I don’t know what it is about running books that I love so much, but they’ve become my reading candy of choice, replacing YA as the guaranteed good time genre. There aren’t nearly enough of them put out each year, but maybe that’s why they’re such a treat. Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running was my gateway book and remains a forever favorite. But it was Born to Run and Dean Karnazes who had me wondering where running authors have been all my life.
I thought my running reading shelf had peaked with Scott Jurek’s Eat and Run giving athletic validity to a careful vegan diet. But now Finding Ultra by Rich Roll comes along. He must have known my birthday was coming up.
Finding Ultra is a top heavy memoir that starts out in a moment of crisis as many memoirs do. Roll takes us all the way back to the beginning of his athletic journey where an awkward, cross-eyed boy with no friends first discovered something he loved to do and was surprisingly good at: swimming. Becoming a swimmer gave him the structure he needed to set big goals and go after them. Competing took him places, all over the country and eventually to Stanford University, where alcohol took a hold.
The first 75 or so pages chart Roll’s rise in the swimming world and descent into alcoholism. Booze didn’t stop him from becoming a lawyer, but it did score him two DUIs and the world’s worst honeymoon. Convinced he could solve his problem on his own, it took years for him to finally go to rehab. Once there, he stayed for three months. Then his life started to get good, meeting his honey and trying out yoga, but it wasn’t great. He was still asking himself:
Is this all I am?
He was a father on the verge of turning 40 when a trip up the stairs was enough to leave him winded. Certain his cheeseburger diet and seated lifestyle would be the death of him, he decided to make another major change.
Roll’s health transformation started with a one week cleanse. After seven days of liquids, his addictive personality resurfaced, reasoning that if a little of something was good then of course a lot of something was even better. Fortunately, he didn’t attempt to go all liquid all the time, but he did steadily transition from the Standard American Diet (S.A.D.) to a plant powered and mostly gluten free one. Since the “vegan” label is associated with so many political connotations, Roll replaces it with”plant-powered”, which I agree sounds more accurate and much less preachy.
Never in my life has the equation of food to body been more clear.
The book flows better once you get beyond the drinking and donut years. You even start to like Roll, who kind of comes across like a cocky frat boy in the beginning. If you’re thinking about changing your diet and booting out dairy and meat, this is a good example of how to do it right without feeling weak or deprived. The food aspect is a good primer, less instructional and more demonstrative, showing that a plant-based diet can fuel you with all of the protein, vitamins and minerals necessary to complete 5 Ironman challenges in under one week, which he did in Hawaii with the Epic5 Challenge.
You’ll have to read the book to wrap your brain around what it takes to swim 2.4 miles, bike 112 miles and run 26.2 miles five times in 1 week. If nothing else, it shows that humans are capable of so much more than we think. And it’s not because Roll and his buddies have superhuman powers. The fellow he completed the Epic5 with did it with one arm. These are the kind of people to look to for dig-deep inspiration, not celebutantes and talking heads.
As a GF vegan for the last two years, most of the general dietary detours were familiar scenery, but I learned some new tidbits and found the specifics pretty useful. Though I have to say some of his food choices when running are questionable. Veganaise and avocado sandwiches? Not sure.
While Roll doesn’t go into much depth on his training, he does share one tip that really stuck out to me. Before his coach would begin training him for Ultraman, he insisted Roll complete one of those extensive tests where they put you on a treadmill and measure things like lung capacity and heart rate. Because of the results, Roll trained in what’s called Zone 2. This means he was forced to tone down exertion so his heart rate didn’t go above 140, which basically means slowing down A LOT in order to build up the aerobic system.
Slowing down in order to speed up over time is an important lesson more coaches should impart. After years of running about 30-35 miles a week, I hit a frustrating plateau and this is probably why. So I’ve been experimenting and trying to stay below 140 just to see how it feels. Aside from being the slowest runner in Brooklyn, running slow has energized me where running fast left me sore and depleted. In the last 2 weeks, I’ve upped my runs from 6 to 8 miles and finish feeling bouncy.
I enjoyed reading this book. Is it for everyone? Probably not. But if you’re curiously unsatisfied with the general direction of life and feel powerless to hit the breaks, Roll’s story can help you navigate a better route.