On June 6 James Lawrence began what may be one of the most hardcore endurance record attempts ever — aiming to complete 50 Ironman-distance triathlons in 50 states in 50 days. That's a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride, and a 26.2-mile run — about 14 hours a day of intense physical effort — for 50 days in a row.
Lawrence, 39, holds two Guinness World Records for the most Ironman races finished in a single year (30, in 11 countries), and the most half-Ironmans completed in the shortest timeframe (22, in 30 weeks). With the 50.50.50, he is hoping to set another record, while raising awareness for childhood obesity and generating $1 million in donations for the Jamie Oliver Food Foundation, a non-profit working to reverse the obesity crisis.
To prepare his body for the challenge, Lawrence trained for two years. Then he chose Hawaii for Day 1, followed by Alaska, in order to knock off the farthest flung states (and the air travel) first. For the rest, he has been traveling overnight in a motorhome with his wife and kids. "For them, it's a pretty incredible summer vacation," he says.
When Men's Journal spoke with Lawrence by phone on July 4, he was in New Jersey, 29 days in. He reported that his schedule has become very routine: swim, bike, run, shower, sleep, get up early the next day in a new state and do it all again. "I'm feeling sharp mentally," he says. "Physically, I've learned how to manage pain really well. The good news is that the pain moves, which means it's just an ailment, not an injury."
Injury, particularly the repetitive-use injuries associated with activities like biking and running, is a serious risk for Lawrence, and the success of his project. If he does succeed, he'll have biked 5,600 miles; run 1,310 miles; and swam 120 miles in less than two months. While other athletes have accomplished similar extreme endurance feats — most notably Dean Karnazes, who ran 50 marathons in 50 states in 50 days in 2006 — this attempt is a standout.
"It's a lot of pounding on one man's body," says Karnazes. "But the wear and tear might be less than what people suspect." During Karnazes's 50-day, 50-state, 50-marathon endeavor, he had blood drawn at regular intervals as part of a research study. "The findings surprised people in that the amount of muscle damage over those 50 days did not exceed normal levels," he says.
So far, Lawrence has found this to be the case. He is completing the cycling portion of his day at an average heart rate of a mere 108 beats per minute (that's barely breaking a sweat for the layperson) and 115 for the run — still nowhere near anaerobic threshold. "People are concerned about my health," says Lawrence. "But I'm 100 percent confident I’ll make it to the finish in Utah on July 29th."