Rip Esselstyn competed as a pro triathlete from the late 80's to the late 90's and was a superb swimmer and cyclist. He now works as a firefighter in Austin, TX but is now best known for his plant-strong diet thoughts.
Slowtwitch: Rip, when did you actually retire from racing as a pro triathlete?
Rip: I actually retired from road triathlon in 1997, right when I started with the fire department. That is when I pretty much gave up racing at the elite level, at least on the road. I did however compete in XTERRA races, which I have to come to absolutely adore. I started competing in them in 1998 and did the Maui World Championships 7 years in a row. And I just love everything about the off-road triathlons. From the swim courses to the mountain biking and the off-road running, it tends to keep your mind engaged while you are racing. But I haven’t raced in about two years in any multi sport event. Last year though I competed in the masters national swimming championships which happened to be in my backyard here in Austin, Texas and I was lucky enough to set the masters record in the 200 yard backstroke for men 45-49.
ST: Well, your background is swimming, but can you tell us more about it?
Rip: I swam for the University of Texas at Austin from 1982 to 1986. I was 3-time All American and went to Olympic trials in 1984 etc. What is funny, back then when I was swimming I never had the mentality to do the longer stuff. It was always the 50, the 100 and the 200. I am amazed how my mental state has changed and I much prefer to do the longer stuff now.
ST: How did you get involved with triathlon?
Rip: In 1986 a good friend of mine asked me to be his support crew at a small triathlon in Canton, Ohio. Scott Tinley was the invited pro and I remember going to hear him talk and I watched him the next day. I got Scott Tinley’s book, and I was just hooked. I started running and biking the next day and told my parents that I wanted to give it a go as a triathlete. At the end of my first season in 1987 I got invited to race in the Chicago triathlon and soon after I got my pro card.
ST: Looking back at your pro career, what would you consider your highlights?
Rip: My career highlights include racing St. Croix 11 years in a row, and I think only Karen Smyers and myself have done it that many times. I finished in the top ten there on several occasions and my best finish there was fifth. Escape from Alcatraz I was third in 1995 I believe and had a few other top ten finishes. Plus the 1994 Ironman in Hawaii ranks high, even though I completely fell apart. I led that race for the first 2.5 hours or so after I came out of the water with James Bonney, Alec Rukosuev and a guy from Australia I believe. I took the lead going up Palani and then led until mile 40 or so. The first person to pass me was 40-year old Dave Scott. That was the year when he finished second to Greg Welch. I must have done 300 to 400 triathlons.
ST: Where you as concerned about nutrition during that time?
Rip: When I was actually racing I didn’t give much thought to nutrition other than hydration. Especially since those races were only around 1 hour and 50 minutes. But as far as training, working out and recovery I was pretty intense about my nutrition. It was all plant based and didn’t do any animal based products. Did everything I could to restore those glycogen stores within the golden 15-30 minutes after workouts.
ST: Was your family always vegan?
Rip: Oh no, our family went to town with animal products up until 1985 when my father started his research on heart disease. Which showed that you could not only halt it but also reverse it by eating a plant based diet. I would say I started to get involved full force in 1987 right around the time when I got into triathlon. For two reason really, my dad’s research for health reasons and Dave Scott was pretty much a hardcore vegetarian. I had read all those stories about Dave and his philosophy on diet and nutrition. It all just made sense to me.
ST: Did your training make as much sense?
Rip: No, my training was all about going out with my training buddies, and let’s beat up on each other. If I could do it all over again I would approach the training quite differently. We didn’t have the watts on the bike and didn’t really use a heart rate monitor. That just didn’t exist. Now I would lay out a longer foundation, use recovery days and easy days. Just do it much more intelligently.
ST: Are you in awe how much technology has changed?
Rip: It is pretty incredible what they have done with the bikes. Everything from the components, to the wheels, the aero bars, the aero helmets, plus the new generation of swimsuits and wetsuit. Obviously not much has changed in the running department. But there was no bike under 14 pounds when I was racing, and you were lucky if your bike was under 20 pounds.
ST: Well, what bikes were you racing then?
Rip: I rode a lot of different bikes. One of the bikes was a Limongi, a steel frame out of Canada. I also had a Cannondale and I retired on a Merlin Titanium.
ST: And what bikes do you ride now?
Rip: I still have that Merlin Titanium. But for the most part I do all my biking on my mountain bike. I got a Santa Cruz Superlight mountain bike, that I ride everywhere. Because I like going on the sidewalks and on the grass, as the traffic in Austin has become a bit unbearable.
ST: Is it surprising to you that your diet message has put you more in the limelight than your racing career?
Rip: Yes and no. This plant-strong message is very timely. The biggest albatross we have around our necks right now is the health care crisis. To me this is a message that needs to get out. It is the answer and it is the truth when it comes to Americans taking back their health. Right now you have 1 in 2 Americans that will perish from some form of cardiovascular disease, whether it is stroke or heart disease. 1 in 12 Americans are Type 2 diabetic and those figures are increasing. One third of Americans is hypertensive and Altsheimer's is absolutely on the increase. The answer is not in throwing more money towards the health care system, the answer is in education and nutritional literacy. Getting Americans to understand that eating meat or flesh in all its forms, whether it is red meat, chicken or fish, eating dairy, which is really just liquid flesh, all these things contain all the building blocks that are promoting Western disease. It is just a matter of 5 to 10 years when Americans will realize what animal based products will do to their system
ST: But it is not just about food, it is also about exercise and lifestyle in general.
Rip: The whole Engine 2 Diet book, even though I refer to it as a 28 day save your life program, it is really more about lifestyle. It is a simple message. Eat more whole grains and vegetables and get active, do more exercise and resistance training. I think that about 70% of Americans are currently either overweight or obese, and that is just atrocious.
ST: What are you doing in terms of training these days?
Rip: Well, that is a really good question. I actually just came from swimming where I swam for about 45 minutes. I have to do something everyday for at least half an hour, or I won’t feel grounded. That can be swimming with the master program in town. That can be getting on my mountain bike with a trailer on the back and taking my 2-year old son to the park and back. Or I might take him in a stroller on a run. All my workouts now revolve around the kids and the time I have got. The only time I can’t do something on my own is swimming. My wife and I split up the workouts and one of us watches the kids while the other one works out. And of course at the fire station with the guys I lead some resistance training. It is always entertaining, never boring.
ST: Do you still follow triathlon?
ST: I always followed the Ironman and the XTERRA events, but I am a little bit removed now. When I am in the bike shops I still like to look at various magazines and checking them out. But if you were to ask me who the top 5 finishers in Hawaii were last year I wouldn’t be able to tell you. Five years back I could have rattled off the top 20. I never ever would have thought that I would be that removed from triathlon.
ST: You sound a bit remorseful?
Rip: I do plan on getting back into triathlons at some time; because once it is in you, it is always in you.
ST: What was the last book you read?
Rip: I re-read “The China Study” by Colin Campbell. It is a book on nutrition.
ST: Any final thoughts?
Rip: My goal now is to change the health of America for the better and I will push the plant-strong message until I die.
Rip Esselstyn works for Engine 2 in Austin, Texas and his book coincidentally is called The Engine 2 Diet