“We don’t have to 20x every aspect of our lives. We can enjoy and appreciate when people do it in their expertise.” –James Lawrence
Commander Mark Divine interviews the Iron Cowboy about his work as an ultra-endurance athlete. James Lawrence holds various Guinness World Records for triathlon, and recently completed the “50-50-50” challenge: completing 50 Ironman distance triathlons in 50 states in 50 days. Hear how James was able to foster the mental, emotional and physical strength required to complete it and what you can learn from his efforts to overcome extraordinary challenges and apply it to your life.
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Transcript & Shownotes
Hey folks, this is Mark Divine with the Unbeatable Mind podcast. Thanks very much for joining me again this week. Super-appreciate your time and attention. I know you’ve got a lot going on, and there’s a lot of other distractions out there. So hopefully you get a lot out of this podcast, and if you do, please go rate it at iTunes. That helps other people find it. And if you’re not on our email list, then you’re probably getting tired of hearing me say this. Go to unbeatablemind.com/podcast. Get on our email list so you can learn all about the other cool things we have going on besides this podcast. Because this is probably the least of my time commitments, but I love doing it. And I love meeting people like James Lawrence who we’re going to be talking to today.
So James, welcome. I’m going to read a little intro and then we’ll have a little chat. So, you know, I’ve been around a lot of really, really tough people in my life, as a Navy SEAL for 20 years, and then through SEALFIT. And when I read what you had done, that was a new… that set a new standard for me. I mean, that’s almost super-human.
So James is an ultra-athlete. I would call him like an ultra-ultra-athlete. He holds a couple of Guinness… whatever you call it… Guinness World Records for the most half and full Ironman triathlons completed in a year which is how many? 16, I think?
James: 22 halfs and 30 fulls.
Mark: I was way off. 22 half -triathlons. 30 full triathlons. And then the thing that blew me away is last year, in 2015, you did 50 Ironman distance events in 50 states in 50 days. Consecutive days, I might add.
James: Yes, sir.
Mark: Holy shit. I’m still trying to wrap my head around it, and I’ve even had a conversation with you before about this and I’m still trying to wrap my head around it. Now I want to talk about that. And you’ve got a book coming out about that experience called “Iron Cowboy: How I redefined human limits, so that you can redefine yours.” That comes out March. Thanks for joining me today James. Super-cool to get to talk to you. And I know that we’re going to have lots of cool things to talk about.
James: Yeah. Thanks for having me, Mark. I was honored to get a call from such a legend like yourself, and I was excited to join you here.
Mark: That’s really cool. I appreciate that. And thanks for the words.
So, how did this all come about? Tell us about James, like, the younger version of yourself and how did you get into even endurance training.
James: I mean, I grew up in Canada. And you either played hockey or you wrestled. And I wasn’t great on skates, so I kind of gravitated to wrestling. I just really enjoyed the individual sports over the team sports, and so I wrestled a lot growing up and I think that set a really solid foundation for me physically and mentally. And taught me a lot about just to how to work hard, and how to grind and how to overcome things on your own.
And then I moved to the U.S. in 1999\. Met my wife, Sunny, in Utah. We’ve been married for 16 years now, and have 5 kids. And I just got out of the competitive environment of sports and I missed that. Once you get into real life and you start having kids and your responsibilities and jobs, the gym just got boring. And so my wife was a runner, and she kind of introduced me to just shorter fun-runs. I mean, I really struggled with running. And actually didn’t like it. And I had a buddy who was doing triathlons. And just really gravitated towards it. And I liked the element of having 3 different sports and challenges to overcome. I didn’t grow up swimming, biking or running. So to me to have to try to master 3 different events and put them all together. I enjoyed that challenge of that aspect of it.
Mark: I can appreciate that. I used to run tri-s when I was in my 20s, and it was fun. The variety of the training, it takes a lot of discipline from a time standpoint to train for all those.
Did you like that? Cause wrestling is really short burst training, so at first did you find it a challenge to all of a sudden go from an hour on the mat, to 4 to 5 hours of training a day?
James: Yeah, well, I started with the shorter sprint distance triathlon which is like, real explosive and really power.
And to be honest, I think that people even don’t train properly for the longer endurance events. I’ve said it for years, and I’m still an advocate of it, that Ironman racing is a strength and a power sport. You can only tax your muscles to a certain capacity and then you’re done. I’ve never heard somebody at the end of an Ironman go, “Oh my legs felt great, it was my cardiovascular system that held me back.” They’re always saying, “Oh, my heart rate was so low. I couldn’t get my heart rate up, but my legs felt like bricks.” And that’s because their muscular endurance, their strength and their power failed them at the end of the day. And so people are just… they’re not training the way they should, or just what’s been taught is not–in my opinion–is not correct.
Mark: We’ll come back to that later and talk about how you train and how you teach people to train.
So you got into… now what inspired you to go for a record? Were you winning races or were you just completing them? Let’s start there.
James: I was winning events locally. Sprints and Olympic distances. And then jumped up into the half-Ironmans and made it to the world championships a few times. And then just really wanted to push my mind and my body as far as like, endurance was concerned.
I found that I could go do these endurance challenges and it was incredibly taxing on me. And so when I did the half-Ironman world record, I did it with the purpose of gaining experience to do the full-Ironman world record, which was ultimately the goal. And I finished that and I kinda just like looked back and I kinda shrugged my shoulders.
Not that it was easy, but that I didn’t challenge myself mentally and physically to what I felt was to my satisfaction. And that’s kind of when the 50 Ironmans in 50 days was conceived. I thought that would be a legitimate challenge. I thought that was as much as a human being could bite off and chew.
And it was crazy because we were ridiculed and criticized for even making the announcement of the attempt.
Mark: Really? From people who didn’t think that you could do it? Or was humanly possible?
James: Yeah, they were just like, “That is so ridiculous. That’s not even possible. Why would you even attempt to do something like that?”
And it was just… the reaction kinda took me by surprise, because I’ve been of the mindset that, you know, we can truly accomplish what we set our minds to. And people continually compare themselves to others and whatever that standard of excellence is. And I’ve found most success in my life when I create my own lane and try to set new standards. And hopefully people will take the lid off of what they think is possible based on what I was able to accomplish last summer. That was my hope, anyways.
Mark: Yeah, for sure. So you conceived of this idea kinda after or during your full-triathlon record attempt?
James: It was between race 27 and 28…
Mark: (laughing) It just like pop in your head, like “What’s next?” kinda thing?
James: Yeah, we were driving from one race in Arizona to another. And I had my wife and kids with me. And I just remember looking over to my wife and just being like, “I don’t think this is it. That was awesome, and that was a challenge, and probably one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, but I don’t feel that was anything close to what I’m capable of.”
And she just kinda shook her head in disgust and was like, “Uh, this isn’t the time to discuss this.” We were going through some pretty hard financial struggles and, I mean, I owned a mortgage company in 2008 and we lost everything with the economic downturn. And then kinda had to rebuild there as well.
Mark: Yeah. So she’s thinking, “Holy Cow. I’ve just supported you in 27 Ironmans, we got 3 left. I’m hoping for a little break after this. And now you’re saying you wanna do 50.”
Did it first come up as, “Hey, I’d like to do 50 of these,” and then you thought, “Well what if I did 50 in 50 days?” Did it come like that? Or did you actually think right away, “I wanna do 50 in 50 days.” Cause that seems… that’s the part that people are going “What?”
James: Yeah, and I kinda modeled off of what Dean Karnazes did. He was kind of the pioneer in the space of endurance things. And a decade ago he did 50 marathons in 50 days in 50 states. And I thought to myself, “Man that would be really cool if I was able to do what he did with marathons, but with Ironmans.” Just take that huge leap between the two. And it was just such a big physical, mental leap.
Mark: Yeah, it is. It’s not double, it’s more than triple the energy output. Lemme… just so our listeners… I don’t wanna assume that every single listener knows what an Ironman distance event is. So run us through the Ironman.
James: Yeah, so, an Ironman… any triathlon is swim, bike, run. And there’s four standard distances: Sprint, Olympic, half- and full-. The Full is the Ironman. And basically they double each time in distance. So the Ironman distance is a 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike ride and then it’s followed by your standard marathon, which is 26.2 miles. So it’s a total of 140.6 miles. And, yeah, you have to cover that all by yourself. You got a bike, I guess.
Mark: That’s intense. So… holy shit. I’m logistically think… I don’t even want to get into the… I still want to talk how you even thought you could do this. And then once you committed to it, what was the next day like? Did you have a “Holy Shit” moment, like, “what the hell have I committed to?”
James: Well, you know, I started to prepare mentally and physically right there between race 27 and 28. I knew it was something that I wanted to do. And I started working on logistics right then. That took me 2 years in itself.
But, you know, I took it kind of one day at a time, and put together the team that I thought would help me succeed and get there. And it wasn’t until I publicly announced it on a pretty big podcast. That was my kinda “Oh shit” moment. Where I was like, “Okay, now you’re committed because you just kind of announced it to a million people. “That was the first moment where I was like, “Oh no. What have I done?”
And it kind of coincided with a big training camp I did in St George, Utah, probably 3 months before I was ready to kick it off. And I really struggled through that training camp. And I was just like, “Oh man. This is the beginning of a disastrous summer.”
And that’s the worst thought patterns that you can have in that moment. Like anybody, I hope you surround yourself with a good team. And they talked me through it. And we realized, “Okay, we’re not at the starting line yet. And we have still a process to go through to get there.” And that helped me mentally and physically to get where I needed to be.
Mark: Yeah. So let’s talk about the training. Like what did you do to prepare yourself physically, and mentally and nutrition and sleep and all that.
James: Yeah, so you can’t… you just can’t physically get ready for 50 Ironmans. And so we approached it with the mindset of “let’s physically get you as ready as possible to do 10. And then once you start the campaign, everything that we learn 1 through 10 will apply 20 through 30. And the gains and whatnot and everything that we learn 20 through 30 will apply 30 through 40. And so on and so forth. And we kind of just took it in chunks. And obviously we couldn’t have imagined or prepared for everything that we faced during the 50, but we did everything that we could think of at the time to get ready for it. And we were at such risk of injury, because we were pushing the boundaries of physical capacity in one week. And really pushing the envelope as far as how much you can stress it. And then recover it in enough time for it to be able to adapt to that stress. So we would take me right to the brink of almost failure and injury, and then pull me back. And so we would have 3, 4 really monstrous days and then 3 really light days. And we obviously built up to that. But we would take me right to the brink where it was like, “Okay, you’re going to get hurt.” And we would flirt with it and then we’d pull me back.
And sometimes with that type of volume, I did come up with smaller injuries and things that we had to deal with. And every single doctor was like, “Yeah, you need to rest and recover.” And I’m like, “Well that’s not an option.”
Mark: Not during the race, anyways, right?
James: Even during training. And so I think it was one of the best decisions we made by mistake, because we were actually training my body to heal under stress and duress. And I had a great medical staff work on me all the time, and he was like, “Well, I know what your mindset is. This is what we’re dealing with. I’m going to give you the tools to repair this, knowing that you’re going to continue to push the limits with it.” And my body learned how to heal itself while under duress, which turned out to be the best thing, because we were under such extreme stress during the 50. I mean, I was dealing with 4 hours of sleep and the stress of all of the logistics and everything, so my body learned how to heal and evolve through training, which ultimately really helped our success during the 50.
Mark: That’s really cool. In fact, I can completely related to that, because I had a similar experience in Hell week with the SEALs. Obviously not 50 days, but 6, 6 and half days, 24 hours, non-stop training. Probably multiple Ironman distance events. And the first few days, my body was breaking down. I was exhausted. And then of course, my mind was, “Screw it. We’re just going to keep going until you die or they carry you off the battlefield in a stretcher.”
And my body then adapted, right? But it was the mind that basically had to tell the body to adapt. And I started to actually develop muscle mass by Thursday of Hell week. It was pretty fascinating to watch.
James: Well, what’s amazing, and I’m sure you can relate to this, in my opinion, so many people miss out on this because this is the moment where they quit. And it’s the moment where your body is so confused and it doesn’t know what’s going on, and your mind is like, “Just hold on for a little bit longer.” And I’m gonna take you to the point where your mind and your body become in sync with each other. And most people miss that opportunity to experience that harmony between the mind and the body because right before that moment is when it’s at it’s peak of tough. And that’s when…
Mark: And that’s when all the bells and whistles are going off, saying you’re red-lining it. Pull back.
James: Yeah. Every safety signal that is built into your brain is going off. And if you can overcome that… you look at my journey, and you look at the hard statistical data. I started to fail about 25 through 30 and it was a mental lapse that I was having. And as soon as I righted the mental side of things, and it was really races 30 through 50 that I became the strongest. You look at the statistical data and I was a metronome for those last 20. In a year where they said it was absolutely impossible to accomplish what we did, my last 20 of 50 were my fastest? And most powerful?
And that’s because that was the moment when my mind and my body were finally in sync. And you’ve experienced that because of what you’ve been through, and I just wish that on anybody, to have that experience. That moment that they really want to quit, they’re right on the cusp of experiencing something truly euphoric and unique.
Mark: Man, this is such an interesting conversation. And I kinda want to bring something that happened to us recently at Kokoro camp into this. Because it speaks to this knowing your body and self-awareness. Like, at any point during these 50 events did you ever feel like you’re physically putting yourself at serious risk of death or disablement? Or were you feeling like, “Okay, everything’s like all systems go. This is just extreme fatigue.”
Let me rephrase the question. One of my mentor’s said it’s really important to know the difference between integrating pain, and disintegrating pain. And what he means by that is, disintegrating pain is the pain where you’re like, “Okay. That’s an injury. Boom.” And then as an endurance athlete, you have to then assess that. Is that an injury that’s going to lead to debilitation? Or is it something I can work around through some adaptation.
And then I’ll contextualize this even further, and then let you speak. Recently we had an amazing guy, amazing athlete pass away from massive heart failure after Kokoro camp. He went all the way through. And I saw him smiling 20 minutes before graduation. And then as soon as we graduated, like, boom… the bell went off, these guys are done, secured… this individual, you know, passed out and died on us. And it was a traumatic experience and when I’ve done some research I find that like 300,000 people a year die from what they call “athlete’s heart.” Obviously not a condition that you had, but my question is how do we train people to know, to assess whether they’re dealing with integrating versus disintegrating pain during an endurance event. I don’t know if there’s an answer to that, but I just wanted to get your perspective on it.
James: Yeah, that is a tough one. Only because everybody is so unique and different. For me, I knew… Like, there was a time frame associated with what I was doing. And I knew… I guess for me the fact that the injuries that I was experiencing, they would only last–except for a couple of them that lasted the entire 50 or the majority of it–they were moving around and so I was always dealing with something new. And so that was a good sign for me that I was never in danger because my body was adapting and dealing with things. I became concerned once I lost feeling in my fingers and my toes during the really later stages of it. And I knew that if I pushed beyond the 50 or even had we let it go 60 days, I would be dealing with probably some longer term damage. But I knew that the finish-line was coming and I knew that that nerve damage would repair itself because I’ve experienced how the body… how amazing it is at repairing itself, and I knew that I was close enough to the finish-line.
In order to truly push my mind and my body, the challenge would be do as Ironmans as you can do until you drop. But I’m not willing to do that, and I found my limits to my satisfaction. I think for me, I never felt like I was in extreme danger because when things… like, my body was not sending blood-flow to my fingers and toes because it was sending it to my vital organ because my body was shutting down. So that becomes a problem, and I was aware of that, but it also really only happened in the last 5 days. And so I think in looking back on it, I don’t think 100 is… people are like, “Hey, you gonna do 100-100-100?” I’m like, “no.” That’s…
Mark: (laughing) But you know someone out there is trying to figure out if they can beat your 50-50-50.
James: Oh sure.
Mark: And that’s where it gets kinda… like, you set a new standard. And now someone’s going to break it. And someone’s going to break that. And then someone’s going to push it a little bit too far.
This is just the human experience. People want to challenge themselves and find the limits of their mental, physical, spiritual self. And it makes you feel alive. It makes you… it’s an incredible thing, I think.
Different versions of maximum
James: But here’s the difference though. Or what people need to realize is that everybody’s version of difficult or their best self is unique and different to them. And what I mean by that is my physical and mental capacity was trying to accomplish 50 Ironmans in 50 days through 50 states.
My mother came out and she’s struggled with obesity, and she came out and she did 5 5ks in 5 days through 5 states. Cause every single day we did a 5k at the end of every single day to raise money for childhood obesity and the Jamie Oliver Foundation. So we organized an event inside of my event every single day. And the public came out and participated.
So she came out, and those 5 5ks for my mother was her hard–was her version of hard–and so… I’ve set in my opinion, a new standard of what the human body and mind is capable of. But that doesn’t mean you have to go out and do 51 or 2 consecutive Ironmans. That means push beyond what you think your standard of excellence is. And so I don’t encourage people to do what I did. That was a moment in time, and that was potentially reckless. But the point of it, and what I want people to get from it, is that they’re capable of so much more than they’re currently producing. And that’s the most important take away–is not to best the best out there, but to become the best version of you and what mountain you’re struggling, and what fear is holding you back, and overcoming those things. It’s not… and that’s why you almost have to stop comparing yourself to everybody else. And set your standard of excellence and go beyond that, within your realm. Hopefully that makes sense.
Mark: Oh totally. And that’s completely in line with our Unbeatable Mind philosophy and what we call our 20x potential. Is that you’re capable of 20 times more than you think you are. But like you said, it’s not in everything. It’s in that area that you are most passionate about and meant for, know what I mean?
I wouldn’t say I have 20 times potential to get on stage with Paul McCartney. I went out to Coachella, they called it the geezer-fest last weekend to see Mick Jagger and Paul McCartney. It was so inspiring to see these 73 year-old guys bouncing around stage and just ripping it. I was like, “Holy crap!” You know what I mean? I felt really small but also really inspired. It was a neat experience.
But so my point is, 20x to me doesn’t mean I’ve got the potential to be a singer like that. But I do have the potential to be physically, mentally tough and to teach people that. That’s where I’m going to find that 20x potential is in alignment with my uniqueness, my unique passion and purpose in life.
James: Yeah, I think that’s a beautiful take away is we don’t have to 20x every aspect of our lives. And we can enjoy and appreciate when people do it in their expertise. Like, I have found that I have an ability to endure both physically and mentally. And that’s what I’m really good at. I would consider myself an expert at it.
But that doesn’t mean go out and mimic what I did. It means 20x whatever applicable and challenging in your life for you in that moment. Because everybody’s on a different journey, at a different time. But we all have to learn the same lessons.
And that’s the other thing too, is people just set these like, 20x goals and people don’t realize, the problem isn’t setting the goal, the problem is associating the proper time frame with the goal. And they’re not willing to do the appropriate steps in order to get them to that moment.
Mark: The journey is the most important part, right?
James: Yeah, exactly. Onstage I talk about life isn’t filled with finish-lines. It’s about milestones and the important aspect is how many people you bring with you. And strip away any accomplishment that I’ve ever had and it’s about the experience of the journey and the people, what I’ve learned and what I’ve been able to teach.
It’s just… the goal of 50 Ironmans in 50 days was totally appropriate for me, but it wouldn’t have been for me to try to accomplish it 10 years ago. I had to go through the journey that I went through, and then only at that moment was I ready to tackle that goal. So the goal was appropriate, but I had to have the appropriate time frame, and take the appropriate steps in order to accomplish it.
Mark: And to be fair, it seems like the possibility wasn’t even in your domain of consciousness until you were ready to conceive of it. And then when you were ready, you thought of it.
James: Exactly. That’s a fantastic point. And people that hear my story now, they’re just like, “Oh, I should go do something that big tomorrow.” And they don’t realize that it was a decade in the making that took me to get to that point. Even conceptually I couldn’t even wrap my mind around it. And even now that I’ve finished it, and looking back at it, I’m like, “I don’t know… I don’t understand how we did that.” And so it was a space in time where I was ready to do that. And I get emails, and I’m sure you do to, of people that are like, “This is what I’m gonna do, and I’m gonna do it in one week! How can you help me?”
I’m like, “That’s a great goal but let’s back up for a second and make sure we’re doing the right things for you to ultimately have a chance at success with this goal.”
Mark: Yeah, totally.
Mark: So let’s talk a little bit about fueling. Cause nutrition for endurance events is an interesting topic. And people are really looking at ketogenesis, and carbo-loading and all this kind of stuff. But how did you fuel yourself in preparation and during the event?
James: Yeah, so preparation and during were kind of 2 different segments for me. Preparation I was trying to eat really clean fuels. And my wife and I joke and there’s all these incredibly fad diets, “I’m all meat. I’m no meat. I’m all carb. I’m no carb. I’m all protein. I’m no protein.” And there’s these incredible extremes. And my wife and I are just of the philosophy, and we call it “Jesus foods.” And what that means is if it was put on this earth and you wanna eat it in moderation, do that. And you need to have a balance across all things. In my preparation up to this I had to fuel with the cleanest Jesus foods that we could find, and I could eat as much of it as I wanted to.
And that got me ready to start the journey. Now the journey itself was very unique. And my engine was burning so hot that I was eating 10 to 12,000 calories a day. And those 10 to 12,000 calories were made up of some of the best foods that we could eat, and then it was also pure garbage and trash and fuel just because I could consume anything and convert it into energy. I joke, “Hey, if you want to get down to 4% body fat, it’s easy. Just eat 12,000 calories a day and do an Ironman a day and it’s a 50 day program. And you’ll reach the goal.”
But it was just such a unique circumstance that the engine was burning so hot that I could eat anything. But we live our lives with… I actually adapt what I call a B+ average to health, wellness and nutrition. Because none of us are perfect, we can’t attain perfection. And ultimately, when you try to do these really intense programs, and try to implement that for a long period of time, you’re setting yourself up for failure.
Mark: Yeah, it’s not sustainable.
James: It’s not sustainable. And as soon as you take one misstep, then you turn into a dumpster fire for 6 months. And then looking back on your year, you’ve got this A+/ F- model. You were A+ for 20 days and a dumpster fire for 6 months and now you’re in worse shape than you were looking back on the year.
Mark: That’s still an F, right?
James: Yeah, it’s a total F. And so I get up on stage and I promote mediocrity in this area.
Mark: Well B+ is not mediocrity, it’s just an A+. But again, it goes into what’s an A+. To me, we can redefine that. An A is a sustainable B+ and fueling is an A+ in my book. Cause otherwise it’s not sustainable. And you go through these wild swings. We at SEALFIT call that the 80/20 rule, so 80% of the time, eat clean, eat well. Do the high quality meats and vegetables and nuts and berries, and that kind of stuff. 20% of the time, who gives a shit?
James: Exactly. Enjoy a social atmosphere. Enjoy the occasional treat. Reward yourself. It’s way more sustainable and you’ll be much further ahead. I’m a complete advocate of that. I couldn’t agree with you more.
Mark: Fascinating. Okay, so that event itself, you mentioned the first 20 Ironmans were the hardest, and then mentally it started to get easier. What was going through your head? I mean you had 7100 miles of work. Right? What was that roller coaster ride like mentally for you?
James: Yeah, I had to play mid tricks with myself, and the deeper we got into the campaign, the more laser-focused I had to be on the present. And one of the unique games that I would play with myself… well 2 of them. I call it the “power minute.” And at any moment in time when I got really, really dark, I knew that I could be perfect for 60 seconds. And we all can. And for me, I would just say, “Okay, execute with perfection the basics for the next 60 seconds.” And sometimes I had to do that for an hour straight. And other times I could go 5, 6 hours and not think about doing what I was doing, and I was unconscious about it.
And then the other things was my mind could… once I got deep into the campaign, my mind could only function on single digits. And it could internalize and digest small numbers. And so for me when I got to, like, let’s say 18 races to go, the crew was not allowed to say the number “18.” It was “8 to go to 10 to go.” Because I could break down 8… I could wrap my mind around 8 Ironmans and I could my brain around 10 Ironmans, but I could not wrap my mind around 18.
And then it was, okay, at 14 I’ve got “4 to go to 10 to go.” I’ve got “3 to go to 10 to go.” I could digest those. And so those were some of the little games that I played with myself. When I got really, really dark, it was literally just the next 60 seconds. I need to be good for 60 seconds. And then beyond that it was single digits. I could handle and digest small, small, small bites. I couldn’t… mentally I didn’t want to tackle the enormity of what we were doing.
Mark: What were the mantras that really helped you just get into the zone and stay focused for long periods of time?
James: You know, I mentioned earlier that we did that 5k every single day for charity. And we did that at 7 o’clock. And it didn’t matter where I was mileage-wise in my marathon, I would meet back at a staging area. And sometimes I got in 5 miles and sometimes I got in 18 miles.
And every single day… early on in the campaign, my daughter realized that I was struggling. And I was dealing with extreme exhaustion. And she was 12 years old and it was actually on day 4 and she had run the previous 3 days with me and she said, “Dad, I can see that you’re struggling.” And so much wisdom from my daughter. She just said, “I will be right beside you every day for 50 consecutive 5ks.” And she made this declaration as a 12 year old kid with no run experience. And she’s just developing incredible mental toughness, but for me one of my biggest mantras was, you know, “you have a meeting with your daughter. You’re meeting your daughter today at 7 o’clock.” And I could just imagine after the commitment that she made to me to support me and do these 5ks for every single day for 50 days, there was no way that I was going to let her down.
During the bike ride it was one of the hardest portions of my day, because I was falling asleep on the bike. And I had a lot of alone time, just because you’re out on your bike, and you’re staggered with other people and you’re not having a lot of conversations. And so you have that time to reflect and have a lot of long, sometimes really meaningful conversations with yourself. And that was one of the best things that came from it, is these conversations that I got to have with myself. As far as my biggest mantra was that 7 o’clock appointment that I had with my daughter, and I wasn’t going to let her down.
Mark: So you actually got to see her at 7 o’clock every night?
James: Every single day. It was my reconnection with the family. My family was there the whole time, and the kids… every single day they would go out and they would… my kids had an amazing summer. They got to go to every state, and then every single day they went and saw something cool in that state. So they went and saw monuments or amusement parks or aquariums or some historical site. And then at 7 o’clock, for the next 45 minutes while I was running with my daughter, she would recap me on the day that mom and the kids and all that got to have. And so it was my reconnection to my family every day, and that really was the only “why” that I needed, or mantra that I needed. Was that meeting and that reconnection with my family at 7 o’clock every day.
Mark: That is really, really cool. And what a neat experience to have your family kind of there with you every day. Logistically–this is just been nagging at me–but how did you guys organize the swimming every day? You actually did a swim in 50 states?
James: Yeah, we did the 2.4 mile swim in every single state. And I…
Mark: Some of them must have been in pools, right?
James: Yeah, we did 20 of them in open water–and open water would be an ocean, a lake, a river. And then we did 30 of them in pools. And before… logistically I sat down for 2 years and I organized and planned every single event, and I coordinated with 50 plus people across the country. Cause I didn’t know the lay of the land and so they helped me. And I said, “Is this a good place? Is this not a bad place?”
Ambassadors and Helpers
Mark: So you had someone on the ground in every state help you out, obviously.
James: Yeah, in every state I had a volunteer that kind of stepped up and said, “I want to be part of this. I want to help you see this through.” And it actually got dangerous for me in the swim portion because I got so lean and so susceptible to the cold water. And we talked about the dangers of these athletes that die with these heart conditions. We could see what was going on with me externally, and what I was dealing with, but we really didn’t know what internal thing was going on and we thought, “Okay, if I’m going to have a problem, it better be in a pool and not in open water.” And so we started on the back half. We started calling ahead to–we called them ambassadors–and we started moving the swims from open water into pools, only so that we could control that environment. And the biggest thing was to keep me safe, because we truly didn’t know… we knew that I was under extreme stress, and we didn’t want to take that chance. I mean, I’ve got 5 kids. And obviously if I felt I was in extreme danger, I would have pulled the plug. But we wanted to take every precaution that I needed. (laughing) My main goal wasn’t to die during the 50. It was to create a future for me so that I could be with my family and enjoy that time.
Mark: Right. Wow. What a neat thing. And I’m sure your kids… I mean, that’s a lifetime experience for them. And I know now that you coach people. Do you coach kids, or is it mostly adults?
James: Our biggest focus is on helping people do half-Ironmans, full-Ironmans, marathons. And in order to do those event you have to be 18. And so I’m involved with my kid’s wrestling and my kid’s track and field, and anything locally here. And I get involved with the other kids. And I go around and I speak to a lot of camps and kids here locally. But our training program online is Team Iron Cowboy. It’s worldwide. It’s predominantly adults who are trying to achieve and Ironman, or a marathon or their first 5k even, and we walk you through that entire process in how to engage and really accelerate that learning curve. Cause it is a steep learning curve to do an Ironman. And the process just needs to be respected.
Mark: So that’s teamironcowboy.com?
James: Yes sir.
Mark: Okay, cool. And, let’s talk about what’s coming up? You mentioned you’ve got another big challenge that you’re striving for, let’s talk about that. Around Kilimanjaro?
James: Yeah. A lot of people have summited Mount Kilimanjaro, and it’s a great peak to do, to climb and to take on. In my early days, in 2010 when I was doing the half-Ironman world record we raise a lot of money and we built dams in Africa. And an opportunity presented itself to go over there and kind of see the charity work that we’ve done, and also a physical challenge came to the forefront and it was to see if we could actually ride our bikes all the way to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro. So in March we’re going to see if that’s possible, and see if we can pedal every step of the way from base camp all the way to the summit.
So we’re excited about that, yeah.
Mark: So are other people gonna be riding with you, or are you going to be the only one on the mountain bike?
James: There’s actually 3 of us going to do it. A father and a son combination. They actually live in California. His name’s Rob Nelson. He runs a radio show out there. He’s a former tennis pro. And then his son Tate who’s an amateur MMA fighter. So we’ve got this former tennis pro, an amateur MMA fighter and myself, who’s an extreme triathlete, but not necessarily a mountain biker. But the 3 of us are going to go in uncharted territory and rely on some grit, some determination and some mental toughness to see if we can do what nobody else has been able to do before us.
Mark: What fun. Well make sure that we know about that, so we can kind of help you promote and raise awareness. Are you doing that in conjunction with any charity?
James: Yeah, they actually have a charity that they’ve partnered with. It’s a charity in Africa. I’m learning about it. And we’re about to launch a campaign to try to raise some funds, and get some attention.
Mark: Awesome. Well, very, very interesting. So folks can find you by Googling Iron Cowboy. The book that’s coming out in March, which I can’t wait to read is called “Iron Cowboy: How I redefined human limits so you could redefine yours.”
And if you’re interested in James’ coaching program it’s teamironcowboy.com. James, thanks so much. Totally inspirational. Really appreciate your time, and what you’re doing out there. And look forward to meeting you in person someday. Hopefully at the SEALFIT 300 if we can get that…
James: I was just going to bring that up. I didn’t know if it was something that we could talk about. And I’m super-excited to tackle something with you, and one of the most brilliant minds in this space.
Mark: (laughing) Thanks.
James: And hopefully we can do that 300 miles and hopefully I can showcase some of my talents with you guys.
Mark: I’m looking forward to it. It’s just the timeline… I think we were a little aggressive with. I’m pretty sure we’re not going to do it in May, but we’re looking at pushing it to September. We’ll keep you posted on that and we’ll figure that out and we’ll get the word out when it’s ready.
All right, James. Thanks again. You have a wonderful day. And everyone out there in Unbeatable Mind world, and SEALFIT and ultra-endurance athletes, stay focused. Do the work. Day in and day out remember the journey is the joy. But you gotta know your destination. So make sure you’re clear on that. At any rate, we’ll see you next time. And stay focused.
Coach Divine out.