Interview: James Cunnama

James Cunnama is a professional triathlete based in Stellenbosch. James's impressive résumé includes 4th place at Kona 2013 and solid top three results in Ironman and Ironman 70.3 events worldwide. He is married to Jodie Swallow, current women's World Long Distance ITU Champion, and seven times winner of the East London Ironman 70.3, among many other achievements. We caught up with him at his home in Stellenbosch to check out his new Cervélo P5X, which you can read about here, and to find out a bit about life as an elite-level athlete, and what it takes to get to the top and stay there.

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When did you each know that you wanted to become a pro athlete - was there a sort of tipping point?


Before I became a pro athlete, I was a coach. I was studying Sports Science in Port Elizabeth and I volunteered to work at Ironman when it first came to town. After I graduated, I got a job with the team at Ironman.

 

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?


It certainly helped me get into it, and it certainly helped me with the initial understanding of what was going on physiologically. I do see elite athletes with absolutely no comprehension of what is happening inside their bodies. It helps, it makes a difference to know “right, I am feeling this way because I am hypoglycemic. I can come out of this with sugar and fluids”. It helps to know what’s adapting and happening during training. For example, that the burn is lactic acid, and will go away in a day.

 

What do think is the difference between the guys who make it and the guys who don’t?


It’s a combination of everything. I would love to say that it is just talent, but there are lots of guys way more talented than me who have not made it. Or I could say it is just hard work, but there are loads of people who work ridiculously hard but they just don’t have the raw materials to turn that into top level racing.

 

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?


In the season, Jodie and I pretty much live triathlon. It is eat, sleep, and train. In some respects, it’s easier because we are both happy to go to bed at 8:30 pm and there is no guilt about one partner wanting to go out and the other wanting to sleep.

 

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.

 

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Are you competitive within your relationship?


I’d say Jodie is more competitive, she is competitive with anyone and everyone. I’m able to switch it on and off as needed. We swim together and it’s good to be able to push each other and challenge each other in the pool. But I wouldn’t say we are competitive with each other.

 

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?


A bit of both we try and choose events that coordinate with each other so that we can travel together as much as possible. It is far more pleasant than travelling on your own. But quite often it does not work out. A race that suits me, might not suit Jodie at all and vice versa, or Jodie has qualified for a race that I have not qualified for and our schedule changes accordingly as the season progresses.

 

With East London 70.3 just around the corner (geographically speaking), does this event carry specific importance to you?


I have done 70.3 South Africa every year since I started, except when I missed a year through injury. I know it well, and I’ve got some good results and good memories there. Jodie and I both won it on the same day previously. Jodie has won it six times in a row, she is going for number seven this year.

 

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?


I personally prefer the full Ironman distance, I’ve always preferred the longer distances. Unfortunately, I got into triathlon a bit late to perfect my swimming to the level required for short distance racing. Being off the pace coming out the water in draft-legal racing, it is hard to catch up on the bike.

 

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?


They asked a lot of questions, and we filled in a lot of questionnaires. They built a bike, the fastest they could make for the pros, with no concessions for trying to sell it or keep the costs down.

 

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.

 

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Take a closer look at James's Cervélo P5X here.

 

What does your weekly training routine look like?


It varies through the year. Now I am building up and I’m probably not hitting anything near peak mileage, but I am still doing a 25 hour of training per week. That’s not counting the preparation for training, the stretching and the core work, and everything else that goes with it.

 

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?


I currently coach Jodie. She has tried various coaches and it didn’t work out, and I tried coaching hear at an earlier stage and it didn’t work at all. We just didn’t get the balance right, we didn’t have any separation of church and state as it were. She had to find another coach for the sake of our relationship. But now we’ve found a bit more balance and I coached her for the whole year last year, and she is doing really well. She won World Champs last year, so my coaching CV is looking good.

 

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.






2 Comments

two hands, Jan 30 2017 02:29

Great result on the weekend, James. Going to be a killer season.

banna, Feb 01 2017 01:22

Looks like a really nice guy. Wonder what it'll take to get him to the top of the IM pile? He is still some way off from beating Frodeno, Kienle etc.