James is an ultra runner and a firefighter. He talks to Sundried about his journey.
Have you always been into sport?
I originally got into sport by accident! When I was very young, I was given a detention by one of my teachers who happened to be the school rugby coach. Instead of sitting in a classroom writing lines, I was forced to take part in a training session with the rugby team after school. I managed to tackle somebody (although I think to be honest I probably just fell over in front of them and they tripped); and all of a sudden I was getting praise. This was a new experience and I quite liked it. I had always been a big lad, but hadn’t really grown into my body at that point.
Within two years of that detention, I was captain of the local town youth side and representing the county at a representative level. Fast forward a few years again, and I was gaining national honours and being signed on a contract. Once I had learned how to use my growing body, and I was being applauded for it, I got into a lot of sports but it was rugby that became my main love. I came to endurance events later in life.
What made you decide to enter the world of ultra running?
I have always been a good runner and have run various iconic marathons across the world and competed in various endurance events. When I started ‘trying’ to retire from rugby, I knew I still needed something to satisfy my competitive drive, so the running took over. I was never quick enough with my frame to challenge podium places over the marathon distance, so I started taking on ultra marathons.
Whilst I wasn’t the quickest, I had a good engine and I could run at a steady rate for very long periods of time. It was only ever meant to be a hobby, but within two years I was chasing British ranking events; and for a while it took over from where the rugby had left off.
What’s been your favourite race to date and why?
Marathon Des Sables – considered the hardest race on Earth, 250km across the Saharan desert.
And your proudest achievement?
I have had a few proud sporting moments, but to date my proudest achievement was becoming a father. It changed my whole perspective on life in general. In a sporting context, being capped by the England Fire Service was a proud moment, as was representing my country at the World Firefighter Games.
Have you ever had any racing disasters/your toughest race yet?
I ran the Isle of Wight Ultra which is 107km on a loop of the island. The weather was horrific and we were completely exposed on the coastal paths. Despite some of the terrain being brutal, at some points it was difficult to stand due to the high winds and horizontal rain.
The going was incredibly tough and it was the first time me and my running partner had run out of glycogen; devoid of any energy stores, we started to become quite delirious. We later learned that there had been an 80% drop-out rate by the third checkpoint at around 77km as a result of the conditions. However, I was so glad we had persevered. It took a lot longer to cover the distance than it would normally and became a very long day. However, like a lot of things, the harder the event, the more satisfying it is to conquer it.
How do you overcome setbacks?
Setbacks come in many forms. Whether it be forced due to injury, or a loss of form or confidence. Personally, I have struggled with mental health; specifically, depression and PTSD associated with my career as a firefighter. However, one thing I have learned with help of professionals and the Firefighters Charity is that I am always stronger than I think. Feelings and thoughts are just that, they are not always fact.
I have learnt to allow myself the time to stress over things and process them, but in the knowledge they will pass. I have learnt to give myself a break, and focus on my strengths rather than my weaknesses. As a coping mechanism, I live my life by routine and structure which means I am quite disciplined; and this lends itself well to my job, and as an athlete because it creates a robust mindset. I am now learning to recognise triggers to my negative thoughts and learn from my experiences that they will pass. ‘That was then, this is now’ has become my mantra.
What advice do you wish you'd been given before you started competing?
When I was younger, I wouldn’t have allowed myself to admit that I wasn’t the best at something. If I wasn’t, or I lost at something, I would have a huge sense of shame and embarrassment. This is called an ego! It’s not always a bad thing as long as you learn to harness it. However, it puts an immense amount of pressure on us when we fail to reach a level we feel we should. Inevitably, if you never quite reach that level, you’re always going to feel like a failure. I am trying to learn to treat my sense of shame with kindness. When I had my son, it was a great leveller and changed my whole perspective on life. It wasn’t about me anymore. When we realise that we’re not actually that important in other people’s worlds, and we’re not the centre of attention; and they’re probably not even thinking about us – you’d be surprised how much pressure that takes off you. Losing one’s ego is probably the best bit of advice I never had, that I know now allows me to compete for enjoyment and fulfilment. I hope that I make my family proud and inspire my son to try new things and push beyond the comfort zone.
What are your goals?
I didn’t become a household name, that was the plan when I was younger but I’m fine with that now! With advancing years, I’m past being elite standard, but I can still be a great athlete. I would like to remain in great shape, stay fit and healthy, and to spend quality time with my family when my job allows. Moving forward, I would like to represent my country for my age group, but I am still trying to define which distance this will be over. I also want to tick off a number of endurance challenges across the globe. I like to take on events that other people think are crazy, to show that nothing is impossible with the right mindset.
Who do you take your inspiration from?
I have many sporting icons from the rugby world, but in terms of my favourite athlete, it has to be James Cracknell. He is just a phenomenal athlete across a variety of disciplines, and his mindset is unbreakable. I would love the opportunity to take on some of the events he has had the opportunity to. He is also living proof that with the right mindset and training, you can still compete at the highest levels with advancing years.
What do you like about Sundried and what’s your favourite bit of our kit?
Not only is the kit great, but the ethical approach to constructing it is second to none. Even the way Sundried have adopted and prioritised fitness and exercise sessions for their staff whilst at work is forward thinking, and indicative of their organisational culture. My most recent acquisitions have been some training tights and top with compression technology. They keep me warm and supported in the desert when recovery is paramount before another long stage the following day when I need to be ready to go again. All Sundried garments are manufactured with sustainability in mind and reducing carbon footprint to a minimum. These values align with my own, and are an important factor in my decision to be associated with Sundried in pursuit of my goals.