More book reviews? Are you shitting me? No, I am not shitting you. This week, “Finding Ultra” by Rich Roll. For those who do not know Rich Roll, he’s a California attorney who, as he tells it, went from a “midde-aged couch potato to Ultraman”mostly, according to him, thanks to a vegan type/plant based diet (oh and a shit ton of training).
The book is an honest account of his mental, physical, and spiritual transformation. The overall transformation is awesomely impressive. That said, I do not think Rich and I would get along.
The book opens with his account of one of his first Ultraman (basically a little more than two ironman distance triathlons spread over 3 days – 6.2 mile swim, 260 mile bike and 52.4 mile run) before backtracking to his days as an alcoholic and the many talents he wasted as a result. He still managed to get a law degree from Cornell (which just goes to show you how difficult it is to become a lawyer) and get a job with a decent law firm in California, but he wasted what sounds like a decent swimming talent and probably night after night of college memories. He’s honest about it and takes responsibility for it, which is nice. As a lawyer myself whose mother struggled with alcoholism, I can relate to Rich on many levels. His honesty is refreshing and his redemption is inspiring.
After recounting his struggles with alcohol, we soon see that his addictive nature is still there, just refocused. He becomes frustrated after getting winded going up a flight of stairs and becomes enamored with healthy eating, which, typical of his extreme nature, becomes vegan. I will say that he addresses the term “vegan” and denounces the politics that come with it and simply states “I want to eat healthy and I think plants are the best way.” I think taking the politics out of it, whether honest or not, was a smart move. It certainly makes his transformation more relatable because honestly if I have to listen to a PETA advertisement IN ADDITION to how animal protein is overrated, I’d probably kill myself…with an animal. Per the above, you can probably tell that I do not agree with Rich about animal protein. Can you survive and excel on a plant based diet? Clearly you can, Exhibit A: Rich Roll, but I still believe animal protein and certain animal fats are, long term, a better/healthier route. I’m impressed with him for sticking with it.
I’m even more impressed with his accomplishments, which he finally gets to in the last 50 pages of the book. He recounts his Ultraman experiences, both the good and the bad and closes with a recounting of his EPIC5 experience. What is that? It’s five ironman triathlons in five straight days. Rich’s friend Jason approached him with the idea and after much contemplating (I’m guessing like a day and a half) Rich agreed and they set to training. If you ever want to feel inadequate about what you’re doing, read the chapter about his training regimen and the miles he puts in. Truly incredible. Also incredible is the detailed account of the “event” itself. SPOILER ALERT – Do they accomplish their goal? Not quite. They complete the five ironmen, but not in five days. It takes them seven. The sections dealing with his failures, his attitude, his family struggles are all real and amazing. He talks about how training affects his law practice and social/family life though not as much as I’d like. I’d love to meet and hear this account from his wife’s perspective because he seems to gloss over the financial/family struggles. He does address them, but almost as an afterthought.
The remainder of the book deals with how to implement a plant based diet – probably 30-40 pages of pretty useful information on just eating healthy. Even if you do not want to become a vegan, there are a lot of good health tips contained in those pages.
All in all, I enjoyed the book. Again, like Salazar’s 14 Minutes, the meat of the book (i.e. minus the diet tips) comes in at under 240 pages so it’s a quick read with a fairly fast pace. Before I get on my soapbox, let me reiterate that the man is a testament to healthy eating, exercise, and is extraordinarily impressive. Like any American and average reader though, I take issue with some things and, well, if you’re going to put yourself out there, you’ll be subject to idiots like me thrusting their judgments and opinions on you.
One major problem I have with Rich that comes through in the book is one I consistently have with Ultradistance athletes including some triathletes. I may have addressed it before, but I’ll repeat myself because I have time to kill. During one training session Rich suffers an accident on his bike that lands him in the hospital. Here again, I’ve been there and I can relate. During his time in the ER, his wife asks him “Well, if you hadn’t made it, would you be happy with how you were living your life/what you were doing.” I took that as a “Has all this training etc. been worth it?” He seems to take it the same way and responds with a “Yes.” No problem, that’s fine. My problem comes with his conclusion afterwards. His wife smiles a knowing smile and says “I’m so glad to hear you say that.” Rich goes on to say that she smiles because she already knows what’s taken him years to figure out, i.e. safety is an illusion. Julie, his wife, doesn’t want a 9-5 husband who grills out on the weekend and watches football on Sundays. He seems to say, if you’re stuck in that scenario, you’re not trying, you’re not achieving, you’re hiding behind this curtain/illusion of safety. You’re not taking any risks. Now, is that the way he meant it? Maybe, maybe not, but I hear similar expressions from other ultradistance athletes. Christopher McDougall, in his book “Born to Run” seems to downplay mere marathoners as he discusses the elite ultradistance runners. The latter are REALLY achieving, pushing the envelope…marathoning is sooo passe. Can I just say…Fuck You. I think that’s complete horse shit. My 9-5 job as an attorney and coming home every night and grilling out on the weekend IS my achievement. I enjoy doing Ironmen, marathons, triathlons, but if all that was gone tomorrow and all I had left was my mere family, GREAT! I don’t need those things in my life. I LOVE to run. I LOVE to swim and bike…it’s not what I think about at night. Some people reading this will say “oh, he’s not a true runner..he’s not a true triathlete.” Why? Because I don’t measure my fucking food by the ounce? Because I don’t ponder ways to punish my body in new ways? Because I don’t buy the latest and greatest in technology? I’ll take a stable family life and kids who grow up to be successful. Don’t get me wrong, I’m indebted to running and triathlon for a lot of things, but I get frustrated with the mindset that “if you’re not doing what I’m doing and pushing yourself to find the next great endurance event, you’re probably stuck and just don’t realize it.” You know what, I could argue the same thing. You can’t be comfortable with the life your living and can’t be happy with having a wife, a job, and two kids so you have to find some extreme bullshit adventure to satisfy your wanderlust. Is that true? NO! You like your life and I like my life…I’m going to sign up for Ironman Texas now. 😉
Anyway, go read it…it’s good. 🙂