Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Finding Ultra: A Review of Rich Roll’s Autobiography

Day one starts with a grueling 6.2 mile open-ocean swim, followed by a 90 mile bike ride through the mountains of Hawaii. Day two is an additional one hundred and seventy miles of steep climbs, fast descents, blazing sun and hard rain on the bike. Day three is a daunting double marathon (52.4-mile run). Totaling three hundred and twenty miles, this is Ultraman. An elite, invite only double Ironman that takes place once a year on the Big Island of Hawaii. This is Rich Roll’s chosen sport and he excels at it.

While Rich Roll was named one of the 25 fittest men by Men’s Fitness magazine, this was not always the case. In fact, as Roll details in his new autobiography, Finding Ultra: Rejecting Middle Age, Becoming One of the World’s Fittest Men, and Discovering Myself, just six months prior to completing his first Ultraman, he was nearly fifty pounds overweight and couldn’t even walk up a flight of stairs without pausing to rest. In this riveting account, Roll bares all, sometimes uncomfortably, displaying his awkward and lonely youth, his struggles with alcoholism and his transformation into a vegan Ultraman. The end result, a read that is as moving as it is thrilling.

Roll’s new book recounts how swimming literally saved him as a child. Socially awkward, Roll had a difficult time making friends. His lack of coordination and ill attempt at sports made him an easy target to pick on for other children. However, he proved to be a natural in the water, which consumed much of his childhood. By the end of high school, he was one of the nations top swimmers. Turning down full-scholarships to schools such as Harvard, and Princeton, Roll picked Stanford University. However, by his sophomore year, alcohol began dismantling everything he had already achieved.

Quitting the swim team and trading in his highly disciplined life for a carefree party attitude, Roll quickly descended into a decade of depression and alcoholism. Even still, Roll managed to be a high achieve, earning his law degree from Cornell. After several struggling years where he came close to hitting rock bottom, Roll finally was able to get himself clean. It was at this time he met his wife Julie, who would not only become his best friend, but in many ways also became his savior. 

Roll is a huge fan of his Vitamix

With her encouragement, at the age of forty, Roll abandoned the average American diet, which was killing him, and completely overhauled not only his diet but also his life. As Roll testified, going from the cheeseburger munching, couch potato to ultra athlete was only possible after adopting a whole food, plant-based vegan diet (He also includes three appendixes on how to become plant-strong). Joining the ranks of an increasingly burgeoning list of vegan athletes, the nutrient-dense foods he began feasting on gave him the energy required to train up to twenty-five hours a week, while also maintaining a law business and raising a family. Relying on the discipline he developed as a child, Rich Roll went from a couch potato to elite athlete in under a years time.  

After his first Ultraman, where he placed eleventh out of thirty five, Roll then joined up with his friend Jason Lester to complete one of the most intense endurance challenges ever attempted. What become known as the EPIC 5: five Ironman distance triathlons in seven days, each on a different Hawaiian island, is perhaps Roll's greatest athletic achievement to date. Concluding his narrative  with the 560 mile journey, Roll demonstrates amazing mental strength as well as physical prowess, and as it turns out, it is also quite the page turner. 

                                    man                                                    ultraman

Throughout, Roll keeps the narrative moving with enjoyable and fun prose. While fitness junkies will clearly be drawn to Roll’s account, anyone who picks up Finding Ultra will find themselves engrossed in a great story and may even find the urge to lace up an old pair of running shoes or dusting off the bike sitting in the garage. 

However, Roll's book is so much more than just a good story. The last 100 pages of the book changes tone, and morphs from an autobiography to a well researched and easily comprehensible primer on plant-based nutrition. Roll's principles are not that different from Brendan Braziers' with one glaring exception. Roll consistently reminds his readers that remaining flexible is important. While never advocating anything but a vegan diet, Roll does understand that not everyone will want to be so rigid as to follow an exclusively whole food plant-based diet. He himself admits that he enjoys vegan marshmallows occasionally (Let's hope he is talking about Sweet & Sara!). As such, Roll's work can help a person move towards a plant-based diet without feeling completely overwhelmed, allowing him to connect with a far larger audience than just the elite athlete or strict nutritionist.  

The nutrition primer alone is worth the price of the book, and while it is regrettable that he did not include an index, at least for the primer, the work remains top-tier. While it's impact on the sports world is yet to be seen, I for one am happy to add this handy resource to my collection.

In Good Health,

(I should note all of these photos were found on google.)


  1. "Thanks for the kind review Anthony!" -Rich Roll

  2. Awesome review; you just had to include the Vitamix shot, didn't you?

    Clearly I'm no athlete, but I really want to read this book.

  3. Abby, the book is great. Took me two days to read it. You are welcome to borrow it if you'd like.

    And yes, Vitamix forever!

  4. Yes, Viva La Vitamix!