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Episode 19: Hell or high water

The Tough Mudder is an extreme race. It's a 10 mile course with 20 obstacles, 40 tons of ice, and 500,000 gallons of mud. It's a massively difficult challenge. Now imagine that you have to do the entire course in a wheelchair. It sounds impossible, but for the men you’ll meet in this episode, this was no big deal. Their grit and determination comes from facing disaster head on.

Featured in this episode:


TAMARA STANNERS: It's a beautiful, crisp, fall morning. You and your team, you're up early, getting psyched and ready to set out on an extreme adventure. Ahead of you, a 10 mile course. 20 obstacles, 40 tons of ice, and 500,000 gallons of mud. It, yeah, sounds like a challenge. It is, but now I want you to imagine that you have to do this entire course in a wheelchair. It sounds impossible, but for the men you're about to meet, that was actually the easy part. The adversity that brought them together is the real story. That's what's happening today on Relate. I'm Tamara Stanners and this is Relate by Zendesk, and we take relationships seriously.

ANDY SHEPPARD: Oh, yeah. We have fun with them, too, right?

TAMARA STANNERS: That's true, Andy. He's our great producer, and we've got an amazing, serious, fun, super inspiring relationship for you.

ANDY SHEPPARD: It's everything. It's all those things. It's scary, it's terrifying, it's heartwarming and lovely.


ANDY SHEPPARD: I'm going to start by introducing you to the [Manleys 00:01:31].

HECTOR MANLEY: All right, my name is Hector Manley, and I am Don Manley's son since ... It seems like forever. It seems like forever.

DON MANLEY: I'm Don Manley, the proud father, unbelievably proud father of a wonderful young man.

TAMARA STANNERS: Okay, so, Hector's the son and Don is the dad.

ANDY SHEPPARD: Yeah, yeah, that's right.

TAMARA STANNERS: Hector said something like it feels like he's been Don's son forever, so, I'm assuming he hasn't.

ANDY SHEPPARD: Well, no. They didn't start out as father and son and we'll get to that, but it's hard to imagine a stronger bond than the one between these two men. The story starts out ... I have to warn you, the story starts out with a disaster.

TAMARA STANNERS: Oh, no. Okay, everybody brace yourself.

ANDY SHEPPARD: It's okay, though. It all works out, and if you have to go through a disaster, these are the guys you want with you.

DON MANLEY: My wife and I were scheduled to go to El Salvador in the first place to do some work with our hospital. We have a community that we support now in El Salvador called El Milagro, The Miracle. We do water projects and those types of things, and we were scheduled to go down there. The earthquake hit and they canceled all the flights.

ANDY SHEPPARD: The earthquake struck at 11:33 AM on January 13th, 2001.

HECTOR MANLEY: I was in the middle of a very strong earthquake in El Salvador.

ANDY SHEPPARD: It measured 7.6 on the Richter scale. Almost a thousand people were killed. Many thousands were injured.

HECTOR MANLEY: I fell inside of a garbage dump that was burning and I was stuck for about 40 minutes or so. When it was all said and done, my legs had to be amputated because of burns.

ANDY SHEPPARD: Don Manley and his wife, Karen, decide they're going to make the trip, anyway, despite the dangers, just to see how they can help.

DON MANLEY: My wife and I went down. The first place we went was to our hospital. They took us to the hospital. It's an eight story hospital, the largest children's hospital in Central America. All of the children were out in the parking lot. They were just under tents and all of this type of thing. We were going around with our physician, the man who was in charge, seeing everybody and saying hello, just giving them reassurance that someone cared. He said, "Do you want to go in the hospital?" I said, "If there's people working in there we want to go in there just to tell them thanks."

We went through the emergency room and then we went up to the ICU, and we were going down, just peaking our heads in doors. We were walking out the door, and this is the most amazing thing that's ever happened in my life. We were walking out the exit, and my wife says to our physician friend, "We didn't go in that room." She says, "Is there someone in there?"

He comes back and he says, "Oh my gosh. Yes, this is one of my patients." We go in this room and we see an angel, because the covers were up to his neck and the doctor pulls the covers down and he's burnt on his torso and his legs are missing. My wife and I are on each side of the bed. We looked at each other and we said, "We can do this." We didn't know what "this" was, but we knew we could do it.

TAMARA STANNERS: What did they do?

ANDY SHEPPARD: They started by connecting with Hector's parents. His mother, in particular, who'd been traveling by bus for two or three hours every day to go to the hospital to feed her son, she had a young baby, as well. The family had, basically, lost their very modest home in the earthquake.

DON MANLEY: She gets there, and there's two crazy Americans jumping up and down, saying, "This is what we want to do for your son." It was quite emotional, and within 10 minutes, she said, "I have to talk to my husband." She talked to Hector's father, and within a half hour, it was decided.

HECTOR MANLEY: My parents in El Salvador felt very comfortable with Mr. and Mrs. Manley at that point and they agreed to let me come to the states for the recovery.

TAMARA STANNERS: This trip to get medical care in the US became something a whole lot more.

ANDY SHEPPARD: Right, here's the thing.

DON MANLEY: We actually took Hector back after nine months of his rehabilitation. His burns healed and we sat down with his parents and we asked them, "What do you want done for your son," because we had no intention of adopting Hector. His parents in El Salvador did the most unselfish thing I've ever seen in my whole life. They asked if we would bring him back here because he wouldn't have a life in El Salvador given his particular situation.

TAMARA STANNERS: I can't even imagine that. Can you>

ANDY SHEPPARD: No, what a decision, but Hector's parents knew that there wasn't much in the way of support for people with disabilities in El Salvador where they lived, and so, they had to make this incredibly painful decision.

TAMARA STANNERS: It's not like leaving his family for a foreign country with a new family and a serious disability was going to be easy for Hector at all.

ANDY SHEPPARD: No, but this is where you start to get a sense of Don Manley's philosophy of life, his idea that how you face adversity is everything.

DON MANLEY: We brought our son up to realize that anything's possible, that we just have to figure a way around that, how to handle it. I remember having this very specific talk when he was young, and he said, "Dad, I can't play football. I can't play pro football." I said, "Son, neither can I," so, yes, anything's possible but we all have our limitations that we can't do, but Hector skydived, he scuba dives, he's kind of a thrill seeker. He's been whitewater rafting. You name it, he's at least tried it.

HECTOR MANLEY: Yeah, so, that was very important to have them in [inaudible 00:08:17] from the very beginning. My dad, obviously, we talked about that and things that I could do, and work really hard to be the best at things. I remember, the first thing I tried to do was play golf. That was the first challenge I took right after learning how to walk. My dad and I, we both began just practicing, and I would fall down after every swing, but then just get up. I was really excited about that. Until this day, I play golf, and I really enjoy it.

DON MANLEY: He's good at it. At what time, what, your handicap was down to what?

HECTOR MANLEY: Four or five. I stuck with it and I knew that it was something that I could be good at, and I played in high school and I really enjoyed it.

TAMARA STANNERS: Okay, so, Hector golfs, probably better than you and I.

ANDY SHEPPARD: We're just getting started with the stuff that Hector takes on, and the things he does with Don.

HECTOR MANLEY: I remember, in 2011, I talked to my parents about this idea that I had. It was really crazy because I didn't know how to tell them. I was really nervous about it. That idea was that I wanted to Kayak down the Mississippi river. It was crazy to me. I had done a little bit of research. I knew that people had done it before, so I knew it was something that I could do. I know that other people can run or bike across the United States, but for me that would be very difficult, so it was just ... I wanted to do something very big and I came up with kayaking down the Mississippi river. I shared that idea with my parents and they knew I was serious about it so they were right on board from day one, and we were able to accomplish that. I think that really opened our eyes of, we can really do big things together, and my dad and I, we spent three months on the Mississippi river together. We never talked about quitting on the Mississippi river, even when it got really difficult.

We knew that if we set our minds to doing other challenging things, that we would figure out ways to get them done. I think my dad's a very smart man.

TAMARA STANNERS: Hector is truly amazing.

ANDY SHEPPARD: His father, Don, his no slouch, either.


ANDY SHEPPARD: Hector's 28 and Don is 63, and they're both endurance athletes.

TAMARA STANNERS: Really, together?

ANDY SHEPPARD: Yeah, on top of all this. Yeah. Don's big into distance running, and, at one point a few years ago, he heard about the Tough Mudder.

TAMARA STANNERS: Oh, I know the Tough Mudder. I've never done it, but I've watched people do it, and it's that dirty, muddy racing event, where you get your buddies together and try to get through some kind ... It's a super sloppy mud obstacle course.

DON MANLEY: I had done a couple of Tough Mudder events, and in 2012 I had done a couple. I've always been a runner ... Kind of ironic, but I've always been a runner and I end up with a kid with no legs, but that's just what life brings you. I'd always been a runner, and somebody said, "Hey, there's this new craze, mud racing," in 2012. I went out and did a couple with some buddies, and Hector and I kind of hatched a plan that says, "I don't think there's any reason you can't do this, Hector." Hector's never used a wheelchair, but I said, "I think, for the Tough Mudder, we can reconstruct your wheelchair to put mud tires on it, big tires. You can push yourself through where you can." I put ... I made out of, like, a snap strap or a ratchet strap ... I took those and I made a harness for me.

TAMARA STANNERS: Sorry, he made, like, a harness ... Like ... I see what's coming.

ANDY SHEPPARD: I'll put a link in the show notes, but, you've got to see this. Don basically hooks himself up to the wheelchair like a draft horse. Whenever Hector can't push him through, Don's pulling the wheelchair through the mud.

DON MANLEY: I would put that harness on when he'd get in the mud, and he'd push his tires and I'd drag through the mud. The thing about a Tough Mudder is, it's not a race, it's a finish. There's this incredible community of individuals who are always looking to help each other. These people are truly amazing. Everybody wanted to help, and we just had a ball doing it.

ANDY SHEPPARD: They didn't do this just once.

HECTOR MANLEY: Yeah, our very first one was in 2012, I believe, in the Motor Speedway here in Homestead, Florida. We had 20,000 people, maybe, doing that event. At some point, just about everybody offered a hand. I realized that that's what Tough Mudder was about, and we've continued to do a couple more together. I think we've done five or six. We have another one coming up in a little bit more than a month.

TAMARA STANNERS: You know, it is amazing, and I honestly think these two are a little bit crazy.

ANDY SHEPPARD: You know, Don told me that that was probably an apt description. They are a little bit crazy, but the big thing for both of these men is they thrive on challenges, and their family just faced another huge one.

DON MANLEY: I have been doing hurricane relief the last two weeks, but I go one step farther...

TAMARA STANNERS: Hold on, we started out with an earthquake, and you're telling me these two are in the middle of a hurricane?



ANDY SHEPPARD: Their home is in Bonita Springs, Florida, which is on the southwest coast, not far from Naples.

TAMARA STANNERS: They were right in the path of Hurricane Irma.

ANDY SHEPPARD: Right in there.


DON MANLEY: When Hurricane Irma was hitting, everybody was coming to our house, but we're very, very close to the gulf of Mexico, and they started talking about a storm surge. I sent Hector to his sister's house, my daughter, and my wife and I had decided to ride it out. Right before the storm hit, they were talking about a nine to 12 foot storm surge. We're only about three feet above the water, so we actually ... My wife and I went and volunteered at a shelter, so for 48 hours straight we were volunteering at a shelter during the hurricane.

That was quite the experience, and what really taught us how to try to bring the best out of people, and it really reminded us of El Salvador. The worst of times brings out the best in people. We have been able to overcome any challenge there, and we are on our road to recovery, but we're probably six weeks worth of rebuilding. My wife and I have a saying, "It's what we're supposed to do." This is what we are supposed to, and it's a labor of love. I do have to say, I am being paid to do this. I'm being paid in hugs, the best payment in the world. I am being paid in hugs and thankfulness and that's the most incredible payment, except for my son who's sitting across from me.

TAMARA STANNERS: My original assessment, that these guys were superhuman, but they are now upgraded to superhero.

ANDY SHEPPARD: Yeah, I think that's about right.

HECTOR MANLEY: He's an incredible person. It was very difficult for me to leave and go to safety. They had made up their mind to stay, and that's who they are. As soon as they were in the Hurricane shelter helping out, people wanted them to be in charge and people wanted them to do this and that, and of course, they never back down from anything. It has showed me that caring for others is what we do and what we're all about.

TAMARA STANNERS: That is truly an inspirational, an amazing story. Thank you so much.

ANDY SHEPPARD: My pleasure. It was such a treat to talk to these guys.

TAMARA STANNERS: I think that part of the big takeaway here is that everyone faces adversity, but it's how you deal with it that makes all the difference. There's a really useful and practical article on the Relate online magazine called How to Manage Customer Satisfaction in a Crisis. It includes a step by step approach to keeping calm and carrying on in the face of a crisis or a disruption. You can find that peace and literally hundreds of others to help you bring your A game when it comes to customer service. Just go to

That's it for this installment of the Relate podcast, but we've got lots more coming. Next week, you'll hear about the San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus and their lavender pin tour. It is an audacious plan to take the Chorus on the road in several southern states that have anti-LGBTQ legislation on the books. You'll hear about what they're trying to achieve and how the group was received. Subscribe to Relate on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen to get that episode and more.

In the meantime, for more articles on connecting to your customers in deeper ways, visit If you want to explore technology built to improve your customer interactions, head over to for a free trial. I'm Tamara Stanners, talk to you soon.

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