Throw-back Thursday: How this former wrestler became the ‘Cowboy Ironman’

Updated: December 1, 2022

Photo: Former-wrestler-turned-triathlete James Lawrence amazingly ran 50 triathlons in 50 days in 50 different states in 2015.

(This story was originally published in WIN’s December 2019 issue. Sandy Stevens is a long-time public-address announcer of national and international events and was named to the National Hall of Fame in 1998. For access to all past WIN archives back to fall of 2011, get a Digital or Combo Subscription to WIN.)

By Sandy Stevens

A five- or six-minute match can feel like an eternity to a wrestler.

So how do you even contemplate completing a triathlon — 2.4 miles of swimming, 112 miles on a bike and a full 26.2-mile marathon — and doing it every single day for 50 days in all 50 states?

Former wrestler James Lawrence did, starting in June 2015 in Hawaii and ending in his home state of Utah. In what he calls “the 50,” he totaled 120 miles of swimming, 5,602 miles biking and 1,310 miles running on an average four hours sleep a night.

Having been a wrestler, declared this 43-year-old ultra-endurance athlete, “is, without question, the foundation to my mental toughness.”

A native of Calgary, Alberta, Canada, Lawrence began wrestling at age 11 with a club out of the University of Calgary.

“I was doing a little of every sport, so I did wrestling and basketball (concurrently),” he said. “I managed a heavy workload. It’s an absolute Christmas miracle I made it out of junior high!”

By ninth grade, he’d won the provincial (equivalent in the U.S. to state) freestyle championship. As a 135-pound senior, he duplicated that feat with an unbeaten season.

“I won my first two matches at the nationals and blew out my shoulder,” Lawrence said. “I trained with and intended to compete for a club team, but my shoulder wouldn’t allow it.

“But the lessons I learned as a wrestler — persistence, getting back up after a failure or lesson learned, hard work, consistency over time — have been able to translate to other areas of my life and, more specifically, to the endurance records that we have taken on and conquered. They are absolutely instrumental in my success.”

Now 43, Lawrence broke the world record for Ironman 70.3 events (half triathlons) in 2010, completing 22 in 30 weeks and raising money for his “Tri and Give a Dam” project.

 “In our own quiet way, we helped with building damns, an orphan feeding center and a women’s opportunity center in Africa,” he said.

Then he was ready for a new challenge. In 2012, he set another world record and earned a second posting in the Guinness Book of World Records, with the most full-Ironman races completed in one year: 30 in 11 countries.

By this time, he’d also earned the nickname of the “Iron Cowboy” by running in a colorful cowboy hat so his children could pick him out in races.

But Lawrence’s drive wasn’t satisfied. He explained to a reporter, “I wanted three things: raise more money for charity, find my mental and physical limits and then discover what happens when I find them.”

Thus evolved “the 50,” where his wife Sunny and their five children, now ages 10 to 17, accompanied and supported him through every state. Volunteers helped in every state, and Lawrence also invited people in each state to join him in the last leg of the marathon.

“Nothing great is ever accomplished on your own,” he said.

Lawrence uses his journeys as a platform to aid non-profits. The focus for the 50 was the Jamie Oliver Foundation, raising awareness of the childhood obesity epidemic and encouraging healthy eating habits and developing cooking skills for children and families.

In September, he will attempt to swim across Utah Lake, bike 615 miles from Utah Lake to Lake Tahoe and run the Tahoe 200 (actually 205 miles) in one week. He’ll be supporting the Pheel Good Foundation, a non-profit organization founded in memory of Phil Brown.

Brown was inspired by Lawrence’s accomplishments, but Brown’s life was cut tragically short when he was hit while riding his motorcycle to work in March 2017. The PHEEL GOOD Foundation allows others the opportunity to enjoy those adventures, by providing quality events that bring communities together to enjoy and participate in activities that make them “pheel’” good — physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually.

In what he called “an amazing journey since the 50,” Lawrence noted that despite no advertising, he’s traveled to 41 countries in three years and made 85 appearances a year.

Now Lawrence has set his sights on breaking two more world records in 2021. The first: posting the fastest ironman through six continents.

And the second? “They’ll be an undisclosed world record set that will defy logic,” he declared.

“I know there’ll be a day when I don’t go as extreme, but I think it’s important that everybody gets uncomfortable intentionally at least once a year, because as humans that’s where we see growth.

“It gives you confidence in all areas of your life,” he explained. “You see growth in struggle and adversity when you’re trapped inside your head and have to have real conversation within yourself.

“Ultimately,” said this former wrestler, “it’s when you start believing in yourself and stop getting in your own way.”