The Making of the Iron Cowboy: How James Lawrence Built His Legacy of Grit
Each year, hundreds of thousands of athletes train for the chance to swim 2.4-miles, bike 112-miles, and run 26.2-miles in Hawaii. It requires an enormous amount of preparation, training, and mental toughness. Finishing the race makes you a member of an elite group, who have done so since its inception in 1978.
To complete more than one? The list grows smaller yet.
The following story documents James “Iron Cowboy” Lawrence: an elite athlete willing to repeatedly put his body and mind through hell and back. First, for 50 days in a row. Now, for 100 consecutive days.
Why you might ask? To simply see whether it is possible.
From Ferris Wheels to Triathlons
James wasn’t born into a competitive running or biking family. By the time he hit high school, he joined the wrestling team, at which point his competitive spark began to flare. But being a wrestler wasn’t enough–he had to be the best wrestler. By the time he reached his senior year, he was undefeated and went on to win the provincial championships.
In the summer of 1999, the Calgary Stampede Rodeo in James’ hometown hosted a competition to see how long a person could sit on a Ferris wheel. The grand prize was $10,000 and bragging rights for life.
James entered the contest, sat for 10 long days, and went home with a $10,000 check. He was 23 at the time and used his prize money to move to Utah. There, he met his to-be wife, Sunny, in a psychology class. They got married soon after and had 5 children: Lucy, Lily, Daisy, Dolly, and Quinn.
At home in Utah, one of Sunny’s annual traditions was to run the local Turkey Trot community-run, on Thanksgiving day. One year, Sunny decided to sign James up for the run. Not being a runner, he was reluctant, but joined his wife anyway and completed the race.
He hated it. But, there was something about the competition that sparked inside of him, so he kept at it.
James began to sign up for more and more running events, eventually making his way up to marathons. He hated those too.
Running wasn’t James’ particular bag, but he loved the feeling of pushing his mind and body outside of his comfort zone. When he raced, he always wore a cowboy hat so his family and friends could easily pick him out in the crowd. As time went on, he dropped the cowboy hat but kept the name.
Following a handful of marathons and triathlons, James had an idea to do something that had never been done before: complete 50 triathlons in 50 days in each of the 50 states. When he told his coach about his idea, the coach was understandably hesitant. Of course, the word “can’t” only fuels James’ endeavors.
The 50.50.50 Challenge
The 50.50.50 wasn’t just a physical feat, it was a logistical one as well. In order to complete 50 triathlons in 50 different states in 50 days, James was set up for the most amazing and exhausting road trip known to man.
The plan was to start in Hawaii for day one, fly up to Alaska for day two, and then take a good old-fashioned family RV road trip to the remaining 48. Even without tacking on a triathlon in every state, the logistics of this road trip were dicey.
Travel aside, his daily schedule needed to be precise. The goal was to hop into a body of water at 7 AM sharp. Pop off his gear and fuel up before getting on the bike around 9:30. Then finish up with a marathon around 2 PM. Around 7 PM, his team and other community members would attempt to join him for the last 5k.
“That was the intended schedule, but not one day did we hit that. It was complete chaos, many days ending at 2:30 am and not starting until 11 am the next day.” – Sunny
James had previously completed 30 triathlons in a single year, but those paled in comparison to this. Completing 50 back-to-back triathlons meant that he had very little downtime. It also meant that he had to sleep in the RV, often on the floor.
During those 50 days, James and the team had little time to adapt to obstacles as they surfaced. The team had to deal with a hurricane that followed them through five different states. To ensure he and the team stayed safe, they moved his triathlon indoors. However, by dodging a hurricane, another type of storm came swiftly upon him…this time brewing on the internet.
Critics began to voice concerns about the legitimacy of his and his team’s efforts. The indoor marathon, use of intravenous fluids to stay hydrated, even the structure of his fundraising was put into question. Inevitably, support for the 50.50.50 began to wane.
James admitted that his exhaustion and constant pain made it difficult for him to ignore the criticism.
Under normal circumstances, it would have been easy for James to not let the dark side of the internet infiltrate his mind, yet, from Texas to Connecticut, James found himself in a pretty dark place. The exhaustion, pain, and internet trolls weighed on his fighting spirit. He wasn’t as jovial as he was at the start, but he never quit.
On day 30, James hit his bottom. He was physically and emotionally beat down. He hopped off of his bike, sat in the grass, and simply said, “I don’t want to ride my bike anymore.” As his mind wandered, he thought about his children and his wife. As if they had breathed new life in him, he picked his bike up and finished out the day. From days 29 through 50, he continually shaved minutes off of his total time and finished in high spirits.
The Conquer 100
After taking a 5-year break, a new crazy idea began to stir in James’ mind.
This time he would ditch the cross-country road trip and tackle 100 triathlons in 100 days. With fewer unpredictable hurdles and a feat that no one had ever thought of, let alone attempted, James would do things differently to ensure the integrity of this effort.
In contrast to the 50.50.50, (other than the added challenge) each day of the Conquer 100 is attempted at the same location. This makes it a little easier–at least logistically–for James, his family, and his team, and also opens things up for fans who want to join in on the action.
Doing the Conquer 100 right in his home state of Utah has been a breath of fresh air to James and the team–they are able to generate a high level of local support, and the internet critics have all but vanished. Plus, James is able to get roughly 7 hours of sleep at home as compared to 4-5 hours of sleep in a moving RV.
With much less strain on his team, additional efforts have been made to bring people along for the ride. Live Garmin tracking in tandem with daily blogs and a constant barrage of behind-the-scenes social media content has allowed more than the local community to monitor his progress. National and international followers have sprung up, showing their support in many different ways.
Plus, the website provides individuals with information on route locations and the proposed schedule so anyone can swim, bike, or run alongside him.
Competing For A Cause
Sunny tells us that the showing of support for James, the family, and even the families of his team members have been very meaningful. An individual from India has sent restaurant gift cards to her and the wives of James, team members. Thousands have sent words of encouragement and we can’t forget about the all-important equipment sponsors who have made the challenge less cumbersome.
But, each day James reminds his followers and fans that this effort is made on behalf of Operation Underground Railroad: non-profit fighting to end human sex trafficking. As it stands, James and his team have already raised over $145,000 and they’re not done yet.
A Cowboy Is Only As Good As His Team
Strength and determination are certainly part of the recipe for James’ success, but it is his team that completes the equation. While James competes, sleeps, eats, and recovers, his team furiously moves behind the scenes to ensure that all other pieces stay in place.
Sunny, James’ wife, is the glue that holds the entire effort together.
Although the Conquer 100 is far less logistically challenging than the 50.50.50, the family matriarch continues to expertly choreograph each day so that James can focus on performance. All while the children’s day-to-day remains somewhat normal and the families of the other team members are taken care of.
Coaches Aaron & Casey had been competitors of James, with the 50.50.50 turning their friendship and rivalry into a brotherhood like no other. Elite athletes in their own right, each tackle a portion of the daily swim, bike & run alongside James. They work to understand how James’ body is performing, where his mind is at, what fuel he requires and when, and they play an integral role in keeping his spirits high.
Additional team members include coach Carlee Tulett, certified athletic trainer Haydn Thompson, licensed massage therapist Felisha Hurst, as well as a host of others that keep the wheels turning behind the scenes.
And let’s not forget about the Iron Cowboy’s children. They’ve grown up watching their father attempt some of the most challenging efforts known to man. Often running alongside him during the final 5K and being support staff when needed. Lucy, the eldest daughter, has even taken on the role of running the marketing efforts for the Conquer 100. All while finishing her senior year of High School and earning her Associates’ Degree.
After our interviews with the team, it’s obvious that James’ grit and determination have rubbed off on his family and team members.
The Iron Cowboy’s Real Legacy
James Lawrence has earned his nickname. In more ways than one.
Less concerned with the brand-centric titles bestowed upon thousands of athletes each year, he’ll go down as an individual willing to pave his own way and carve out a place in history books.
Right, wrong, legitimate, or illegitimate will be for history to decide. The events themselves may not be James’ legacy.
The Iron Cowboy’s real legacy is his demonstration of how intensely concentrated effort can result in inspiring accomplishments.
The world will undoubtedly see other great athletic attempts. Some may even top this very one. But the remarkable legacy of James “Iron Cowboy” Lawrence will live on through his family, team, local community, and with the countless individuals, he inspires every day.