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Catching up with Jim Sunners

The Cozumel age group champion is heading back to Kona.

Jim Sunners of Niagara Falls was one of two Canadians to win their age group at Ironman Cozumel – the other being Ann Barnes, who we profiled last week.

Sunners swam 1:10:10, biked 4:53:17, and ran 3:28:41 to cross the finish line in 9:38:03, claiming the 45-49 age group win by 4 minutes and 12 seconds despite running down the finish chute after completing two laps of the three lap marathon course.

“After looking at the race clock and immediately realized what I had done, I had to check in with officials, wait for them to give me the ok and head out for my final lap,” said the 11-time Ironman finisher. “The first few kilometres of that third lap were extremely difficult – physically and mentally. I did refocus, get back into race-mode and pull it together to complete the marathon in 3:28.”

Jim provided us with additional details of his winning day and other tidbits.

TMC: Did you head down to Cozumel with the target of taking an age group win? Did you know who your competition was?

Jim Sunners: I competed in Cozumel in 2011 and placed 4th in the 45-49 age group with 9 hr 49 min.  After 2011, realized I could win the age group with a better run. I have struggled with Achilles injuries, which again stopped me putting the training in to reach my potential in the marathon leg. It did settle down after Kona 2012 and I was able to get some quality runs in to prepare for Cozumel.

I had a goal of 9 hrs 35 min in Cozumel, and when I saw it was going to be tough on the bike I knew the race would be in my favour. I’ve always maintained that the stronger you are on the bike, the easier the run will be. As conditions were tough on the bike, I knew others would struggle more on the run – where I didn’t think my run time would be any slower.

I looked at the winning times for past years in my age group and was confident around 9:30 on a tough day in Cozumel would take the AG win.

The other big motivator in Cozumel 2012 was Kona qualification. Being 49 in the 45-49 age group in 2012 means I turn 50 in 2013 and slip into the 50-54 age group for Kona. With a good run in Kona I’m hoping to hit the podium there.

TMC: 2012 was not your first time in Kona. Were you happy with your performance?

JS: I’ve done Kona twice but feel I haven’t reached my potential. In 2009 I qualified in Louisville, I biked a 4 hr 55 in Louisville, which on that course is super fast and hard. I just couldn’t recover in the 6 weeks before Kona. In 2012, I had a good swim, really strong bike and a reasonable run (considering I had run only twice in the month before while trying to get the Achilles to settle down). My Kona race gave me lots of confidence and I learned heaps about the course for next time.

TMC: Cozumel took place roughly one month after Kona, you obviously managed your recovery quite well. What did you do?

JS: I planned my recovery from Kona 2012 really well. It is hard to find that balance where you allow your body to rest and recover – then build up again. I did an ‘active recovery’ with 3 weeks of really light biking and swimming with no running then built quickly to short high intensity for 3 weeks and tapered for a week before Cozumel. It worked out great and I felt fit and focused for the race.

TMC: Why Cozumel? Does the course play to your favour? Do you like the heat?

JS: The Cozumel bike leg is well suited to my style of riding. I have always done a lot of hard tempo training rides – most of my rides are around 3 hours and most of my training is on flat roads, but it always seems to be windy in the Niagara region, so I am always pushing tempo. I try to get one really long ride each week. A few weeks out from Kona I did a 7-hour ride on my cyclocross bike. I don’t log a lot of miles but I do try to be consistent and do quality sessions.

The heat never seems to affect me. I grew up in Australia where we would routinely get 42 degrees C in the summer. Things don’t stop over there when it’s hot. We still go do long rides and run when it’s hot – so racing in 30 to 35 degrees Celsius doesn’t seem that bad. A lot of it is mental and a lot has to do with managing nutrition and hydration.

TMC: What do you have planned for 2013? You seem to dabble in a variety of distances? Are these events like a speed injection for your LD training? Or do you go into a separate training block for your IM races?

My focus for 2013 will be Kona. I’ve been enjoying the MultiSport series here in Ontario so much that I want to fit in as many races as I can. Racing for me takes the place of the high intensity work that I am often too lazy to do. John Salt’s introduction of an Elite Age Group category in his MultiSport races has added a little more competitive punch and excitement in each race. I am thinking about Ironman Switzerland as a lead up to Kona!

TMC: You are a monster of a biker. What kind of sports background do you come from and how did you develop your cycling prowess (and other skills for that matter)?

JS: My bike background is really just a lifelong bike commuter. I have always ridden to work and I still do. I try to commute three times a week, it gives me a forced training ride, where I have to be somewhere on time so I can’t relax too much. It hasn’t been very cold this year, but I’m pretty good to minus 15 degrees C. The key, of course, is layering – but wool base layers and wool socks are the real secret.

Growing up for me was mostly about team sports – sport is a huge part of the Aussie lifestyle. I spent time around surf clubs and played tennis and cricket. I got into triathlon in 1986 when I was introduced to an Olympic distance Tri. It happened quickly when I realized how bad I felt as a young man – not sleeping enough, eating too much junky food and partying too much. I decided to get into shape and eat better. I did my first Ironman in 1989 and finished in 10 hrs 28 min on a steel road bike.

Related story:

Canadian Age Groupers at Ironman Cozumel.