The Iron Cowboy Makes Masochism Look Like Fun
James Lawrence completed 50 Ironman distance events in 50 states in 50 consecutive days to bring attention to childhood obesity.
In December, 2012, James Lawrence of Orem, Utah, set a Guinness World Record after completing more Ironman distance races in a single year than anyone before him. Inspired to bring attention to the growing epidemic of childhood obesity, the triathlon coach and public speaker completed 30 official Ironman races in one year, beating the previous record by 10 races.
But the record wasn’t enough. Lawrence had hoped to bring more attention and money to his cause and spent the next two years plotting a second, more audacious record attempt: 50 Ironman courses on 50 consecutive days in all 50 states. And on Saturday, July 25, he crossed his personal finish line, having swam 120 miles, biked 5,600 miles, run 1,310 miles, and spent countless hours traveling in an RV with his entire family. We caught up with the 39-year-old at his home in Orem to ask him about the experience.
OUTSIDE: How do you feel today [the day after finishing]?
LAWRENCE: I feel awesome. I got close to ten hours of sleep last night. I dealt with a little bit of muscle cramping because of the elevated effort yesterday in my last marathon. I ran under five hours, so the fastest marathon of all 50.
You set a Guinness World Record previous to the 50/50/50, but what was your experience level coming into this and your fastest standalone Ironman?
I’ve done over 40 full Ironman official events and hundreds of sprints and Olympic distances. My fastest standalone Ironman was 10 hours, 18 minutes.
Why are you called the Iron Cowboy?
In 2011, I was doing Ironman Canada and there were just so many people that my family had trouble picking me out to cheer for me. So I decided to put on a cowboy hat. It just became a hit and the entire crowd started to engage with me as an athlete. In 2012 I wore a cowboy hat in all the 30 events so I that people would recognize me and it just stuck.
I know you personally financed the 2012 Guinness World Record effort, did you have more sponsorship support this time around or was it all on your dime again?
Yeah, in 2012 we had very little support, but it built up my credibility. So, this time around it was a lot different. It was interesting, a lot of my sponsors even said, “Well, we’re not certain you’ll make it but we wanna see how far you’ll go. And even if you don’t make it, it’ll get the attention we want.” My title sponsor was Young Living Essential Oils, and our other big sponsor was AirBnB, who helped with lodging across the country.
What was your athletic background like before triathlon?
I wrestled growing up, in Canada. I’m from Calgary, Alberta. I did my first triathlon in 2004. Before that I didn’t have any run, swim, or biking background. I actually didn’t learn to swim until I was 28 years old. My first Ironman was in 2008.
Did your family join you in this adventure?
Yeah, the entire family came, my wife Sunny and my five kids [ages 5, 7, 9, 11, 12]. While I was out doing the 140.6 miles every day the kids went and did whatever was cool in the state—zoos, museums, monuments, or just swimming.
How did you prepare for this training-wise?
A lot of swimming, biking, and running. [Laughs]. I worked with a triathlon genius named David Warden. I left it up to him to put the plan together for me and I just had to execute it.
“In 2011 I was doing Ironman Canada and there were just so many people that my family had trouble picking me out to cheer for me. So I decided to put on a cowboy hat.”
What were your days like?
I’d wake up at 6 A.M. I’d be swimming from 7 A.M. to 8:30 a.m. I’d try to be on the bike by 9 a.m. and ride until 4:30 or 5 p.m. And then I’d run from 5 p.m. until 11 p.m. And we’d do the fun run for everyone to come participate at 7 p.m. I averaged between four and five hours of sleep as we traveled through the night.
With that little sleep and that big of a daily effort humans start to fray at the edges. Did you have any lingering effects of the sleep deprivation?
Yeah, my body was just trying to deal with the stress of doing the Ironman that all the little things don’t get any attention. My tongue was numb. I also had little sores in my mouth, I think it’s called thrush. The sides of my mouth were cracked too. Both my pinky and ring fingers on both hands are still numb, I don’t have feeling in those or my toes. My body was pushing all the blood to my major organs, it just didn’t have the time or energy to push it out to my external organs. So, I don’t have any dexterity with my hands right now. And that started about three weeks in. I also have an impingement in my neck and shoulders.
What about the saddle?
That seemed to work itself out actually. I was surprised with how few issues we had in that area. We just managed it really well.
How did you fuel yourself?
A lot of real food. I tried to eat about 8,000 calories a day, which became very difficult. I was just sick of eating. My crew did a great job of just throwing food at me. While I was racing I used Energy Lab Nutrition. I used four of their products every single day.
Do any days stick out to you as being most difficult?
Currently it’s one big blur, I need to go back and look at the pictures. The early events were the most difficult, before my body adjusted. The easiest ones were later, so 30-50, I was sort of on cruise control. I got stronger as I progressed through the campaign.
Did you suffer any acute injuries?
I didn’t have any muscle strains or stress fractures. I crashed once on the bike because I fell asleep. That was in Tennessee, race number 18. I had a bunch of road rash, some bruising, and some fluid in my hip. I was only at about mile 30 for the day, so I had to get back on the bike and finish the 112 miles and then I ran the marathon that night.
What do you think your biggest asset is in being able to do such an ambitious adventure?
My biggest asset is my wife and kids. They are everything. They are my support, my motivation, my inspiration. That’s the reason we did the project in the summer-time, so my kids could come with me.
What was the finish line of number 50 like for you?
The finish was totally crazy. It was bigger than my wildest dreams. The love and support was just overwhelming. We couldn’t have been happier as a collective team.
I know you partnered with The Jamie Oliver Food Foundation, how much money did you raise doing this?
On the last night we were at $68,000 and I know we received at least $10,000 more after that. So far $78,000. Every dime goes to The Jamie Oliver Foundation. We don’t deal with any of the money, we just facilitated donations, meaning that I don’t get a cut of it. None of the donations funded this project or fed my family.
What would you say you learned about yourself through this experience?
That’s a pretty in-depth question. I’ve learned a lot. I’ve figured out who I am as a person. Because of the kindness and love that were shown, I want to give that back. So I want to continue to raise money for the charity and give as much back as I can. The goal now is to go around and speak to schools and continue to educate about childhood obesity and hopefully impact the next generation.