06 Jan, 2014

Bring it Home, James

Bring it Home, James

Having finished second in Ironman Austria and sixth in Ironman SA in 2009, James Cunnama qualified for the Ironman World Champs in Kona for the first time, but he knew he was not experienced enough to race hard in Hawaii. Instead he treated it as a recce and test his strengths on the course. “It turns out I was weak everywhere! So I promised myself I wouldn’t go back until I was properly prepared.” After a few near misses, he returned in 2013 and finished fourth, the highest ever placing by a South African in Kona. However, his great showing caught the media totally unaware, despite the fact that he set only the 19th ever sub-8:00 Ironman time when he won the Challenge Roth in 2012.


“I was barely on the media radar, despite my sub-eight and winning a few races in the lead-up to Kona. I was the lowest qualifier, but I had planned it that way, by cherry-picking races and doing just enough to get in – the top 50 in the world get selected, but the World Champ goes automatically, so I knew 51st place was enough. I was considered a dark horse, because I had not raced well in Kona before.” Well, after a solid swim and leading the bike leg for a while, James overcame stomach cramps late in the run leg to overtake two runners in the last few kays to clinch fourth in 8:21:46. “It’s a little frustrating being one off the podium, but just four years ago I got absolutely annihilated, finishing 82nd behind most of the girls, so I think I proved something to myself!”



Born in Pietermaritzburg to parents who regularly competed in the Comrades and Dusi, James was waking early for training runs from a young age, often running with his mother’s ‘Pukers’ training group, and at 16 he was regularly wining the junior category in local races up to the half marathon distance. In 2002 he moved to Port Elizabeth to study Human Movement Science, and at the same time turned his attention to middle-distance track in order to improve his speed over all distances. Then in 2004 James worked as a race volunteer at the first Spec-Savers Half Ironman, which allowed him to drive around the route and get a great perspective of the race.


The following year the full Ironman came to town and the triathlon bug bit still deeper. James did his first Ironman SA in 2007, finishing 21st, and the following year he finished 10th and sixth in the Ironman 70.3 SA, then took a chance and wrote what he describes as a cocky e-mail to Team TBB-Tri-Cozumel, telling them he planned to win the Ironman World Champs someday. “Six hours later I got an invite to their Philippines training camp, so I scraped together a few pennies and went. I did enough to earn a small contract for 2009, which meant I could live the dream and turn fulltime pro.” That year he was sixth at Ironman SA and second at Ironman Austria, and since then he has featured regularly on the podium at Ironman SA and Ironman 70.3 SA, as well as various Ironman events and other triathlons around the world.



These days James lives half the year in Stellenbosch and spends the rest of the year between Europe and the USA. He is one half of the unofficial fastest triathlon couple in the world with Brit Jody Swallow, a 2004 Olympian and current Ironman 70.3 World Champion. They have been together for two years and travel and race together as much as possible. “We train at different speeds and intensities, so often train separately – she actually trains harder than me – but we do about 50% of our races together,” says James. “It would be ideal to travel the world together, like a permanent honeymoon, but we both treat events as our job, and we cherry-pick our races to get the best results and maximum WTC points. As hard as it is being apart, we have a pretty good set-up and see a lot of each other.”


Unsurprisingly, given his terrific fourth place at Kona, James is now focused on winning the Ironman World Championship title, and he reckons he has a good chance of claiming that coveted title. “I think 15 of the last 16 winners finished in the top four the year before they won it… but most previous winners have been at least 34, so at 30 I’m not putting too much pressure on myself yet. I learnt a lot at Kona this year and know what I need to work on. But I feel I can win it.”