04/29/2014 11:55 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Brave: The Heads-Down, No-Helmet Approach to Life


When he was 12-years-old, Robin was climbing up Lookout Mountain in Colorado on his first road bike at 12 miles an hour long after dark one night. He heard a siren, and a police officer stopped him; it was way past curfew.

"What are you doing, son?" he asked.

Robin stopped his bike and sat up straight. "I'm training for the Tour de France," he said, looking the man in the eye. He defiantly cocked his non-helmeted head and got ready to flee. The police officer, stunned, let him go.

This heads-down, no-helmet approach to life has suited him well, so far.

However, Robin has been thrown over the handlebars a few times. Growing up with a single working mother in a small house near Aspen Park, he didn't have an easy childhood.

"I'll never forget a friend of mine, Matt Durbin. Our coach said we should start cycling, so we took on a ride from Denver to Evergreen, about 20 miles. We were 8 or 9, and I did it on a BMX bike and he was on a road bike. That whole summer was spent riding our bikes. We entered a bike race and I was beating kids that were 13-14 years old; that's when I knew that I wanted to race bicycles. My brother and I were taking care of each other, and I would do the craziest stuff. I'd leave in the middle of the night with no helmet and no lights, and would go hurtling down a hill at speeds a car wouldn't travel on mountain roads."

"There wasn't even a TV when I was small in the mountains," Robin said. "My mom never made much money, and we spent most of my childhood barely scraping by. I was lucky to grow up in Colorado, because I spent all of my time outdoors with my friends, absorbed in athletics."

He could have felt sorry for himself, but he didn't.

When Robin was 16, his mother was in the process of getting a divorce from her second husband, and needed some distance for herself and her new baby. So she made plans to move to Albuquerque, and Robin stayed behind. When his mother left, Robin had to move out of the house where he lived, and was considering quitting high school and starting his cycling career in Europe.

Robin told Bill, his cycling coach, and Dana, Bill's wife, about his plan to move overseas.

"Dana said, 'Whoa. Whoa. You're not quitting high school; you are going to move in with us.' They were young and didn't have any kids, and I was riding 400-plus miles a week when I was 16. I used to joke that they bought a gallon of orange juice a day for me. When they took me in, I went from being a C student to an A student pretty much overnight. This helped me immensely later, getting into college. "

Robin graduated from high school under the caring roof of Bill and Dana and went straight to Europe. He signed with a Swiss cycling team, spending four years on their team before moving on to college at Colorado University in Denver at age 22. He continued to ride 10,000 miles per year, but quit racing to focus on school, and ultimately graduated from CU with an MS in Finance.

He was alone. He could have given up, quit school, and gotten into trouble. But he didn't.

After getting his graduate degree, Robin kicked off his professional career, spending 14 years working for Lipper, American Century Investments, and Wellington Management in Boston. And opportunity was starting to knock.

"In 2006, I was in a cycling trip in Europe, and we were having dinner and someone said, 'It would be great if there was a website so I could know the roads, like a travel guide.' I immediately had this idea and bought a domain while still in Europe. I wrote a huge specification document, and when I returned I called a few friends and asked them if they wanted to help.

Then I went to lunch with a friend and he mentioned that there was a similar product for runners. So I called this guy in San Diego, Kevin Callahan, whom I had never met, and asked him about MapMyRun. At the end of their conversation, Kevin offered to sell it. My developer had quit right at that time; so I called Kevin back and asked him if he wanted to quit his job and work with me, and he immediately said YES."

At that point, he was still working full time for Wellington, and Kevin was working full time for newly-formed MapMyFitness. They saw the mobile revolution, and their app was one of the first 200 in the store. Today, there are more than 22 million users.

Starting a business is daunting for anyone. Robin said that his best advice for someone starting a business is to fail fast. You'll learn from what you're doing wrong, and you can correct it quickly.

In 2008, Robin met a woman named Sara at a running conference in San Diego; she was running a sports charity for St. Jude, and they happened to be at the same place on the last night of the conference. However, although they had clicked, they didn't exchange numbers and lost each other in the crowd. Shortly after their meeting, Robin hadn't joined Facebook yet, and decided to join FB so he could understand social networking better for his business. Robin's first Facebook message was from Sara on Valentine's Day, and they started dating. Five years later, they are married with two children.

"Sara is really the love of my life," Robin said. "She's so patient and great with our kids. She took to being a mother so naturally. Our relationship is truly amazing; she is my rock."

He could have given up on love after a childhood observing failed relationships, but he didn't.

Robin Thurston is the CEO and co-founder of Austin-based MapMyFitness -- the umbrella company over popular apps MapMyRun, MapMyWalk, and MapMyRide. At the end of last year, he sold his company to athletic wear giant Under Armour. Since the moment I met his wife Sara, and she told me his story, I have been fascinated and impressed by his story, and I knew it was worth telling.

He could have said no, I don't have time to talk to her, I'm in the middle of a multi-million dollar merger. But he didn't. And we started talking about the future.

"There is a great saying I have heard people use, that is that you often overestimate what you can do in a year, but you underestimate by a lot what you can do in 10 years. People should take that perspective -- set really, really big goals for 10 years. If you set the goals too low, you're doing yourself a disservice."

"I don't know that I'll send my kids to college," Robin told me. "They're welcome to go, but there is a bigger opportunity to impact the world at a young age. The restrictions that I had in my mind at 18 were almost nil. Your mind tells you that you can almost do anything. I will tell them to take on bigger problems earlier. Because I went to Europe young, I speak four languages and learned to believe that anything was possible. When you're young, you're willing to take more risk, and I think it will serve them well. I will risk encouraging."

He could teach his children to take the easy road. But he won't. He'll teach them how to be brave.

"The reason I always ride hills or mountains in the morning, is because it makes the rest of the day easy. I climbed a 2000 foot mountain this morning, so any problems seem small. I'll teach my kids to take on a challenge early in the morning so that the day is easier. Set goals, because that helps you see that goals will help you overcome the next."

Kristin Shaw is a freelancer by day, writer by night, a full-time wife of an Austin native, and mother of a mini-Texan. She's proud to be a co-producer of the 2014 Listen to Your Mother show in Austin. You can find her on Twitter (@AustinKVS), her blog, Two Cannoli, or at The Huffington Post.