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‘We are here to endure’: How the Iron Cowboy plans to conquer 100 full-distance triathlons in 100 consecutive days

by | Mar. 19, 2021

James Lawrence has a goal: conquer 100 full-distance triathlons in 100 consecutive days.

To say the goal is a lofty one is undoubtedly an understatement. And the stats only confirm the intensity of the task at hand. Over the course of 14 weeks, James—who many will recognize as the “Iron Cowboy” from a 2016 documentary featuring the athlete—will swim, bike, and run a combined 140.6 miles a day. Added up, that will make for a whopping total of 14,060 miles from the day when he began the project on March 1 to when he plans on completing it on June 8.

For some, those numbers might sound daunting. But while it certainly will prove to be a challenge, this isn’t the Iron Cowboy’s first rodeo. In 2015, James accomplished what they call the “50-50-50,” or in other words, 50 full-distance triathlons in 50 consecutive days in 50 states. As if that wasn’t enough, in the days since he completed the 50, James has biked to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro, run 235 miles across Greece, and competed in Xtreme Triathlons around the world—and according to his website, that doesn’t even cover it.

James has plenty of eyes on him in this journey: his Instagram page has over 169,000 followers who stay up to date on his daily “Conquer 100” posts. But how does an athlete keep his head in the game and persist through the daily grind of 100 full-distance triathlons? The answer might prove to be somewhat unexpected. Because, while one might point to the Iron Cowboy’s physical prowess for achieving the impossible, his faith, family, friends, and supporters are equally critical to his success.

The Potential

In 2019, James had the idea to do the Conquer 100. As he began planning, he knew there were a lot things he wanted to do differently with this challenge than what he’d done with the 50. For example, he, his family, and the crew that traveled with him had always been running behind time. Beginning the journey in Hawaii, they headed east and were always struggling with the challenge of different time zones and getting enough sleep, often staying up days at a time. James’s wife, Sunny Jo, says they would end up at their destination without even remembering driving there.

“In fact, just driving to the pool this morning, James said to me, ‘The further we get away from the 50, I don't know how we pulled that off,” she says. “We could not have accomplished that had the Lord not guided us and protected us and looked after us, because there were way too many things that could have happened—that did happen—that should have been worse, that weren't. I mean, we saw miracles every day and we saw the Lord's hand.”

But it was the chaos of the 50 that made James want to test out what his potential was. A few months later, the idea came to him of doing 100 full-distance triathlons in 100 consecutive days. When he couldn’t stop thinking about it, Sunny Jo knew it was a sign.

“I said, ‘Well, you know, if you are thinking about it, and you can't stop thinking it, that's got to be the Spirit telling you, ‘This is the direction you're supposed to go,’” she says.

It wasn’t long afterward that the plans became serious. Since the project would take months to complete, they knew James, living in Lindon, Utah, would hit snow at some point. Believing the safer bet was to shoot for fall, James started coming up with marketing ideas while seeking support from sponsors.

But at the end of 2020, James couldn’t shake the feeling that he should start Conquer 100 in March, although the weather was unlikely to be in his favor. Other family plans would also have to be canceled. Still, when he talked to his wife about it, she believed it must be the Spirit prompting him yet again, and she told him to go for it—although she still wasn’t completely on board, having had plans of her own that would be disrupted. But her perspective changed in December of last year when the couple talked it over again.

“[James] said, ‘Hey, I can't do this unless you’re behind me. . . . I can't do it without you. I need you there for me. I need to know if you support it. I'm not doing it unless you support it. I'm not doing it unless you're in,’” Sunny Jo recalls.

She decided to fast and pray about the decision, knowing the additional complications it would create.

“I prayed about it on my own through the month of December. And then one day, I just knew. I was like, ‘I'm in 100 percent. I'm in.’ The Spirit had confirmed to me that March was there for a reason, and that this was the thing our family was supposed to be doing,” she says. “I had felt prompted on some of my own personal endeavors. . . . And I just had all these experiences through the next week or two about how it was the right thing, the timing was right, everything was right, and that the Lord would provide for us and things will work out.”

In the end, the timing couldn’t have been better. Not only did the winter turn out to be unseasonably warm, but by the end of the project their kids will be out of school and James will be able to spend the summer with the family. James also follows a regular route each day (it currently takes about 16 hours to complete, give or take) so the family schedule will be disrupted as little as possible.

In fact, James is gradually working on his time and fitness so as not to overwork his body through the coming weeks. This allows his kids to join him on the route when they wish, and his daughter even rollerblades alongside him the first half of every day. Additionally, his schedule and route are available to view online for those who want to pop in or out on any part of the journey to swim, bike, or run with him, and virtual races are available for those who aren’t local.

“We’re treating the first kind of part of this as training and allowing the body to adapt to the specificity of doing a full-distance triathlon every single day,” James said in an Instagram video on March 2, the second day of the journey. “Man, just yesterday was really rough. I think it was just the excitement of day one and getting it out of the way and all the pressure and everything that . . . I was feeling. And so I felt better today, but still adapting, and biggest thing is always when you start to pile on mileage like this. Ankles, calves, hip flexors, shoulders, traps—I mean, you don’t think you use your shoulders and triceps and everything that much on the bike, but you really do. And so, [we’re] already starting to make small adjustments to the bikes, always looking for comfort . . . and speed.”

Although James is putting in the most physical miles, the Conquer 100 has become a family affair. In addition to his wife’s support, one daughter handles the business side of things, from social media sponsors to ordering clothes and kits. The younger kids are also willing to pitch in more by helping out around the house without being asked. Both James and Sunny Jo hope this experience will be a memorable one for their children.

“Every journey and adventure that we have done is because of the family,” says James. “And this time, it is especially important because I get to finish at home where my family is waiting for me. Also, my family is older so they can actually be a part of this adventure.”

Sunny Jo adds that James has never wanted to achieve this goal out of mortal glory.

“It's definitely for the higher good. James isn’t the kind of person that wants praise. . . . It’s not about the accolades for him. It's literally about the personal challenge and the ability to raise money for charity. So, you know, people might see it as everybody's sacrificing and bowing down to James and his ‘selfish needs,’ and that's definitely not the case.”

The Routine

The days run like clockwork—or as Sunny Jo likes to say, “organized chaos.” But compared to the 50, it is more organized, and the distractions have been eliminated as much as possible. Each morning, Sunny Jo wakes up a little after 4:00 a.m. and gets things ready for James, who rises at 5:00 a.m., eats breakfast, and quickly heads to a heated pool in Lindon. Jumping in the water at 5:30 a.m., he swims the 2.4 miles required in a full-distance triathlon.

At 7:00 a.m., Sunny Jo heads back home and reads scriptures with the kids and takes them to school. In the meantime, by 7:15 a.m., James hops on his bike. His route will take him around the perimeter of Utah Lake—a total distance of 112.03 miles. He gets his calories in for the day by eating on the go, with his meals consisting of healthy foods like fruit, pastas, sandwiches, steel-cut oats, chia pudding fruit cups, yogurt, pancakes, burritos, potatoes, rice, salads, and smoothies. But he'll also indulge in other foods like corn dogs, pizza, and muffins.

At 2:00 p.m., James takes a half hour break before hitting the trail and runs 24.54 miles over the course of five hours. In the meantime, Sunny Jo shuffles the kids back and forth for appointments and school. At night, she prepares things for the next day by washing sunglasses, setting out clothes, refilling water bottles, and massaging James before he climbs into a hyperbaric chamber to sleep for an hour or two in order to make a quicker recovery.

Then, just before heading to bed, Sunny Jo wakes up James, who then drinks a smoothie for extra calories before climbing into bed. Sunny Jo then finishes the preparations for the next day and takes a minute to journal and decompress, usually going to bed around midnight or later.

And then the next day, they start it all over again. 

“Some days I get a nap, some days, I don't,” says Sunny Jo. “But it doesn't matter, because it's only temporary. It's like the worst semester of college when you have one semester left, and you have to take the classes when they offer them. And it is like the worst schedule and it makes your life miserable to make it work, but it's one semester and then it's over forever. So it's like, who cares? The Lord will provide. We're doing what we're supposed to be doing. . . . You just have to listen and follow His counsel and it will work out.”

Enduring to the End

Of course, 100 full-distance triathlons over 100 days can’t be accomplished alone, and a whole team is involved in this project. In addition to his family’s support, James has a coach, healthcare professionals (who monitor his sleep, recovery, and cardiovascular health), and a couple of wingmen who swim and run with James each day. Through it all, Sunny Jo says both she and her husband have learned a thing or two about what it really means to endure and to never give up—whether that’s in marriage, a career, or other obstacles that might come their way.

“I love the word ‘endure’ because that means grit, man, it means it's going to be hard. They didn't say, 'Oh, cross the plains pioneer, we're gonna put you in an airplane and feed you a meal and make sure your air conditioning is just right. Oh, don't worry, we'll get the bag for you. You just settle into your seat.’ That is not how this place where I live was established,” she says. “It was blood, guts, and tears. And even when we got here, the Saints still struggled, and it was not good. And they said, ‘We thought this was the promised land.’ Well, that doesn't mean that you're going to lay on your floaty and drink your cocktail in your pool. We are here to endure. We are here to work hard.”

Doing 100 triathlons 100 days straight has disrupted typical Sunday worship for James, but spiritual things are still being incorporated into his daily schedule. His daughter recently challenged him to listen to a general conference talk each day while he’s out on the bike—something James has eagerly added to his daily triathlon. James also says that he feels he is being watched over in his endeavors.

“I have a prayer in my heart 24/7. Just knowing that there is a higher being watching out for us makes me a lot calmer and gives the feeling of protection,” he says.

If James succeeds in the Conquer 100, he plans on registering the accomplishment with Guinness World Records. In the meantime, he plugs away one day at a time, sometimes battling brutal winds, swollen ankles, and cold temperatures. But alongside the bad moments are the good times, so James doesn’t let it stop him.

“One of [James’s] favorite sayings is, ‘intentionally be uncomfortable.’ Intentionally find things that are hard that require strength. And then when the hard things really come, you’re ready, you’ve practiced. It’s go time. It's like giddyap, man,” says Sunny Jo. “So, you know, endurance is about forever. It is about seeing it through and saying, ‘This is my heart.’ James says everybody's heart is different. . . . You ask the Lord to guide you. You ask him to lead you, and you figure it out.”

All images from the @ironcowboyjames Instagram account.
Danielle christensen

Danielle Christensen

Danielle is a features writer and editor for LDS Living. Previously, she served as web producer for Church News, where she managed their website and social media platforms. Danielle is a graduate of Brigham Young University in English and has been published with Deseret News, Church News, BYU Magazine, and Spires Intercollegiate Arts and Literary Magazine. Follow her on Twitter with the handle @danielleechris.

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