It’s been only a week since I hit the road with the Iron Cowboy and his crew. Already, the days are beginning to melt into one another. I have a hard time remembering what state we’re in, what day we’re on, and even what day of the week it is. We’ve covered a lot of ground, but we travel through darkness in the middle of the night, which has an odd effect. We don’t see the whole geographical transformation from state to state. Instead we drive until the sun comes up and arrive in a new place, with a slightly varied landscape, blanketed by the same sky –each day a different shade of blue.
We pulled in early this morning to a hotel and crashed for a few hours while James swam the 2.4 miles at an indoor fitness complex known as Life Center Plus.
He was then joined by a large group for the bike. Sometimes the cyclists seem to be a bit star-struck by James, or are worried that they will ruin the flow of things if they go to the front and lead the peloton. The hesitancy sometimes results in James riding into the wind with a large group of apprehensive cyclists behind him. That seemed to be the case for the first section of the bike, but eventually people warmed up and started working together. The group effort and cooperation carried the cowboy through the last half of the ride in a solid, efficient pace. I wished I could have been out there early on to help rally and herd the other cyclists into a productive team, but the opportunity to sleep had to be taken, as the stretches of road are getting longer, and the exact logistics of the next several days are unknown. James was met by a group of 16 at the beginning of the marathon. One was a kind man named Joel Brady from Ohio, who looks like a 7 foot tall Owen Wilson. I have interacted with Joel over the last several months through different social media outlets, and I knew how stoked he was to run alongside the Iron Cowboy. James was stoked as well, hoping the pictures he took with “Owen” would get the rest of the celebrity world on board with the mission of putting an end to childhood obesity.
We ran out onto a paved bike path that cut through arcing trees. A bright red Cardinal swooped down from the sky and perched on a branch, as if trying to see if the rumors among the birds were true. “So it is him!” I envisioned the Cardinal thinking, “The bearded man with the big muscles, the fancy bike, and the stretchy pants has made it all the way to the Buckeye state. He sure doesn’t look like any cowboy I’ve ever seen.”
The trail was lined with wild black berry and raspberry bushes. This was a constant all the way through New England and had continued into Ohio. If ever there was an opportunity over the past week, I would trudge through the surrounding brush – being careful to not stand in Poison Ivy – and frantically stuff as many berries into my mouth as possible. The locals would always give me an odd look, as if such antics were outside the realms of normal. “What?” I would ask, as I would turn around and notice the furrowed brows – dark red juice dripping down my beard and staining my hands. I suppose it would be akin to an out of state guest visiting my home in Flagstaff and ecstatically diving towards the clay soil to stuff handfuls of dandelion greens in their mouth. “Is this Organic?!!” they would undoubtedly ask. “Sure is”. I would proudly respond if the scenario ever did present itself. “Organic, gluten free, and grass fed.”
The large group managed to cover 11 miles with James before needing to loop back for the Iron Cowboy 5k. There was only one detour along the way and it took place within the second mile. James turned to me and asked if I had brought any baby wipes. “Dang.”I thought, having completely spaced out on this essential item. “Sorry man, nothing.” I responded, feeling a burning sense of failure. I looked around for an alternative but there was nothing to be found. I noticed a small property management office about 50 meters away and thought out loud, “Ok, that’s our option”. I approached the front door. Through the window, I simultaneously saw the lady sitting at the front desk, as well as my own creepy reflection. I was bearded, and naked with the exception of a tiny pair of booty shorts, and dripping in sweat from head to toe. Her eyes studied me with a slight hint of panic. She had already reached for her phone and held it – ready to make a quick 3 digit phone call and scream one final message to the dispatcher on the other end. In that very moment, our eyes briefly met, and I smiled that embarrassed, uncomfortable smile of someone who needs help but is afraid to ask for it. I gave a slight wave and then gently knocked on the door. James followed just a few meters behind – a look of urgency on his face, and his butt cheeks tightly clenched. The woman slowly walked to the door, being careful not to take her suspicious eyes off either of us -still tightly grasping her phone. She slowly cracked the door and peered through the slot. “Hi,” I said, uncomfortably. “I know how weird this looks and I’m sorry. I don’t really have time to explain everything, but…” I looked over my shoulder and pointed to James. “This is James Lawrence the Iron Cowboy, maybe you’ve seen him on TV?” She shook her head, but her suspicion seemed to soften. I tried to focus on the task at hand, but almost burst into laughter as I realized that we had just perfectly reenacted a scene from Nacho Libre – it was clearly still on my mind after the hours of reciting one liners along the river trail in Pennsylvania. “Well, um…” I continued, “Can he use your bathroom?” the urgency and desperation in both of our eyes making the words seem more like a demand than a question. She seemed to take pity on James and kindly – though still with a sense of reluctancy- consented.
At the completion of the 11 miles, the group met up with a large crowd that gathered for the Iron Cowboy 5k. The turnouts just keep getting bigger as we move from one state to another. Participants ran excitedly down the path -brown and pink plastic cowboy hats topping their heads and casting shadows over their smiling faces and shining eyes.
Along the run, one of the participants told James of how he had been the topic of conversation at a recent training group. She told how everyone was so impressed and they had speculated that perhaps James possessed some type of physiological difference that gave him advantages over the general population. She then added, “But I know you are just like all of us. You were born with two legs, two lungs, and one heart. Yet no one can comprehend how you are able to accomplish this.” She paused briefly, then simply asked with complete sincerity, “How do you do it?”James thought for a moment, and then slowly began to speak – as if he knew the answer better than he knew anything in the entire world, but had never communicated it outside of his own mind.
“I gain inspiration by thinking back on other human beings who have endured so much more. Think about a prisoner of war – locked up for years. What I am doing is nothing compared to what others have endured. I’m not getting tortured. No one beats me. I get to sleep in a bed – most of the time. I’m not being starved to death. It’s the opposite actually, people are handing me food and cold drinks all day long. I get messages from all over the world. Strangers come up to me and tell me how inspirational this is to them. That pushes me forward. For me, there is an end in sight. I know that this will all be done in 50 days. That gives me hope. I also have my wife Sunny and my beautiful children with me. That makes all the difference. This is incredibly hard, but it’s nothing compared to what so many other people have endured. That’s what I think about. That’s the context I’m living in.”
So remember that the next time you are facing an overwhelming challenge. Think about what others have overcome.
When there are no huge struggles in our lives, the little thing seem to become big things. By “huge struggles”, I mean events like the death of a loved one, or a crippling illness, or not having food and shelter for your suffering children. By “little things” I mean events like a lost cell phone, a flat tire, a monotonous long run, or crying, nocturnal children. All of our struggles fall into some place along the huge spectrum of experience that is shared universally by all humanity throughout all of history. When your own challenges seem to be too much, remember others who have endured more. Think of what it must have been like for them. Remember them and pull inspiration from their lives. It will help us realize our true potential as human beings. It will make us less petty. It will put our own struggles – whether big or little – into their proper context. It will help us to realize that we are capable of so much more than we ever imagined possible. We don’t have to be super human. A regular human, committed to reaching its full human potential, is generally all we need to meet any obstacle that life throws at us. It doesn’t mean it will not be excruciatingly agonizing and have the potential to absolutely crush us. But we can rise back up; we can fight back; we can keep moving forward and ultimately, we can overcome the challenges that life throws our way.
That’s what James does. He’s no different than any of us.
Two legs. Two lungs. And one enormous heart.