When Lindon’s James Lawrence was pursuing his first world record of 30 Ironmans in one year, he wore a cowboy hat so his family and fans could spot him in the crowd. Since that day in 2012, the nickname of “Iron Cowboy” has stuck like a race bib on this physical phenom, and so has his habit of breaking world records.
Let’s fast forward through his next world record, which was set in 2015 when he shockingly completed 50 Ironmans in 50 consecutive days hitting each of the 50 states (more on that later). Fast forward again to April 19, 2021, and once again James put on a cowboy hat as he completed his 50th straight full triathlon — this time it’s only the halfway point, and this time his daily finish line is just steps away from his Lindon home.
“Tonight we retire the cowboy hat,” James told the finish line crowd as he matched his previous record of 50 consecutive finishes. “Today, we reset history. Now we’re going to keep doing it every day until we hit 100 and show everybody what the hell’s up.”
A few minutes later in his Instagram story, the bearded elite athlete told his nearly 200,000 followers that he was viewing this transition from the old world record to the new world record as a clean beginning for one and all.
“If you aren’t happy with the past or if mistakes have been made, you can always start anew,” he said. “If you want to start over, today is your day. Start fresh tomorrow.”
On Day 51, James walked the talk by showing up at 5:30 a.m. to swim in the Lindon Aquatic Center with a clean shaven face — a new look on the day he would break his own world record and complete his 51st consecutive full triathlon.
(Editor’s note: Although swim-bike-run races are usually called an Ironman, the brand of Ironman is particular about the use of the term, and James isn’t completing sanctioned events in the Conquer 100 — these are his routes on his timing with no judges or finish line inflatables. But Guinness is still paying attention, don’t worry.)
Finish Line X 100
From March 1 to June 8, a day in the life of this 45-year-old father of five looks like Groundhog’s Day — a very grueling, intense, weather-fighting version. He swims 2.4 miles, bikes 112.21 miles, and runs 26.39 miles. This occupies all of his time between 5:30 a.m. and approximately 9 p.m., with a short transition time between the swim and the bike, and then a slightly longer (30ish minutes) transition window between the bike and the run. He eats along the way and solves problems of sunburns, blisters and clothing/equipment throughout his journey — all within Utah County borders.
Each night, James runs (or hobbles) across the finish line often after the sun has set, and he holds up a race bib with the number of consecutive full triathlons he’s completed as of that day. Then he shares a few insights and behind-the-scenes moments with athletes and spectators at Fryer Park in Lindon. Lastly, he celebrates those who raced with him that day, especially those who completed the full triathlon or the full marathon.
“Welcome to the grit show,” he often tells them as he leads the crowd in applause for anyone who completes “their version of hard.”
“The funnest part for me is when people come and they plan to do three miles, and they start going with us and decide to do three more,” James says. “And then they think, ‘I might as well do the whole thing.’”
After James gets home, specialists massage his body to promote healing, reduce inflammation and increase strength. He spends part of his night in a hyperbaric chamber. James also gets IVs of fluids (nothing illegal or unhealthy) to help his body absorb all the nutrients possible during the few hours he isn’t moving.
Although James does the unthinkable every day, he surprisingly doesn’t sleep like an exhausted baby at night.
He drifts off quickly, and the first hour of sleep is deep and restful. Then nightmares kick in.
“I panic all night about rain, time cut-offs, accidents — it’s hard to get my mind to calm down,” James says.
He also experiences night sweats and soaks through his sheets and pillows. Intense leg tremors wake him up as he kicks his sore legs.
But no matter if his hip is hurting him (it is) or if he’s unrested (check!), he shows up again to swim in the morning. He’s got a world record to set. He’s competing against the Iron Cowboy of yesterday.
Have Family, Will Set Records
The idea to double his previous record and complete 100 triathlons in 100 days popped into James’ head a couple years ago. His wife, Sunny, and their five kids were still recovering from the exhaustion of 2015 when they traveled with him to 50 states in 50 days inside an RV with very little sleep and very much stress.
But soon, the Lawrence clan was all on board and traveling again down the road of analyzing maps and potential routes. The Iron Cowboy was on for another round of record-breaking rodeos. Same level of crazy, different year.
James is the front man who puts in 140 miles every day. But the Iron Cowboy’s pronoun is “we.” Sunny is grit-adjacent to her husband. She is a decision-maker, sponsor liaison, emotional support and backbone of the operation. His daughters have their roles with social media, the website, and roller blading alongside their dad with a backpack and speaker to play tunes.
The family is more equipped to support James this time around. In 2015, the oldest daughter, Lucy, was 12 and yet still “worked on maps” for months.
The full-length documentary “The Iron Cowboy: 50-50-50” details the family’s involvement and the moments they saved the day when James was too delirious to think straight.
“I was promised that if I went on the 50, it would be like a vacation as we cheered on James,” Sunny says. “It was so much more complicated than that. On Day 6, I realized I had a choice. I could watch it fall apart, or I could solve problems and make decisions. It was tough. At one point, I didn’t see James for eight straight days.”
Sunny stepped up or her name isn’t Lawrence.
Jesus, Take the Bike Wheel
Every Lawrence family member interviewed for this article gave credit to Jesus.
“When people ask me how we do this, I just say ‘Jesus,’” Sunny says. “He helped us through the 50-50-50, and so we knew Jesus would help us conquer 100.”
James acknowledges help from heaven, but he also believes he’s helping heaven.
“I’m a tool in God’s hand,” he says. “I believe I’m destined to do this. Every morning I wake up and I don’t know how we’re going to do it. But I ask God to guide me and to put the right people around me for success. ‘God, help me empower people to do their version of hard in their life.’”
Whether the Weather
When the Lawrence family was planning the Conquer 100, they looked at daily averages.
“We saw that March’s daily average was 55 degrees, but here’s the thing — I’m not biking at 4 p.m.,” James says. “It was 19 degrees on Day 1. I don’t have gear for 19 degrees. The rain, snow and wind has been relentless. March was hell. It’s been an evolution of problem-solving.”
Defying logic is James’ mantra. And these experiences give him plenty to write and speak about as he helps other people explore their hard.
“If you go all in, you figure it out. You solve the problems and you keep showing up,” James says. “And that’s my message to people. Keep showing up in your life. The only way to guarantee that you succeed is to keep showing up — even if you cover the smallest ground each day.”
We Never Said It Wouldn’t Be Hard
“It’s only temporary, so it doesn’t matter if it’s hard. It ends on June 8,” Sunny says.
One aspect that will be better in her mind than the 50-50-50 is that the speaking tour won’t start immediately after the finish line.
“After the 50, James was whisked away and traveled like crazy sharing his experiences for six months,” Sunny says.
This time, the family plans to spend the summer together, take a vacation and heal up the wounds. James will speak around the world about his gritty accomplishments when school starts again.
The Lawrence family thinks in terms of finish lines.
Although James does it for the love of the game, he couldn’t do it without the love of his sponsors.
The vitamin company 1st Phorm is his lead sponsor, along with Prime IV and local company Aptive.
James doesn’t just accept money — he also raises. Conquer 100 is raising money for Operation Underground Railroad, and $100,000+ had been donated at the halfway mark, when O.U.R. founder Tim Ballard spoke about the trafficking issue and his appreciation for James raising funds.
James has also repped local company Young Living Oils. His go-to’s? Melrose and Frankincense, which he calls his “catch-all Jesus oil,” and puts it on the crown of his head and bottom of his feet.
“The body adapts and gets stronger and stronger,” he says. “At first the body freaks out, but miracles happen along the way and we actually get stronger and faster.”
An Athlete of the People
Getting to know others on the trail helps James pass the time and stay motivated. There’s the family that cheers in the same place for 25 races and then moves down the path to another location for the next 25, and so on. This gives James something to track other than his own pace.
James loves having “Stan every Monday, and Brian on Sundays, and Garrett coming 20 times.”
Seeing other people tackle their hard inspires him to focus on pushing himself to the limits — something he didn’t feel he had done when he reached his first world record in 2012.
This time, every cell is being pushed to its limits every day.
“I will finish this 100. It would have to be something catastrophic like a car accident to take me out of this — and even if that happened, I’d figure out a way to finish this thing. You’d have to drag me off Murdock Canal before I’d give up,” James says.
Welcome to the grit show.