He had me at “Rejecting Middle Age.” I’m still doing that whole turning-forty thing, wondering where I’ll be at age 80, wondering whether I’ll even make it that far, and looking back regretfully at my lazy, confused, inconsiderate youth. Past Self! Why did you spend all my money! Past Self! Why don’t I have more muscle definition! Past Self! Why didn’t you learn to cook sooner? I found Finding Ultra inspiring and illuminating. I’ve already run my first marathon and developed a passion for endurance sports that was far from self-evident when I turned 35. I think, though, that this book would be a compelling read even if running or doing a triathlon is literally the last thing you think you would ever do. (Abducted by aliens, maybe; eat a bug, maybe; voluntarily go for a run, heck no!).
Finding Ultra begins with Rich Roll sitting in front of the TV, eating a plate of cheeseburgers with nicotine gum for dessert. He was a late-stage alcoholic when barely 30, and blacked out immediately after checking into rehab. While he was maintaining his sobriety, he fit the standard picture of a middle-aged dad in every other way: fifty pounds overweight, living on fast food, and sprawling on the couch. The book details his journey, courageously sharing dark details about his battle with addiction and the way it stole his college sports career, destroyed his first marriage before it had really begun, almost wasted his professional career, and easily could have taken his life. It’s the comeback story of a lifetime.
This is all really hard to believe from Roll’s photograph on the book cover. He’s a lean, mean, triathlon machine, listed as one of the “25 Fittest Men in the World.” Like me, he doesn’t really have any pictures of himself from his top weight. Before I got into endurance running, I neither understood nor cared what kind of milestones were reached by these weirdly sporty masochists. I read Dean Karnazes’s Ultramarathon Man when I could barely run a mile, and burst into tears on the treadmill when it finally sunk in that this stuff is humanly possible! Karnazes was describing a 100-mile footrace. Impressive, right? Rich Roll and his friend Jason Lester did five ultra-distance triathlons in under a week. That’s 70.3 miles a day: a 2.4 mile swim, followed by a 112-mile bike ride, and finishing with a full 26.2-mile marathon, for a total of 351.5 miles in six days. Okay, when I did my marathon? I had to pick up my own thigh and lift it over the 2” threshold of the shower stall, walk backward the rest of the evening because my hip flexor failed, crawl on my butt up the stairs, and sleep about 15 hours the next day. I couldn’t walk to the mailbox, much less get my leg over a bike. If I’d tried to swim I’m sure it would have ended with an extreme close-up of a lifeguard giving me mouth-to-mouth.
One of the features of the book is Rich Roll’s conversion to plant-based nutrition. In that respect, he joins the ranks of other elite endurance athletes like Brendan Brazier and Scott Jurek. I don’t write about this often, but I have been vegan since 1997 and vegetarian since 1993. I’m one of the very few 40-year-olds in my acquaintance who doesn’t need medication, has healthy numbers for blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood glucose levels, and also weighs in at the recommended amount for my height. Most of us would be glad to be able to sit on the floor and get up again without our knees cracking or without having to grab on to something. I ran a marathon and completed a mud run with a 20-foot rope climb. Now I’m looking for my next physical challenge – I want to run a 50-mile race for my 50th birthday. I believe absolutely that my commitment to plant-based nutrition is the major difference between my health and fitness, and what is supposedly “normal” for other women my age. Eat meat or not, hey, whatever. But please do track your micronutrients for a few weeks and ask whether you’re taking your body in the direction you want as you move further toward maturity. Middle-aged athletes like Rich Roll (at the elite end) and myself (at the hilariously slow end) are proof that anyone can make a major physical transformation at any time.
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I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.