The Plant-Based Ultraman

Heidi Volpe speaks with Rich Roll about his transformation from addict to ultra-endurance athlete

Oct 26, 2012
Outside Magazine

Rich Roll is a busy guy. Father of four, entertainment lawyer, plant-based diet advocate, ultra-endurance athlete and now author of his first book, Finding UltraThe book talks about his transformation from 40-year-old, overweight father to his very first vegan-powered Ultraman, which he's now done two times, along with the Epic 5, five triathlons in five days.

Since then, he has been featured on CNN, done countless interviews and launched Jai Lifestyle, a company, founded with his wife Juile Piatt, that promotes healthy living from a plant-based diet and spiritual and physical point of view. I got a chance to talk to Rich about how his former bad habits were transformed into something good.

How did your early addictions get you to where you are now?
My struggles with addiction and my journey in recovery provided a prism through which I tend to perceive my world and approach my interconnectedness to everything—from relationships to food, to exercise and to everything in between. Embracing sobriety required hitting a bottom that compelled me to see through the denial that was preventing me from understanding how my using was destroying my life and hurting others. Similarly, it took a health scare on the eve of my 40th birthday to snap an even deeper denial—that I was a very unhealthy and out of shape middle-aged guy living a rather lazy and gluttonous lifestyle.

When I decided to change my diet, I initially experimented with a vegetarian diet. Why? Not because I read a bunch of books and concluded it was the healthiest approach. It was attractive because it was so black and white. In recovery, you are either using or you are sober—no middle ground. As a vegetarian, you are either eating meat or you are not. I could wrap my brain around that.

If I had said to myself, "I am going to eat healthy and go to the gym," that is a fine notion, but it doesn't mean anything. It lacks specificity. So vegetarianism made sense to me when applying the principles of recovery to changing my diet. It gave my relationship to food a context that I could understand and adhere to. That experiment morphed over time into a 100-percent plant-based diet when I removed the dairy and processed foods from my regimen.

It's easy to say that my attraction to ultra-endurance is simply a transferred addiction—from drugs and alcohol to an extreme focus on fitness. Admittedly, it's the perfect outlet for an obsessive-compulsive addict, providing a wide berth for escape, not to mention a bottomless pit of self-inflicted pain. But channeling that compulsive energy in a healthy direction can be good. It has been a key ingredient in my athletic success and personal growth. It has made me a better husband, father and person—a more giving, actualized, authentic version of myself, if you will.

That said, it's imperative for me to exercise caution in my relationship with training to avoid falling down that pit of obsession. As a husband and father of four, family is most important to me. Balance is a fickle lover I continue to court. The tools of recovery help me keep the bigger picture in proper perspective.

In your book, you wrote that alcohol was your social lubricant. Now that you are no longer drinking, are you still shy? What other coping skills have you developed?
Alcohol allowed me to numb these innate and very powerful, destructive feelings of inadequacy and low self-esteem. It quelled the fear and empowered me to interact socially. For a while, it worked. Then it took everything away, leaving behind an empty shell—a raw bundle of nerves and extreme discomfort.

But through much hard work over the years, I am no longer uncomfortable in my skin. I am still an introvert at heart. I'd much rather hang out with my kids or ride my bike than go to a party and socialize with people I don't know. But I'm fine doing that, too, because I know who I am. I no longer need to prove anything, impress anyone, or make you like me. I am at peace with my weaknesses, my failures and my humanity. When those feelings of anxiety arise—as they tend to do—I can easily control them by going to an AA meeting, working the steps or simply heading out alone for a long trail run—my form of active meditation.

It’s common for addictive behaviors to become non-destructive life goals. At what specific point did ultra-endurance fill that gap?
I have seen plenty of friends in recovery transfer their addictive behaviors to other activities—gambling, tattoos, motorcycles, relationships, you name it. And I have (non-addict) endurance-junkie friends who ended up divorced because their training became paramount to their relationship—or an escape from an unhappy union.

As mentioned above, it is understandable to presume that ultra-endurance has become my current addiction of choice. I suppose there is some truth to that. There have been times in my training when my life was temporarily out of balance so I could achieve a certain performance goal. But it's not fun and it's not sustainable when the pursuit is addiction-based.

I work hard to maintain a healthy relationship with my sport, trying to find the joy in it, because it isn't worth pursuing if it comes at the cost of all the good things I have worked hard to achieve in my life—most importantly, my marriage and my kids. When these things are balanced, my training is my bliss. Addiction is defined by something that tears apart your soul and destroys you. But through ultra-endurance I have quite literally been reborn as a happier, more actualized and service-oriented version of myself.

Are you obsessive about food? Have you eaten anything non-vegan in the last year?
What I put in my mouth is important to me, but I wouldn't characterize it as an obsession. I have been plant-based for over five years, and it has become so routine that I don't even think about it that much. I eat a wide variety of plant-based foods close to their natural state and try to always make the best choice, but that is often dictated by what happens to be in my fridge that day. I don't weigh my food, count calories or even pay all that much attention to my ratio of carbs to protein to fat. In this sense I think I am far less obsessive that many athletes or non-athletes on a "diet.”

The only time I have eaten something non-vegan in the last year is the occasional accidental scenario when I found out after the fact. For example, a dinner entrée at a restaurant that was advertised as vegan ended up having some butter on it—that kind of thing. I don't cheat, but I am human. My weaknesses are certain foods that are technically vegan but not the healthiest, things I call "vegan junk food," like Kettle Chips, Tofurky, and the very occasional veggie dog.

How do you you fit in your training and wellness with your successful book tour?
When the book came out, I was intent on maintaining my 20-25-hours-per-week training schedule, with an eye on competing in Ultraman this November. But I quickly realized I just couldn't do both well and would probably end up doing both quite poorly. I am so grateful for the success of the book, and I made the decision to stop competing this year so I could devote my best energy to traveling around and trying to connect with as many people as possible. It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and I didn't want to look back on the experience a year from now and wonder, "What would that have been like if I wasn't on my bike all day?" I know I made the right decision. The tour has been amazing, and I will never forget all the people I have met.

Still, I have remained relatively fit. I bank some good training when I am home and run every day while on the road. I do a little pre-travel research before each trip to identify the healthy restaurants and markets in my hotel vicinity. And many of the tour stops have been vegetarian festivals, so there is often plenty of good stuff to eat.

My perspective on racing has also changed. My results have given me a platform to promote a healthy message, and the book has taken it to a new level. Now, my focus is on helping to improve lives. My current travels have afforded me the opportunity to connect with a lot of people and to spread a message of wellness. It's been an amazing journey.

You've done the Ultraman twice, and five Ironmen in five days. Now what?
Good question! The training is so time consuming and intense, so I have to be really enthusiastic about the event I am preparing for. Right now, I am looking for something to ignite that flame. I'm not sure yet what it will be but will figure out a challenge soon. I've just begun training for 2013, so stay tuned. 

Is your entire family—including your four lovely children—vegan?
My wife is 100-percent plant-based, as are my two teenage boys, who have really taken to it on their own accord without any mandate on our part, along with my 21-year-old nephew Harrison, who lives with us about half of the time. My two daughters (eight and five) are about 95-percent there.

We cook vegan at home, but if they go to a friends' house and have pizza or attend a birthday party where there is cake, I'm not going to be the guy who tells them they can't have it. We try to involve them in the food shopping and meal preparation as much as possible—teach them recipes and lead by example. This way, they develop an emotional attachment to the process, as well as a deeper connection to the food and where it comes from—particularly when we visit the farmer's market and learn about how and where the food is grown. As parents we don't make strict rules, so there is nothing for them to rebel against. Ultimately, it's up to them to make the decision that is best for them.

You and your wife Juile founded Jai Lifestyle, which offers products, coaching, and consulting. If I sign up, what can I expect?
If you sign up on, you will automatically receive a seven-recipe download, excerpted from our Jai Seed eCookbook, which is also available for download and purchase from the site. We also have an athletic-recovery product called Jai Repair, which is an all-in-one post-workout supplement. With three types of plant-based protein (hemp, sprouted brown rice, and pea), l-glutamine, antioxidants such as resveratrol and grape skin extracts, vitamin B12, and cordyceps-mushroom extracts (which improve lung capacity and the efficiency of oxygen utilization), it's everything you need when you return from a hard session.

We are actively working on some new nutrition products—volume two of our cookbook, as well as some consulting services—that should launch this winter. And in the near future we will be announcing our first retreat: a five- to seven-day intensive, designed to change your life through diet, fitness, yoga, and meditation.

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