Riding shotgun with the Iron Cowboy: Iowa


Iowa looked exactly like I imagined it would – rows of corn and fields of soy beans in every direction. The sun rose quickly making it hot outside way earlier than should be legal. My mind wondered as I looked up into the bright sky. Come on sun! We’re trying to do an Ironman here. Can’t you just go hang out behind some clouds for a few hours? I mean, we like you and all, but seriously…tan lines before 10:00 am? Maybe we’ll talk to Sunny. She may have an in.

We considered a rain dance, but that gets complicated as well with Iron Cowboy James’ cold blooded nature. Maybe we could choreograph a “slightly overcast, hovering around 70 degrees with no wind” dance.  Casey could probably come up with something, although we’d likely have to remove a few pelvic thrusts and booty bumps before we submitted it to Mother Earth.

We awoke in the small town of Mason City, known for manufacturing all kinds of Kraft products -specifically Jello and pudding, but also known for being the fateful location where, “the music died”.  It was from Mason City that the airplane had departed, and it was in a field just 6 miles away that it had crashed – taking the lives of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, J.P. Richardson, and pilot Roger Peterson.


I felt a strange sense of excitement, in combination with grief, as the locals bragged about these two claims of fame. I love Jello. Seriously, it’s one of my favorite things in the entire world. In the two days we spent in the hospital after the birth of our second daughter, I single handedly ate all of the Jello in the entire maternity ward. In my opinion it really is one of the greatest things ever invented.

I also love Buddy Holly. Buddy’s “Greatest Hits” was one of the only tapes I owned growing up. I listened to that thing on repeat for years – packing it in my walkman for long bike rides, learning to ride with no hands as I would take the tape out and flip it over when it reached the end of one side. Buddy was one of the musicians who defined my childhood and adolescence. I had heard about his fatal crash, but I never imagined I would randomly wake up just a few miles from where it had all taken place.


The 2.4 mile swim was held at an indoor facility in response to a request by James to avoid any more open water swims throughout the rest of the journey. The pain in his shoulder is only increasing, and he prefers the controlled, predictable environment in the event the anything go drastically wrong.

A small group of cyclists joined for the 112 mile bike ride. The sun beat down on the black pavement that cut a path through the rows of cornfields – extending like a great green quilts all the way to the horizon where they made a stark contrast with the bright blue sky. “Maybe I should stop and take a picture.” I thought.  I could probably submit it to Microsoft for the default backdrop of their new desk top and use the money to pay for the rest of my school.BIKE IOWAAbout 30 miles into the ride, James stopped to refill bottles. His eyes were tired, hiding behind mirrored lenses in a shadowy, sunken position.  He turned to me and said, “I’m falling asleep out there. I’m really struggling today. I need some help.” His face was sincere, having lost its typical subdued humor. I told him to eat some food and just keep riding.


As we trudged on into the next stretch of road, a young enthusiastic rider pulled up alongside James. “I just gotta ask you.” he started, “What do you eat?” – as if hoping for the secret that would give him Iron Cowboy super powers. James glanced over at the young cyclist and replied with a one word answer, “Food.” The cyclist looked disappointed and continued, “Yeah, but what kind of food exactly?” James looked over again and responded, “Whatever they put in front of me.”

It was true. Although James tries hard to eat as many organic, whole, plant – based foods,  and high quality animal proteins as possible, that is not always how it plays out in real life. James’s own personal message is not to aim for perfection, but rather for a B+ average. There are times that high quality food is not available – either because the crew didn’t have the ability to plan ahead, or because food was graciously provided by someone else who was doing the best they could to help fuel the Cowboy on his journey. Of course James prefers to fuel with the highest quality products available, but he will never forgo calories simply because he is unsatisfied with the quality of the food that is available at the time. With the rigors of the challenge he is undertaking, he simply can’t afford to. He and his crew do the best they can, but sometimes that doesn’t work out as planned. On those rare occasions, James consumes whatever is available. If someone were to ask, “What kinds of foods has James consumed on the trip that fall into that realm between B+ and perfection?” the answer would be simple – “Literally, everything you can imagine.”

James’s response, “I eat whatever they put in front of me.” is important as we consider making healthy nutritional choices both for ourselves, and for those who depend upon us. We, and our families, will eat whatever is directly in front of us. Because of this truth, if you want to eat healthy, or if you want your children to eat healthy, it is important to have healthy food available. It is equally important to get rid of foods that are less than optimal. This takes time and a willingness to plan ahead.

Think about your own nutritional vices.  Look around your own fridge and pantry. Are there foods in there that you don’t really want to have in your diet? (even though they taste freaking amazing!) Get rid of them. Replace them with healthy alternatives. Switch out your unhealthy deserts for dates, almonds, bananas, all kinds of fruits, and fruit smoothies. Switch out the refined processed meats for lean, responsibly raised animal products.

PC: @earthyandy
PC: @earthyandy

(Except for Salami – I mean, you can’t expect me to give up that. What am I supposed to pair with my sharp cheddar? Also, lets keep the summer sausage, and the bacon, and the spec. Actually…how about we skip the cured pork products for now. Let’s keep those within that realm between B+ and perfect – temporarily at least.)

Switch out your refined, easily to access carbs with other carbs -veggies and hummus, sweet potatoes, rice and beans, and salads, and all the other whole-food, plant-based items you can think of. Give it a try. Make the switch gradually. I promise you’ll feel better.

PC: @earthyandy
PC: @earthyandy

Slowly add them into your kid’s diet. Ease them in gently if you have to, but do what you need to get the job done. Are they finicky about eating fruit? Try brightly colored fruit smoothies or simply add a small scoop of ice cream to a bowl of berries. Do they hate vegetables? Just sneak a small amount into the fruit smoothies –they won’t know the difference.

PC: @earthyandy
PC: @earthyandy

(Follow @earthyandy on IG and EarthyAndy_ on YouTube if you need some incredible food ideas)

Change is hard. Especially changes to our diets. Start small. Gradually progress, and don’t throw in the towel just because you occasionally struggle. Remember, it’s not about perfection – it’s ok to treat yourself from time to time  Surround yourself with good foods and, as James recommends, just shoot for a B+ average.

As we pushed down the road, bright red lights began to flash before us and two huge white arms dropped across the road – signaling an approaching train. We kept moving by turning off into a long industrial driveway that looped around through an Ethanol plant. “So that’s what they’re doing with all this corn.” I thought to myself. By the time we u-turned and made it back to the entrance of the plant, the train that had caused the detour appeared around a bend. There were a dozen huge round containers being pulled by a bright orange, miniature sized train. It looked like the Keebler Elves had been contracted out to haul ethanol. “They must be out of work.” I thought. “Maybe the Iron Cowboy’s quest to put an end to childhood obesity has decreased the demand for Keeblers”. Poor little guys.  Although the career shift would probably benefit the current generation, I have to admit, it would be sad. Maybe we get the elves to change their approach. Perhaps they could serve as personal trainers and life coaches for young kids who previously couldn’t get enough of the Keeblers.  Maybe we could get Ronald McDonald and the Cookie Monster to join the team as well. Don’t worry guys, we’ll find a place for you. There is room for everyone in this new world of healthy children and junk food moderation.

Within about 20 miles, the humor slowly returned to James’ eyes and the escort group of cyclists began to dwindle as the Cowboy rode along. I did my best to read the wind and position myself in a way that would provide the greatest amount of slipstream for James, but the direction was constantly shifting, making for a difficult task. We rode hard, trying to be as efficient as possible, racing the sun as it moved slowly across the bright sky. The accompanying group dwindled even smaller – at times consisting of only a few strong cyclists who hung off the back and did their best to draft behind the broad shoulders of the Iron Cowboy. The two wingmen joined us – adding a much appreciated touch of humor to the otherwise overly predictable course.


It was amazing to see the transformation in the Cowboy from only an hour before. When James had stopped to refill his bottles at mile 30 he looked and sounded like a broken man. He wanted to quit, and wondered how he was going to continue. He didn’t quit though. He didn’t over-analyze the situation and allow the fear of the unknown to add its strangling effects to the already daunting situation. He simply got back on his bike, looked at the patch of road directly in front of him, and just kept pedaling. An hour later, a transformation had taken place – the local escort struggling to keep up, doing their best to slide into the slipstream behind him. James didn’t do anything different. He just kept riding. He had drifted into a low spot. He knew it was temporary.  He simply accepted the struggle, kept his legs moving, and held on until the agony gradually drifted away.

Struggles are like that. Hard times and pain are cyclical in nature. They sneak in unwelcome. They derail our plans as they never seem to show up at the right time. We tend to get overwhelmed as we wonder how on earth we will be able to bear the agony and continue on. We fear what our family and friends will think if the struggles become big enough to affect our daily lives. “What if I have to ask for help?” we ask. “What if others see me struggling and judge me as weak?” “What will they think of me? What will they think of my family?”

For some reason, we are unable to see past the present.  We don’t know how long the struggle will last and that terrifies us. We fear that it will get worse, and that cripples our efforts to keep fighting.  We peer into the dark tunnel and assume that the heavy blackness will continue forever.

It won’t.

Just as it drifted towards us, it will eventually stop, and drift back away. It works the same way, whether it is that unforgiving 3rd lap in a mile race, the overwhelming urge to give into to our vices, or the agony and fear that accompanies emotional distress and the strangling grip of anxiety.

It will pass.

If you continue to push forward, stepping continually into the darkness, the light will eventually emerge. It will appear gradually – a tiny dot, barely visible in the distance. It will grow brighter and brighter until it bathes you completely. Slowly, you will once again gain control, and have the ability and fortitude to continue onward.

As you enter that state of calm, peaceful rest, you will be armed with a new sense of compassion. The struggles that dropped you to our knees and ripped the calluses from your heart will empower you with an ability to feel. You will realize that the stigmatized “issues” you were dealing with aren’t reserved for the marginalized weaklings who have failed the human experience, rather they are the essence of our human experience – universal struggles that define our mortality and us as human beings. There is nothing wrong with you. You are not a flawed version of what humanity is supposed to be. You are simply a human  -a human in all of its, messy, critical, imperfect, petty, mean, anxious, inadequate, terrified, struggling beauty.

Your struggles will open your eyes, and your ears, and your heart.  As you look around, you will have the ability to see fear, and pain, and struggle in the eyes of complete strangers. You will know them and love them in an instant. There will be no need to explain. Your eyes will simply meet and you will both know.

“I’ve been there before.” Is all you will need to say. “You’re going to be ok. I promise.”

They will look back, and nod. Already knowing it’s true, but needing the reassurance of a stranger to keep them moving through a few more struggling steps.

The largest group to date showed up for the Marathon. They carried James along as they made several loops on a shaded path that circled a series of small froggy looking ponds. The night pressed on and we loaded up the decaying motor home so that we could get a jump on the long drive ahead. We pointed our headlights towards Nebraska and began to push down the road. Within a mile, the familiar bobbing shine of a dozen head lamps appeared in the distance. It was James and the group who had stuck it out with the Cowboy for the final miles of the run. The Iron Cowboy Motor home roared by – horns honking and lights flashing as we passed.

I looked back in the side mirror as the group disappeared behind us. The bright lights that had appeared in the distance, and slowly built in intensity, now drifted away and out of our view.

I stared into the darkness in front of me, realizing that a smile had spread across my face as we bounced down the long black road.


2 thoughts on “Riding shotgun with the Iron Cowboy: Iowa”

  1. He’s almost done! I can’t believe how hard he’s pushed through this. And I’m just watching through your blog and through social media. I can’t even imagine what it’s like in person.

    We will be there tomorrow to cheer him on and run with him.

  2. What a great read!

    My husband, Jason, did the whole Ironman with James in Mason City! He enjoyed chatting with you as well Tommy!

    He said he was so glad he did it and thrilled he can say he is a part of history! What a feat! He has much respect for The Iron Cowboy!

    One more left! Wow! Simply amazing!

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