Have you ever thought about competing in an Ironman Triathlon? How about in one of the three events that make up a triathlon: a 2.4-mile, open-water swim, a 112-mile bike ride or a marathon? Maybe just the thought of these distances is making you a little sick to your stomach. Maybe right now you’re thinking you couldn’t even swim 100 yards, run a mile or bike 10? What if I told you a guy in his mid-forties did five Ironman triathlons in seven days on live different islands of Hawaii. And what I told you that only four years earlier he could hardly muster the energy to walk up a single flight of stairs. Would you believe me?
When I met Rich Roll at his beautiful home in Calabasas, California, I automatically thought he had lived in California his whole life. He had that laid-back, surfer-dude thing down to a tee. Even his hair was sun-kissed, like the guys I know that spend all those hours in the water. Though Rich wasn’t raised with a love for surfing, he did love swimming laps back east where he grew up. Rich told me he had a tough childhood and was picked on frequently because he was cross-eyed and awkward. It wasn’t until he started swimming that he felt comfortable around other kids, and even then it was only in the pool. Rich took to the water like a bird to the sky.
He decided that the 200-meter butterfly was going to be his event. For those of you who have tried the butterfly, you know how incredibly difficult it is.
Rich was one of the top swimmers in the country for his age group and garnered attention from major colleges across the country, but his dream was to go to Harvard. However, Stanford invited him to visit and on that trip Rich was introduced to a demon that would take control of his life, alcohol. At the time, Stanford was also the top swimming school in the country. So, when Harvard did send his acceptance letter, it was too late. He had already decided Northern California was going to be his place.
In his first year of school, Rich excelled at swimming and partying, but the alcohol took control and partying took priority. Finally, Rich found friends through his party-centered lifestyle. But soon, questions started to cloud Rich’s head: Was it the real Rich or fun Rich that they liked? Who was the real Rich? This question didn’t really start to climb into Rich’s mind until much later, and after a series of destructive behavior, which included seriously injuring an older woman while drunk driving.
Rich eventually ended up checking himself into a rehab just outside of Portland, Oregon. He did one of the smartest things he would in his life: he asked for help. He began to take back his life and, after his treatment was over, he began to help others going through similar problems.
On a fateful day enjoying his new love, yoga, Julie walked into class. Rich told his friend later that he was at the class with the woman he would marry. This was weeks before he got the nerve up to ask her out. Julie brought a positive, refreshing outlook on life that Rich found infectious, and soon they were married. Eventually, they built their home in Calabasas. Rich starting making plans for a future for Julie, and the four kids they would have together.
Rich was starting to find joy in his life, but work was taking its toll. Through all of the problems in his life Rich had managed to get a law degree and was now working at the same law firm that defended OJ Simpson during his famous trial. He was letting it interfere with his physical and mental health. He was driving a fancy car, practicing entertainment law, and feeding on a drive through diet.
One night close to his 40th birthday, Rich had a realization after almost passing out, while climbing the flight of stairs that led to his bedroom. The next morning, Rich told Julie what had happened. “So if that was it, would you be satisfied with how you’d pursued your life?” Julie asked him.
That same day, Rich decided to do a juice cleanse. He expected Julie, who already had a healthy diet, but had never pushed it on Rich, to laugh at him or ask if he was kidding. She didn’t do either. The first few days were extremely rough on Rich, and he wasn’t sure if he would make it through the whole thing. On the fourth day, he felt as bad as he had during the throws of withdrawals from alcohol. But, day five was better, and six even more, and on seven Rich felt better than he had in years. Next, he decided to go fully vegan and did tons of trial and error with different concoctions to find what worked best for him.
Then came the run. Rich drove his car to the start of his regular route for what was to be an easy run. He had started swimming, biking and running a little, but nothing too strenuous. He took off across the beautiful Ridgeline in the Topanga State Park. “I didn’t just feel good, I felt amazing. I felt free,” Rich said.
At the end, Rich calculated that he had run twenty-four miles. This was the launching pad for him to look for more challenges. This was Rich’s moment of clarity that with all the problems and missteps in his past, he finally new what he was supposed to do. “Remember, it’s already done. All you have to do now is show up. Stay present. And show us who you really are,” Julie said to Rich as he looked for his next venture.
I didn’t just feel good, I felt amazing, I felt free.
Rich’s first big challenge would come in the form of an event called Ultramar. A double Ironman Triathlon that occurs over the course of two days on the Big Island of Hawaii.
The race is non-sanctioned and is by invite only. Rich had no chance of getting in, but he was persistent and told the race director he would finish. After continued requests for entry, Rich was let in. After the swimming portion of the race, Rich was actually in the lead, but his goal wasn’t to win, but just to finish. And after a grueling bike ride and a run that nearly broke him, rich did exactly that. The next year, Rich competed once again and suffered a terrible accident on his bike that he thought had ended his race.
However, with help from other teams and his family he picked up the pieces of his tattered body and crossed the finish line once again.
To yourself a favor and pick up a copy of Rich’s book, “Finding Ultra,” to learn more about those events and the eventual five Ironman Triathlons that Rich would complete over seven days on five different islands of Hawaii. “There’s a new path waiting for you too. All you have to do is look for it, then take the first step,” Rich said.
At the end of everything, Rich told us that the journey had become what was important, and the final destination was just the last stop on the way. We talked about how we all get so fixated on goals that we fail to miss the beauty of each day. He left us with these parting words: “There’s only one cure for fear: faith.”