An Interview With The Iron Cowboy: James Lawrence
In 2012, 36-year old James Lawrence from Utah broke the world record for the most iron distance races completed in one year: a mind boggling 30.
In his quest to achieve what many thought was impossible, Lawrence swam the distance from San Francisco to Los Angeles, biked the equivalent of crossing ⅔ of the globe, and ran the span of the United States. He averaged just under 12 hours for all 30 events, and raced in 11 countries. In addition to a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records, Lawrence earned the nickname “The Iron Cowboy” for always running the marathon in a colorful, patterned cowboy hat -- picked out for him before each race by his four daughters.
When Lawrence set out on his mission, everyone told him he was crazy. His is the perfect Dreaming Season story. Here’s our interview with the Iron Cowboy.
How did you get into triathlon?
It was a painful journey. Coming from a wrestling background, endurance sports were very, very foreign to me. It all started when I was challenged to do a 4-mile fun run one Thanksgiving with my wife. She was amused at how much I struggled and without my permission signed me up for the Salt Lake City Marathon the following spring. After an awful experience there I wasn't going to let the defeat define me. That year, [at the age of 28] I transitioned into short distance triathlon -- my first one was a pool sprint -- learning as much as I could on my own. Almost 10 years later the rest is history!
What made you decide to go and try to break the world record?
I accidentally set the world record for 70.3 events in 2011 while raising money to build dams in Africa. I called my quest the “Tri And Give a Dam” project, and managed 22, 70.3 events in 30 weeks! It was a whirlwind tour and a ton of fun. I sat there the following year and thought to myself, “Who wants to be the half Ironman world record holder? I want the full Ironman world record!” So, as a family we decided to attack the record and try for 30 full distance events.
What did your training for such a feat look like?
I asked a lot of associates and coaches, and no one really had an answer on how to get ready for such a thing. They all just said, “You’re crazy”. So I attacked the training and simply tried to get as fast as I could at the time for a late-season full Ironman. [His first Ironman in 2012 was on January 8, the HITS Triathlon in Naples, Fl.] In my head it was logical to think that if I was ready to do a 10-hour Ironman then I could do 30 of them at a 12-hour pace. Turns out I was right, averaging just under 12 hours for the 30 events, including a 16-hour day where I pulled a boy named Dayton with cerebral palsy around the course in Arizona, helping him to become an Ironman.
Then during the quest it became more a journey about recovery and not training. It quickly became about all the little things I needed to do to toe the line every week. At the peak, I raced 16 Ironman races in 17 weekends.
Wow. So did you ever get sick of Ironman?
I got a little bit tired of the hype, but it was interesting -- I thought for sure that if I raced 10 that I would be burned out, I don’t want to see a bike. But it was amazing - Monday, Tuesday after the race I’d think, "This is dumb." But Wednesday, Thursday I’d be ready to race again. I think it was because I had this big goal in mind - I was just really goal-focused which helped me to enjoy the journey along way.
What was the hardest moment on the journey?
I would say the hardest section of it for me was right in the middle, when I went over to Europe. I was gone for five weeks and I wasn’t used to being away that long from my wife and five kids [Lawrence’s kids are ages 4-10]. It was really, really challenging for me - it was the middle of the season and I was fatigued mentally and physically. The whole journey took a toll, and it was hard on my wife trying to raise the five kids on her own. But we took away from that a great appreciation for each other and for our family.
You question what you’re doing all the time. It’s not a natural process if you’re not questioning what you’re doing. Just in the space of one Ironman you go through ebbs and flows, massive highs and lows. Amplify that by 30, plus international travel. I had a lot of thinking time. But then I’d look at all the incredible people I’ve met and all the lessons I’ve learned and realized that the pros far outweighed the cons. I met so many awesome people, so many who opened up their homes to me. In 11 countries I hardly stayed in any hotels.
Did you have any outside guidance through all this?
I was working with a coach at the time [elite age grouper Sonja Wiezck]. I was so heavily, emotionally involved in the process and I needed someone objective to oversee it. We used TrainingPeaks as a tool to communicate back and forth [as Wiezck lives in Denver, Colo.]. I would upload data from my Garmin and PowerTap, and she would analyze it and could see whether I was too fatigued, and help me figure out how we were going to execute the next race.
[Note: Lawrence is now working with coach David Wharton].
How did you juggle so much training and racing with your other commitments and raising five kids?
It was no easy task, and I could not have done this without the support of my amazing wife Sunny. It’s impossible to really put into words the type of unity we have as a family. When we made this decision, we consulted with each one of our children and made a decision together. I tried to involve them in the training and racing as much as I could and took them to as many events as possible. They’re my biggest fans and love race day.
You’ve been a triathlon coach for a couple of years too. How has what you’ve learned on your journey helped you to coach your own athletes?
I hope it’s the example that I’ve set of making a goal and making it happen. There have been countless times that my athletes have said, “I wanted to quit during this race but I thought about the example you set”. So, just not quitting. Setting a goal that is not small but big, and then knocking it out of the park. I hope my athletes can use what I did to help them finish their Ironman, or three or four Ironmans.
So what’s next? Will you do any more Ironmans?
I’m totally recovering right now. Next year I’ve already qualified for Kona through the legacy program so I will be doing Boise 70.3 to qualify for Mont-Tremblant World Championships, then Whistler, then Kona.
Last question. What advice would you give to an athlete who has just set their own stretch goal?
First and foremost my motto is “No goal too big”, so really go after it! The biggest thing is to not listen to all the negative people out there. To be honest, if they’re being discouraging they’re just jealous that you’re doing something that makes you happy. Don't seek the approval of others; just go after it. I love seeing people push their limits and shoot for what others think is impossible.
Editor's Note: If you’re ready for some inspiration, Filmingo Films created a video short of Lawrence’s journey, including the 16-hour day at IMAZ where he pulled Dayton, a boy with cerebral palsy, for 140.6 miles despite a severe mechanical on the bike. You’ll also see the moment Lawrence completed his 30th Ironman. It’s well worth the 15 minutes. Watch the video below, or learn more about James at jamesalawrence.com.