When did you each know that you wanted to become a pro athlete - was there a sort of tipping point?
I coached guys to do their first Ironman, while at the same time I was coaching myself to my own first Ironman in 2007. I raced it as a pro because at the time there were hardly any pros and we figured I may as well go for it and start with the front batch. I got beaten by some of the women, but I did okay.
I did 9 and a half hours, which is my slowest time to date for an Ironman. For the next two years, I coached to pay the bills while I was training. My training increased and increased until I was working between 11 and 3 and for the rest of the time, I either worked from home or I trained. At the end of 2008, I resigned from my job to go full-time pro.
With regards to your Sports Science studies: how do you find the theory correlates with real life?
What do think is the difference between the guys who make it and the guys who don’t?
The best coach in the world can’t make you into an elite athlete if you don’t have the raw talent, do the hard work, and have the opportunity. There are many people who never have the opportunity to learn to swim, ride a bike or try something like a triathlon. Everything has to fall into place at the right time and it’s a very difficult sequence to get right.
You have to be prepared to take risks. One of the big things I did was to take the risk of leaving my job knowing that I could not go and ask for my job back in a year, because it would not be there.
You are married to a professional triathlete (Jodie Cunnama née Swallow). How do the two of you disconnect from the world of racing, and training? Or do you live, eat, sleep and breathe triathlon?
Obviously, there is the flip side which is that we are both tired all the time, we’re both grumpy all the time. So it does have its challenges, but we’ve found a pretty good balance. We do make a concerted effort to get away from training when we can, but that is pretty much limited to the off-season.
Are you competitive within your relationship?
Do you compete in mostly the same events, or do you pick and choose depending on what suits your training schedule and plans for the year? What determines which events you choose to compete in?
With East London 70.3 just around the corner (geographically speaking), does this event carry specific importance to you?
It is the only 70.3 in South Africa with a pro race and it is good to race in front with the home crowds. That said, it is held during our off-season in January and World Championships are in October. It’s very hard to be fit in January and October, so every year we have to see how it goes. Some years your preparation has gone well and you are firing, and others you are a few weeks away from firing.
Do you prefer the full ironman distance or 70.3 (half-ironman), we notice you both have obtained many good results in the 70.3 distance? And why do you tend to skip the shorter distance formats?
Jodie is the opposite, she came from an ITU background and Ironman is almost too long for her- it’s a real challenge for her to keep going for that length of time, that distance.
We hear you provide input to product development with Cervélo and ENVE. What does that entail and does it change your approach to racing at all?
With the wheels, a big thing was going to disk brakes and tubeless tyres. I have been pushing for tubeless tyres for ages. On the bike leg you are out there with no team car and no mechanical support, and fixing a puncture can cost you the race. So you want a light, fast, good rolling resistance tyre, but then you risk punctures and you lose 5 minutes to a puncture. With tubeless those minor punctures: little pieces of glass, little thorns etc are no longer an issue. With a disk brake bike, they are able to build tubeless wheels that are more efficient and light- they don’t have to provide a braking surface, they don’t have to dissipate heat, they don’t need the solid rim of carbon for a braking surface.
Then the other big push from my side was where you put your spares, nutrition, bottles etc. So, for example, the bottle behind the seat you need to be as close to the seat as possible to be most aerodynamic. Aftermarket bottle cages can add an extra 10-20 cm behind the seat. On this bike the bottle cage is fully adjustable- height, angle etc. so you can get it into the exact position you need.
Take a closer look at James's Cervélo P5X here.
What does your weekly training routine look like?
In peak season, we get up to 30-35 hours in a big week. On average, in peak season, we’re looking at 20-25 km’s of swimming, 500km’s or so of biking and anything between 70 and 100km’s of running.
Do you think you might look at getting back into coaching after professional racing?
The importance of coaching is just having someone objective. It is easy enough to plan the perfect program, but when it starts getting hard, and when you start getting tired it’s very difficult in the middle of a six-hour ride to not start questioning your decisions. When you just push through it, which you do when you have a coach, and you just do it, you get the benefits. The indecision can cripple you if you don’t have someone objective to say: “I know you feel tired, but harden up and get out there and do it”, or: “I know you feel tired and I agree you should rest, we’ll do the long bike tomorrow”. This gives you the confidence to make the right decisions. It is very difficult to self-coach, you need supreme self-confidence both in the plan and the execution.