But critics and media reports portray the organization as an outfit that overstates its accomplishments. Even its name draws criticism as it invokes the network of safe houses and secret passages used by Black people to escape slavery.
O.U.R. is run by Tim Ballard, who in 2019 was appointed by Donald J. Trump to an advisory council focused on ending human trafficking.
An investigation in The New York Times Magazine found that in February 2016, according to a court filing, a Justice Department official cautioned law-enforcement agencies against “being involved in, assisting or supporting operations with” Ballard’s group. More recently, Troy Rawlings, the prosecutor in nearby Davis County, Utah, confirmed to The Times that he has an open criminal investigation into Ballard and his nonprofit. No charges have been filed.
“O.U.R. has complied with all laws that regulate nonprofits and intends to cooperate fully with any official inquiry, if asked,” O.U.R. said in a statement that addressed the Davis County investigation, and other allegations.
There was no sign the athletes joining Lawrence knew of his support of the group, and he played down the charity, saying the challenge was about inspiring people, including himself, to go beyond their limits at a time of pandemic-induced limitations.
Hailey Ingram Jones, who participated after giving birth to her first child in January and had never done a triathlon, said she had heard of Operation Underground Railroad before, but she wasn’t drawn to Conquer 100 by Lawrence’s choice in charity. “I didn’t feel like anyone really ever talked about them,” Ingram Jones said. “I don’t think most people even knew that was a thing.”
For Lawrence, alone at first, challenges abounded.
In the first weeks of Conquer 100, Lawrence navigated icy late-winter roads, howling wind, snow flurries and freezing rain. By June, temperatures had soared above 90 degrees and the crowds had swelled. So had Lawrence’s lower lip. The sun and dry air had scorched it puffy, yellow and scabbed.