James Cunnama: Countdown to Kona

We joined ENVE athlete James Cunnama for a ride and a chat about his stellar season and his build-up to the IRONMAN World Championships.

We meet James in the UK, in the ancient Roman city of Bath, where he’s staying ahead of IRONMAN 70.3 Weymouth. It’s more of a test race than a goal, a waypoint on the journey to Kona. Three days after our shoot he took a dominant win in Weymouth to go with those recorded at IRONMAN 70.3 Lanzarote and IRONMAN Hamburg, and his fourth place at the IRONMAN Frankfurt European Championships. Test passed.

James, your season seems to be running like clockwork. What’s made the difference this year?
It was rejoining my coach, Brett Sutton. Last year I completely got my season wrong. I was at peak fitness in August and by October, when the World Champs came around, I was falling off the cliff. I was so tired. Having Brett come in has pulled it all together this year; already it’s paying dividends. When I rejoined him, we thought it would take a while to get back to where we want to be and we were looking at Kona 2018. That hasn’t really changed but suddenly we’re looking at this year as well. We’d said, ‘Ah, if we qualify then maybe we’ll go, otherwise we’ll just stick with the plan.’ Now, off the back of Hamburg and Lanzarote and my form, and even Frankfurt, suddenly it’s like ‘You know, we could have a good swing at Kona this year, we could be up around the fourth place I was in 2013.’ I’m trying not to put any pressure on myself but it would be nice to get a result.

How much does the way the race plays out effect you? Is it possible to do your own race at Kona?
I wish you could do your own race at Kona. It’s a very difficult course and a very difficult race because you have 50 of the top guys in the world all on top form. You tend to be racing them. As much as you’d like to control your own pace you have to watch the guys around you, react to their moves, be in the mix. If you do your own race then you’re probably racing for 10th at best, unless you’re the strongest in every discipline, which no one is, then you have to play the game.

Kona is a very difficult one to get right because of the depth of quality in the field. Every year 50-60% of the field blows up and walks. And every year five or six guys have really blinder days, and until halfway through the marathon you don’t know which of those guys are which, who is having a blinder and you need to watch, who is about to blow and walk the last 20km. So there is a bit of both, I watch my own race and try to avoid getting caught in head-to-head battles with guys who might end up walking but at the same time you don’t want to give anyone too much leeway because you might not see them again until the finish.

“I think if you can keep your focus internal and it seems like it’s not going terribly then it’s probably going really well. Kona is that hard”

At what point in the race are you aware of what sort of day you’re having?
About 20km into the marathon! There is always that possibility that you’re one of the guys who is going to be walking halfway through the run. I’ve been there, I’ve done that. Even the year when I came fourth I was having stomach cramps in the run and struggling. I had to do a portapotty stop and I thought my race was over but that I may as well run hard and keep pushing and I ended up running past four or five guys in the last 10km. So yeah, you don’t really know what sort of day you’re having. I think if you can keep your focus internal and it seems like it’s not going terribly then it’s probably going really well. Kona is that hard for everyone. No one ever gets to the end at Kona and says ‘Hey, that wasn’t too bad’.

What other events in the calendar comes close to Kona for that toughness?
Nothing really. There are some Asian races in ridiculous heat and humidity but you have less competition there so you can walk a bit and still maybe finish on the podium. You can’t do that at Kona; if you walk 1km at Kona at least five guys will pass you. There are courses that have really tough routes and heat but that combination of riding on a desolate highway, heat, humidity, wind and ridiculously deep competition, you just don’t get anything like that anywhere else in the world.

Personally, I’d like to see the World Champs move around. Not because I don’t like the Kona course, I do, but from a commercial point of view it’s like the sport is stuck in the 90s and doesn’t realize how big it is. When you go to IRONMAN Frankfurt there are thousands of people watching, then you go to Kona and there’s no one but the families of those competing. Not only that, people in Europe can’t watch it. There’s a live stream but you have to stay up all night to watch so it cuts out a huge audience and limits the sport’s growth. It needs to develop.

How much does your equipment matter to you?
A lot. I won’t let my manager even talk to brands that I don’t want to use. I don’t have a running shoe sponsor because there are very few that I’d run in. I’m not willing to compromise when I’m trying to run 2.40 marathons. By the same token, I said to Jodie the other day that I’d need a very good reason to ride something else . It’s not worth my while to give up two or three minutes on the bike for some extra cash. Winning races is what’s most important. I love the bike and I love the wheels. I know that I’ve got the best, and that I’m not sacrificing anything.

How does impending fatherhood feel?
We’re both really excited, it’s something we’ve wanted for a long time now. It’s been a bit of a strange season because in years past we’ve travelled to lots of races together. This year Jodie came to St Moritz but the altitude was too much for her pregnant body so she had to go home. It’s hard being apart but it will be worth it when the baby arrives and we’ll have had a good season and can look forward to a great off-season with the baby. We’ve timed that pretty well, as the baby is due five weeks after Kona which is just about perfect. I won’t be hanging around after the race, just in case.

“Every year someone steps up and is almost impossible to beat. I want to be that guy.”

How do you think your rivals are stacking up?
That’s thing with Kona. There will be five or six guys who are almost unbeatable on the day and another maybe 35 who are no competition at all. Some will be sick before the start and pull out during the week, or on the morning, or have mechanicals, or end up walking…they drop like flies. I’m not going to look at one guy and say he’s the man to beat because he might be out with a puncture in the first 5km of the bike. Every year someone steps up and is almost impossible to beat. I want to be that guy. That’s the plan. Maybe not this year, but 2018, that’s the goal. We have a specific plan, things we need, and if we can put them all together we know we’ll be hard to beat.