Riding shotgun with the Iron Cowboy: Michigan


PC: @jessakae

The sheer numbers and the electric energy of the Iron Cowboy 5k in Ohio had left James energized. We drove out late and followed the dotted line of the map that cut west across Ohio towards Michigan. Darkness had descended some 3 hours earlier and the lightning bugs had made their grand entrance. My heart ached as they hit the huge windshield of the motor home – leaving a smattering of glowing phosphorescent blotches on the dirty window. It felt as if some mystical species, like a fairy population, was being destroyed – one bright splat at a time. I remembered that old Peter Pan movie; the one where Peter is actually a woman dressed up like Pan, and in an attempt to save a dwindling tinker bell, he/she petitions the audience to clap as hard as possible. I never understood how that worked, but as I child I clapped with all the fervor I could muster. Tonight though, I didn’t clap as we drove through Ohio. Instead I just sat there –bouncing on a big chair with poor suspension, somberly watching as the little pixies died.

It was early morning when we pulled into Benton Harbor Michigan. The original plan was to swim in Lake Michigan, but the wind was howling and white caps dotted the undulating water. James wisely opted out of the extra challenge, and chose instead to go with the backup plan at an indoor swim facility. He rolled out of bed with tired eyes, and said,

“When I finish each night, I have no idea how I’m going to do another one of these. But I just wake up the next morning and start to swim. How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time -nom, nom, nom.”



He was met by two different news agencies – NBC and ABC. He conducted a couple of quick interviews as he ate breakfast and readied for the 2.4 miles. The newscasters were a bit star struck – putting on their professional voices and over-dramatized facial expressions as the camera rolled, but quickly melting into adoring fans as soon as the record button was shut off. “Oh my gosh. You’re probably the coolest person I have ever met.” the reporter from NBC gushed.MICH REPORTERJames quietly went to work, while onlookers lined the pool for a chance to get a glimpse of the Iron Cowboy. I swam in a parallel lane for a couple thousand yards – more than anything to just wash away the grime from the last 24 hrs and to wake up my body for the day to come.

The bike course left from Jean Klock Park. A large parking lot above a wide sandy beach on the shore of Lake Michigan.  (I’ll be honest, it looked like an ocean to me. It even had seagulls so…)


The wind blew strong towards the shore, filling the air with misty clouds that moved with speeds that made you think you were watching a time lapse video. James ate another quick meal and then stuffed his battered feet into his cycling shoes. TOESThere were two Sheriffs on motorcycles, who escorted the group for the entire day. The path left the sandy shoreline and moved into the flat country side. The road was lined with an assortment of small, white, yellow, and orange flowers, as well as tall purple clover blossoms that towered above the green grasses.  The land was covered in corn fields and small farms with blueberry bushes, neatly aligned in long strait rows. Homemade wooden signs told of “You pick” options for the berries, and offered farm fresh eggs for $2.00 a dozen.


As we rolled into the second hour, the clouds that had threatened rain all morning, began to open as a thick, wet mist descended on all of us.  James, unphased by the change in weather, turned to me and said, “Lots of nice houses out here. It makes me happy every time I see nice houses. When I finish this thing, I’m going to build Sunny her dream house. That’s what keeps me going when it gets hard. I just think of Sunny and I imagine the house I’m going to build her.” Rain dripped for his face as he looked off again into the country side and continued pedaling – his mind far away in an entirely different time and place.

I rode ahead to get a picture of the group, then settled behind the pack to edit the shot and send it to James, as he had requested.  I met up with one of the riders who was sitting back, enjoying the relative calm of not being caught up in the middle of an ever shifting peloton. We kept the group within sight, knowing that it would only take a few minutes of hard riding to join back up. But then a problem arose. We pulled up to four way stop, surrounded on all sides by tall rows of corn and short little hills that left us unsure of the correct path. He nodded towards one of the roads and we both put in a solid 5 minute effort – taking turns breaking the wind- in an attempt to catch back up to the group. The road opened up with a long half mile view and we quickly realized that we were on the wrong road – we had just sprinted for 2 miles in the wrong direction. Oops. We pulled out a phone, looked at a map, and got back on course,  but by now, the group was some 4 miles away. “Alright,” I said, “let’s move.” We spent the next hour in hot pursuit of the group – pushing hard on the flats and sprinting out of the saddle on the climbs. Rain poured down and stung as it hit my eyes. It was on those hard climbs that I realized a deficiency in my current bike strength. As I sprinted hard, my legs burned but my heart rate and respiratory rate remained low. That is an indication that my aerobic capacity is disproportionately strong compared to my current level of muscular strength and muscular endurance. This didn’t make me upset, rather it simply served as a sign post for an area that I need to direct some attention during the next block of training. If we are perceptive and honest with ourselves, our weaknesses can serve as pathways towards success. Rather than be discouraged when you notice a deficiency, let it motivate you. Let it serve you by directing the path that you should take as you work towards a better you.

I broke away from my riding partner on one of the climbs, but I didn’t stop. Today it felt invigorating to bump into that familiar agonizing burn and then push towards it. Sometimes I get the urge to embrace it and see how much I can make myself hurt. Today was one of those days. Because the urge came on naturally, the suffering was exhilarating and cathartic, rather than emotionally and physically draining.  It isn’t always that way. Some days, I don’t feel like going hard – so I don’t. The desire to cruise along comfortably on those days, is an indication that my body wants recovery. I try my best to listen to what it needs, and do what I can to accommodate. That is an important component to finding balance, satisfaction, and joy in your training.

As I sprinted up another long climb, I glanced to my left and saw a huge piece of landing gear from an old commercial airplane. There was big sign with bold letters that shouted, “YES!! We have Casters!” I was immediately filled with a combination of relief and bewilderment. “Phyewf!” I thought. If ever I need a caster I’ll know just where to come. But…what the hell is a caster?”

Another mile down the road I looked up and saw the face of an enormous tiger staring down at me from a bill board. “I am not a rug.” the caption read, followed by a somber message about the serious threat posed by tiger poaching, and how only a few thousand tigers remained in the wild. I was shocked. I never knew that there was a serious tiger poaching problem in Michigan. “No wonder we haven’t seen any today.” I thought, as I tried to wrap my head around the whole scenario.


I pushed up one final climb as I neared the end of the loop to meet back up with James and the pack. Just as I was reaching the top, a grey Volvo Cross Country passed me on the left. My eyes caught a glimpse of a black bumper sticker as it pulled away. “PRE LIVES” it said in bold white letters. “Yes!” I thought, remembering the poster on my wall of Steve Prefontaine with the exact same inscription.  “That’s what I like to see. A little bit of love for a home grown Oregon boy – all the way over here in Michigan.”

I briefly met up with the group as they headed out for their second 56 mile loop. They worked hard to keep James moving forward and with his wheels in contact with the road – a task that was more difficult than it might seem as James began to sway and nod off, the exhaustion threatening his consciousness with every moment. It was a serious challenge, but James managed to finish without falling asleep and crashing on road again.

The fatigue built throughout the day. It was apparent in Jame’s face as he spoke to the large group who had gathered for the Iron Cowboy 5k, held during the middle of the marathon. He spoke words of inspiration as the group looked on and listened intently. He shares a similar message with every state, but today, the words seemed to come from deep within. He was weary with the kind of accumulative fatigue that makes your emotions raw and puts you on the edge of tears. Perhaps in the same way my wife Steph cries during television commercials when she is pregnant. We saw that same raw emotion tonight as James spoke about his 5 children and his desire to make a better world -not only for them, but for all of us, and for all of our children.


He challenged the large group to makes changes in their lives and in the choices that bring them, and their children down. He then gave the key to making the efforts successful:

“Do a lot of little things, consistently, over a long period of time.”

He didn’t ask people to radically alter the entire course of their lives. He didn’t hate on any particular vice or habit. He simply encouraged all present to make little changes. He didn’t need to outline the particulars. He knew that each person is familiar with their own challenges. He knew that the faults and deficiencies that we each possess were already known to each of us individually. James knows that bringing about change isn’t a matter of pointing out flaws -generally we are already painfully aware of what we aren’t good at. Instead, he wisely focused his message on helping those present to realize that it is indeed possible to make a change.  From his own experience, both in life as well as in athletics, James knows that the best way for change to come about is through simple choices.  If it’s not simple, it won’t be sustainable. If it’s not sustainable, it won’t bring about any lasting change.


That is the reason for the Iron Cowboy message. Find something that you want to be better at and work towards it.  Do the little things. Do them consistently. Do them over a long period of time. If you fall off the horse, don’t turn around in frustration and shoot the poor thing. Simply dust yourself off, recommit, and climb back into the saddle.  As you find success, you will be motivated to improve other areas of your life. Keep it simple. Keep focused on all the little things. The transformative effect you experience is contagious and others will be motivated by your story. Your children will see your efforts and will be molded by your positive choices. That is how an entire society is changed. That is why James is doing what he is doing. That is at the heart of the Iron Cowboy message.


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

  1. After this is all done I really wish all these blogs were put in a book. It would be cherished by many. James gives people hope. I read and reread whatever messages he and his crew put forth because they are simple truths to really living day to day. And the photos you could include would bring smiles and laughter into the faces and hearts of humanity. Godspeed–

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