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My interview with James Cunnama « Jodie Swallow's Blog


My interview with James Cunnama

James Cunnama (Cun-na-mar).  Triathlon commentators should take note – it’s likely that in the coming years they will be saying that name a lot.  At 27, James is step by step becoming a big stage, podium regular- securing his first Ironman win in Florida back in October.  2011 has already kicked off with 2nd at South Africa 70.3, 2nd at Singapore 70.3 and 3rd at home in Ironman South Africa.   I pose questions to James about his ambitions, his progression and his motivations…I’m interested in his answers but also grateful to sit and admire his beautiful little face for a while ;)

Seriously though, James is a golden person and I love him to death, he is also a very wise person and whilst these answers will be enlightening, the questions are constructed to make his life difficult ;)

Hi James, you look handsome today.

Thanks. But you’re just saying that… ;)

  • Do you ever feel like a plastic bag?

Haha! Never. But sometimes I feel like a house of cards, one blow from caving in…

  • Do you ever wonder if there is more to life than being ridiculously good looking?

What?! That’s absurd!

To establish the mode of this interview I need to ask one question.  Your answer will decide if I’m gonna kick some interview arse or give you a cuddle and stroke your ego so…….

  • We are in Hawaii (not sure of the year but we are both there fit and ready), You have had a phenomenal swim and first half of bike so have got 5mins on me at 90KM ;) You’re in the front group of three guys.  I’m on the side of the road having blown off two gases, leading the womens’ race.  Would you throw me a gas? Would you throw the girl who’s riding with me your gas ;) ?

Firstly, if I have only 5mins on you halfway through the bike, neither my swim nor my first 90km were phenomenal! (just sayin’). And I doubt I would even see you, racing hard as I always do. But assuming the hypothetical situation: I would probably throw you a CO2, but only if I could get it out with minimal time loss to myself. If I didn’t throw you one, I would be distracted the rest of the race worrying about how I would reason my failure to help you out, and it may cost me the race anyway. And of course, it would be fantastically cool if we both won Kona on the same day… :)

And no, I certainly wouldn’t help your competitors… unless they were a team-mate… Too many factors to consider in that scenario…  (At this point I would have handed James option 2 but he decided to answer the most awkward questions anyway.  Superstar.)

Option One…….I’ll give you five of the worst questions a pro triathlete has to answer…

  • Can you give us an outline of your typical week and how it changes during the training cycle? How many hours do you do? How much swimming, cycling, running?

Awesome question! So glad you asked. Grrr… Can’t give away the secrets, of course. I train many hours, like a full-time job, which it is. But rest is part of training too, so vegging in front of TV is also on my program regularly. Tough job. Someone’s gotta do it…

  • Do you think you can win Hawaii, who are your major competitors for gold, do you think any of them are on drugs?

Yes, of course. Which year remains more uncertain. And the major competitors will change over the years. Doesn’t matter who shows up – when I am ready and put together a perfect day, it won’t make a difference! Haha. Drugs are a worry, and just the thought of them is enough to cause me despair. However, the testing is improving (although it still could be drastically improved, particularly the number of athletes in Out of Comp testing pools) and I like to think triathlon is, for the most part anyway, fairly clean.

  • I have a sore Achilles could you recommend some exercise and drills I can do to help me?

 No. Go soak it in hot water 3 times per day. And don’t stretch it!

  • How much money do you earn a year?

That has been changing every year, and it is a lot more now than it was 3 years ago… Of course that says more about what I wasn’t earning as a wannabe pro 3 years ago than what I am earning now! Still, the vast majority of what I earn goes back into travelling around to races anyway. If you want to make money, triathlon isn’t where it’s at! Play golf. Or tennis.

  • What do you think about women and men getting/not getting equal prize money at various races around the world…do you think that men’s performances deserve more than womens?

Ah, a loaded question. Nice. Having discussed this recently I am somewhat torn. On one hand, the women do the same distance, and put in the same effort to win a race, so should get the same winner’s cheque. On the other hand, in any race (take IMSA recently for example, 34 men vs 14 ladies) there are less than half the women competing. So while first place (Chrissie in this case) certainly earned their equal prize, 8th place certainly did not. But at the same time, deeper prize purses are, I believe, the answer to growth in the Pro ranks – the more Pro’s squeezing out a living at the base of the pyramid, the higher the pyramid will reach. So I would hesitate to cut the women’s 8th place prize (meagre as it is already!). My answer – prize money the same at the top, and pays to a depth relative to the depth of the field. Twice as many men as women, twice as many men get paid.

Option Two…..I’ll give you the brilliant questions posed by TeamTBB followers on the forum as I am supposed to ;) As you know I have a problem being told what to do ;)


Questions About Training


  • What has been the breakthrough in the last 2 years – apart from joining TBB?

There was only one breakthrough, and you just said ‘apart from that’ so not sure how to answer… Joining the team, meeting Doc and beginning to train full-time. They all were the breakthrough and all are linked.

  • Where is your favourite training location in the world, in South Africa and in the rest of the world?

I love training in PE, but honestly haven’t spent much time training elsewhere. Franschhoek looks like it would be great too. Outside of SA, I love Leysin. I could (and might) live there! Although I am not sure my SA blood could handle a Swiss winter…

  • Where is your favourite bike route?

The 80km loop from Leysin, over two passes. I could ride that every day and not get tired of it, I think.

  • Who is your favourite training partner? (Apart from me- because that wouldn’t be fair on Scott ;) )

Haha. Depends on the session. Scott has been a dependable side-kick for 2 years now, so couldn’t just ditch him cos some newbie who thinks they’re hot stuff rolls into camp… ;) …. (Um-THINKS they are hot stuff????!! ….;))

  • Have you matured since your first training camp?  , this is from ‘The Wongster’…that’s a weird question James – please elaborate…..

Haha. No telling anecdote or anything attached to that. But yes, when I went to first camp in Phillippines in late 2008, I was not the same person I am now. I was a more immature person, but more importantly a far less mature athlete! Much growing up has been done in 2 years. Ironman requires a mature, level head for success.

  • Being a big lad… (Ok these aren’t my questions!! HAHA! Shucks…) Do you have to watch your diet? Does training load naturally keep things in check for you or are you a calorie counter?

I do count calories. I will regularly compare two products to see which has more calories… and then take the one with more! Training keeps my weight in check, and it doesn’t fluctuate, even if I take time off and eat like a pig. But I do tend to eat pretty healthily, simply because I crave healthy options often… but KFC and McD’s fit in a healthy balanced diet too, contrary to popular belief.

  • What are your approximate bike power & watts/kg at threshold?… (I considered putting this question under Option One)

Yeah, belongs in Q1… You may not believe it, but I have absolutely no idea. I don’t even know what my bike HR is (I use HR on the run sessions occasionally only)! Never used a power meter. Would be interesting to test though I guess… Maybe SRM is reading this and they’ll send me a power-meter… hint hint…

  • Are there any essential training or race products that you pay retail for, or perhaps that you would still pay retail for if the company didn’t sponsor you?

There are many products I would pay retail for if I didn’t get them for free – I use products I need and trust, not because they are free. I often buy nutrition products at expos before races.

  • What or who would your dream sponsor be?

Not fussy. I’ll sell my soul to the highest bidder. But be warned, the reserve price isn’t cheap…

Questions About Racing

  • What’s your favourite race and why?

Ironman SA. Home town. Hundreds of familiar faces, and my parents on the finish line. And one of the best atmospheres of any race I have been to.

  • Has anything changed for you in the race now you’re no longer off the radar, do you have to adopt different tactics?

Definitely. Until recently, racing was a case of doing the best I could over the distance and seeing where I end up – there were no other gears to change, or surges to throw! Now, tactics plays a more and more important role. There were definitely advantages to being ‘under the radar’.

  • If you were passing a Raelert in Kona to take 2nd, knowing you couldn’t get first place and he offered you $100K to come 3rd so they could take the K-Swiss $1M prize, would you take it knowing that you could have made 2nd but $100K is $100K or fight for 2nd?
    (It amazes me that you would be able to discuss this at 25 miles into the marathon ;) )

I doubt I would be able to discuss it actually. But if I did, there is no friggin’ way! I might tell him I’ll take third so he relaxes, then fly past him in the final meters for 2nd (although, the way I am beginning to feel about 2nd, I might just give it to him for nothing!!! …No, not really). I am not in it for the money, and my Avias are faster than their K-Swiss anyway… we all know that! ;)


  • What issues have you faced to this point in getting a successful nutrition strategy, Does it still need to be tweaked? It has been reported u eat a high Carb intake/concentration compared to the ‘norm’, why is this?

I have had plenty of nutrition issues in the past. And it is still not perfect. Every race I try something new and tweak the plan a little here and there. It is an evolution. And it is very unique. I did what everyone loves to do when I started – found other people’s plans and copied them. None worked. So I figured out my own. Everyone’s body works differently under pressure. Some need more fluid, some less, some more carb, some more protein, some solid, some liquid only. The best thing is to race with options, and then eat and drink what you feel like. Soon you will know what you always feel like, and that becomes your plan.

  • Where does your mind go too during the IM run; what ‘one thing’ helps keep you on track when things get knarly?

My motivation comes from many places. Necessarily. No one motivational point is gonna get you through the tough times. I generally go back to the hard training sessions – the ones that hurt but felt good (if that makes sense). Ironically, in training when it’s hard, I go to the race course in my head!

Questions about your personal life…I have nothing to do with these..Your public wanna know ;)

  • If you were to date a triathlete, would u date an Age Grouper or a (gorgeous, intelligent, sexy) Pro? 

Is the AG’er also gorgeous, intelligent and sexy–? …(No, James they are not).  Would be good to have a groupie or two… I didn’t see this question posted on the forum… Who’s writing these Q’s?!… (Ur homeboy wrote this one! But as someone with a few groupies myself, James- I’d say it’s overrated ;-) .)

  • What are your pet peeves and what ‘geeks you out’?

Noisy bikes (after the answer to the last question-I will continue to fail to fix my rattle). Bad drivers. Stupidity. I don’t know what ‘geeks you out’ means? I’m pretty neat, and even when I am not I know where everything is – A place for everything and everything in its place.          

Yeah – me too….;)                                  

  • At the age of 27-how are you so wise? You’re like an owl (Ok that’s not a question)

I don’t know… I am baffled by that question. Maybe I’ll know when I am old… like 28…

  • What’s the worst interview question you have ever been asked?

“What’s the worst interview question you have ever been asked?”

There we go meet Mr Cunnama (Coon-ar-mar)-sorry, but that’s for a few loaded answers golden boy ;)   I learnt a lot, I hope you enjoyed the interview and thank you for James for managing to stay awake and answer these straight after an Ironman.  You’re a better champ than I could ever be

J x

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