Finding Ultra : Rejecting Middle Age, Becoming One of the World's Fittest Men, and Discovering Myself
Finding Ultra is Rich Roll's incredible-but-true account of achieving one of the most awe-inspiring midlife physical transformations ever.
One cool evening in October 2006, the night before he was to turn forty, Rich experienced a chilling glimpse of his future. Nearly fifty pounds overweight at the time and unable to climb the stairs without stopping, he could see where his current sedentary lifestyle was taking him.
Most of us, when granted such a moment of clarity, look the other way--but not Rich.
Plunging into a new way of eating that made processed foods off-limits and that prioritized plant nutrition, and vowing to train daily, Rich morphed--in a matter of mere months--from out-of-shape midlifer to endurance machine. When one morning ninety days into his physical overhaul, Rich left the house to embark on a light jog and found himself running a near marathon, he knew he had to scale up his goals.
How many of us take up a sport at age forty and compete for the title of the world's best within two years? Finding Ultra recounts Rich's remarkable journey to the starting line of the elite Ultraman competition, which pits the world's fittest humans against each other in a 320-mile ordeal of swimming, biking, and running. And following that test, Rich conquered an even greater one: the Epic5--five Ironman-distance triathlons, each on a different Hawaiian island, all completed in less than a week.
But Finding Ultra is much more than an edge-of-the-seat look at a series of jaw-dropping athletic feats--and much more than a practical training manual for those who would attempt a similar transformation. Yes, Rich's account rivets--and, yes, it instructs, providing information that will be invaluable to anyone who wants to change their physique. But this book is most notable as a powerful testament to human resiliency, for as we learn early on, Rich's childhood posed numerous physical and social challenges, and his early adulthood featured a fierce battle with alcoholism.
Ultimately, Finding Ultra is a beautifully written portrait of what willpower can accomplish. It challenges all of us to rethink what we're capable of and urges us, implicitly and explicitly, to "go for it."
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May 22, 2012
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Excerpt from Finding Ultra by Rich Roll
A Line in the Sand
It was the night before I turned forty. That cool, late-October evening in 2006, Julie and our three kids were sound asleep as I tried to enjoy some peaceful moments in our otherwise rowdy household. My nightly routine involved losing myself in the comfort of my giant flat-screen cranked to maximum volume. While basking in the haze of Law & Order reruns, I'd put away a plate of cheeseburgers and followed that welcome head-rush with a mouthful of nicotine gum. This was just my way of relaxing, I'd convinced myself. After a hard day, I felt I deserved it, and that it was harmless.
After all, I knew about harm. Eight years earlier, I'd awoken from a multiday, blackout binge to find myself in a drug and alcohol treatment center in rural Oregon. Since then I'd miraculously gotten sober, and one day at a time was staying that way. I no longer drank. I didn't do drugs. I figured I had the right to pig out on a little junk food.
But something happened on this birthday eve. At almost 2 a.m., I was well into my third hour of doltish television and approaching sodium toxicity with a calorie count in the thousands. With my belly full and nicotine buzz fading, I decided to call it a night. I performed a quick check on my stepsons, Tyler and Trapper, in their room off the kitchen. I loved watching them sleep. Aged eleven and ten, respectively, they'd soon be teenagers, grasping for independence. But for now, they were still pajama-clad boys in their bunk beds, dreaming of skateboarding and Harry Potter.
With the lights already out, I had begun hauling my 208-pound frame upstairs when midway I had to pause--my legs were heavy, my breathing labored. My face felt hot and I had to bend over just to catch my breath, my belly folding over jeans that no longer fit. Nauseous, I looked down at the steps I'd climbed. There were eight. About that many remained to be mounted. Eight steps. I was thirty-nine years-old and I was winded by eight steps. Man, I thought, is this what I've become?
Slowly, I made it to the top and entered our bedroom, careful not to wake Julie or our two-year-old daughter, Mathis, snuggled up against her mom in our bed--my two angels, illuminated by the moonlight coming through the window. Holding still, I paused to watch them sleep, waiting for my pulse to slow. Tears began to trickle down my face as I was overcome by a confusing mix of emotions--love, certainly, but also guilt, shame, and a sudden and acute fear. In my mind, a crystal-clear image flashed of Mathis on her wedding day, smiling, flanked by her proud groomsmen brothers and beaming mother. But in this waking dream, I knew something was profoundly amiss. I wasn't there. I was dead.
A tingling sensation surfaced at the base of my neck and quickly spread down my spine as a sense of panic set in. A drop of sweat fell to the dark wood floor, and I became transfixed by the droplet, as if it were the only thing keeping me from collapsing. The tiny crystal ball foretold my grim future--that I wouldn't live to see my daughter's wedding day.
Snap out of it. A shake of the head, a deep inhale. I labored to the bathroom sink and splashed my face with cold water. As I lifted my head, I caught my reflection in the mirror. And froze. Gone was that long-held image of myself as the handsome young swimming champion I'd once been. And in that moment, denial was shattered; reality set in for the first time. I was a fat, out-of-shape, and very unhealthy man hurtling into middle age--a depressed, self-destructive person utterly disconnected from who I was and what I wanted to be.
To the outside observer, everything appeared to be perfect. It had been more than eight years since my last drink, and during that time I'd repaired what was a broken and desperate life, reshaping it into the very model of modern American success. After snagging degrees from Stanford and Cornell and spending years as a corporate lawyer--an alcohol-fueled decade of mind-numbing eighty-hour workweeks, dictatorial bosses, and late-night partying--I'd finally escaped into sobriety and even launched my own successful boutique entertainment law firm. I had a beautiful, loving, and supportive wife and three healthy children who adored me. And together, we'd built the house of our dreams.
So what was wrong with me? Why did I feel this way? I'd done everything I was supposed to do and then some. I wasn't just confused. I was in free fall.
Yet in that precise moment, I was overcome with the profound knowledge not just that I needed to change, but that I was willing to change. From my adventures in the subculture of addiction recovery, I'd learned that the trajectory of one's life often boils down to a few identifiable moments--decisions that change everything. I knew all too well that moments like these were not to be squandered. Rather, they were to be respected and seized at all costs, for they just didn't come around that often, if ever. Even if you experienced only one powerful moment like this one, you were lucky. Blink or look away for even an instant and the door didn't just close, it literally vanished. In my case, this was the second time I'd been blessed with such an opportunity, the first being that precious moment of clarity that precipitated my sobriety in rehab. Looking into the mirror that night, I could feel that portal opening again. I needed to act.
Here's the thing: I'm a man of extremes. I can't just have one drink. I'm either bone dry or I binge until I wake up naked in a hotel room in Vegas without any idea how I got there. I'm crawling out of bed at 4:45 a.m. to swim laps in a pool--as I did throughout my teens--or I'm pounding Big Macs on the couch. I can't just have one cup of coffee. It has to be a Venti, laced with two to five extra shots of espresso, just for fun. To this day "balance" remains my final frontier, a fickle lover I continue to pursue despite her lack of interest. Knowing this about myself, and harnessing the tools I'd developed in recovery, I understood that any true or lasting lifestyle change would require rigor, specificity, and accountability. Vague notions of "eating better" or maybe "going to the gym more often" just weren't going to work. I needed an urgent and stringent plan. I needed to draw a firm line in the sand.
The next morning, the first thing I did was turn to my wife Julie for help.
As long as I've known her, Julie has been deeply into yoga and alternative healing methods, with some (to put it mildly) "progressive" notions about nutrition and wellness. Always an early riser, Julie greeted each day with meditation and a series of Sun Salutations, followed by a breakfast of odoriferous herbs and teas. Seeking personal growth and counsel, Julie has sat at the feet of many a guru--from Eckhart Tolle, to Annette, a blue-eyed clairvoyant, to Chief Golden Eagle of the South Dakota Lakota tribe, to Paramhansa Nithyananda, a youthful and handsome Indian sage. Just last year, in fact, Julie traveled by herself to southern India to visit Arunachala, a sacred holy mountain revered in yogic culture as a "spiritual incubator." I'd always admired her for her willingness to explore; it sure seemed to work for her. But this kind of "alternative thinking" was strictly her territory, never mine.
Particularly when it came to food. To open our refrigerator was to see an invisible but obvious line running down the middle. On one side were the typical American heart attack-inducing items: hot dogs, mayonnaise, blocks of cheese, processed snack foods, soda, and ice cream. On the other side--Julie's--were mysterious Baggies filled with herbal preparations and an unmarked Mason jar or two filled with putrid-smelling medicinal pastes of unknown origins. There was something she patiently told me was called "ghee," and also chyawanprash, a pungent, brown-colored sticky jam made from an Indian gooseberry known as the "elixir of life" in Ayurveda, a form of ancient Indian alternative medicine. I never tired of poking fun at Julie's ritualistic preparations of these strange foods. Though I'd grown accustomed to her attempting to get me to eat things like sprouted mung beans or seitan burgers, to say it "never took" is an understatement. "Cardboard," I'd announce, shaking my head and reaching instead for my juicy beef burger.
That kind of food was fine for Julie, and certainly fine for our kids, but I needed my food. My real food. To her immense credit, Julie had never nagged me to change my ways. Frankly, I assumed she'd simply given up on me. But in truth she understood a crucial spiritual principle I'd yet to grasp. You can stand in the light. And you can set a positive example. But you simply cannot make someone change.
But today was different. The previous night had given me a gift: a profound sense not just that I needed to change, but that I wanted to change--really change. As I poured a massive cup of very strong coffee, I nervously raised the issue across the breakfast table.
"So, uh," I began, "you know that detox, juice-cleanse thing you did last year?"
From a bite of hemp bread spread with chyawanprash jam, Julie peered up at me, a small smile of curiosity playing at her lips. "Yes. The cleanse."
"Well, I think I might, well, uh, maybe I should, you know, give it a shot?" I couldn't believe the words were coming out of my mouth. Even though Julie was one of the healthiest people I knew, and I'd seen how her diet and use of alternative medicine had helped her through so much--even miraculously, at one point--just twenty-four hours before, I would have argued till I was blue in the face that a "cleanse" was useless, even harmful. I'd never found any evidence to support the idea that a cleanse was healthy or that it somehow removed "toxins" from the body. Ask any traditional Western medicine doctor and he'll agree: "These cleanses are not just innocuous, they're downright unhealthy." And by the way, what are these mysterious toxins, anyway, and how would a cleanse possibly remove them? It was all nonsense, I'd thought, pure fabrication, the babbling of snake oil salesmen.