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The wolf and the runner of Carterton

Fabiano Petroni used to be 110kg, depressed and an alcoholic. Now he runs distances that mere mortals wouldn’t dare consider. Julian Warmington reports.

Fabiano Petroni is a runner. He runs ultra long-distance marathons of more than 50 kilometres … regularly.

It is a serious achievement for anyone, but especially stunning from a compact-sized Brazilian-born Kiwi who used to be overweight, a heavy drinker and a bad space.

In less than two years, he has completely turned around his health and motivation, achieving a level of fitness few bother to even try to achieve, and won a prized spot as brand ambassador for a racing nutrition company.

It’s especially impressive for a kid born of drug dealer parents in the slums of Brazil. His mother was 17 when Fabiano, the first of her children, was born.

He was lucky: Unlike his siblings, he didn’t see his father murdered when he was 8 years old because his grandparents had adopted him by then.

But he still grew up unsure of whether he’d eat any of the regular diet of salad, rice, and beans, and maybe beef or chicken once a day.

Now he’ll proudly tell you he’s a healthier 67kg. Just don’t ask him where he gets his protein. Hint: it’s not meat or dairy.

Fabiano bounces several steps from the back door in Carterton, smiling and handshake at the ready.

His clothes match his energy and singular focus: with his purple-mauve cap, purple-on-black striped sports shirt, and black and yellow running shoes, he’s race-ready for any trail.

Inside he tells the story of the weekend in February near Rotorua for the Tarawera Ultra, a 100 miler and an international event.

Fabiano ran all day and all night. In the darkest depths of night before dawn, he began hallucinating a storybook picture of a wolf hunting him.

“I was running with trail running poles for balance, and stabbed at branches on the ground because they looked like snakes. And there was a cartoon-style storybook wolf following me from behind the trees” he says with a laugh.

But Fabiano is dead serious about his new identity. “I AM a runner. I’m reading Atomic Habits at the moment, and this IS my new identity.

“I go to work to earn money, so I can run. It’s a good job because it’s 9-to-5 so I can come home and just train every day.”

It would be too easy to say Fabiano is running from his past identity with long hair like an aging ‘80s rocker, overweight, and an unhappy marriage ending a couple of years ago.

He certainly looks different in a shaven head, sports clothes, and a smile, but his regular day job offers consistency.

The software engineer with Weta Digital was so caught up in his work and new lifestyle he barely noticed when Avatar: The Way of Water came out.

A friend invited him to see it in a nearly deserted Embassy theatre after the crowds thinned down and it was about to end its run on screen.

“I’d been working on that film for 10 years and seen parts of it many times. I was in no rush to watch the whole thing!”

And he was in no rush to make changes to his diet, either. He had heard of the great US ultra-marathon runner Scott Jurek’s plant-based approach to training and lifestyle.

It was not until his first 50km race, the Valley Ultra out of Ashburton in November 2021, when he first tried training and racing on a purely plant-based nutritional programme.

He had no more stomach ache and recovered more quickly.

Connecting the dots between daily health and wider sustainability issues, he is now committed to a vegan lifestyle, despite even his partner not being of the same mindset, yet.

The only drawback he sees to being vegan is bemused boredom with the question when people ask him where he gets his protein.

Mark Drew of Tailwind Nutrition, Fabiano’s race sponsor, says maybe only 20 to 30 per cent of the fully plant-based company’s 50 New Zealand ambassadors are actually full-time plant-based or vegan in their lifestyle.

“You find a lot of endurance athletes have gone plant-based, but Tailwind was plant-based before it was cool. Tailwind is dairy free because of GI [gastronal intestine] issues. Puking your guts out was just part and parcel of long-distance training, but dairy-free products avoid that.”

Whatever the Tailwind’s nutritional strengths may be, sponsorship decisions are not based on physical evidence alone. Drew uses the word “inclusive” a lot.

“We don’t care how good or bad you are as an athlete. People phone me and email me their race resume, but we don’t give a shit how good you are as a runner. In fact, we prefer if you’re slower because you’ll consume more product!

“All jokes aside, we have a product that we’re trying to sell that helps people take on their endurance events, but we’re about community, connecting people who can share their challenges.”

Fabiano certainly saw his relationship with Tailwind as a good fit, liking the product’s sustainability as much as its health benefits.

He speaks with pride and excitement of how he targeted the company for sponsorship a full half year before the company from Durango, Colorado, was even prepared to consider Kiwi brand ambassadors for the new year.

Drew echoed that obvious drive and determination in Fabiano’s character.

“We got chatting six months before we opened applications for ambassadors. Fabiano has a wonderful backstory: Folks can see and identify with his story of just getting active. Fabiano lives and breathes that passion. I want people to recognise the journey he’s been on, and to see themselves in him.”

Back in the Carterton cottage, Fabiano says he loves training in the hills of the Wairarapa and easily lists three favourite local tracks as being perfect for trail racing.

Preparing for his weekly long run on Sundays, he says he’s planning on the Mitre Peak trail. He’s not expecting to see a wolf haunting his trail this weekend.

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