Most people, when faced with the oncoming freight train that is their mid-life crisis, don’t hop out of bed and decide to race 700 miles in a week. Many take as a given the lethargy, malaise, and expanding waistline that often comes with turning 40. The truly driven may decide to join a gym or do a 5K. A very small subset may push their limits with a marathon. Only a select few decide to tackle the Ultraman World Championships, a double iron distance triathlon (6.2 mile swim, 216.4 mile bike and 52.4 mile run). The tiniest (and some might say craziest) subset would ever choose to do the EPIC 5—five iron distance triathlons in five days on five Hawaiian islands (703 miles total). The number of individuals matching these conditions becomes even smaller when you include a dedicated vegan lifestyle.
Run this query and you will return exactly one hit: Rich Roll. (Jason P. Lester, co-founder of the EPIC 5 with Rich Roll, is also a vegan, but he hasn’t quite turned 40 yet).
To say that Rich Roll isn’t most people is perhaps an understatement. He was after all a competitive swimmer at Stanford and a successful graduate of Cornell Law School. So you might think you know Rich Roll, or someone like him: a driven overachiever with something to prove and an oversized attitude that comes with the territory. Nothing could be farther from the truth as I learned in Finding Ultra: Rejecting Middle Age, Becoming One of the World’s Fittest Men, and Discovering Myself.
There is so much humility (and spirituality) in Rich’s memoir, that you are forced to completely rethink your concept of competition. Who exactly are you competing with? What drives you? What gives you purpose along the way? By the end of Finding Ultra Rich will also have you reconsidering everything you have always heard about the correlation between diet and physical performance.
Rich begins the book in media res, just as he has crashed his bike on a wet turn during his second attempt at Ultraman, the invitation-only, three-day, double-Iron distance triathlon that circumnavigates the Big Island. Rich sets the stage for the reader very clearly: This is serious business. Not only are triathlons extremely hard work but you could also be injured or even killed in the process.
From Ultraman, Rich takes us back to his idyllic childhood and through his painfully shy, adolescent years when swimming became a passion for him, a way of separating himself from the crowd, and then as he progressed, a way of distinguishing himself. He was so dedicated, waking up before dawn every morning to swim, that his coach gave him a key to the natatorium.
As a college recruit, Rich had his pick of premiere schools. He finally settled on Stanford (swayed in large part by the beautiful palm trees and bountiful sunlight) over Harvard. Like many college students, Rich also discovered alcohol and the relief it can bring from social anxiety. Remarkably, as a dedicated athlete, Rich was able to party his way through school and still swim competitively. Even as a heavy drinker he still competed and won regularly at the national level. Despite his athletic successes, however, he remained shy, awkward, and uncomfortable on the inside.
As an adult, Rich eventually found that using alcohol as a coping mechanism was not sustainable for the long haul. After living and working several years as functioning alcoholic, after stacking up a few DUIs along the way, after a marriage that lasted six days, Rich eventually checked himself into rehab at Hazelden’s Springbrook treatment facility in northwest Oregon. The chapters on Rich’s recovery are brief but to the point: Whether you believe you are sick with a physical addiction or a “disease of perception,” the solution is well beyond the scope of human willpower. The solution is spiritual. It is no small coincidence that shortly after Rich let go of all of his anger and fear and gave himself over to “a higher power,” that he met the woman he knew he was going to marry and spend the rest of his life with: Julie Piatt.
By 2006, Rich had been sober for eight years, but he was overweight and far from healthy. One night, in a story that has by now been repeated many times, Rich had a lifestyle conversion experience on a par with Saul of Tarsus: Walking halfway up the stairs to check on his sleeping children, he found himself nauseated and doubled-over. He was completely winded after only eight steps. Rich then had a vision of his grown children and in that picture he was nowhere to be found: There was no way in his current physical state he was going to live that long.
Together with the help of his wife Julie (founder of Jai Lifestyle and co-author with Rich of the Jai Seed e-Cookbook) Rich goes on a juice fast, goes vegetarian, and then vegan. The rest, as they say, is history. (Note: Julie has written a powerful piece on her relationship with Rich that is compulsory reading.)
The final chapters in the book are focused on training for Ultraman, EPIC 5, and how Rich’s “secret weapon” (“Plant Power”) made it all happen. To quote Rich: “I can say with full confidence that my rapid transformation from middle-aged couch potato to Ultraman—to, in fact, everything I’ve accomplished as an endurance athlete—begins and ends with my PlantPower Diet.”
I had read Brendan Frazier’s Thrive (which Rich cites as a heavy influence) cover-to-cover before picking up Finding Ultra. In fact, the entire series of Thrive books is fantastic, loaded with recipes, exercise tips, and so on, but it was Finding Ultra that ultimately convinced me to make a commitment to a vegan lifestyle. (After four months on a vegan diet, at 42 years old, I just completed my first half-iron distance triathlon. While I had trained for roughly a year, I wholeheartedly believe that I could not have made such exponential progress without becoming a vegan.)
Rich builds a compelling narrative from start to finish. If you are a sports nut, the racing stories will get your pulse pounding. The story of the first EPIC 5 and all the logistics required to pull off the event is worth the price of admission alone. There are challenges every step along the way from finding the right bicycle part on the remote islands to finding the right food. But, as Rich highlights, it is the personal journey, the commitment and the pain that goes into finishing an event like the EPIC5 that holds the spiritual element. The active meditation on the long runs and swims, the long stretches of time left with nothing but your own thoughts, which after days on end with little or no sleep can swing quickly from mildly introspective to tedious to torturous, will lead you to project your will and your energy onto something other than your own selfish desires.
Yes, the spiritual trajectory of the book is undeniable, but it is not heavy-handed. The path from shy kid to party animal to centered parent (and, oh by the way, world-class endurance athlete) is one that is built on the understanding that for a life to be truly lived, you must give your life over to something bigger than just yourself. In Rich’s case it meant giving himself over to his family, his new life with Julie, and the universe’s plan for his future fulfillment.
As noted in my interview with Rich this past May, he has written an immensely enjoyable recovery/spiritual memoir, a sports narrative, and a vegan lifestyle handbook all rolled into one. This is a tall order by any standard. It is a testament to Rich’s warmth and openness, and to his commitment to a new life that he has done so this successfully.
You can learn more about Rich Roll at RichRoll.com.