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Q&A with James Lawrence, the Iron Cowboy

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One of the world’s top ultra-endurance athletes – James Lawrence, the “Iron Cowboy” – sits down with SurePeople’s Andy Stankiewicz, EVP Marketing & Communications, to discuss leadership, mastering the mind and achieving life’s most difficult goals.

My story is not about triathlon. My story is about mindset.

His specialty is the Ironman triathlon. Swim for 2.4 miles, bike for 112 miles and run a full marathon of 26.2 miles. Total = 140.6 miles, usually under 12 hours.  

In 2012, James completed 30 full Ironman triathlons in one year, shattering the world record at the time. But he and his wife had lost everything in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, and he had more to prove to himself.

“At that moment I looked back, and I said, ‘I haven’t reached my mental and physical limits. What’s possible?’ And I thought of the 50/50/50.”

50 Ironman triathlons in 50 consecutive days in all 50 states. 

“I sat down with some doctors and I said, ‘This is what I want to do; this is my preparation, my plan, my goal.’ And they said, ‘You’re going to die.’ So I stopped talking to doctors,” James recently said during his Talks at Google presentation. 

Supported by his wife and five children – “I wasn’t going to do this without my family” – James shares his journey to become the only athlete ever to accomplish the 50/50/50 in the documentary, Iron Cowboy, streaming now on Netflix. It’s essential viewing.

“The compounding effect of an Ironman a day is staggering. I cannot put it into words. It breaks you down. Everything gets dark. Everything gets slow motion, and you can’t focus on anything. Those conversations that you start to have with yourself become so very important.”    

James adds, “There’s going be a moment on your [personal] journey when you don’t know how to take the next step. That next step is the most important step. That’s the moment you adapt, you evolve, you grow, you change and you get closer to your vision, your dream. [But] that’s when everybody quits.”

James shares one of these moments during day 30 of his quest to complete the 50/50/50: “I had reached my mental and physical limits…I remember laying down on the side of the road in Connecticut. I found a small patch of grass, and I just started to cry…And I remember a vision came into my mind: it was back in 2008, when we lost everything. I used to own a mortgage company. We all know what happened in 2008 through 2011. They came and they knocked on my door and they took away my home. And I didn’t know what to do. My wife Sunny and I went arm in arm, and we stood up, and we just started to fight. And I said the same thing [in Connecticut]: just stand up and fight. Figure out how to turn the pedals over one time. Be perfect for one second. And then do it again. In your darkest moment, I promise you can be perfect for one second.”

Endurance athlete and author Rich Roll said at the time, “I honestly believe this is one of the greatest achievements in the history of human endurance.”


Andy Stankiewicz: In the aftermath of covid-19, many people find themselves in a similar situation you faced a decade ago, when ultimately you lost your business and home. What mindset do we need to adopt in the face of uncertainty? 

James Lawrence: We can’t control the trajectory of this, but we can control how we manage our minds and how we come out of this on the other side. This is gut-check time. For the majority of people, we will get through this. This thing will crush more people mentally and financially than it ever will physically. And at the end of the day, if you have your health, you can always rebuild. We still have our lives. We still have choices. We get to choose how we come out of this. On your journey, you get to choose how you react to every situation.   

Andy Stankiewicz: You say now is a time for self-audit? 

James Lawrence: Everyone says, “I wish I had more time.” We’ve been given this gift of time. Time for self-reflection and self-audit. A checks and balances time. Don’t worry about what you can’t control. Focus on what you can control. Take time for family. Build your mind. Treat people with respect. Follow your dreams. The question we need to ask ourselves: “When this does happen again, will my situation be different? Or, will I not learn the lessons this go around and be in the exact same position?” Because something like this will happen again. 

Andy Stankiewicz: What would you say to those healthcare professionals fighting on the frontlines of the pandemic, who don’t have the luxury of time and self-reflection during this crisis moment? 

James Lawrence: First, massive gratitude for the work that they’re doing. They are all heroes. In times of war, husbands and wives get called up into service, and they don’t know when they’re coming home – it could be years – and imagine how resilient and mentally tough those individuals had to be not knowing how long that could last. Today, at least, we have a glimpse of the future, so I would say there is a finish line and some solace knowing that this too shall pass. I would tell our healthcare workers to be present every single day and know that you are the reason that we have a chance to get on the other side of this. We’ll look back on this time and smile because of the impact that they’ve had, because of the service they were able to give, because of the lives they saved, knowing that they were one of the few that could make a difference – while the rest of us had to sit out. We couldn’t do this without them. 

Andy Stankiewicz: A majority of the workforce has gone remote in response to containing covid-19. How does this impact how leaders lead their teams? 

James Lawrence: As far as effective leadership goes, not much changes if you’ve already set a standard for communication, systems and processes. That should already be in place. We’re just communicating in a different way today. So listening and being compassionate to the situation your team is in – and learning how your team handles stress – is critical. I think communication has to be at an all-time high. And, the team picks up on the energy you put out as a leader. So in times of great pressure, the leader has to remain calm and lead by example. If you’re fearful and nervous and riddled with anxiety, the team is going to feel that.  

Andy Stankiewicz: What are the most essential skill sets and capabilities we need to thrive in today’s world? 

James Lawrence: Mastering your mind is extremely critical. You may have a skill set, but as I learned on the 50/50/50, if you can’t manage your mind under fatigue and stress and fear, your skill set – whatever it may be – takes a massive backseat. You have to have the ability to adjust and adapt. And it doesn’t matter if your team has a certain skill set, if they can’t manage their mindset and perform under pressure. So to answer your question, some of the most important capabilities are perseverance, grit, resilience and previous life knowledge in difficult situations. 

Andy Stankiewicz: How do you lead and inspire a team that might not have that previous life knowledge in difficult situations? 

James Lawrence: As a leader, you have to give team members opportunities to shine in those difficult moments. People ask me, “How do I manage XYZ on race day?” Well, you try to duplicate those things as much as you can in training. Fail as much as you can in training. Create opportunities to simulate those things, so when it happens for real, you’re in a better position to know how you’re going to handle it. Fail right now, because when the test is real, you don’t want to find out if you have what it takes to pass that test.

Andy Stankiewicz: Why do you say we need to become intentionally uncomfortable?

James Lawrence: The only way to gain knowledge is through experience. Everybody always asks, “How do I become more mentally tough?” or “How do I know how to manage my pain threshold?” or “How do I accomplish all of my goals?” You can’t read a book about it. You can’t read this article about it. You can’t listen to a podcast about it. You have to actually be immersed in it, and feel it, and know how you’re going to experience it. Truly, the only way to gain that type of knowledge is to have that experience. Pushing ourselves physically and mentally gives us experience. From that experience and knowledge, we gain confidence. So when I speak, I ask the audience, “When was the last time you intentionally became uncomfortable? When was the last time you faced one of your fears? To grow, to adapt and evolve, we need to become intentionally uncomfortable.” 

Andy Stankiewicz: Do you believe that physical challenges are the most direct way to transform or strengthen our minds?

James Lawrence: I absolutely feel that’s true, because when something is happening to you physically, you have to manage it mentally. That’s the only way to sharpen that knife. Without physical pain or discomfort, we’re not putting ourselves in a real situation where our mind is actually managing that and becoming stronger. Physical pain has a critical role in developing mental toughness. My background as an athlete started in wrestling. I wrestled for a decade. What I learned mentally from the physical suffering and the intense training and the brutal matches, I’ve been able to apply in every aspect of my life. And to parallel what we’ve done in triathlon, I can take that same pain and suffering physically – and because now I have a stronger mind – I can apply those same things to any mental challenge. 


Redefining Impossible: James Lawrence’s Core Principles for Achieving Difficult Goals 

Become Intentionally Uncomfortable 

“We’re either moving forward or we’re regressing. We’re never just standing still. I think people need to embrace challenges. When you’re backed into a corner, that’s when you are going to solve the biggest problems. We do things that challenge us and make us intentionally uncomfortable because that’s where you’re going to find ‘you’ and get over those things that are holding you back.”  

Break Down Giant Tasks. Be Perfect for One Minute   

“Don’t look at the project or task in its entirety; break it down into manageable pieces.” James writes in an Instagram race report: “[The Patagonman triathlon in December 2019] ended up being for me an intense race where I had to draw upon experience and mental toughness. That’s all I had. My body was done…There’s only one guarantee to not make it and that’s to stop moving. I thought back to a very core principle that I have that I can be perfect for one minute. Doesn’t matter how deep, how difficult, how hard, how dark, whatever it is, I know mentally I can muster up the courage, the power to be perfect for one minute. That was my strategy. For three hours, I lived in a one-minute window. That got me all the way to the finish. This was done on grit, a willingness to keep going and a desire to never quit and go against my principles.” 

Master Your Mind

“Life is about managing the many, many conversations we’re having with ourselves. We have to go through life and gain experience about how to win these mental battles. When we have a moment of crisis or pain or discomfort, sometimes we win that conversation and sometimes we lose. When we’re through that moment, that’s when you have to be honest with yourself, self-reflect, do some meditation and see what lessons can be learned. That’s why you can’t wait until crisis happens – the time for learning and self-audit has passed.”  

Build Tolerance for Monotony

“People see the headline about the 50/50/50. They don’t realize the decade – the groundwork, the foundation – that went into that. The secret to success is doing a lot of little things consistently over a long period of time. Give your giant goals the respect – time wise – that they deserve. A high tolerance for monotony is a superpower. To become a master at anything, it takes massive repetition, insane boredom and showing up every day. 


For more information about James Lawrence, visit www.ironcowboy.com and follow James on Instagram

If you’re interested in personal development, high performance and training the mind, subscribe to SurePeople’s Evolve blog and reach out for exclusive content.  

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