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Nine life lessons from the ultra-endurance athlete and self-improvement guru
Last month, off the coast of Sweden, in the islands of the Stockholm archipelago, 304 athletes started the Otillo, an adventure race that involves swimming and running from island to island as fast as possible. The entire ordeal spans 26 islands and covers more than 46 miles. The water was frigid, and the winds were gusting upwards of 35 miles per hour. More than 20 percent of the competitors dropped out. Among those who finished, however, was Rich Roll, age 50. He and teammate Chris Hauth, who also acts as Roll’s coach, completed the race in 10 hours, 44 minutes, and 46 seconds, making them the top U.S. finishers.
For Roll, a household name to many in both the endurance and self-improvement communities, the Otillo is just the latest in a string of impressive feats. He is the author of Finding Ultra, which chronicles his transformation from alcoholic to workaholic to world-class athlete; an Epic 5 finisher (five Ironman races—each a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike, and 26.2-mile run—in seven days); and host of the Rich Roll Podcast, an interview show focused on personal growth that averages more than 1 million downloads per month.
I recently had the chance to catch up with Roll from his home in Calabasas, California. Here are the principles that allow him to continue reaching his peak.
Training and racing bring me joy. It’s pure and simple. I love ramping up and immersing myself in the day-to-day grind that is required to prepare for a big event. It makes me feel tremendously alive. Athleticism is a big part of my personality, character, and constitution—and the lessons I learn in sport inform how I do other things in my life.
Remember: Winning Isn’t Everything
When I was younger and first getting into endurance sports, my training was laser-focused. Not much got between me and my performance goal. But that’s no longer the case. I’m blessed to have many great opportunities that I don’t want to give up. I’ve learned that sometimes training has to take a back seat, and that’s okay. It’s not something to stress over.
I sleep seven to eight hours a night. It’s a huge priority. It’s when both my body and mind recover. If I don’t get seven to eight hours, I don’t feel good.
I’ve followed a plant-based diet for the past ten years. When I first started, it was really just to improve my health. But since then, it’s become about so much more. It’s the one diet that checks all the boxes: sustainable for the environment, best for quality and quantity of life, and most compassionate to animals.
As you age, you will get incrementally slower. That’s just the way it is. So, it’s not about measuring yourself against any other person or what you used to be. You’ve got to train where you’re at. Not where you think you could be, or where you used to be, but where you are right now. You need to be comfortable with that.
Maybe one day I’ll be content, but not today. I’m highly motivated, and I get so much life satisfaction out of the work that I do. I only want to broaden the scope and caliber of what I’m putting out there. Right now, I have the energy for it. I mean, I’m 50. I don’t know how much longer I’ll be able to keep doing this, so I want to use and share my energy while I can.
Know Who Your Tribe Is
It’s a team effort and a partnership, requiring constant and open communication between my wife and our kids. It’s a priority in our family for everyone to express themselves in the ways they’d like. Sometimes it just means we have to take turns.
In the context of sport, so much of the game is mental. A huge part of performance is contingent on your frame of mind, whether you can be present and tune into your higher consciousness or if you let the chatter and negative self-talk of your brain take over. Meditation helps you cultivate the presence of mind to overcome obstacles when you’re most vulnerable. I think every athlete should be meditating daily and treating it with the same reverence, respect, and diligence as their physical workouts.
Don’t Get Stuck
If I’m down or in a rut, I force myself to move my body, if even if only a bit. This helps shift my perspective and reset my operating system—and more often than not, the sun starts shining again. Also, remember that emotions come and go. Sometimes it’s best not to fight a down feeling but just to accept it. The only certain thing about emotions is that eventually they’ll change.