If Rich Roll‘s before and after photos don’t capture your attention, his story of going from overweight and unhhealthy to becoming an elite (and much happier) athlete will. Laid out in his new book, Finding Ultra, Roll’s transformation isn’t just impressive on a physical level (although his completion of five Ironman-distance triathlons within one week is astonishing); it’s also inspiring to anyone who feels stuck in a rut, as he did just six years ago.
To learn more about how he went from an overweight, unhappy recovering alcohol to an elite athlete with hundreds of miles of competition under his belt, we talked to Rich about his new book and how he got to where he is. Check it out:
How would you describe yourself before you became an athlete?
I was an athlete in high school and college, so I had experience being an athlete, but when college sports was over, that was it, and life became about law school, my job, career, getting married, raising kids, and all that “normal” stuff. So as I approached my 40th birthday, athletics, fitness, health and all of those things weren’t really a part of my life at all. My life was really just about moving up the corporate ladder, and health-wise, I felt terrible. I had put on a lot of weight, I was lethargic, depressed, unmotivated, and I was like that Henry David Thoreau quote: “The mass of men lead quiet lives of desperation.” I’d done everything I was supposed to, I’d followed the rules, gotten into the good schools, got the right job and all that kind of stuff, and found myself dissatisfied and disillusioned. And on some level, I guess, I felt cheated; I had everything I’d asked for and yet here I was dissatisfied. There was a hole in my spirit, so to speak, and a yearning for something more.
After having this sort of health epiphany, I embarked on this journey of plant-based nutrition, getting fit again, and becoming a competitive athlete in my forties. On the surface, it’s the story of a guy who lost a bunch of weight and then went on to kick ass in sports. But it’s really about finding your bliss and tapping into what you’re meant to be, and walking through the fear, and finding the tools and resources to become that. It’s really a story of becoming whole, I suppose.
One of the taglines for your book is that you rejected middle age–which a lot of people can relate to. But what specifically is it that you wanted to avoid?
I think turning 40 is a pivotal moment for a lot of people. It’s just one of those times where you look in the mirror and kind of take stock of your life and what got you to where you are and what’s missing and where you want to go. Mid-life crisis is kind of a pejorative term for it, but it’s a moment in time when it’s appropriate to take an inventory of where things stand, and I think “rejecting middle age” is really a way of saying “it’s never too late” to pursue your dreams.
A lot of people I know are stuck in jobs, high-paying or not, and they just kind of resign themselves to it. That latent dream deferred just gets pushed aside and they sort of think to themselves “maybe in the next life” or “I’m just too busy; the boss is calling the kids are crying and I need to make that phone call right now,” and it just never happens. The message of rejecting middle age is a call to action to dust off that thing that you always wanted to do, whether it’s playing the guitar, doing stand-up comedy, or whatever it might be. In my case it just happened to be endurance athletics, but that’s just a metaphor for pursuing something in your life that makes you happy. And realizing that no matter what your circumstances are you can still find a way to pursue and achieve those things, and at a minimum, incorporate them into your life to be a more actualized and full human being.
I think that at its core what I’m trying to say is that if you’re doing what you love, you’re doing a better place. You’re a happier person, and the world is enriched by that, even if it’s illogical or frivolous.
In the book, you describe an emotional scene that was the catalyst for your transformation. But the process of going from overweight and unhealthy to an elite athlete doesn’t happen overnight. What were the practical steps you took in your transformation?
It all started with changing my diet. Adopting a whole food, plant-based is really the basis of everything that followed. As a result of doing this complete dietary overhaul, I experienced such a resurgence in vitality and energy that it sort of opened me up on a physical and spiritual level to ask “what comes next?” and I just had a deep yearning to get fit again. I didn’t have any aspirations or fantastical goals about competing or doing anything crazy, I just wanted to feel better. All the energy I was experiencing from this dietary shift just naturally led me to exercising again.
The book makes it sound like it was overnight, but it was really two years from when I changed my diet to the first ultraman competition, and in between in was a slow process of getting fit, experiencing results and realizing how much I loved it. And then trying to find a challenge that I could sink my teeth into. When I first read about the Ultraman, it was one of those moments in life where something just clicks and you know what you’re supposed to be doing. It was that inexplicable kind of thing where it’s like “this is for me; I’m gonna be doing this, I know it.” Not on a logical level but on a purely primal level.
So once that took root in me, that desire to do this, then the steps I took towards achieving that were very practical. I hired a coach, who had experience with training athletes for something like this, and we formulated a training plan to get me ready, and I stuck to the plan. I learned more about nutrition while I was training and continued to refine my dietary approach, and strictly adhered to the training plan set out by my coach to get me there.
It wasn’t rocket science it was really a matter of putting in the work. But, it was what I wanted to be doing, so even though the time commitment was massive, I embraced it and found ways to restructure my life around it so that I could still maintain balance—you know, I’m married, I have four kids; I know other guys who have marital problems because they get involved in endurance sports, it’s a very common thing, and you know, I had to find ways of retooling my professional life, my training and my family to make all the pieces fit so that I could maintain harmony at home which is the most important thing to me.
A lot of people tackle the same things–middle age, weight loss, etc.–with 5ks and half-marathons. Why Ultras?
There was something very appealing to me about the world of ultra distance running and triathlons. People are learning about it more and more, but it’s still very much a fringe sport; there aren’t a lot of people doing it. Races are just these small groups of very devoted people; if you show up to an Ironman or marathon and there’s thousands of people, and expos and booths and advertising dollars and all sorts of things that have nothing to do with the actual pursuit of the race itself. There’s a certain purity that remains in ultra distances that doesn’t really exist with these other races anymore.
They’re less about competition and winning and your time than they are about a communal spiritual journey. When you’re dealing with these distances that are this vast, you’re really forced to go inside in a way that, if you’re running a 5k or 100-yard dash, doesn’t really come up. Not only do you face your demons and pain threshold in a way that shorter distances don’t require, but your mind is really forced to be present with what you’re doing, you really have to be in the moment. In an eight or 10 hour race there’s times when you’re really in a lot of pain. Sometimes it’s just about getting through the next 20 feet, and you have to really root yourself in the moment. Something happens where I just get more acquainted with who I am, and as a result of doing it, I feel it makes me a better person.
It’s funny, I’ve spoken to other endurance athletes, and you all say similar things about going inside of yourself during these events.
It really is an active meditation. For me it’s just as much about being a meditation practice as it is an athletic event, and that’s the draw for me. That’s what distinguishes it from other athletic pursuits.