In the following chapter from the book Finding Ultra, Rick Roll tells how changing to a plant based diet flooded him with so much energy that he started running for hours without effort. This sudden rise in energy ultimately made him an Ultra Man and EPIC5 CHALLENGE champ [BIO]. Furthermore, he was named one of the world’s 25 fittest men by Men’s Fitness magazine.
A LINE IN THE SAND
It was the night before I turned forty. That cool, late-October evening in 2006, Julie and our three kids were sound asleep as I tried to enjoy some peaceful moments in our otherwise rowdy household. My nightly routine involved losing myself in the comfort of my giant flat-screen cranked to maximum volume. While basking in the haze of Law & Order reruns, I’d put away a plate of cheeseburgers and followed that welcome head-rush with a mouthful of nicotine gum. This was just my way of relaxing, I’d convinced myself. After a hard day, I felt I deserved it, and that it was harmless.
After all, I knew about harm. Eight years earlier, I’d awoken from a multiday, blackout binge to find myself in a drug and alcohol treatment center in rural Oregon. Since then I’d miraculously gotten sober, and one day at a time was staying that way. I no longer drank. I didn’t do drugs. I figured I had the right to pig out on a little junk food.
But something happened on this birthday eve. At almost 2 A.M., I was well into my third hour of doltish television and approaching sodium toxicity with a calorie count in the thousands. With my belly full and nicotine buzz fading, I decided to call it a night. I performed a quick check on my stepsons, Tyler and Trapper, in their room off the kitchen. I loved watching them sleep. Aged eleven and ten, respectively, they’d soon be teenagers, grasping for independence. But for now, they were still pajama-clad boys in their bunk beds, dreaming of skateboarding and Harry Potter.
With the lights already out, I had begun hauling my 208-pound frame upstairs when midway I had to pause—my legs were heavy, my breathing labored. My face felt hot and I had to bend over just to catch my breath, my belly folding over jeans that no longer fit. Nauseous, I looked down at the steps I’d climbed. There were eight. About that many remained to be mounted. Eight steps. I was thirty-nine years-old and I was winded by eight steps. Man, I thought, is this what I’ve become?
Slowly, I made it to the top and entered our bedroom, careful not to wake Julie or our two-year-old daughter, Mathis, snuggled up against her mom in our bed—my two angels, illuminated by the moonlight coming through the window. Holding still, I paused to watch them sleep, waiting for my pulse to slow. Tears began to trickle down my face as I was overcome by a confusing mix of emotions—love, certainly, but also guilt, shame, and a sudden and acute fear. In my mind, a crystal-clear image flashed of Mathis on her wedding day, smiling, flanked by her proud groomsmen brothers and beaming mother. But in this waking dream, I knew something was profoundly amiss. I wasn’t there. I was dead.
A tingling sensation surfaced at the base of my neck and quickly spread down my spine as a sense of panic set in. A drop of sweat fell to the dark wood floor, and I became transfixed by the droplet, as if it were the only thing keeping me from collapsing. The tiny crystal ball foretold my grim future—that I wouldn’t live to see my daughter’s wedding day.
Snap out of it. A shake of the head, a deep inhale. I labored to the bathroom sink and splashed my face with cold water. As I lifted my head, I caught my reflection in the mirror. And froze. Gone was that long-held image of myself as the handsome young swimming champion I’d once been. And in that moment, denial was shattered; reality set in for the first time. I was a fat, out-of-shape, and very unhealthy man hurtling into middle age—a depressed, self-destructive person utterly disconnected from who I was and what I wanted to be.
To the outside observer, everything appeared to be perfect. It had been more than eight years since my last drink, and during that time I’d repaired what was a broken and desperate life, reshaping it into the very model of modern American success. After snagging degrees from Stanford and Cornell and spending years as a corporate lawyer—an alcohol-fueled decade of mind-numbing eighty-hour workweeks, dictatorial bosses, and late-night partying—I’d finally escaped into sobriety and even launched my own successful boutique entertainment law firm. I had a beautiful, loving, and supportive wife and three healthy children who adored me. And together, we’d built the house of our dreams.
So what was wrong with me? Why did I feel this way? I’d done everything I was supposed to do and then some. I wasn’t just confused. I was in free fall.
Yet in that precise moment, I was overcome with the profound knowledge not just that I needed to change, but that I was willing to change. From my adventures in the subculture of addiction recovery, I’d learned that the trajectory of one’s life often boils down to a few identifiable moments—decisions that change everything. I knew all too well that moments like these were not to be squandered. Rather, they were to be respected and seized at all costs, for they just didn’t come around that often, if ever. Even if you experienced only one powerful moment like this one, you were lucky. Blink or look away for even an instant and the door didn’t just close, it literally vanished. In my case, this was the second time I’d been blessed with such an opportunity, the first being that precious moment of clarity that precipitated my sobriety in rehab. Looking into the mirror that night, I could feel that portal opening again. I needed to act.
Here’s the thing: I’m a man of extremes. I can’t just have one drink. I’m either bone dry or I binge until I wake up naked in a hotel room in Vegas without any idea how I got there. I’m crawling out of bed at 4:45 A.M. to swim laps in a pool—as I did throughout my teens—or I’m pounding Big Macs on the couch. I can’t just have one cup of coffee. It has to be a Venti, laced with two to five extra shots of espresso, just for fun. To this day “balance” remains my final frontier, a fickle lover I continue to pursue despite her lack of interest. Knowing this about myself, and harnessing the tools I’d developed in recovery, I understood that any true or lasting lifestyle change would require rigor, specificity, and accountability. Vague notions of “eating better” or maybe “going to the gym more often” just weren’t going to work. I needed an urgent and stringent plan. I needed to draw a firm line in the sand.
The next morning, the first thing I did was turn to my wife Julie for help.
As long as I’ve known her, Julie has been deeply into yoga and alternative healing methods, with some (to put it mildly) “progressive” notions about nutrition and wellness. Always an early riser, Julie greeted each day with meditation and a series of Sun Salutations, followed by a breakfast of odoriferous herbs and teas. Seeking personal growth and counsel, Julie has sat at the feet of many a guru—from Eckhart Tolle, to Annette, a blue-eyed clairvoyant, to Chief Golden Eagle of the South Dakota Lakota tribe, to Paramhansa Nithyananda, a youthful and handsome Indian sage. Just last year, in fact, Julie traveled by herself to southern India to visit Arunachala, a sacred holy mountain revered in yogic culture as a “spiritual incubator.” I’d always admired her for her willingness to explore; it sure seemed to work for her. But this kind of “alternative thinking” was strictly her territory, never mine.
Particularly when it came to food. To open our refrigerator was to see an invisible but obvious line running down the middle. On one side were the typical American heart attack-inducing items: hot dogs, mayonnaise, blocks of cheese, processed snack foods, soda, and ice cream. On the other side—Julie’s—were mysterious Baggies filled with herbal preparations and an unmarked Mason jar or two filled with putrid-smelling medicinal pastes of unknown origins. There was something she patiently told me was called “ghee,” and also chyawanprash, a pungent, brown-colored sticky jam made from an Indian gooseberry known as the “elixir of life” in Ayurveda, a form of ancient Indian alternative medicine. I never tired of poking fun at Julie’s ritualistic preparations of these strange foods. Though I’d grown accustomed to her attempting to get me to eat things like sprouted mung beans or seitan burgers, to say it “never took” is an understatement. “Cardboard,” I’d announce, shaking my head and reaching instead for my juicy beef burger.
That kind of food was fine for Julie, and certainly fine for our kids, but I needed my food. My real food. To her immense credit, Julie had never nagged me to change my ways. Frankly, I assumed she’d simply given up on me. But in truth she understood a crucial spiritual principle I’d yet to grasp. You can stand in the light. And you can set a positive example. But you simply cannot make someone change.
But today was different. The previous night had given me a gift: a profound sense not just that I needed to change, but that I wanted to change—really change. As I poured a massive cup of very strong coffee, I nervously raised the issue across the breakfast table.
“So, uh,” I began, “you know that detox, juice-cleanse thing you did last year?”
From a bite of hemp bread spread with chyawanprash jam, Julie peered up at me, a small smile of curiosity playing at her lips. “Yes. The cleanse.”
“Well, I think I might, well, uh, maybe I should, you know, give it a shot?” I couldn’t believe the words were coming out of my mouth. Even though Julie was one of the healthiest people I knew, and I’d seen how her diet and use of alternative medicine had helped her through so much—even miraculously, at one point—just twenty-four hours before, I would have argued till I was blue in the face that a “cleanse” was useless, even harmful. I’d never found any evidence to support the idea that a cleanse was healthy or that it somehow removed “toxins” from the body. Ask any traditional Western medicine doctor and he’ll agree: “These cleanses are not just innocuous, they’re downright unhealthy.” And by the way, what are these mysterious toxins, anyway, and how would a cleanse possibly remove them? It was all nonsense, I’d thought, pure fabrication, the babbling of snake oil salesmen.
But today, I was desperate. I could still feel the previous night’s panic, still feel my temples pounding. The drop of sweat and its dark portent, flashing before my eyes, were all too real. Clearly, my way was not working.
“Sure,” Julie said softly. She didn’t ask what had prompted this curious request, and I didn’t offer an explanation. As clichéd as it sounds, Julie was my soul mate and best friend—the one person who knew me better than anyone. Yet for reasons I still don’t fully understand, I couldn’t bring myself to tell her about what I’d experienced the night before. Maybe it was embarrassment. Or more likely, the fear I’d felt was simply too acute for words. Julie is too intuitive not to have noticed that something was clearly up, but she didn’t ask a single question; she just let it unfold, without expectation.
In fact, Julie’s expectations were so low that I had to ask her three more times before she actually returned from the alternative pharmacist with the goods needed to begin the cleanse—a journey that would soon change everything.
Together we embarked on a seven-day progressive regime that involved a variety of herbs, teas, and fruit and vegetable juices (for more information on my recommended cleansing program, see Appendix III, Resources, Jai Renew Detox and Cleansing Program). It’s important to understand that this was not a “starvation” protocol. Each and every day I made certain to fortify my body with essential nutrients in liquid form. I cast aside my doubts and threw myself into the process with everything I had. We cleared the fridge of my Reddi-Wip, Go-Gurts, and salami, filling the empty shelves with large vats of tea boiled from a potpourri of what looked like leaves raked from our lawn. I juiced with vigor, downing liquid concoctions of spinach and carrots laced with garlic, followed by herbal remedies in capsule form chased by gagging on a tea with a distinct manure aftertaste.
A day later I was curled up in a ball on the couch, sweating. Try quitting caffeine, nicotine, and food all at once. I looked horrible. And felt worse. I couldn’t move. But I couldn’t sleep either. Everything was upside down. Julie remarked that I looked like I was detoxing heroin. Indeed, I felt like I was back in rehab.
But Julie urged me to hang tough; she said that the hardest part was soon to pass. I trusted her, and true to her word, each day proved easier than the day before. The gagging subsided, replaced by gratitude just to put something—anything—down my throat. By day three, the fog began to clear. My taste buds adapted and I actually began enjoying the regime. And despite so few calories, I began feeling a surge of energy, followed by a profound sense of renewal. I was sold. Day four was better, and by day five, I felt like an entirely new person. I was able to sleep well, and I only needed a few hours of sleep. My mind was clear and my body felt light, infused with a sense of vibrancy and exhilaration that I hadn’t known was possible. Suddenly I was jogging up the staircase with Mathis on my back, my heart rate barely elevated. I even went out for a short “run” and felt great, despite the fact that I hadn’t laced up a pair of running shoes in years and was on my fifth day without any real food! It was astounding. Like a person with poor eyesight donning a pair of glasses for the first time, I was amazed to discover that a person could feel this good. Until then a hopeless and lifelong coffee addict, I entered into a momentous collaboration with Julie on day two of the cleanse when we unplugged our beloved coffeepot and together walked it out to the garbage bin—an act neither of us would have thought possible in a million years.
At the conclusion of the seven-day protocol, it was time to return to eating real food. Julie prepared a nutritious breakfast for me—granola with berries, some toast with butter, and my favorite, poached eggs. After going seven days with no solid food, I might have been excused for inhaling the meal in seconds flat. But instead, I just stared at it. I turned to Julie. “I think I’m just going to keep going.”
“What are you talking about?”
“I feel so good. Why go back? To food, I mean. Let’s just keep going.” I smiled broadly.
To understand me is to understand that I am an alcoholic, through and through. If something is good, then more is better, right? Balance is for ordinary people. Why not strive for extra-ordinary? This had always been my rule—and my ruin.
Julie had tilted her head and frowned, clearly about to say something, when Mathis accidentally dumped her orange juice all over the table, a daily occurrence. Julie and I both jumped to the rescue before the juice spilled onto the floor. “Whoops,” Mathis giggled, and Julie and I both smiled. I swabbed at the sticky mess, and just like that, I was jolted out of my crazy idea. Suddenly the thought of juicing and cleansing forever seemed as stupid as it actually is. “Never mind,” I said sheepishly. I looked down at my plate and speared a blueberry. It was the best blueberry I’d ever eaten in my whole life.
“Good?” Julie asked.
I nodded and ate another, then another. Beside me Mathis gurgled and smiled.
So I’d achieved my first goal by seizing that precious moment—walking through the open door and taking a stand. But now I needed a plan to build on what I’d started. I was going to have to find some kind of balance. Terrified of simply returning to past practices, I needed a solid strategy to move forward. Not a “diet” per se, but a regimen I could stick to long-term. In truth, I needed an entirely new lifestyle.
Without any real study, thought, or responsible inquiry, I decided the first step would be to try a vegetarian diet, with a commitment to working out three days a week. Cut out the meat, the fish, and the eggs. It seemed challenging yet still reasonable, and more important, doable. Remembering the lessons I’d learned in becoming sober, I decided not to dwell on the idea of “never having a cheeseburger [or drink] ever again” and just focus on taking it day by day. To show her support, Julie even bought me a bike for my birthday and encouraged me to exercise. And I held up my end of the bargain, opting for burritos without the carnitas, veggie burgers instead of beef, and casual Saturday morning bike rides with friends in place of cheese omelet brunches.
But it was not long before my spirits began to plummet. Despite jumping back into the pool and the occasional jog or bike ride, the extra weight simply wasn’t coming off, and I was steady at 205 pounds—a far cry from my 160-pound college swimming weight. But even more disconcerting was the fact that my energy levels soon declined to my pre-cleanse state of lethargy. I was happy that I’d returned to exercising again and had reminded myself of my long-lost love of the water and outdoors. But the truth was that after six months on this vegetarian diet, I didn’t feel much better than I had that night on the staircase. Still forty pounds overweight, I was despondent and ready to abandon the vegetarian plan altogether.
What I failed to realize at the time was just how poorly one can eat on a vegetarian diet. I’d convinced myself that I was healthy, but when I paused to reflect on what exactly I was eating, I realized that my diet was dominated by a high-cholesterol, artery-clogging lineup of processed foods, high-fructose corn syrup, and fatty dairy products—stuff like cheese pizza, nachos, soda, fries, potato chips, grilled cheese sandwiches, and a wide array of salty snack foods. Technically, I was “vegetarian.” But healthy? Not even close. Without any true understanding of nutrition, even I knew this wasn’t a good plan. Time to reevaluate once again. On my own this time, I made the radical decision to entirely remove not just meat but all animal products from my diet—dairy included.
I opted to go entirely vegan.
Despite Julie’s vigilant commitment to healthy living, even she wasn’t vegan. So at least within the Roll household I was entering uncharted waters. I just remember feeling the need to up the ante, or throw in the towel altogether. In fact, I specifically recollect thinking that I’d give this vegan thing a whirl, fully believing that it wouldn’t work, thereby paving a return to eating my beloved cheeseburgers. If such came to pass, I’d be comforted by the thought that I’d tried everything.
Full disclosure: The word “vegan,” because it is so heavily associated with a political point of view and persona utterly at odds with how I perceived myself, was one that I couldn’t at first get comfortable with. I’ve always been left-leaning politically. But I’m also the furthest thing from a hippie or earthy-crunchy type—the sort of person that the word “vegan” had always conjured in my mind. Even today, I struggle a little with the term “vegan” as it applies to me. Yet despite everything, there I was, giving it a shot. What followed was a miracle, altering my life’s trajectory forever.
When I began my post-cleanse vegetarian phase, I found the elimination of meat from my diet not that difficult. I barely noticed the difference. But the removal of dairy? Different story altogether. I considered giving myself occasional permission to enjoy my beloved cheese and milk. What on earth is wrong with a nice cold glass of milk, anyway? Could there be anything healthier? Not so fast. As I began to study food more intently, I was amazed by what I discovered. Dairy, it turns out, is linked to heart disease, Type 1 diabetes, the formation of hormone-related cancers, congestive problems, rheumatoid arthritis, iron deficiency, certain food allergies, and—as counterintuitive as it sounds—osteoporosis. Simply put, dairy had to go. But the task became even more daunting when further study unearthed just how much of what I ate (and what most people eat, for that matter) contained some form of a dairy product or derivative. For example, did you know that most breads contain amino acid extracts derived from whey protein, a by-product of cheese production? And that whey protein or its dairy cousin, casein, can be found in most boxed cereals, crackers, nutrition bars, veggie “meat” products, and condiments? I certainly didn’t. And what about my beloved muffins? Forget it.
As my eyes began to widen, I was once again back in rehab—at least, it felt that way.
The first few days were brutal, the cravings severe. I found myself just staring at that wedge of cheddar still in the fridge, transfixed. Burning with envy, I glared at my daughter as she sucked on her bottle of milk. Driving past a pizza parlor, I could feel my mouth water, the saliva literally pooling in my mouth.
But if I knew anything, it was how to weather a detox. This was familiar territory. And in a perverse sort of way, I welcomed the painful challenge.
Fortunately, after only a week, the cravings for cheese and even that glass of milk dissipated. And at ten days in, I was surprised to recapture the full extent of the vibrancy I’d experienced during the cleanse. In this interim period, my sleep patterns were uneven, yet I was buffeted by skyrocketing energy levels. Overcome by a sense of wellness, I quite literally started bouncing off the walls. Previously too lethargic to engage Mathis in an evening game of hide-and-seek, I was now feverishly chasing her around the house until she collapsed in exhaustion—no small feat! And out in the yard, I found myself for the first time practicing soccer drills with Trapper. Clearly, my desire to prove this vegan thing pointless had failed. Instead, I was sold.
For the first time in nearly two decades I began working out almost daily—running, biking, and swimming. I had no thought of returning to competitive sports; I was just getting in shape. After all, I was closing in on forty-one. Any desire I had to compete in something physical had dried up in my early twenties. I simply needed a healthy channel to burn off my energy reserves. Nothing more.
Then came what I like to call the Run.
About a month into my vegan experiment, I headed out early one spring morning for what was intended to be an easy trail run on nearby “Dirt Mulholland”—a tranquil but hilly nine-mile stretch of fire road that cuts along the pristine ridgeline atop the hills of Topanga State Park near Los Angeles. Connecting Calabasas to Bel Air and Brentwood beyond, it’s an oasis of untouched nature smack in the middle of L.A.’s sprawl, a wide sandy home to scurrying rabbits, coyotes, and the occasional rattlesnake, which offers stunning views of the San Fernando Valley, the Pacific Ocean, and downtown. I parked my truck and stretched a bit, then started my run. I didn’t plan on running more than an hour at the most. But it was a beautiful day, and feeling energized by the clean air, I let myself go.
I didn’t just feel good; I didn’t just feel amazing. I felt free. As I ascended shirtless, the welcome sensation of the warm sun baking my shoulders, time folded in on itself as I seemingly lost all conscious thought, the only sound that of my easy breath and my legs pumping effortlessly beneath me. I recall later thinking, This must be what it means to meditate. I mean really meditate. For the first time in my life, I felt that sense of “oneness” I’d only previously read about in spiritual texts. Indeed, I was having an out-of-body experience.
So instead of turning back after thirty minutes as I’d planned, I kept running, with a mind switched off but a spirit fully engaged. At two hours in, I was painlessly cruising over rolling grasslands above Brentwood and the famed Getty Museum, without a soul in sight. And as if being aroused from a sleepwalk, I slowly began to come out of my trance-like state to find myself transfixed by the dip and rise of a hawk flying overhead. A moment later the realization hit—I was still running away from my truck! What is going on? What am I doing so far away from home? Am I nuts? It’s only a matter of minutes before my calf seizes up in a cramp and I’m lying facedown in a meadow in the middle of nowhere without a phone or any way home! What if I get bitten by a rattlesnake? But I didn’t care. I didn’t want this feeling to end. Ever.
I crested a small hill to see a fellow runner coming my way—the first person I’d seen all morning. As he passed, he gave me a quick nod and a gentle thumbs-up. There was just something about this tiny gesture that was profound. It was barely noticeable. Yet it was everything, some kind of message—from above, perhaps—touching my soul. It let me know not just that I’d be okay, but that I was on the right track—that, in fact, this wasn’t just a run. It was the beginning of a new life.
I did turn around, eventually, even though I really didn’t want to. It certainly wasn’t out of fatigue, dehydration, or fear, but because I realized I’d scheduled an important conference call that I couldn’t responsibly skip. As I ascended a particularly steep hill on my journey back, reason told me I should at least slow down a bit. Or better yet, why not stop and take a break? Instead, I accelerated, chasing a rabbit that scurried out of the brush and harnessing a power in my legs and lungs that I’d had no idea I possessed. I was on top of the world—both energetically and literally—peering down on the Valley far below as I painlessly hurled myself up a sandstone ridge, fluidly cresting yet another steep, craggy ascent, bearing the full brunt of what was now the midday desert sun without notice or care. And not only did I make it back to my truck in one piece, I felt superb right to the very end, even quickening my pace over the last five miles to a flat-out, downhill sprint, my dust-covered running shoes kicking up bits of gravel in my wake. I was flying.
When I arrived where I’d begun almost four hours earlier, I was overcome by an absolute certainty that I could have kept going all day. Without ingesting any water or food as I went, I’d run what I later discovered (after reviewing trail maps) was in excess of twenty-four miles—the farthest I’d ever run in my life by a long shot. For a guy who hadn’t run more than a few easy miles in countless years, it was remarkable.
It wasn’t until much later that I’d fully appreciate the extent and impact of the morning. But as I showered the grit and grime from my worn legs that afternoon, my body hummed with excitement and possibility. And without conscious thought, a huge grin spread across my face. In this moment I knew one thing for certain: I’d soon be seeking a challenge—and it would be a big one. This middle-aged guy—who’d just run a huge distance, who’d just awoken something inside himself, something that was fierce and tough and wanted to win—this guy would soon be making a return to athletics. And not just for fun. To actually be competitive. To contend.
Also published on Medium.