Review: Finding Ultra, Rich Roll (Crown Archetype, 2012)

From the outset, I knew that I would be hooked. This was going to be one of those books about recovery from alcoholism and running that simply did it for me. It was not just the clearly written prose and the enjoyable pace with which it clipped along. There was something very ordinary and honest about the narrative of spiralling addiction that had me reading feverishly from the opening lines.

Chapter one is where it starts to get juicy. Quite literally. Here, Roll describes his junk food addiction as something that he believed he was entitled to after successfully quitting alcohol during a programme some years before. He had been a promising college swimmer, but he also found himself plagued by another obsession: alcohol. He describes the havoc that this caused in his personal and then post-college professional life; he documents with honesty the distress it caused his family and friends. What is interesting is the honesty with which the obsessive thinking of the alcoholic is laid bare. There is no pity, no clichéd set pieces; just the solemn dawning that things could not continue in the way that they were. He had to change. And although with support Roll managed to leave alcohol behind, he soon found himself on a diet that was just as surely slowly killing him: high in fat and high in salt. His sodium levels soared along with his expanding waistline. On the eve of his fortieth birthday he decided that he needed to change. He needed to find his ultra.

And change he did. From a lifestyle that was slowly killing him, through the miasma of middle age, junk food, TV, and nicotine gum, came a new obsession: one for health and a positive way of living. And central to that was his wife’s passion for fruit and vegetables, raw, cooked, steamed and juiced.

Roll describes his reluctance to think of himself as remotely ‘hippy’ or ‘alternative’.

He also describes the torment of being caught in the alcoholic’s frame of mind: if I do this, I’ll need more.

So not content with going on a diet, Roll used the night before his 40th birthday as the motivation needed to change. Detox because veganism, and energised as he was, he realised that he needed more challenge, more life, more rejection of middle age. Not content with running a marathon or even an Ironman, Roll persuaded the organiser of what seems like an impossible event to give him a place: five full iron-distance triathlons on consecutive days.

Like the Epic-5 event, this is a book of different stages. The second half of the book moves away from his clearly written prose about his early years: college, swimming, junk food and alcohol and moves into some vivid descriptions of suffering and recovery. There is no doubting Roll’s sincerity and enthusiasm for a new way of life. California offers the landscape and the sea, the space and the climate to embrace the outdoors. It’s all too easy, in the wet and windy north west of England to dismiss the narrative as that of yet another middle class hipster transforming himself through a landscape where, to quote Ferlinghetti ‘anything is possible’. But unlike Ferlinghetti’s poem there is no cynicism here. Like some other California based ultra-distance athletes it is hard not to be swept away by the conviction of his arguments and the fluidity of his prose. I am not yet a convert to veganism, but I am converted to Roll’s passion for not accepting your lot as you approach the turning point of the middle decade. This book will leave you wondering what is possible. Roll’s gift, is of course, to give it away in order that he might keep it. Thoroughly recommended.