In October 2018, just before his 52nd birthday, endurance athlete and podcast host Rich Roll offered up the short version of his life story on Twitter:
I didn’t reach my athletic peak until I was 43.
I didn’t write my first book until I was 44.
I didn’t start my podcast until I was 45.
At 30, I thought my life was over.
At 52 I know it’s just beginning.
Keep running. Never give up. And watch your kite soar.
He ended with two emojis: a hand giving a peace sign and a plant. (Roll is vegan.)
If this kind of self-help poetry makes you squirm, you’re probably not among the rabid fans of the Rich Roll Podcast, which is one of the most popular interview shows in the world, with some 68 million downloads and counting. In an era of high-paced everything and outsize personalities, his appeal is his patience and humble inquisitiveness. His guests range from elite athletes (climber Alex Honnold, Olympic triathlete Gwen Jorgensen) to meditation acolytes (Twitter founder Jack Dorsey, comedian Russell Brand) to spiritual leaders (yogi Guru Singh, pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber). With everyone, Roll is “unrushed and caring,” says entrepreneur and life coach Jesse Itzler, who has been on the show twice. “He’s like the endurance-athlete version of Oprah.”
Roll’s approach grew out of the personal journey he outlined in that tweet. He was a talented swimmer at Stanford but developed an alcohol problem that later ended up destroying his first marriage—during the honeymoon—and nearly derailed his career as an entertainment lawyer. He sobered up after a stint in rehab, then became a workaholic, spending the next decade toiling toward burnout. At age 40, realizing that he was miserable and dangerously unhealthy, he went vegan and started endurance training. Two years later, he finished 11th at the Ultraman, an infamous three-day swim-bike-run sufferfest in Hawaii. He wrote a book about his transformation, 2012’s Finding Ultra, quit his job, and started recording conversations for a podcast. Back then nobody listened to him. Now lots of people do: mostly because nobody does a better job of helping us understand how we can improve our lives by being more patient and less, well, maxed out.
I spoke with Roll inside his recording studio at his home in Southern California’s Santa Monica Mountains, where he lives with his wife, Julie Piatt (a vegan-cookbook author and host of her own podcast), and the youngest two of their four children.
“What happens in the secret-society rooms of addiction recovery stays there. What I can say is that you become a skilled listener. You develop a huge capacity for empathy. And you learn how to be vulnerable. It’s not a mistake that a lot of successful podcast hosts are in recovery.”
“I don’t think of myself as a member of the wellness industry. I’m just following my curiosity.”
“When I got sober, I was intent upon becoming a productive member of society. I repaired my relationships with family and friends. I became a successful corporate lawyer. I drove a sports car and lived in a very nice house. From the outside, it all looked really groovy. But on the inside, I was coming to terms with the fact that I was chasing somebody else’s life.”
“I’m constantly dispelling this myth that I’m some crazy gifted athlete. In my first half-Ironman, I barfed during the swim. By the time I got off my bike, my legs were so cramped up that I ran 100 meters and just stopped. It was a DNF. My beginnings in triathlon were very humble—but I loved it.”
“I had a bad bike crash in the spring of 2009 and ended up in the ER. It really made me question what I was doing. I’m going to crack my head wide open for what? I was laying there and Julie asked me, ‘If this was the end, do you regret it?’ I said, ‘No, this is what I want to do.’ Somehow, my compass was being calibrated.”
“A lot of people read self-help books and think that they’re changing their lives, but they’re not implementing any of the advice. Mood follows action. It’s not how you feel. It’s not the ideas that you have. It all boils down to: What are you doing to improve your life?”
“Having everything go your way isn’t a learning experience. My second Ultraman was the perfect race for me. After leading by ten minutes on the first day, I crashed my bike, ending any chance at the podium and shattering my ego. But I still had to pick it up and finish. I love everything about how that ended up.”
“After my book came out, we spent years being totally broke. We couldn’t pay our mortgage. We had our trash cans taken away because I couldn’t afford the garbage service. I was talking about spiritual principles and how you have to trust your heart, but my faith in those ideas was tested. At times I thought, I’m full of shit. These journeys can be gifts, but when you’re experiencing them, you feel like you’re going to die.”
“It’s all about emotional connection. The information is secondary. With each guest on my show, I need to figure out a way into this person so that I can understand them.”
“Left to my own devices, I would not be doing any of these things. I’m very rational. But my wife has shown me the limits of that operating system—and the expansiveness that comes when you believe in possibility, trust your intuition, and act on inspiration.”