Rich Roll: The self remade man

Updated: February 4, 2013, 3:28 PM ET
By Matt Fitzgerald | Triathlete.com

Rich RollMatt Harbicht/Triathlete.com Upon turning 40, Rich Roll realized that he had to make some big changes in the way he was living.

C

o chicken, no eggs, no fish, no dairy. All plants, all whole foods, all the time. It's what I live on. It's what I train on. It's what I compete on. It's what I thrive on."

This is how ultradistance triathlete Rich Roll describes his PlantPower Diet and its effects in his book "Finding Ultra: Rejecting Middle Age, Becoming One of the World's Fittest Men, and Discovering Myself." Roll's book is a literary mashup, part memoir and part diet manifesto. Its backbone is the true story of a remarkable two-step midlife turnaround from alcoholic former Stanford swimmer to out-of-shape husband and father to ultra-endurance trailblazer. Woven through this narrative is a powerful argument for the vegan diet that Roll credits for the second step of his turnaround and now recommends to others who wish to reclaim their own bodies and lives.

In Roll's telling, his life took a wrong turn on a recruiting trip to the University of Michigan during his senior year of high school. Roll consumed alcohol -- and got drunk -- for the first time with his hosts, and it turned his world upside down. Until that moment he had been on a straight and narrow path. He was an outstanding student and a nationally ranked butterfly swimmer at the prestigious Landon School in the greater Washington, D.C., area. But Roll was also socially awkward and a loner. Alcohol seemed to cure that affliction instantaneously, and the feeling was irresistible.

Roll's swimming career peaked prematurely in his very first race for Stanford. He came within a hair's breadth of winning a 200-yard butterfly race that included future Olympian Bill Stapleton and world No. 2 Anthony Mosse. Roll might have won if he hadn't suffered two broken ribs in a drunken fall a week before.

After that race, Roll's drinking compromised his swimming more and more until eventually he quit the Cardinal team and the sport. Despite his alcoholism, Roll managed to graduate from Stanford, earn a law degree at Cornell, pass the California State Bar, and score a job at one of the top entertainment law firms in Los Angeles. But the consequences of the addiction kept piling up. Among them were a couple of DUI arrests, including one that he earned by rear-ending a vehicle driven by an elderly woman who was injured in the incident.

Roll admits that there were times during the writing of "Finding Ultra" when he winced at having to publicly confess such misdeeds. But he knew a bare-all candor would help readers connect more genuinely to his story. "When you reveal your deepest humanity and all its dark corners, people respond to that," he says. "They can tell the difference between someone who's being authentic and someone who's just trying to look good or spinning a yarn."

It took a lot for Roll to finally bottom out. In addition to the arrests, he nearly lost his job and became semi-estranged from his parents. At last, in 1997, Roll checked himself into a treatment facility in rural northern Oregon, where he spent 100 days.

Reality set in for the first time. I was a fat, out-of-shape, and very unhealthy man hurtling toward middle age -- a depressed, self-destructive person utterly disconnected from who I was and who I wanted to be.

The treatment worked, and Roll got a fresh start. Upon returning to Los Angeles he quit his job to pursue the dream of launching his own boutique entertainment law office. He met a new woman, Julie Piatt (now his wife), at a yoga class, and became a father. But something was still missing.

Roll reached another turning point in October 2006, on the eve of his 40th birthday, when he had to pause to rest while climbing a staircase at his home in Malibu Canyon. "In that moment, denial was shattered," Roll wrote in his book. "Reality set in for the first time. I was a fat, out-of-shape, and very unhealthy man hurtling toward middle age -- a depressed, self-destructive person utterly disconnected from who I was and who I wanted to be."

The next day Roll started a "detox juice-cleanse." He transitioned from that into a vegetarian diet, which in turn evolved into the vegan PlantPower Diet that Roll still follows today (and details thoroughly in his book). He started exercising too, and gradually reawakened his passion to test his body's limits. Not one given to half measures, Roll registered for the 2008 Ultraman Triathlon before he had finished a triathlon of any distance and placed 11th. Returning the following year, he took sixth despite wrecking his bike on day two of the three-day race. In 2010, Roll and friend Jason Lester (who has one arm) completed Epic5: five iron-distance triathlons on the five major islands of Hawaii in one week.

By this time friends, acquaintances and fans were constantly telling Roll that he should write a book. He was hesitant at first. "I'm not a world champion," he says. "I'm not a professional. I'm not a celebrity."

But then Roll envisioned a way to tell his story in a way that wasn't really about him, but the reader. "I'm trying to empower people to take control of their lives, whether they're into triathlon or running or not," Roll says of the book.

Its working. "Finding Ultra" has found a large and diverse readership, and Roll knows from the dozens of email messages he receives every day and from the face-to-face interactions he's had at events such as D.C. VegFest -- a large vegetarian celebration held every September where Roll drew an audience of hundreds -- that his story's impact has been as deep as it has been broad.

The one small downside to this "once-in-a-lifetime experience," as Roll calls it, is that his training and racing have taken a backseat to writing and promotional work. But this year he plans to return to Ultraman, where, he says, he has unfinished business -- yet no regrets.

"The whole reason Ultraman interested me in the beginning was that it was a spiritual quest and an opportunity for growth," he says. "When I crashed and found the wherewithal to get back on the bike and finish, that was what I learned about myself. If that hadn't happened and everything had gone perfectly, I certainly wouldn't have learned as much about myself as I did having to struggle with misfortunate and setbacks."

He could be talking about his whole life.

DIET RECOVERY

Veganism isn't for everyone, but no matter how you choose to transform your diet, Roll's advice can help you succeed.

Here are the top tips for "diet recovery" from a man who replaced cheeseburgers with kale at age 40 and has never looked back:

* Rigor, specificity, accountability. Through blind trial and error, Roll discovered that his new and improved diet needed to have these three key qualities if it was going to yield the results he sought.

Rigor means that your diet has clear, black-and-white rules. 

Specificity is a definite plan of action that ensures those rules are consistently followed. "Phrases such as, 'I'm going to eat better and work out more' are too vague," Roll says. Instead, develop specific routines for shopping, preparing food and eating.

Accountability means putting yourself in a position where you have to answer for dietary missteps. Roll did this by blogging about his new lifestyle. At first, he says, "Nobody read it," but even so it kept him honest with his eating habits.

* Baby steps. Roll is an all-or-nothing type of person. Recognizing this, he decided to change his diet drastically and abruptly because he knew an incremental approach wouldn't work for him. But Roll understands that most people need to take a gentler approach to diet changes.

"Start slow," Roll says. "Incorporate a few more plants into your diet. Reduce the portion sizes of the meats and dairy products you're eating. Relieve yourself of the pressure of having to do it perfectly."

* The power of now. When he transformed his diet, Roll discovered that he was able to apply many principles of alcoholism recovery, including the principle of staying in the moment to avoid becoming overwhelmed by the prospect of never having another drink, or cheeseburger, or whatever.

"Maybe I'll eat a cheeseburger tomorrow," Roll recalls telling himself. "But right now Im going to eat this. All I'm concerned about is what's in front of me to do in this moment."

* The 30-day rule. In his book, Roll shares this little trick. The idea is to promise yourself to stick to your new diet plan without any lapses for at least 30 days. This buys just enough time to start seeing benefits. "Stick to it religiously for 30 days and you'll feel dramatically better," Roll writes of his PlantPower Diet in Finding Ultra. Once you feel better, youll no longer have to rely on willpower to stay on track.

GO SLOW TO GET FASTER

At the beginning of his triathlon career, Roll trained the same way he'd trained as a competitive swimmer 25 years earlier -- pushing hard in every single workout. After an initial period of improvement, Roll's fitness development stagnated, so he hired triathlon coach Chris Hauth, who taught Roll another approach: high volume at mostly low intensities. Roll attributes everything he's achieved since then to this method.

* The magic of Zone 2. Under Hauth's guidance, Roll does the majority of his training in Zone 2 (or Z2) of the commonly used five-zone heart rate training system. This is a moderate intensity, and a step below the "gray zone" intensity that most triathletes hit day after day without really thinking about it.

[+] EnlargeRich Roll
Matt Harbicht/Triathlete.com Roll says lessons learned from misfortunate and setbacks were crucial to finding the right path in life.
As he explains in his book, "Do it long enough and Z2 training will lead to an increase in aerobic threshold -- the maximum level of intensity at which the body continues to process oxygen and fat for fuel." By contrast, gray-zone training, he explains, "exceeds [what] is required to properly develop the aerobic engine, yet falls short of the intensity necessary to significantly improve speed or increase anaerobic threshold."

* A five-year plan. Despite taking up triathlon at age 40, Roll was significantly fitter and faster five years later at age 45. He credits the patient, step-by-step developmental process he's undertaken under Hauth's guidance for his continuing improvement. "There's only so much performance gain that your body is going to be able to actualize in a year, no matter who you are," Roll says. Always train a little more lightly than you think you could this year so you can take another step forward next year.

* The winner slows least. According to Roll, one of the most important lessons Hauth taught him was that the winner of any given triathlon is not the fastest competitor, but the competitor who slows down the least. In other words, endurance is more important than speed, and endurance comes from going long.

Roll believes that you don't have to be an ultradistance triathlete like him to benefit from doing very long, slow swims, rides and runs. "Even a sprint triathlon is still an endurance event," he says.

* Progress by the numbers. When Roll started "going slow to get faster" under Hauth's tutelage, he was skeptical. What got him to buy into the method was the undeniable improvement he saw in performance metrics, such as watts and pace. "I grew to love the numbers," he writes in his book.

Based on this experience, Roll encourages all triathletes to track relevant data to ensure the training process is actually working.

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