September 21, 2010

Checking in with James Cunnama


I wanted to do a catch-up with James since the last interview we did, purely because I love the way he thinks and believe you could all benefit from hearing it straight from the horses mouth. He doesn’t need introductions, so we`ll get straight to the interview:

Its been a really successful year since we last spoke, give us an run down of life post Ironman South Africa until now…

2010 has been a bit of a year of up and downs… well, it was mostly down in the first half, and has been picking up since. Ironman South Africa was a big disappointment, being forced to withdraw due to a stomach problem. Thereafter I went to Europe and where I crashed my bike, punctured in a major race (Challenge France), had a worse crash on my bike (writing off my Cervelo P4!) and was forced to DNS Ironman Austria with a stomach virus.

But it has since turned around – two weeks after Austria I came 6th at Challenge Roth, two weeks later I won the Alpe D’Huez Triathlon, and 3 weeks later I came a close 2nd to Marcel Zamora at the extremely tough Embrunman in France. Now I am in the USA and my first race here, last weekend at Rev3 Cedar Point, Ohio was my best ever – winning in 8h21, with a 2h43:35 run split.

One of the key things was overcoming adversity. How, as a professional athlete, do you deal with your essential work tool (your body) not working, almost at all?

Shit happens. And most people would do well to remember that. As a pro, it is often easier to deal with the disappointment of a bad race, or even the frustration of not being able to train properly as there is always another event just around the corner, whereas an age-grouper may need to wait a year for another chance. But sometimes your body simply does not perform. It is tough to tell sometimes whether it is motivational and you need to push through to that ‘next level’, or throw the towel in and live to fight another day. Knowing the answer to this question is always difficult, because when your body is failing, people tell you its in your head, and when your head is not in it, its easy to feel like it is your body shutting down. Learning to be honest with yourself is the most important thing an athlete can learn.

I know track running is a big part of your week. How should Ironman athletes approach track running and when in their seasons should they be doing track, if at all?

We do track sessions regularly in the team. But the track is merely a tool, like a power meter or heart rate monitor – It allows us to control the speed and intensity very precisely for a session. The illusion that we are on the track and therefore must be working really hard or fast is exactly that, an illusion. As with any tool which gives you an honest measure of where you are, like time trialling, track sessions can be used any time, but should be used carefully as if the feedback is not what you want, it can cause it to backfire badly!

For a new Ironman athlete, how many years of training would you recommend, as a coach, at a base level effort before they would be seeing any glimpse of their true talent? What I am getting at is the misconception that miracles happen in a season when it comes to “Going Long”.

Ironman requires levels of strength and endurance which take years to build. Using myself as an example, no-one would deny that I have the talent, particularly in running, but only now, more than three years since my first Ironman, have I even come close to running to my potential. And I am the exception – my rate of improvement is far faster than most people experience. 3-4yrs of consistent training at or near the level of a pro is roughly what it takes before you can judge someone’s Ironman abilities, never mind reach the pinnacle of those abilities. Unfortunately not everyone gets the breaks I have gotten to invest the time…

Music is a big part of life. Most athletes train with music. In the Challenge races, you are allowed music on the run (iPods). Do you feel this is an unfair “aid”?

I very seldom train with music, and normally it is only in easier session when my mind is allowed to wander. However team-mates (such as Bek Keat) use music all the time. Including in Challenge races. Race day is about your ability to focus. Music doesn’t help me do that. Bek turns hers off half-way through the marathon. I don’t think I would ever turn mine on! Personally I don’t think the advantage is very big, if there is any. But perhaps not having music is fairer on all sides…

What’s left until the end of the year for you?

To wrap up 2010 I will be racing in Ironman 70.3 Austin on 17 Oct, then Ironman Florida on 6 Nov. Then probably home to SA for the first time in 7 months (or perhaps a short trip to Thailand for Ironman 70.3 Phuket…). From December I start building again for Ironman 70.3 SA in January, before repeating most of what I did in 2010 again in 2011, but with better results… 😉

I get so many people telling me I should be pro. I don’t think so, purely because of how far I am actually behind where you are racing. Could you tell my readers about the time it took you to be a real pro, as well as the sacrifices you had to make to get there?

Being a Pro is more of a jump than most people realize. Yeah, you can sign the forms and race an event or two, such as IMSA, as a Pro… but for what? All you get then is some kudos from your mates, and maybe a tiny prize purse if you crack the top 10.

If you really want to turn Pro – racing often, making money, investing training time – it means a major lifestyle change and years of dedication and sacrifice.

Making ends meet is the hardest part, which everyone knows about, but even if you have a way to ‘break even’ while investing 3-4yrs while you build up as mentioned in Q4, there is still no guarantee of financial reward at the end of it.

And once you do ‘go Pro‘ properly, the biggest change (one which I am still trying to come to terms with) is all the travel and time away from home. South Africa only has 2 major events per year, so travel is not optional. In fact, having been away now for almost 6months, I feel I don’t where ‘home’ is any more! This unsettled lifestyle with very little time at home is a big sacrifice in terms of relationships, family and friends. Thank goodness for Skype, but even with Skype, relationships are nearly impossible, you miss your best friends’ weddings and your family get-together’s. These are not what you think of when you see me cross that finish-line first… but they, and all the other sacrifices, are what I am thinking of! Is it easy? No. Is it all worth it? For me, yes. But every Pro, or potential Pro, needs to find their own answer…

+++the end+++

I think its rather informative to know the sacrifices and levels of mental toughness it requires in this game, at the pro level. James always has an open ear for me to ask questions and relay ideas to, which is more valuable to me than many of you know.

Whilst he is not in Kona this year, he is racking up big wins and gaining experience so that he can really make good at The Big Show in the near future.

One Comment on “Checking in with James Cunnama

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