Rich Roll is an ultra endurance athlete who also has a very popular podcast. He’s an advocate of a vegan, plant-based diet and healthy living and known as one of the fittest men on the planet, with a host of endurance accomplishments.
It wasn’t always this way. In Finding Ultra, Roll is searingly honest and tells us his life story from shy high school swim star to being a swim star at Stanford. At Stanford, he discovered alcohol and how it could help him with his shyness, and from there it was a steady decline into addiction. He tells of one of his lowest points, where he was drunk during his graduation from law school and in his drunken haze, he decided to collect his degree on stage in bare feet, much to his parents’ horror.
With the help of AA and rehab, Roll gets sober but is eating horrendous amounts of junk food. He has an epiphany moment when, just shy of his fortieth birthday, he wheezes out of breath climbing his stairs. He knew then that he needed to drastically change his life.
The next day, he asks his wife (who is a healthy living devotee) if he can do one of her week-long juice detox cleanses. (He details this process in the appendices at the back of the updated edition). From here, he becomes a vegetarian but is dismayed when even after a few months, he hasn’t lost any weight. He realises that he’s still eating a lot of processed foods, which may qualify as vegetarian, but are still pretty unhealthy. (Think about if you ate loads of meat-less pizza – you’d still be eating an unhealthy diet.) It’s at this point that he switches to a completely vegan diet and takes aim at getting seriously fit. He sets his sights at undertaking an Ultraman event (a three-day challenge in Hawaii totalling 320 miles of swimming, cycling and running). The rest of the book details his Ultraman events, the EPIC5 challenge with his friend Jason, and in the updated edition and new last chapter, the Ötillö Swimrun World Championship (a swimming and running challenge across 26 islands in Sweden).
This last chapter (titled There Are No Finishing Lines) is pure gold. It’s full of exercises that readers can do to improve their lives. One particlar exercise that resonated with me is called The Stories We Tell Ourselves About Ourselves. In a nutshell, we tell ourselves stories or formative experiences about ourselves, that are often negative. These can be likened to a knot in a tree. Each knot leads to another knot and so begins a branch; a branch of knots. This branch becomes your identity. Think of knots occurring when you tell yourself that ‘You’re not a leader because you failed to get into the Army’ or ‘You’re not very good at mental arithmetic because you can’t do quick calculations in your head’ or ‘You’re not a good swimmer because you can’t swim 50m without getting tired’. Over time, we build up myriad knots, and these negative stories become a prism through which we approach our lives. Roll encourages us to take each negative knot and find other experiences in our lives that rebut these. Eg. find times where you did show good leadership, or you were good with mental arithmetic under pressure. Afterwards, we can start to build more positive ‘knots’ and rebuild our identities into more objectively true realities.
Finding Ultra is an incredibly inspiring book. If you’re looking for inspiration to turn your life around and in a healthy direction, get this book. It’s mainly because of this book and what I know of Rich Roll that I’ve tried veganism (read more about this experiment here) and running more than 60 miles a month at the moment. It’s why I believe now that 40 doesn’t have to mean an inevitable physical and athletic decline; because Rich Roll is living proof of this journey.
This Is What A Vegan Ultra-Athlete Eats In A Day (Huffington Post)
A Brutal Competition, Island to Island, in Sweden (New York Times)