Vegan Ultraman Rich Roll
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If you think the Ultraman traiathlon is insane, try and comprehend five Ironmans five days in a row. Rich Roll isn't just thinking about it–he's going to do it. Roll is a two-time Ultraman competitor and first ever Ultraman vegan athlete. After going through a major personal revolution in diet and exercise, he became one of Men's Fitness magazine's “25 Fittest Guys in the World” of 2009. Roll will compete in the EPIC5 mega-triathlon March 17 to 21 in Hawaii. I had a chance to chat with him about his lifestyle and training.
Do you realize what you're doing is off the charts?
I’m just following my heart. I love pushing myself and challengingnotions of what the human body and soul are capable of. It neveroccurred to me that anyone else would be interested.
You've gotten atremendous amount of interest because you're vegan. What surprised you the most about people's reactions?
It's twofold. On the one hand, I have been very surprised by theamount of support and interest. Although there are not many of us, I amhardly the only one. But I am grateful for the attention my lifestyleand Ultraman performance has garnered as it provides a platform toadvocate long-term wellness and disease prevention throughplant-based nutrition–not just for athletes but for anyone. On theother hand, there is backlash. People are very threatened by thingsthey don’t understand. I speak only from personal experience andencourage everyone to do their own research. But the scientificevidence and research results are pretty clear, in my opinion. The moreyou look into it, the more you realize the extent to which ourconventional foods are making us sick, promoting cancer, diabetes, andheart disease.
Do you have any fears about completing the EPIC5?
Yes! I was asked to join this insanity a few weeks ago. I have been enjoying a long break from training after Ultraman over the last two months, so my only real fear is that I will not be in the preferred physical condition in time for the event. The saving grace is that it is not a race but a journey. I am not concerned about speed or time, just enjoying the adventure. So we will be taking our time, the only goal being to enjoy ourselves and complete the task at hand.
Where do you find motivation after the swim and 100 miles into your bike leg?
During Ultraman this year, I was ecstatic to have a ten-minute lead on the field after the first day of competition–6.2-mile swim, plus 90-mile bike–so going into Day 2–170-mile bike–I was highly motivated. However, I crashed my bike in the rain about 35 miles in that day. After a protracted interruption in which I had to dress my wounds and locate a replacement pedal for my bike, my motivation plummeted. It was all I could do just to finish that day. But what kept me going was my family, who crewed for me, and the idea that pitfalls such as these are what events like Ultraman are all about.
How did you recover mentally from the crash?
I’m not sure I really did. When I crashed and realized I had a brokenpedal, I honestly thought my race was over. At that point, a switchflicked and I took myself out of the game mentally. When I realized mybike could be repaired and I could continue, it was extremely difficultto get my head back into the game. I had lost a lot of time, had 135miles to go, I was injured and it rained most of the day. I was focusedonly on finishing the day and putting it behind me. I wasn’t even sureI would be able to run the next day. So my only choice was to becompletely in the moment and take it one pedal at a time, one stride ata time.
Do you train alone?
Primarily. I ride with a crew of great friends on Saturdays generally,but almost every other session is solo. I enjoy the solitude andmeditative aspects of being out on a trail run in the middle of nowhereor just out on my bike alone.
Who's your coach?
Chris Hauth of AIMP. I originally began workingwith him on the recommendation of a few friends and because he hadcoached other athletes for Ultraman. Chris and I also swam for the sameclub team back in the day. As a former Olympic swimmer, he understandsme. He has been an amazing support and has craftedperfect training plans for me. I could never have done what I have donewithout him.
Your first Ultraman was a long shot–you had never even done an Ironman, andthe race director was dubious about you entering. How'd they like yanow?
Ultraman is the baby of Jane Bockus, and she very graciously allowed myentry in 2008. It was a gift to be allowed to compete in thisinvite-only competition, and I have tried to honor that by living thespirit of Ohana and Aloha the event embodies. Another unique aspect ofUltraman is that if a competitor does not properly respect the race,the other athletes or the organizers, they will not be invited back.
You're an entertainment attorney, not a pro-athlete. Will that change soon?
I make my living as an entertainment attorney and have never made a dime as an athlete. As for becoming pro, I’m not sure what that means at my age of 43. However, my wife and I are working on a plant-based nutrition cookbook, which should be out soon. In addition, I have begun doing some coaching, and we are launching some training camps this spring. And in partnership with Ascended Health, we are coming out with a line of plant-based nutrition and wellness elixir products in April called Jai Elixirs for the athlete and everyman alike, designed to fuel and rejuvenate the body for performance and long-term wellness. Finally, I am speaking with some like-minded entities about financially supporting my mission, which is the promotion of wellness through plant-based nutrition and fitness. I have also begun doing some public speaking.
What is your best spiritual tool to get you across the finish line?
Knowing that this is my path. I have a deep intuitive spiritual knowledge that this is what I am supposed to be doing with my life. This awareness is supported by the countless e-mails I receive from people all over the world who have been inspired by my story to make changes in their lives. But when things are tough and I think I can’t keep going, I resort to coming into the present. I bring my focus to the breath, take in everything around me, and just find the bliss in the journey.
How many sneakers do you go through in a year?
I have about 12 pairs of running shoes, and I rotate them throughout the week depending on the type of run, the terrain, etc. So, I am able to hold onto them for quite a while. Also, I tend to prefer my worn-in shoes, so I probably run in them longer than I should.
Did you suffer any injuries during training?
I have a bad habit of crashing my bike. Other than my crash during Ultraman, I had a very serious crash in June that took me out for two weeks and did a pretty good job on my face–my lower lip is still completely numb. I also t-boned a car in August when it pulled an impromptu illegal u-turn right in front of me. But otherwise, I have been very lucky in that I have not suffered any injuries due to the training itself. I attribute much of this to my coach’s plan, which is a very gradual progression in volume, especially when it comes to running. Certainly I have some very big run days, and a double run day at least once a week, but I rarely run two days in a row.
How long did it take you to recover from Ultraman, and how long do you think it will take you to recover from EPIC5?
Other than my crash-related injuries, I felt recovered after about two weeks, although I’m sure I wasn’t truly recovered. Its the 52-mile run that really beats up the body, and those ligaments, tendons, and joints need copious time to heal. As for EPIC5, I have no idea as it is such uncharted terrain. Even if I take it slow, it will still beat me up. I’m trying to approach it more like a big training camp than a race.
How do you recover? What do you eat right after training?
My plant-based nutrition regime is the focal point of my performance and recovery. I have an array of whole-food smoothies for immediate post-workout, which I blend in a vita-mix, a very high-powered blender that will make juice out of anything–even an avocado pit. A lot of greens, veggies, nuts, and fruits high in antioxidants and anti-inflammatories, supplemented with enzymes, marine phytoplanktons, adaptogens, plant-based proteins and oils such as flax, coconut, and hemp.
What is your biggest source of protein?
I try to get almost all of my protein through whole foods, such as beans, quinoa, and nuts. But after big days I will use some high-grade rice, hemp protein powders from Vega, Sunwarrior, Living Harvest. I also use Bragg’s Liquid Aminos on salads, rice, etc.
How do you fuel for Ultraman?
You have to be very careful about upsetting the GI tract. I have a vita-mix with fruits, coconut milk, almond milk, flax oil, hemp oil, and some endurance boosters like beets, kale, maca, and chia seeds. Then I will have one piece of gluten-free toast with almond butter. Any more than that and I get bloated. While racing, I take in about 200-300 calories per hour, mostly in liquid format. I use a high-grade maltodextrin for complex carbohydrates, salt tabs, and coconut water for electrolytes. I stay away from all the popular sugary drinks, gels, and bars to avoid the spikes and drops in my blood sugar. I also try to take in whole foods–potato wedges, rice balls with almond butter. During the last 90 to 120 minutes of each day, I switch to the simple sugars–fruits and the occasional gel or sugary drink.
What’s your favorite fruit?
Avocados. Yes, it's a fruit.
Raw almonds. Great source of protein, healthy fats, minerals, Vitamin E, and tied to a reduction in heart disease.
What's a good drink before a long training ride?
I have two drinks. The first is one of our Jai Elixirs, containing marinephytoplankton, live adaptogens, green tea, and plant-based stimulantsand endurance boosters. Then I have a vita-mix with kale, beet, orange,maca, chia seed, coconut oil, and flax oil. My main supplements are my line of Jai Elixirs, sourced from all over the world. I also use Vega products. The EFA Oil, Whole FoodOptimizer, and Vega Sport products are a great and healthyalternative to the mass-produced sugary gels and so-called “energydrinks” on the market.
Recipe for your favorite recovery shake?
Try this: beet greens, kale, carrot, avocado pit, ginger, flax oil, coconut oil, coconut water, hemp protein powder, almond, apple juice, and pineapple.
You have four lovely children, a beautiful wife, and you train like a superhero. How’s that work?
It's very difficult. I am always striving to find balance in my life, andit has not been easy juggling family, marriage, career, and training,which inches up around 25-30 hours a week in the months prior to a keyevent. I am fortunate in that I run my own law practice, so I am ableto structure my work schedule around training during the week.Saturdays are long training days and Sunday is my rest day–on Sundayit's all about the kids and my wife, Julie.
Your wife is a tremendous support. What's her biggest gift to you?
My wife is a master healer and has provided the spiritual backbone for how I approach my training and racing. I would not be where I am without her. Julie creates an amazing and supportive environment for me to excel and grounds me with meditation techniques and my overall spiritual approach not just to training and racing but to life: Why am I doing what I’m doing? What is my purpose? She sees the big picture–that this is not about a race or results, but a journey in service to others, to the planet by setting a lifestyle example. Her biggest gift to me has been in helping me to understand you cannot achieve great things without your house being completely in order–not just athletically, but mentally and, most importantly, spiritually. In my opinion, an athlete’s spiritual perspective on performance, training, and racing is equally, if not more, important than the physical preparation. Had my spiritual house not been in order for Ultraman, I know I would not have been able to complete the event after my crash.
Did you have a Reiki master with you during the race?
Nicole Duran traveled with us, providing not only support with our kids but also doing healing work on me and my friend and fellow competitor, Jason Lester. She was an amazing and talented gift to our team.
How would you describe the Ultraman community?
In Hawaii, they call it “Ohana”–family. Once an Ultraman, always an Ultraman. What is most beautiful and unique about this event is the mutual support of your fellow competitors and crews. It's a small event (only 37 racers this year) so everyone gets to know everyone else very well and is dedicated to making sure we have a collective experience. There is a bonding that occurs that is rare in normal walks of life.
How would you describe the race?
The deepest, most spiritual and meditative experience of my life.
Who will join you for EPIC5?
Our key support is the legendary Cory Foulk, a 14-time Ultramanfinisher and resident of Kona, who will be providing crew assistance,supporting us with nutrition, mechanical aid, and logistics. We also aregraced with local athletes on each island who will be aiding us alongthe way, as well as private air transport from island to island. Wecannot do this alone–it is truly a team effort, given that thelogistics of pulling this off are as challenging as the athletic featitself.
How do you think EPIC5 will give back to Hawaii?
EPIC5 is the brain child of JasonLester, who has lived in Kona since 2005. This event was conceived to raisefunds and awareness for Jason’s Never Stop Foundation, which promotesathletics for troubled Hawaiian youth. Never Stop’s long-term goal isthe creation of a youth center in Kailua-Kona, where both childrenand adults will receive a chance to improve their lives throughathletics, helping to build a strong life mentally, physically, andspiritually.
Photograph No. 2 by John Segesta