Rich is a world-renown, plant-based ultra-endurance athlete, in-demand public speaker, wellness advocate, #1 bestselling author and inspirational hero to a global audience of wellness seekers as a transformative example of courageous and healthy living.
After succumbing to the sedentary throes of overweight middle age, at age 40, Rich made a decision to overhaul his life, adopting a plant-based diet and reinventing himself as an ultra-distance endurance athlete. Just a few years later, Rich stunned the multisport community with top finishes at the Ultraman World Championships, a 320-mile, 3-day double ironman-distance triathlon widely considered one of the most grueling endurance events on the planet. In 2010 Rich topped this feat and cemented his place in the pantheon of endurance greats when he was the first of two people to complete EPIC5 – a 703-mile adventure of well, epic proportions that entailed completing 5 ironman-distance triathlons on 5 separate Hawaiian Islands in under 7 days total.
Rich chronicles his journey in Finding Ultra: Rejecting Middle Age, Becoming One of the World’s Fittest Men, and Discovering Myself (Crown Archetype, 2012) — an inspirational memoir of heroic plant-fueled athletic prowess which quickly became a #1 bestseller and has been translated into six foreign languages. Not only did this book completely change the way people think about diet, fitness and elite athletic performance, it serves as a powerful example of the indelible power of the human spirit to face and overcome life obstacles, including alcoholism and financial devastation; the courage to shed the mantle of social expectations; and the ability within all of us to discover, unlock and unleash the best, most authentic version of ourselves that dwells deep within.
John: Welcome to another edition of Green is Good. Of course, this is the Hollywood Goes Green is Good with Debbie Levin as my co-host today. Today we’re so honored to have Rich Roll with us, the ultra-endurance athlete, author, and also vegan extraordinaire. Welcome to Green is Good, Rich.
Rich: Great to be here. Thank you for having me.
John: You know, Rich, I’m so honored you took some time to be with us today. I read your book two years ago, literally, this summer. Two years ago I read Finding Ultra. Share a little bit about that journey with our listeners who haven’t had the opportunity to read it.
Rich: Yeah, sure. I’m 48 now, but when I was 39 years old, I was a very different guy. I was a corporate lawyer, and I had about 50 extra pounds I was carrying around my midsection. I was also just kind of not happy with the profession that I was in and having a bit of an existential crisis about my place in the world. That happened to intersect with a health crisis, carrying around all this extra weight and heart disease runs in my family. I had an episode late one night, walking up a simple flight of stairs at my home, where I had to pause halfway up the stairs, winded, out of breath, sweat on my brow, buckled over. I had the fear of God in me. I thought I might be having a heart attack. It kind of snapped my denial about the way that I was living my life, this hyper-stressed lifestyle. I was subsisting on a diet that I call the window diet. If you can drive your car up to a fine dining establishment and roll the window down and they hand you food, that’s what you eat.
Debbie: You kind of need to really talk about that because I think too many people are on that window diet in this country. That’s an amazing term. I’m sorry. Go on.
Rich: Sure. You know, burgers, French fries, nachos, Taco Bell, Carl’s Jr., you name it. That’s how I was eating and living for the better part of my adolescence and adulthood. My mom would always say to me, “Heart disease runs in our family. You’ve got to watch out.” Her father, who I’m named after, was a champion swimmer when he was in college – I swam in college, as well – was an Olympic hopeful and American record holder, the captain of the University of Michigan swim team, a contemporary of Johnny Weissmuller and the great swimmers of that era.
John: The original Tarzans.
Rich: Exactly. He was never overweight, never smoked, continued to stay fit and swim his whole life, but he died of a heart attack at age 54, when my mom was still in college. So, of course, I never had the opportunity to meet him. When you’re young and your mom says you’ve got to watch what you’re eating, you’re like yeah, yeah, yeah. But by 39, it really had caught up to me, and that moment on the staircase really snapped everything into focus for me and made me realize not only that I needed to change how I was living, but that I actually wanted to. I had the willingness to make some real significant changes.
John: And get off the window diet.
Rich: I got off the window diet. I played around with a bunch of different diets to no avail, until I kind of stumbled haphazardly into eating a plant-based diet.
John: And for our listeners out there that are on the window diet, Rich, you were a lawyer. You were a Cornell, Stanford guy. The window diet isn’t a socioeconomic thing.
Rich: No. Well, it is for a lot of people.
John: It is for a lot of people, but in terms of education-
Debbie: It sounds like you should have known better, for lack of a better way of saying it.
Rich: That’s an important issue, I think, because dietary choices don’t necessarily have to do with intellectual mind. In retrospect, looking back, I’m also a recovering addict and alcoholic. I got sober when I was 31, but I think between 31 and 39, I kind of transferred a lot of that addict mentality onto my dietary choices. I think it’s very easy to throw around the word addicted. “I’m a chocoholic.” We do it very cavalierly, but I think it does warrant our attention to kind of really discuss food addiction because I think it is an epidemic, and I think when you look at how some of these processed foods are made, and specifically scientifically tested and devised, there’s a lot of money and marketing dollars behind getting people hooked on these foods that are not good for us. It does transcend our knowledge base or our intellectual capacity to know better.
Debbie: All the information that you’re getting from everywhere about healthy food choices and eating locally and eating naturally, was that just sort of not penetrating at all?
Rich: Not really.
Rich: My wife was trying, believe me. My wife is the healthy one in our relationship equation, and I always joke that at that time, if you were to open up our refrigerator, there was a pretty demarcation line down the middle between the foods that she was eating and the foods that I was eating. She could see the better version of me inside, behind the thickness. By thickness, I don’t mean physical thickness, I mean she could see the heaviness, and she tried for a long time. Why don’t you try this? Why don’t you read this book? I went, “Yeah, yeah, yeah.” I think that goes to this issue of trying to compel people to change. You’ve got to want to change. You’ve got to be in that place where you’re really ready.
John: For our listeners who haven’t had the opportunity to read your first amazing book, Finding Ultra, it culminates with a huge event in Hawaii. Can you share what you accomplished in Hawaii?
Rich: Adopting this plant-based diet really revitalized me. It repaired my health and it gave me this tremendous resurgence and vitality that I could have never predicated. My whole life, I’ve been told, “You need to eat meat for strong muscles if you want to be an athlete. You have to drink milk for calcium for strong bones. Beef is what’s for dinner and milk does a body good,” and all these things. The idea that suddenly I was removing those products from my diet and feeling better than I ever had was a very disorienting, but also exhilarating, experience. That gave me so much energy that I started to get out and try to get fit again, almost because I couldn’t sit down. That set me on this new trajectory, where I became very aware of how resilient the human body is because I’d abused myself with drugs and alcohol and the window diet and corporate law firm lifestyle for so long, and in a very short period of time, I had become a very different person. I shed the weight, I had all this energy, and I wanted to challenge myself and see if I could repair my body so quickly, what am I actually capable if? If I really tested myself, what could I achieve? That’s what launched me into ultra-endurance sports and got me fascinated with that world.
Debbie: Which is what? Explain that.
Rich: It means whether it’s running or triathlon races that are super long. Everybody has heard of Ironman. Ironman is a super long triathlon. It takes you all day to do it. I do multiple-day races. I do this race called Ultraman, which is a three-day double Ironman triathlon that circumnavigates the Big Island of Hawaii, which is a big island. It’s about the size of Connecticut. In 2010, I did something with a friend of mine that no one had ever done, where we did five Ironmans on five Hawaiian Islands in under a week. An Ironman race every day on a different Hawaiian island until we were done.
John: For our listeners out there that don’t know what an Ironman is, just lay it out.
Rich: An Ironman is a very long triathlon, which in the period of one day, you swim 2.4 miles, and then you get on your bike and you ride your bike 112 miles, and then you celebrate that by then running a marathon.
John: You did five in seven days.
Rich: I did five of those in a row.
Debbie: OK, so I have a girl question. You went from this person to this person. This extreme person to this extreme person. How did that look with your wife?
Rich: That’s a great question. I think that when I started training, I was trying to answer questions for myself about who I was. In many ways, although it’s the sort of fitness and physical aspects of what I’ve accomplished that get the headlines, for me, it’s always been a spiritual journey. My wife is a very spiritually-oriented person, and she was able to see that I needed to do this to figure out who I was. It was a difficult time. We had many challenges. We were going through some financial stuff, the economy was not doing well, it was very, very difficult, and there were plenty of dark moments of the soul, where I would turn to her and say, “Why am I doing this? I should be spending more time putting food on the table.” My friends would tell me I was crazy, and she would look at me and say, “No, you need to get out and train. I don’t know why, but this is going to lead you somewhere. I believe in that.” It was really this tremendous capacity that she had, this belief that she had in me, and it really allowed our relationship to become much closer, much more intimate, and together we were really living this more faith-based way of living, where there was this idea that this could lead to a different direction. I wasn’t doing it so that someday I could sit down with you and be on Green is Good Radio. That’s a bizarre experience because I was doing this in obscurity, but she knew that I needed to do this for myself, that this was a way of me answering these questions and tapping into a greater self-awareness and a means of trying to express a more authentic version of who I was.
Debbie: That’s the best scenario because you were able to do this together authentically for each other, in a sense, because you gave to her the best gift, which was you.
Rich: Right. She was able to then get the husband that, I think, she initially saw.
John: You have also four children.
Rich: I do, yes. It’s a busy household.
Debbie: So where are they in all of this?
Rich: They’ve been amazing.
Debbie: How old are they?
Rich: We run the gamut. Our oldest is 20. The two older ones are boys, 20 and 18, and we have two girls that are 7 and 11.
Debbie: So the older ones really have seen you everywhere. What are they like? Who are they?
Rich: They’re amazing kids. We homeschool all our kids, which is a whole other thing.
Debbie: From the beginning or not?
Rich: Well, the two older boys went through the system until the last couple years of high school. The little girls have pretty much been homeschooled from the get-go. The older boys are musicians. They have a band. They’re filmmakers. They’re very creative. My wife is the artist, and she kind of sets the tone for creative expression in our house. I think the message that I try to put out there, and I think at least the older boys, because they’re aware enough at this point, really have intuited into their lives is that life is short and you should pursue your dreams. Our job as parents to these children is to try to help them identify what it is that they want to express and support that. Right now, with the boys, it’s music. They’re getting ready to record their first album. We have a lot of cool stuff going on at home around that.
John: That is just awesome. For our listeners who just joined us, we’re so honored, Debbie Levin and I, my co-host and good friend who’s the President of EMA, have Rich Roll with us today. Rich is not only a vegan evangelist and an author, he’s also a podcast host. He has almost 6 million downloads on his podcast, which you can find at richroll.com.
Rich: Richroll.com is the best place. You can find it on iTunes and anywhere that people listen to podcasts.
John: Amazing. Almost 6 million. You could be writing a whole another book on social media. Almost 6 million downloads.
Rich: It’s been a crazy journey.
John: For our listeners out there, we talked a little bit about, at the top of the show, Finding Ultra, but the really good news is that you and your wife, Julie, now have a book coming out called the Plantpower Way. Talk a little bit about the evolution from Finding Ultra to the Plantpower Way, and what’s going to be in the Plantpower Way.
Rich: Finding Ultra was really my memoir. It was my story, and it’s a family journey, of course, and that’s part of Finding Ultra. But really, we wanted to find a way to express what we’ve experienced on a more family-oriented level. As much as Finding Ultra was a story of athletic pursuits and this spiritual journey, and it certainly contained plenty of information about nutrition and how to perform as an athlete on a plant-based diet, it was not a cookbook. The question we get all the time is, “Alright, I get it. I’m onboard. I’m inspired, so tell me what I eat now.” That begged the question of I think it’s time to do a cookbook. My wife and I went to Barnes & Noble. We looked at all the cookbooks. We got all the vegan cookbooks, we’re looking through them, and I’m thinking there’s so many amazing vegan cookbooks out there, plant-based nutrition cookbooks. If we’re going to do this, what is it that we can bring to this that’s different or has not yet been expressed? What I noticed was that I didn’t really see a book that spoke to just typical modern American families, whether you’re vegan or paleo or whatever diet you’re on. The average parent who’s thinking, “Yeah, I want to be healthier. I don’t know about vegan. Maybe, but I know I need to eat more plants in my diet. How can I get my kids off the mac and cheese and the Cheetos and all of that? How can I create better lifestyle habits for my family in general to make better choices?” That was really the marching orders for “The Plantpower Way.” “The Plantpower Way” is a cookbook. It’s got about 120 amazing, delicious plant-based recipes. They’re all very easy to prepare. There’s nothing precious about them. They’re all super fast and very hearty. It’s not like we went out and partnered with some chef. My artist wife, Julie, these are the recipes that she developed when I began this journey. She had to figure out how am I going to feed this guy who’s out training? He’s training 30 hours a week. He comes home, he’s tired, I’ve got to feed him so that he can wake up the next day and do it again and sate him, but also I’m not spending all day in the kitchen. I’ve got to create something that my kids are going to eat too, and that was the equation that she was trying to solve. The recipes that are in the book are all very authentic to how we live and how we eat. They’re very family-friendly, and the idea is that they are going to be satisfying to anybody, whether you’re an ardent carnivore or your crazy uncle who’s coming over for Thanksgiving, the idea is that this is just delicious. Above and beyond that, most cookbooks are just recipes. They’re recipe books. I would say almost more than 50 percent of this book is lifestyle guidance. It’s opinion pieces, it’s tools, it’s resources, it’s all of this additional educational information about how to transition into a more plant-focused way of eating. Long opinion pieces and articles about where do you get your protein and how can I get my kids more interested in healthy eating and is it important to buy organic and what is this business about GMOs and gluten and all these kinds of things that we hear about, but most people are too busy to go home and go on the internet and really spend time researching it. So we wanted to make this very accessible, and throughout the book, sharing our family journey. There’s a lot of incredible lifestyle photography. It’s a very beautiful book. It’s a book that you could leave out on the coffee table that anybody could enjoy just paging through it, and a book that I think not only that you would use every day, but that I really think has the power to change people’s lives.
John: Next time when you come back on Green is Good with Debbie and I –
Debbie: We want books.
John: We want books, we want Julie, and we want you to bring one or two of your favorite recipes so we can eat.
Debbie: We’re going to do a full-on cooking day. That’s what we’re going to do.
Rich: Julie would love it. She’s the one you’ve got to talk to.
John: That’s alright. Do you talk also about vitamins and yoga and meditation also? Is that covered in the book?
Rich: Yeah, absolutely. One of the things that I always say is that good health begins and ends with what’s on your plate. Even as an athlete, I can’t vouch for having a poor diet. Your diet has to be dialed in. I also think that wellness is so much more than diet. People think a healthy diet and I’ve solved my wellness equation. The truth is that we need to adopt a more comprehensive approach to what it means to be truly well, and that include mental health, emotional health, spiritual health, physical health, all of these things. Meditation, mindfulness, yoga, these are all parts of my equation, my wife’s equation, our family equation, and that’s throughout the book as well.
John: That’s great. For our listeners out there and our viewers out there, they can buy the book on amazon.com or Barnes & Noble or any great bookstore out there.
Rich: Yeah, you can preorder it now. It comes out April 28th, but it’s available for preorder now. In fact, if you go to richroll.com, we have a preorder page, and we’re giving away about $300,000 in preorder gift incentives, which is exciting. We partnered with all these amazing companies that are creating great food products and also kitchen utensil-type products that we use, and they all said, “Yeah, we want to be part of the Plantpower Way. What do you need?” It’s great to be able to offer that to people and to my podcast listeners and everybody who have been on this journey with us and say thank you. Not only will you get this great book, we’re going to give you all this extra stuff as our way of saying thank you to helping spread this important message of health across the country and the world.
John: Rich, you’ve become, with a tribe of 6 million now, you’ve become a great ambassador and evangelist both for good health, for good living, and, like you said, the right kind of lifestyle. Where does it go from here? Where does the journey go from here? You’re still a very young guy. Julie is a young woman. Where are you guys going to go with this?
Rich: I wake up every morning excited about trying to find new ways of spreading a healthy message. The unfortunate truth is although people like yourselves and your listeners and my listeners are super interested in healthy living, at the same time, the statistics bear out a very different picture of what America looks like. Right now, heart disease is certainly and remains America’s number one killer. One out of every three people will die of a heart attack by 2030. They’re estimating that upwards of 50 percent of Americans will be diabetic or pre-diabetic. Seventy percent of Americans are obese or overweight. We have a huge problem on our hands, and there’s a lot of work to be done. Where I take this from here is trying to double down on my efforts and everything that I can do to try to reverse these trends because we’re in a crisis right now and we need all hands on deck.
Debbie: Fortunately, messaging is at a high, and with social media and the ability for people to get information and to be influenced by people with a voice has never been in the place that it is right now. That’s a gift. If you’ve got logical information and if you have a relatable story, and you have an amazing relatable story because you, in a sense, were everybody. Take the corporate lawyer out a little bit. You were everybody, and the fact that you could feel better and be productive. You’ve got a family. It’s not like you’re a lone guy doing this in isolation. You actually represent so many families out there and that you can do this. I think it’s an amazing story and an inspiring one, and one that people could relate to. Your voice is so important for this.
Rich: Thank you. I think it’s really important that people truly understand that sustainable wellness is not an elitist ideal. I think that that’s one trend that’s kind of happening right now that we need to talk about because there’s this idea that I’d love to eat healthy, but I can’t afford to shop at Whole Foods.
Debbie: It’s totally changed, though. If you think about it, Walmart is the largest seller of organic food than anyone in the world. It is available. The more we support companies that are huge and big corporations that are doing sustainable products, the more they’ll be available to everybody, and that’s just a reality. I think that, again, what you’re saying is exactly right. I think that it was more elitist 10 years ago when we met, and it has definitely changed because the affordability is changing. When people can go and they’re like, “I can get this product and this product is kind of the same price,” there is no decision. They’re choosing the healthier item if they’re given the facts. Again, if they’re reading about that and they’re reading about it in social media and they’re reading about it from people whose experiences they can relate to, it’s something that we can definitely change the way our future is.
John: Rich, we’re down to the last couple of minutes, unfortunately. Two questions. It’s hard for Michael Jordan or for John Elway to step off the field. You did the ultimate endurance athlete feat. What do you do now in terms of how do you for a bike ride? What do you do to get your endorphins going and the adrenaline moving? What’s your day look like in terms of just moving around and feeling that high again?
Rich: That’s something that I grapple with every day. A lot of guys fantasize about going to Vegas and having a big weekend. My fantasy is if I could just live in a cabin in the woods, then I could train all day. That’s not my life. Again, it goes back to that question of how do I be a steward of this message? I get up every day and I train, but I’m not race fit right now. I don’t have the bandwidth or the time to devote to training for another one of those races at this moment, because I have a greater responsibility to steward this message in different ways, like being here with you today, as opposed to being out on my bike training for five or six hours. In a year or two, maybe that’s the best way for me to carry the message. I certainly feel like I have more to say and do in athleticism, and there are challenges I’d like to take on. Right now, there’s different avenues, like podcasting and radio shows and all the like, and our book coming out, but I still love it and I get out every day and train and I’m on the trails. I’m not putting in the crazy hours that I was to get ready for Ultraman. That goes to balance. Being well, being healthy, is about how you balance all these things in our life. Everybody is being distracted by so many things, and we’re busy and we’re stressed and we’re just trying to put food on the table. How do you build in healthy practices throughout your day in a sustainable, balanced way? I’m not a very balanced guy. I like the extreme. I like to go all the way to the wall. For me it’s a spiritual challenge. How do I still do these things that I love and be present for my wife and my kids and still carry this message in all of that? I wouldn’t say that I’ve solved that equation, but I’m always trying.
John: Last question today, Rich. Best advice. You yourself are considered a guru, and people are listening to your advice. What’s the best advice that you’ve ever gotten?
Rich: The best advice that I’ve ever gotten is mood follows action. I think that when people are trying to change their lifestyle habits, whether it’s, “I really should go to the gym,” or “I really should make a better food choice,” a lot of times they say, “I’ll do it tomorrow,” or “I’m not up for it right now. Maybe when I feel better, then I’ll put the running shoes on.” For me, that’s my mantra, mood follows action. If I want to change how I feel, I have to take the action first. When I’m mindful about that, I have more aptitude for making the better choice.
John: That’s awesome. Rich, we’re going to have you back. We’re going to have you back with Julie with the book here and with some of the recipes. To find more about Rich Roll, go to richroll.com. Download his podcast. Let’s get him up to 10 million downloads. Also, buy Finding Ultra or his new book, “The Plantpower Way,” on amazon.com, Barnes & Noble. For Debbie Levin, I’m John Shegerian with Rich Roll. Rich Roll, you are truly living proof that green is good.