When Tyler Frank, 37, quit a six-figure job two years ago, he wanted more than a career change. He had that uneasy sense that there was more to life.
He had worked for a decade as an attorney in the corporate department of Armstrong Teasdale. His work focused on mergers and acquisitions. Much of his life revolved around his work. When a client emails you at 11 p.m., he explained, you get up and go to the office.
It wasn’t that he disliked his work, but he wasn’t exactly fulfilled, either. He and a girlfriend had just broken up. He felt out of shape and stuck in a rut.
“Days were dripping off the calendar and time was going by, but I didn’t feel like I was really developing or growing,” he said.
He decided to join his father as a lawyer for the family business, a St. Louis mortgage company. But before he jumped back into his career, he took a month off to travel and do things he had only dreamed of: Climb Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, go on a safari in the Serengeti, camp for two weeks on an expedition in the Galapagos Islands.
The experiences forced him out of his comfort zone. They also ignited a passion for adventure and a desire to push himself. On a whim, he signed up for the St. Louis Rock ’n’ Roll marathon. He hardly trained for it, and it was painful to finish, but he did it.
It made him ask himself: What’s next? It needed to be something really outside the realm of what he considered possible. Why not a Half Ironman triathlon? It’s a grueling long-distance endurance event, in which participants complete a 1.2-mile open-water swim, followed by a 56-mile bike ride and 13.1-mile run.
He asked his father last year if he wanted to train with him.
“Yeah. That sounds cool,” said his father, John Frank, 63. “I’ll do it with you.”
“Dad and I didn’t even own bikes. I hadn’t been on a bike since I was 12. I hadn’t been swimming since I was a kid,” Tyler said. Together, they hired a coach and dived into the training. Last fall, they crossed the finish line in Racine, Wisc., together.
“I’m so proud of you,” Tyler said to his father.
“I’m so proud of you,” his dad said to him.
Two months later, they completed another Half Ironman in Augusta, Ga.
It’s not surprising, then, that Tyler would set his sights on the full Ironman, considered among the most difficult single-day sporting events in the world.
The training consumes much of your life: The early mornings and late evenings before and after work, and most of the weekends, are spent building endurance and speed to be able to complete 140.6 miles within 17 hours. When the training mileage amps up, you spend six hours on Saturday and six hours on Sunday swimming, biking and running. For months. You give up your social life.
After finishing three Half Ironman events the first seven months of this year, however, Tyler’s mental energy and stamina were flagging. His coach noticed, and emailed him in July, saying: You can physically hurt yourself for the rest of your life if you don’t commit to the training.
Tyler doubled down. He spent the next six weeks focusing on getting himself ready.
Finally, his goal was in sight. The race was a week away, and he felt ready. His coach told him he was prepared.
“The only thing you do now is don’t get hurt,” he said. “Be careful.”
Tyler, his coach and another training buddy went out for an easy morning swim and bike ride exactly a week prior. It was foggy, overcast and wet. They got on their bikes after a 40-minute swim and crossed over a flat bridge he’s crossed more than 20 times during his training. It has a serrated grate over a section of the road. It makes a buzzing sound when you ride over it.
He and his buddies were talking about the Ironman tattoo they planned to get on their calves after they finished the race.
And that’s when his bike slipped and flew out of control. He fell hard on his elbow, hip and knee. The serrated edges in the road punctured his skin. He had a deep gash in his arm and knee, and he was bleeding profusely.
“I was so lightheaded and dizzy,” Tyler remembers. His coach wrapped him in a towel and drove him to the hospital. “I knew I was bruised and punctured,” Tyler said. “I thought it would get better within a week.”
His parents rushed to meet him at the hospital. His father was surprised to see him still in good spirits.
“He thinks he’s going to be in the race next week,” John whispered to his wife.
The doctor walked in after an MRI and spoke bluntly: Your tricep has detached from your arm. You can’t swim. You can’t bike. There’s not a chance in the world you can be in this race.
He needed surgery.
Tyler sat in the hospital bed, still bloody, with his family around him, and the doctor’s words hit him.
He broke down and bawled.
And then he got over it.
“OK, I’m done,” he said. “Yeah, it sucks, but there’s nothing you can do.
“I know I would have finished the race. That’s good enough,” he said.
He called and cheered his coach and friend when they completed the race seven days later. He doesn’t know if he’ll ever be able to go through the training again and give it another try.
“So, I don’t have an Ironman finisher’s medal or tattoo, but I don’t need that to validate my self-worth,” he said.
Maybe there was something just as profound to learn from the journey: A failed attempt is not a failure.
He and his father plan to complete another Half Ironman together next spring.
Aisha Sultan is a St. Louis-based journalist who studies parenting in the digital age. On Twitter: @AishaS.