Like many Americans, James Lawrence's life was turned upside down in late 2008 when the housing market crashed.
The ensuing financial crisis and anemic economy crippled the mortgage business he and his wife had built since he moved to Utah 12 years ago.
"We ended up losing our mortgage business, and I thought, 'This is the best time to take a risk like this,'" the Lindon father of five said of starting another business — one that focuses on personal health and wellness. Three years before he lost his business, his wife gave him a gift that would eventually change his life — and the lives of thousands of others. It would also lead to him breaking two world records — one for the number of half Ironman distance triathlons (2010) and the other he achieved this past weekend for the number of full Ironman distance triathlons completed in a year.
But, he isn't just accumulating finishes so he can adorn his house with finisher's medals or see his name in record books. Lawrence, who is known as the Iron Cowboy because he runs in a cowboy hat so his family will always be able to pick him out of the crowd, is swimming 2.4 miles, biking 112 miles and running 26.2 miles to raise money for In Our Own Quiet Way (quietway.org) a non-profit that helps develop clean water for Kenyans.
His effort to shatter the world record for the most Ironman Triathlons in a year, which was 20, really began when his wife convinced him to jog with her.
"I started out just doing fun runs with my wife," he said. "And I guess I was just pathetic enough that she signed me up for a marathon without telling me. I started with the Salt Lake Marathon. That's where my endurance career started."
It was not an auspicious beginning.
The couple knew nothing about distance running, so they did a little Internet research and showed up at the start line in cheap running shoes and basketball shorts.
"We were thinking we were all that and a bag of chips," he laughed. "It was a real humbling experience I actually hated it."
In fact, the couple went to an mixed martial arts event at the EnergySolutions Arena that night and his knees swelled so severely that he had to be carried out.
It wasn't until the physical pain subsided that he began to wonder what he did wrong and what might happen if he learned to train correctly. "After the initial pain was gone, that's when I started having the ego battle," he said. "The emotional wounds were still there. I thought, 'I can do better.' And that's when I really started to learn more."
He researched training methods and styles, and he began to talk to friends who were competing in triathlons. They convinced him to give it a try, even though he said he couldn't even swim the entire length of a pool.
After the Salt Lake marathon, which was in April, he and his wife, Sunny Jo Mama, began competing in sprint triathlons and ended up completing 14 of them.
"We got addicted really quick," he said. "We did every race we could and learned as much as we could."
He calls his years of research and training "eight years of trial and error and trying to learn all of the ins and outs of the art of triathlon." The knowledge he gained helps him with his new business of training others to find their own healthy passion — whether it's losing weight, running a race or completing a triathlon.
His first triathlon experience — the Vineman in California — couldn't have been more different from his first marathon experience.
"I had a fantastic experience and it really was a turning point in my career," he said. "I think if I'd had a negative experience, I may not have had the confidence to go forward. I decided maybe there is something to this distance racing. I really, really enjoyed it." So much so that he abandoned the shorter races for half and full Ironman distance triathlons.
Lawrence decided to try and break the half Ironman record in 2010 and did so easily. He spent 2011 planning 2012's goal — to break the record for the most Ironman distance triathlon races completed in a year. He broke the record Saturday with a race in his home country, Canada. But he plans to finish 30 races by the year's end in hopes of raising money for quietway.org.
"I got involved with In Our Own Quiet Way in 2009," he said. "They build dams and they have women's groups and feeding centers in Africa. I help with the dams. I race to raise money to donate to the charity, which deals with water issues and problems over there."
His effort, which he dubbed "Tri and give a dam," is chronicled in his blog. He accept donations through quietway.org, and said helping people gain access to water is a simple, but life changing experience.
"Water is life," he said. "We wake up and have hot water; we turn on the tap and drink the water. People around the world don't have that luxury. They need irrigation and drinking water just so they can survive."
He said he's met people who walk two hours one way for drinking water.6 comments on this story
"It's a daily struggle for these people and it's something we don’t even think about," he said. "I am hoping to have an impact on people's lives, hoping to help them have better lives."
He said he's tried to view this year's goal as 30 Ironman triathlons, rather than just breaking the record of 20.
"Mentally, it's just the next race," he said of Saturday's record-breaking race. "Yes, it's a big landmark, a big sigh of relief. But we don't want to (just) break the record; we want to break the record and set a new standard."