Meet Mr. Ironman

James Lawrence plans to set world record by completing 30 Ironmans this year

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James Lawrence, the ÒIron Cowboy,Ó will be trying to complete his 12th Ironman this year, today in Coeur dÕAlene.

For most, one Ironman a year is enough. Some might do two or three, heck, maybe even four.

Child’s play to James Lawrence.

When the Utah man lines up for today’s Ironman Coeur d’Alene, along with about 2,600 others, it will be his 12th Ironman this year.

“This is another day in the office,” he said Saturday as he sat on the steps at Independence Point.

Yep. He’s done 11 already. And before 2012 is in the history books, he plans to do 18 more.

If he finishes the year with 30 Ironmans to his credit — and he says he will — it will shatter the world record held by Belgian Stefaan Engels, who completed 20 in 2008.

He’s not messing with you, folks.

This guy already holds the world record for most half-Ironmans in a year, completing 22 of the 70.3-mile races in 2010.

So we’re not talking about someone chugging through the 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and 26.2-mile run.

The 5-8, 165-pound Lawrence is rock solid, strong and fast. He’s got a best of 10 hours, 28 minutes to his credit this year, and averages around 11:30.

He could go faster if he wanted to push harder, to race the clock. But that’s not the goal, though he does want to break 12 hours in each race.

“I want to be athletic out there. I want to do my best within reason. You always have to keep the next race in mind. I always have to have the big picture in mind.”

“Right now, it’s all about recovery and staying injury free.”

Part of that big picture is that spot in the Guinness Book of World Records.

To get there, Lawrence travels. Often.

Last week, the 36-year-old finished an Ironman in Regensburg, Germany. When he leaves Coeur d’Alene on Monday, he’s headed to Austria. In the following weeks, he’ll travel to France, Switzerland, Lake Placid, N.Y., and Colorado.

Before he’s done, he’ll visit 10 countries on five continents and have raced in Mexico, New Zealand, Australia, Brazil, and South Africa, along with two races in his home country, Canada.

And yes, he’ll have the world record he covets.

But this Ironman is about more than glory and endorsements.

He wants to save lives.

‘Tri and Give a Dam’

He calls his effort “Tri and Give a Dam” to integrate his love for triathlons with his efforts to bring water to people in Kenya.

He is raising awareness of and money for the Utah-based nonprofit “In Our Own Quiet Way.”

Currently, Quiet Way is focused on infrastructure planning for water resource management in Kenya, which includes putting dams, boreholes and wells in the most strategic places for “maximum impact and longevity of provision,” according to Lawrence’s website.

“It provides access to irrigation water so they can be self-sufficient and grow their own food,” he said.

Quiet Way has been in operation since 2007, and has built two dams, drilled five wells, built an orphan feeding center, funded a women’s co-op, fed 10,000 people during the drought, and put over 20 students through secondary education.

Quiet Way has narrowed its focus to water, which Lawrence can relate to as an athlete.

“When I experience the effects of poor hydration, I always stop and consider that there are millions of people in the world today that suffer from want of clean, adequate water on a daily basis,” he said in a press release. “It’s very sobering.”

His Ironman record attempt is also about living a dream and proving to himself and others “that anything is possible. If I set a goal, with the right support system, I can go out and do it,” he said.

He admits he also wants to prove the naysayers wrong who he would fail when he launched his 2012 attempt in January in Naples, Fla.

And finally, he wants to complete his quest to further his career as a triathlon coach and personal trainer, and “become a recognized endurance athlete and respected for what I do.”

Family man

Lawrence and his wife of 12 years, Sunny, have five children from ages 2 to 9. There’s Lucy, Lily, Daisy, Dolly and Quinn.

All of the kids were playing on the shores of City Beach on Saturday, while dad watched and chatted nearby, relaxing before today’s 7 a.m. starting gun.

He said his greatest support comes from his family.

“My wife is the real champion here — as things have been tough along the way, she’s been a constant cheerleader and support. Without her I’d be lost,” he says.

Sunny, also a triathlete, has started a blog called Tri the Other Side where she shares the journey from her perspective.

In a recent post she talks about James and his relationship with his children.

“He plays with them, escorts school field trips, goes to reading time at the schools, and doesn’t hesitate to snuggle and rub their feet! You want to talk about a family man ... he is the guy!”

The Lawrence clan sticks together when possible, but mom and kids usually stay home in Linden, Utah, located just north of Provo. If a race is within driving distance, they all hit the road.

“I want to spend as much time with the kids as a I can,” he said.

One might think with all that traveling, the race fees and expensive equipment, James and Sunny must be rich, that money is no problem.

Wrong, James said.

He gets by with the help of sponsors, mostly, and living frugally at home.

“We’ve made some sacrifices as a family. We’ve sold everything to do this project,” he said.

“We’re poor,” Sunny said. “Very, very poor.”


Lawrence is originally from Alberta, Canada. He was a wrestler in high school, undefeated and a state champion his senior year. He considered himself athletic when at the age of 28 he struggled to complete a 4-mile race.

“I realized I was not in the best shape when I was getting passed by women pushing strollers,” he said, laughing. “My wife said ‘I’m signing you up for a marathon. You’ve got six months. Start running and figure it out.”

He would finish that marathon. He would not like it.

“I hated it,” he said.

Lawrence came away with ailing knees and other pains that made it seem his body wasn’t designed for long distances.

But rather than deciding endurance events weren’t for him, he attacked them. He took it as a challenge to study the human body and learn to be more efficient, to be faster, to be stronger, to recover quicker.

In 2005, he entered the world of triathlons and in 2008, entered his first Ironman. It’s been nonstop since, setting the half-Ironman record in 2010, then spending 2011 preparing for this year’s record run.

His resolve is the stuff of legends.

We’re talking about a guy who once won $10,000 for riding a Ferris wheel for 10 days straight, with just 2 breaks each day.

He outlasted everyone then, and he’s still doing it today.

Lawrence has come to be known as “Iron Cowboy” because he wears a trademark cowboy hat with an orange band during the marathon, and he’ll be wearing it today.

It’s something he did last year as a way for people to recognize him, and people liked it.

The hat stayed.

“We did it and it stuck,” he said.

Training and racing

He has endured hot and cold, extreme winds, wild waves and drenching rains, all without suffering serious injury.

He’s particular about what he eats — “what you put into your body is what you race on” — and monitors his vitals like heart beat and blood pressure closely.

He has a coach to call on for advice.

A typical James Lawrence week:

Sunday, race; Monday and Tuesday, rest, maybe bike; by Wednesday, some light walking, some swimming; by Thursday, bike and swim and Friday, an hour bike, 20 minutes of swimming and running.

“Just enough to get the blood flowing,” he said.

Ironmans, he said, are a way to enjoy the energy of the crowd, to enjoy the other athletes, enjoy the camaraderie and the scenery.

He uses that word, enjoy, a lot, because he means to.

“Being part of the event is something I really enjoy,” he said.

If all goes according to plan, his final Ironman of the year will come at Palm Springs, Calif., on Dec. 2.

Surely a big celebration is to follow?

Lawrence grins. A party is planned, as is a vacation with his wife, but when he crosses that finish line, he knows exactly what he’ll do.

“I’m going to lay down.”

Well deserved.

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