If you’re familiar with the world of ultra endurance athletics (think double-Ironman triathlons, multi-day adventure races, etc.) than you’re probably familiar with Rich Roll. He’s the guy who, on the eve of his 40th birthday, realized he was out of shape, grossly overweight, and needed to do something about it for his family and for his kids so he didn’t keel over from a heart attack at a young age. He went on from that low to – only 2 years later – successfully competing in the Ultraman Triathlon – basically 2.5 Ironman distance triathlons strung together across 3 days in Hawaii. All of this while juggling the demands of a law practice and a large family. No small feat to say the least.

Rich’s brand new book – FINDING ULTRA – just hit stores last week. I was one of the lucky folks who received an advance copy, and Rich was kind enough to get on the phone and chat about the book, what he’s been up to, and his upcoming plans.

What most folks don’t know about Rich – and why the book is so enlightening – is the back story. That he was “that kid.” The scrawny one with the glasses who got picked on and sucked at team sports (um, yup, I can totally relate to that one). Or that discovering swimming in high school basically gave him a new life and new dreams. Or that discovering drinking in college basically derailed what could have potentially been an olympic swimming career. That he wasn’t clean and sober and out of rehab until his early 30’s. That to this day – contrary to perception – Rich isn’t a professional athlete. He does all of this juggling “life in the real world” just like the rest of us.

That’s the part of Rich’s story that makes it so much more powerful than just the oft-repeated “used-to-be-fat guy becomes world class endurance athlete in his 40’s on a plant-based diet” headline.

“The message I’m trying to get across is that life is too short not to seize these things that make us tick. We’re all capable of change. Especially, given of my own personal experience, for men who are in that professional rat race… You know, you hit your 40’s, you’ve done everything right in terms of what you should do to be successful. But being successful doesn’t mean that you’re fulfilled or not stressed.  A lot of guys hit that point and really wonder what the heck happened and they feel really cheated. Like they wasted years. But everyone has that dream percolating just under the surface they’re afraid to pursue… I’m trying to show people that they can actually do it.”

Rich speaks from experience having been there and, now today, being in a totally different place. Rich’s message is that we are all capable of change. That ordinary people are capable of extraordinary things.

“I do realize that not everyone is going to change their eating habits as radically as I have or train for a race like Ultraman. But everyone can do something. If I can do an Ultraman, than anyone can do a 5k. You can do something, that’s the point. Do something.”

So, how do you take a busy life, busy schedule and start to find some balance? It isn’t easy. You just dive in and start somewhere. The rest will fall into place if you keep at it.

“For me, ‘balance’ is this brass ring that you’re always chasing – almost like a chemist constantly trying different concoctions trying to get the right combination… You never quite get there, and sometimes things are far from perfect, but you always keep striving trying to get it right. And it does get better. You start figuring things out.

The key is to have your inner life sorted out first. That’s the foundation. Finding a true balance in family life, professional life… For me, making sure my wife is happy and I’m spending quality time with the kids… without that being in balance than nothing else is worth it. Training, races, those will all end some day – the people in our lives are far more important. Once you have that in perspective you have a foundation to work from.”

Rich’s book is very strong on this point. Knowing what matters. Who matters. And that you can’t possibly live a fulfilling life if you don’t have those things figured out in your life.

Another question that Rich – and most any talented athlete with a day job and a family – gets asked is how they find the time to fit all the training in with so many commitments? You make time. You look intently at how you spend your time and you strip out anything that is waste. Again, Finding Ultra does a good job showing how Rich took a good hard look at his own life and learned how to use his time more wisely.

“Once you know what matters than you really start applying tools for how you spend your time. For me,  Tim Ferris’ 4-Hour Work Week  book has been really helpful. It forced me to take a good, hard look at how much time I wasted. Everyone wastes time. Everywhere. So you really have to take a good, hard look and be brutal about it. For me, I had to really look at my own life very closely and figure out what had to go. Getting home late from the office and relaxing in front of the TV is what I used to do. And than you have food while you do that and relax… because you work hard and you deserve a break, right? That’s what I used to tell myself. But that’s wasted time. And gained weight. It’s really quite amazing how much time we all waste if we stop and take a look at it. For me, that was a turning point in using my time more wisely.”

Rich will admit that, owning his own business, can make time management a little more sane, “I certainly don’t have more free time than anyone else, but I do have more control and flexibility over my schedule. I’m definitely busy, lots to do, but I can organize my schedule and that’s definitely been very helpful. I’m not actually a professional athlete, I do have to work for a living like everyone else. But I have to be very disciplined about how I use my time. There’s always things vying for your time, but there’s also always work-arounds. If it’s important to you than you’ll prioritize to make it happen.”

Nutrition – which is a huge part of Finding Ultra – plays a critical role in wellness. In fact, studies show that about 80% of weight loss is attributed to nutrition, not exercise. Rich’s 100% plant-based eating is a radical departure from the norm for our society, but all anyone has to do is look at Rich’s transformation, race performance and physique to see that it’s an approach that clearly works wonders. Still, not everyone is ready to jump into a “vegan” diet. So, what is good advice for “the average joe” who wants to eat healthier, but in a more pragmatic way?

“Well, certainly a plant-based / whole foods diet is best given all the demonstrated health benefits, but I understand that not everyone is going to start there. It’s a big leap. Me? I’m an all-or-nothing guy, so I had to just make that jump… I realize that a lot of people aren’t like that, and that’s ok. For most folks, just start by eating more fresh stuff. Eat more plants. Eat green things that come from the ground. Avoid things with labels. It sounds complicated, it’s not. It’s very straightforward – common sense. Switch up your dinners too. Instead of having meat as the focus of the meal, make the plant-based food the center of the meal and have the meat or dairy as the side dish. For most people these simple, deliberate, small changes in eating habits will really make a world of difference. As folks begin to experience how much better they feel they want to eat better and better. It really becomes a natural progression for a lot of people…”

The last chapters of the book chronicle Rich’s Ultraman racing and the EPIC5 Challenge over the last few years. It’s an amazing read, really delving into the details of those undertakings. I especially enjoyed reading Rich’s account of EPIC5 – an absolutely insane undertaking with instigator Jason Patrick Lester (now a Nike athlete). Jason dreamed up EPIC5 and, as he and Roll got to know each other, invited him for the journey. The idea was to attempt 5 Ironmans in 5 days, on 5 Hawaiian Islands. Yes, crazy. No one thought it could be done. Did I mention that Lester – another one of the most elite endurance athletes on the planet – also happens to have no use of his right arm? Yup. It makes for a great, great read.

So, naturally, I wondered what’s next for Rich as the book comes out and what races might be on the radar next? “Well, this year, with the book, everything is just crazy. Good crazy, but definitely crazy. So, I’ve really written off racing for 2012 with all the book obligations – this has presented me with so many amazing opportunities that I really need to focus on. So, I’m continuing to train and staying fit, but really working to leverage this moment right now.”

So do I recommend FINDING ULTRA? Absolutely! Roll’s story is truly inspiring and his writing style makes for an enjoyable read. As an added bonus, the appendix’s at the end of the book cover a lot of very useful information around race nutrition from a plant-based perspective. Invaluable knowledge for anyone looking to incorporate better eating into their training diet. If I have one qualm about the book it’s that the editing is a little odd… The content of the book is great, but the flow of the book can feel a bit strange at times. That said, Rich’s story never ceases to inspire, and being able to hear the full context and back story of his life only makes his transformation that much more powerful!

links: FINDING ULTRA – Official Book Site, RichRoll.com