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Experts analyze the key elements of James Lawrence’s ambitious attempt.
On June 6, James Lawrence will begin a 2.4 mile swim, followed by a 112 mile bike ride and 26.2 mile run in Kauai, Hawaii. As soon as he crosses the finish line, he’ll board a plane to Alaska to do it again the next day. On day three, he’ll cover the same distances in Washington. If all goes as planned, Lawrence will set a world record of completing 50 iron-distance triathlons in 50 states over 50 consecutive days.
Emphasis, of course, should be placed on “if all goes as planned.” Though the physicality of the feat itself is remarkable—Lawrence will swim a total of 120 miles, bike 5,600 and run 1,310—his success will hinge on factors beyond fitness. Lawrence’s end goal in all of this is to raise America’s health awareness and to inspire people of all ages to make healthier choices. (Watch Lawurence’s “Why 50 50 50” video here.)
“I have no doubt that James can manage 50 Ironmans in 50 states. The true limiter is the ‘50 days’ aspect of this because it leaves close to no room for error or setbacks,” says Rich Roll, Ultraman expert and one of the first finishers of the EPIC5: 5 iron-distance triathlons on 5 Hawaiian Islands in less than 7 days. “Doing 50 without a single built-in rest day is what truly makes this endeavor as close to impossible as I can imagine.”
“Rarely do we take on anything that is all-consuming for such an extended period of time,” says Andrew Lane of the Institute of Sport at the University of Wolverhampton, “50 Ironmans in 50 days is essentially forcing overtraining,” leaving Lawrence vulnerable to a host of physical and psychological complications which could derail his effort.
With 10 to 16 hours dedicated to the act of swimming, cycling and running each day, Lawrence will have a limited window to bathe, feed, rest, recover and travel to the next starting line. It’s during this “recovery” period where the most challenging obstacles will likely appear, say Roll and Lane. Still, a lot can go wrong in 24 hours, and even more can go wrong in 50 days. For Lawrence to succeed, he’ll need to manage several key elements.
Key 1: Pacing
Time is of the essence, says Roll: “Foremost, the challenge is to complete the distance each day in a manner that is expeditious but also efficient—a perfect mix of not pushing yourself too hard but getting the mileage done quickly enough such that you account for adequate time to rest and recover in between the daily iron-distance attempts.”
“Searching for the most efficient way to perform so that speed can be maximized while the effort reduced would be the most logical strategy to follow,” adds Lane. “This will require careful monitoring of the intensity of effort rather than pace, as there will be times when performance feels easier than others.”
Key 2: Fatigue
“The interplay between fatigue and concentration will be critical,” says Lane. “A mindset that expects and manages intense moments of fatigue where everything feels difficult will be important.”
Though Lawrence has trained in fatigued conditions in preparation for his attempt, it’s likely exhaustion will happen on an unprecedented level:
“James will face scenarios ranging from mild to extreme doubt on the one hand to perhaps even hallucinations on the more extreme end. There will be times he is so fatigued, he cannot see straight. He may even fall asleep on the bike,” says Roll, who speaks from first-hand experience of such fatigue during his 5-day attempt.
Key 3: Gear
In tackling such an extreme challenge, it’s the little things that can become big things—and these little things sometimes are not the things one expects.
“It’s the little—perhaps even imperceptible—details that can make all the difference in an effort like this,” says Roll. “For example, ensuring he maintains undercarriage hygiene is absolutely essential. What type of chamois cream is he using? How often is he cleaning himself? Rotating his bibs?) Because if he develops saddle sores that make it challenging to sit on his saddle, this can quickly escalate to a significant problem that can derail the endeavor. Same thing with staying on top of blisters, or a comfortable bike position. The whole effort could come down to the type of socks he chooses to wear or an ingrown toenail.”
Key 4: Motivation
Committing to an entire day spent exercising is daunting enough for most people; to do this 50 consecutive days requires a tremendous amount of motivation.
“The reasons for doing the 50-day challenge need to be strong; there will be times when the motivation to stop will be intense, and at such times the athlete will need reminding of why this is important,” says Lane. “A characteristic of athletes doing intense multistage events is the ability to keep single-minded focus.”
Key 5: Nutrition
As with any prolonged endurance effort, Lawrence will have to take in considerable calories on a well-established schedule to avoid a caloric deficit the next day.
“You are always eating for the next day. Nutrition is a highly personalized affair and I have no doubt that he has experimented with this extensively but nonetheless he will face uncharted terrain over the course of the summer and maintaining his caloric and nutritional requirements will be crucial,” says Roll.
Key 6: Crew
With little time and energy to handle the logistics of meals or transportation, Lawrence will have to rely heavily on a well-oiled crew. One mistake—bad directions or a failure to address an issue expeditiously—could be a tipping point for an already-fatigued Lawrence.
“This is a team effort through and through so should his crew falter in the least—disorganization, dissonance, or their own fatigue—this will prove a challenge that could imperil the goal,” says Roll.
Lane agrees: “The support team is crucial. Positive team dynamics and people in the team who can help pick up the mood of the athlete and also pick up the mood of other members of the support group is vital. There will be times when members of the support group also feel fatigued, make mistakes over logistics and whose motivation will be questioned.”
Key 7: Adaptation
Despite the hours put in to preparing for this event, there are many things beyond Lawrence’s control. Unforeseeable obstacles, such as broken bike, a crash, an injury, a road closure, illness, a closed pool or inclement weather, will significantly encroach on his precious rest time. If setbacks accumulate, this could create a sleep deprivation scenario that could be difficult for Lawrence to overcome.
“In my mind, he will still have to feel pretty good after 30 Ironmans in 30 days (the current world record) to entertain the notion of doing 20 more in 20 days. And that is an incredible idea to imagine,” says Roll. “I am rooting for James and truly hopes that he makes it. But the most important thing in my opinion is that irrespective of whether he succeeds or fails, whether it takes him 50 days or 75 for that matter, is that he signed up for the adventure. It is valiant, it is extraordinary, and I can’t wait to cheer for him from afar.”
A schedule and maps for Lawrence’s daily events during his 50/50/50 challenge can be found on his website.