From Overweight Alcoholic to UltraMan

By Regina Walker 04/27/15

The transformation of Rich Roll.

Rich Roll

In 1998, Rich Roll was a 31-year old, late-stage alcoholic with two DUIs. In 2015, Rich Roll is 17 years sober, has one of the highest-ranking podcasts on iTunes, is the author of two books, and has been named one of the “25 Fittest Men in the World” by Men’s Fitness magazine. 

How did a monumentally out-of-shape alcoholic, who struggled with drugs and drinking for much of his life, manage to become not only an ultra-endurance athlete, but an internationally respected authority on health and fitness as well?

In an interview, Rich recalled his first encounter with alcohol in high school: “I knew in my subconscious from the very first time I got drunk that it was going to be a problem.”

He described himself as “nerdy” growing up and remembered: “Alcohol allowed me to be super social. It facilitated my coming out of my shell. Parts of my personality now I attribute to alcohol.”

He went on to swim competitively in high school and was accepted—with scholarships—to every school in which he applied. He eventually decided on Stanford University but soon the alcohol took over, and his poor swimming performances ended with him finally dropping out of the team. 

“I was the guy who stayed latest at the party, the guy who needed to be carried home, found in a blackout, saying the wrong thing, getting into trouble,”

Alcohol, he said, trumped all of his aspirations. He gave up on swimming, which had been his passion, and let go of his desire to major in pre-med as the amount of work would interfere with his drinking. Rich graduated from Stanford but with little direction—and a growing alcohol problem.

“I moved to New York, not because I thought there would be great work possibilities but I knew I wouldn’t have to drive and worry about DUIs.” Rich worked in a law firm as his alcoholism escalated until he returned to school at Cornell University to earn a law degree.

His drinking continued throughout law school but he managed to graduate and find employment in a well-respected law firm in California. “After law school, I moved out to LA but received 2 DUIs within two months.” In response to concern from his employer, family and friends (at this point, Rich had become a morning drinker), he agreed to seek help from an addiction psychiatrist. 

“I made a deal with the psychiatrist that if I relapsed, I would go to inpatient treatment.” Rich says he “visited” AA meetings but just to get signed verification he'd attended—a requirement of his DUI convictions. Eventually, Rich relapsed—and, finally, made good on his promise to attend inpatient treatment.

After 100 days in rehab in a facility in Oregon, Rich felt he was on the road to recovery and has remained sober ever since. Rich says his “strong work ethic” is a major factor in his success with sobriety. He regularly attends AA meetings and finds the program an integral part of his recovery. He spoke about his early years of sobriety, in which he went to meetings daily, participated actively in the recovery community and did the work of the program. Rich says he made solid connections with others in AA , stabilized his life, and was able to deal with the fallout of 15 years of active alcoholism.

As to some of the controversy surrounding AA and the belief by some that it is not the “miracle cure” the public has been led to believe, Rich said he is open to whatever works for people but voiced reservations about programs that tell people they can drink moderately. “I can only speak for what worked for me. I needed a spiritual program based on abstinence. I am not worried that I will drink when I hear these things but I am concerned about those who are still drinking and may not get sober.”

From ages 31 to 39, Rich says he focused on recovery and was able to “repair the wreckage of my past, repair my relationships and my professional life.” During that time, Rich married and is now the father of four children. Though he had seven solid years of sobriety, he had developed other problems. 

“I transferred my addiction to workaholism and food," he told me. On the eve of his 40th birthday, Rich says he was carrying one of his children up the stairs in his home and became badly winded. At this point, Rich described himself as “50 pounds overweight, unhealthy and addicted to junk food.” Rich stated his grandfather had died of a heart attack in his 50s and he feared this could become his own fate. Rich described this time in his life as an “existential crisis” and decided that more change was necessary.

Rich’s wife is a yoga teacher as well as a vegan. “If you looked in our refrigerator at that time, you could tell which side was hers and which side was mine.” Rich began a “cleanse” that he described as similar to detoxing. After that experience and with the support of his wife, Rich changed his eating to a vegan diet.

As Rich embraced a healthier eating approach he acknowledged, “I was struggling and grappling about what was important in life.” Rich reignited his passion for sports and reconnected with his love for swimming. In addition, he discovered a connection to running and eventually added biking to his routine.

Rich embraced a plant-based lifestyle and within a few years had done nothing less than reinvent himself as an ultra-distance endurance athlete. By 2008,  Rich surprised the multisport community with top finishes at the Ultraman World Championships, a 320-mile, three-day double Ironman-distance triathlon. In 2010, Rich was also one of the first two people to complete EPIC5—a 703-mile journey that included completing five Ironman-distance triathlons on five separate Hawaiian Islands in under seven days. He's defied the notion that competitive endurance athletes require diets high in animal protein and carbohydrates. As a vegan, he describes himself as “plant-powered”

In late 2012, Rich launched the wildly popular "Rich Roll Podcast." Nominated for a 2013 Stitcher Award for Best Health & Lifestyle Podcast,
this weekly long-form conversation with inspirational thought leaders in health, fitness and entrepreneurship boasts over three million downloads, 670+ five-star iTunes reviews, and routinely finds itself in the top 10 health/fitness podcasts on iTunes. 

In 2012, Rich published a book, Finding Ultra: Rejecting Middle Age, Becoming One of the World’s Fittest Men, and Discovering Myself. In his book, Rich recalls his life from childhood to his current life. The book is both inspirational and a true affirmation of the power that each of us has to change our lives, if we so desire.

Rich says that people often mistakenly believe his transition from sedentary to ultra endurance athlete was a quick and easy one. He says it was a process that was, at times, difficult but often exhilarating. He acknowledges the support of his wife, chef Julie Piatt, as integral in his risk-taking move from unhappy lawyer to fulfilling a dream he previously did not realize he had.

This week Rich and his wife will be publishing their co-authored cookbook, The Plantpower Way —a plant-based primer for the “every man." The book contains not only recipes but a primer for living a lifestyle of wellness and health.

When I asked Rich the obvious question—whether extreme endurance sports weren't in a way, another substitute addiction—he laughed. “Maybe, he said, "but marathons and healthy living have not destroyed my health, family or life so I am OK with it.”

Regina Walker is a regular contributor to The Fix. She recently wrote about the life and suicide of Audrey Kishline, the founder of Moderation Management, as well as about the Buddha and Bill W.

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