Two years ago today (or near enough) I walked into The Grand Seasons hotel lobby in Subic Bay, Philippines and shook hands with a short, unassuming man. I was on the other side of the world from home in South Africa, from where I had just come, and was feeling more than a little outside my comfort zone. There were a few vaguely familiar faces hanging around, but no-one I actually knew. I was greeted with a “Welcome mate” and told to check-in. Then he walked out of the hotel I would not see him again for three days…
That man was Brett Sutton, and that was our first meeting. Sometimes the biggest moments in your life happen not with fireworks and drama, but quietly and you don’t know they have happened at all until much later. The last two years have been nothing short of incredible. I am not the same kid who walked into that hotel with little more than a dream attached to his name. Today, I am an Ironman Champion!
The race started well and the warm waters of the Gulf were more than inviting on a bitingly cold morning in Florida. I wore socks down to the beach against the cold sand and paving, socks which are now the property of the Gulf, but they did little to help.
I had a good swim for the most part, but lost the feet of the main group at the start of the second lap and spent the rest of the way dodging age-groupers on my own, but I didn’t lose too much time. As I ran through T1 to the change tent, which was thankfully a long run so it gave me opportunity to see my competitors ahead, I was thinking that the cold wasn’t too bad and won’t be an issue. But as I ran to my bike, I lost all feeling in my feet and felt as if I was running on a rough sheet of ice! It would be about two hours before I could feel my feet again!
The first 10miles of the bike I pushed hard and caught the main group. I decided this was where the race was and if I needed to get ahead of these guys, this was not the time to do it. I settled in for the coming 100miles and focused on not focusing on the how bloody cold I was… But I was freezing and had long since lost feeling and dexterity in my fingers, toes and lips. Thankfully you really don’t need any of those to ride your bike…
In the second half of the bike, and feeling human again now that it was (relatively) warm I started to think about how the race was going to be won. The group had reeled in Dirk Bockel and Bryan Rhodes and only one adventurous leader (Guillaume) remained ahead. I was pretty confident in my ability to out-run pretty much everyone there – I didn’t know who Pedro Gomez was yet! – so figured there was no need to push ahead or anything. At mile 80 I decided to have a little dig to see who was feeling good and who was feeling the previous 80 miles… As I went past the guys ahead, I heard the ominous, ‘Pft-pft-pft-pft-pft…’ I paused my charge and tried to check my wheel… but the sound stopped. I thought maybe it had been the motorbike next to me, and kept going. About half a mile later we had to make a left turn, and I almost didn’t make it… My tire was indeed flat, and cornering on a deflated tubular is like riding on ice!
I hopped off and set about repairing it – I used Pit-stop, which failed, then put on a new tubbie. It felt like an age, but I got a split as I got going that I was now 10mins down on the leader, with the group somewhere between me and him. I rode hard and fast, but tried to keep myself under-control – still a long run to come!
Off the bike I had made up most of what I lost with the puncture and started picking off the 11 guys ahead of me. I ran hard the first lap, and by the end of it only Gomez remained ahead. He looked very strong and comfortable, so I focused on getting to the 20mile mark with as much in the tank as possible for the show-down in the final miles. It wasn’t necessary though. I never made any move, but slowly reeled him by mile 17. He was still running well and looked great, but as we ran shoulder-to-shoulder, he said, “Man, I am done here!”. I was thinking, ‘Who is this guy? Is he playing mind games with me?’. I took him at his word, told him to hang tough as second was all his, but I didn’t let down my guard or my effort. It was a long, hard haul around the back-end of lap two, but it was longer and harder for Gomez and by the time I crossed the line he was 3mins back.
And I was the Ford Ironman Florida Champion!
The last few months have had a lot of first-time experiences for me – my first major win (Alpe D’Huez), my first full-distance win (Rev3), my first Ironman 70.3 title (Austin) and, by far the most special, memorable and meaningful, my first Ironman title! It may not have entirely sunk in yet, but it is a pretty special feeling! No longer am I just a professional athlete. Now, and for always, I have the tag attached to my name: James Cunnama, Ironman Champion.
Of course I couldn’t have got here without Brett and Alex, so a HUGE thank you to them for the last two years, but they are not the only people who have made my dreams possible. Words cannot really convey the depths of my gratitude effectively, but to every person who has assisted me, supported me, believed in me, advised me or simply crossed my path in the last few years since I started this sport: Thank you! You know who you are, and I couldn’t have got this far without your contribution. And I’ll thank you again when I reach the next milestone and they put another word in that tag: ‘World’. Here’s to the next two years!
Congrats to my team-mates, Scott and Erika for their races, and happy birthday to Erika too!
…And, as ever, onwards and upwards!