An interview with elite athlete and author Rich Roll by Nell Alk. Photos 1, 3, and 5 by John Segesta. Photo 4 by Rick Kent.
On the eve of his fortieth birthday, a battle-scarred, roly-poly attorney saw a trail of anguish stretching behind and a complacent midlife slump looming ahead. After an exhausting adulthood spent trying to conform to everyone else’s ideas about who he ought to be, the “rewards” of his labors in self-immolation—a struggle with full-on alcoholism, an unfaithful fiancée, and parents of the interminably disappointed sort—could have plunged him deeper into the abyss he knew too well.
Instead, Rich Roll decided he’d had enough.
He started out with healthier eating and regular exercise. Then, a mere few months after making those simple changes, a casual jog unexpectedly morphed into a marathon-length run—a personal, cathartic act of self-discovery that shocked him into a new understanding of the possible.
Since that jog-turned-marathon, Roll hasn’t stopped pushing limits. Keeping up with his kids—a task that used to faze him—is, well, child’s play compared to the monumental feats of endurance and strength now dotting his résume. He’s tackled the elite, invite-only Ultraman Championships (320 miles of swimming, biking, and running) and innovated the EPIC5 (five Ironman-distance triathlons in under a week), not to forget his anointment by Men’s Fitness as one of the 25 fittest men in the world in 2009. He’s also become a passionate advocate of plant-based living, first for training and now for ethical reasons as well. All while in his forties.
Roll’s debut book, Finding Ultra: Rejecting Middle Age, Becoming One of the World’s Fittest Men, and Discovering Myself spans early life to present. Although diet and athletic achievement provide the engine of Roll’s incredible transformation, this is not fundamentally a nutrition lesson or a sports tale. Its gripping confessions and dramas hit closer-to-home, as does its message of change and redemption.
We spoke with Roll about all these aspects of the book at the inaugural The Seed: A Vegan Experience in NYC (where he was a featured speaker). Here’s what he told us.
Your book is called Finding Ultra. What does that mean to you?
I think Finding Ultra has meaning on multiple levels. There’s this surface-level read of an unhealthy, overweight guy who loses a bunch of weight and tackles endurance challenges. Then there’s the more metaphorical read: What is your ‘ultra’? The theme of finding your authentic self, the person you always wanted to be or become—that’s really what the book is about. Yes, there’s a picture of a guy running on the cover, but the book is about tapping into and discovering that person within, yearning to come out, in whatever shape or form that may be.
Do you feel more at peace because you’ve unearthed your ‘ultra’?
Absolutely. I feel very at peace with myself, very comfortable in my own skin. And that’s a very recent development. My whole life I haven’t felt comfortable in my own skin. I always felt different from, apart from. Those are indicia of alcoholism in many ways. I spent decades trying to fit into the flow of society, trying to position myself so other people would perceive me in a certain way, with approval or acceptance. All that did was lead me to a desperate place of feeling less and less comfortable, more and more different, and fearful of having to live the rest of my life that way. And so the journey, as described in the book, is really about putting that stuff aside and learning how to tap into your instincts and develop enough self-knowledge and trust in yourself to be able to step into something that might be at odds with what other people think you should be doing but that feels right for you. It’s a scary process. It wasn’t easy. But going through that and coming out the other side, to a place that I know is right for me, is very empowering and grounding. Now I don’t carry the fear and the insecurity and all those sorts of emotions that I used to battle all the time.
With the mental alleviation, the physical activity, and the plant-based diet, do you feel more vibrant at age 45 than you did as a younger man?
I definitely feel more vital and energetic and youthful than I did throughout my thirties. The biggest difference is just having consistent, high levels of energy throughout the day, as opposed to the lulls, and the ups and downs. It’s not that I’m walking around like Mister Happy Pill Guy or anything like that, I just feel more grounded. I feel more stable and even-keeled.
What would you say is the single best performance benefit of a vegan diet?
It expedites your body’s ability to recover. It’s not that a vegan diet makes you a better athlete per se, but what it does do is speed up the body’s ability to repair the muscle tissue tears and the physiological damage that’s induced by exercise stress. If you recover more quickly, then you train more efficiently and decrease the risk of getting injured or sick. If that happens, you’re going to miss training. So, within a given season, you’re able to pack in much more efficient, optimal training than you would on a less beneficial diet. And that, protracted over time, makes you a better athlete.
Any advice for other athletes?
You’re training so many hours a day to be the best, why wouldn’t you take the next step when it comes to nutrition? When you’re young, you think you can get away with it. Your metabolism runs quickly. But, if you want to be better than the guy you’re trying to beat, you’re going to have a better shot if you’re more selective in the foods that you’re eating.
Do you ever eat processed foods anymore?
I try to be judicious, to eat whole food, plant-based as much as possible. By definition, that means no processed foods. But we have kids. Sometimes we make compromises. We’ll make nachos or quesadillas with Daiya. My son likes Tofurky on his sandwich for lunch. I think they’re fine on occasion, to sate some craving, but I don’t rely on them. They’re not a daily staple.
They’re good transition foods.
Exactly. But, I have my vegan junk food favorites—Kettle chips, French fries, greasy food. I crave greasy stuff, especially when I’m training a lot. If I’m not careful, I start eating stuff like that, which is not good.
What’s your stance on nutrition training, or rather lack thereof, in the medical profession?
It’s interesting. I was talking with a woman in her fourth year at Harvard Medical School and she said, ‘Not once in my experience at Harvard Medical School have we ever talked about nutrition.’ I find that to be abhorrent. I think that is irresponsible on behalf of academia, to not require nutrition [training]. There’s a lot of talk about preventative medicine, but not a lot of action. And there’s a lot of lobbying interests, from pharmaceutical companies and the like. We were brought up to trust in our doctors’ advice; ‘doctors know best.’ They know as much as the average person. There needs to be much more emphasis on nutrition if you want to develop true preventative medicine. We treat symptoms with pharmaceuticals. Everything, from erectile dysfunction to high blood pressure to high cholesterol. We mask symptoms by taking a pill without treating the underlying cause. We rarely talk about how to heal through food and exercise. It’s amazing actually.
Has being vegan for health reasons infiltrated other aspects of your life, in terms of kindness towards animals and the environment?
Definitely. I got into it for health reasons, but it’s impossible to not walk this path fully. If you’re going to do it right and educate yourself, how can you not become compassionate and sensitive to all the other issues? I’ve become much more conscious of my choices, from daily products that we buy to furniture to clothes. It’s definitely informed that process in a huge way.
Food’s just the tip of the iceberg.
The idea, for example, that in 2012 people think it’s a good idea to wear fur is insanity to me. It’s complete insanity. You know John Bartlett? I love him. He’s the best. I love how he’s constantly speaking truth to his own industry.
Absolutely! Would you say you’ve inspired a lot of people to become vegan?
No question. I get emails every day from people all over the world. It’s very, very gratifying. It’s not a feeling that you get from being a lawyer. It’s a responsibility that I don’t take lightly. I see my role as somebody who can be like, ‘I’ll be 100% plant-based and do these races. If I can go all the way in this direction, you can meet me halfway. You’re going to be okay.’