The Formerly Drunk Ultra Man

By Nina Emkin 05/20/12
Rich Roll went from being a hope-to-die drunk to one of the world’s fittest men—a journey he chronicles in his new book, Finding Ultra.
Roll runs the road to happy destiny John Segesta

On the eve of his 40th birthday, Rich Roll hit a brand-new bottom: after a night of binging on television, junk food, and nicotine gum, he found himself gasping for air as he climbed the short flight of stairs to his bedroom. In most ways, his life was beautiful: a successful entertainment attorney, he was eight years sober after a vicious battle with the bottle, happily married to the love of his life and the father of two boys (Tyler and Trapper) and two girls (Mathis and Jaya). But that night served as a wake-up call and so he decided to overhaul not just his body but also his lifestyle. He ended up adopting a plant-based diet, jumping into a vigorous exercise regime and, within 18 months, found himself competing in the Ultraman World Championships—an endurance race that includes swimming 6.2 miles, biking 260 miles, and running 52.4 miles in three days. But he wasn’t done yet: four months after his second Ultraman, Roll completed an EPIC5: five Ironman challenges in five consecutive days on five different Hawaiian islands. 

The Fix talks to Roll about his journey from the depths of alcoholism to the peak of mental, spiritual, and physical fitness—and the memoir, Finding Ultra, he wrote to document the journey.

You’ve been in recovery now for 14 years. Why and how did you get sober?

I hit my bottom. It was really the only option. It was too painful to live the way I was living and there weren’t really any options left. The pain of continuing on that way had become unbearable. I was lucky enough to be seeing a shrink who had some expertise in addiction medicine and he helped guide me toward rehab. Before that, I had been in and out of AA for a while, bouncing in and out and having it not work and not stick. Rehab ended up saving my life.  

I went away to Oregon. I thought I would pop in for a couple of weeks and spin-dry my mind and then get back out and back to work. I ended up staying 100 days. The key was finally being willing to take direction, let go, and surrender to the program completely.

You swam competitively in college but it had been nearly 20 years since you’d been a serious athlete when you decided to get back into shape. What inspired you to get involved in endurance sports?  

It’s like when you get sober and have that epiphany where denial snaps and you’re wiling to move in a new direction. Having already had experience with that, I was able to recognize it happening again in the health context. I was 50 pounds overweight and heart disease runs in my family. Having to stop and lean over and be out of breath while walking up the stairs at night was one of those moments where I said, “I can’t do this anymore.” It was very similar to that moment of clarity that you have in sobriety. The whole journey that came after that was a result of implementing recovery tools in other parts of my life.

A balanced approach to finding a lifestyle that works for you is difficult for everybody and it’s all the more difficult for addicts and alcoholics. We want to go all in.

The level of training for this is pretty intense—practically a full-time job.  Was it a struggle for you to maintain balance, between training, meetings, your family and work?

First, I would say that balance is the ultimate prize for anybody in recovery. That’s the thing I struggle with the most. If I’m going to suffer criticism for this book, people are going to say I just transferred one addiction for another. A balanced approach to finding a lifestyle that works for you is difficult for everybody and it’s all the more difficult for addicts and alcoholics. We want to go all in, whether it’s smoking or girls or porn. It’s about finding something that you enjoy doing that is healthy because the sustainability of it is what’s important. It’s about finding something you enjoy doing that has a calming meditative aspect to it that allows you to process your alcoholism in a healthy way.  

Were there people in the program who questioned your sanity when you said you wanted to run five Ironman races in as many days? It definitely seems a little extreme.

It was mixed. There were people who said, “That’s awesome—this is why we get sober, to tackle these amazing challenges.” The flip side was, “You’re being an insane alcoholic about this.” That tempered criticism and honest feedback is important. I can take that in and evaluate it. But when you’re working a good program, you learn to trust your instincts. The more sober you get, the more those instincts that previously led you astray into dark and terrible places can be trusted to guide you in the right direction. If you’re working the steps, particularly 11 and 12, then those instincts become really reliable guideposts. And my instincts said, “This feels right.” 

If my sponsor and my close friends had not pointed out to me that I was making an extreme choice, they would have been asleep at the wheel. I definitely took it in and gave it good faith consideration and then I made the decision to continue. 

If I’m not careful, it would be very easy to make all of this my Higher Power. I’d be lying if I said there weren’t times when I’ve done that. I have to be aware of it. I have gone through periods where that has been an issue. But ultimately, as long as my program is in order and I’m working the steps, then I don’t see pursuing this lifestyle as “alcoholic.” It makes me a better, happier, more grounded, and present person. My wife will say, “Please go ride your bike! Please go train!” She tells me, “You’re a better person when you’re training.”

There was something leading me in this direction and I really think it was God doing for me what I couldn’t do for myself. I’ve found that if I trust in that principle, amazing, remarkable, unpredictable things will happen. At the time I didn’t even know that I would have wanted this.

One of the things that struck me in the book is how often you talked about the importance of mental discipline. Has that mental discipline carried over into other areas of your life?  

There’s a huge mental component. It’s very meditative. It’s like an active meditation. To sustain a low-grade and tolerable level of exertion for so long, it quiets your mind. That chatter goes away. You can just be present. It’s like going on a silent meditation retreat weekend. It has the same effect.  

You’ve talked a lot about how training is as good for your spirit as it is for your body.  Tell us more about that.  

Training is an active mediation. It’s an 11th step every time I do it. Because of the public profile I suddenly have, it’s also an act of service. There are a lot of people struggling with health problems. Doing this and being able to maintain my marriage and be a good dad serves as a good message to other people who struggle with weight and health issues. That’s what keeps me going. It’s about providing a message of inspiration and hope.

How did the book come about?  What was the process like?

As the journey of training unfolded, I started writing a blog that was just for me. More and more people started reading it and that eventually led to the book deal. And while writing is something I love and always wanted to do, the book was harder than I thought it would be. I’m hoping that it will help people find the inspiration to figure out what it is that they want to pursue, what their authentic self and passion are. Not everyone has a huge desire to do anything athletic but everyone has a latent passion or a dream deferred that they push away—when they say, “Well, I have to go to work, I have to return these calls and the kids are crying, I don’t have time to learn how to play the banjo or work on my stand-up act.” The Ultraman race is a metaphor for what whatever that thing is in your life that remains unexpressed.  

Nina Emkin holds degrees from UCLA and Sarah Lawrence and has written for The Fix about relapse and coming out as an alcoholic, among many other topics. She lives in Los Angeles.

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