09 Mar Athlete Rich Roll
Rich Roll is an Ultra- Marathon Athlete and regarded as one of the fittest men in the world.
At fifty-one years of age, Rich Roll is fitter and stronger than most people half his age and he’s showing no signs of slowing down. He attributes his health and wellbeing to a plant-based diet and vegan lifestyle. Here, he shares his journey with Gently Vegan.
When he was age 39, Rich Roll was a recovering alcoholic, 22kilos overweight and heading straight for a heart attack. A health scare on the eve of his 40th birthday saw him turn to a vegan diet and dramatically change his sedentary ways. Now aged 51, he is regarded as one of the fittest men in the world, an actively competing ultra-marathon athlete, motivational speaker and an internationally best selling author many times over.
Gently Vegan: Your journey to a vegan lifestyle and fitness was an interesting one. What was your rock bottom and what did you do to pick yourself up out of it?
Rich Roll: In the late 1980s, I was a graduate of Stanford University and Cornell Law School and a practising lawyer. I was also an addict, and although I competed as a butterfly swimmer in college, my career was cut short by battles with addiction. This saw me alienating friends, colleagues and family and landed me in jail, institutions and finally, rehab at the age of 31. I became sober, but I was very overweight. One day, just before my 40th birthday, I was walking up a flight and stairs and couldn’t breathe. I truly thought I was about to have a heart attack. That was my “ah-ha moment”. The next day, I completely overhauled my diet and became a dedicated vegan. I brushed off my running shoes and dove back into the pool. I began riding my bike again. As my fitness returned, so did my ambition and I set a goal to participate in Ultra-marathons.
GV: Wow, talk about going full throttle into something! How did it go for you?
RR: Quite well, actually! Within two years, I was 22kilos lighter and I became the first vegan to complete a 515km endurance event and finish in the Top 10 males. I was also the third fastest American and the second fastest swim split, despite never before competing in even a half marathon. I was even named one of the 25 fittest men in the world by Men’s Fitness Magazine in 2009. Today, at age 51, I continue to compete in events. In fact, in September 2017, I competed in the Otillo Swim Run World Championship, where teams of two race together from island to island, swimming between 26 islands and running across them. CNN ranks it as one of the toughest endurance races in the world.
Editor’s note: Rich Roll and his race partner Chris Hauth (aged 47), finished the grueling event as the top American team and completed the race in under 11hours, which is only three hours behind the team that won the highest honours.
GV: What do you say to people who think you can’t be strong on a plant-based diet?
RR: There are nine essential amino acids that we need as humans and they are all found in copious amounts in plants. It is impossible not to get your protein needs from plants. In fact, there is no such thing as a protein deficiency and most people are eating three to five times the recommended daily intake of protein, which in itself is unhealthy. The reality is many people are deficient in fibre. We don’t talk about that at all, when the real question should be, “where do you get your fibre?” I push myself harder than most people on the planet, which should be a strong indicator that my lifestyle works. I credit my plant-based diet for my success and I hope I can change the way people view nutrition because of this. I’ve just turned 51 and I’ve never had a problem building muscle mass and becoming stronger and faster and I haven’t eaten animal protein in over a decade. In fact, I get my protein in the same way that come of the strongest animals on our planet get theirs. Look at the Gorilla, the Hippopotamus, the Rhinoceros … they are all herbivores and they are all incredibly strong. They source their protein from very low on the food chain.
GV: What about when people argue that animals were put on this earth for us to eat, that they are part of the food chain?
RR: I say that these people need to check their ego at the door. Who decided that animals are a possession that should be under the dominance of human beings? Animals are not ours to do with as we please. Animals are sentient beings with rich lives, fully functioning central nervous systems and internal happenings.
GV: Do people often challenge you on nutritional needs and assume you are malnourished as a vegan?
RR: Of course, but these are all misconceptions perpetrated by a lifetime of manipulated marketing messages that have convinced us we have to eat animal products in order to be healthy. Untying that knot is tricky, but I just let them know that I am fine and honestly, I think my lifestyle speaks for itself. I have my blood work done every six months and I have never had a problem with deficiency of any kind. If I am going to compete at the highest level in my 50s, it will hopefully change how people view nutrition. By me being out on the extreme – 100% plant based and fitter than I have ever been, perhaps people can think more critically about the choices they are making.
GV: As much as we try, it is often impossible in this modern world to be 100 per cent vegan at every touch point. How do you circumvent this and reconcile it with your views?
RR: The vegan lifestyle is an aspirational lifestyle. It is impossible to live a vegan lifestyle 100 per cent, whether it is a fly that hits your windshield or that the plant food you’re eating has been harvested using a machine that killed rodents or insects. I go out of my way to not buy leather products, but I do have a leather belt that I bought 20 years ago that I still wear. This is an interesting concept. I won’t throw it out … I wear it still to honour the animal, to remember it and in my own way to thank it. I don’t get on my high horse. I try to make better choices and I feel that I am doing the best that I can. I am not going to be perfect in any regard, of course. You have to cultivate a bit of humility and realise that there are ways the world works, but you also can’t overlook the fact that in some town in Vietnam, all kinds of toxic dyes ran off the t-shirt you’re buying into a river and killed the fish. The world is more complicated than you are and you have to have an appreciation of that, but do the best you can at all times.
GV: You initially turned to a vegan diet for health reasons. It’s been well over a decade now since changing your lifestyle. Have your reasons for veganism evolved over time?
RR: There are so many entry points into this lifestyle. Health, ethics, environmental, sustainability … for me, it was selfish. I was in very poor health. I was on the precipice of having a heart attack and I was on a crash course with my chronic lifestyle. It was a healthier way of living and being and it was an easy way to lose weight. My skin also cleared up and I ended up looking a whole lot better! Now, after over 10 years of living like this, I evaluate my environment differently. By removing all animal products from my diet, it led me to think more critically at the world at large. I started to realise what goes into industrialised agriculture. It is quite simply state sponsored torture of animals to feed the most number of people possible. Animals are fed hormones and steroids and they are living in horrific conditions. People only need to watch the documentary ‘Cowspiracy’ to see just how significant the impact the beef industry has on our environment. Everything about animal agriculture is destroying our planet at an unfathomable rate and we are at a crisis point. So yes, for me, it was initially a personal health decision, but now the environmental and ethical aspects have become equally as important.
Interview with Lifestyle and Beauty editor Shonagh Walker