Rich Roll: From fat dad to ultra-fit father

As he was turning 40, Rich Roll became fed up with his unhealthy lifestyle and became a vegan triathlon enthusiast.

Story highlights

  • Rich Roll was overweight and out of shape on the eve of his 40th birthday
  • Roll decided to get fit, and within months, he competed in a grueling triathlon
  • The father of four says he hopes to be an example to others facing life's challenges

The night before he turned 40, Rich Roll had what he calls a "moment of clarity." Overweight and out of shape, Roll had to stop to catch his breath while walking up the stairs of his Southern California home. Roll, now a father of four, feared he was close to a heart attack.

That low point prompted the entertainment attorney and former college swimmer to lose weight and get healthy. Roll not only followed through on his promise to himself and his family, he transformed his body and his life. He adopted a vegan or plant-based diet and six months later, with almost no experience, entered the extreme endurance event known as Ultraman.

Ultraman is like a super-size triathlon. It's a three-day race covering 320 miles on the big island of Hawaii, including a 10-kilometer ocean swim, more than 260 miles by bike and a double marathon run.

Not only did Roll finish the race, he placed 11th overall. He went on to compete in more endurance events, including EPIC5, finishing five Ironmans on five Hawaiian islands in less than a week. His accomplishments have attracted international attention and praise. In 2009, Men's Fitness magazine named Roll one of the "25 Fittest Men in the World."

Roll is telling his amazing and inspirational story in the new book "Finding Ultra: Rejecting Middle Age, Becoming One of the World's Fittest Men, and Discovering Myself." He's encouraging everyone, especially middle-aged fathers, to improve their diet, fitness and long-term health.

He took time out of his busy schedule to talk to CNN this week. The following is an edited transcript:

CNN: Just about five years ago, you turned yourself into one of the fittest men on the planet. How are you doing today at age 45?

Rich Roll: I feel fantastic and I continue to learn and refine and try to do it better. Like most people, my life is busy, and recently with the book I haven't been able to train as regularly as I've become accustomed to over the past several years. So when I'm not on my schedule the way I like to be, then I don't feel as good. But in the balance of things looking back from 5½ years ago to where I am now, it's nothing short of remarkable. If anything I am more a believer than I ever have been in the program that I talk about in the book and have every intention of continuing on this path. At the time, five years ago, all I wanted to do was lose a little weight and feel better. I had no idea it would lead to the life that I'm leading now. It's crazy.

CNN: Between your family, your job and training, what's a typical day like for you?

Roll: My schedule is different every day. Often it's dictated by what the kids have going on and what their activities happen to be so I take a tip from that. It's very fluid. I try not to be too strict every day because then I get frustrated when things don't work out the way I want them to. So I try to remain open.

Generally, I get up early, I take my kids to school; then I try to squeeze in a training session, then I get some work done, then I try to squeeze another training session in. I'll pick my kids up from school. I'll work for another couple of hours. I'll have dinner with my kids, and quite often I work late into the night.

See Dr. Sanjay Gupta interview Rich Roll in 2010

CNN: What does it take to make such a major lifestyle change? Is it a question of willpower?

Roll: I think it's a little bit more than that. I think the important thing to bear in mind, that's been incredibly helpful to me in many instances in my life, is to remember that mood follows action. I think it's very easy to say I'll get to that when I feel better or when I'm in the right mood, then I'll do that, or when the universe aligns and everything is perfect, then I'll dust off that dream, but it never happens. The action has to come first. You have to take the action before you know where it's going to lead you without knowing the outcome and irrespective of your mind-set or how you feel at the time.

That's key and the other thing is to emphasize the importance of those dreams we all have because life is short, and there's no time like the present to set them in motion. My hope is that people can see through the extreme endurance event aspect of the book and realize that's purely intended as metaphor. Not everyone who reads my book will want to do Ultraman or become 100% vegan, but I hope it serves as inspiration for whatever that thing is you've had in the back of your mind that you always wanted to do. There is a way and a means to breathe life into those things if you're willing to prioritize it in a way you haven't done before.

CNN: What advice would you give to those inspired after reading your book?

Roll: The biggest thing is to not overcomplicate it and just start. You don't have to have the whole thing mapped out. You don't have to know where it's going to lead you. You shouldn't get caught up in the results of it. You just need to begin and embrace the journey and be open to where it's going to lead you.

CNN: How do you maintain a balance and find time for it all?

Roll: Balance is very difficult. It's something I'm always chasing and pursuing. I'm always trying to get that recipe, that chemistry perfect, but the truth is you can't do everything every day so something's got to give.

I'm not a professional athlete; nobody's paying me to race. I don't make any money doing it. I've made a little bit of money writing the book but not enough to support my family, so I have to work just like everybody else. When I'm training then, I'm not earning so I have to be reasonable about the whole thing. I'm just like every other dad in that regard.

CNN: You've accomplished so much in the past five years, but what's your next goal?

Roll: Certainly I want to continue to push my body and see what it's capable of in an athletic concept. I love doing that, and I will continue to look for athletic challenges. That will be something I will always do, but I would say that my priorities have shifted a little bit. Now my focus and what's most important to me professionally is spreading a healthy message. I want to help inspire people through the book or get them to make healthier choices about their eating.

I'm hoping the book will create a platform for me to be able to go around the country and speak to groups and kids at schools or corporations and get people eating better. Being able to have a positive impact on somebody's health, there's nothing better than that. It's extremely gratifying. So my hope and my aspiration is to be able to play a small role in trying to create a healthier America.

Read an excerpt from "Finding Ultra"