James Lawrence, “The Iron Cowboy”, is constantly striving to “Redefine the impossible”. From completing 50 Ironman distance events in 50 states in 50 days to competing in the toughest triathlons throughout the world, James has continually strived to live by his slogan and to inspire others to do the same. After experiencing some of the most challenging tri’s the world has to offer, James decided that his home state of Utah would be the perfect place to design one of the toughest triathlon courses out there.
In February, while debating the mortality of my ultra running aspirations, and thinking of ways I could mix things up a little bit, I stumbled across mention of “Utahs Toughest Triathlon”. Slightly intrigued, I looked into it a little bit more. After reading that it would be an Ironman distance event designed by James Lawrence with roughly 18,000 feet of climbing between the bike and the run, I knew what my aspiration would be for the year, and that this is how I would mix up my training. Never mind the fact that I had sworn to never participate in a triathlon, that I had never swum more than enough to barely get my swimming merit badge at 13 years old, and that I didn’t own a road bike. Those were minor details. I was excited about an event like I hadn’t been in a number of years.
So I signed up, and then I did nothing. I continued to run, as usual, half-heartedly training for the Bighorn 100, telling myself that the next week I would go to the pool, and the next week I would start looking at bikes. Until all the sudden it was May. And I had just a little over 3 months to get ready. Life had gotten in the way. 5 kids, a full-time job, Scoutmaster responsibilities and all the everyday activities of life. And I had Utahs Toughest Triathlon in little more than 3 months. I visited Wasatch Touring across from my office a few times and they set me up with a new road bike. I talked to a couple friends about going out for rides and the Mi Doule team took me in and tolerated me showing up for rides in baggy shorts and running shirts. I jumped in my in-law’s backyard pool and started doing laps. I found that swimming 2.4 miles (or any distance for that matter) in a 13-meter pool was a horrible idea, so I visited Steiner Aquatic Center and with the help of their 50-meter outdoor pool, started “swimming”. Ben Brooks, a good friend, and my son’s former swim coach gave me a few pointers as well. What I quickly realized about swimming was 1) I was a horrible swimmer 2) I didn’t have enough time to really become proficient it and 3) I was a horrible swimmer.
Fast forward to August 25, race day. At the pre-race meeting the day before, I found out that this was a small affair. Only 32 solo racers would be starting, along with a handful of 3-person relays and 2-person teams. And the best news of the day, the swim cutoff was 2 hours 20 minutes, not the 2 hours I was planning on. My good friend Andy had graciously volunteered to be my support team for the race since this was a self-supported event. We arrived at Jordanelle Reservoir at 5:30 am, ready for a 6 am start. I put on my wetsuit, pretending that I knew what I was doing, and sat there on the shore, in the dark, saying a fervent prayer that I would survive the swim.
6:15 am, James Lawrence said “Go” and I didn’t move, waiting for everyone to start in front of me so I wouldn’t get kicked in the face. Then I put my head down, took three strokes, lifted my head to the right for a breath, and caught a wave of water directly down my throat. I coughed, spluttered, started to hyperventilate, and thought to myself that I was 15 seconds into the race and it was already over. There was no way I was going to finish the swim. I floundered for a few seconds, then flipped on my back, started elementary backstroking in the direction I thought the buoy was and watched the clouds above me slowly turn pink as the occasional small wave continued to slap over my face and cause me to renew my doubts. By the time I was headed back to finish the first of 4 loops, I was already being lapped by the leaders, and I convinced myself that if I didn’t actually start swimming, my race would indeed be over in about 90 minutes. I took ten strokes, flipped on my back, 15 strokes, on my back, and so on until by the time I started the 2nd lap, 42 minutes into the event, the waves had quieted, my mind had calmed, and I was actually swimming. From then on, it was a matter of plugging along and trying to make up a little time. The benefit to swimming so slowly is that for the last lap, I had my own personal kayak escort at my side. I started to lose what little steam I had and doggy paddled to the finish in 2 hours 14 minutes. Turns out the extra 20 minutes I wasn’t planning on was heaven sent.
Andy had a bottle of Ultragen and a peanut butter sandwich waiting for me, got me turned around, out of my wetsuit and onto my bike with efficiency. With only one athlete behind me (he finished the swim with 2 minutes to spare) I had plenty of rabbits ahead of me to chase, and chase I did. My right leg immediately felt a little off, owing to a hard fall I took on my right hip while running a few weeks prior, but other than that, everything felt just perfect. Andy would be waiting on the side of the road every 15-20 minutes to see if I needed anything, and by the time I got to Francis, about 20 miles in, I was starting to catch a few riders. The next 60 miles went smoothly, and the only issue was my right knee starting to have a little discomfort at about mile 50.
At mile 80, heading up from Woodland around the south side of Jordanelle Reservoir, I stood up to stretch my legs and get out of the saddle for a minute. As soon as I sat down and pushed with my right leg, I felt a stabbing pain in my knee, just under the kneecap. I couldn’t put any pressure on the knee on a downward stroke, and my cadence and speed immediately dropped. I saw Andy a few minutes later and we rigged up a rudimentary strap to wrap around the knee thinking that would help. Nope. Nothing. I had 25 miles to go, with a little bit of a climb ahead, then a downhill and some flat through Midway to Wasatch Mountain State Park, then a long 10 mile, 4000-foot climb over Guardsman’s Pass and down to Brighton. I took some ibuprofen, started pedaling one-legged, and prayed that by the time I got to Wasatch Mountain State Park I’d be able to use both legs again. If not, I’d have to push my bike up the mountain.
And that folks, for the most part, is what I did. At the State Park, there was no significant improvement, so I took some Tylenol, put on my running vest with two extra water bottles and went for a hike. It finally made sense to me why I had never caved and bought expensive road biking shoes, opting to use my old mountain bike shoes with SPD clips. They were extremely comfortable pushing my bike up that 10-mile paved road!! I was able to get on my bike for a few of the flatter sections, and 3-4 miles from the top, I saw Andy riding down towards me to check if I was all right. What a saint!! We slowly pedaled up the less steep sections and then I hiked the last 1.5 miles of steep nasty road to Guardsman pass. I was euphoric!! All I had was an easy steep downhill to Brighton and then a 22-mile run and I was done….piece of cake! I had lost almost 2 hours on the last 25 miles of the bike, but with 6 1/2 hours remaining, it was in the bag.
Brooke, Maggie, Henry, and my mom were patiently waiting for me at Brighton, having been there for a few hours, anticipating a quicker finish on the bike. My good friend Rich was also there to accompany me on the run. I changed into my running gear, ate a greasy cheeseburger, and started running with more energy than I probably had. I remember saying to someone as I headed through T2 that the run would take 5 hours. HAH!!!!
The first hour felt fine as I hiked up to Twin Lakes and Rich and I picked our way around the technical trail, hoping we were on the right path. As we started the traverse over to Lake Mary, however, I could feel my energy starting to drain. Even though I continued to eat and drink, I was experiencing a level of complete body fatigue that I was unfamiliar with. Apparently, more than two hours in the water and 8 1/2 hours riding and pushing a bike was taking it’s toll. Couple that with the least amount of preparation I had ever put into an endurance event and I was starting to feel the effects. Rich kept me moving forward relatively efficiently and as we climbed towards Catherines Pass, we met BJ. He seemed to be in good spirits and we enjoyed chatting with him as we made the climb from Catherines Pass to Point Supreme. We leapfrogged back and forth a couple times through the rest of the loop, and just before we reached the top of Snake Creek, I heard a voice that was way too chipper and Darcie and her pacer Mark came trotting up from behind me. She was part of a relay team with her husband Troy biking and their Collegiate All-American swimmer roommate doing the swim. Darcie gave me a Zofran after watching me throw up the chews I had just eaten and pranced her way down the mountain to finish her 2nd loop of the run and take first in the Relay division. I felt good – in part due to the spectacular sunset – on the brutal “trail” that led straight down from the Snake Creek lift to the parking lot, then got myself prepared to go repeat the loop for the second time.
Andy was still on point, waiting for me with whatever I needed. I drank a ginger ale, ate a banana, gave my trekking poles to someone who needed them, and Rich and I headed off on loop 2 with 3 hours and 15 minutes to finish before the cutoff. The first loop had taken about 3 hours, so if I had been paying attention to time at this point I would have reminded myself that I didn’t have much of a cushion to finish before the midnight cutoff. The reality is that I wasn’t paying much attention to time or cut-offs. In planning for this event, I was a bit over-confident in my abilities and assumed that if I managed to get myself through the swim, the bike and run would just be a matter of moving forward efficiently with some moments of discomfort, and I’d finish without cutoffs being an issue. So….. even though I kind of recognized in the back of my head that there was a midnight cutoff, I didn’t focus on it.
The second loop was slow. I had zero energy and had lost my stomach. I continued to try and eat and drink, but half the time, I’d throw up what little I had put down within minutes of ingesting it. Andy was crew extraordinaire and met me at Lake Mary with a big Coke, then proceeded to join me and Rich for the last 5-6 miles. The last time I remembered asking Rich what time it was, he said 11:10, with about 5-6 miles to go. We got to the top of Snake Creek, and with Rich and Andy by my side, we bombed the descent to the finish, the only time I felt like I had energy the whole second loop.
At the finish, T2 was packed up and ready to go, with James and his crew waiting for the last stragglers (me and two relay teams I had passed towards the end). I told James “Well, that sucked!’, which got a chuckle out of him. He said it was exactly what he had hoped it would be and was glad I’d had a miserable time.
The time was 12:45 am, and someone told me I was the sixth and last finisher. Out of 32 starters, there were 6 who crossed the finish line. A friend told me a couple weeks before the race that James was predicting a 75% dropout. I scoffed at that idea, telling my friend, “I have no doubt it will be hard, but he’s designing this to attract serious triathletes and a few ignorant rookies like myself. There is no way the dropout will be that high”. Well, it wasn’t 75%, it was 80%!! This event had indeed lived up to its name as Utah’s Toughest Triathlon.
After a couple days of feeling satisfied with having completed an entirely different type of endurance event than I was used to, I was messaging Chris Shane, the men’s winner, and he said something about only 6 participants making the midnight cutoff. His words were, “Oh man! I didn’t know when you finished, I assumed you were one of the six – yes, midnight was the hard cut for an official finish”
What the????? I didn’t get an official finish? There really was a hard cutoff? I tried to rationalize to myself why there should have been an exception to what was clearly stated in the runners manual. “There were only a few people out there, surely they should count everyone that completed the whole course.” “Don’t they realize what I went through to complete the course?” “It was a bit chaotic at T2 and the run course wasn’t marked that great, so why should they enforce a hard cut-off…” The excuses kept piling up until finally, I had to face the cold hard truth that in my over-confidence, arrogance, cockiness, name it what you will, I hadn’t paid attention to the details and just assumed (made an ass out of you and me) that I would finish. The reality is that yes, I crossed the finish line, but just as I have watched runners stumble across the finish line of the Wasatch 100 mere minutes and seconds after the cutoff, I met their same fate, a DNF.
That hurt. It was (still is) a tough pill to swallow. I could have made up time in a few areas, but the reality is, as Chris Shane said “I wasn’t expecting Utah’s toughest to be as challenging as it was. Definitely sneaky tough and not a lot of places to make up for lost time”. I definitely lost some time, and most of it was due to lack of preparation. Utah’s Toughest Triathlon lived up to its name, and James fulfilled his dream of creating an event that pushed athletes to “Redefine the Impossible”
If this is the type of event you are looking for… If you need something to push you to new limits….. If you are looking to Redefine your Impossible….. then this is an event for you. Registration for the 2019 event opens Sept 15, 2018, at www.ironcowboyracing.com
Thank you, as always goes first and foremost to Brooke, who encourages, pushes and tolerates me as I do stupid things. And to Sam, Andrew, Kate, Henry and Maggie for inspiring me to try and be a better person. Thank you to Andy Welch and Rich McDonald for spending way more time than they needed or wanted to in helping push me (literally) across the finish line. And thank you Altra Running, First Endurance and Wasatch Running Center for excellent gear and nutrition.
Well written Erik! I myself, started to experience post traumatic stress just from reading it.
Your journey was unreal! So many what ifs but at the end of the day, you have my same respect for completing the distance AND even more respect for not downplaying the DNF…. so many miss time goals on big adventure attempts and then just fade out the fact that they DNF and instead pivot to: “I finished the distance…” not you. So much respect Erik. Let’s run soon- I need to start training for BRKLY
Awesome story! I am intrigued by this race but, I don’t know if I want to do an event designed to make participants fail. I can endure but, I’m not fast. Maybe I just lack confidence?
Hey Scott, from someone who was very connected to the race director and a good friend of James; I can definitely tell
You that this race wasn’t conceived to whiteness people fail. If that were the case, they could have easily made it MUCH more difficult (the run was 20mi instead of 26 and the bike was 105 instead of 112). It was designed to stretch people and in that stretching; promote growth of character; finish or not, there is is no failing in that scenario. -cheers
Thanks Chris! I like your response.
Thanks Erik! Your story and authenticity is inspiring. I’m contemplating Utah’s Toughest in 2019 and was looking for some firsthand experience of what 2018’s event was like and this was perfect. Congratulations on finishing even though after the cut-off you should be very proud to be one of only 6 to complete the course. This too will be my first iron distance triathlon and I don’t yet own a road bike, so I’m in a similar situation and your story has taught me many lessons. One of which is to make sure I prepare and respect the difficulty of this event and get training now to be ready in 8 months. Thanks again and maybe I’ll see you at this event in Aug 2019!?
I signed up for the 2020 Utah’s Toughest half IM a few months ago. I’ve been involved in running a new steel mill start up and have been neglecting my training. I’m six months out and this is exactly the wake up call I needed. Thank you so very much.