From serving on the frontline to getting through PTSD: running has always been a part of vegan ultra-runner Paul Minter’s life. Now, he’s training for the run of his life: nearly 10,000 km around the circumference of the UK.
“I thought I’d have to catch the attention of the public. How do I do that? Run around the edges of the whole nation,” says Paul Minter, military man and founder of mental health charity Head Up.
After having experienced the darkest year of his life, Head Up was launched in Minter’s efforts to promote and protect the armed forces’ mental health. Ultimately, he wants to provide facilities, equipment and services that support their rehabilitation. And how is he going to accumulate the necessary funds? He’s going to run a world record-breaking 10,000 km.
Growing up in East London, Minter reminisces about the cross-country runs he adored, which so many of his classmates dreaded. He never took shortcuts, instead choosing to enjoy the fact that he was a champion at something most people didn’t like.
Though he never took it to a professional level, the charity CEO says running has always been a part of his life on a solo level. He emphasises the effects it has had on his mental health: “I now understand why your hormones, dopamine and serotonin, are engaged and stimulated when you move. Going out, even just for 10 minutes in the morning, or the evening, or when you’re stressed is so important.”
Running isn’t the only thing that brings the amateur athlete happiness. He says he’s always had a strong connection with animals too. But it wasn’t until Covid-19 and the lockdown that he joined the dots between animals and food.
“I’ve always been naïve about where meat comes from. I looked at things as a burger, or bacon, and I completely shut my mind off to not look at them as animals,” Minter explains. His girlfriend, who was already vegan, opened his eyes up to the health implications of meat and dairy, and showed him documentaries like Cowspiracy, What the Health, and The Game Changers. Minter describes how he remembers “every image very vividly”: “I couldn’t physically contribute to that ever again. Just looking at their eyes, their personality and the fear that comes out.”
Though he has a soft spot for animals, Head Up’s founder says that adding environmental and health implications onto this made switching to veganism a no-brainer. But how was he going to fuel his body?
“That was my biggest worry, I asked myself: ‘What am I going to eat?’” Minter quickly found that most plant-based foods actually contain high levels of protein and fibre, both ideal in the building and recovery of muscles. Now, Minter is proud to be living off a principally vegetable- and nut-based diet. In the lead-up to his run, he has received a lot of support from the plant-based industry. Raw Sport and LoveSeitan, for example, are ensuring Paul is provided with all the protein powder and food he will need for the 10,000 km circuit.
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He is due to be discharged from the army in November, but expresses the difficulties he would face if he were to have returned to the frontline as a vegan: “It’s not impossible, just difficult.”
Alongside the lack of choice, which mainly consists of “weird mashed potatoes” and “bits of manky carrots”, the army is renowned for its “testosterone environment”, which Minter says makes a lot of military men alienate themselves from the idea of veganism. “They simply don’t understand why you wouldn’t eat meat,” he notes.
‘Trying to treat a burns victim while they’re still in a fire’
For almost 18 years, Minter went back and forth between the frontline in Iraq and Afghanistan and home — seven months at a time, for five tours. On the frontline, the runner explains he felt fully engaged, believing in everything he was doing. But after years of back and forth, with his subconscious constantly on high alert, the way he perceived reality started to deteriorate.
“Sometimes I’d be in a meeting and someone would be talking, and I couldn’t hear anything, and then there would be a chair screeching down the corridor. And I would ask myself: ‘What is wrong with me?’” he recounts. Anxiety, paranoia and depression soon followed, and this is when he started noticing how many other men around him were falling too: “There was a bad epidemic of soldiers committing suicide.”
Luckily, Minter was surrounded by people who pushed him to ask for help. But he says that getting treatment for PTSD when he was still in the field and surrounded by military personnel “was like trying to treat a burns victim while they’re still in a fire”. So the soldier was put on permanent leave.
After a year at home, spent in what he describes “his worst place”, he reached a turning point. “One day, at about two or three o’clock in the morning, I sprung out of bed and said I couldn’t keep living like this. The first thing I did was put my running trainers on, grabbed my confused dog, and I did a 10-mile run. That was the start of me getting better.”
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The first step for him was accepting he needed to change things. For many men in the military, who Minter says are stubborn, admitting to having a problem is where they get stuck. “Dozens of men in the military have suffered in silence because they are in a position of power, have subordinates that look up to them and superiors they want to impress.” But with a reputation he says was quite “tough”, the charity founder hopes his speaking up will inspire other army personnel to break the stigma too.
When Minter finally decided he wanted to leave the army, he received many different job offers. But setting up Head Up was something that soon took priority. His ultimate vision is to develop a retreat completely separate to the battlefield: eco-friendly, relaxing and with plenty of space for current and ex-soldiers to learn the positive mindset training that got Minter through his PTSD.People will be able to stay for anywhere between seven and 21 days at a time, and they will engage in exercise, nutrition lessons and mindfulness. “I want to show people that even by going for a 10-minute walk, and doing a good deed for someone, you will ignite your serotonin and feel joyful and happy.”
The hope is that once people leave this retreat, they will be able to implement these techniques in every part of their life.
The countdown to the run
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Minter’s big run starts on November 28, the day after his official discharge from the army. Though he has only ever run three formal marathons, the ultra-runner is confident that he will definitely get through the entire route successfully.
What will he bring with him? “I’ve got this weird obsession with carrots,” he tells me, laughing.
In his lifetime, Minter says he has run about 30 marathons, several Ironman Triathlons, and after closely following renowned vegan athlete Scott Jurek, he feels he will be well-prepared for the route. “Sometimes I’ll run 28 miles by myself just before breakfast and that’s my day,” he says.
The route will cover all corners of the country, and unlike previous attempts, the ultra-runner is not cutting off the north of Scotland or Northern Ireland. The runner will be completing the challenge over a long period, so needs any help he can get regarding places to sleep, as well as fellow runners who might want to join, Forrest Gump-style.
So look out for Minter, who will most certainly be in an ultra-runner vest top lined with baby carrots.