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Q & A with Rich Roll: From Down-and-Out at 40 to Plant-Based Ultraman

Colleen Wachob
June 21, 2010
Colleen Wachob
mbg Co-Founder & Co-CEO
By Colleen Wachob
mbg Co-Founder & Co-CEO
Colleen Wachob is Co-Founder and Co-CEO at mindbodygreen.
June 21, 2010

There are few people on the planet as fit as ultra-distance endurance athlete Rich Roll. Even among the elite, disciplined cadre of Ironman athletes, Rich sets new precedents for endurance challenges. Men's Fitness magazine named him one of the "25 Fittest Guys in the World" -- and he made PETA's list of "Sexiest Vegetarian Celebrities." Earlier this year, Rich and Jason Lester completed the EPIC 5 Challenge: 5 Ironman-distance triathlons on 5 Hawaiian islands in less than a week. Rich has been a top finisher at the Ultraman World Championships, a 3-day, 320 mile double-Ironman distance triathlon on the Big Island of Hawaii.

Although Rich's athletic achievements are remarkable, the story of his journey to healthier living is even more inspiring. On his 40th birthday, at fifty pounds overweight and out-of-shape, Rich took a self-inventory and wasn't satisfied. His milestone birthday triggered Rich to overhaul his diet and transform his mind and body. Whether you are looking to make small changes in your life (maybe you need motivation to skip Happy Hour and make it to the gym) or your self-assessment requires a more radical life transformation, you will be inspired by Rich's journey of change, transformation, and fulfillment.

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MindBodyGreen: At age 40, you made a drastic life style change and decided to train for the Ultraman Hawaii. What lead to this decision?

Rich Roll: Turning 40 is just of those benchmarks that compels you to take inventory of your life. Are you happy? Do you have regrets? What is missing? For me, I had become terribly unfit and 50 pounds overweight. I had one of those rare moments in life where I knew I needed to change and was blessed with the willingness to take action. I had no master plan and everything unfolded very gradually and organically (pardon the pun). With my wife’s help, I did a 7 day fruit and vegetable cleanse, which was amazing and began my journey. I followed this up with a vegetarian diet. However, I was quite uneducated about what I was doing and experienced no increase in my energy levels and remained unable to lose any weight. I realize in retrospect this was likely to all the pizza, cheese, dairy and refined / processed foods I continued to eat. I was ready to throw in the towel and return to my old ways, but decided I would take a chance on an entirely plant based vegan diet. In other words, I cut the dairy and processed foods from my diet. I never imagined myself going vegan, but I was half-way there, so I took the ball across the goal-line so to speak.

At the time, I had no grand designs on overhauling my life – it was almost to prove that it wouldn’t work. But much to my amazement, within the next 7-10 days I experienced a tremendous surge in my energy levels. It was as if I never realized I could feel this good. I started working out again, mostly because I needed an outlet for all this new found energy. Then came the search for a goal. I have always been very goal oriented and was looking for a challenge. Like many, I thought about attempting an Ironman. But I was quite ignorant about triathlons and didn’t realize that these races sell out a year in advance. I didn’t want to wait a full year. It was then that I came across an article about Ultraman Hawaii. Ultraman is a 3 day double Ironman distance triathlon that circumnavigates the entire Big Island of Hawaii. On Day 1 you swim 6.2 miles followed by a 90 mile bike. On Day 2, you bike 170 miles. Day 3 is a 52.4 mile run. Of course it sounded impossible. But there was just something about it that fascinated me and captured my imagination. Not just the distance, but the fact that it struck me more as a spiritual odyssey more than a race. Something clicked inside me and I just knew I had to do it.

MBG: What tips do you have for athletes to mentally prepare for an endurance race?

RR: The biggest thing for me is to remember that its not about the result – it's about the journey. It's about finding joy in the preparation and embracing the healthy lifestyle it requires. The race is just a small step in the celebration of the journey that brought you there. There is something very soulful about endurance training in that it is just as much an interior journey as an external physical one. It requires a lot of alone time, which puts you in touch with yourself and the environment in a very connected and meditative way. Learn to embrace this solitary aspect of it as means for self-knowledge, presence and personal growth and you will discover a certain latent joy in the journey.

MBG: How do you incorporate yoga and spirituality into your training?

RR: You can be unbelievably fit in a physical sense, but if you are not connected spiritually you lack a wholeness that undermines your actuality and potential as a complete person. Whatever your faith or belief system -- whether its God, Buddha, Mohammad or just nature -- learn to tap into this as a source of strength and purpose to guide your intuitive self. Physical benefits aside, the true value of a consistent yoga practice is its inherent ability to connect you to the present moment, shut down the idle and counter-productive chatter of the mind and to open your mind, body and spirit to the greater universal energy available to us all. We are spiritual beings having a physical experience. The more I am able to embrace this ethos, the better athlete and person I become. And in the long run, the best athlete is always the most actualized being.

MBG: You recently completed the EPIC 5 - 5 Ironman distance triathlons in 5 days on 5 Hawaiian islands -- with Jason Lester. What can you tell us about this experience?

RR: Beyond being born, getting sober, meeting my wife and the birth of my children, it was the most amazing experience of my life. Many said it could not be done. And yet we prevailed. It ended up taking a bit longer — we completed it in just under a week — but nonetheless Jason and I did something nobody had ever even attempted, let alone achieved. Not a "race" per se, it was a communal & spiritual journey of healing that linked all the islands. On each day, we were joined by groups of people who selflessly came out to support us, as well as cyclists, runners and swimmers who joined us for segments along the way. It was amazing feeling to connect with so many people with a message of wellness. That said, it was unbelievably arduous. We met with many obstacles. The logistics alone were daunting; the daily inter-island travel brutal and stressful. Then there was the progressive sleep deprivation, bike mechanical issues, the heat, the wind. All of it. But to be able to face all of these challenges head on and overcome them was quite satisfying. And to be able to show the world that all of this can be done on a plant-based diet? Amazing.

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MBG: You are writing a plant-based whole food cook book with your wife, Julie Piatt. What are some of your favorite meals to prepare together?

RR: Most of our meals are very simple. Rather than try to "re-create" what a meat dish would taste like, we prefer to prepare dishes using whole foods close to their natural state. We have a wide variety of Vitamix blended drinks and wellness elixirs that are always evolving. Meals tend to involve a lot of greens simply prepared – kale chips, salads, spinach, broccoli, brussel sprouts generally lightly sauteed in olive or coconut oil. And plenty of whole grains – quinoa, brown rice are staples. With the kids we like to make almond pesto, chia seed pudding, almond cheese nachos and our own tomato sauces. It's a myth that it is overly time consuming to prepare vegan meals. Most of our dishes are easier to make than the average recipe.

MBG: What are the staples of your grocery list?

RR: A ton of organic locally grown produce is the focus – we purchase most of this weekly at our local farmers market. Kale, beets, carrots, spinach, brussel sprouts, broccoli, avocados, asparagus, artichokes & plenty of fruits. Almonds, almond butter, gluten free breads. Quinoa, brown rice and brown rice pastas; potatoes & yams. Flax seeds, flax, olive & hemp oil. Coconut milk, water & ice cream. Almond milk, maca, chia seeds, veganaise

MBG: Do you have a guilty food indulgence?

RR: Potato chips are my weakness. I’m working on it.

MBG: Do you have any favorite books?

RR: For plant-based nutrition, Brendan Brazier’s books Thrive and Thrive Fitness are great. Also The Engine 2 Diet by Rip Esselstyn is a wonderful read. For the science behind whole food plant based nutrition for overall wellness, The China Study by Dr. T. Colin Campbell. For lifestyle creation, I am enjoying The 4-Hour Work Week by Timothy Ferris, as well as his blog.

MBG: What does mindbodygreen mean to you?

RR: It means a holistic approach to living that honors the body, mind, spirit and planet through not just diet but conscious living in all areas of life.

MBG: Favorite quote?

RR: "Be Here Now" – Bhagavan Das. It's only 3 words, but it says a lot! Also, Bhagavan married my wife and I.

MBG: If there's someone reading this who's in a similar mental/spiritual/physical place that you were in at age 40, and this person is looking to make a change in their life, do you have any tips or advice for this reader?

RR: I can only speak from my own experience, but I have experienced success utilizing many of the tools of addiction recovery as applied to other areas of my life. Below are some tips that are excerpted from an article I wrote for CNN last year:

Set a goal: Vague, nonspecific notions of "getting fit," "going to the gym," or "eating better" are all fine, but they are not true "goals" and all too typically devolve, paving the way for relapse to old habits.

Instead, establish something very concrete you would like to achieve on a future date. The more specific, the better. Then create a solid plan with reasonable interim "steppingstone" milestones along the way to achieving the larger goal. Chart your progress, as meeting interim milestones will boost your confidence and invest you more deeply in the ultimate goal.

Create community and accountability: If you go public with your quest, then you are on the hook. A good support network is a key to success. But beware of the negative dream crushers. Be selective, surrounding yourself with people who encourage your success.

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Do what you love: When it comes to exercise, it shouldn't be too painful. Ideally, it should be fun. If you absolutely hate running, find something else you enjoy. Otherwise, you set yourself up to fail. And don't be too rigid -- mix it up with a variety of activities you like to keep it interesting and fresh.

Don't diet: Instead, get honest about your habits and embark on implementing healthy, lasting changes in your nutrition. I feel quite strongly that a nutrition program built entirely around plant-based foods and completely devoid of animal products is optimal. Conventional wisdom would say that an athlete cannot perform on plants alone. But I am living proof that this is false, and I have ample research to support this position. Personally, I cannot overemphasize the difference this has made in my own life, a secret weapon for enhanced athletic performance and overall long-term wellness. (In the last two years, I have not gotten sick or even suffered a cold.)

I realize, of course, that not everyone is ready to go 100 percent vegan, but a program built on a strong foundation of fresh organic vegetables, fruits and grains should be the focus. Don't skip meals, but reduce your portions slightly. Read the labels and educate yourself. Avoid saturated fats, processed foods and soft drinks, all of which are entirely devoid of nutritional value. Eating whole fresh foods high in nutritional content will also stave off those unhealthy urges to binge.

One day at a time: Large goals can seem insurmountable. The idea that you can never eat a cupcake or sleep in again is daunting at best. Instead, just focus on what is happening today, even if it's hour to hour, and don't worry about tomorrow.

"Today, I'm not going to eat that cupcake. Maybe I'll eat it tomorrow, just not today." And if you miss a beat, don't flog yourself; it only leads to discouragement and quitting altogether. The important thing is to make sure you get right back on it the next day -- don't let another day go by.

Prioritize: Take an honest look at your average week, identify your inefficient uses of time and eliminate the things that don't serve your goals. No matter how busy you are, if you are truly honest about this inquiry, I guarantee you can make some cuts and carve out some time. Remember: Nothing changes if nothing changes.

Be consistent: It's not about how much you do in a given workout or how hard it is. Ten minutes of core exercises four to five times per week is far better than one long run a week. Establishing a consistent rhythm of repetition is key, and another reason that your choice of exercise should be something you truly enjoy.

Let's join together to shift the world's perspective on long-term health and wellness. No matter how old, overweight or out of shape you are, you have the power to make a decision, set a goal and create a plan. Positive change is always within your grasp, and today still remains the first day of the rest of your life. Make it count!

MBG: What's next for you?

RR: As for racing, I have nothing on my calendar other than Ultraman World Championships in Hawaii over Thanksgiving weekend.

As for other ventures, we will be hosting some nutrition, training & meditation workshops and retreats beginning this summer. Please check my website for dates & information. In addition, we hope to have our cookbook available in coming months.

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Colleen Wachob author page.
Colleen Wachob
mbg Co-Founder & Co-CEO

Colleen Wachob is Co-Founder and Co-CEO at mindbodygreen. She graduated from Stanford University with degrees in international relations and Spanish, and spent 10 years working at Fortune 500 companies including Gap, Walmart, and Amazon. Wachob lives in Miami, Florida with her husband, mbg Founder and Co-CEO Jason Wachob and their two daughters, Ellie and Grace. Her first book, which is co-authored with mindbodygreen Founder Jason Wachob, The Joy of Well-Being, is being released on May 23, 2023.