Author, entertainment attorney, competitive ultra-endurance athlete, and father of four, Rich Roll and I caught up during his commute to talk about veganism, his joint venture with his wife, Julie Piatt, and the reaction to his new book, Finding Ultra: Rejecting Middle Age, Becoming One of the World’s Fittest Men, and Discovering Myself.
WSW: So Rich, thank you once again, and obviously appreciate the time today. First thing I wanted to lead off with, the book is very successful with lots of positive press about the book, so congratulations on that. At what point did you realize you had a story that would resonate as well as this one has?
RR: That’s an interesting question, first of all thank you for having the interest in talking to me and for checking out the book. I guess in truth I didn’t know, if you know what I mean. I was writing the book in relative obscurity and so I had no idea whether or not it would resonate with the reader. However, I would say that I have been working on–I’ve had my own blog, which I have had for quite some time. When I started my blog kind of at the beginning of my journey, it was really just this private confessional diary that was open to the world and no one was reading it except possibly my mom. (Well, I would say my mom, but that’s probably not true as she doesn’t know how to use a computer very well.) And it remained that way for quite some time until I had a little success at Ultraman and then suddenly I started to get quite a few views and feedback on what I was posting. So I knew that there was some interest in my story and certainly when the mainstream media picked up on what I was doing it kind of went more viral…
RR: …And when I started getting emails from lots of different people who seemed interested in what I was doing, I knew that there was at least a small audience out there for it. I knew from my experience writing my blog that the only way that I really had a chance of connecting with the readers was directly related to how vulnerable I was going to be in the writing. So when I was writing the book I was always very conscious of—I was trying to block out the idea that it would be a book on a shelf in a store because that’s paralyzing—that idea that someone else would be reading it. So when I was writing it I was trying to stay true to that kind of diary vein and be willing to talk about things that are somewhat uncomfortable and be willing to be vulnerable so that I could try to strike a chord and connect with the reader. I think that that comes across in the book and I think that’s one of the reasons why people seem to be responding favorably to it.
WSW: Absolutely. I think it’s fair to say the openness and the vulnerability — it’s very warm at the same time and it’s very human. I mean, I have to tell you I ripped through it in a couple days (well basically it was one flight) and it was just very moving and very powerful. At the end—I don’t want to spoil it for folks who haven’t read it—but at the end you you do give a good sort of “beginner’s guide” on how to get started with a vegan lifestyle and doing the right things for your body. There’s a lot of stuff in there, a lot of science, some of which you’ve pulled from other resources and some of which you’ve worked on yourself and you’ve proven that it works. And that’s a tremendous value for the reader.
RR: Well, thank you. I think the biggest challenge, it was an ambitious endeavor, in the sense that the book is really kind of a couple different books in one. There’s the memoir aspect, there is the addiction recovery story, the athletic challenges, and the vegan diet primer all in one, and trying to balance all of those against one another and keep the story moving forward without getting bogged down on any one of those things was a challenging task. I think I could have taken any one of those themes or facets and created a whole book out of that. Well hopefully it satisfies everything but it walks a tight rope at times.
WSW: Well, it’s done very well. That was going to be the next question. Any plans for other books or are you going to focus on what you’ve got in front of you right now, which is getting the word out about Finding Ultra? When I saw you at [The Seed] in New York, it was pretty much standing room only; people trying to hear what you have to say and I imagine it’s like that pretty much everywhere you go.
RR: Yeah, it’s been great to get out into the world, to travel around and to meet people and gauge their reaction and just answer people’s questions and things like that, it’s been amazing. And this year is really devoted to just doing that kind of thing. Certainly I’d love to write another book, but I’m not there yet. I am still just focused on this one, and trying to promote it and spread the word and the message the best I can.
WSW: Very good. Can you tell me a little bit about the project you are doing with your wife? I have the cookbook, which is great, but maybe just a quick summary of what you guys are working on together?
RR: Sure. We have a company called Jai Lifestyle and we’ve had it for quite some time. It’s gone through a few different incarnations and until recently it’s been somewhat dormant because we’ve been focused on raising our children. But we’re reinvigorating it. It’s essentially a lifestyle company and we’re offering a variety of goods and services. Like you said, we have a digital e-cookbook, that actually came out quite a while ago, prior to Finding Ultra and that’s doing very well, so we’re going to follow that up with a couple more.
I think we’re going to work on one for kids with recipes that kids like and maybe one that is more athlete-focused. And the meditation program. And I just came out with our first supplement product, an athletic recovery supplement called “Jai Repair.” And we’re working on a detoxing/cleansing program that we should have ready in the next couple months. The R&D on that is taking a little bit longer. And then on the services end, we are going to be doing some workshops and retreats and we’re still trying to figure out dates and locations for those so stay tuned. Anyone who is interested can just go to the website Jai Lifestyle (http://jailifestyle.com)
WSW: Fantastic. Obviously you’re busy, you’re keeping busy between the children and your book and [Jai] and it’s all good stuff. Question for you, and maybe it’s a silly question but with respect to the sports and competing, do you have a preference? As a competitive swimmer, one might imagine that you prefer swimming [to] the others. What do you find that you enjoy the most?
RR: It really depends on the day. It’s the variety and the mix that keeps it fresh and interesting for me. If I start doing any one of those three disciplines too much, then I start to get tired or bored of it. I like to mix it up. Swimming has always been my first love, and yet swim training is probably the most tedious for me just because I’ve been doing it my whole life. It’s not a new endeavor and I’ll never be as fast as I was in college [laughter] so it’s kind of depressing to look at the pace box.
When the weather is nice, I love to be out on my bike, but when I am riding too much I’ll get tired of that, and I just want to be running on the trails. So it’s really the variety that keeps me energized.
WSW: Couple more questions, just really brief ones. To me it seems the sort of “mid-life crisis” or “mid-life decline”—the physical decline people have always historically taken at face value or taken for granted, that this is something that is going to happen to you and it’s inevitable. And yet you’ve shown here in Finding Ultra that it’s not necessarily inevitable, that it does not always have to be the case.
RR: Absolutely. Look: everyone ages, we’re all going to die and there’s no avoiding that, but certainly now we are seeing athletes competing at higher levels later and later in life.
When I retired from swimming everyone was pretty much done [with their swimming career] by the age of 22. Now the Olympic trials are going on and have Dara Torres (http://daratorres.com/) [competing] and half the field is in their 30s. That was just unheard of back then. Part of that is that there is more money and there are more resources for training, but certainly examples are everywhere of people exercising and competing at a later stage in their life. I mean, you have Lance Armstrong at 40 out there tearing up the triathlon circuit. Examples are everywhere [reinforcing] that if you treat your body properly it will respond in kind. There’s no need to adopt that old way of thinking: Take out an insurance policy on longevity, get active and stay active, and certainly a plant-based diet is the best way to do that.
WSW: That was one of the main things that struck me in the book: all that time training and you never once missed a day due to illness.
RR: Precisely. Now I’ll probably get sick once a year, but I can shake it off in a day or so. I’ll never have one of those weeks where I can’t get out of bed, I’m down with the flu or whatever. That hasn’t happened to me in years.
WSW: So congratulations again on the book I’ve been forcing all my friends to read it, pushing it on them.
RR: [laughter] Thank you for the interest.
WSW: Thank you for the time today and congratulations again on the success. Maybe we can all hope for another book and another EPIC5.