Riding shotgun with the Iron Cowboy: Nebraska


PC: @jessakae
PC: @jessakae


As we rolled out of Mason City Iowa I thought back on the previous 18 hours and all that had transpired. There was a heaviness that had weighed on me throughout the day but I couldn’t quite identify what had triggered it. I stared out the window up at the bright stars that shone down through the clear black sky and caught myself quietly singing,

“February made me shiver…With every paper I….delivered.  Bad news on the door step…I couldn’t take one more step. And I can’t remember if I cried when I… read about his widowed bride….something touched me…deep inside, the day…the music…died.”

The song was one of the first I had ever learned to play on the guitar. I sat and strummed for hours as a kid, sitting outside a little wooden fruit stand parked on a rural high way out in Eastern Oregon. That is how I spent my summers – slinging fresh produce to the locals and the travelers who drove through the heart of farm country, playing guitar during the lulls and planning my escape from the slow pace of country living by making it on the big stage.

That song had stuck with me over the years – its haunting melody and somber message picking at my emotions and taking me back in time to a simpler period in my life. Just like that it hit me. My mind shot back to earlier that same day as the locals told me of Buddy Holly’s crash. The shock must have dislodged that old song – knocking it off a dusty shelf in my brain. Without any conscious thought, I began to hum it – adding words and full verses as I moved through the monotony and struggle of trying to shield James on the windy bike course. I had hoped to visit the place of the crash but there was no time in the hustle of doing whatever I could to help keep the Iron Cowboy moving down the road. Perhaps it was that desire to pay my respects to Buddy Holly -such an influential player in my life-that had caused the heaviness I had carried in my chest throughout the day. I thought about Buddy. I thought about Peggy Sue. I always had a childish crush on the beautiful woman I imagined her to be. I wondered who she was and what she looked like. I wondered if that was really her name. She must have been incredible to haunt Buddy like that.  I knew from Buddy’s music that Peggy had been married a long time ago, but still, I wondered if she had ever visited the crash site just a few miles back. The heaviness slowly lifted off of my chest as I remembered what had caused it – as if simply acknowledging the trigger had been enough to remove the nagging burden.

I kept my eyes on the road, as we drove out of the county of Cerro Gordo – “Fat Pig”.  “A fitting name”, I thought, trying to concentrate amid the overwhelming stench of hog farms that drifted in with the blowing wind. It was one of the worst things I have ever smelled in my entire life. Even worse than the gas that James lets erupt from his backside during the run. I learned quickly to run by his side at all times rather than slip behind. It will permanently damage your eye sight and burn your throat. We concluded after my first unfortunate experience running behind James, that each breath of the pungent vapor contains somewhere between 4 and 6 grams of protein.  Less than a minute of running behind the cowboy would be enough to meet the dietary needs of a body builder for an entire day. Still, James and his vapors were nothing compared to the smell of hog that was floating in the Iowa wind.

I awoke a few hours later on the small futon in the motor home –Wingman Casey’s face buried into my chest and Wingman Aaron’s feet resting on my face. We had switched drivers throughout the night and somehow all ended up on the same 12 square foot piece of padding – tangled up as if someone had pressed pause on an awkward game of fraternity twister. It was hard to decipher where one beard ended and another began.  It’s been a long time since I felt the loving touch of my lovely Steph, but even in that deprived sense of desperation, Casey’s fuzzy face and Aaron’s travel-worn feet didn’t quite do it for me. Sorry Wingmen.


Rain lightly fell as James began the swim in the outdoor YMCA facility. A local swimmer joined, covering the distance in the next lane. With only a few laps left, the swimmer leaped out of the pool and ran towards a trashcan a few feet away –vomiting up all of his breakfast in a retching roar that broke the gentle hum of the rain, and jarred the spectators back into the proper context of what the Iron Cowboy was in the process of undertaking. James exited the water and stuffed a few thousand calories down his throat. He prepped for the bike and looked out at the dark sky – his haggard eyes trying to stay positive, but reflecting mainly fatigue.



The bike course looked just like Iowa – long country roads that passed endless rows of corn and huge fields of soy beans. The escort was a solid group, but the monotony of the open landscape and the bright sun that had burnt off the clouds, made the day seem to drag on. Wingmen Casey and Aaron came to the rescue yet again, dawning beautiful party dresses with spaghetti straps.

They chased down the Peloton from behind, screaming wildly like two adoring fans as they cut through the air on their top-of-the-line time trial bikes – well defined leg muscles rippling beneath their dresses, and thick beards contrasting wildly beneath long blond hair extensions.


James did what any other person in his situation would do – he focused his eyes on the road in front of him, tightened his grip on his handle bars, and tried  hard to stay up right while shaking  his head and laughing uncontrollably.

A large group showed up to join James for the  Marathon. We ran along a paved urban path out to a levee that circled a shiny blue lake surrounded by large shade tress and lined with bright green grass. The scene,combined with the bright blue sky and white fluffy clouds to create a surreal setting – as if running through a picture- drawn in chalk on a London side walk by Bert, the transient heart throb of Mary Poppins herself.NEBRASKA RUNWe dropped down off of the levee and approached a small bridge that crossed a mossy green inlet. James pointed out a couple in a small flat-bottomed wooden boat, teetering back and forth as they fished in the green muck. “That thing would be so easy to tip over.” I casually said as we ran towards it, climbing for a few steps up onto the bridge.  “I’ll give you 100 bucks if you swim out there right now and flip it.” James tempted. “100 bucks?!” I repeated, trying to gauge whether he was serious or not. “I’ll throw in another hundred!” one of the other runners shouted out. “Me too!” shouted another. By the time we got to the other side of the bridge, the wager was up to $350. “Ugh…!!”I thought, looking at the thick green slime and watching the bugs walk across the surface. “Those aren’t even water sliders” I thought to myself, realizing that the “water” was thick enough that even creatures who didn’t have the ability to take advantage of the surface tension of water through special widely spaces feet, still had the ability to walk on it. I thought about the $350 dollars. That’s like 8 date nights with Steph –baby sitter included if I eat a pre-dinner before we go out.  Then I thought back to the blue-green algae bloom back in Vermont -my mouth instantly watering in defense as I remembered the taste of frog urine in my mouth. That lake was a crystal clear, blue-ish paradise –practically pure spring water compared to this steaming green sludge. I thought about Steph, then about my girls. “You only live once, #YOLO!”  my mind seemed to counter, pushing the thought of my family out of my mind. “You only die once too, you idiot.” another voice chided in my head.

We reached the end of the bridge and I continued running, the sharp sting of realizing that I had just passed up a 3 minute work day ringing loudly in my mind. At the same time, I knew I had made the right decision, imagining what kind of flesh eating bacteria that must abide in the “water” below me.

We were met by a huge group for the Iron Cowboy 5k. The course covered a community path that gently rose and fell as it moved behind neighborhoods and small heavily wooded parks.NEBRASKA BRIDGEI ran alongside Lily –James and Sunny’s 11 year old. She is an adorable social butterfly with a lovely voice and an artful eye. She has also been responsible for painting the finger and toe nails of everyone in the crew. We started a couple of minutes late and had to play catch up with the rest of the group – speed walking up the hills and running on the downs and flats. Crew member Jordan ran along with us blasting the soundtrack of Frozen from his smart phone. The three of us finished the 3.1 miles in radiant fashion – frolicking in unison with a combination of parkour, pirouetts and Grand Jetes, the melodic tune of “Let It Go” looping endlessly on repeat.

James was joined by a smaller group as he ran into the night – pushing onward until his Garmin read “26.2 miles”. Every day is a new battle for James. Sunny, Casey and Aaron play “Not it” as they try to shirk the enormous responsibility of waking him up each morning, knowing that his exhausted body has barely fallen asleep only a few hours before. They don’t want to be the one who has to tell James that the short reprieve is over – a new day has begun; time to start the whole process again. Many of the struggles that have plagued James from the beginning are still around – stubborn, nagging, overuse injuries that refuse to leave and only get worse with each new day. On top of that, there are new aches and pains that make their subtle entrances as the Cowboy hears the whisperings of pain, but refuses to stop. In a few days those whispers will become screams.

At the same time, James continues to get stronger – completing these most recent days faster than any of the previous. It is absolutely mind blowing to comprehend the process. Bodies are not supposed to be able to handle this type of stress. The physical and chemical laws that form the limits of human physiological potential seem to suggest that such a load would crush anyone who attempts to bear it.

James, however, seems to have reached a point where his body has accepted the load and made physiological adaptations in response to it. He has broken through into new realms of human potential. He has shown us that we are not bound by the laws that have been determined by science or popular misconceptions. He has shown us that we can achieve incredible things if we believe in ourselves and then work to achieve the goals we have set out to accomplish.

So dream big.  Reflect on what you want to achieve. Think deeply about who you want to be and the kind of life you want to lead. Find areas where you want to improve. Maybe the goal isn’t to complete a 5k or a Marathon or an Ironman. Maybe there are deficiencies in your character that you want to improve. Perhaps the goal is to have more integrity. Maybe you want to be a better friend, a kinder spouse, a more patient and loving parent. Maybe you want to fight the addictive pull that lures you into talking crap about people behind their backs. Sure it might temporarily make you feel better about yourself, and allow you to feel justified for your own shortcomings, but in the end it makes you feel sick, and dirty, and unfulfilled. Maybe your struggle is with food, or alcohol, or self loathing, or pettiness, or pharmaceuticals.

Maybe you have been terribly hurt, or abused or wronged and the pain that burned a hole through your being is now bolstered by anger, and hate, and grief. “How can I possibly forgive?” you may have wondered. “If I forgive, what then? That rage is all I have left. That is what holds me up and keeps me going. Give that up? And then what? How will I keep from crumbling in on myself? How can I possibly continue without that. Can I really face that challenge and live with that new reality? How Can I muster the strength to build a new life, with new meaning, and new sources of strength?”

You can. I promise you can. I know because I have.

It won’t come easy. You will struggle. The process will hurt. It will take commitment. It will challenge you. There will be times where you think it is going to break you, and it might come close.  It will be difficult, perhaps the most difficult thing you have ever experienced. But it is possible to overcome. And in the end, it will be worth it.

Start small. Remember these words from the Princess Diaries. (Yes, I really just said that.)

“Courage is not the absence of fear but rather the judgement that something is more important than fear; The brave may not live forever but the cautious do not live at all.”

It’s ok to be afraid. Fear is what makes us human. The key is not to eliminate the fear, but to keep fighting in the presence of it. Have the courage to start. Reach out to those around you. There is help if you need it.  Decide what you want to accomplish and fight until you have reached your goal.

There are no limits to what we can achieve if we believe and are willing to work for it. As humans, we are adaptable – physically, mentally and emotionally.  James has shown us that we have the ability to change, to progress, and to become stronger in response to opposition – it doesn’t matter what kind. Whatever the struggle, keep fighting, keep pushing, keep believing. You can endure it. Your have the ability to not only meet the challenge, but to overcome it and become stronger in the process.

Unless the challenge happens to be hog stench. In which case, the future is bleak. Your body will not adapt to that. Give up now.  That stuff will kill you, or best case scenario, make you wish it had.





3 thoughts on “Riding shotgun with the Iron Cowboy: Nebraska”

  1. Naturally this blog seems to be talking to me. I fear everything. It has only been in the past few years that I’m learning how to live with fear and be courageous and fight for what I deserve. James has given me more vital strength to continue to live outside my comfort zone. To really really live. He, his family, his zany crew—-they’ve all been therapy for me. Thank you.

  2. It’s beyond me how you manage to do all that as part of the Iron Cowboy crew AND write such an amazing and inspiring blog posts.
    I have been following James’s efforts since the beginning via his coach’s blog but there was little to learn about this monumental struggle besides the cold numbers.
    Thank you for bringing his daily story online in such vivid colors spiced up with some hilariously funny remarks as well as deep thoughts. Enjoying every single post!

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