One day, Rich Roll, a 41-year-old father of four, was out for what he planned would be a five or six mile run. Maybe it was the plant-based vegan diet he had recently adopted, or some primal, ancestral energy stream he had suddenly tapped into, but on that particular day, Roll didn't want to stop at six miles. He didn't want to stop at 10, or 17. After a whopping 23 miles, a distance he had never before come close to running, a stunned Roll finally decided to head home and strip off his sweat-soaked shorts and socks. This was a stark contrast from his state of being six months earlier, when he experienced chest pains upon walking up a single flight of stairs. After his impromptu near-marathon run, he knew his new lifestyle choices were unlocking some powerful strength and health. But he still could not have anticipated that within a matter of a year, he would be tackling the Epic5 endurance race, one of the most grueling voluntary physical challenges on the planet, which entails completing five back-to-back Ironman competitions within five days on five different Hawaiian islands.
Roll's miraculous health transformation was not the first metamorphosis he had undergone. About ten years before his health scare on the staircase, Roll had entered into recovery from alcohol and drug addiction and ceased the decades-spanning abuses he had inflicted on his body and mind. He began a successful law practice and met his health-minded, vegetarian, yoga-instructor wife, now the mother of his four children.
Rich Roll before and after adopting a plant-based diet and becoming an "epic" endurance athlete.
Roll was filled with gratitude for the gifts of his sobriety, but healthy eating and exercise habits were far from the forefront of his mind, even though he had been a star swimmer during the first years of his undergraduate studies at Stanford (before his drinking and drugging got in the way).
"When I was a swimmer, I was training four hours a day and I could eat anything I wanted. Calories were king. And so I formed those habits, and I stuck with those habits for a very very long time," Roll said. "And there were moments when denial took over and I looked at myself in the mirror and convinced myself I still looked like an Olympic swimmer, even though that was obviously far from the case. And of course, that stuff catches up to you."
While Roll stuffed his face with greasy burgers and fries, his yogi wife Julie Piatt maintained a healthy diet. "Looking in our fridge, it was always very obvious what food was mine and what was my wife's," Roll said. But despite the prevalence of heart disease that ran through Roll's bloodline (his grandfather, a champion swimmer, non-smoker and exercise enthusiast, died of a heart attack in his early fifties), Roll's wife knew better than to try to convert her husband to her way of eating. "She took a very Al-Anon approach to my lifestyle choices," Roll said, by which he means that she lived and let live until he asked for help.
Roll first became open to the idea of food's medicinal properties when he watched his wife treat - and eventually abolish - a golf ball-sized benign tumor on her neck with the use of herbs, poultices, and teas. "I, being the very logical, Stanford educated guy said, 'We're going to a doctor.' My wife said, 'We're not going to do that.' She sought out the advice of an Ayurvedic physician who gave her strange herbs, strange pastes, and strange elixirs that she had to buy in these creepy little baggies that had no labels on them," said Roll. "It wasn't easy and it wasn't brief, but about 10 or 11 months in, it basically vanished and it never came back. Which is pretty crazy."
Still, he didn't yet feel the pull of natural plant foods. It took the incident on the stairs to inspire him to take action toward real change. At his request, his wife helped him organize and complete a juice cleanse. "After day three, I had so much energy. I was bouncing off the walls. I said to myself, 'how is this possible?' Especially after the way I had abused myself with drugs and alcohol for so long."
After the cleanse, though, Roll didn't quite know how to proceed. He decided to try a vegetarian diet, hoping that it would be enough to carry him the rest of the way toward his health goals.
But he had no idea what he was doing. Again, his wife did not interfere or scold when Roll took the potato chips, ice cream, Domino's pizza and Coca Cola approach to vegetarianism. Being of the temperament that he is, Roll acknowledges that he probably would not have responded if she had. But when months went by and he hadn't dropped a pound or seen any improvement in his energy levels, he began doing some research of his own. He encountered the work of T. Colin Campbell, Dr. Fuhrman, and Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn, all of whom advocate a plant-based, whole foods vegan diet for people who want to prevent or reverse cardiovascular and other diseases and lose weight. Roll went full-on plant-based vegan - no more chips or soda - and started to develop an eating plan that made sense. He lost 50 pounds and began increasing the intensity and duration of his workouts.
His wife joined him in veganism and soon they were both eating Vitamix blends of beets, greens, and superfoods like maca and camu camu for breakfast, and quinoa and kale for dinner (even their kids now eat a 95 percent vegan diet, Roll says). Seeking an outlet for his new intense athletic energy, Roll signed up for his first marathon.
Soon after that, in true addict fashion, he decided he wanted to do an Ironman: a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride, and a 26.2-mile run.
"That's kind of like a 40-year-old dude bucket list item," Roll said. But he didn't realize these competitions aren't things you just sign up for the day of the event. "They sell out a year ahead of time. And I sort of realized I would have to wait a year and four months."
Feeling an urgency to put his ever-fitter body to work sooner than that, Roll was on the lookout for a crazy race. "So I picked up one of those magazines you see in shoe stores," Roll said, and that's where he first learned about the Epic5: five Ironmans in five days on five different Hawaiian islands. That's 703 miles of man-powered travel in total. "It was this bizarre affair where everyone has to bring their own crew, there was no media coverage. It sounded super cool and I said, 'I'm going to figure out a way to do that race.'"
So he called up the race director to inquire. "She said, 'What have you done?' and I said 'Nothing.' They only accept 35 people a year for this race and I kept thinking she was going to say, 'No, you can't do it,' but she was like, 'I don't know. Why don't you call me in a couple months when I finish accepting applications.' But she didn't say no. So I was like 'I'm getting in.'"
Rich Roll, Vegan Ultra Athlete
Roll hired a coach. "I started training in accordance with the program in a way that would allow me to basically finish the race without dying. Not do it for time, just complete it," Roll said. "And she let me in. And I did that race in 2008. I was 42 that year."
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Competing against 34 of the toughest endurance athletes in the world, Roll finished 11th, which might be enough for some people. "Honestly, I just wanted to finish the race. It was kind of a celebration of ten years of sobriety. I just wanted to do it," Roll said. "But when I exceeded my expectations and I finished 11th that year, I was like, 'Wow. I wonder what would happen if I trained seriously for it and tried to race it rather than just complete it?'" So he signed up to do it again the following year, and despite injuries and several setbacks throughout the race, finished sixth overall.
Roll's book Finding Ultra was recently released and has become a bestselling title. He describes it as part inspirational non-fiction narrative and part "how to" guide for revolutionizing diet and health. With the book's success, Roll, who is not a professional athlete and has never been paid to compete, has been able to slow down his law practice and dedicate time to touring the country, speaking at athletic events, and promoting awareness of his book, his story, and how others can enjoy better health at any age.