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October 19, 2018

What the world's greatest endurance athlete told Kenya's business leaders

James Lawrence accomplished perhaps the greatest display of physical endurance in history
James Lawrence accomplished perhaps the greatest display of physical endurance in history

When James Lawrence flashed the 2015 picture of his swollen feet on a large screen in Nairobi recently, the audience glowered at him in uniform revulsion.

His toes were nearly ruined, having taken the most abuse of his body, and the dying toenails were already coming off.

James had visited Nairobi to inspire leading entrepreneurs with the incredible story that made him arguably the world's most celebrated endurance athlete.

He holds multiple world records in Ironman, the world’s hardest one-day endurance race, covering a staggering 225km from start to finish.

In 2015, he completed 50 of these races in 50 American states in 50 consecutive days — no other human being has done that.

The 41-year-old athlete believes most people live mediocre lives, yet they can withstand 10 times the things they do daily.

He was hosted last month by the Nairobi chapter of the Entrepreneurs’ Organisation, a global network of more than 12,000 entrepreneurs whose businesses make more than Sh100 million annual sales.

The EO’s stated mission is to help business owners achieve greater professional success and personal fulfillment through peer-to-peer learning, once-in-a-lifetime experiences and connections to experts.

“My motto in life is ‘No goal is too big’, so really go after it!” James told the meeting at the Radisson Blu Hotel.

Before he embarked on the 50 consecutive races in 2015, doctors and other physicians pleaded with him, warning he would drop dead.

“They think they’re professionals, and they don’t know what the human body and mind is capable of. I told doctors this to their face, and they told me I’m gonna die,” he said.

He decided to set his own standards.

“Everybody has a different idea of what a standard is. In my idea, everybody's standard is mediocre.

“I therefore eliminated doctors and physicians from my circle of influence.”


An Ironman is the most murderous athletic race on earth: 3.86km swim, a 180.25km bicycle ride, and a marathon 42.20km run, raced in that order and without a break in one day.

James also spoke to many coaches on how to prepare for such a feat and they all shook their heads, saying, “You’re crazy.”

He was not always an endurance athlete and he is not gifted even. He completed his first race aged 28, when his wife, Sunny, signed him up for a 6.4km fun run. It was disastrous.

“I was being passed by women pushing their kids in strollers,” James says.

His interest in racing grew and he researched on triathlons, an activity that combines swimming, cycling, and running in one event.

Ironman is the most difficult type of triathlon because the distances are longer.

In 2010, James broke the world record for completing the most half-Ironman races in one year. He ran 22 of them in 30 days, raising money to build some dams in Kenya and a few other countries.

Two years later, he broke the world record for finishing the most full Ironman races in one year. He ran 30 races in 11 countries.

He wanted to push his mind and body to new limits, and so he devised the 50-50-50 project: 50 Ironman races on 50 consecutive days in 50 states.

Doctors were right this kind of race could kill.

A study presented to the American College of Cardiology Conference in 2009 showed there were 14 deaths among almost one million ironman competitors, a rate of 1.5 per 100,000.

Presenting the results at the Minneapolis Heart Institute of Abbott Northwestern hospital, a cardiologist said in the US, 13 of the 14 deaths occurred during the first portion of the swim phase.

This led medics to speculate that the stress of jumping into cold water under competitive conditions could cause people to suffer a heart attack.

“The best thing is to not listen to all the negative people out there. To be honest, if they’re being discouraging, they’re just jealous that you’re doing something that makes you happy,” James says.


The 50-50-50 challenge began in Kauai, Hawaii, on June 6. He traversed through 50 US states in the next 50 days.

EO Kenya president Jamie Pujara places the distance covered in context. “It is like swimming from Nairobi to Meru, then cycling from Paris to Cape Town and running from Glasgow in Britain to Naples in Italy. All in 50 consecutive days.”

James began the race well aware his large family would be moving with him from state to state and race to race in a van.

He has now been married to Sunny for 17 years and they have five children: four daughters and one son. The eldest child is 15 years and the youngest eight.

There was also a crew composed of three drivers, two wingmen and a documentary film crew.

“I also had a massage girl, and chiropractor — a doctor who uses natural therapy and would do deep tissue massage, bone manipulation and acupuncture to help me recover,” he says.

Each night, James would sleep on the floor of the van for four hours as it moved across the country. The girls would sometimes wake up asking, “What state are we in?”

In a past interview, Sunny said she depended on the crew to take care of James so she could look after the kids. The two older girls would sometimes run with James or sell T-shirts along the way.

James encouraged local runners to join him for his daily final 5km, with their registration fees being donated to a US NGO that fights obesity.

Sometimes, just 10 people would turn up, but 2,000 turned up on the final leg in Utah, where he lives.

Food was one challenge because they had little or no time to pick up or prepare meals during the 50 days.

“We ate lots of nuts avocadoes, rice, lots of vegetables, literally anything I could lay my hands on, I would eat it,” he says.

That was about 7,000 calories of food every day to provide the daily energy needs.


One of the biggest challenges was logistics to get to all the 50 states, and also extreme exhaustion.

Sometimes people around him feared the worst and were telling him he should rest or stop. “I felt like giving up every second of the races but I had to continue,” he says.

Still, he averaged 14 hours each day, but his goal was to finish.

In Tennessee, James fell asleep while cycling and struggled to finish the ride with a nasty road rash. His feet were also getting destroyed. His crew took the sickening photo of his swollen feet that he showed OE members in Nairobi.

On July 25, James took the final leg in Utah, a Western desert state with harsh, hot and dry summers.

On the final 5km, 2,000 people joined and he posted the best finishing time of the entire trip that day, needing only 12 hours, 46 minutes and 42 seconds to complete his final Ironman.

James still meets lots of skeptics who claim he faked it and no man can race 225km each day for 50 consecutive days.

“We have all the proof, GPS, the videos, the witnesses, the drug tests. Every day people doubt that I did it all the time,” he answers.

However, he does not plan to do it again.

“But I don’t regret doing it, it has changed my life. Being naive about the process was a blessing. If we had known what it would take, we wouldn’t put ourselves through that,” he told the audience in Nairobi.

He has advice for Kenyans who want to try Ironman. “Grab yourself a good bike and learn to swim, because you can’t become an Ironman if you don’t know how to swim.”

He now travels the world encouraging people to open their minds and achieve more.

“Today, everybody is comfortable in mediocrity, and it’s unacceptable. We are capable of doing 10 times more than what we are doing today. I am booked in 40 countries in 2018. When I go there I basically tell them my story,” he says.

Amardeep Vidyarthi, from the EO Kenyan chapter, says nearly all the Kenyan members attended the talk by James.

“The one who didn’t turn up was outside the country. EO is the catalyst that enables leading entrepreneurs to learn and grow, leading to greater success in business and beyond,” he said.

James is a big fan of the Canadian mixed martial artist Georges St-Pierre and Irish mixed martial artist boxer Conor McGregor.

“Georges, incredible respect, work, discipline; all these things are required to achieve something great,” he says.

So does James consider himself “successful”?

“This achievement doesn’t define me. I am a father first. I would rather be known as a great dad.

“Success is in the eyes of beholder, people ask me and my response is, I am just James. What I did is considered the greatest name in this sports history but it’s normal to me.”

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