Author Q&A: Rich Roll on Mid-Life Transformation from Average to Ultra

Rich Roll, Before and After his Radical Life Change
Rich Roll, Before and After his Radical Life Change

Aside from the opportunity to witness athletic feats of stunning speed and endurance, one of the biggest perks of the summer Olympics is the opportunity to see incredibly fit athletes wearing incredibly tiny outfits. But Michael Phelps, Lolo Jones, and Ryan Hall have been training since they were kids. The closest most of us will come to that kind of physical perfection is the distance between our sofas and our televisions. Oh well, pass the corn chips. Not so fast, says Rich Roll, author of “Finding Ultra: Rejecting Middle Age, Becoming One of the World’s Fittest Men, and Discovering Myself,” who, on the eve of his fortieth birthday found himself more than forty pounds overweight and barely able to climb the stairs to kiss his kids goodnight. After a junk food-and-bad TV-induced dark night of the soul, Roll overhauled his diet and lifestyle, trading burgers for vegan smoothies and crashing on the couch for triathlons and ultra marathons. In his book, he writes about his transformation, and insists if he can change his life at such a late date, anyone can. We talked to him about his journey from average to ultra.

You open the book when you were in a bad place, as a recovering alcoholic who was pretty unhappy with his life. What got you to that point?

I think that growing up privileged enough to be educated as well as anybody could be...that places you in a certain box, and you can build your own prison. You think, “I went to Stanford; I went to Cornell Law School. I should be a doctor or a lawyer or investment banker and do what a man of my education is expected to do.” That can trip you up from what moves you emotionally, or what your passion is. I was on this achievement track my whole life, never once stopping to say, “What is it that I want?” or “What do I have to offer that is meaningful to me personally?” Crisis is a good catalyst for self-reflection and change, and pain is a powerful motivator. Although on the surface the book is about athletic transformation, in my mind it’s about really asking myself what is it I was put on earth to do.

What was the crisis that inspired change for you?

My life and career as a corporate lawyer, putting the suit and tie on and living for the weekend. Working eighty hours a week, eating dinner at the firm. The only means of escaping reality was buying nice things or getting loaded on the weekend. I lived that way for a very long time.

You write in your book that “to this day, ‘balance’ remains my final frontier.” A lot of people would be happy just to be able to run ten miles, but you do ultramarathons. Do you think a lot of former addicts are drawn to endurance sports once they get sober?

A lot of alcoholics or drug addicts are people that are seeking answers -- they’re spiritual seekers. When you take away the drugs or alcohol, that seeking continues. It just gets channeled into healthier outlets. Alcoholics and drug addicts are extreme in their nature, and once alcohol and drugs are taken away, it’s common to pursue other extreme things, whether its tattooing your entire body or doing ultra-endurance sports. I’m definitely drawn to pushing the envelope. It’s a way of self-knowledge. The result is a better me.

It seems we’re seeing more and more men testing themselves with extreme sports and endurance competitions. How does the idea of manhood affect your pursuits?

I’ve found my personal manhood by letting go of social expectations of what a man should be. It was only by letting go of what I thought a man should be that I was able to incarnate into what I should be as a man. I don’t live the typical Mad Men idea of suiting up and showing up at the office every day and bringing home a paycheck. Don Draper is definitely leading a life of quiet desperation. I had to really let go of that and step into a more faith-based model of what I was meant to be. So, yeah, when you look at the cover of the book and see me, you might make this masculine identification, but I work out of my house, I take my kids to school every morning, and the money comes and goes. I had to tap into the feminine side of me in order to become the more masculine person that I am. I had to embrace creativity and free thinking.

What about when you’re competing? Do you tap into your alpha male then?

In terms of competition, I’m not motivated by beating someone else. What motivates me is being the best me. The things I do are so long, that you really have to let go of expectations, and clear your mind, it’s very much like a meditation process. Even at the highest level of marathoners, what makes the difference? It’s the person who is mentally and spiritually more connected than the other person. Its not about the races for me, it’s the day in and day out, the training. The book is about surrendering and letting go. Jumping into life without a safety net. Its not a willful, testosterone-driven message; it’s actually the opposite of that. I can’t identify with that other kind of thinking. That’s the way I used to live my life and it drove me into a brick wall.