What were your biggest failures and how did they affect your success?
People hear about the successful ventures I’ve been a part of creating, but I’ve learned far more from the failures. I have garnered vast lessons from the merchandise company we had to shut down, the magazine we acquired called “Winning” which we ironically closed, and the significant challenge of managing Active Europe following the financial market meltdown right after 9/11. When everything is going wonderfully, people operate in a superficial, fantasy world – it’s when things go wrong that people show their true colors, and you learn who will stand by you, and who will betray you.
Tough times and failures strip you to your soul, and when that’s all that’s left, it’s important that you have a strong foundation. If entrepreneurs knew all the things that could and will go wrong with their company at the beginning of their path to create value and revenue – many of them would never take on the challenge. If someone truly knows that there is a 97% chance they will fail on the road of entrepreneurship and when starting a company, few would pick that road.
What did you learn from your failures?
Keep great records and remember that there are no secrets. We live in a transparent world. It’s very important to get everything you expect in writing and to make sure to read every legal document you ever sign, twice. It’s always a good idea to have a great attorney who is a great friend and to find a graphic designer who can communicate your ideas clearly to help stand out from the clutter of information overload. When you fail – look around for the lessons, because it’s when they show up en masse – and don’t take anything personally. Perhaps most importantly, make failure a trigger for more enthusiasm, rather than discouragement. Learn how not to do things by trying them and failing, mistakes are simply feedback on the way to success.
Why the Ironman triathlon?
Triathlon was an exhilarating dream, sparked by the emotions and sensations of swimming, riding a bike and running – the sensations that most of us share when we were kids and our pure spirits impelled us to be constantly in motion. That feeling didn’t evaporate. Growing up, I’ve often had a recurring dream that I’m flying – impossible right? But not when I’m descending a big hill in Colorado or California on my bike and I can see the landscape move beneath me…the ground and the trees. I am, in that moment, flying. Ironman’s tag line is “Anything is Possible,” but I have learned that your dreams may not happen the way you anticipate. In my freshman year at St. Lawrence University, I slipped on the ice while running and sustained an injury that required several knee surgeries and prevented me from walking for several months. After I recovered, I started running and did pretty well in some local running races. Then I went to the pool. I couldn’t swim at all at first, so I focused on learning technique. Soon I was swimming, biking, and running to recover from my surgeries. Movement was a great gift that had been taken away, and now it was back. I was lucky in a way because it’s human nature to really appreciate things only when we’ve lost them. When I temporarily lost my capacity to be physically active and regained it, a triathlete was born. That experience presaged the journey I took healing from my ear injury.
When taking on these physical challenges, how do you maintain your balance of work, life and family?
Two-time Ironman Hawaii champion Scott Tinley said something that will stay with me forever: “You have eight hours in the day to work. So, if you work a solid eight hours, then there’s another eight hours in the day for you to sleep, and rarely does anybody sleep a full eight hours. Then you still have eight hours for yourself.” So, he had this kind of 8-8-8 rule. Once I realized it was true, I became excited to think of all the possibilities this presented every day to a dedicated person. You just have to control the 8 hours which are yours and not get caught in the slippery slope of time-wasting detours.
What made you do Ironman? How many years did you train before you qualified for Kona?
I qualified the first year I tried to do Kona, in 1994, and I’ve qualified a few times after that. Every now and then I am honored to get one of the rare Willy Wonka’s Golden Tickets because after writing hundreds of thousands of words about Ironman for the media over the last two decades, the WTC would sometimes invite me to come cover the event from the inside. I was the first photojournalist to photograph the Ironman from within the event in 1997, and I shot it again with a still digital camera in 2005. In 2007, I was also the first videographer to video the Ironman while doing the event. Ironman published these videos on Ironman.com’s YouTube channel. Holding a camera, even with the safety strap for 10-12 hours is not as easy as it seems, but reading the comments from the inspired viewers made it all worth it.
What’s the connection between physical activity and mental and emotional health?
Since the beginning of human history, our bodies were designed for movement. And if we are not moving our bodies, then they are deteriorating, they are degenerating. Just by going on a long walk, it’s been proven that millions of neurons are created in our brain, making us more intelligent, more alive. So plugging in the sport of triathlon or any physical activity into your day is a win/win decision. I really enjoy being active, and it enhances the enjoyment I feel writing, studying, reading, and meeting with friends, family and my business associates.
You are an entrepreneur. What lessons from triathlons have you brought into your profession as an entrepreneur and self-directed leader?
If you model your business career after the sport of triathlon, there really are four critical things you should think about. The first is preparation – in a business situation you need to be able to pull a file, work with information, and know how to use the data. Getting organized in life is worth a solid 10% gain in what you can achieve. The second is transitions – you need to know when to make the transition from something that didn’t work and wasn’t generating revenue to creating something that does. Too many times people throw good money after bad, or chase losses with time and resources. The third is training and learning – You have to stay on the cutting edge of technology, in sport and in business. With the knowledge base for almost anything becoming deeper and more universally available, staying on the cutting edge becomes more important. Number four is networking – You become like the people you surround yourself with. Align Yourselfs with people who have sought success, made mistakes along the way and learned from them. Hang out with people who know how to set goals and achieve them, and voila! You will too.
Tell us more about your 20 Ironman finishes. What has inspired you to complete so many?
I’ve had a lot of time to analyze my motivation to engage in this sport. In every triathlon, your body and soul asks you why?
Nearing the end of every Ironman, when the pain is most intense, my answer’s always been, “Okay, never again, I promise.” And then, after I finish, and cross that magic pavement on Alii Drive, it’s always, “I have to race again!” because the race, the journey and the people I meet along the way are so amazing.
But perhaps the driving force came from the death of my sister Stacey, who passed away at age 16. From that moment, that aching loss fueled my passion for fitness and living healthy. Part of it was not wanting to die, which I think we all share at some level – that fierce desire to stay on this amazing journey called life as long as possible, and be fit enough to really enjoy it.
What did your sister Stacey mean to you?
The more I think about it, the more I can see that she was probably the prime source of my triathlon motivation. Stacey and I were very close and when she got bone cancer at the age of 14, I identified with her struggle intently. The cancer spread to her lungs, ultimately filling them with fluid.
Luckily I was right there and I came running in the door just as she was losing consciousness – she couldn’t get any air in her lungs because they were filling up with fluid. This was terrifying. I tried everything I knew and the emergency crews came but none of us were able to revive her. She died in my arms. I was 14 years old. And it had a dramatic impact on my determination to live every day to the fullest and to cherish every single breath. Every day, I’m so thankful that I’m alive.
When you’re closely connected to someone, as Stacey and I were, you can see the world through their eyes. While I continued to be active during those two years she was ill and she could not, I felt things from her perspective. When she was heading to the hospital for chemo or coming home suffering with nausea from the chemotherapy, and I was just coming home from running track in junior high, I could sense her joy for me and her sadness that her gift of movement, that joy, was taken from her.
Because this was my sister, I could feel this in my soul and it multiplied my understanding how important and vital these simple, lovely pleasures of running, swimming, riding and breathing that children happily take for granted.
How did you injure your inner ear membrane and how did it affect you?
At the University of California San Diego Masters workout, I jumped in the deep end of the pool really quickly and went straight to the bottom of the diving area. The implosive force was like a gunshot going off, and ripped my inner ear membrane, causing what is called a fistula in my inner ear. The tear immediately caused a clogged feeling, ringing, then dizziness, then extreme tinnitus, which is — for those that don’t know — a ringing in the ear so loud it’s hard to sleep, hear or think. Unfortunately, it’s also sometimes an indicator of something more serious. I underwent a series of tests over the next few months, including blood tests, audiology tests, then CAT scans and MRIs to determine that I didn’t have a brain tumor or anything that serious. It was a fistula caused by the accident, and unfortunately, the fistula left me unable to do anything physical for an extended period. The prescription for healing a fistula is – bed rest.
I ended up enduring several months of inactivity, and a year of tinnitus. Many of those weeks were strict bed rest – no coughing, no sneezing, no laughing, no pressure on the ear in any way, shape or form. And, for a while, no talking. From a sound perspective, it was quiet bed rest, but the reality was it was far from quiet – the tinnitus in my right ear sounded like someone was next to me blowing on a trumpet, all the time. As an active person, rest is a very hard thing to do. As a triathlete, I was used to controlling my physical environment and the uncontrolled, omnipresent blaring sound in my head was unbearable. It was made worse by the fact that they accelerated my obsessive-compulsive triathlon and work tendencies by giving me two high dose burst treatments of a corticosteroid called Prednisone, which intensified a host of anxious emotions that only those who have ever experienced it can understand. It was a nightmare, albeit filled with wonderful life lessons – thankfully it’s over, and I’m back.
Many triathletes and recreational athletes deal with knee issues. What exactly happened when you fractured your knees in college? How did you recover?
I had incredible experiences at St. Lawrence University, but it all started with a big challenge. My freshman year, two things happened. One, I was really excited to try out for the lacrosse team but I got cut. They already had two goalies for a very small squad, which was essentially a club team. It was hard, but I understood that it was appropriate with a junior and senior ahead of me. Second, I fractured my knee falling on the ice at St. Lawrence campus one morning. This was just a run across the quad, part of my preseason training to make the club team to stay sharp and prepare for the next year. When I fell I came down on my knee and fractured the medial condyle. I was on crutches and had to undergo several surgeries and began a long journey of realization for me: “Hey, okay, you’re active and athletic, but guess what? You can lose it in a nanosecond.”
After a series of knee surgeries and many months not knowing whether or not I could run again, or if I could even walk, my perspective changed quite a bit. During this time, luckily, I immersed myself in debate and academics. But, at the same time I felt tremendous anxiety about being on the sidelines. Luckily, at the end of my college career, the knee healed in a really positive way. I sustained no ligament or tendon damage. The knee healed itself and I started running in the mornings with my college roommate Adam Thornborough, who was on the track team. It was so great! I felt like Forrest Gump — once I recovered, I never wanted to stop running.
What exactly does your La Jolla Foundation do? Tell us more about Project Active.
The La Jolla Foundation is the parent foundation encompassing several projects. Project Active delivers athletic equipment to war-torn areas. It’s our attempt to defuse world tension through the positive influence of sport. Project Einstein is designed to help some talented children move forward in their educational career. And Project Bright Idea is aimed at identifying and funding social and business innovations.
Through Project Active we send athletic equipment around the world to many of the 25 areas of armed conflict defined by the United Nations. We’ve sent soccer balls to Afghanistan, Iraq and several hot zones in Africa. We’ve sent soccer balls strapped to nets on the top of tanks, and then distributed to the children in a war zone.
We also contributed to a mission that liberated child soldiers in Africa and put them in a soccer camp where everyone was kept safe from harm. It was an incredible. When you see the emotions of these kids who had been trained to fire machine guns and to kill for warlords now being trained to play soccer, you can’t hold back a smile.
What was your inspiration to start Project Active?
I was on a bike ride in the Camp Pendleton Marine Base in Oceanside prior to Ironman California in 2000. At the time, I was hearing and listening to what was happening around the world and that set me to thinking about the issues of war and peace as I was biking past the tanks and seeing the military exercises in Camp Pendleton. The night before, I’d watched a television interview with a suicide bomber. His bomb did not go off and so he was captured and interviewed by a television news crew. The correspondent asked the bomber, “Would you go into this café and blow everyone up for your cause?” And he said, “Absolutely. I would do anything for my cause.” Then the interviewer asked him: “You’re a soccer fan?” And he said, “Yes.” “Your team is X.” And he said, “Yes.” And the interviewer said, “Would you go into your soccer stadium and explode the bomb if they told you it was for the cause?” At that moment the would-be suicide bomber broke down crying and said, “No, I couldn’t do that.” And she said, “You know, that’s your mission.” And he said, “I can’t do that. I could never do that.” And she said, “Why?” And he said, “Because that’s my team.”
In Western society, so much of human aggression is channeled in positive ways via national and local club and college sporting events. I thought, at the end of the day, if we’re going to plant the seeds of peace in these areas it should come through sport. I wrote an article in Triathlete magazine which read, “We need to defuse world tension by planting the seeds of sport in the children.” It wasn’t an original idea. Other people had been working on initiatives like this before. But in response I got e-mails from triathletes in various regions around the world the initiative was sparked.
Any final advice for entrepreneurs and athletes?
Align what you love with your work. That makes a dynamic difference. A successful career comes from a mindset where you don’t want work to be something you have to do. You want work to be something you want to do because it’s your passion. It’s your life; it’s your career. I lecture at the University of San Diego, Stanford University and UCLA and I often encounter students and recent graduates who say, “Hey, I’m bored working in a cubicle.”
I’ll then ask them how many people work in their organization. And they’ll say, “Oh, there’s about 200.” And I’ll say, “How many do you know?” And they’ll say, “Three.” And so, my challenge to them is this: “Have a breakfast, a lunch, or a coffee five days a week minimum with someone new. Even if you just meet one different person in that organization every day – you can cycle through the lessons and the lifestyles and the connectivity with the 200 or 300 people that work there in a year.”
The diamonds we all seek are buried in the relationships we build. Too many people go to work and simply do whatever they’re told. As opposed to going to work to build connections with people that they’re going to end up spending 30 percent of their day with. Interacting with others and learning the life intelligence they have garnered over the years is essential for success.
For more articles and videos, see www.mitchthrower.com