The Curious Case of the Iron Cowboy

Exploring the story's assumptions and mythologies.

In June of this year, Lindon City resident James Lawrence (a.k.a. “The Iron Cowboy”) successfully completed his “Conquer 100” challenge. On James Lawrence’s personal website, the challenge and Lawrence’s motivations for completing it are described in an inimitable way:

“James lives with his wife, Sunny, and their five children in Utah. After breaking several Guinness World Records, James wondered if he had truly found his mental and physical limits. He knew there was more: 50 Ironmans, 50 States, 50 consecutive days. After accomplishing the fifty, James knew he wasn’t done yet. Over the next five years, he rode his mountain bike to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro, ran 235 miles across Greece, competed in Xtreme Triathlons around the world, and raced the Xtri World Championship in Norway. He also competed in the T.V. World Premiere of The World’s Toughest Race—a ten-day adventure race through the back jungles of Fiji, and The Uberman, all leading up to his biggest project—Conquer One Hundred—racing a full-distance triathlon for 100 consecutive days, from March 1, 2021 - June 8, 2021. 140.6 miles a day, for 14 weeks, [totaling] 14, 060 miles.”

Just to establish expectations from the very beginning, this article won’t be hagiography. This isn’t because I’m too jaded to marvel at the wonderful mental strength and physical resilience of a person Emerson may very well have labeled a “representative man.” Surely, his endurance is something to be applauded, his commitment to such a painful goal celebrated. But now, having been properly celebrated for those things deserving of celebration, let’s dig a bit deeper.

And let me explain why I even think it’s necessary to try my hand at raking muck onto a feel-good story. My fascination with it began when I casually scrolled through his website, just a few minutes after I’d heard about him in early June. The tone of the website reminded me, in some subliminal way, of a multi-level marketing scheme (and, having lived in Utah county for six years, I know something about MLMs). Beyond the motivational speaking opportunities, DVDs, and product endorsements explicitly hawked on the site, I felt I was being sold something more—though I couldn’t exactly put my finger on what it was. Which added a curiosity to my general queasiness. You see, our society’s saturation in advertising, marketing, and the endless selling of wares of various sizes, shape and state has mostly served to condition a personal knee-jerk skeptical response. Even if such a reaction is uncharitable in the strictest sense, it is one that, through trial and error, has proved its twenty-first century value—i.e. when taking this approach I tend not to buy Shamwows, essential oils, or time shares. It’s a position that in some ways is jaded or cynical, but can be optimistically construed in a more positive light to be something I’ll call skeptical earnestness. Earnest because, deep down, this paradigm views people as mostly good and kind souls who even at their worst are merely lost and confused— usually not malignantly bad. Anyways, this will be the paradigm through which I will examine this so-called “Iron Cowboy.” And, as an aside to the aside, I in no way believe anyone in their right mind would think of this Lindon everyman and endurance athlete as even remotely close to anything malignantly bad. But let us explore the assumptions behind the story—and read between the lines in some (hopefully) not-too-uncharitable ways.

Let’s start by examining his chosen title—the Iron Cowboy. We can safely assume he is trying to tell some sort of story with this assertion. He’s helping us to see this ferrous cattleman as a sort of American archetype. He’s establishing a tie with the earlier European settlers, the hardy types who cleared the American West of any troublesome Native Americans, who in their stubborn trust in individual strength established hard-scrabble frontier towns and pulled civilization toward them while pulling themselves up by their bootstraps. He’s now simply one is an unbroken line of Ayn Randian exemplars. Though his ancestors (real or imagined) crossed the plains, unpeopled then re-peopled the high desert, and scratched out a meager yet honest survival amidst the breathless Western expanse, and he now bikes, swims, and runs in, around, or on (respectively) finely smoothed macadam, chlorinated and tightly-lifeguarded pools, and air-conditioned gyms his ancestors couldn’t have fathomed—he seems to be implying he is made of the same stuff. That he is hardy, individualistic (yet a family man, too—interesting tension), cut of the same John Wayne-type cloth. And perhaps we can think more about why other regionally appropriate monikers weren’t chosen. Why not the Iron Pioneer? Though it may sound a bit strange, it is more precisely accurate, regionally and religiously. However, the pioneer—at least in the Utah and Mormon context—is a vision of collective action. In our mind’s eye we don’t see just one or two families battling the elements and misfortune, we see thousands in a long line, wending through the plains, battling the weather, working together, organizing communally. So that image just won’t do. A cowboy is much better, a myth better suited for modern-day myth-making. And then something like Iron Vacquero or Iron Caudillo is perhaps mismatched ethnically. Regardless, he, or his marketing team, settled on the name “Iron Cowboy.” And so worked to create a myth founded upon this older and much more established one.

Interestingly, the logo used in the Conquer 100 challenge looks exactly like the Spanish Conquistadors’ helmets. And because he is, now, the conqueror of the Conquer 100 challenge, he could be appropriately addressed as a conquistador if feted in Latin America or Spain. Though such a title might ruffle a few feathers these days, and his PR consulting team would no doubt reject such terms, I swear casual viewers (of the logo) were expected to make some sort of unconscious or conscious linkage between the two.

Now that we’ve parsed James Lawrence’s favored moniker and logo, let’s move on. The format from here on out will largely take the form of analyzing specific interesting phrases or statements from ironcowboy.com—of which there are many (and more than I can cover here).

On James Lawrence’s personal website, about halfway down the home page you’ll find a small introduction to the Iron Cowboy (right next to a stoic black and white photo of James Lawrence from an unspecified triathlon). Below the red text headline of “Who is James Lawrence” (no question mark) is the subheading “Guinness World Record Breaker & Family Man.” For some reason, that claim—of being a “family man”—was intriguing. It was as if he was practically begging for a fact check. For in the technical sense, that he is a family man, seems undeniable. But lest ‘family man’ become so semantically bleached that it mean nothing and be forever doomed to cloying and self-aggrandizing uses, it must signify more than having seed. Google defines the term ‘family man’ this way: “a man who lives with his wife and children, especially one who enjoys home life.” The Iron Cowboy very much fits the definition’s first clause, but the second clause leaves a final determination unknowable—or rather, unknowable to anyone but James Lawrence. Yet, we can make perhaps something a little less than an educated guess about the accuracy of the second clause in describing James, based on a simplified overview of the Iron Cowboy’s long climb to endurance stardom.

According to James Lawrence (in an interview on CNN), his first foray into the world of endurance sports was in 2004—when he ran 4 miles with his wife on Thanksgiving Day. Then, he and his wife trained for, and ran, a marathon together. After that, James discovered triathlons. Then, over the course of nearly a decade he “took it up a notch, stayed consistent, and climbed the ladder to extreme endurance.” In 2011 he broke the record for most half-distance triathlons in a year, and then in 2012 broke the record for most full-distance triathlons in a year. Then in 2015 he created, and completed, the “50.50.50” challenge—50 full-length triathlons in 50 states in 50 days. According to James and his wife Sunny, the whole thing was a logistical nightmare and near fiasco—the whole family lived and slept in an RV along the way. About this experience, and others following, Lawrence said, “Nothing great is ever accomplished on our own…I have been so blessed to go through this journey with my family. They are everything." This seems to be a quote from a true family man—yet questions persist. Because, according to the above-referenced definition one needs to love their home life. And does a man completely happy with his home life run 235 miles across Greece, mountain bike to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro, or take the excessive time (exactly how much I’m totally ignorant of, but it must be excessive) necessary to train to run a triathlon every day for 100 days? And then perhaps the “Iron” moniker is the proper one, just applied to the wrong Lawrence. Sunny seems to be the Iron Woman, and from the little I can gather about her (mostly in small blurbs from articles profiling her husband), she has made the most of what probably seems at times to her an impossible situation—raising five children while supporting her husband on his latest endurance challenge (while likely bracing herself for the next). Now this may be a challenge that only Mormon women are saintly enough to endure: standing by their husband while they rise to public acclaim, then magnifying that acclaim while shouldering the heaviest burdens. I don’t mean to demean Mormon men (including myself) through the ready-made archetype of James Lawrence, as the burdens on Mormon men can be heavy enough, it’s just that the world (and, specifically, Mormon society) is so much more ready to heap praise on the man than the woman—and to accept a man’s triumph, and a woman’s self-sacrifice. James Lawrence is likely an outstanding father and husband—and, either way, it is well beyond this journalistic enterprise’s scarce resources to verify—but all we can say definitively is that Sunny Lawrence has ensured that this “family man” still has a cohesive family—and that it does seem a bit cloying to promote yourself as a family man.

James Lawrence’s website’s bio states that he “[came] to love endurance racing to escape the hectic routine of Corporate America.” In the more than 150 years since Henry David Thoreau famously wrote "the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” it’s clear that not much has changed, as modern society is often defined by atomization, anomie, and alienation. So James Lawrence’s reaction to modern life and hyper-meritocratic capitalism (i.e. “Corporate America”) is really nothing out of the ordinary. However, the interesting thing is that this rejection of Corporate America led him right back to Corporate America. I can count at least 22 different corporate sponsors on his website—including well-known brands like Subaru, Garmin, and Aptive. And, as far as I can tell, this is James Lawrence’s full-time job—since January 2010 he has served as the CEO of Iron Cowboy LLC, and a substantial part of the position seems to involve giving motivational speeches to Corporate America. He’s spoken to a wide variety of companies (in Corporate America, just to really unsubtly drive this point home) including Nike, Audi, Red Bull, Vivint, and Qualtrics. So, if the whole point was the escape the hectic routine of Corporate America, one could sort-of-unconvincingly make the point he did—though the escape was from the hectic routines of Corporate America to the hectic routines and regimens of the endurance sport industry which is too closely tied to the too-often-mentioned Corporate America to be truly distinguishable. So, perhaps more accurately he transitioned from cubicle Corporate America, to non-cubicle Corporate America. Or maybe the true difference is that, before, he sold or marketed things in Corporate America, where now he is the product and service that he markets in Corporate America.

Now is where you can effectively pick your own ending because there’s too much ambiguity in this “curious case.” There seem to be two main narratives (with a spectrum between these two) that you can construct around the facts we have, with varying degrees of plausibility.

The cynical one involves basically believing that James Lawrence started out in 2010, when he founded Iron Cowboy LLC, thinking that this would be a great way to start a career in motivational speaking and sports marketing—and so decided to pursue increasingly insane endurance challenges. This seems a bit implausible to me, as there are many much less painful paths of self-promotion.

The more compassionate one insists that James Lawrence truly wanted to leave Corporate America behind once and for all and stretch his preconceived notions of his own physical and mental endurance to their very limit. Then, along the way, he realized that he could also support his family through some tasteful self-promotion (while also promoting certain, sometimes questionable, charities). This view could also empathetically note that his marketing team may have struck certain distasteful notes, but that these were simply the by-product of inexperienced interns, or tired marketing consultants.

The tragic side of this “compassionate” paradigm, however, is that James Lawrence couldn’t actually escape Corporate America. Though his role may have completely changed within Corporate America, that he still depends upon its money-giving force seems undeniable. In the final analysis, the only thing that prevents the Iron Cowboy from being a true hero is his lack of awareness that his escape from the cubicle, the daily grind, the rat race, etc., was illusory. Unlike Sisyphus, in Camus’ reworking of the Greek myth of the King of Corinth who was punished to forever roll a boulder up a hill in Hades, and who we are told to ‘imagine happy’—despite the absurdity of it all—, the absurdity (and sheer impossibility) of avoiding Corporate America hasn’t dawned on our Iron Cowboy, at least not yet.