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Lithuania is not what comes to mind when trail runners think of ultra running. Aukštojas Hill is the highest point in the country, coming in at a whopping elevation of 964 feet.
Nonetheless, one of the world’s strongest professional trail runners hails from this Baltic nation of 2.8 million—Gediminas Grinius. He’s an inspiring former military officer who served in both Iraq and Afghanistan before finding the sport and becoming one of the best in the world, securing a third place finish at UTMB Thailand last December.
Grinius believes his strongest muscle is between his ears. In fact, he recently spoke in Japan, sharing some of his tricks to stay mentally tough, and he’ll return again this June to run the Deep Japan Ultra. But just as Nepal’s Mira Rai finds comfort and nutrition from Nepalese daal, Grinius points to Lithuanian culinary staples as key aspects of his diet throughout his life and career, like homemade dark rye bread, fermented cabbage, and cepelinai—a large potato dumpling served with sour cream.
I caught up with Grinius in Thailand, fresh off his win at the Amazean Jungle Thailand’s Betong 100, to learn more about how traditional Lithuanian cuisine has helped fuel his record-breaking performances, like his run at the 2013 Baltic Cup 100 when he broke a 20-plus-year-old record.
Potatoes and Carbs
Grinius is always thinking about carbs when it comes to fueling his body for training and races. For him, that means potatoes.
“Potatoes are a good source of carbs,” he said. “And I’m a huge fan of potatoes.”
In fact, he fondly recalls walking two miles back-and-forth to school as a kid. It wasn’t necessarily the walk that brought a smile to his face, but rather the promise of fried potatoes from his grandmother to help load him up for the long walk every day.
“Now that I’m training, I’m doing pretty much the same thing,” he said. Indeed, he ate cepelinai during a carb load the day before his Baltic Cup 100 run in 2013. “Variety comes just from the dishes, but basically, the nutrition is the same.”
Head to the Halle Market in Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital tucked in the southeastern corner, near the Belarusian border, and here you’ll find cepelinai stuffed with ground meat and topped with bits of bacon. But Grinius, a vegetarian, opts instead for the cottage cheese filling (also an excellent source of protein, with roughly 28 grams per serving).
“You need the carbs during a hard training session,” he said. “That’s why I’m [eating] it a lot.”
That said, it’s the sour cream and onions on top that bring the dish together. Grinius doesn’t see these adding much significant nutritional value, for a trail runner, but as he puts it, “It gives a great taste.”
Building a Strong Stomach
For Grinius, perhaps even more essential for his diet are pickles and how they benefit his gut microbiome. Matthew Kadey is a registered dietician and food writer who often writes about the intersection of nutrition and performance. He recently did a deep dive on the importance of gut microbiome health for Triathlete.
“As scientists discover more about the microorganisms in your body, they’re uncovering important information about how influential it could be to athletes,” he wrote. “As it turns out, the balance of bacteria inside of you can have just as much impact on health and performance—if not more—than your genetics.”
Grinius couldn’t agree more.
“Ultras are won by the guys with the strongest stomachs,” Grinius told me. That means incorporating fermented foods into his diet, like pickled cucumbers, fermented cabbage, and kefir—a fermented milk that resembles thin yogurt. “We have a lot of cabbage in Lithuania,” said Grinius. “It’s such a great source of nutrition during the wintertime.”
When he was a kid, Grinius would help his parents collect fresh cabbage and chop them up. They’d then stuff the cabbage into a jar and press it with their fist to help release the water in the cabbage until it was completely covered, so the cabbage could begin fermenting.
“Running is more or less about continuity. To be able to do it continuously, you need to stay healthy.”
Grinius didn’t necessarily turn to fermented foods to improve his performance, and he doesn’t make a point of eating pickles for a specific meal or during a certain point of his training. They’ve just always been part of his life, since those early days growing up in Lithuania. It’s just what he naturally craves. He compares it to sugar. The more sugar you eat, the more your brain sends signals that you crave sugar. And for him, that’s pickles. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that he knows that they’re good for him and potentially keeps his stomach settled during those long runs in the jungle.
“Running is more or less about continuity,” he said. “To be able to do it continuously, you need to stay healthy. This is why these foods are so important in my daily life and daily routine. They provide the necessary health benefits so I can do what I love to do and run each and every day.”
Timing is Everything
It’s been a while since Grinius made cepelinai on his own. These days, he relies on his wife and mother-in-law, who he calls a “specialist,” when it comes to making cepelinai. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t know how it’s done.
“The timing is super important,” he said. “If [the cepelinai] is boiled too long, it becomes very soft and loses its shape.”
He also advises paying attention to the proportion between boiled potatoes and raw potatoes used when making cepelinai (I found about a third of your potatoes should be boiled). Finding the right balance gives the dish a silkier texture.
Before he shares his wife’s recipe (the same used by his mother), Grinius offers one last tip:
“In Lithuania, you usually find home-grown potatoes that make the best cepelinas. You need to buy your potatoes in Lithuania.”
Recipe: Lithuanian Cepelinai
- 1kg raw potatoes (~7 medium potatoes) + 3-4 boiled potatoes (about 333g)
- 1 tsp kosher salt
- 500g cottage cheese
- Peel all of the potatoes. Grate 1kg of them and put the rest to the side for now.
- Place the 1kg of grated potatoes into a cheesecloth and squeeze it over a bowl. Save this liquid and allow the starch to settle.You’ll add the starch back to the grated potatoes in a later step.
- Meanwhile, boil 3 – 4 potatoes and mash them.
- Mix the cooked potatoes, the raw potatoes and the starch, salt them, and knead them well.
- For the cottage cheese filling, beat the cottage cheese well with 1 egg. Add a pinch of kosher salt and sugar, mix well.
- Take about 80g of the potato dough, flatten it out, add the filling (about the size of a chicken egg per cepelinai), crimp the edges, and make elongated balls.
- Place the balls in boiling salted water and cook 20 to 25 minutes, stirring gently.
- Once cooked, they can be topped with melted butter, fried onions, mushrooms and sour cream.
Joe Baur is a travel writer, cook, recipe creator, filmmaker, and podcaster. His work is featured in a variety of domestic and international outlets, including BBC Travel, Food52, Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Eater, National Geographic, and others. Explore more of his Trail Runner endurance food dispatches here.