The famous triathlete’s journey toward balance, not just the podium
It was the eve of Rich Roll’s 40th birthday. After a long day of work he trudged up the stairs to turn in. Midway, a startling pain gripped his chest and stopped him in his tracks. In that moment, Roll was forced to face the true realities of his life: he was 50 pounds overweight, lethargic and at risk to die young of heart failure as his grandfather had before him. The next day, he changed his life.
Roll recounts that pivotal 2006 night with ease. He has told the story before, many times. Nearly a decade has passed since that decisive juncture in Roll’s life. Since, he has completed two insanely grueling Ultraman triathlons—a three-day triathlon event that consists of a 6.2-mile swim, 261.4-mile bike and 52.4-mile run. In 2010, Roll completed an even greater feat, the Epic5 Challenge, five Ironman-distance triathlons, on five different Hawaiian Islands in less than a week. Then in 2012, the transformed Roll published his bestselling memoir, Finding Ultra: Rejecting Middle Age, Becoming One of the World’s Fittest Men and Discovering Myself, which he followed with the 2013 launch of the popular Rich Roll podcast. Next up: Roll’s 120-recipe cookbook—co-authored by Julie Piatt–The Plantpower Way, to be released in April 2015.
Today, Roll is a champion of vegans, athletes and middle-aged men wanting more. People have latched onto that night on the stairs as the trigger point in Roll’s life. Sure, it was the day he decided to embark on the path that brought him fame, but Roll’s inspiring–and at times wayward journey, began well before then.
A top-ranked swimmer with his pick of schools, Roll started his undergraduate career at Stanford as the quintessential “Golden Boy,” but he quickly realized that he enjoyed partying more than early morning swim practice with his fellow Cardinals. Alcohol consumed Roll’s life. By the time he was a senior in college, Roll quit the swim team and prioritized partying. Alcohol and other drugs continued to eat away at the fabric of his life for the next decade. At 31, Roll had alienated most of his friends and family and found himself sleeping on a bare mattress in an otherwise unfurnished apartment.
“I was a young lawyer on the precipice of getting fired, collecting DUIs, getting in trouble and starting my days with vodka tonics in the shower,” Roll says. “It was a disaster.”
Then one day, Roll woke up and decided that he wasn’t going to continue down that destructive and dangerous path.
“I woke up, hung-over, and just knew it was going to be my last day of drinking,” recounts Roll. “Nothing dramatic happened. There was just something different that day and it changed my life.”
Roll spent 100 days in a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center in rural Oregon and started a new life of sobriety. He worked on repairing the relationships he destroyed with alcohol and drugs and started moving up the professional ladder at a prestigious Los Angeles law firm. But fueled by McDonald’s and Jack In The Box, he had overlooked his health and was severely out of shape. Roll was in denial.
“I would look in the mirror and still think that I was 21 years old and swimming at Stanford even though the image reflected back at me was somebody very different,” he says.
He was 39, happily married, successful and sober, but something was still missing. Fast forward to that night on the stairs in 2006–the mid-flight reality check that almost passed Roll by.
“I realized that there was a crack in the door,” he explains. “I could see that the moment could change my life–like when I made that decision to get sober. Or, it could just pass me by and I would be back to business as usual. I grabbed onto it.”
The next day, Roll addressed his neglected health. He started with a juice cleanse and moved onto a handful of different diets before landing on the plant-based regimen he is known for today. The difference was almost immediate. With renewed energy like he hadn’t experienced since he was a young kid, Roll recognized the resiliency of the human body and decided he needed a challenge. Like many middle-aged guys with bucket lists, Roll set his sights on the Ironman. Disappointed when he realized that the popular races sell out almost a year in advance, Roll sought an alternative. That’s when he stumbled upon the Ultraman.
“I thought it was the most insane, lunatic thing I had ever heard of and yet I couldn’t get it out of my mind. I just felt propelled toward this race,” he says.
The rest is history. In the 2008 Ultraman, Roll’s goal was simply “not to die.” He surprised everyone with a top ten finish. A year later he returned to the race and placed sixth overall, in spite of a massive bike crash. That’s when Roll became the man we are familiar with–the jacked “everyman” Men’s Fitness magazine named one of the “25 Fittest Men in the World” in 2009.
But the thing is, Roll doesn’t see himself as this guy. He hasn’t even raced since 2011. He knows that extreme races and medals alone won’t make him happy and with his history of addiction, more than anything Roll is in the pursuit of balance.
“I am a recovering alcoholic. I have an addictive nature and I am prone to obsessive-compulsive behavior patterns and I am attracted to extreme things. Of course things like Ultraman are going to magnetize somebody who is coming from where I am coming from,” he says. “I have embraced that there is an aspect of that that draws me to these endeavors. It is also what allows me to excel at them.”
He adds that it is not a simple as saying he replaced one addiction with another. Rather, endurance sports have afforded him the opportunity to discover the best version of himself.
“Look, waking up early, putting on your running shoes and getting out the door to train–that’s hard. You have to want to do it. There has to be something outside of yourself driving you to do it,” he stresses. “But drinking and using drugs, that’s easy. That’s the default, easy decision to make. Making the contrary decision to push yourself in a different way that will expand you physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually, that’s a more difficult choice.”
Roll’s life is about family and working toward a life of happiness and wellness. He is a loving father and husband, not just an athlete.
“We are all capable of so much more than we allow ourselves to be. My experience and my story bear out that that need not be the case,” Roll concludes. “My extreme athletic feats really belie the fact that the reason I was able to accomplish all those things is because I sorted out my spiritual life first. I had to do all this work in order to be a human being actualized. We all have the power to make a choice to change and improve our lives in a myriad of ways.”
Writer: Abigail Tracy
Images: Jesse Untracht- Oakner