3 Minute Read

If you’re unfamiliar with an official Ironman race, it’s the type of race that even many endurance athletes would think twice about. It’s a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike, and a 26.2-mile marathon combined in a single 140.6-mile test of mental and physical strength—what some call the most challenging single day in sports. 

Imagine 50 of those races, in 50 days, in 50 states. 

Endurance athlete James Lawrence doesn’t have to imagine—he’s been there. During Aspire’s IGNITE client conference in San Antonio, James—also known as “The Iron Cowboy”—brought his experience in perseverance and preparation to nearly 700 landscape industry professionals and shared what he’s learned along the way.

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Look adversity in the face and smile

While James’ athletic achievements are nothing short of a miracle, he’s not immune to questioning his abilities. 

“I have a conversation with myself around mile 80 of every race,” he said. “‘Why? Why am I doing this?’ Life is about managing those small conversations, overcoming that bully in our heads.”

So what does he do to manage looming feelings of doubt?

“I choose to look adversity in the face and smile,” he says. 

“We don’t have to be here. We get to be here.”

During his journey to 50 Ironmans, James connected with a young man with cerebral palsy named Dayton whose dream was to complete an Ironman. James kicked off his 2.4-mile swim with Dayton in a small inflatable raft tied around James’ waist. Dayton joined him in the cycling segment of the race in a 185-pound custom steel pull cart attached to James’ bike and in the 26.2-mile run in a wheelchair pushed by James.

Pushing aside the fears of Dayton having a seizure during the race, James looked at him only to see that Dayton was soaking in the feel of the wind on his face. Despite the cart breaking during the bike ride, with support from his crew and a well-timed police escort, James and Dayton avoided disqualification by 24 minutes and finished that day’s Ironman.

It was a lesson in staying in the present moment. Rather than catastrophizing and worrying about future events, James urged the business owners and leaders to focus on what’s in front of them and the people that motivate and support them.  

“We don’t have to be here—we get to be here. We get to show up every day and breathe fresh air. Nothing great is ever accomplished on our own,” he said.

Asking the deeper questions

“The emotion you bring to a situation is your choice,” James told the crowd. “I challenge you to figure out what your fears are, break them down into manageable parts and overcome them.”

Throughout the presentation, James challenged attendees to answer other questions:

  • What do you stand for?
  • When was the last time you intentionally became uncomfortable?
  • When did you stop imagining what’s possible? When did we become OK with just making it to the finish line?
  • When did we buy into the voice inside our heads that wants the negative outcome? 

Not to be outdone by his previous accomplishments, James, his family (which includes his wife and five kids), and his support crew embarked on a four-month journey to train him to complete an even more daunting feat: 100 Ironman races in 100 days. 

The road to 100 Ironmen was paved with tests to his body, including stress fractures and tremendous swelling in his shins that rendered him barely able to move, let alone compete. Then there was the daily toll the goal took on his mental health. 

He played a clip from that journey in which an exhausted James croaks quietly, “I’m going to try.”

With the help of his family and friends and medical experts, he met his goal of 100 Ironmen in 100 days. But he wasn’t done.

“Leaders lead and they lead from the front,” he said. “When you are broken you can get up and do one more.” 

He completed one more Ironman, his 101st in as many days, and raised $500,000 to fight human trafficking. 

A final challenge

From not being able to swim to completing 30 Ironmans in 11 countries to beat a Guinness world record, to 50 Ironmans in 50 states in 50 days, to 101 Ironmans in 101 days, the Iron Cowboy has taken the support of his family and his team and achieved unfathomable goals.

What else would someone with almost 200 Ironmans on his resume end a keynote with? A challenge.

“Go all in,” he said. “And defy logic.”