Ultra-endurance triathlete Rich Roll is often hailed as an overnight sensation. The press sums up his story in what he calls “a neatly packaged narrative that makes it sound like my success happened quickly and effortlessly.” But the self-proclaimed “man of extremes” — whom Men’s Fitness lauded as one of the “25 Fittest Men in the World” — says he has the battle scars to prove how tough his rise to the top really was.
The reality he shares in his best-selling autobiography, Finding Ultra, describes a challenging life journey. Abusing drugs and alcohol in his early years cost him a career as a competitive swimmer and almost ruined his law practice.
Roll went through rehab and got sober, but he was far from healthy. Struggling to climb a flight of stairs on the night before his 40th birthday, he felt he may have been on the verge of a heart attack. It was time to regain his focus and start training again.
Roll abruptly traded his standard American diet for a plant-powered one and got back into the gym. In the next two years, he shed 50 pounds. He shares his vegan training plan in his recent book, The Plantpower Way.
Inspired by his improved health, he began running and eventually competing in triathlons. His 6th-place finish in the 2009 Ultraman World Championships earned him international attention along with the credibility to bring his story to a growing audience.
Roll, who now hosts a popular wellness podcast (find it and his other projects at RichRoll.com), wants that story to serve as a lesson for anyone who believes healthy change is impossible.
“I’m not some gifted natural athlete,” he says. “I’ve achieved the things I have through passion and an incredible amount of dedication.”
Q&A With Rich Roll
Experience Life | In Finding Ultra, you describe a turning point on that flight of stairs that helped you realize you were willing to change. What’s the difference between wanting to change and being willing to?
Rich Roll | I think everybody has things they want to change about who they are and what they do. We all say, “I should do this” or “Why don’t I do more of that?” But that’s distinct from a willingness to take action.
For me, pain has always been the greatest motivator and catalyst for change. When my behavior is creating enough pain and negative repercussions in my life, that’s when I’m ready to do something about it.
That was certainly true when I made the decision to go to rehab. I hit my bottom and was ready to surrender to the disease — not only asking for help but accepting help, which has always been very difficult for me.
When I was on that staircase, I recognized I was having another moment similar to the day I got sober, and I was able to appreciate the preciousness of the opportunity.
There are fleeting moments of recognition and windows of willingness. If you seize the moment and take specific action immediately, you create a foundation for a long-term change. But if you say, “Oh yeah, I should make that change, but maybe I’ll do it tomorrow,” that window might close and may not open again.
EL | What do we need to do to notice our “windows of willingness”?
RR | Devote yourself to doing the necessary internal work. Carve out time in your day to connect with things that are meaningful to you. You can do this by keeping a gratitude list. Spend five minutes writing down 10 things you’re grateful for every day.
Commit to a meditation practice — even if it’s just five minutes a day — and dedicate time to practicing. This is an essential first step toward self-discovery.
Once you cultivate your inner voice, find ways to express it. If you’re an accountant but always wanted to be a photographer, it doesn’t mean you need to quit your job. Just spend an hour each week taking pictures and actively expressing the thing you care about.
Finally, release yourself from perfection. Allow yourself space to fail and don’t judge yourself for failing, because it’s only through trying new things and pushing yourself that you’re going to grow.
EL | Changing our lives often starts with changing our mindsets, too. Was that the case for you?
RR | Yes, I had to discard what society told me to do and turn my focus inward to understanding myself. I had to have faith that when I’m listening to my own voice about what I want and acting accordingly with it, I will be on the path to wholeness. It takes a lot of courage to break out of others’ expectations. It’s really the warrior’s path.
My whole life was premised on pursuing and achieving this myth of the American dream. You study hard, get good grades, get into the best college, choose a respectable career, show up early for work, stay late, and work your way up the corporate ladder.
What I was pursuing was so at odds with who I was at my core that it manifested in drinking, drug abuse, and checking out of my life.
EL| So to get better real-life results, you had to let go of your attachment to the American dream?
RR | Yes. There’s a pervasive idea that when you’re unhappy, if you just get one thing — that new car or promotion — then you’ll be happy. The truth is, when you get those things, you’re still you — and, ultimately, you’re disappointed. We latch onto external things for our happiness, but the reality is, you have the choice every moment to be happy.
Your life is not some future event. When you invest in the journey and have a clear direction of where you want to go without focusing on arriving there — and fall in love with the process and the work entailed with getting there — you’ll gild your life with meaning and satisfaction.
EL | You’ve said that rigor, specificity, and accountability were key to helping you create and sustain change. How so?
RR | These are fundamental tools in sobriety that are applicable to life and specifically to creating change or building new habits. For example, when somebody decides they need to start taking care of their body, they might say, “I’d better go to the gym.” But that lacks specificity and rigor. It’s open-ended, not a commitment.
I understood if I really wanted to change, I’d need a specific road map and boxes to check to demonstrate I was progressing along a positive trajectory.
When I wanted to eat better, I decided I wouldn’t eat meat. There’s no gray area there. You’re either doing it or not, which made sense to me because, in sobriety, you’re either drinking or using drugs or you’re not. It’s one or the other. Applying that template to diet and exercise made sense to me. It helped me hold myself accountable.
It’s also imperative to bring others into the equation as support and to be a feedback loop. They can tell you if you get off track, and they may want to do your new thing with you, which makes you accountable to each other. Creating community around your goals is an insurance policy for success.
Photography by Jeff Lipsky