The Ironman is undeniably tough. But it has nothing on the Iron Cowboy.
At 39 years old, James Lawrence already holds two Guinness World Records for most half-Ironman triathlons (22 in 30 weeks), and most full Ironmans in a single year (30, in 11 countries). But now Lawrence, also known as “the Iron Cowboy,” is going to push his physical limits — and perhaps the boundaries of sanity — by attempting to do something that has never been done by a human before. He plans to complete 50 Ironman-distance triathlons in 50 days, in 50 states.
Fifty triathlons. In 50 days. In 50 states.
That’s 2.4 miles of swimming. Then 112 miles of biking. Then 26.2 miles of running. Fifty days in a row.
And he’s starting on Kauai.
The most obvious question: Why?
Lawrence fumbles for an answer, almost like he’s never been asked the question before. “Why not?”
No really. Why on earth would anyone want do something like this?
“I don’t feel I reached my mental and physical limits,” Lawrence said, referring to his previous record-setting efforts. “And I want to see how far I can go.”
He isn’t doing it for fame and fortune. In fact, there has been very little of that so far. Except for a handful of top athletes, endorsements aren’t as lucrative for long-distance endurance events as they are for other sports.
But Lawrence hopes by taking on this challenge, he will raise money for the Jamie Oliver Food Foundation for childhood obesity and diabetes: “To fight it — not promote it,” he laughs.
As a father of five children ranging in age from 5 to 12, the issue is important to him.
“The shocking statistic is that we are going to be the first generation that is going to bury our kids due to this,” he said. “Heart disease is the No. 1 killer.”
Lawrence tried to raise money for charity during his previous record-setting efforts too, but didn’t bring in as many donations as he hoped, so he decided he needed to do something bigger. Something that would draw more attention. He needed a national stage.
Lawrence’s best time for an Ironman is pretty good: 10 hours, 18 minutes.
But he definitely won’t be setting any world records for speed during this unprecedented feat. He expects to set a pace between 12 and 14 hours. Anything less than 12 hours is too fast and will take too much of a toll on his body. But anything over 14 hours is too long for him to be able to stay on schedule to hit all 50 states in 50 days.
Lawrence estimates he’ll run at a pace of 11:30 minutes per mile, meaning he’ll complete the marathon portion of the Ironman in about five hours: “It has to be a conservative, controlled effort. It’s about completion.”
Endurance is in his blood.
When Lawrence was 23 and working at a minimum- wage job at a golf course in Calgary, Canada, he was selected as an alternate for a radio show contest that pitted 10 people against each other to see who could ride a giant Ferris wheel for 10 days one summer.
The day before the contest, someone dropped out and Lawrence was told he could participate. But his boss didn’t like the idea of him being gone for that long and fired him.
“So I was highly motivated to win,” Lawrence said.
He must have been. For the next 10 days he rode the Ferris wheel all night and all day in rain and shine, with only two 10-minute breaks per day to use the bathroom. But he outlasted the other nine contestants, winning the $10,000 prize.
With a pocketful of cash, Lawrence, who is Mormon, hitched a ride from Canada to visit a friend in Salt Lake City, Utah, and decided to stay.
Shortly after he got there, he met his future wife, Sunny, during a psychology course at Utah Valley University, and they were soon married. “I needed a green card, man! I got quick to work!” Lawrence joked.
Four years and two kids later, his wife signed them up for a 4-mile fun run in Orem, Utah. It was at that race, during Thanksgiving 2004, when he realized he wasn’t as fit as he once had been.
“I found out I wasn’t in peak condition,” Lawrence said, tactfully referring to his poor race time. His wife wasn’t quite as kind with her words. “She lovingly told me, ‘You’re pathetic.’”
But rather than let it defeat him, Lawrence kept training. Five months later, he ran his first marathon in four hours, 21 minutes.
Lawrence advanced to sprint triathlons — the shortest kind of triathlon. He did 14 that summer. “I fell in love with the tri,” he said.
And he just kept training. By then, extreme exercise was becoming a regular part of his lifestyle.
In 2008, he traveled to Napa Valley, California, to compete in his first Ironman, the wine-country Vineman race. It took him 11 hours, 10 minutes to complete. By 2014, he qualified for the Ironman World Championship on the Big Island of Hawaii.
In a few days, he will try to answer the question, how far can he go?
Why start his quest in Hawaii?
“We wanted to get all of the flights out of the way as early as possible,” Lawrence explained.
Makes sense. But why not start in Kona, on the Big Island, home of the Ironman World Championship, as a tribute to the competition he loves, instead of Kauai?
“We heard it is the prettiest island,” Lawrence said. “We wanted to unwind and relax and decompress after months of work. This is a reward and a vacation for us before the chaos starts.”
So here he was last week, looking calm and relaxed in the shade, wearing swim trunks and a T-shirt while watching his kids — Lucy, Lilly, Daisy, Dolly and Quinn — play in the pool.
He could have been just another tourist. Only the Canadian and American flag tattoo drawing attention to his remarkably toned and muscular calf hinted that this was someone who, in a few days, was about to embark on an unparalleled feat of endurance and strength.
His attempt to complete 50 Ironman-distance triathlons in 50 days in 50 states starts Saturday. Because of the time zone changes involved, Lawrence will have to start at midnight so he has time to complete the first triathlon and then make it to the next destination.
Swimming 2.4 miles at night in an ocean full of sharks could be suicide, so the YMCA in Lihue agreed to stay open for him so he could swim the first stage in a pool. He’ll then bike Kaumualii Highway out to the Westside of the island to the Barking Sands Pacific Missile Range Facility where it is flat — flat is what he wants, since he has to ride 112 miles to complete the second leg of the Ironman. Of course, he’ll have to double back a few times to get all his miles in — Kauai is a small island, after all.
Then he will run a full marathon, starting from the Times Supermarket in the Kukui Grove Shopping Center. Lawrence hopes people will come out to join him at different stages — swim some laps, bike alongside him, run a few miles to keep him company during the marathon portion. His website www.ironcowboy.co (not .com) shows the exact route he plans to take.
Lawrence plans to finish with just enough time to get cleaned up and to the airport in time to catch his plane.
That’s right. As if completing an Ironman triathlon isn’t torture enough, he will have to immediately get on a plane and fly across the Pacific Ocean to Alaska so he can do it all again the next morning, and the only chance he will get to sleep is during a four-hour layover in Honolulu and on the plane.
And he’s flying coach.
“I gotta be with the kids,” Lawrence explained.
After he finishes his second Ironman-distance triathlon in Alaska, he has to get on another plane and fly to Washington state for his third triathlon in three days.
From there, things get easier, as least as far as travel logistics are concerned. He and his family will ride in a motorhome, so Lawrence can sleep while they drive between states. Lawrence repeatedly emphasized how important it is to have his family with him.
“For me to be able to bring them with on this journey is really special,” he said.
Together, they will head down the West Coast before zig-zagging up and down through the southern states. Then, they’ll head up the Eastern seaboard before cutting back across the northern part of the country.
The plan is that while Lawrence is out running, his kids will have the best summer break ever. While Dad is out punishing his body, they will visit nearby historical sites, national parks, museums, Cedar Point amusement park in Ohio — and they will still gather as a family in the evenings.
Lawrence will race in only one official event as he crosses the country: a triathlon in Kingston, NY, happens to fall on the same day he plans to be there.
On day seven in Arizona, Lawrence and two members of his support team will take turns pulling a boy with cerebral palsy.
On day 49 in Idaho, Lawrence will do the same thing for another boy who asked to join him.
The logistics of trying to complete an Ironman-distance triathlon while still having time to travel to a different state each day means he needs a strategy to “catch the corners.” That is why deep in the campaign on his 39th day he will go to Benton Harbor, Michigan, a site he selected mostly because it’s at the southwest border of the state, close to Indiana.
But it’s also an area the Iron Cowboy enjoyed competing in before, and he’ll get to swim in Lake Michigan.
Lawrence was working as a mortgage broker in 2008 when the recession hit and he lost everything. There were times when he and his wife could not afford to pay the heating bill during the winter months, so they would gather around the living room fireplace at night for warmth — and roast marshmallows so the kids would just think they were pretending to be camping.
Today, they are doing a little better, but they still aren’t well off. Lawrence is a motivational speaker and a fitness trainer. His wife is incredibly supportive. She ran her first Ironman triathlon in 2013, and their kids are growing up with a love of exercise. Their oldest daughter, Lucy, is only 12, and she can already run a 5K (3.1 miles) in 26 minutes. So this venture is a mission that the family decided to take on together.
Lawrence has a few sponsors, but for the most part the operation is being run on a shoestring budget.
Young Living Essential Oils is his main sponsor. Airbnb is providing a temporary home for the Lawrence family on Kauai. And Fleetwood Motorhomes is providing the transportation on the Mainland.
Garmin is doing all of the tracking. Internet startup Gyrosco.pe will share his activity in real-time on his website, making it easy for anyone to follow along on his journey.
Lawrence could not afford to make a documentary about his attempt, so a friend who owns the production company Mystery Box agreed to make it and give Lawrence the option to buy it later. Lawrence has set up an IndieGoGo account to raise funds so he can own the documentary.
The Iron Cowboy expects to consume 12,500 to 15,000 calories per day during his 50-day campaign. That’s more than most people need to eat in a week.
His diet will consist of high fat-density foods like avocado and waternuts, as well as “as much fruits and vegetables as I can keep down,” he said, plus protein drinks and lots of hydration. He will need so much food he intends to wake up in the middle of the night to eat.
“I’ve been training my body to eat while working out,” Lawrence said.
Including his family, Lawrence will have a crew of 11 people on the journey with him full-time. That includes his 29-year-old manager, Jordan Maddocks. On weekends, a doctor and chiropractor will fly to meet Lawrence. And an additional two to four people will travel along to film the documentary.
If all goes according to plan, Lawrence will finish his final Ironman-distance triathlon on July 25 back home in Utah, after swimming, biking and running a combined 7,030 miles in 50 days. That is more than a quarter of the distance around the globe.
But that likely won’t be the end. You don’t just train for something like this and stop. For Lawrence, working out seven to nine hours a day is the usual. Even a rest day means at least two hours of exercise. Being an ultra-extreme athlete is part of his lifestyle.
Is there any concern in his mind that he won’t succeed?
Lawrence was emphatic: “I can’t even entertain that thought. I have to have 200-percent conviction that I can do it.”
James Lawrence is already the Iron Cowboy. But if he succeeds in his attempt to complete 50 Ironman-distance triathlons in 50 days in 50 states, he may give a new name to an already physically arduous sports challenge.
Follow the Iron Cowboy’s progress on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat and Periscope. Donations can be made to support the fight against childhood obesity through his website, www.ironcowboy.co.
Ryan Kazmirzack, government reporter, can be reached at 245-0428.