after their son Jamesy was diagnosed with Duchenne muscular dystrophy, an incurable, muscle-deteriorating disease.

When Jamesy was diagnosed, doctors told Jim and Karen that their son, then 4 years old, would probably need to use a wheelchair by age 12. He might become quadriplegic by 15, and he would most likely die of cardiac arrest in his 20s.

When I heard that story, I saw parents who were fighting to save their son’s life and needed support. As a father with a 2-year-old daughter at home, I couldn’t help but ask myself: What would I do if it were my kid?

Over the next few months, I helped raise close to $6,000 and ran the New York City Marathon for JAR of Hope. Although it was a hard run for me (our second daughter, Clara, had been born that year, and I hadn’t been able to train much), the experience felt so meaningful. I wanted to do more.

As my 35th birthday approached in 2018, I took inspiration from ultramarathon runner Dean Karnazes. In his book Ultramarathon Man, he describes running 30 miles when he turned 30. I decided to run my age on June 10 — my birthday — for Jamesy Raffone and JAR of Hope.

I wanted to use the run as an opportunity to raise awareness and funds for all the families whose children may never have the ability to run a mile. I planned to run my regular five-mile route seven times, with each lap dedicated to a family affected by Duchenne.

The whole town of Branchburg, N.J., rallied around my event, which became a big day of celebration. Local vendors supplied food, and a couple hundred people stopped by. We raised more than $7,000.

The Path to Plant-Based

I was high on life for the next two months: I had just run 35 miles for the foundation, I was getting accolades from the town, and families affected by Duchenne were reaching out to me with their thanks. It was two months of constant backslaps and excitement. I felt humbled and incredibly exhilarated.

I was also exhausted. Although I was physically active, I wasn’t in the best shape and my eating habits weren’t the greatest; I thought I would just outrun whatever I ate.

But my diet caught up with me at my daughter Clara’s second birthday party, when I ate way too much food. I probably put away an entire pizza by myself, and that was when I realized I had to change my relationship with food.

I had recently watched my friend Joe adopt a plant-based diet, work through the transition, and transform into what seemed like a superathlete, so I decided to see what it would do for me. And because I don’t do anything halfway, I went 100 percent vegan.

At first, I didn’t know what the heck I was doing. I just ate vegetables and fruits and nothing else. A few days in, I felt absolutely terrible. I got the sweats, as though I was eliminating all the processed foods I had been eating.

So I did some research and found more things to eat. With the support of my wife, Stephanie, I started making things like tofu scramble, edamame pasta, nut-butter sandwiches, and overnight oats — meals that would sustain energy and promote recovery.

After a few weeks, I felt a hundred times better, and not just in terms of recovery. I was at the top of my game all the time. I could wake up at 4 a.m., run 10 miles, work a full day, and go home to play with the kids. I had so much energy. I was like, Wow, this is it!

Zero to 100

Because my plant-based diet was doing so much for my health, I wanted my next event to test my limits and showcase the power of this diet. I decided to run to that year’s New Jersey VegFest — a vegan food festival — in Atlantic City, about 100 miles from my home.

When the day came, I took off around 3 a.m. I’d packed plenty of food — fruit-and-nut clusters, bananas, rice burritos, cold pasta, and energy gels — as well as shoes and clothing. I had two friends meet me along the way to act as my crew, and I planned to make regular pit stops to refuel, change shoes and clothes, that kind of thing. But I had never run more than 36 miles. It was a really humid summer day, I had blisters on my feet, and we had to take a detour when a road on our route was impassable.

Somehow, I fought through it all. I just knew my body had enough fuel, and that confidence was enough to keep me going when the run felt impossible. I completed the 100 miles to VegFest in about 25 hours.

Even though I wasn’t raising money for JAR of Hope that day, the foundation couldn’t have been more supportive. I plan to continue promoting plant-based eating, and I will run my age for the foundation as long as I can.

I don’t think I would have gotten to this point if I hadn’t found larger motivation with JAR of Hope and continued to push myself to the next level, both in terms of my fitness and my more purposeful diet.

The reality is, improving yourself doesn’t happen overnight. It takes a lot of time, and it helps to have a purpose driving you forward.

There’s so much potential in each of us. Pursue something that will put a smile on your face and don’t put limits on yourself. You may be amazed at what you can accomplish.

Bobby’s Top 3 Success Strategies

  1. Limit less, smile more. “Stop putting limits on your potential,” Bobby advises. “Go for something big that excites you and will put a smile on your face when you accomplish it.”
  2. Consider how you fuel your body. Bobby’s transition to a plant-based diet allowed him to reach previously unimaginable goals, helping him realize how important it is to fuel yourself properly. “You can’t outrun a bad diet,” he explains.
  3. Find what works. “What I do doesn’t have to be what other people do,” Bobby says. “I think you need to be willing to explore and see what’s right for your body.”

This originally appeared as “Running on Hope” in the May 2020 print issue of Experience Life.

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