Embracing the suck, World Championship, USAT magazine cover

News flash: Life’s not fair. Doing your best doesn’t always mean you’ll be successful and good doesn’t always triumph over evil. All of us overachievers wake up every morning convinced if we just outwork our peers we will climb the corporate ladder. Those of us with fancy degrees (MBA, PHD) are convinced we’re the smartest guys/gals in the room. But guess what, the game of life places a heavy emphasis on chance. As we all know, sometimes being in the right place at the right time outweighs experience or education. However, being in the right place at the right time is often dictated by our work ethic and commitment to never quit, despite the road ahead. I have learned in life, in marriage, in fatherhood and in business that my greatest successes usually came after what some called my biggest failures. I pause and ask, “What is failure?” To me, it’s the refusal to try again. The good Colonel Sanders taught me that sometimes it takes over 1,000 “no’s” to get the 1 “yes” that changes your life forever.

I am an avid triathlete and take the sport seriously. I have never considered myself a great athlete, but I am one hell of a competitor. I have done well in sports throughout the years, mainly because I trained smart and spent a great deal of time training my brain to focus on pushing through the wall, “embracing the suck” as we affectionately say in Ironman. As I tell everyone who is training for their first Ironman, it’s pretty easy. Just follow the instructions and do the daily workouts. Don’t look at what you have to do in 30 weeks, just focus on tomorrow’s workout and then each workout every day after that. Guess what, in 30 weeks you’re an Ironman. The physical preparation is easy, it’s the mental preparation where many fall short. Most athletes and business people completely fall apart when their podium training plan falls apart mid race or they’re skipped over for a promotion at work. Sadly, that’s life. Rarely do things ever work out just like we planned and that’s why we need to always be prepared to do what it takes to make our dreams come to fruition.

World Championships 2011

I had qualified for Team USA to compete in the ITU Long Course World Championships by placing 6 in my Age Group at the National Championships. I trained religiously for 9 months and was in peak fitness. I showed up for the even convinced I had the ability to place top 25. As luck had it, a rare winter storm hit Vegas and outside temp was 37 degrees with 10mph winds, making the 4KM open water swim guaranteed hypothermia. The race directors cancelled the swim which was disappointing, yet it also increased my chances of placing higher since swimming was by far my biggest weakness. I was convinced now that I stood a chance of placing top 15 – in the World! The race then proceeds minus the swim leg and we’re off, fighting to see who’s the fastest on the 120KM bike and then a 30KM run on the world’s toughest course.

Embrace the suck

10 miles into the bike ride I get a flat tire. I have never flatted in a race before. I stayed calm and changed the tire quickly and was back in the mix, retaking those that had passed me. 5 miles later the tire was flat again only this time I didn’t have another tube. I used some CO2 cartridge to re-air the tire every 5 miles before exhausting my supply, saddled with a flat tire at mile 50 – 25 miles short of the bike finish line. A race fan offered assistance to the finish line, which would have disqualified me from the race and I have NEVER not finished a race, NEVER. I gave the fan my wife’s phone number and said “please tell Brooke I’m ok but I’ll be late, but I will be there.” It was then that my mental training took over – “embrace the suck.” I took off my cycling shoes and put them on the ends of my aero bars. Road cycling shoes were not designed for running, much less 25 miles. I ran the next 6 miles barefoot pushing my bike, the whole time thinking there was no way I couldn’t not finish. How would I tell my kids, only 2 at the time, that their daddy didn’t get them a medal (these events have pretty nice finishers’ medals). By sheer miracle, I encountered another racer who had ripped his tire but his tube was intact. He offered up his tube and I was back in business with 19 miles of biking left before I would have to run 30KM (18.6 miles) on an extremely hilly course, not to mention my feet were extremely bruised and battered from running the 6 miles barefoot. Needless to say, I finished the race and kept my finishers streak intact (still managed to beat a few racers). It seemed like the perfect end to an epic journey except for some reason the race organizers forgot to order medals. How is that possible, this is the World Championships?

USAT Magazine Cover

Fast forward 2 months and I receive a phone call from the CEO of USA Triathlon Rob Urbach. He was deeply apologetic and explained the situation around the mishap. I was taken aback by his honesty and compassion to do the right thing. As we talked, I explained that I wasn’t upset because I didn’t receive a medal but rather because the medal was cherished by my children. It was also a token of the commitment I have made to demonstrate to my children that we are “doers” not “talkers.” At the conclusion of our chat, Rob said someone from his staff would be calling in a few days and he had an idea. Well… a couple months later I’m a cover story in their magazine in the Olympic preview issue. What’s even more amazing is that the release of the article coincided with a nationwide contest I was in to compete in the Ironman World Championships. Long story short, the magazine proved to be one of a few miracles that sent me to compete at Kona, the Ironman World Championships in 2012 – a life dream that over 90,000 people compete for 1900 slots.

Looking back, who would have thought a flat tire at the ITU World Championships would be a blessing in disguise. Who would have thought, going from believing you’ll finish in the top 15 in the race to having to run 6 miles barefoot to finishing 3 from last would have landed me a cover story in USAT magazine. That’s the beauty of life. You never know and you never will know if you give up. Life’s not fair but I can tell you that persistence and the commitment to never give up ALWAYS produces long term results.


Shay is an All American and World ranked triathlete, burn survivor with scars over 65% of his body and is a sought out national motivational speaker. Despite being told he’d never compete in sports again at the age of 8, Shay is living testament to “Anything is Possible”: 4x Ironman, 4x member of Team USA, ranked top 1% of Ironmen worldwide and has competed in 9 triathlon world championships, including the Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii. His mantra has always been to not merely be a “finisher” but to be a “competitor.” If you enjoyed this article, I encourage you to check out my other posts.

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