Few guys are lucky -- or crazy -- enough to do one Ironman (a 2.4-mile swim + 112-mile bike + 26.2-mile run) in a lifetime, let alone more than one in a year. So no one believed that James Lawrence, 36, a Lindon, Utah-based triathlon coach and personal trainer, would make it through his goal of finishing 30 Ironman-distance races in 2012 (a world record) without hitting some sort of road bump -- injury, illness, travel issues -- along the way. Except, that is, for Lawrence and his family. (And if you think that's inspiring, check out this story about an Ironman who faced an even bigger obstacle.)
"The current world record was 20, so I didn’t want to go and do 22 just to beat it -- I wanted to set the bar high and challenge myself,” says Lawrence. “Plus, if you schedule 22 events and something goes wrong, maybe you only end up hitting 19 or 20.”
So he did 30. And not only did Lawrence finish all of his races injury-free, but he also won two of them (the first and 24th), took second place in five others, and traveled to 11 countries (once to Europe, then Idaho, and back to Europe in a 3-week span) in the process. The most impressive stats of all: Lawrence swam over 450 miles, biked more than 16,000 miles, and ran about 3,000 miles to reach his goal. (Serious runners think hill training is the best way to gain distance. Find out which method we’d endorse even more strongly.)
No small feat, especially for a guy who didn't really learn to swim until he was 28 years old. It was 2005, when a friend challenged him to complete a sprint triathlon, that Lawrence fell in love with the sport. Then in 2009, while working for his father-in-law's non-profit, In Our Own Quiet Way -- which ensures access to clean water for Kenyans -- Lawrence decided to challenge himself in an attempt to raise money and awareness for the cause: He rode out 22 half-Ironman races in 30 weeks in 2010, earning a spot in The Guinness Book of World Records.
But without any sponsors to pay for the races, Lawrence upped the ante. He and his wife, Sunny, sold their house, moved into a smaller home, paid off all of their credit cards, and downsized to one car to help finance the adventure. Most of his flights were booked using donated frequent flier miles, and he stayed at welcoming strangers’ homes, rather than hotels, to save money. "It's amazing how gracious the triathlon community is out there," says Lawrence.
"My wife used to complain that she couldn't identify me in my triathlons, so I jokingly said that I was going to wear a cowboy hat in one of my 2011 races to make it easier for her to spot me,” Lawrence says. “Everybody was cheering for me and rooting for this character. The support was amazing, and it just kind of stuck.” Dubbed the Iron Cowboy, Lawrence wears a different cowboy hat during the run portion of every race. His five kids picked out the hats -- but that’s not all the members of the Lawrence clan do to lend their support.
During a race in Texas, Lawrence's muscles cramped, and he collapsed with about 9 miles left in the run. He had just gotten back from South Africa, after 39 hours of travel. “One of my daughters called me and says, ‘Dad, you’ve got to finish. It’s the world record. Can you walk?’ I said, ‘No, I can't.' She said, 'Dad, can you crawl?’ I said, ‘No, I can’t.' She said, ‘Dad, can you cartwheel?’ I ended up walking the last 9 miles and cartwheeling for the last 100 meters to cross the finish," says Lawrence. "From that point on, I knew I was going to cross every finish line, no matter what."
Lawrence has no doubt that someone soon will try to swim, bike, and run their way through 40 events in one year. "I hope to inspire someone to push that envelope, and I will be cheering on anyone who wants to try,” he says. "No goal is too big."
We won't blame you for starting with a goal of one triathlon. Our beginner’s guide to triathlon training will help you take the first step, kick, and pedal.
Saddle Up for Your Next Race
Here are three tips for finishing your upcoming triathlons or marathons feeling strong and injury-free.
Make it a family affair. Your family has to make big sacrifices to help you get to the finish line, so be sure to include them as much as possible in the process, says Lawrence. “You have to be creative and turn it into a family affair and not a selfish, me-me affair,” he says. “On my longer runs, my kids ride their bikes along with me and provide water support. They come with me to the pool for swim workouts, too.”
Pack your own physical therapist. Lawrence doesn't leave home without a Trigger Point Grid Foam Roller and Massage Ball (tptherapy.com). He also uses a Globus Electrical Muscle Stimulation device (globussht.com) on his quads, hamstrings, and calves when he flies.
Giddy-up. "Cowboy hats are actually quite practical for running -- they keep the sun off your face and neck, and when you pour water over your head, it goes right through,” says Lawrence. “I found that the most comfortable styles were the ones you buy for $5 at a party store. They’re lightweight, breathable, and they’ve got a built-in sweatband liner."