These Endurance Guys Are Literally Fueled by Plants, Part Two

Last week I mentioned the autobiographies of Scott Jurek and Rich Roll, two incredible endurance athletes who realized their success while eating a plant-based, vegan diet.

Their books were two of the five books that I had reviewed as part of my first attempt at blogging, Sportsographies.

Part One from last week featured my original 2012 review of Scott Jurek’s book, Eat & Run: My Unlikely Journey to Ultramarathon Greatness. In this week’s post, I share my 2012 review of Rich Roll’s book, Finding Ultra: Rejecting Middle Age, Becoming One of the World’s Fittest Men, and Discovering Myself

First some background on Rich Roll from his web site, which has been updated since the 2012 review, followed by my review of the book, and then a brief personal update.

A graduate of Stanford University and Cornell Law School, Rich is a 50-year old, accomplished vegan ultra-endurance athlete and former entertainment attorney turned full-time wellness & plant-based nutrition advocate, popular public speaker, husband, father of four and inspiration to people worldwide as a transformative example of courageous and healthy living. In 2012, Rich became a #1 bestselling author with the publication of his inspirational memoir Finding Ultra: Rejecting Middle Age, Becoming One of the World’s Fittest Men, and Discovering Myself. Taking up where the book leaves off, in 2013 Rich launched the wildly popular Rich Roll Podcast, which persistently sits atop the iTunes top-10 lists. In 2014, Rich & his wife Julie Piatt published the bestselling cookbook and lifestyle primer, The Plantpower Way: Whole Food Plant-Based Recipes And Guidance For The Whole Family. What makes Rich truly remarkable is that less than two years prior to his first Ultraman, he didn’t even own a bike, let alone race one. Rich’s career was cut short by struggles with drugs and alcohol — an addiction that led him astray for the next decade, alienating friends, colleagues, and family, landing him in jails, institutions and ultimately rehab at age 31. Although sober, Rich soon found himself 50 pounds overweight; the furthest thing from fit.  Everything came to head on the eve of his 40th birthday.  Defeated by a mere flight of stairs that left him buckled over in pain, he foresaw the almost certain heart attack looming in his near future. It was time for a major life change. The day immediately following his staircase epiphany, Rich overhauled his diet, became a dedicated vegan, put on his running shoes and jumped back into the pool.  It wasn’t long before ambition took hold and his quest to participate in Ultraman slowly began. Rich’s plant-fueled feats of boundary-pushing athleticism have been featured on CNN and major publications including The New York Times, Los Angeles Times Sunday Magazine, The Huffington Post, Stanford Magazine, Men’s Health Living, VegNews, Triathlete, Outside, 3/GO Magazine and Men’s Fitness Magazine, which named Rich as one of the “25 Fittest Men in the World.”

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 afterward, 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 first 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 turned 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 endurance training, and finally ending with the completion of a race that no one had ever attempted before. Truly inspirational!

Personal update: As it turns out, I sort of have a two-degrees of separation from Rich. My son who lives in Hawaii is best of friends with Evan Rock, an individual who was featured on one of Rich’s podcasts! You can read/listen to Evan’s fascinating life journey by clicking here.

4 thoughts on “These Endurance Guys Are Literally Fueled by Plants, Part Two

  1. Is it horrible that I was eating a hamburger while I read your post? I really enjoyed this series. It is amazing to read about these phenomenal athletes and their success with plant-based diets. It has caused me to dismiss my erroneous and long-held belief that a vegan diet is anything less than healthy or plausible. Just not sure why the idea of switching my diet is such a non-starter. I think I may have an addiction to animal flesh, and when I say it that way, it sounds horrible.


    1. nothing wrong with eating a burger – as long as you can go out and run ultramarathons like these guys 🙂 diets are such a personal choice; you just need to find what works for you! glad you enjoyed the post!


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