Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Iron Cowboy documentary review

I watched the documentary of the athlete James Lawrence who in 2015 attempted to do 50 Ironman triathlons in 50 days in 50 states. 

He did zero.

What Lawrence did accomplish was, and please read this statement before you get your underwear all knotted up, extraordinarily impressive. But he didn't do what he claims to have done, what his sponsors tout that he did, what the title of the documentary says, or anything else along those lines. What he accomplished was doing the equivalent of a 140.6 mile swim/bike/run workout in 50 different states in 50 days. This might seem like I am picking nits but bear with me here.

From a personal standpoint, I have a stake in this matter. I have partially made a career out of racing 52 marathons on 52 consecutive weekends in one calendar year. When I accomplished this in 2006 there were few, if any, who had undertaken and completed the same schedule - finding and racing 52 actual races on race day. Since then, I have been made aware of people doing similar things but there are always caveats in their races plans where they double (or triple) up on one weekend allowing them to take time off, or they run glorified training runs instead of races or a multitude of other things which take away from the spirit of the endeavor.

What do I mean by the spirit? Well, undoubtedly there are many people who could run 26.2 miles once a week for a year. But taking on the challenge to go to an actual race is one of the things that makes this challenge much more difficult. The other is something that, in 2006, I never thought would need to be mentioned. You see, when I raced these 52 marathons, I was actually racing them. Week in and week out I was giving everything I had to not just check off a box and collect a medal. I was not there just to say I had finished a race. This is proven by the fact that I ran 6 marathons that year which broke my personal best. In other words, it is not the time the marathons were run in that deserves accolades but rather the commitment to bettering myself compared to my own best which is the measuring stick. My stake is that when I say I have done something and try to make a living off of that, it is impeded when others aren't forthright with what they also claim to have done.  It affects my speaking engagements, my potential sponsors, and other things in that realm.


Last year, "fitness star" Ashley Horner declared she was going to do something akin to what Lawrence had attempted. Horner is undoubtedly aesthetically pleasing with smoky eye makeup, nice abs, and some big biceps. She also has on her resume, a supposed 230-mile 3-day run across Haiti. I say "supposed" because there is no GPS data of any sort to bolster her claim. So when she, who had never once completed single 140.6 mile triathlon claimed she was going to do the 52 in 52 in 52 (she was adding Haiti and some other place for 52), there was tons of skepticism. It turns out it was well placed. Within three days, the entire fiasco went to pot and Horner called it quits. Anyone who dared to point out how b.s. the entire endeavor was was met with "but she's doing it for charity!" by her legion of Instagram followers. Never mind whether the money she raised actually made it to the charity (there are plenty of reasons to think it did not including this bizarre denial of impropriety that is as convoluted as her 52 in 52 plans).

All the talk of Horner brought up Lawrence's attempt. If nothing else, at least most of Lawrence's workouts were easy to find. This documentary then puts the statistics for each day up as well. But it was not without controversy.

First, Lawrence never competed in an actual race. While he does have records for most 70.3 triathlons and 140.6 triathlons in a year (although, no emphasis is put on how fast he finished them, which, like it or not, DOES matter) every one of the 50 in 50 was going to be simply a workout. That's not mean to denigrate the effort. Spending upwards of 17 hours exercising a day is extremely difficult. Couple that with then traveling to another start to do it all over again 49 times in a row is a logistical nightmare. But he never was in an actual race.

Second, the reported times given never say how much time was between each discipline. In the film you might see his swim time was 1:30 and his bike was 7 hours and his run was 5 hours but it is quite clear there was substantial time in between each event where he was getting ready for the next discipline. But we don't know what those times are and I am sure it is not easy to find them.

Third, on a few occasions, due to weather or other circumstances, portions of the bike and run were done indoors on stationary bikes or trainers or treadmills. In fact, one of the biggest controversies was when he did a run on an elliptical trainer. This drew particular ire from these who were even in his corner as that is most assuredly not the same as running outdoors.

Finally, the IVs. It is unsure exactly how many times Lawrence received IVs to help with his fluids and hydration and whatnot but it is very sure that this was not allowed by the World Anti-Doping Agency. (A post-script in the documentary says that WADA has since changed their "regulations to take into account situations like James's (sic)".

OK, all of that said, most of which I already knew, I really wanted to root for the guy. He's likeable and likability goes a lot in this world. But I just couldn't endorse what he was doing. Not because I cared whether he was destroying his body or not. Do whatever you want to do if it doesn't hurt anyone. Nor did I care that he was throwing his wife and five kids in an RV for the trip as well. Good for him for letting his family come along with him and see more in their young lives (his older was 12 years old and youngest 5 during this movie) han most adults will ever see in their life time. No, it was a couple of other things that really rubbed me the wrong way about how this all went down.

First and foremost is not owning up to the fact that they weren't Ironman races. In my latest book I am writing, I talk about stopping the embellishment. I know that calling them Ironmans is good for publicity and much more catchy than "140.6 miles of swimming, cycling and running workouts." But here's the thing: that's exactly what they f*cking were! As a person who has completed in many such races, you would think that he himself would be most attuned to what makes a race a race. I sure as heck am. What made my 52 so difficult was not just the covering the distance. But showing up, on race day, and racing in whatever the heck came down from the heavens that day. I had to compete with other people, I had to deal with the weather, and I had to go when the gun fired, not whenever I wanted to. This is paramount. That is why how many free throws you sink in the gym don’t matter when it comes to nailing them with the NBA championship on the line.
Second was an entitlement attitude that Lawrence showed. When the IV controversy popped up, and other things from the internet reared their head (note to anyone doing anything anymore like this in the age of Twitter, etc : you are going to have people who don’t like what you do. DO NOT READ THE COMMENTS!) he was almost astounded that anyone dare question his motives. “I don’t have any sympathy and don’t understand the rationale for someone who criticizes what we were trying to accomplish,” Lawrence said. This is where he lost me. Immediately all I could think about was Horner and those who use charity to hide behind what they are trying to accomplish. When they fail it is always “But think of the kids!” When the filmmakers pushed Lawrence and asked if he could at least see the viewpoint of the those offer criticism he paused and then said “no.”

Furthermore, when he said “How could you possibly have an opinion it?”, the utmost of arrogance really shown through. In fact, all I could think of was Lance Armstrong denying every allegation of impropriety with venom and vitriol. How can they have an opinion, James? Well, they are human. Chances are they are triathletes. Chance further are they are the people who you were lamenting weren’t contributing to the cause you were trying to raise money for. So, opinions are going to be what puts money in your coffers. And I can have an opinion because I did something very much on par with your efforts and I did exactly what I aid I was going to do, what is on the cover of one of my books ,and what is the crux of many of my speeches. (He does, at the end of the film, seem to admit to giving up sense of entitlement but that appears to be much more for the narrative than an actual truth.)

There was also a charity controversy involved with his effort as well which was seemingly resolved at the end. This really rubbed me the wrong way. When I ran my 52 marathons, I too raised money for an organization. While during the initial planning of my races, I found one which was organizing by a group in Mobile Alabama that was part of a larger international organization called L’Arche. Dealing with mental and physically disabled individuals over the age of maturity, L’Arche also organized one of the races I was planning on running. Thinking that if I was going to be doing something difficult, I might have some extra gumption behind me if I had more people counting on me to finish, I asked L’Arche if they would mind me raising money for them. You see, I had worked with handicapped individuals in a variety of different ways for most of my life.  As I had never heard of L’Arche, I guarantee you many others hadn’t either. So on top of money raised, I would also raise awareness. We hear that a lot for diseases and cause which we are all pretty darn aware of. At least here I would actually be making people aware of something they didn’t know.
All told I raised over $43,000 that went directly to L’Arche through a third party fund-handling group. Whatever L’Arche decided to do with that money was up to them. That way I never had to deal with the controversy that both Horner and Lawrence did. I also then understand the frustration when you want people to donate and they aren’t. The thing is though you have to remember that this is a goal YOU took on. People have no obligation to be as involved as you are regardless of how difficult what you are doing is.

Finally, the complaints about how difficult it is or how much you want to quit are lost on me. Lawrence had one hell of a crew. He had monetary sponsors. He had said sponsors sending paid and unpaid employees down to help him with his endeavor. He had people with advanced nutrition and electronics and massage and so much more to get his body in the best shape possible. Hell, one day he actually had two crew members more or less carry him through the final 6 miles of one his marathons with a crew member on each side pulling him along.

Lawrence falls back one point on how being there to run with his daughter every night is what kept him going from the 39th day forward. That’s nice. I know that you can’t criticize family stories or you are seen as an ogre but ogre me up. I know I don’t have a daughter to use as a cool point in any of my stories. In fact, when a documentary was made of my solo running of the 202miler American Odyssey Relay, one complaint a friend had was that it wasn’t dramatic enough. So on top of running 202 miles straight, I was at fault for having what can only be described as a relatively drama-free run. I lucked out by not having a bear attack me or get into a fistfight with a crew member and somehow was punished for it. But I will never apologize for always putting the story out there exactly how it happened and simply letting people decide whether they want to support it or not.

That is basically my take away from this film and Lawrence’s effort. He is obviously very accomplished and very fit. He seems to want to do some good things for others while also experiencing awesome things for himself. I see no fault in that. There is nothing wrong with enjoying what you do when you are also helping others. But, like more than a few people commented, this seemed like not much more than a desire to do something cool which had a charitable component tacked on to help launder it a bit. Throw in the family aspect and you add another layer of criticism-proof protection.
What Lawrence accomplished was an incredible feat of endurance. It’s unfortunate he didn’t do what he is known for.

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