Rich Roll may not yet have the name recognition of Brendan Brazier or Scott Jurek in the plant-based endurance world, but his story sure deserves to be heard.
What makes Rich’s story so inspiring, as he tells it in his new book, Finding Ultra, is that in reading it you come to realize that this man who now excels at the Ultraman — a triathlon about double the Ironman distance, spread over three days, ending with a 52-mile ultramarathon — is actually a whole lot like you and me.
Looking at Rich’s resume now, it’s hard to believe that just five years ago, he didn’t do much of anything physical: didn’t run, didn’t cycle, and hadn’t done much swimming in his 20 years since college. And he most certainly didn’t do Ultramans or anything resembling EPIC5, an event consisting of five Iron-distance triathlons, one on each of Hawaii’s islands, in the span of a week, that he and his buddy cooked up for fun.
On top of all that, as a busy lawyer he didn’t give a second thought to what he was eating after a hard day of work. And as it turns out, the shift to eating plants is what started it all for Rich, when at nearly age 40 he got a wake up call and decided he needed to change, starting with his diet. In his words:
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.
That alone would make for an interesting story. Who just decides to go vegan, gets off the couch and starts running, and a year and a half later turns in a respectable finish at one of the toughest endurance events on the planet, only to be named one of the fittest men alive shortly after that?
A natural athlete, you might be saying, someone who just has a knack for this stuff … well, then you should also know that Rich’s first half Ironman effort ended in a DNF (“did not finish”), and he had to walk the last 8 miles of his first marathon when he ran the first 18 way too fast. (Sound familiar? I did the very same thing in my first marathon. Rich and I talk about this in his interview that comes with Marathon Roadmap.)
When you read a story like Rich’s, it makes you question what’s possible in your own life. If he can improve his fitness as quickly and as drastically as he did, then so might we.
Adding a whole new dimension to Rich’s story is a battle with alcoholism. And while it’s fascinating to understand just what the world looks like through the eyes of an addict, even more interesting is the way the experience shaped Rich — from techniques learned in rehab that he used when he went vegan, to the role that meditation and mindfulness, which he developed in his recovery, now play in his life and his endurance training.
What makes Rich seem so, well, human
There’s a certain quality to Rich’s writing that makes it all the more real and identifiable — it’s not immaturity or naivety, but it’s something along those lines that’s more endearing, something that you don’t usually associate with your endurance idols.
Throughout his writing, Rich interjects italicized phrases that reveal the thoughts running through his head at the time of the events he’s describing. And somehow, it feels like it’s an energetic kid talking, the way my own (and I bet your own) thoughts sound when nobody else hears them. Through this candidness, I came to see Rich not as an elite athlete operating on another plane, but as a guy kind of like me, someone who deals with the same stuff the rest of us do and is still trying to figure out this world and his place in it.
When you think about elite athletes, it’s easy to assume that money is no object for most. You figure they’re sponsored and paid handsomely by endorsement deals and prize money, and that they can focus single-mindedly on their training, without the concerns of the real world. But in Finding Ultra, Rich is made more human when he talks about how difficult it was to justify training and traveling the way that’s required for Ultraman, while at times he was close to not providing enough for his family.
And you get the sense that for as much as Rich has accomplished, he’s still new at this game, still figuring out what works and what doesn’t. For example, he talks about reading Born to Run and getting a little bit of the barefoot bug, like just about every one of us who has read it, I’d imagine.
A passion for plant foods
For all of this praise for Finding Ultra, I still haven’t hit upon the most striking aspect of it all, the thing that has had a tangible impact on me that has lasted even after I finished the book (when so often after finishing one book, I move onto the next and forget to ever apply anything I learned).
I’m talking about Rich’s passion for a plant-based diet. In every mention throughout the book — and in the appendix, where he devotes nearly 50 pages to explaining the diet — you sense that Rich really, really loves eating this way.
The way he describes his beloved Vitamix smoothies as if they’re his children has breathed new life into my own smoothies; I’ve started adding pumpkin seeds, chia seeds, beet powder, and all sorts of new things to pack them with a little more punch. And when he talks about how terrible the Thai takeout food which was his only option during some of his races in Hawaii was, it made me realize that far too often I’m eating food that, while vegan, isn’t exactly nourishing.
It’s easy to convince yourself that stuff like this — white rice, sauteed vegetables in a sauce, maybe some fried tofu — is passable and healthy. And certainly for some, it’s a lot better than everything else they’re eating. But by comparison to the food that Rich passionately, even lovingly, writes about, what you get in a styrofoam takeout box ain’t where it’s at. And that’s something I needed to be reminded of, especially as I’m still in the try-every-single-new-restaurant-you-find phase in vegan-friendly Asheville.
Reading Finding Ultra also got me to dig up Jai Seed, Rich’s e-cookbook that I too often forget about since it doesn’t occupy physical space on my cookbook shelf. In cooking a few meals from it again, like a sprouted lentil saute, some raw cookies, and Rich’s Vitamix blends, I woke up a passion for this type of food that I haven’t felt in a while. It’s absolutely worth checking out as a companion to Finding Ultra.
If there was one thing I missed in Rich’s book, it’s that there wasn’t a lot of detailed information about his training. While he gives plenty of guidance for those looking to adopt a plant-based diet, including describing a typical day’s food, there’s not as much geared toward helping endurance athletes with their training. I think this is partly because so much of Rich’s training philosophy is really simple, focusing on low-intensity training with a heart monitor, but even so, I’d like to have gotten a better glimpse of what exactly goes into training for an Ultraman. As someone who has really only ever run, I can’t even fathom what Ironman training must be like, much less double that distance.
All in all, Finding Ultra is a book I highly recommend. If you’re looking for a dose of inspiration to get in shape or train harder this summer, to clean up your diet, or to remember why you love eating this way, it’s absolutely worth a read.
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