How Rich Roll went from obese alcoholic to ultra athlete

A vegan, plant diet turned Rich Roll from obese alcoholic into an ultra athlete who ran five ‘ironmen’ in a week, says Carl Dixon.
How Rich Roll went from obese alcoholic to ultra athlete

Rich Roll’s life has been a complex journey from early athletic potential through alcoholism, desperation, recovery, and self-forgiveness to, finally, health, ultra-athletics, and redemption.

An inspiring advocate for a whole-food, plant-based diet, via his hugely influential weekly podcast, Roll was listed by Men’s Fitness magazine as one of the 25 fittest people on the planet in 2009.

Remarkably, five years earlier, age 39, he was overweight and likely to have a heart attack.

In his autobiography, Finding Ultra: Rejecting Middle Age, Becoming One of the World’s Fittest Men, and Discovering Myself, Roll describes a life of ferocious extremes. “Balance and I have gone on quite a journey,” he notes wryly.

“I have always struggled to find balance in my life and used to flog myself for falling short. I have now realised that I am hard-wired this way. I no longer feel the need to move my fulcrum point to meet social expectations. When I go for something, I go all in, no-holds barred, but I have made my peace with that.”

In the 1980s, he was a talented swimmer who had a choice of top US colleges. But he battled internal demons, and descended into alcoholism and drug abuse. This spiralled into a disastrous wedding, drink-driving, estrangement from his family, and a floundering career as a lawyer.

He checked into rehab for 100 days and stopped drinking. With as much gusto as he once applied to his partying, he now pursued the American dream as an entertainment lawyer,working 80-hour weeks. Although wealthier, he was also overweight, unhealthy, and unhappy.

One of the most arresting images in his memoir is of Rich Roll, aged 40, mind and body numbed by TV and fast food, attempting to climb the stairs and pausing halfway up to catch his breath.

It was a seminal moment for him. With encouragement from his wife, Julie, he started a seven-day cleanse and became vegan.

His energy levels sky-rocketed, and he began running and cycling. Two years later, he came 11th in an ultra-marathon. He would go on to complete five ironmen in seven days in Hawaii, at age 44. It was an almost incomprehensible feat of endurance.

He is a passionate advocate for a diet based on plants. “We are facing an insane health crisis in the US,” he says.

“A huge percentage of Americans are overweight or obese and it is predicted that 50% of the next generation will be diabetic or pre-diabetic. Heart disease is the greatest cause of mortality in the US, and soon will be worldwide, as more countries take on our fast-food culture.”

“The scale of the problem gives me a sense of urgency and purpose,” he says. “If you are challenging existing paradigms, you can’t then be upset if the mainstream does not accept you. It is human psychology. When people believe something is right, they will find ways to confirm that belief.

“The more successful you are, the easier it is to pigeon hole you as an outlier, that, perhaps, I have some strange genetic advantage or some weird enzyme that makes me different. But I don’t believe that. I know that a plant-based, wholefood diet gives me optimal results, in terms of athletic performance and sense of well-being. If that ever changed, then I would re-evaluate my choices.”

Rich Roll is not the only serious athlete to adopt a vegan lifestyle — for example, Carl Lewis was vegan — but he probably is the most vociferous. He is adamant that his change of diet was key to his transformation. Nonetheless, on his podcast he is rarely confrontational or dogmatic.

“Technology changes media,” he notes.

“The old gatekeepers of traditional media are gone and we have access to new ideas and information. We may not agree with all of them, but, at least, there is an opportunity for new concepts to be articulated. An emotional connection is, for me, the most important element in a podcast. It is when you have empathy and respect for another point of view that it works best.”

Roll is optimistic about the future. However, Donald Trump’s election to the US presidency indicates that the roots of conservative America run deep. “We are in a cultural and political crisis, at the moment,” Roll says.

“Trump is the manifestation of a large swathe of people, who are feeling incredibly disenfranchised and would rather blow up the whole system than be lied to again. But at least it is out in the open now.

"The challenge is to create systems that tend to the people that feel this way, to provide jobs from new technologies. It is a cue to clean our own houses, to take personal responsibility, and work to build communities.”

For Roll, this new stage of his life has brought him a degree of contentment. “Life is messy and non-linear,” he says.

“When I wrote Finding Ultra, nobody really knew me outside the insular world of ultra-athletics. The book was a slow-burner and the podcast just evolved from there. “It has been a physical, but, more importantly, a spiritual journey. In our fast-paced culture, it is so easy to fall away from the natural conditions under which we evolved.

“Running was about reconnecting with my environment, and with myself, physically and spiritually. It is about trying to live as natural a life as possible, and in accordance with the rhythms that are natural to us as a species.”

Rich Roll will hold a retreat based on his plant-based, whole-food lifestyle at Ballyvolane House, in Cork, from July 24-31. 

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