Interview: Lia Belardo, Triathlete and All-Around Badass

lia_main2.png

Lia Belardo is a fixture in the Philadelphia vegan community. As the head of Team Humane League Philly and a fierce triathlete, she has swum, biked, and run hundreds of miles #fortheanimals. She’s also been vegan for nearly two decades and has seen a ton of innovation in that time. I sat down with her over coffee to discuss marathon running, triathlon body politics, and how being vegan in the late 90s compares to being vegan in 2018.

POF: Let’s start with the basics. Where did you grow up?

LB: I’m from Westchester County, New York. And then I spent a lot of time in the Adirondacks when I was younger doing competitive skiing. So I would do summers and winters in the Adirondacks and then school in Westchester County.

POF: How long have you been vegan, and what prompted you to make the transition in the first place?

LB: My mom says that I went vegetarian at 12 watching a video in health class. But I don’t believe her; I don’t remember that. I definitely remember going vegetarian when I was 16. I was in Italy, and I got this steak that was fried weird and looked gross and was smelly, and all of a sudden I just decided I was vegetarian. When I was 18, I went vegan, so that makes it 18 years and 9 months. I went vegan the May that I graduated from high school. I remember the last non-vegan thing I had was at a pizzeria, and I was just like, “Alright I’m vegan now.”

POF: Do you think growing up where you did had a positive, negative, or any impact at all on you going vegan?

LB: Yeah. Where I’m from is a very privileged area- I would say one of the most privileged places in America. And we were very lucky, so I had a health food store down the street from me. I had access to TVP, and I had friends that would go, “Oh we found this nutritional yeast- what is that? That’s so weird!” This was 1997. My mom and dad were super supportive. They definitely thought it was a phase, but they went out of their way to do everything. Plus, I was 40 minutes door-to-door to NYC and would go all the time. I went to vegan restaurants in New York, and I would go to concerts in New York. My Friday night would be spent at CBGB or ABC No Rio. And then we would go to Kate’s Joint or Caravan of Dreams- all these restaurants are closed now. I had a lot of friends that were vegan. Even though it wasn’t popular in America, it was definitely popular within the punk rock/ hardcore community. So you would go to a show and everyone would be vegan. We didn’t have Gardein. No Daiya. Cheese was a little gross. But we definitely had the community.

Once you figure out how easy it is to be vegan, you can figure out anything.

POF: That definitely makes it easier. How did you notice your life change after going vegan?

LB: I think I opened my eyes to all the other implications of the world. Starting vegetarian and going vegan let me be in a place where I could observe other injustices. Sweatshop labor, fast fashion, fair trade chocolate, and coffee beans are really important to me. And I don’t think I would’ve gotten the social justice perspective if I hadn’t been open to the first step. Veganism was easy to me- it was easy to empathize with animals. It’s not so easy to empathize with people you don’t know or that you don’t have any interaction with. So I think that intersectional lens came from my ability to have compassion for the animals. And once you figure out how easy it is to be vegan, you can figure out anything.

                        Lia and Baci

                       Lia and Baci

POF: True, you prove something to yourself that way. Moving on to fitness- when and why did it become such a central part of your life?

LB: Yeah, so I went to Pace University in Manhattan and got REAL into music. I worked at concert venues, went on tour with bands, and would go to shows all the time. I would eat extremely unhealthy, just out drinking and partying all night. I drove across the country seven times. When you’re on tour, you don’t sleep. You don’t do anything really, except show/ parking lot/ show/ venue/ show... You lose your hearing. I’m like deaf.

Anyway, I rescued this dog, Baci, who’s my best friend. She’s from a tough situation and was having behavior and aggression issues. The behaviorist that I had hired said, “Maybe you should take her on a jog, maybe she would run around,” and I was just thinking, “Yeah right. I’m gonna take this dog on a run, sure. I can barely walk to my office.” I was 215-220 pounds, just real unhealthy. But I just started taking Baci on these 1-mile runs which I called “the longest mile.” It was hard. I ran to the Jacob Javitz Center. It has some grass, and Baci liked to poop there. And then we ran back, so one full mile loop. And that was just how I started running. It was cute. I didn’t run more than a mile or two until my first 5k, which was 2009 I think.  

POF: Oh wow. So how did you start doing marathons?

LB: My first 5k was the Run for Clean Air, and the main reason I signed up for it was my friend was a serious environmentalist and she was like, “I wanna support the Clean Air Council!” And I was like, “Okay!” So I ran it. Halfway through there was a water station, and I stopped and was talking to random volunteers because I couldn’t finish. I really took my time with that. Then I thought I would try to do the Rothman 8k which was 5 miles. The Humane League had Team Vegan in Philly at the time. I just moved to Philly and didn’t have a ton of friends, so I was like, “I’m gonna join this Team Vegan and see if I could run.” But at the time they were real fast runners, so I never went to any of the practices because I was like, “Oh my god these people are very intimidating.” Then I ran the 5 mile race. And then I started Team Humane League when the Team Vegan organizer left.

POF: And Team Vegan was just the same people?

LB: Yeah we just changed the name. Vegan Outreach also had a Team Vegan so we wanted to switch it up. I wanted it to be not all-vegan because we would be missing out on a gigantic outreach opportunity to get people who aren’t vegan to come hang out and see how much fun and easy it is to be vegan. We have a lot of vegan-branded merchandise because I would like people to kind of get inspired by that. Hopefully our outfits are cool. We’re coming out with triathlon kits and sports bras and windbreakers. I wanted Team Humane League to be open to all levels. You can come walk, you can come run, or you could do weightlifting. We have a yoga challenge. We have somebody who did pole dancing. We have people who do all types of things. You don’t have to be a runner. We like everybody.

POF: And how did you start doing triathlons?

lia3.png

LB: This is a funny story. So one day I was taking a cab to work, kind of depressed. It was October and raining and I was stressed out at my current job. I listened to a Rich Roll podcast and he goes, “Yeah, I think anyone could do a triathlon,” and I was like “Alright yeah, I could do a triathlon.” I go into my office and google “Ironman triathlon.” I saw that there were half Ironmans and thought, “Gosh, I didn’t even know that a half Ironman existed!” I thought triathlon was JUST Ironman. And I guess that’s what Rich Roll was talking about. So I signed up for the half Ironman that same day, not knowing how to swim. I’m still a terrible swimmer.

So I got swim lessons. I didn’t have a coach or anything at the time- I just started doing something every day. No training plan. And the times weren’t good. I also, by accident, picked one of the hardest half Ironmans in the country.

POF: Which one?

LB: Syracuse. It’s really hard. The hills are really hard. All Ironman races are hard in some way- the distance of the 70.3 is a challenge- but that one is extremely challenging. I have friends up there and one of my friends owns a restaurant. I just like going to Syracuse, so I was like, “Alright this is the one I’m gonna do!” And I finished it.

POF: That’s amazing. And how many have you done?

LB: I’ve done that Syracuse one four times. I also race in Athena division. For Ironman branded triathlons they don’t have it but for other triathlons they do. It’s the bigger body category, so over 165 pounds. I try to do the majority of my races in that category. I feel like I’m more motivated to compete because I place a lot of the time. I came in first at Rev3 Quassy 70.3, and I came in first at Hammonton Sprint Triathlon last year. I find that I get more excited racing in that category because I’m more motivated. If someone passes me with the A on their back, I try to catch them. In a regular triathlon I’m kind of just chillin and ~thinkin bout stuff~. When I’m racing in Athena I have that motivation like, “OHHH you gotta be on it because you could be first or you could be second!”

At first I was struggling because people’s bodies are not anyone else’s to comment on, and I’ve had a lot of issues with that. Sometimes when I win, people will be like, “Get her on the scale! Make sure she’s the correct weight!” I’ve had people Facebook threaten me, like, “We saw you win, we wanna see your weight.” And that’s rude. You get shaming on both sides. The Athenas and the Clydesdales (the male counterpart) get like no respect in the USA triathlon world. But then, amongst other Athenas, if you don’t fit “the look” that other people want... I’ve been personally harassed by other ladies. It’s really challenging because it’s no one’s place to comment on anyone’s body. It just isn’t. If you don’t have anything nice to say, just don’t say it. And you shouldn’t have a category if you’re not gonna promote it.

There’s pressure to get a low race weight, to be a certain size.

POF: Do you think that body shaming is as prevalent amongst men as it is the women?

LB: I don’t know, but among women triathletes there’s a lot. There’s pressure to get a low race weight, to be a certain size. Everyone’s talking about shaving off pounds before their bike rides and their runs. And I’ve just never been a thin person. I’m okay with it- I don’t know why everyone else isn’t okay with it! I usually let it go. But I do think that if we all keep sweeping it under the rug, it’s never going to be confronted. So this year I made a real attempt to focus on being an Athena and being proud of that category. I’m trying to do a lot more races that offer it this year. I think that it’s important, especially as women are debating getting into triathlon. It’s a life changing sport. People see this skinny, perfect looking human on a $10k bicycle geared up with all these accessories and they say, “I have a hybrid and I’m overweight- this isn’t for me.” It IS for you! You just don’t have to do that type of racing. I did Ironman Lake Placid on a road bike, and I don’t have a triathlon bike. You could literally do a sprint triathlon on a beach cruiser with flip flops if you wanted. And there are triathlons that are available for all levels.

POF: What are you currently training for, and what are you excited about?

LB: Team Humane League is doing the NJ Marathon. I’ve run it before, and I would like to get a better time, so I’m trying to speed up a little. We’re getting these shirts that are gonna say WE RUN NJ and they’re Bruce Springsteen themed because we run through Asbury park. The shirts are gonna be fresh, so I’m excited about it.

And then I’m doing Rev3 Quassy Olympic Triathlon, which I’m racing in Athena. As of now, I’m doing Ironman Syracuse 70.3 again. Then I’m doing Ironman Lake Placid July 22nd which is 2.4 swim, 112 bike, and a marathon. And then hopefully I will do a fall marathon.

 Miss Rachel's mac and cheese

Miss Rachel's mac and cheese

POF: So we’ll transition to food. What does a typical day in your diet look like and does it change according to your training?

LB: When I’m not training for Ironmans, my diet is pretttty bad. I really like Gardein, and all the meat and cheese substitutes. Being vegan in 1999, we had Veganrella which was this weird plastic-y looking cheese which didn’t melt and was- it was disgusting. Anyway, I sound like a real old person, but nowadays I feel like the meat and dairy substitutes are amazing. Maybe not the healthiest thing- healthier than the real thing, animal secretions, but not healthy. And I kind of feel like a kid in a candy store because it has been SO LONG that I’ve had things like reallllly good ice cream. With all these new products, it’s like winning the lottery every day.

When I’m training, totally different diet. I do an anti-inflammatory whole food plant based (WFPB) diet. My sister is a cardiologist and she does WFPB no oil. She really is helpful and goes out of her way to help make my diet. Lots of sweet potatoes and black beans. I love the website LIGHTER. You can customize your meal plan based on your influences. Let’s say you like Dr. Greger from NutritionFacts.org, you can pick him and you know all those diet options are gonna be fantastic. You can sync it to your grocery list, and then all my meals for the week are laid out. It’s a real good timesaver.

I’m also a big grocery delivery person. I get my Lighter grocery list, send it to my delivery service, and then get it right away. I have all my meals planned and then they’re all super duper healthy and delicious. And with the Lighter website, you can choose by what tools you have in the kitchen. You can choose by your kitchen skills, and I want something where my cooking skills [don’t need to be] great. So you have the beginner like me, or you have the expert. There’s all types of intricate meals, so it’s something for everyone. It’s run by ethical vegans but it’s not an ethically vegan push. It just makes everything easy.

I also do a lot with sweet potato and black beans, my favorite combination for recovery. I’m a real magnesium enthusiast. So I do calcium, magnesium, and vitamin D every night. I do Vega Recovery which has a lot of magnesium, and then I do the GU branched chain amino acid pills which are good for muscle repair and recovery. The book THRIVE by Brendan Brazier really helped me. When I eat like that, I get better sleep, I have better mental health, I feel more energized. And I also feel like I recover so well. I’ll be running ten miles and then swimming a mile and feel the same way I feel running 4 miles eating vegan mac and cheese. You really do feel good, it’s really energizing.   

I also love my treat meals at Miss Rachel’s Pantry, for sure. Like, LOVE it. I can’t even tell you. All of her vegetables are locally sourced. I love all her beet products- she does these smoked beets that are just amazing. It’s all freshly prepared vegetables that are made with care. So that, for me, would be a good treat meal.

POF: Would you say that Miss Rachel’s is your favorite Philly vegan restaurant?

LB: Oh definitely. Miss Rachel’s and Blackbird. And I like Soy Cafe a lot. I actually wrote an article for VegNews about my favorite Philly restaurants!

I think once you take the step to see where your food comes from, it gives you the ability to take other steps.

POF: So wrapping it up, how do you see the plant-based community and industry changing within the next 5 years?

LB: I think that clean meat is gonna change the world. They can engineer the meat to be, let’s say, less fat or more omegas. The future is here, it’s coming. WFPB is always going to be healthier for your heart, your wellbeing, your mindset. Living in a cruelty-free fashion is so freeing because every day you know that you’re doing the least harm. But, some people are not gonna change for the animals, they are not gonna change for human rights, some people are not gonna change at all. But once you can get that clean meat out and cheaper, people are going to take it. Plus, you don’t have the growth hormones, antibiotics, and cancerous tumors they cut out of animals. Why would you not take the meat that’s grown in the way that you make Cheerios? It’s a no-brainer.

Where do I see the vegan community going? I see it expanding. At one point, I feel like I knew every vegan in Philadelphia. Now, you can meet people that you don’t even know [that they’re vegan]. I was at a conference not too long ago and somebody was like, “Oh I can’t have that, I’m vegan,” and I was like, “Oh okay, I’m vegan too! We can go to this restaurant.” There are secret vegans everywhere. We’re expanding, we’re growing. I think it’s only going to open the door to other social justice movements such as ethical sourcing, intersectionality, supporting POC-owned businesses, and small businesses owned by women. I think once you take the step to see where your food comes from, it gives you the ability to take other steps.

Danielle Kocher