Thursday, September 6, 2012

Finding Ultra: Rejecting Middle Age, Becoming One of the World's Fittest Men, and Discovering Myself by Rich Roll

As noted in the review of Eat & Run, Finding Ultra combines the story of a world-class athlete, with his commitment to a plant-based diet.

So who is Rich Roll? (He's not the guy who created the rickroll internet meme!) Here's some background from his web site,

"Rich is a man of many hats – a wellness advocate on behalf of plant-based nutrition; an entertainment attorney; and a husband and father of 4, but most of all, he is a passionate and inspirational ultra-endurance athlete.

In May 2010, Rich and his ultra-colleague Jason Lester accomplished an unprecedented feat of staggering endurance many said was not possible. Something they call the EPIC5 CHALLENGE – an odyssey that entailed completing 5 ironman-distance triathlons on 5 islands of Hawaii in under a week. Commencing on Kauai, they travelled to Oahu, Molokai and Maui before finishing on the Big Island, following the course of the Ironman World Championships on the Kona coast.

In addition, Rich has been a top finisher at the 2008 and 2009 Ultraman World Championships in Hawaii. Considered by many to be one of world’s most daunting and grueling endurance races on the planet, Ultraman is a 3-day / 320 mile double-ironman distance triathlon that circumnavigates the entire Big Island.  Limited to only 35 carefully selected invitation-only participants from all over the world, Day 1 involves a 6.2 mile ocean swim immediately followed by a 90 mile cross-country cycling race.  Day 2 is a 170 mile cycling race.  And the event culminates on Day 3 with a 52 mile double marathon run on the searing hot lava fields of the Kona coast.

In his first time out after a 20-year respite from competitive sports and only 6 months of training, Richard clocked the 2nd fastest swim split, finished 11th overall and was the 3rd fastest American.

Having competed as a competitive swimmer at Stanford University in the late 80’s, Richard has an accomplished athletic background. But by age 40, Richard was close to 50 pounds overweight and completely out of shape. It was time for a major life change. To celebrate his 40th natal birthday as well as his 10th anniversary in recovery from drug and alcohol addiction, in 2006 he overhauled his diet, became a dedicated vegan, put on his running shoes and jumped back into the pool. Two years later and close to 50 pounds lighter, he surprised the triathlon & ultra communities by not only becoming the first vegan to complete the event, but by finishing in the top 10 males, despite never having even previously competed in a single ironman distance event."

Rich's story is certainly inspirational. In some way his early years were similar to mine. We both wore thick black glasses, were typically the last kid picked for any sports game, and eventually found some success in swimming (unfortunately my swimming abilities never quite matched Rich's!) By the time he reached high school, Rich, as he put it, did nothing but eat, live, and breathe swimming. 

As a result of his success in swimming, as well as academics, Rich was recruited by many top-flight colleges. It was during the recruiting visits that he had his first taste of alcohol, and the unfortunate realization that he liked it too much. Rich ended up at Stanford, as a non-scholarship athlete. However, despite great promise after his freshmen year, Rich began to lose interest in swimming, and at the end  of his junior year he quit the team. His senior year then became a blur of parties, late nights, and hangovers. After graduation, Rich took a job with a Manhattan law firm, and a year later enrolled at Cornell Law School. After finishing at Cornell, Rich took a job with a law firm in San Francisco, and his drinking continued. After a year he joined a new law firm, and shortly after that was in a car accident, with a blood alcohol level of .29, more than three times the legal limit. After his conviction, he joined a local AA group, but was not fully committed. 

Another problem Rich was having was with his wedding plans. He started to sense that his wife to be was not as enthused as she originally was with the idea of marriage, but they went through with it anyway. However, it was over before it really got started; they ended up separating while on their honeymoon! During the nine months after this fiasco, Rich bounced around rehab facilities, but nothing seemed to work. Eventually, even his family abandoned him, telling him they did not want any contact with him until he was sober. He finally found a treatment facility that worked for him, Springbrook Northwest near Portland, and he ended up staying for 100 days. Soon afterwards, with his new sobriety and a new set of priorities, he left the law firm he had been working at, eventually starting his own practice. It was also around this time that he met Julie, his future wife. Things seemed to be getting better, and he remained sober.

However, while he was building a successful law practice, and remaining sober, Rich realized that he had let his health deteriorate. By the age of 40 he was 50 pounds over what he weighed when he was at Stanford. He decided to make some serious changes to his lifestyle, starting with a vegan, plant-powered diet. Rich attributes his success in his transition from a couch potato to Ultraman to this diet and mentions those who have influenced him, such as Dr. Neil Barnard from the PCRM (Physicians Committee for Responsible medicine), Dr. Colin Campbell, author of the China Study, and Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn, from the Cleveland Clinic, and an author as well. 

It was  while he was transitioning to his Plant-based diet that Rich began to consider getting back into shape as well. He entered a triathlon, but did not finish, and followed that with a marathon, but ended up walking the last eight miles. It was then that he decided he needed a serious goal to focus his efforts, and he signed up for an Ironman. It is interesting to note that he began his training program one month shy of his 10-year anniversary of sobriety. Unfortunately, in the midst of his training, he found out that the Ironman he had counted on competing in was filled-up, and he was unable to enter. Not wanting to waste all of his training efforts, he came upon the Ultraman event. 

The Ultraman consists of 6.2 miles of swimming, 260 miles of biking, and 54 miles of running, more than twice an Ironman. He was accepted into the 2008 event, and he had six months to prepare. His training volume increased to 15-20 hours per week, with his diet playing a key role in enabling him to recover more quickly so that he could train each day. As a result of his training and nutritional habits, he successfully completed the Ultraman on his first attempt. 

He competed again the next year, and after finishing in first place after the fist day, a nasty bike crash st him back on day two, but he still managed to finish the race as the top American. It was during his training for the 2009 Ultraman that one of his friends, Jason Lester, proposed the idea of the Epic 5, five full Ironman triathlons on five different Hawaiian islands, on five consecutive days! 

The logistics of completing the EPIC 5 were nearly as difficult as the race itself. As it turend out , they were not able to do the EPIC 5 on five consecutive days, having to take a break after the first two days, and then on the day before the fifth Ironman. However, they were both successful at their attempt, in no small part due to tremendous support from the locals. I must admit that while it is an astounding feat for anyone, I was even more impressed with Jason's accomplishment since he only has the use of one arm! How do you swim 2.5 miles in the ocean each day, using only one-arm?! It seems like there is another story there somewhere...

The book has some great Appendices; the first is the Nuts and Bolts of the PlantPower diet, with lots of great tips. The second Appendix is a Day in the Life, showing the details of his eating plan for a typical day. The third Appendix is a list of resources, such as books and web sites.

This is a great book, telling the story of a man who had some early successes, succumbed to the addictive power of alcohol, and reached the bottom mentally, physically, socially, and professionally. While that could have been the end of the story, such as it was, through the help of an addiction  treatment center and some much needed will power, Rich was able to turn around his life. First, he became sober, followed by a change to a vegan (PlantPower)-based diet, then a serious commitment to endusance training, and finally ending with the completion of a race that no one had ever attempted before. Truly inspirational!

No comments:

Post a Comment