'Finding Ultra': The Ultimate Athletic Test

The Ironman World Championship takes place this fall in Hawaii. Host Rachel Martin talks with super-endurance athlete Rich Roll, who has competed in several ironman and ultraman competitions. He's the author of Finding Ultra: Rejecting Middle Age, Becoming One of the World's Fittest Men, and Discovering Myself.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

So, from teams that lose now so they can win later, to extreme athletes who go the distance every time. We're talking about ultra-endurance triathletes, those who compete in the Ironman races. These are the grueling competitions that include a roughly two-mile swim, about 100 miles on a bike, and after all of that, a marathon. These contests are considered the ultimate test of will for endurance athletes. And our next guest, Rich Roll, is among them. He's the author of the new book "Finding Ultra." Rich Roll joins us from our studios at NPR West. Rich, thanks so much for speaking with us.

RICH ROLL: Thanks for having me. It's a pleasure to be here.

MARTIN: OK. We kind of outlined in general terms what the Ironman is, but tell us what this particular competition entails.

ROLL: Well, it starts out with a 2.4-mile swim typically in an ocean or in a lake, which is followed immediately by 112 miles on the bike. And if that's not enough, after that you have to run a marathon. So...

MARTIN: It just sounds...

ROLL: ...knock yourself out.

MARTIN: ...so arduous. I mean, the first question anyone has is why does anyone do this, really?

ROLL: Well and yet at the same time, this sports has exploded in popularity. It's really the only sport in the world where the average Joe can line up in the same race and compete at the same time with the best and the brightest in the sport. And I think that distinguishes it and is part of its huge draw. There is new races popping up all the time. They often sell out in hours a year ahead of time. So, I think the question, you know, more aptly put is who isn't doing it? 'Cause it seems like...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Me. I'm not doing it. I mean, we mention that it's gotten a little bit of star power recently. Lance Armstrong, of course, famous for the Tour de France victories. And we should mention he won his first Half Ironman in Florida just last week. What has Lance Armstrong's participation in triathlon meant for the sport, do you think?

ROLL: You know, he started out as triathlete and he recently said that he still believes himself to be a triathlete in his heart and that he was just on loan to cycling for the last 20 years. So, it's great to have him back and it's had a profound impact on the profile of the sports. It's very, very exciting to watch.

MARTIN: When you are in some of your most intense training, what does that day look like? What time do you wake up? What do you eat? How many hours are you on a bike, running, swimming?

ROLL: Well, every day is different. It could be anywhere from an eight-hour ride to, you know, a 45-minute run, depending upon the day. And I run my own business - I'm self-employed - so I have the flexibility to rejigger my professional day around my training. So oftentimes, I will wake up early and get a training session in and be back on time and take my kids to school and then work for a while. And then I'll hit the pool at lunchtime and then follow it up with working throughout the afternoon and a trail run at night and time to be home for supper with the kids.

MARTIN: Now, you were not always a top endurance athlete. Just a few years ago, you were a self-described out-of-shape mid-lifer. What about the triathlon spoke to you?

ROLL: Well, I think that we all have these internal voices. In the back of my mind, I always had a yearning to do this sort of thing and life was just too busy and it never happened. So, you know, when I changed my diet, I didn't have any grand design or, you know, my sights on doing anything fantastic. All I wanted to do was lose a little weight and feel a little bit better. But the more I kind of explored diet and nutrition, the better I felt. And the more I wanted to do more, one thing led to another. And at the blink of an eye, I found myself lining up to do these crazy endurance, you know, things like Ultra Man. But it wasn't a plan at the beginning. I kind of perceive it as more of a spiritual journey, of unlocking a more authentic version of myself that had wanted to come out for a long time.

MARTIN: Rich Roll is a top endurance athlete whose memoir is called "Finding Ultra." He spoke with us from the studios of NPR West. Rich Roll, thanks so much. It's been a pleasure. Good luck with everything.

ROLL: Thank you.

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