First, Some Context
My good friend Kevin Wilson is a member of a very elite minority. He is one of less than one-tenth of 1% of the population who have completed an Ironman race. That certainly sounds impressive but what does it mean?
To complete the Ironman event and earn the coveted finisher’s shirt, Kevin had to successfully swim 2.4 miles, bike 112 miles, and run a full marathon—26.2 miles. That is 140.6 grueling miles in a single day, on a day that reached well over 100 degrees on the asphalt. For most of us that seems out of reach, impossible even. It’s not. Read on and prepare to have your mind boggled…
Meet James Lawrence. In street clothes he looks perfectly ordinary; average height with a slender, athletic build. He lives in an ordinary home in a cul-de-sac in an ordinary neighborhood in Utah. But James Lawrence is anything but ordinary.
James is a Guinness World Record setting endurance athlete, so it’s hardly surprising that he is also in the exclusive club of Ironman finishers. What is surprising is, well, almost everything else.
In 2012 Lawrence completed 30 Ironman races in eleven different countries, shattering the previous record of 20 races in a year. But James Lawrence wasn’t satisfied with this incredible feat. He wanted to push his limits. He wanted to do something that he couldn’t accomplish on his own. He wanted to do something that was impossible to ignore, in order to raise awareness for America’s rapidly growing childhood obesity epidemic. So with the help of friends, family, and thousands of volunteers across the country, Lawrence put together an event he called the 50-50-50.
On June 6th, 2015, in Hawaii, James swam 2.4 miles, biked 112 miles, ran a marathon, and hopped on a plane to Alaska. The next morning he swam another 2.4 miles, biked 112 more miles and ran another marathon and boarded another plane to the lower 48 states in time to do it again the next day, and the next… and the next. When James finally stopped on July 25th in Utah, he had completed the equivalent of an Ironman race every single day for 50 consecutive days in 50 different states. Chew on that for a minute—fifty 140.6 mile triathlons, in fifty states, in fifty days! Can you say WOW?
That’s 120 miles of swimming, 5,600 miles of biking, and 1,310 miles of running. To put that into brain-bending perspective, if James had gotten on his bike in New York City, rode it to Los Angeles, turned around, rode it back to New York City, gotten off his bike, ran all the way down the coast to Key West Florida, jumped in the water and swam to… Cuba… he would have still needed to bike another 21 miles, swim another 15 miles—oh, and run another marathon—in order to cover the same distances that he totalled during his 50-50-50!
The story of those fifty days could fill many blog posts, a book and a movie, but suffice it to say—it was hard. James battled exhaustion, hypothermia, cramping, depression—and chiggers. He averaged only 4.5 hours of sleep, causing him to fall asleep on his bike in Tennessee on mile 30 and crash. He had to finish the ride and the ensuing run with serious road rash. He injured his shoulder and had to swim for several days with one arm. His feet looked like someone had tried to beat them off his body. During the race, Lawrence said:
“When I finish each night I have no idea how I’m going to do another one of these. But I just wake up the next morning and start to swim. How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time -nom, nom, nom.”
The lessons that we could glean from such a monumental feat are nearly endless. But let’s look at three.
Lesson #1: Hard Work & Determination > Talent
Often, we hear of some seemingly super-human accomplishment and think that there must be a “special” genetic gift that makes it possible. It is true that for some endeavors there are advantages beyond our control that are helpful—being tall, having a high IQ, etc—but the role of sheer will and discipline is grossly underestimated.
I mentioned that my friend Kevin Wilson was an Ironman finisher. But when Kevin began training for it he was 39 yrs old, holding onto a floatie noodle in a YMCA pool with an instructor patiently teaching him… to float. He hadn’t ridden a bike in twenty years. It wasn’t a special physical gift that allowed him to finish an Ironman. It was the discipline to train 10-15 hours a week at first—and then more than 20 hours a week—for 14 months that gave Kevin the tools he needed.
Surely though, that’s not the case for the ultra-elite like James Lawrence, right? Let’s see. He ran his first race at 28 years old when his wife signed him up for a 4 mile “fun-run”. He had a miserable experience and was passed by women pushing strollers. His wife chided and challenged him to run a marathon five months later. He did, and struggled again.
But if James is blessed with a gift, it is a giant helping of bulldog-like determination. (James once entered a carnival competition in his native Canada to see who could ride the ferris wheel the longest. The contestants were given two five-minute breaks per 24 hours. After ten days, everyone but 23 yr old James Lawrence had given up. He used the cash prize to move to Utah.)
After his initial poor race performances Lawrence began to research endurance competition and train. Four years later he competed in his first triathlon. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Lesson #2: Nothing Big is Accomplished Alone
Lesson #2 was borrowed directly from my friend Kevin during a recent interview. Kevin’s family wasn’t just there to witness his Ironman journey and the victory. They were indispensable members of the team; a reason for the success. They were his cheerleaders during the fourteen long months of preparation. They were the reason Kevin didn’t go home on the early mornings when he would sit in his car in the parking lot outside the gym and think I don’t want to do this today. He couldn’t have done it without his family, or his training partner.
James Lawrence also had a team of friends and family he called his “wing-men”. They offered never-ending encouragement, they took turns riding with him, running with him, tending to his plethora of medical needs, and the laundry list of logistical tasks associated with a 50 day, 50 state tour. They offered much needed comical relief, using fairy wings, shark fins, an endless supply of jokes—whatever was needed to lift James’ spirits. Lawrence also invited locals to join him for the last 5K of each leg of the event. Some locations had a dozen participants, others had a few thousand. James said that his feat would have been impossible without those people and their stories pushing him onward.
Lesson #3: The Power of Perspective
The thought of swimming, biking, and running some 7,000 combined miles in 50 days invariably begs the question, how? Our perspective is shaped by what we normally experience. Our idea of “difficult” is defined by it. In order to accomplish something extraordinary we must shift our perspective. There is no better example of this than James Lawrence’s own words describing his perspective of the 50-50-50:
“I gain inspiration by thinking back on other human beings who have endured so much more. Think about a prisoner of war – locked up for years. What I am doing is nothing compared to what others have endured. I’m not getting tortured. No one beats me. I get to sleep in a bed – most of the time. I’m not being starved to death. It’s the opposite actually, people are handing me food and cold drinks all day long. I get messages from all over the world. Strangers come up to me and tell me how inspirational this is to them. That pushes me forward. For me, there is an end in sight. I know that this will all be done in 50 days. That gives me hope. I also have my wife Sunny and my beautiful children with me. That makes all the difference. This is incredibly hard, but it’s nothing compared to what so many other people have endured. That’s what I think about. That’s the context I’m living in.”
Kevin Wilson also told me that his Ironman experience changed his perspective, not only about physical limits, but in every area of life. Whether your goal is to walk ten minutes a day, complete fifty Ironmans, or to start your own company, the process is similar.
In the end, there is perhaps no better way to summarize the dynamics of high achievement than in a quote that Kevin said he inherited from his father: “The harder you work, the harder it is to surrender.”The harder you work, the harder it is to surrender Click To Tweet
As much pain as James Lawrence endured, we would be remiss if we didn’t recognize his why. Lawrence knew this level of accomplishment—maybe the single greatest endurance feat ever recorded—would bring a lot of recognition. And he desired to use that recognition to benefit his favorite charity, The Jamie Oliver Food Foundation, a non-profit organization committed to fighting childhood obesity. Click HERE to learn more about them, or to donate.