Chow down on plant-based eats galore at the two-day New Jersey VegFest.

by Alex Biese, Asbury Park Press

Over the decades he has spent running around the world, Scott Jurek has witnessed history.

Jurek, a legendary ultrarunner and vegan, is one of the world’s foremost plant-based athletes.

Speaking with Alex Biese, co-host of the USA Today Network and Asbury Park Press’ “Fan Theory” pop culture podcast at the Atlantic City Vegan Food Festival in July, Jurek discussed veganism’s growing acceptance in the mainstream.

“The plant-based movement is thriving and going strong right now,” Jurek. “It’s cool that it’s become more mainstream, too. It’s not a bunch of oddballs and freaks, people that are just, say, a little bit off-kilter. Now, I think it’s really opened up into other avenues.

“And being an endurance athlete and a runner, you see that where people may have been first runners and (are) now becoming vegan because they the effects in their lifestyle, they see the effects on the race course and the goals that they want to achieve. And then outside of the endurance and running world, you’re seeing it in other sports and it’s just becoming much more acceptable.”

And then, of course, there’s the food. Speaking with “Fan Theory” in the midst of the festival at the Showboat Hotel Atlantic City, Jurek was surrounded by some of the East Coast’s best food vendors, including Screamer’s Pizzeria of Brooklyn, Prospect Park-based empanada experts Freakin’ Vegan, and the vegan-friendly Atlantic City and Hoboken-based pizza spot Tony Baloney’s, among countless others.

“You’ve got vendors here that are doing just mind-boggling things with food and making vegan food not just be semi-substitutes for the foods that people are used to,” Jurek said. “But I think that comfort food can help people make the jump, and then of course they can always clean their diet to the level that they need to.

“But I think we’ve got to be more accepting, and an event like this really brings that acceptance level up and (is) welcoming people to a new lifestyle. That’s what it is, it’s a lifestyle.”

New Jersey VegFest, the folks behind the Atlantic City Vegan Food Festival, present their final vegan pop-up shop scheduled for 2018 from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 26, at Convention Hall, 1300 Ocean Ave., Asbury Park Boardwalk. Tickets are $5 in advance, $10 at the door.

Jurek’s accomplishments include winning the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run seven consecutive times. He was featured in Christopher McDougall’s hit 2009 book “Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen,” and told his own story in the 2012 memoir “Eat and Run: My Unlikely Journey to Ultramarathon Greatness.”

Jurek set an Applachian Trail speed record in 2015, a feat he and his wife Jenny documented in the new book “North: Finding My Way While Running the Appalachian Trail,” released in April. He made his running return to New Jersey at the Atlantic City festival, which featured a 5K and 10K run down the city’s boardwalk.

“I live at 5,000 feet with dry mountain air, so it’s always good to mix it up. And I feel like the event went great, we had almost 400 people run,” Jurek said hours after crossing the finish line. “And I haven’t actually been to a VegFest where they’ve had a 5 or 10K (run) going on, and I think it was just a nice touch. People came together, ran. It wasn’t serious competitive. People were all welcomed, and it was just fun to see that energy out there.”

Jurek also discussed how his time running New Jersey’s portion of the Appalachian Trail ran counter to his vision of what New Jersey terrain would be like.

“I know you’ve got outdoor, remote places … but I thought where the Appalachian Trail went was going to be more like just the backside of an industrial area and more urban-esque or just on the edge of urban,” Jurek said. “and I didn’t realize just how remote or how rugged the trail could be.

“In fact, I thought, ‘Oh, New Jersey, I’ll be able to make some ground here,’ and it actually beat me up. It was good. .. and it is a lot of variety, too. There’s boardwalk actually, so much like Atlantic City here, it had some boardwalk sections through the swampy lowlands, and then some very rugged, mountainous terrain.

“At (Delaware) Water Gap, when you get into New Jersey, it’s always surprising to think that, ‘Oh, this is New Jersey.’ There’s some pretty good terrain there where you go up some 1,500-foot climbs, for sure.”

This article originally appeared in the Asbury Park Press.

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