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Sat 29th Feb 2020
In depth with James Gilfillan
Posted by: John Levison
Posted on: Thursday 13th November 2014

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Great Britain's fastest male Age Group athlete at Kona 2014

A couple of weeks ago I interviewed at length, Simone Dailey, the fastest British female Age Grouper ar Kona this year. Now it is time for the men.

Poole-based James Gilfillan was the fastest British Age Group male at Kona ths year*, and like Simone his efforts earned him a second place (AG 35-39) and a coveted Kona Umeke award. Unlike Simone, he has no plans to try and return next year and go one place better "based on my result and performance I don't need to go back to Kona any time soon", but he was able to enjoy the whole Hawaii experience - especially as it represeted his (delayed!) honeymoon.

As for what's next, having done pretty much everything from a 4km individual pursuit to the Race Across America (via Ironman and crushing many a time trial), you get the feeling that James will succeed at whatever challenge interests him next. Read on to find out a lot more about James Gilfillan and how he managed to achieve all of his Kona targets last month.

(* James was also the fastest British athlete overall on time, his 8:59:47 just 13 seconds faster than the nine hours exactly of 29th Pro, Harry Wiltshire, who started 25 minutes earlier on race day).

Unlike our fastest GB female Age Group athlete at Kona this year, Simone Dailey, you have a long history in the sport – did you start as a ‘triathlete', or did you get into it initially through another sport?

When I started out I don't think anybody came to the sport as a triathlete; I came to the sport from all three disciplines separately. I started out from a swimming background, local club, training a couple of times a week and then galas every other weekend or so. My dad was a regular cyclist when we were young, so was keen to introduce us to cycling, starting with 2-up time trials behind him at the local cycling club evening time trials in Malvern. Running for me didn't get much past school sports day and cross country.

My first taste of multisport came from the Biathlons run on the Modern Pentathlon format of separate swim and run, with times equating to points and combined points awarding medals; so points do mean prizes! Whilst my dad had done triathlons during the 80's, it wasn't until the parent of another swimmer mentioned there was a pool based 'sprint' distance event being held nearby did I get my first taste of triathlon! 1994 and as a 15 year old swimmer/cyclist I was entered in the Wimbourne Sprint Triathlon. Thankfully the BBC showed that years Bath Triathlon on the telly the day before my race so I almost had half an idea what I was supposed to do!!! Needless to say, I did a lot of walking during the 5km run...

James with the GB Junior squad 'back in the day' - recognise them all?!

Though you have been doing triathlon and multisport events for close on 20 years, am I right in thinking that through that time you have had periods of either ‘downtime' and/or focussed on cycling, especially time trialling? If so, do you think that balance has perhaps kept you in the sport longer than perhaps trying to do the same thing, year-on-year?

James on the front cover of 220 magazineYeah, based on that first race in Sept/Oct 1994, Hawaii this year was probably almost exactly 20yrs after my first Tri! You're right, in the first few years I filled most of the spring, summer and autumn, fitting tri's in around time trials and road races, with my parents covering some mega miles getting me to a vast array of events up and down the country. Thankfully from home in Malvern, you've a massive variety of events within two hours in all directions.

One year my sister and I raced a 10mile TT on a quick course on the A5 in Milton Keynes, after which my dad drove us to Loch Lomond so I could represent England in the old Home Nations Triathlon! By 1999, I was no longer a Junior, drafting had taken hold of the ITU racing and my best discipline was 'neutralised'. It also saw a lot of top British athletes start to think about Sydney and racing abroad so I got a stash of wins and took the Grand Prix Series (as was). and the 220 Series, but also got selected for the U-23 World TT champs by British Cycling

I have changed my targets and priorities over the years depending on what interested me as a challenge or where the success took me. In 2000 I was hoping to repeat my 1999 selection for the British Cycling team for the U-23 World TT champs, so I spent the year just riding my bike. 2002-2004 I don't think I raced at all, perhaps the odd TT when I moved to Poole, but it all started again in 2006 when I spent the year having fun at the Concept Sport Sprint races around the south coast. 2007 saw me do my first long distance race at the 70.3 in Wimbleball [Ed. where James finished second to Fraser Cartmell].

It used to surprise me when you would hear of people going to the same set of races every year. I've found picking different races that present different challenges as the motivation year-on-year. In 2011 I joined a group of triathletes to take on the Race Across America bike race, 3000 miles in 5 days 13hrs. We'd all done Ironman and were strong bikers so it seemed like a good challenge, not just physically but also mentally. It's not something you could go back to regularly, but gave the year a massive focus and was hugely different from the triathlon-based seasons of the proceeding five years. After that cycling came easy and I focussed on time-trialling for a few years, but by September 2013 I had decided I needed to go back to Ironman and do that 'properly', rather than look back at my rather lame first attempt in 2008 at Ironman Switzerland.

The Team Feat RAAM team

I remember commentating at the ITU World Duathlon Championships in Edinburgh in 2010, and you were the fastest Age Group athlete overall that day. You've also won the Ballbuster Duathlon, Bala Middle Distance (and with it the British Middle Distance Champs), Bournemouth, Swanage, been second overall at 70.3 UK and several other 70.3 top ten finishes – are there any particular events or performances that stand out over your time in the sport?

That Duathlon champs was a big deal for me. The result speaks for itself, but for me it was about racing with my sister, something we'd not done for a long time, seeing her do so well [Ed. Ceris Styler was second Age Grouper overall, behind Vicky Gill], having our family there, all of which made it in to such a successful event all round. Perhaps the Tidworth Sprint in early 2006, a win in my first race after some seven years absence, gave me the confidence to train and race that whole year. Many races stand out for different reasons. However it's often said you're only as good as your last race - I don't think I'm going to be able to forget the events of 11/10/14 in a hurry.

James winning the ITU World Duathlon Champs, 2010, Edinburgh

Cycling has always been one of your biggest strengths in triathlon, and you've had several top ten finishes in National Championship events, including fourth last year at the 50-mile champs. Tell us a bit more about the time trialling you do – any remaining goals that you have in the TT world?

Although I started out with swimming, I achieved a lot more success with cycling than I ever did swimming, despite getting some serious ribbing by the kids at school for getting beaten by their mate, who was several years younger, at a local MTB race. That kid, Liam Killeen, nearly won a medal at the Olympic mountain bike race, so I've got over it now.

James Gilfillan - Cycle Time Trial Personal Best Times

Average Speed
10 Miles
30.41 mph / 48.92 kph
25 Miles
30.55 mph / 49.15 kph
50 Miles
29.65 mph / 47.70 kph
100 Miles
26.37mph / 42.44 kph

James racing in the 1999 World Championships Time TrialI used to fill the gaps between tri's with TT's, however I think that ultimately was my undoing at my first Ironman attempt. Having never raced to a power meter or HR monitor, I've got very good at judging my effort and pace over 25 and 50 miles, as such starting the Ironman bike riding on feel, despite knowing to back off, was never going to result in a well measured bike split, nor was I used to being overtaken on hills, so I got involved in racing others, which was only ever going to go one way during an Ironman. This year I took the conscious decision not to get used to the pace required for a 25 or 50 TT and focussed on training at the levels, efforts and brick sessions required for an Ironman.

Time trialling tends to be all about the absolute speed and lowest times. You commonly need some luck to set PB's and racing week after week will lead to getting the right course on the right day, with the right wind and form. I've not gone chasing these races or courses and don't have any real ambitions in TT racing as it's quite a small world.

I've been to the Elite World Champs, crossed America, I've been around the Isle of Man Mountain TT course in under 90mins and ridden a 4:45 min's 4000m pursuit - there's not many who can stick that together on their CV. I can claim to have beaten Bradley Wiggins too, but so did several others that day!

What was your Ironman experience before this year – was your qualifying race at Ironman Lanzarote in May your first Ironman?

Pretty brief and not one that I'll need to rely on anymore! As I mentioned earlier, I raced Ironman Switzerland in 2008, the year it coincided with Roth and Austria and there was a massive storm sitting over central Europe and all three races were wash outs. I remember the swim being the warmest part! I screwed up the bike and nearly packed, but thankfully I pulled a run out the bag to save my day! Before this year, Ironman was mostly something I read about a lot in race reports, watched on telly and heard about on training camps.

Ironman Switzerland 2008

James Gilfillan - Ironman Record

Ironman Switzerland 2008
Pro - 11th
Ironman Lanzarote 2014
35-39 - 1st
Ironman World Champs 2014
35-39 - 2nd

That looks like a great result ‘on paper' – from your perspective did it all go to plan – and was racing in Kona this year always the big objective?

From the previous September when I committed myself to racing Ironman in 2014, Kona was the objective. I got married at Christmas 2013 and I'd convinced my now wife, that delaying a honeymoon until October was a good idea - not that the prospect of going to Hawaii made it much of challenge!

Yes, Lanzarote was massive for me. Irrespective of my palmarès and background, I didn't have the confidence in my Ironman ability or whether going from a short/middle distance time trial specialist in September to Ironman Lanzarote in May was giving me time to remember how to swim 3.8km and run 42km. I specifically chose Lanzarote because of the similarities to Hawaii; its another volcanic, hot, windy island, the course would suit my cycling strengths and it wasn't already full by the time I'd decided to race.

The result was more successful than the plan, which was to finish 4th/5th in my Age Group to get my slot, so to finish 8th overall and first Age Grouper was slightly off the scale and raised my expectations and personal ambitions for Hawaii.

James at Ironman Lanzarote

Qualifying for Kona for most athletes is a huge task – but then going to Kona and competing for an Age Group podium ramps that up another level again. Can you give us an insight into your approach and ‘what it took' to perform as you did last month – as I believe you are training is around a regular job too?

I touched on my approach to bike training earlier and that fed in to prioritising specific training sessions, some real must do's that were based around long bikes and runs at the weekend. Swimming generally took care of itself as early morning pre-work sessions with the local masters group, however rather than fill every available slot, pre, mid and post work with short sessions, I really tried to focus on more race distance specific sessions, and whilst there were other sessions I'd have liked to have done, if work was full on or finished late then they could be ditched without undermining the master plan.

I won't pretend to being the most dedicated trainer and I'll probably use the 'less is more' excuse a few times too often, but I don't recall missing sessions between Lanzarote and Hawaii because of illness or injury and that more that makes up for ditching a run and bike in a particular week because of 'life' pressures.

I've only raced three times this year, the local Ringwood Triathlon in April, Lanzarote and Hawaii. I think that helped, I was fresh in Hawaii and although the training was beginning to drag, I wasn't fatigued from the stress of regular racing.

What's the day job?

I work for the Borough of Poole Council as a development management officer. We benefit from flexible working hours, which is perfect for fitting training in around work, but as with many jobs it can leave you feeling mentally drained and defeated by the day, compromising your motivation for training. Thankfully the office does provide good facilities for cycling to work, with a secure enclosed cage for keeping bikes, showers and changing rooms. So if I’ve cycled in to work I can’t escape the ride home!

Whilst most of my colleagues think training camps are silly holidays, they've accepted its what I do, have got used to it and are supportive when I’m racing, many of them using the online trackers to follow my progress.

James Gifillan in Hawaii ©Richard Melik/Freespeed said after the race in Kona that people believed in you “even when I wasn't so sure” – what were your own hopes and objectives when you got on the plane and head out to Hawaii.

My personal ambitions were to podium in my Age Group (top five in Hawaii) and go under nine hours - both within my control. Also to be the fastest British athlete (dependant on which Pro's did qualify) and out of my control... and of course I had to be mindful of getting chicked by the brilliant female Pro's we have at the moment.

A few weeks before going I felt that the training hadn't worked, the power meter I was using didn't seem to be reading anything like the output that I'd trained to pre-Lanzarote and I was struggling with not knowing and being able to manage the type of weather and climate in Hawaii. We all know its windy, its hot, its humid... but how windy, how hot and how humid and that was playing on my mind. Ultimately my biking felt better in the final two weeks, the numbers weren't that different, but I'd ridden well in group rides and felt strong.

Once on the island, the effect of the humidity whilst biking was neutralised by the wind created by cycling fast, but on the run it was another thing; shorts and socks dripping after a run in the dry was a new one and my pace was slow and laborious. I was expecting the run to be a long one!

You ended up finishing in 8:59:47 with splits of 56:23 / 4:46:59 / 3:09:58 to take second place in M35-39 and third fastest Age Grouper overall – talk us through the day.

Unlike Lanzarote I managed to set my alarm for the morning of race day, so I was up, fed, watered and in Kona town in good time. Panic, stress and nerves kick in once required to 'enjoy' the bureaucracy of the WTC at its best... body marking, with those useless transfers. Needless to say I hadn't accommodated the 30mins it took to have four transfer numbers added to either arm, in my pre-race schedule! I suspect most people lost one or more numbers from each arm whilst bobbing around in the water waiting for the start and bashing into the guys on either side. What is wrong with a good old permanent pen!

The swim was the toughest I can recall doing, the swell, chop, no wetsuits and the high quality of the field made it much more of a fight for longer than I've had before. I knew the swim would be about getting it out of the way, get rid of a couple of ex-pro bikers in my Age Group and get down to the serious business of the day and as with Lanzarote try and relax, not fight for the finish to come quicker or get annoyed that the speck in the distance isn't getting any bigger!

I'd heard about the problems of drafting and seen photos of a seriously long line of cyclists on many a website and seen it at Clearwater in 2010. The race referee, Jimmy Riccitello, certainly 'highlighted' it in his pre-race briefing, and what I particularly feared were those same bikers bringing some runners up with them.

I stuck to my plan, rode with a few guys, trading places as the terrain and feed stations imposed. All was going smoothly, my pace and form felt good and the guys around me began to fall away and were replaced by girls, from the Pro women's field (which started 20 minutes in front of the Age Group men).

James in Kona

The climb to Hawi brought the Pro's past (in the other direction), Sebastian Kienle leading, others unrecognisable. Van Lierde, Frodeno somewhere and as for the GB boys, I wasn't sure. It also brought the winds crashing down on us from the side, resulted in some white knuckle swerves, and by the sounds of it, road rash for some victims. The descent brought some 40mph sections, some more big swerves and finally the head of the Age Group race. It also gave me a glimpse of what was going on behind. I hadn't clocked anybody as I didn't have a clue who I was looking at and the difference in their pace and mine was such that I couldn't judge whether they were catching, but it did make me question why I'd been worried about my position in relation to cyclists in front, seeing how close so many of them were to one another.

Alone on the Queen K
©Richard Melik/Freespeed

The wind is legendary and has been attributed to slower times this year. I know the first few miles on the Queen K heading back to town were rocket propelled for me, the speed trace on my SRM goes off the top off the chart for a section and I approached a feed station at over 40mph, however other Brits have said they enjoyed no such tail wind and I suspect Kienle probably enjoyed it for further than anybody. However all good things come to an end and in typical fashion it switched without warning to bring the pace back to a normal 23ish mph.

15 miles from home and the next 'rear end' facing me advertises the arrival of the defending champion 'Rinny', which surprised me, despite being off the bike pace, she still had the company of photographers, TV cameras or draft officials. I didn't hang around long enough and did the honorable thing and left her to her own race.

T2 brought a smile to my face, an empty transition area - I wish somebody had a picture of my bike all alone! The run tends to be about 'hanging on' for me and this was going to be no different. Keeping cool was a priority and I kept reminding myself to keep 'chugging' along, no matter what, no walking!

Ali'i drive was great with a lot of support, including a lot of "yeah go man, first AG, good stuff" etc, until I relinquished that privilege to an American, Dan Stubleski (2013 runner up in my AG), and unfortunately still in my AG. Rinny did the honorable thing and passed me in the same fashion I'd passed her... quickly!

James Gilfillan... with Mirinda Carfrae closing fast!

Palani Hill was slow, thankfully the Queen K was in shade and the aid stations were desperate for athletes to support. The Energy Lab was slow but brought the special needs bags and a rather hot personal drink and another chance to see the competition behind. Thankfully the next placed 35-39 was a good distance behind, but the Pro women were circling to get their own back; racing for money brought them charging to my door in the last three miles. The descent of Palani hill was still slow but it was a mile from home and my place was secure.

The run to the line along Ali'i was great, crowds, noise and relief! Mission accomplished!

Times will always of course be impacted by weather, winds, heat – but how much pleasure does a ‘sub-9 at Kona' bring you?

It was great, I'd completely lost track of time and forgotten all about trying to go under the nine hour time barrier. It wasn't until I was on the carpeted ramp to the line that I saw the time on the clock... but which clock? The one that said 9:19... or the one that said 8:59?!. Whilst a bit tired, I did have the capacity to do the maths on the 20 minutes time gap between the Pro women and Age Group men start times and decided I was doing the the 8:59 - I think my finish line photos show it!

I'd achieved my personal goals, I had a time and a result to eclipse Switzerland and that would mean something forever and I could 'retire' on it!

James Gifillan in HawaiiThough you have raced for a long time, over many distances and in several disciplines – what, if anything, did you learn during this race – or was there anything that surprised you? What key advice would you pass on to anyone doing Kona?

I guess I proved to myself what I'm capable of. I set myself a challenge and goals to achieve that were realistic, based on what had gone before, and stuck to it.

Advice for anybody going to Kona, enjoy it... but on your terms. If you want to stay in town and engage with all the festivities and activities then do it. If you want to stay out of town and avoid the chaos then do so. This race is big, it's more than the 'Iron War', more than Chrissie and Gordon Ramsey. However you do it, fast or slow, do it your way that will leave you with a smile on your face and having the best race you can.

Outside of the racing / result / awards, were you still able to take in and enjoy the Hawaii experience?

Without doubt... it was our honeymoon remember! We spent time on the Big Island pre and post race, and on Oah'u (Honolulu) before arriving on the Big Island, so we had time to explore both islands and be tourists!

Emma and James Gilfillan

It clearly takes a lot of time, commitment, expense, sacrifice plus impacts on family and work etc – having managed to have a such a great result, does that motivate you to return… or was that an “I've given it everything”, and ticked off that box? What's next, if anything (!), sports wise for James Gilfillan?

I've never set out to do events to tick off boxes, but based on my result and performance I don't need to go back to Kona any time soon. I couldn't afford it anyway! As for next, no plans, but there'll be something. I fancied the European Ironman Champs in Frankfurt, but they are full, so I will need a re-think. Perhaps I should go back to the beginning and race the Wimbourne Sprint!

The Kona Umeke and medal

You've got a talented family of course, with your sister Ceris having gone from being a GB triathlete and then becoming an Olympic cyclist and National Road Race Champion. Did you ever train together, and who followed who into the cycling world?!

Being older I tended to do most things first, though she followed pretty soon behind, doing her first triathlon in 1995. We did a lot of the same races in the early years, though her bike strength and TT success as a youth/junior soon brought her to the attention of British Cycling and she joined the World Class Performance Plan (WCPP) in 1998. Training together was largely limited to swimming. We did do some riding when she lived in Alsager (WCPP base at the time), and I was in Manchester (University), and then a winter in Australia, where she proved she could out-sprint me at the end of a training ride! I think she opened my eyes to the possibilities of setting some high level targets, and I was really proud of her performance at Edinburgh Duathlon world's and perhaps one day we'll both enjoy a day out in Kona!

The Gilfillan's - Ceris & James, at the 2010 Edinburgh ITU World Duathlon Champs

Anything else we should know about you, or supporters / sponsors you would like to thank?

I think I covered my thanks on Facebook after Kona, so most should know who they are.

Perhaps I should thank Rachel Joyce for getting the BBC interested in this year's race, leading to my own extra bit of exposure and the BBC for scheduling the coverage of Bath Triathlon the day before my first race all those years ago!

#GBKONA 2014 Coverage

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