13 May 2014

Finding Ultra by Rich Roll [2011]

This is a memoir by ultra-endurance athlete Rich Roll that I picked up because I had listened to a couple of his podcasts and found them to be compelling.  

The book is really about addiction. The first addiction is alcohol, from which Roll emerges in his early 30s.  Enthusiastic drinking at college leads to increasingly hazardous personal catastrophes in his 20s, which lead to rehabilitation. This is standard for a recovery memoir but it is well written and compelling: this section of the book would work as a standalone piece. An interesting cultural aside here is how much drink driving there is in this section of the book - not just driving when drunk, but actually driving whilst drinking, with a can of beer wedged between your legs. For some reason, this feels like a very American thing to do (like going to a drive-in). The British equivalent is probably furtive drinking on public transport.  

After spending his 30s as an unhappy lawyer, the narrative picks up when Roll gives up meat and embraces a plant-based (vegan) diet on the eve of his 40th birthday. This is a reaction to his own physical decline, which is the result of working 80 hour weeks and inhaling junk food instead of beer to unwind. The diet leads quickly to ultra-athletics and some truly gruelling endurance events. This section seems less well-written than the first half of the book, although there are some memorable descriptions of suffering throughout the Epic 5 event (5 consecutive Ironman Triathlons). 

A couple of points:

1    What comes across very clearly (and also in his podcasts) is that Roll trades one addiction for another. The alcohol, the work, the endurance events all seem to be different outlets for the same compulsive energy - different ways of scratching the same itch. Harnessing that energy for exercise is clearly better than directing it towards getting drunk or eating burgers, but the book left me wondering whether true salvation would lie in getting rid of the itch altogether. There is probably a Zen point somewhere here.

2    I was left asking the question about our ability to change: is lasting behavioural change is actually possible at all without the catalyst of some sort of trauma?  Incremental course correction would clearly be preferable to waiting until one had touched bottom, but this appears to be very difficult. There is the spectre of physical / chemical addiction lurking around some self-destructive patterns of behaviour, these are in the minority and I suspect that there is some deep-rooted psychological reason for this intransigence. I am interested in finding out more about this.

No comments:

Post a Comment