James Cunnama's Ironman Hawaii Battle
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James Cunnama's Ironman Hawaii Battle

ENVE athlete James Cunnama recalls his fifth place in Kona last year ahead of the 2018 Ironman World Championships in Hawaii.

“I only found out about Ironman in 2004,” recalls ENVE-sponsored South African pro-triathlete James Cunnama. “I hadn’t been dreaming of it since I was five or anything, but by my first Kona in 2009, I had literally watched every re-run, every video I could get hold of – I’d read the books and studied it.”

Every October, the world’s best long-distance triathletes line up for the Ironman World Championships in Kailua-Kona on Hawaii’s beautiful Big Island. It’s hard not to be beguiled by the volcanic vistas, palm trees and turquoise surf, but each athlete faces a test in sharp contrast to the natural surroundings: 226km of physical hardship, searing sun and a constant battle with inner demons.

When the cannon fires at 6:35am, the battle begins with a chaotic 3.8km sea swim as the sun crests the ocean horizon. One hundred and eighty kilometres of intense biking follows, the heat building to melt the tarmac as athletes string out along the desolate Queen Ka’ahumanu highway, raging crosswinds threatening to throw them into the barren, black lava fields that line the course. Each pedal stroke only takes each competitor closer to a full 42.2km marathon, which takes place on the same roads, the heat reaching its blistering zenith as this race of attrition is decided for another year.

Despite being “very aware” of the history and the race’s iconic status, James admits he went there under-prepared first time around. “Basically, I just got my ass kicked by the race from beginning to end! It’s a brutally hard race and it doesn’t take prisoners.”

The pregnancy of James’s wife, fellow pro and fourth-place Kona finisher Jodie, meant he returned to Kona in 2017 without his usual support crew. But having been reunited with former coach, Brett Sutton, who helped him to his career-best fourth place finish in 2013, he arrived with a superb run of form under his belt.

Pressure-cooker heat

Consistency in Kona is perhaps more difficult to achieve than at any other race on the global calendar, yet there’s one thing that you can always count on: the oppressive heat when stepping off the plane.

“It seems like they super air condition the planes when you’re flying into Kona, so that when you get off, you really get smacked in the face by it,” James says. “It’s all a bit of a shock, but these days it’s more about putting on a vest and aboard shorts and enjoying it rather than a sense of, ‘Oh my god, I have to run in this in a few days!’”

But while the heat of the island is a huge element to contend with, it pales when compared with the hype that surrounds the sport’s pinnacle event.

“Kona is a pressure cooker; you’re very aware how big a deal it is,” James goes on. “I try and treat it as any other race, but it’s difficult not to look at all the other guys running down [Kona’s famous coastal main street] Ali’i Drive and think, ‘Wow, that guy’s looking really lean and mean,’ but that’s part of it I think.” If you can be the one looking relaxed and comfortable, he says, and see someone else freaking out while they look at everybody, “you’re obviously on the right side of that” and in good shape for having a better day.

It’s in the days leading up to that, James says, “where you’ve got all the logistics; packing the bags and making sure you’ve not forgotten anything”, – that feelings of stress creep in. “Once you’ve checked your bike in there’s very little you can do,” he says, “so when it comes to the night before the race, I get this peaceful relaxation and tend to sleep fairly well, but not deeply – the alarm goes off and I am instantly 100% race day.”

The coming storm

During the walk down to the start, the tension starts building again – heightened by the deep, heartbeat-like music that plays. “As they turn it on, you try to tune it out, but it gets to you, the slow, deep bass rhythm building like there’s a thunderstorm coming,” James says. “As you walk down the steps onto Dig Me Beach, you’re very aware of the enormity of what’s coming. But generally, the thoughts aren’t, ‘This is an enormous race and everyone in the world’s watching.’ It’s more like, ‘This is going to really hurt!’”

That anticipation of pain is, in James’ eyes, the worst part of race morning – even a good day hurts, and will go on hurting more and more intensely until crossing the line that afternoon.

“You’ve got surfboards going backwards and forwards in front of you in the water and when the cannon goes, they stop and sit up,” he says. “It’s kind of like Russian roulette whether a surfboard’s going to stop right in front of you. There’s a lot riding on that – not quite a bullet from a gun, but it does feel like that; you don’t know exactly when it’s going to go and how it’s going to play out. It’s very tense."

James Cunnama Kona 17 2

“And then the gun goes, and you maybe get two or three strokes and then it’s process again,” James continues. “You’re swimming so hard and your heart rate is so high and because there’s not much to see or do, you’re very, very focused. Breathe, sight, get on the right feet, where’s the group? Am I swimming straight? That’s all you’re thinking about; you’re in the moment and if you can keep there for eight hours, you’ll have a brilliant day.” 

This year, despite his swim skin getting pulled open 500m in, James kept his cool, stayed focused and completed the 3.8km swim in 49:09 having managed to keep pace with the main group entering the first transition.

“It seems crazy because you’ve got an eight-hour race and transition’s about one-and-a-half minutes, but more than any other time in the whole race, that first transition is super, super urgent. It doesn’t really need to be, but it always is. You don’t want to give a second even though a second’s not going to make a difference in the long run.”

Keeping out of trouble

With, that out of the way, James was soon on his fully-loaded and ENVE SES 7.8-equipped Cervelo P5X, but right from the off, it was clear that all wasn’t well. 

“I had a bit of a leg niggle going into the race. It only came up in race week and I figured it was just a taper problem, but the day before it actually stopped me running. I was pretty worried about it and wasn’t interested in going to the front and pushing the pace. So, I sat at the back of that group and focused on warming up my knee and staying out of trouble.”

Soon, the course leads the riders from the hubbub of Kailua Kona onto the fabled Queen K highway, a ribbon of tarmac bisecting the desolate black lava fields that epitomise the event’s toughness. Here the race can be lost or won, both on the bike and, later, on the run.

Around 40km into the ride, James suddenly became aware that his knee had completely loosened up and he couldn’t feel it anymore. “That’s when a wry smile came across my face and I thought, ‘Wow, this could actually be a really good day for me’,” he recalls. But it was equally apparent how hot things would soon be getting. “Generally, by 10am there are some clouds starting to form on the mountains and the wind’s picking up,” he says. “This year there was very little wind and no clouds whatsoever. You start thinking about the processes around that: drinking more; focusing on your nutrition and the aid stations; not missing bottles; conserving for a hot run. 

“At the same time, you still have to react to what’s happening and start thinking a bit more big-picture while you watch the guys around you. Going up to the turnaround in Hawi, [Sebastian] Kienle, Cam Wurf and [Lionel] Sanders came past us and blew the field to pieces. I crawled all the way back up to them and passed lots of guys, but you can’t keep track of where you are, you get a lot less information than people imagine.”

Station to station

As the groups were splintering on the way back from the Hawi, James found himself inside the top 10 and just ahead of defending champion, Jan Frodeno of Germany. But as the kilometres ticked by, he became less concerned with how the champ might be feeling as a hunger knock kicked in. 

James Cunnama Kona 17 1

“I’ve done 40 of these things and I’ve never run out of gels,” he says. “But for some reason, I was particularly hungry this time and my fuel reserves were running really low. You have to get back to your own focus and say, ‘This could pass. Get the fuel in; you’re having a bad patch, not a bad day.’ Because even when you’re in fifth or sixth place, when you’re out on the Queen K and the wind’s howling in your face, it’s 30 degrees and you’re seeing black spots in front of your eyes, it’s very easy to cruise in and call it a day.”

Things were “pretty nasty” at that point, James admits. “But as bad as you feel and as much as you want to get off the bike and never see it again, you’re also very aware that the marathon is going to hurt even more than you’re currently hurting.”

James held on, aid station to aid station, kilometre to kilometre to come off the bike in fifth place, his ENVEs also helping him to the fifth-fastest split of the day: 4:21:02.

“There’s definitely an enormous sense of relief when you get off the bike. From then on in, you’re 100% in control of your result. When you’re out on the bike, there are a lot of factors that aren’t in your control; the rest of this race, it comes down to only you and what you’re able to do, but there’s also the awareness that it’s only going to get harder from here on in.”

Race-stopping pain

For James, the situation got immediately harder as the knee injury that had abated on the bike flared into potentially race-stopping pain within a few metres.

“The little hill down Hualalai in the first mile really hurt – I really thought I wasn’t going to be able to run, and was trying to decide whether my race was over,” he says. 

“When you’re on Ali’i Drive, if you have a bad patch, it’s awful. I’ve stopped and pulled out at the 10km mark before because I just couldn’t go any further and you are so aware of all the people around you watching you when you’re feeling awful. You just want to be alone with your pain and your misery and you’re not.”

Mercifully, James’ knee loosened up from about the one-mile mark and, with nutrition also kicking in, things once more started looking up. “I’d definitely lost a bit of time and a few places, but I was able to start focusing on finding my rhythm, keeping the nutrition coming in and looking at who’s in front,” he says.

But with the thermometer inexorably rising, it was time to once again swap the raucous crowd support in town for the loneliness and pain of the Queen K.

“I remember thinking, ‘Just remember how tough this is, because you’re in fifth or sixth, it’s unbelievably painful, but even if you were five minutes up the road and winning the race, you’d be hurting just the same.’” Good day or bad day, the Queen K is a torture chamber from end to end; by this point in the race, bodies are at their limit and mental and physical pain are becoming hard to separate.

There were a couple of “dark patches” going down into the ‘Energy Lab’, especially at the turnaround, James remembers. This is perhaps the hottest part of the course, as the athletes take a left turn off the Queen K. The barren, open area has some of the strongest solar radiation in the coastal US, indicated by its giant solar panels.

James Cunnama Kona 17 3

It’s here that the race is often lost or won – athletes run in strong and come out walking or find a second wind to dig deep to the finish. “Terenzo [Bozzone] came past me; I tried to go with him and he managed to pull away from me, but I started feeling better as we came out of the Energy Lab and I caught back up,” James says.

Working together

The New Zealander tried to surge again, but James reeled him back in. “I said, ‘Let’s work together for a bit and help each other because otherwise we’re going to blow each other to bits and the guys behind us are going to catch us. We’ve still got 10 miles to go, we can sort this out nearer the end.

“I can definitely say I was hurting all the way back,” James says. “At any second, I could have cracked – my legs could cramp, I could collapse over sideways, I could just black out – you’re like that for 10 or 15km towards the end of the race, but there’s nowhere to stop.” Stopping would mean being left standing in the middle of the highway, with the sun baking from above and the tar baking from below. 

“I often hear pros say the quickest way to make the pain stop is to get to the finish line,” James goes on. “The difference between 20km and 19km is hardly noticeable, but the difference between 3km and 2km is massive. I was just ticking it off in my head, ‘You can focus for only five more kilometres, it’s only 20 more minutes of running. You can hurt for 20 more minutes.’ Then it’s only 16 more minutes, then 12 and you’re pretty much there. Then you know that even if your wheels fall off now, you could probably get to the finish.”

Having someone to run with felt “pretty good”, and James also remembers feeling quietly confident that he could eke just a little more out when it came down to hitting the last couple of kilometres.

“Obviously, I didn’t know how Terenzo was feeling, but I’m pretty sure he was hurting as badly as I was,” James says. “I said to him after the race that it would go down as one of my favourite Kona memories, dicing with him for the last 10km of the race; having our own little Iron War along the Queen K, even if it was for fifth place, not first.” 

Making a move

In fact, the spot James had picked to make his move turned out to be exactly the same point that Mark Allen had pulled away from fellow legend of the sport, Dave Scott, in the original 1989 Iron War.

“There’s an aid station before it kicks uphill for about 300 to 400m to the top of Palani – I’d pretty much decided that if we hadn’t sorted it out by then, that was where I was going to go because I’m pretty good at running uphill and there was a real chance my whole knee was going to seize when I tried to go downhill,” James says. 

He surged, not daring to look behind. “When I got to the top, [multiple Ironman winner] Cam Brown was standing on the roadside and I shouted, ‘Where is he?’ and he shouted, ‘200m at least!’ I thought, ‘At least now if I have to stumble my way down Palani I can maybe still hold him off! Don’t look behind, just empty the tank and get to the finish line!’”

There’s a sense at this stage, James says, in fact until hitting Ali’i Drive for the last 400m, that “at any second” it could all fall apart. “Even that final stretch is tempered by the fact you could cramp, or that the guy behind might actually still be right there and you wouldn’t be able to hear or see him because there are so many crowds and people walking,” he says.

“But you do relax a little bit – you can high-five a few people, smile at a few and try and enjoy the fact that this is the World Champs and this is the famous finish line that you’ve seen on all the videos. You soak it in as much as you can.” 

After toiling through injury, intolerable heat and excruciating pain, James crossed that iconic finish line in a time of 8:11:24, his fifth place helping him to secure a huge head start in the points table for his 2018 Kona campaign. Looking forward, there’s no lack of hunger.

“I was pretty stoked with my performance, but the biggest excitement for me was that there was a lot of room for improvement there,” James says. If the knee hadn’t played up, five minutes could have been shaved off the run, then there were the nutrition issues, and a sense that he could have got “a little bit more” out of the bike.

“I crossed the line and was pretty much immediately thinking that I was nine or 10 minutes off the win, and that I can definitely find nine or 10 minutes there,” James concludes.

“That’s what was really exciting, more so than celebrating the fact that I’d just come fifth in the world. It was a feeling of, ‘Right, passed that test! Now bring it on!’ and I’m still hanging onto that.”

Photos:FinisherPix

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