James Lawrence—aka the Iron Cowboy—is famous for his completion of one of the most difficult athletic challenges: The Ironman triathlon. This event is 2.4 miles of swimming, followed by 112 miles of cycling, and capped off with 26.2 miles of running (or for some, crawling). This is such a difficult feat that less than .01% of people have accomplished it. Can you imagine spending 8, 10, or even 17 hours in constant motion moving toward a finish line? How much stress would you put on your body and mind during this event? Ironman athletes truly deserve respect.
But is the Ironman competition the upper limit of human athletic endurance? Why is the competition 2.4 miles of swimming, 112 miles of cycling, and 26.2 miles of running? Far from being a valid estimation of human limits, these distance figures are quite arbitrary. As it turns out, the distances reflect the distances for the Waikiki Roughwater Swim, the Around-Oahu Bike Race, and the Honolulu Marathon. This prompts the question: What are the upper limits of a human’s physical endurance?
In the summer of 2015, the Iron Cowboy set out to do what many thought to be far beyond the limits of human capability. He audaciously set out to complete 50 full-distance Ironman triathlons in 50 consecutive days, one in each of the 50 states. Wow!!! During his 50/50/50 project, he invited the local communities to join him. I was able to do so when he was in his third state of Washington:
Remarkably, James completed the 50/50/50, which was perhaps the most impressive endurance accomplishment of all time. If you are interested, you can watch his documentary, currently available on Amazon Prime. It really made me wonder how many of our limits are self-imposed. But it also made me curious where our limits truly lie.
But the Iron Cowboy was not done. Six years later, in the spring of 2021, James completed the Conquer 100 project. This time, he upped the ante and completed 100 consecutive Ironman distances in 100 days! This time, he stayed in his home location in Lindon, Utah, and rotated across a couple of designated courses. His following was exponentially larger. He received loads of media attention this time around, including attention from the New York Times and CNN. Even the Australian news interviewed him! Did he accomplish the 100 Ironmans? He sure did. Actually, he completed 101 distances, waking up the day after his victory and repeating his effort one last time. Truly remarkable.
How Did The Iron Cowboy Do It?
Without knowing anything else about James, what kind of background do you think he has? If you were like me, you would guess that he has been running marathons since age eight. Or maybe that he was an All-American athlete in grade school. Or perhaps that was an Olympian. Turns out, none of these things are true. In fact, in his late 20s, he barely had the stamina to complete a local 5k.
So how did he pull off these amazing accomplishments? There are certainly many factors, but after reading extensively about, listening intently to, and running personally with James, here’s my perspective.
First, the Iron Cowboy maintained self-efficacy, or the self-belief that he could accomplish the Conquer 100. James recounts that the Conquer 100 only seemed possible to him because of the 50/50/50. But that the 50/50/50 seemed possible to him only because of his previous accomplishment of completing 30 full-distance ironman races in one calendar year. But that the 30 full distances seemed possible only because of his 22 half-marathons in one calendar year. (The latter two netted him Guinness World Records.) Self-efficacy is just as important in one’s job or career as it is in athletics. In fact, one meta-analysis demonstrates that self-efficacy has an incredibly strong relationship with job performance, which surpasses job performance’s relationship with top-notch leadership. In short, self-efficacy—believing that you can achieve the task—is key to high performance.
Second, the Iron Cowboy acknowledges the power of community. He routinely praised his team, which included his wife Sunny, and his Wingmen Casey and Aaron. He calls his team “world class.” He also acknowledges the strength of all the supporters who donated or who co-participated. When I ran with him in Washington, he treated me with the utmost respect as I asked for a photo. This might seem trivial until you realize that even the smallest tasks overwhelm us when exhausted. His respect for others is indicative of his belief in the power of community.
Third, the Iron Cowboy fills his life with purpose. Many times throughout his events, he would wake up and would not feel like he could take another step. In these moments, the Iron Cowboy would remind himself why he was putting himself through the torture. He would remind himself of the money that would come in and go toward saving young children from sex trafficking. He would remind himself of his family, and how his children were looking up to his example. When he thought of this, it fueled his devastated body, and he found the will to go forward.
This notion of purpose (aka meaning) is not new, but rather something that psychologists have identified for decades. Consider Viktor Frankl, who wrote Man’s Search for Meaning. Frankl made the observation that prisoners of war survived only inasmuch as they had a purpose to endure the suffering. The moment their suffering lost its meaning, their spirits would crumble, and they would perish soon thereafter. Strikingly, Frankl observed that this principle applied no differently to post-war Austrians who had all their temporal needs met. These citizens were prone to suicidal thoughts when they weren’t able to identify meaning in their lives. Frankl often quoted Nietzsche: “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” Purpose and meaning is something ALL of us need, even if we aren’t being tortured by others in Auschwitz or torturing ourselves on the Conquer 100 trail.
I hope that you, too, are setting audacious goals.. As you do, take some lessons from James. You need faith, community, and purpose. If you can satisfy these criteria, I can only predict that you will strike success in your own unique way—even if it doesn’t involve losing toenails like it did for James!
Assistant Professor of Management & Foust Professor of Business