‘Iron Cowboy’ triathlete makes Cambridge #27

MD-Iron Cowboy on bike 2x

Dorchester Banner/Paul Clipper
James Lawrence (center), the “Iron Cowboy,” is completing 50 Ironman courses in 50 days to raise awareness towards combating childhood obesity.

CAMBRIDGE—One thing you can say about the Iron Cowboy, he still has a sense of humor. I guess you have to, when you’ve set yourself to a task that many would consider impossible, if not akin to a death wish.

You see, James Lawrence, who calls himself the Iron Cowboy, is a triathlete. He describes himself simply on his own website: “I am an athlete. I am a husband. I am a proud father of four daughters and a son. I compete in endurance races and Ironman Triathlons. Currently I hold two world records in 70.3 and 140.6 triathlon racing. I am not satisfied. What’s next? The seemingly impossible….”

To make a long story short, James, when we met him last week, was in the middle of tackling 50 Ironman courses, in 50 consecutive days, through all 50 states.

Don’t say it’s not possible. Don’t say a human being can’t do it, because this guy can…well, maybe he can, he’s not done yet. But he’s already set a world record of competing in 30 full Ironman triathlons in one year, and holds a Guinness record on it. He holds another Guinness for doing 22 Ironman half-triathlons in 30 weeks. The way things are going, in Cambridge, his 27th Ironman so far; in 23 days remaining, it looks like he can do it.

What kind of a question can you ask a guy in the middle of all this trauma? A question that isn’t patently dumb? I approached him shortly after the van carrying him arrived at Great Marsh Park. His crew woke him up, propped him up, and brought him food, and I stuck a recorder in his face.

“You have two questions,” James said, “and they both have to be something original. You have to ask me something I haven’t been asked before.” This said to the great merriment of his accomplices, his wingmen and his crew.

“I’ve got something,” I replied about a few moments of thought. “What do you think of the idea of putting Harriet Tubman on a ten-dollar bill?”

The Iron Cowboy stopped in mid-mouthful—a bowl of organic salad greens with sliced chicken on one side, a bowl of quinoa oatmeal on the other—but only for a second before he started cramming down breakfast again. “That was a good question,” he replied. “You can ask me anything you want now.”
“Do you still think this is a good idea?” I asked, noting that he was halfway through his attempt. “Do you still have a full heart for the project?”

“Oh I still think it’s a great idea. I’ve got a ton of support. When you see donations coming in, and that you’re making a difference, how can that be a bad idea?”

MD-Iron Cowboy runner group_4x

Dorchester Banner/Paul Clipper
Family, friends and well-wishers join James Lawrence, the Iron Cowboy (center, with beard), in celebrating another successful stop on his quest, in Great Marsh Park, Cambridge, on July 2. The Iron Cowboy is working on completing 50 Ironman courses in 50 days, in 50 states. Cambridge was his 27th event so far.

Of course, James’ 50/50/50 attempt is geared towards helping a charity, and his choice is the Jamie Oliver U.S. Food Foundation and to help raise awareness of the incredibly important issue of childhood obesity in the USA. 100% of all donations go directly to the Jamie Oliver Food Foundation, and the Iron Cowboy effort collects donations in many ways, including inviting local triathletes to buy a bib number and join James in his bike and run portions of each day.

In Cambridge, James was accompanied by a phalanx of local bicycle riders, veterans of the Ironman course here, and a fairly large group of local runners joined him for a special 5k event at the beginning of his 26.2 mile marathon run.

“How can it be a bad idea?” James repeated. “My health is great, zero risk. I’ve just had medical checks, everything is picture perfect. I’m getting stronger, man.”

“Well,” I pursued, “If you ran a couple triathlons in a row, you’d expect to feel a little dried out. But now, more than halfway through, is it starting to feel normal?” I was trying to get an accurate picture of his condition after 26 days of brutal work.

“Normal? No.” He didn’t have to think about that answer much. “Routine? Yes. I definitely know the routine. The marathons have become easier. It’s a system, it’s something I do know.”

“What in the world are you going to do when it’s done?

“Well, hopefully Disneyland,” he quipped. “Hopefully Disneyland will send me on a cruise, me and my five kids. Tell Disneyland to send me on a cruise.”

James is obviously aware of the direct Banner-Disneyland connection, and looking to take advantage of it.

“I’m looking forward to Cambridge,” he told me that morning. “I’ve gotten a lot of great Ironman support in Maryland; it’s overcast today, I like that. I’m happy to be here.”

With that said, we left him alone, and watched the group work. James finished eating while his wife Sunny massaged his feet—two of the most frighteningly gnarled, blistered, hammered-looking feet we’ve ever seen. You can’t expect a lack of wear when you subject your body to this kind of abuse, and James’s feet look like they’re carrying the brunt of it.

Thunderstorms threatened the morning “routine,” but the Iron Cowboy’s support team are always looking ahead to solve problems as they come up, and the swim was rescheduled for the YMCA on Talbot Avenue, where he put in his 2.4 mile swim with little fuss. After that it was onto the bicycle and out on the road, following last fall’s full Ironman course.

A lot of people are confused about James’s program, thinking that he is competing in an Ironman every day, and wondering how that can be done. Obviously it can’t—Ironman events are held on the weekends. What James is doing is covering established courses in every state, one after another. He’s not concerned with strict competition timing, just covering the distance one way or another.

Expediency is important. Time spent fooling around is time that could be spent sleeping or re-fueling, and if weather makes it necessary to swim laps in a pool, that’s what the team will do. After a bicycle crash on day 18 left James without the ability to run, he logged the marathon miles on an elliptical machine in a local gym. The object is the distance, not the method.

Recharging is a severe problem with an attempt like this, and that also is taken care of by the support crew. Between the bike and the run James may get worked over by a masseuse or manipulated by a chiropractor, or both, attempting to ease the pain and get the muscles to recover quicker. In the early days of the attempt, he would even catch a nap for an hour or so—anything to give his muscle tissue a chance to calm down. By Cambridge, though, it almost seemed like he had passed that point, and now the “routine” really was becoming routine. Keeping moving, staying focused, getting the miles in quickly means more time asleep at night—inarguably the most important refueling he can do.

The Cowboy liked the bicycle course in Cambridge. We caught up with a posse of women who joined the group early on and were pausing at the halfway point of the loop. “He’s setting a brutal pace on the bike, let me tell you!” we were told by one of the girls. “We wanted to hang but we fell right off the back.”

We chased James’s lead group down and clocked them at about 25 mph, which is a wicked fast pace if you want to be sharp for work the next morning. James was all smiles and looked like he was just out for an afternoon ride with his crew. Can he keep this up for the rest of the 50 states? I gotta say I think he can.

Once James was on the bicycle, his wife, kids, and part of the crew check into their local AirBnB and get some food, get some washing done and maybe go to sleep for a while. In Cambridge the Iron Cowboy team stayed with Kathleen Wise and Doug Ridley, who took care of them with food and moral support, and came out to the park to watch the goings-on.

At 7:00 p.m., James and the crew gathered together again at Great Marsh Park and prepared for the sponsored 5k run with local enthusiasts. Most ran the 5k and came back to the park, some stayed with the Cowboy all the way, just to show their support.

Time being what it was, James finished the Dorchester County course after midnight. With little ceremony, his crew bundled him into the van or motorhome, where the masseuse would work on him while he settled down for however many hours of sleep he can get in until it’s time to jump in the water again. That would be in Dover, Delaware; then it’s up to New Jersey, then Connecticut, and then 20 more states before this Linden, Utah, resident can get back home and crawl into his own bed for a decent night’s sleep.

Or will it be in Disneyland, after all?

You can follow the Iron Cowboy’s progress at ironcowboy.co, or search for Iron Cowboy on Facebook.

MD-Iron Cowboy talking 2x

Dorchester Banner/Paul Clipper
The Iron Cowboy, a.k.a. James Lawrence (far right) talks to a group of Cambridge supporters before leading them on a 5k run.

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