By Alison Ryan
When endurance athlete and family man, James Lawrence of Orem, Utah, set out to accomplish his most recent physical feat, he was told it couldn’t be done.
Already a two-time Guinness World record holder, Lawrence, also known as, “The Iron Cowboy,” felt that he needed to do something more to help others. That’s when he had a crazy idea — to complete 50 Ironmans across 50 states in 50 days, in order to bring awareness to childhood obesity.
That’s a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride, and a 26.2-mile run every single day for over a month.
Going the Distance
As an athlete, Lawrence is undeniably impressive. He began competing in endurance challenges in 2004 and ran across his first Ironman finish line in 2008. The inspiration for it all started when his wife, Sunny, suggested they go to a 4-mile fun run.
His nickname, “The Iron Cowboy,” stuck after he started wearing a cowboy hat during the final running leg of the Ironman race so his family could pick him out of the crowd.
“Everybody begins somewhere. I think that’s what is great about the journey I was on and how I took it,” Lawrence said. “I was a totally average guy that worked in corporate America, and one day, I decided to start moving and change my life. The fun runs turned into marathons, and then triathlons, and next thing you know, here we are.”
The Ironman is the sport’s elite endurance race, and in 2012, Lawrence crushed the standing world record by completing 30 Ironman races in 11 countries within a year.
This time, he wanted to repeat those distances every day, for 50 days straight, in an effort to raise money for the Jamie Oliver Food Foundation to fight childhood obesity.
Beginning in Lihue, Hawaii and ending in Utah on Saturday, July 25th, Lawrence did just that. On his final day, not only had he swam 120 miles, biked 5,600 miles, and run 1,310 miles, but he also helped raise $75,000 for the Jamie Oliver Food Foundation.
Keeping Healthy On the Go
Lawrence didn’t make the long journey on his own. Over the seven weeks of triathlons, Lawrence’s wife, Sunny, and their five children, ages six to 12, traveled across the country with him. Their two eldest daughters, Lucy and Lily, even met up with their dad every evening to run the last 3.1 miles with him.
Support from his family, friends and the local communities in each state made a big difference for the Iron Cowboy, but staying healthy on the road proved an added challenge.
“I shook my head sometimes,” Lawrence said, “People always wanted to bring us snacks, goodies, and treats.”
While he appreciated the good intentions, it was apparent to Lawrence that the constant snacking culture was part of the problem he was trying to combat. Instead of snacking, Lawrence encouraged healthy eating and adopted what he called a, “B+ average,” outlook.
“I talk about being a B+ average in everything that you do, instead of trying to shoot for perfection, and falling to an F, especially in nutrition,” Lawrence said. “That pattern is destructive.”
It’s a pretty reasonable philosophy for such a hardcore guy, and as it turns out, a lot of Lawrence’s other outlooks are equally attainable for anyone who hasn’t reached an elite triathlon athlete status.
Staying Active as a Family
Lawrence and Sunny incorporate fitness into their family lifestyle by making physical activity a regular part of both their personal and family schedules. They both make time to work out on their own. Every Thursday, they go to the local rock climbing gym as a family, and for an hour and a half, the kids rock climb and get out some pent up energy.
They also take time for more individual activities with their kids. Lawrence and his two eldest daughters, Lucy and Lily, recently completed a 15-mile hike together to the top of Mt. Timpanogos, in Utah.
As both a supportive father and husband, Lawrence also enjoys flipping rolls and supporting Sunny during her races. Their positive effect as parental role models is apparent: His eldest daughter recently decided to start a running club for her peers.
“We sign the kids up for all kinds of different classes and then they pick the ones they ultimately like,” Lawrence said. “Some of them like gymnastics, some of them like rock climbing, and some of them like arts and crafts. We don’t force them to do anything. We just like to expose them to different things and then give them the opportunity to choose what they want to do. It’s tough with five kids. You’re running all over the place for sure. But it’s worth it because they develop skill sets at a young age and it gives them creative minds.”
For families who want to begin getting fit, Lawrence suggested starting by playing in the park with little ones to help them create healthy habits early. For older kids, he said finding things that interest them and adding fun outdoor activities as family activities were a good option.
“It doesn’t have to be sports. Just get out there and move,” Lawrence said. “Go for a walk as a family, and take those first steps, one step at a time.”
The future holds ample opportunities for the Iron Cowboy and his family, but for now, he says, they are working on writing a book about their experiences and continuing to get their messages about health and nutrition out to the world. The Iron Cowboy’s website will soon be revamped with an engaging blog and new content from the iron cowboy camp.
“You leave this life with experiences and relationships. That’s something we’re trying to develop with our kids and with anybody who comes across us in our lives,” Lawrence said.
And that’s advice that will endure any distance.