How Rich Roll Overcame Addiction to Become a World-Class Endurance Athlete
“The only thing that ever got me to change is pain.”
READ ON TO DISCOVER:
How Rich can swim 6.2 miles, bike 260 miles, and run two marathons—in just 72 hours
The mentality Rich uses to push through pain while running
What it took to finally confront his alcohol addiction
Rich Roll has been featured on CNN and has been named “one of the world’s 25 fittest men” by Men’s Fitness magazine. Michael Gervais is a high performance psychologist working closely with sports MVP’s, internationally acclaimed artists, and Fortune 25 CEO’s. He recently hosted Rich on the Finding Mastery podcast to ask how he turned his life around at age 40 to become one of the most elite athletes on the planet.
Michael: Your wife bought you a bike at 40, and at 41 you’re racing in an invite-only endurance [competition]. How does that happen?
Rich: When I was 39, I was your classic couch potato hurtling into middle age with an existential crisis as well as a health crisis, because I was about 50 pounds overweight. A junk food junkie. [I’ve been] in recovery for a long time for drugs and alcohol, but I think food has always been my first drug of choice.
In my youth I had been on the Stanford swim team, [but] drugs and alcohol destroyed my swimming career.
Michael: You were using while at Stanford?
Rich: Yeah. After my freshman year, it was just a disaster. It was many, many years before I got sober, but my reintroduction to athleticism in my 40s was also an attempt to capture the potential that I feel I never realized as a college athlete.
Michael: Did you have addiction in your family?
Rich: It’s funny, no. My parents are not alcoholic. So when it happened to me, it was very frightening for my parents. They didn’t have a lot of experience with being around that.
I was a very isolated, lonely kid. I had trouble connecting with other people. [But] you go to college, you go to parties, you start drinking, and suddenly you’re talking to girls and you’re flirting and you’re having a good time. It was like a miracle drug. That sudden feeling of being wrapped in a warm blanket and feeling okay in your own skin was a new sensation for me, and it was amazing.
It works until it stops working, and it wasn’t long before it stopped working and started to [degrade] every aspect of my life. What started out as a good time morphed into dependence and a really dark need. By the time I was 31, it was not unusual for me to have a vodka tonic in the shower in the morning, and put a suit on to drive to my corporate law job with a Tall Boy between my legs.
I started collecting DUIs and all that kind of stuff. Everybody knew I was a disaster. They knew what was going on, but I would lie to myself and think that I was getting away with things. [But] it all came crashing down on me, including a failed marriage. That’s a whole sordid affair, and I ended up in rehab for 100 days.
That was where, for the very first time, I learned how to be honest. I learned how to be vulnerable. I learned the power of what happens when you have the courage to share your deepest, darkest truths about yourself, and release them.
Michael: What is the insight that you developed from that?
Rich: That vulnerability is not cowardice, but courage. And packed into that is the ability to heal when you have the courage to do so.
One of the people that originally inspired me to believe that I could take on these [endurance] events was David Goggins, an amazing Navy Seal. One of the most taciturn, intense individuals to ever walk planet Earth. In the wake of losing some friends in a helicopter crash, he set about honoring their death and raising money for charity by tackling the 10 most difficult endurance challenges on the planet. He’d done quite well despite the fact that he weighs like 260 pounds. He’d never really been a runner. I think he rode the bicycle leg of Ultraman with tennis shoes duct-taped to the pedal of a loaner bike. Just a crazy story.
When I read about David Goggins, I was like, “If that guy can do it, maybe I can do it too.” And I did. My wife bought me a bike for my 40th birthday, and that was the beginning of the journey towards that race.
Michael: I love it. Are you a rule follower or risk taker?
“The only thing that ever got me to change is pain.”
Rich: I’ve always been a rule follower to a fault, and my wife has always been a risk taker. Fundamental to this whole thing for me is this idea of chasing the American dream my whole life. I grew up to study hard, get good grades, get into the best college, get in the best law school, get the best corporate law… I’m very good at following those rules. Even when I was a crazy alcoholic, I knew how to work within the system. Implicit in that was always the promise not only of prosperity and social acceptability and financial security, but happiness. “This is the way that you have a happy life.”
I played that game imperfectly, destroying it all with drugs and alcohol and then having to rebuild it only to arrive at 39 going, “This is making me happy. Why didn’t I ask myself these questions earlier?”
Michael: So you experienced difficulty [from] maybe this façade of the American dream leading to happiness through achievement. What is the most difficult moment you’ve faced in your life?
Rich: It was frightening to abandon drinking. As somebody who had premised their entire life on this façade of the American dream, it was frightening from the perspective of derailing this trajectory that was leading me to this place that I thought I wanted to go. After I had maybe a year and a half of sobriety, I made the decision to quit my corporate law job. Everything in my life had [always] been programmed, I always knew where everything was going. When you have a job, you’re on a track, and I’d never been without a track.
And then to quit… I just knew I couldn’t continue to show up at that place anymore. I left without a plan. I didn’t know what I was going to do. I didn’t have another job, I had enough money to live for maybe two, three months. That was terrifying, but I had learned in sobriety that you can jump if you can be in that place of faith. I knew in my heart of hearts that this career was not right for me, and I had to trust that if I had the courage to leave, something would show up.
Michael: There’s a lot of risk in that, because it doesn’t always work for people.
Rich: No, it doesn’t. I think it works when you’ve done enough inside work to really know where you’re supposed to go. If you haven’t, and you cavalierly jump but you haven’t done that work, then it’s less likely that the solution is going to show up or that you’re going to be attuned enough to see the right path when it does show up.
Michael: What do you do with your mind when you’re in pain?
Rich: You have to break it down into really small increments. If you’re running an ultramarathon and you’re only halfway done, you’ve got to break it down to, “I’ve just got to make it to the next street lamp.” The more you can remove your mind from the equation and turn off that mental chatter and stay focused and be present, the more likely you are to tap into something more deeply. David Goggins said something that always stuck with me: “When you think you’re done, you’ve actually accomplished only about 40% of what you’re truly capable of.” He’s a living example of that. We all have this deeper reservoir of potential and capability within us.
Michael: What do you do at that nexus? Do you associate with your heart rate, with the breathing, with the slapping of your feet? Do you associate or do you disassociate and get connected to the external world around you?
Rich: In running it can be breath, like focusing on your breath, counting your breaths, anything to focus the mind and distract it from the pain is good. Sometimes it is just checking out and tuning out completely. Sometimes visualization can be really powerful.
I knew going into Ultraman that I was going to be able to do it, because I’d done ridiculous training sessions. I had run 45 miles in training, so I knew that my body was capable of running 52. So thinking back on that training day when you were so tired and you were were still able to get through it, I think those are confidence builders. [But] if you haven’t put the work in and you’re trying to fake it, then good luck.
I can give you a specific example. I remember my first Ultraman race in 2008.
Michael: Where were you?
Rich: In Hawaii. So the way Ultraman works is, the first day is a 6.2-mile swim and a 90-mile bike. Second day is 170 miles on the bike, and the third day is a 52-mile run. I had done these crazy training weekends where I would simulate the Ultraman distance over the course of a weekend. I would do like 70% of it, and then a month later I do 80% of the Ultraman over a Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. And then six or eight weeks before the race, I did like 90% of it.
“Vulnerability is not cowardice, but courage.”
So I knew I could approximate the distance and manage it, and that was just in training. Then again, 52 miles isn’t 45, and you are not in the race and you are not pushing as hard. I can remember being in the last 10K of that 52 mile run on the third day of Ultraman, and the wheels are coming off the wagon. I remember very specifically [thinking about] all of the sacrifices I had undergone to get to that point, from quitting the law firm job to getting a bike and riding it. All these crazy experiences that seemed to make no sense at the time, all the decisions I had made and all the sacrifices that my family had made to help get me to that place, had led to that moment. That made it so much more emotionally potent. The stakes seemed so much higher, and that emotional energy was what carried me through that.
You have to take yourself to that place in training time and time again, and the more you do that, your body acclimates. Your body can acclimate to way more than I think we allow ourselves to believe. A perfect example would be someone like Dean Karnazes, the great ultramarathon runner. That guy can go out and run a marathon before breakfast every single day at a four hour pace, which is not that taxing to him. At one point in his life, that was a very taxing thing to do, but he has done it so much that for him it requires the amount of mental, emotional, and physical energy that it might require somebody else to go run two miles. So it’s about pushing the boundaries of your own capabilities, what you think you can do and what you physically can do. When you train yourself up to that point time and time again, that threshold gets pushed up.
Michael: Of all the mental skills that we have, which are the most important?
Rich: For me, the one that’s most powerful is mindfulness, and trying to anchor yourself into the present. I’ve had that experience where you tap into a strength that doesn’t seem like it’s coming from you. It feels like you’re tapping into some universal umbilical cord that can fuel you beyond your own capabilities.
Michael: Awesome. Is there word that cuts to the center of what you understand most?
Rich: I think “faith.” Not in a religious way whatsoever, but a deep belief of being guided. That has been a predominant theme in everything that’s happened to me. If I look back on my life, everything seems like it lined up perfectly to bring me to this point where I’m sitting here having this conversation with you. But it’s actually insane, it’s completely ludicrous that this is what I would be doing, because my life was on a completely different path.
The only reason that I’m here talking to you is because I made a decision to stop living my life according to a set of rules that seemed inconsistent with how I wanted to live my life. But it wasn’t logical. There was no rational explanation for it, and instead I made this decision to start living more based on my instincts, and where my heart was leading me, and having that trust, having the faith that if I did that, somehow things would work out. That has indeed been the case, and it has been a warrior’s path. It’s been incredibly difficult, but that’s why it happened.
Michael: I want to understand what allowed you to do that.
Rich: Well, I think pain. The only thing that ever got me to change is pain. When I was in enough pain from drinking and using, I had the willingness to get sober. When I was in enough pain from being a lawyer and living this life that I didn’t want to live, I had that courage to make a change.
This is why you hear people in recovery say that they are a grateful alcoholic. I remember when I was newly sober thinking, “What a bizarre thing to say.” But the reason that they say it, and why I now embrace that same perspective, is that being a drug addict or an alcoholic took them to such a dark place that they had to finally look at themselves in the mirror. Grapple with who they are, ask themselves those hard questions, and reconfigure their life. And that’s what allowed them to then flourish and become happy, productive human beings. Without that painful experience or that history, they never would have gotten there.
Michael: Is there a thought where, “I can have all this stuff working, nutrition’s right, spiritual roundedness is right, mindset is right, my physical training is right, I’ve got a great strategy going forward,” and one little thought can undo it if I water that thought too much?
Rich: Yeah. It pulls on the heartstrings of my underlying low self-esteem like, “Who are you kidding, man? When they figure out that you’re just faking it, it’s all going to come tumbling down.” You know what I mean?
Michael: It’s interesting [because] your approach has been almost like a purposefully designed inoculation to the exposure of being found out, because you’re saying, “I’m trying.”
Rich: Yeah and that’s the power of being vulnerable, and I’m always mindful. I do these podcasts, I get crazy emails every day, “You’re so inspiring, your stories inspired me,” and that freaks me out because I don’t think of myself in those terms. I get very nervous when somebody is perceiving me as somebody who stands in a position of authority. I’m just trying to share openly and honestly. I’m just somebody who’s on this journey like everybody else. I’m sharing what’s working for me, what doesn’t, where I’m going wrong and how I’m trying to improve.
The lesson for me in that is, the more that you can align your actions with your personal truth, the more you can find peace because you’re acquitting yourself in an honest way. You are holding yourself out to the world the way you actually are.