Self (Re)Made Man: Rich Roll

  • By Matt Fitzgerald
  • Published Jan 29, 2013
  • Updated Dec 30, 2014 at 9:04 AM UTC
Photo: Matt Harbicht

Ultradistance triathlete Rich Roll transformed his diet and became a new person. Now he wants to help you do the same.

“No chicken, no eggs, no fish, no dairy. All plants, all whole foods, all the time. It’s what I live on. It’s what I train on. It’s what I compete on. It’s what I thrive on.”

This is how ultradistance triathlete Rich Roll describes his PlantPower Diet and its effects in his book Finding Ultra: Rejecting Middle Age, Becoming One of the World’s Fittest Men, and Discovering Myself. Roll’s book is a literary mashup, part memoir and part diet manifesto. Its backbone is the true story of a remarkable two-step midlife turnaround from alcoholic former Stanford swimmer to out-of-shape husband and father to ultra-endurance trailblazer. Woven through this narrative is a powerful argument for the vegan diet that Roll credits for the second step of his turnaround and now recommends to others who wish to reclaim their own bodies and lives.

In Roll’s telling, his life took a wrong turn on a recruiting trip to the University of Michigan during his senior year of high school. Roll consumed alcohol—and got drunk—for the first time with his hosts, and it turned his world upside down. Until that moment he had been on a straight and narrow path. He was an outstanding student and a nationally ranked butterfly swimmer at the prestigious Landon School in the greater Washington, D.C., area. But Roll was also socially awkward and a loner. Alcohol seemed to cure that affliction instantaneously, and the feeling was irresistible.

Roll’s swimming career peaked prematurely in his very first race for Stanford. He came within a hair’s breadth of winning a 200-yard butterfly race that included future Olympian Bill Stapleton and world No. 2 Anthony Mosse. Roll might have won if he hadn’t suffered two broken ribs in a drunken fall a week before.

After that race, Roll’s drinking compromised his swimming more and more until eventually he quit the Cardinal team and the sport. Despite his alcoholism, Roll managed to graduate from Stanford, earn a law degree at Cornell, pass the California State Bar, and score a job at one of the top entertainment law firms in Los Angeles. But the consequences of the addiction kept piling up. Among them were a couple of DUI arrests, including one that he earned by rear-ending a vehicle driven by an elderly woman who was injured in the accident.

Roll admits that there were times during the writing of Finding Ultra when he winced at having to publicly confess such misdeeds. But he knew a bare-all candor would help readers connect more genuinely to his story. “When you reveal your deepest humanity and all its dark corners, people respond to that,” he says. “They can tell the difference between someone who’s being authentic and someone who’s just trying to look good or spinning a yarn.”

It took a lot for Roll to finally bottom out. In addition to the arrests, he nearly lost his job and became semi-estranged from his parents. At last, in 1997, Roll checked himself into a treatment facility in rural northern Oregon, where he spent 100 days.

The treatment worked, and Roll got a fresh start. Upon returning to Los Angeles he quit his job to pursue the dream of launching his own boutique entertainment law office. He met a new woman, Julie Piatt (now his wife), at a yoga class, and became a father. But something was still missing.

Roll reached another turning point in October 2006, on the eve of his 40th birthday, when he had to pause to rest while climbing a staircase at his home in Malibu Canyon. “In that moment, denial was shattered,” Roll writes in Finding Ultra. “Reality set in for the first time. I was a fat, out-of-shape, and very unhealthy man hurtling toward middle age—a depressed, self-destructive person utterly disconnected from who I was and who I wanted to be.”

The next day Roll started a “detox juice-cleanse.” He transitioned from that into a vegetarian diet, which in turn evolved into the vegan PlantPower Diet that Roll still follows today (and details thoroughly in his book). He started exercising too, and gradually reawakened his passion to test his body’s limits. Not one given to half measures, Roll registered for the 2008 Ultraman Triathlon before he had finished a triathlon of any distance and placed 11th. Returning the following year, he took sixth despite wrecking his bike on day two of the three-day race. In 2010, Roll and friend Jason Lester (who has one arm) completed Epic5: five iron-distance triathlons on the five major islands of Hawaii in one week.

By this time friends, acquaintances and fans were constantly telling Roll that he should write a book. He was hesitant at first. “I’m not a world champion,” he says. “I’m not a professional. I’m not a celebrity.”

But then Roll envisioned a way to tell his story in a way that wasn’t really about him, but the reader. “I’m trying to empower people to take control of their lives, whether they’re into triathlon or running or not,” Roll says of the book.

It’s working. Finding Ultra has found a large and diverse readership, and Roll knows from the dozens of email messages he receives every day and from the face-to-face interactions he’s had at events such as D.C. VegFest—a large vegetarian celebration held every September where Roll drew an audience of hundreds—that his story’s impact has been as deep as it has been broad.

The one small downside to this “once-in-a-lifetime experience,” as Roll calls it, is that his training and racing have taken a backseat to writing and promotional work. But this year he plans to return to Ultraman, where, he says, he has unfinished business—yet no regrets.

“The whole reason Ultraman interested me in the beginning was that it was a spiritual quest and an opportunity for growth,” says Roll. “When I crashed and found the wherewithal to get back on the bike and finish, that was what I learned about myself. If that hadn’t happened and everything had gone perfectly, I certainly wouldn’t have learned as much about myself as I did having to struggle with misfortunate and setbacks.”

He could be talking about his whole life.

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