Ironman, a 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike, 26.2 mile marathon, all completed within 17 hours… and brag rights for the rest of your life. Seems unfathomable to most and a distinction less than 1% of the population can boast. The sport attracts all walks of life, from former collegiate greats to military elitists to America’s Biggest Loser to triple amputees, all bound by the same rules and cutoff times. Every racer has a story; some to overcome a life changing event, others to continue their lifetime fitness and some to simple prove ‘anything is possible.’
The 3 Golden Principles
Any Ironman finisher will agree; master the sport and you will master the game of life. As someone who went from a recreational boot camp fitness class to a 4x Ironman and Ironman World Championship finisher in 4 years, along with being a father of 5 under 8, I can safely say anyone can master the 3 golden principles that have changed my life forever.
- Train your brain. Focus on positive things that yield long term success.
- Shape your reality. Concentrate on what you can gain as opposed to what you’ve lost.
- Do the daily things. Be diligent in doing the small things that will help achieve your goals.
Train your brain.
The brain is the most powerful tool available to us yet it didn’t come with instructions. Sadly, no one teaches us how to fully use all the potential of our brain; they just teach us how to do tasks that require cognitive skill building. Most of us realize our brain determines what we can achieve in life, physically and emotionally, but we have no clue how to train our brain to achieve. We simply believe the emotions and limitations we experience are barriers that can’t be controlled – they’re genetic. Most limitations can be overcome simply by reprogramming your brain, more specifically your RAS, reticular activating system. It’s a powerful portion of your brain that also controls sleep, walking, sex, eating, and consciousness. But more importantly, it also filters out things that it believes are dangerous (such as loud noises). In short, RAS brings you more of what you want as opposed to what you don’t want. For example, when you bought a new car how many of those cars did you see on your way home or on the way to work the next week? Those cars didn’t suddenly appear on the streets. They’ve been there all along and now that you have a personal connection with that car, your brain brings you every image of those cars (removes the filters). Your brain processes millions of images per minute and filters out the ones that don’t have special meaning to you. As you begin to identify or learn about factors that impact success, the brain removes more of those success enhancing filters and allows you to seize opportunities that otherwise would have went unnoticed.
How do I use RAS to achieve success? I focus only on positive things, things that will bring me success. I read nothing but stories of rags to riches, books on adversity – Ernest Shackleton is by far my favorite. I refuse to watch depressing movies – Cinderalla Man a great example of picking yourself up when everything around you is crumbling. I know suffering exists in the world and I don’t need to watch movies to be reminded. I firmly believe that watching and reading story after story on beating the odds, I have programmed my brain (RAS) that any situation can be overcome. My brain now has a repository of success stories that it can draw from when, not if, I find myself in such a situation.
Shape your reality.
Life isn’t fair and often times the cards we are dealt in life are less than ideal. When we look at others, it’s easy to see that others appear to have it made. Trust me, we all have challenges, just some are more obvious than others. Mine was being severely burned at 8. I dealt with kids calling me Freddie Krueger and was even convinced I looked like the dreaded monster. No matter how many times my parents kept telling me “it will get better” the scars were a constant reminder that better wouldn’t mean “back to normal.” After years of dealing with my disfiguration, I finally embraced my scars and said I would use that experience to become a great athlete. I realized that although I had lost the gift of touch and grace due to the physical range of motion limitations, I had gained a tremendous pain threshold and a desire to prove everyone wrong. With my new reality, I realized sports that required an all-out mano e mano effort, last man standing, would be the perfect sport. I excelled at wrestling, All-American in high school, undefeated boxer in college and now 2x All-American triathlete and 4x member of Team USA. I am definitely not a great athlete but I am a great competitor. I am willing to do the hard work that most don’t have to do because of pure talent. Doing the hard work has provided me the mental fortitude to know and believe that I will never give up. I am willing to endure pain if it will produce long term success. I understand that success doesn’t happen overnight but rather it is a culmination of doing the right things day in and day out.
How did I shape my reality? I accepted my scars and even thought of them as badges of honor. If you know the story of Freddie Krueger, you’ll appreciate my adaptation. When kids would reply, “you look like Freddie,” I in turn would reply “why yes I do, and I will see you in your dreams tonight.” When I wrestled, I made sure my competitor saw my scars. I wanted them to think “look at that guy, what the heck happened to him. If he has all those scars, he must not be scared of pain.” In short, I used my deformities to my advantage. Rightfully so, I assumed I must have been given these scars for a reason so I better make the best of them. As soon as I quit focusing on losing my right ear and all the scars and started focusing on a recovery plan, my life changed. I was no longer confused. My life had clarity and I had a sense of direction and belongingness. It was a choice I made and one we all can make.
Do the daily things.
Ironman or life dreams in general seem insurmountable when contemplated in whole. However, if you think about Ironman as a series of weekly progressions, it’s more than doable. Step 1 involved getting a plan, a daily plan that mapped out every workout from day 1 until race day. The same is true with life. If you have a specific goal in mind, you need a daily action plan that if executed, would help you be successful. To quote my buddy Zig Zigler, “you don’t have to be great to start, but you have to start to be great.” His common analogy is taking a vacation. We all have a destination in mind when we pack the car and leave for vacation. We all know that in order to reach our destination and enjoy our trip we have to pack accordingly and take the specific roads that lead to our vacation destination. Taking a vacation required an entire series of actions that started from picking a specific date to picking a destination and reserving lodging to saving the money to pay for the trip to requesting time off from work to eventually packing the car and hitting the highway. Success, and finishing an Ironman, doesn’t just happen by itself. It starts with having an action plan and then executing the daily things.
How did I do the daily things? First thing I did was buy the book ‘Be Iron Fit’ by Don Fink. The book mapped out a 30 week program that if followed precisely, guaranteed a competitive finish. I didn’t fast forward to week 28 and look at the workout; I looked only at week 1 day 1. I asked myself, “can I run 15 minutes and bike 30 minutes?” Sure I could. After completing day 1, I turned my attention to day 2 and asked myself “can I run 20 minutes and bike 40 minutes?” Sure I could. Guess what? 30 weeks later, by simply doing the daily things, I was in Ironman shape. I not only finished the Ironman but I finished my first Ironman in the top 20% of finishers. Not bad for someone who 30 weeks prior wasn’t even running.
These 3 simple steps enabled me to become the father I always wanted to be. As a father, I want to influence and shape my kids into responsible and happy adults though I secretly pray they stay this age forever. I realized that in order for me to be a successful father and install attributes they will need later in life, I have to spend quality time with my kids. Like my training, it’s about quality over quantity. Watching TV with them is nice but teaching them how to ride a bicycle, baking cookies for firemen or delivering Christmas baskets to the needy is more impactful. Every year I map out specific goals I want to achieve as a father, specific to each kid, and commit my energies towards those.
In conjunction with being a great father, I also have to provide for my 5 kids which required me to be successful in my career. When I made the commitment to being an Ironman in 2009, I made the same commitment in my career. I wanted to be successful and mapped out what it would take to make it happen. It was a big decision as it required me to change industries. With my MBA, I had believed that I was destined for a life in finance or operations. After evaluating the market conditions in 2008 and my skill sets, I realized I could create my own destiny in sales and shape my new reality. 5 years later, I’m enjoying the success I had envisioned and I still love going to work every day. I have the satisfaction of knowing I’m doing what it takes to provide for my family and being the father I need to be.
Evaluate where you are in life, where you want to be and consider these 3 secrets to see how you can apply them daily. Through Ironman, I have learned the value of goal setting and time management, the secret to all success. I try to focus my efforts on achieving what I want as opposed to what I don’t want. Mapping out what you want will help you identify wasted efforts. Knowing each day you’re working towards achieving your life dreams will bring a sense of accomplishment you never knew existed.
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.