YOP103: Becoming An Iron Cowboy with James Lawrence

By March 24, 2018 Podcast Episode No Comments

Bio: James Lawrence is a proud husband, father of four daughters and a son. He is an extreme endurance athlete. Currently he holds the world record the most 140.6 official races in a year and recently accomplished the seemingly impossible 505050. He’s a full time coach and public speaker.


Zephan: James Lawrence, also known as the Iron Cowboy, is a proud husband, father of four daughters and a son. He is an extreme endurance athlete and currently holds the world record for the most 140.6 official races in a year, and recently accomplished the seemingly impossible, the 50/50/50 which I’ll have him explain in just a moment. First, James welcome back from Italy. Thanks for being here today.

James: You bet. I’m happy to be here.

Zephan: It’s super cool to talk to you because you have truly pushed the limits of what the human body is capable of, the limits of what people think they can do. You’re living proof of this so I’d love to just kind of rewind real fast. What does kid James look like? When you were a kid, how did you get into this whole I’m going to just push myself to the extreme limit?

James: You know that’s an interesting, interesting question and I don’t think we wake up just one day and go boom, I’m going to do something extraordinary. I think extraordinary happens organically and over time. I think people rush to the extraordinary and they don’t enjoy all of the milestones and landmarks along the way. For me, kid James loved to play, loved wrestling. I wrestled for eleven years. It was just a massive passion of mine, then just found my way to Utah as an adult and found my wife, and have set up a life here. As an adult, you want to have those same competitive outlets that I did as a kid in wrestling. I found that in endurance racing and triathlon.

Zephan: Through doing this, you’ve actually broken two Guinness World Records, is that right?

James: Yeah 2010. I set out to raise money for charity and 2010 I was raising money, you know in a quiet way, which at the time we were building dams in Africa and they’re responsible for setting up women’s groups and orphan feeding centers. They do a lot of really great work and so I wanted to be involved with that charity and try to make an impact. I just set out to do as many races as I could. It turned out to be a world record that year which I happen to set almost as a bi-product of what I was trying to do for the charity.

Really it wasn’t about the world record. Then I had my sights set on it and was well, if that was obtainable let’s see what the mind and body is capable of doing. In 2012 I actually intentionally tried to set out and break the world record for the most full Ironmans in a year. We did thirty full official events through eleven countries in one calendar year.

Zephan: That’s absolutely amazing and just for the people tuning in; some people don’t know what the Ironman races are like. Could you just explain to them what’s involved in a race like this?

James: Yeah there’s four standard distances in triathlon, which is swimming, biking, running. The shortest is a sprint then there’s the Olympic distance, the Half Ironman. Then the Full Ironman, which is a 2.4 mile swim followed by 112 mile bike ride, and then after you’ve done that you just follow it up with a 26.2 standard marathon run. It totals 140.6 miles and you’ve got to cover all that distance by yourself.

Zephan: You know I thought it was pretty nuts when I did, I was telling you, I did a Tough Mudder and that was like maybe 12 miles and I thought I was going to die there so I can’t even imagine what it’s like to push your body for all this time. What’s like, I don’t want to say an average, but what’s like a decent time in completing a race like this? How much time are you investing during the race and then what do you do leading up to this? How are you preparing yourself for that?

James: I think that anybody that finishes any distance of race has to use discipline and apply certain things to be able to accomplish it. Anybody that finishes an Ironman I think it’s a massive accomplishment. Your fastest most elite athletes are going to be right around the eight hour mark. These are the professionals that that’s what they were destined to do and that’s their livelihood.

You have all the way up to seventeen hours to complete it and so you have from 7:00 AM to midnight to complete it. During the thirty in one year, I averaged under twelve hours for all of those events and twelve hours is a great benchmark for people that are progressing through the sport. First it’s I want to finish an Ironman. I want to break fourteen. I want to break twelve, and then you want to break ten. For someone that’s really striving to push their limits and have an athletic aspiration beyond completing an Ironman which is a fantastic accomplishment, I think pushing your limits and trying to get into that nine hour range is something that will push a lot of people.

Zephan: That’s crazy, and so planning for this race because essentially you’re spending a whole day pushing your body. Some people are used to, oh I’m going to jump on the treadmill for thirty minutes, or maybe if I go out for a really long run I’m out for forty-five minutes or an hour. Are you starting to prep for this ninety days out, a month out? I guess you obviously have to keep your body in a 100% solid shape throughout the year, but what does training look like just leading up to even one of these races?

James: I am a coach and I coach Ironman athletes and I think Ironman is one of those things that you just, you cannot cram for an Ironman. It’s just something; it’s not a test that you can flippantly get ready for. There’s a lot of things and a lot of elements that go into it not only mentally, but physically, nutritionally. There’s so many aspects to learn. It has an extremely steep learning curve. I would say must people can go out and wing a 5K or 10K, a sprint triathlon once they get over the hurdle of the water, but an Ironman is a different beast.

An Ironman it takes an intense sacrifice mentally, physically, emotionally. If you have a spouse and children, you want to make sure that they’re on board with what you’re doing. It needs to be a group decision. I think people don’t take, or give it enough respect, and they’re just like oh yeah. I can swim 2.4. I can do an Ironman. Or I can bike 112. I can do an Ironman. It’s really different when you start to string all of these together and go beyond eight, nine, ten, eleven hours of physical activity and trying to stay mentally sharp throughout that entire time and not give up. There’s a difference between going through the motions of an Ironman and then racing and pushing the pace of an Ironman and trying to bring out your best self. That’s a different mental game all together.

Zephan: I think one of the key differences that sets you apart from many people is that you’re not only pushing your body, but I think one of the coolest things you do is you really work with a bunch of different charities. For you, it’s for a cause and when you hit that first Guinness World Record it sounds like you didn’t set the intention and say “Okay, I’m going to go break this record.” It was more of like I’m doing this for almost, even though it’s selfish enough for yourself, you’re almost doing it for others just as much.

James: Initially it totally was for charity and the world record wasn’t even in the conversation. Every time I do one of these events, we always attach a charitable aspect to it. It’s one of the huge goals, but at the same time there’s always a personal journey along the way in what we’re trying to do and what we’re trying to accomplish. I think it’s a beautiful mix of both things of trying to make yourself better and push your limits and figure out where you are mentally and physically and at the same time helping others and bringing people together and motivating, and empowering, and inspiring. It’s just this great collaboration of a lot of cool things that come together and the opportunity to do something on so many levels is very rewarding.

Zephan: I have a two part question about what’s changing for you mentally. Basically, I’d like to hear what’s going on for you during the race. I play music if I go out for a run, but are you playing this whole story out in your mind if you’re out there for eight or twelve hours? What’s happening in the mind of your family and the people that are following you and supporting you during this whole race?

James: The 50 or the Ironman?

Zephan: The Ironman in general and then I’d love to go into hearing about the 50/50/50.

James: You know, it’s tough. Doing an Ironman race is about the journey to get to the start line. I think that’s where you learn most. The day of an Ironman, I think that’s a celebration, to celebrate the hard work and the sacrifice and get the rewards of what all that looks like. The spouse and the kids and if you’ve included them along in the whole journey and made them part of it; I mean it’s a day for them too.

I mean trust me. Ironman racing is a very challenging day for the spectators. They’re there to celebrate the day of the person doing it. They’re also there to celebrate the sacrifice and everything they’ve done. It’s just an entire day for everybody. When you’re out doing an Ironman, it’s just a lot of self talk and a lot of alone time. You’re not with your family anymore. You’re out there grinding away and you can just hope that you can sense their energy and their excitement. Then it’s a big celebration when you come back together and do see them a few times throughout the day.

Zephan: This is very unique in this type of race. If I go out and run a half marathon or a marathon, typically you don’t really get a chance to stop in and see them in between. It’s just you and the road and you’re going, and you see them at the finish line. It sounds like this is a unique journey where I’m sure you guys probably have a point in time where you change out from swimming, to running, or biking. There’s like a little bit of a turnover period so you kind of get to see your team and they get to cheer you back on again and up your energy and you get to go back out again, right?

James: Yeah, a good Ironman course will hopefully be spectator friendly. There’s a point where you can see them come out of the water and hopefully they catch your voice from the crowd and cheering. Then the biggest spectating portion becomes the run portion, the marathon, where they can line the streets and you can stop and talk to them and embrace your loved ones as you’re progressing through your adventure and what that means to you and then again at the finish line. You have full access to them and it’s just an amazing moment when that all comes together and the right people are there supporting you.

Zephan: That’s awesome. One of the biggest things that you’ve accomplished recently has been the 50/50/50. What inspired you to do this? You did what was it, 50 Ironmans in 50 days in 50 different states? Is that right?

James: Yeah, we set out to really push the mind and the body to a point that every single person said it was impossible. Then we set out to raise money for Childhood Obesity. We did a 5K every single day at the end of my Ironman where the public got to come out and participate with us and be part of our day. It was just amazing to see the country to come out and support us and be part of this.

It was an unbelievable prep for us to get ready for this. We had no idea or any way of anticipating how challenging those 50 days would be. We literally did an Ironman every single day in every state. We were sleep deprived. We had to figure out the logistics of getting everywhere, executing, do the fund raising, including the public in what we were doing. It was just a massive struggle but the highest of highs upon successful completion.

Zephan: What was it that changed in your mind where you were just like, I’m going to take this to the next level and do something that seems completely ridiculous. I mean no one has done it before. How, I can’t even fathom how you just kind of wake up one day and you’re just like we’re going to do this and I’m all in. How do you get inspired to do this and how do you stay all in throughout that entire process?

James: I think like from the beginning of the conversation, I think everything happened organically and for me mentally it was just the next natural progression for what was next for me. I’d done the half’s, I’d done the 30 fulls in a year. I got to about race 27 of the fulls in that year and I was like man, this isn’t it. There’s more. I haven’t accomplished what I’ve set to done. I haven’t pushed myself mentally or physically. Once I had successfully done the 30 I was like, I know there’s more.

It just came to me, 50/50/50. This is something we’re doing. It was so outlandish and so outrageous that it wasn’t received well. Once I committed to it fully and got the support of my family and we started working towards that goal, the deeper and more involved that we got, the more confident we got that we could do it. There was no question. It was just a matter of figuring it out and how to keep moving. We didn’t give ourselves and out or an excuse. It was, no this is what we’re doing. We just need to figure out how we’re going to do it.

Zephan: Yeah, I think that’s great that it wasn’t a question of if. It was just a matter of what are we going to do to make it happen. Let’s make that happen. That’s the best way to look at any feat that’s standing in front of you that you’re trying to accomplish. I think that this question is kind of inevitable, but was there a point where you wanted to quit or give up or was there any point where you’re like, oh man this is the bump in the road that’s going to give us trouble?

James: I think that’s the best way to describe it was the bump in the road or a speed bump that we had to endure and counter. There was never a defining moment where I was like okay guys, I’m done, I can’t continue and the team was like no, no, no. We can do this. We never had to give that pep talk. There was definite moments where it was like, okay James needs a minute. He needs to regroup, but it’s not a matter of whether he’s quitting or not. He just needs a second.

It goes back to that principle of we have a Plan A. Plan A was 50 Ironmans, 50 days, 50 states, but we didn’t know what that would look like. We had a general idea of how to get there, but we never did have a Plan B or a Plan C because the moment something goes wrong, you would make an adjustment to your goal. You would use that as an excuse to go to Plan B or Plan C.

We always had Plan A. It was just creativity and intelligence and being flexible and being able to adjust that allowed us to keep going towards Plan A. We were always moving forward and there was always obstacles, but it was on us as a team to figure out those obstacles and keep pushing towards what our ultimate goal was.

Zephan: I think the big word that a lot of people use is pivot and to pivot when you’ve got something that pops up for you, the road doesn’t end here. We’re just kind of taking a turn and going in a bit of a different direction. It sounds like that’s exactly what you guys did when stuff came up. I think that you’ve definitely got this type of mindset where anything you set yourself to, you’re going to accomplish no matter what, in some way, shape, or form. Do you think that this is something that has been instilled in your since birth? Is this something that can be trained into someone? Let’s just say someone is listening in right now and they’re like man, I want to be able to accomplish something like what James has done. Is this something that’s teachable?

James: Yeah absolutely I think it’s teachable to someone that has patience and that isn’t entitled and wants instant gratification. If you go out and you set your goal on something, I didn’t wake up one day and go you know what? 50/50/50. That’s what I’m doing today. I’m just going to jump in it and go for it. It was organic and the mental preparation stems all the way back to when I was in 7th grade and I lost my very first wrestling match.

I started to develop that skill set and work on my mental strength. I got better and better at developing that. I put myself in a lot of situations to where I was able to strengthen my mental fortitude and get stronger as a person and an individual as an athlete and everyone of those experiences and hard things that I experienced would add to it. Then at a certain point in time I was ready to do it. Absolutely, there is no goal that’s not obtainable. What people need to realize is you have to have the appropriate time frame associated with such big goals and you have to be willing to do the right things consistently over a long period of time. That’s what I mean by people having entitlement. They want it right now and they’re not willing to be consistent. They’re not willing to work towards it.

Zephan: I think you made a really good point there that this is certainly not a sport for instant gratification. This is not something where you sign up tomorrow and you feel amazing. This is something—

James: Not only this sport, but any big goal whether it’s business, financial, family related. Any big goal you can’t want instant gratification. It’s not going to come like that. Any successful person, any superstar that you see, I’m not saying I’m a superstar, but any superstar that you see out there, you have to realize that there’s a massive back story that led them to the point where they were the superstar. You’re only seeing the arrival. You’re only seeing the part of that journey where they made it. Most superstars and massive individuals that we see in the spotlight, they got there because of consistency and hard work over a lifetime of experiences.

Zephan: Yeah absolutely and I’m sure you would agree that some of the biggest mistakes that people make is going into it for the wrong reasons. I’m wondering from you, both as a trainer as someone who is in the thick of it themselves, what’s the biggest mistake that you’re seeing people doing when they’re trying to push themselves to such extreme limits like this?

James: They try to make everything happen too fast and they try to fit a square into a round circle. You have to push the limits—the reason to make it happen organically.

Zephan: It really has to be something that you allow to happen as opposed as trying to force to happen?

James: Absolutely and there’s a fine line of forcing something to happen and pushing your limits. You don’t want to force it so it fails and is too quick, but you want to push that envelope and progress at a reasonable rate if that makes sense at all.

Zephan: Yeah and I think that one of the things that pushes people into this in the first place is much like you said, there are these heroes or superstars we see out there. Who were some of the people that maybe you looked up to as a kid or even right now that still inspire you to this day to do what you’re doing?

James: If we’re talking athletics, I love in the MMA Mixed Martial Arts world, Georges St. Pierre. He was a great guy that exhibited patience and discipline and respect in the sport and did nothing but hard work. Then you look at iconic people like Wayne Gretzky, and Michael Jordan, and LeBron James, and all of these people that are just unbelievable at what they do. I look up and follow all those guys as an example as far as their discipline, or the way they approach things methodically and how laid out everything is. Then just patience, patience, patience. It goes all the way back to the simplest of concepts and that’s doing something consistently for a long period of time.

That’s what will [inaudible 21:05]. The secret to success is action. Action and work and individuals aren’t willing to do the work. I get emails every single day with concepts and ideas and I’m going to go do this, and I’m going to try to accomplish this, and I’ve yet to see any of them come to fruition or anybody actually take the action and put it into play.

Zephan: That’s so key.

James: There’s so many amazing ideas out there. It’s action and doing what you say you’re going to do.

Zephan: I think that action is definitely the keyword there. Along the lines of taking action, you’ve accomplished so many amazing things. Obviously it doesn’t stop here so where do you go next? You talked about how the 50/50/50 was a natural progression for you. Now that you’ve done that, what’s next for the Iron Cowboy?

James: It’s interesting. I thought once I got to the 50 and I was approaching the finish line that it was going to be my finish. What I realized is it wasn’t. It was simply a milestone. It was simply a launching platform to whatever direction I wanted to go next. That’s the way life should be. We should be trying to achieving milestones, but not necessarily trained to reach its final destination. For us what’s next is we’ve got an incredible opportunity to help and empower people to reach their limits and their potentials. I’ve launched—or I’m in the process of launching this new [inaudible 22:39] where we can take this to another level.

People that are interested in signing up for that can go to teamironcowboy.com and access all of our information there. I do a lot of speaking at corporations and clubs and teams and schools and just going out and spreading the message of doing hard things, and putting in the work, and taking patience and applying all of these principles that we’ve talked about today, and trying to achieve greatness.

Greatness to every individual is going to be different then what it means to you or I, and greatness to somebody listening isn’t 50/50/50. That’s not what I’m trying to get everybody to do, but I’m trying to get them to make themselves uncomfortable and do something that they haven’t done in a long time and do something new because the reality is fear is in everything and is what is holding most people back. The reality is that a better you is on the other side of fear.

Zephan: I love that. A better you is on the other side of fear. I think that’s awesome. You know James, you’ve got some amazing charities that you support. I think that it’s crucial that everyone listening in understands that this is not for you. There’s a certain satisfaction in all the things you’ve achieved, but this really is kind of your gift that you’re giving to the world. What are the organizations that you’re supporting right now and that you encourage others to look into?

James: Right now one of the great groups that we’re working with is called rodsracing.org. A lot of [inaudible 24:19] track consider going out and racing and raising money to place these orphaned down Syndrome children into loving homes and then educating them about how to be active and live healthy lifestyles. The website on that is just rodsracing.org. R-O-D-S-racing.org. It’s a tremendously worthy cause and there’s so many of them out there. This is just one I’ve chosen to align with right now and hopefully put some desperately needy orphans into some loving homes.

Zephan: That’s an excellent cause and James I want to thank you for being here today. Is there any sort of final parting words just for everyone tuning in right now that you really want to drive home for them?

James: No, we covered a lot of ground today and hopefully there was one or two really valuable things that we said. The reality is just going out there and taking action like you said and applying what you’ve done. Stop talking about it. Just go do it and take that first step.

Zephan: Awesome James. Thanks so much for being here and good luck to you in what comes next and just keep doing what you’re doing because it’s people like you that really do inspire others into action. Thank you for that.

James: Awesome man. Thanks for having me.