As a busy sales executive, James Burke shares his love for the sport of triathlon and how he balances family life, work and training.
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BRAD BROWN: We head back to the States now to Milwaukee, Wisconsin and it’s a great pleasure to welcome James Burke onto the podcast.
James welcome onto The Kona Edge.
JAMES BURKE: Thanks for having me.
BRAD BROWN: James I’m super excited to chat about your triathlon career and some of your achievements because you’ve had a couple of biggies. You raced on the Big Island in 2016 and got a podium, finishing 4th I think. The sport of triathlon, have you been around it long? Where did your journey into the sport start?
Spectating at Ironman gets you hooked on the sport
JAMES BURKE: I actually only really got into triathlon probably 5 years ago. Prior to that, I was a swimmer and a runner growing up. After university I took some time off and started a family and 5 years ago stumbled upon an Ironman race here in Wisconsin, the Ironman Wisconsin. I fell in love with it and decided I needed to try it. So, I signed up and the middle of the next year I did it. I’ve been hooked ever since.
BRAD BROWN: Was your first experience in triathlon signing up for an Ironman?
JAMES BURKE: I had done some shorter distance races growing up when I was still in grade school. But for all intents and purposes I had taken probably almost 10 years off from when I stopped swimming collegiately at university, to doing my first Ironman. So, I had to learn how to train all over again.
BRAD BROWN: That’s incredible. What was it that drew you in and got you fired up again?
JAMES BURKE: I think I was missing a competitive aspect of my life and growing up in sports I had always been competitive. I’m from a family where I have 3 brothers and a sister and we were all competitive amongst each other and I think I missed that.
Then I had always had it in the back of my mind that Ironman was this crazy event and I just needed to see if I could do it one day. Timing was never perfect. It usually never is, but I went and watched the race and got super inspired. Decided to register and it went from there.
The unique competitiveness of Ironman
BRAD BROWN: I guess that’s one of the cool things about Triathlon as well, is that competitiveness amongst the age groups, and with the age grouper, that sort of scene. There are many sports and I think maybe marathon running around Boston Marathon you do have that to an extent. But triathlon is truly unique in that sense, isn’t it?
JAMES BURKE: Yes, absolutely. And for me personally it’s changed in the 5 years since I’ve been doing the sport. When I started I wasn’t really competitive, at least I didn’t view my competitors as my competitors. It was more internal of can I do this and that? What’s it going to be like when I’m doing a marathon after a 112 mile bike? The same sort of thoughts most Ironman men and women have.
As you get to do it more and more you get to learn who are the competitive people in your age group and its fun. As I learned and meet others you realise it’s not just the 20-25 year olds who are competitive, it’s the 50-55 who are just as competitive in the sport. It’s really neat to be around.
BRAD BROWN: Yes, the crazy thing is the old age groups are probably more competitive than the 20-25 or the 25-30. It’s almost like people get to a stage in their life where they might have a bit more resources. They’ve made some money in their life and they’ve got a bit of spare time and they can afford to take some time off work. They’re not necessarily building a career.
I find a lot of people only coming into the sport at that stage and they come from pretty competitive sporting backgrounds and that’s when it really starts hotting up in the age group ranks.
Large families breed a competitive spirit
JAMES BURKE: Yes, it’s incredible. If you look, even in Kona, some of the most competitive age groups are 40 plus. I’m getting close to that so I hoping that I’m going to be able to bang heads with those guys as well.
BRAD BROWN: I always joke that I’m going to outlive everyone in my age group and that’s my Kona strategy. But the way we’re going I’m going to have to live until I’m 90 because there’s some incredible guys racing on that Big Island.
Let’s take a step back. You talk about growing up in a house with a good few siblings. It must have been interesting times. Where do you fit in? Are you youngest, in the middle, eldest? How does it work in your family?
JAMES BURKE: I’m the 4th of 5. My sister is the oldest and then there are 4 boys. We grew up a very loving family. We still spend a lot of time together. In fact I have a brother and a sister that live here in town and then the other 2 are in Seattle, Washington. We get out there quite regularly to visit them.
But we’re the group that was rambunctious and my parents made a decision very early on that to burn off some energy all the kids are going to do sport. We got to choose what we did but the reality is when you’re the 4th in line, you kind of follow your brothers and sister. Everyone was a swimmer or runner of some form and then there were other sports that were mixed in there.
It was fun growing up and it still is fun. Now that we’re all getting older and having kids, we’re passing it to the next generation.
Taking your swim and run background into your triathlon career
BRAD BROWN: The genes must be good because you don’t get to do Ironman times the way you do them if you don’t have good genes. Obviously, there’s a lot of work that goes into it. Were you the only one who was blessed with ability or are your siblings pretty decent in whatever sphere they got into as well?
JAMES BURKE: I would say they are all talented in one sport or another. They’re all not crazy enough to do Ironman like I am, but they come and cheer when we do go to races together. Our youngest brother was an outstanding runner. Older brother was a really good hockey player and then the older brother and sister were both good runners and swimmers. So we all did so much sport and we all had somewhat success.
BRAD BROWN: James, as far as coming into the sport of triathlon with a swimming and running background, particularly a competitive one, I don’t want to say it’s an advantage because I think everyone comes with their own skills and takes benefit out of it, but it is a big plus coming from those 2 sports into the sport of triathlon.
JAMES BURKE: Yes I think so. And to have a swim background is nice from my perspective in that I don’t have to spend as much time in the pool trying to learn technique and things like that. I’m able to focus more of my training sessions around biking and running whereas I’m not trying to learn to swim. I do think it’s an advantage. Certainly the overall capacity that you build through years and years of age group swimming and running helps as well.
Is consistency the secret weapon to Ironman success?
BRAD BROWN: As far as what you think your secret weapon is when it comes to triathlon. What do you think your unfair advantage is?
JAMES BURKE: I used to say it was the swim. But I think the reality is, if I look at my splits compared to my other competitors and people that I compete in training against, I think probably my secret is that I’m very consistent across all 3 disciplines.
I’ve spent a lot of time learning how to bike and becoming a better biker and by no sense am I a great biker, but I’m proficient enough that I can hold my own. The running gets a little harder as I get older because I get little niggles and injuries. So I would say that I’m fairly consistent across all 3.
The nice thing about being a decent swimmer is you gets out early and so you don’t have that congestion that a lot of the other races do with kind of middle of the pack swimmers. The bike is a little more stressful because you’re dealing with drafts and packs and trying to get around people.
BRAD BROWN: You’ve had a couple of incredible performances and as you speak, I’m looking at your Kona 2016 results. A 9:04:49 overall. You’re literally 4 minutes away from the top spot on that podium and over the length of an Ironman, 4 minutes is absolutely nothing. That’s a great performance. Would you rate that up there as some of your best? What would you say personally is the highlight of your triathlon career so far?
Consistency is king for a good Ironman performance
JAMES BURKE: It’s hard for me to compare the first one. Not because it was my best race or my fastest time. But the experience and the unknown, and the sense accomplishment to complete it. Ironman Wisconsin in 2013 was certainly special.
I went to Kona in 2014 and returned in 2016 and both of those races were pretty consistent. In fact my time was only a couple of minutes faster the second time in 2016. But I was specific to 2016 Kona; I was very pleased with my swim and my bike. I biked more aggressive than I had in the past so that was encouraging and my run was okay. At the end of the day, the run at the end of the marathon and then throw in the Kona heat and conditions.
BRAD BROWN: James, as far as getting better over time, the one thing that I’ve picked up quite a bit here on The Kona Edge, is consistency is king. It doesn’t matter what you do as long as you do it consistently I think is the most important factor. And getting better over time comes with that consistency. Having 2 Kona performances so close together, were you disappointed? You mentioned you probably would have preferred a better run; your bike was great but were you disappointed you didn’t go much faster in 2016 than you did in 2014?
JAMES BURKE: I think with the conditions that led up to 2016, the easy answer would be to say yes, I was disappointed. But the reality was that was the best I had on the day. I had some running injuries earlier in the year that kind of limited my run training so I knew going into Kona that I was a little, probably under trained on the run. But the reality is that the race and that island and the conditions make it unlike anything else.
Crossing the finish line first is a surreal moment in Ironman
And probably my best race was Ironman Louisville the year before. Certainly, from a time perspective. The reality is that you really can’t control the time. Much as the conditions and racing the competition. Because a windy day on Kona versus a non-windy day. I think it’s always windy on Kona, but the wind can make such a big difference. So I try not to get too hung up on time. I certainly would have liked to have broken 9 but you can only do what you can do on the day. I walked away pleased, I was happy.
BRAD BROWN: You mention, and I asked you the highlight and your best performance. You said the one that sticks out is the first Ironman but you just in passing mentioned Louisville and that was very fast. An 8:48 I think it was. Just shy of 8:49. A win in Louisville. That’s pretty impressive.
JAMES BURKE: That was a neat race. The 8:48, I’ll give a little bit of astrix just because it’s a down river swim so the swimmers were gasped. But I was pleased, I really wanted to race well and that was a great race. In fact it was the best run that I’ve ever had and a most enjoyable race.
To cross the finish line, I never really went into it thinking that I could have won. Some age grouper had to win because it was a no-pro race but to cross the finish line first was really neat and it was a bit surreal. That’s a memory I will have for a long time, for sure.
When racing dynamics change
BRAD BROWN: It must be a pretty cool experience. You talk about a non-pro race, only age groupers, and as an age grouper you could win your age group at a race where there are pros and you don’t get that experience of crossing the finish line first. That must be pretty special.
JAMES BURKE: Yes I think it’s pretty neat and I think it’s a dynamic that’s changed over time because obviously before there was always a pro contingent. But to have races that are non-pro, I know there was some concern about is it going to take away some of the cache of that particular race. But the reality is that the majority of people that are doing this are not doing it because pro’s are doing it. They’re doing it because of personal accomplishments that they’re pursuing or other reasons. At the end of the day to go pro all you have to do is win a race and so the mix between the mid-level pros and the top age groupers, that line is pretty blurred and so you’ve got some fast guys that are gone pretty quick. They could easily turn pro in a future time.
BRAD BROWN: 8:48, I can’t wrap my head around that. But then you look at this past weekend, at the Ironman South America Championship. Tim Don breaking the world record with a 7:40. That’s more than an hour quicker than you did in Louisville. For me, I can’t even think about that but for you, that’s crazy fast.
The rising level of talent at Ironman
JAMES BURKE: Yes and it’s all a matter of perspective. There’s people that were looking at 8:48 and saying that’s unbelievable. But then when you do an 8:48 and you look at Tim Don who does a 7:40, then you’ll say that’s unbelievable. So, certainly it’s a vantage point and a matter of perspective but the reality is that the times are only getting quicker. People are becoming so specialised and the level of talent is just unbelievable and it’s getting deeper and deeper, it seems.
BRAD BROWN: If you look at the sort of athletes that are coming through from the ITU ranks, if you think of the Brownlee’s and Fabio Gomes who have now started dipping their toes in 70.3’s. We’ve seen what’s happened in the earlier part of the season so far this year as well. You talk about those times going faster. How much faster do you think the top guys can go?
JAMES BURKE: That’s a great question. I certainly think we will see a 7:35 get broken; I think that’s the time that Frodeno did in Ironman Chargerock. How much faster, I don’t know. But I could easily see another 10 minutes perhaps. It’s hard to fathom how much faster because you look at times that they’re doing and they’re running in the low 2:40’s and how much faster can you get after that?
Plus put a bike and a swim in front of it. As a fan I’m ecstatic and I’m really excited to see what’s going to happen over the next few years.
Changing training programs to keep the balance on Ironman
BRAD BROWN: Yes I know there’s been a lot of talk as well over the last day or so, as we’re recording this, with regards to the distances and getting that right. That is obviously a concern as well and its one thing calling a time an Ironman World record, but there’s a whole bunch of things you need, to look at that.
Like you said, with Louisville, it’s a down river swim so you can never really get the conditions exactly the same on every single course but at the end of the day it is what it is and 7:40 is still absolutely incredible.
James, let’s talk about life around triathlon. You mentioned you’ve got a family yourself and balancing training and what you need to do to race at the top level as an age grouper. Keeping the lights on at home and keeping things ticking the way they should be ticking over. How do you get that balance right?
JAMES BURKE: I would say it’s a journey. I’ve certainly changed my training and the time commitment that I have to contribute to training for triathlon, as my family’s grown. I’m married and have 3 children and they’re all young, all under the age of 8. But as they get older they get more active and more involved in sports and extra-curricular activities and so I would say it’s constantly a balance.
I’m very time efficient and so I have an idea of what I want to accomplish throughout the course of the week from a training perspective. Then there is a lot of changes and alterations made to my schedule based on time and when I can fit maybe a run in here and a swim in there.
Sneaking in workouts when you can
BRAD BROWN: I’ve never had anybody use the term time efficient on the podcast before. Tell me more about being time efficient and what that means.
JAMES BURKE: This is something I’ve learned over the last 2 years. Our daughter was born; she will be 2 on July 3rd. When she came along I was doing, I would probably say 90% of my bike rides outside. I invested at that time in an indoor trainer and the software that’s come along with the indoor trainer is just incredible.
So I would say that I flipped that from about 90% outdoor to 90% indoor which allows me to ride early in the morning and late at night when it might not be light out. I can get up, get out of the bed and get on the trainer within 10 minutes. Whereas getting all kitted up and geared up might take me 20. That’s what I talk about from a time efficiency perspective. Sneaking in workouts as quickly as possible. I always have a gym bag in my car, and a swim bag in my car. If I have a 45 minute window, I can get a workout in.
BRAD BROWN: I think it’s important also, as much as you’ve got what you want to do in the week; you’ve got to be flexible. Like you say, you’ve got the gym bag in the car and if something does open up you’ve got to be able to take advantage of that opportunity.
JAMES BURKE: Yes, and I think that’s probably the best perspective that I have on the sport is that at the end of the day I’m doing this because I love it and I enjoy it. Not because it’s my job or my career.
Know what you want to accomplish in a training week
I used to get very worked up, probably like a lot of people, about missing workouts and not having time. Or working late one day and not being able to get in a run or a bike. I’ve found to embrace the changes throughout the course of the day. Like I said, I have a rough idea of what I want to accomplish throughout the course of the week but then I’m very flexible as to when it gets done. Which probably isn’t the ideal training setting but it’s the reality that I live in based on balancing a career and a family.
BRAD BROWN: Let’s talk career. What do you do for a living?
JAMES BURKE: I’m a sales manager at a multi industrial and service company.
BRAD BROWN: Difficult to manage that and the training and the family on top of that. Is it a high demanding job?
JAMES BURKE: Yes, it’s definitely a full time career with travel now mixed in which adds another dimension to try and get workouts in so you have to be all the smarter. But my employers have been great. I’ve been with the company for 15 years so I have a good setup in a good environment to be able to balance everything.
BRAD BROWN: And it’s incredible. My brother is an Ironman and he’s a corporate boy. They hire a lot of people. Often he’ll say that someone who comes from an Ironman background, or an ultra marathon background, it says a lot about their character. The discipline it takes to do one of those things. So as much as it does take a lot of time, it could be a lot worse. You could have a gambling problem I guess.
Ironman – your stress reliever
JAMES BURKE: Yes, I tell everyone I wish I liked golf more. I’d probably be golfing more than I would be doing Ironman. But I think at the end of the day it’s a hobby. And everyone has hobbies and everyone’s hobby is unique to that individual. I like it because it’s my stress reliever.
So if I have a tough day at work or a stressful day at work there’s nothing better, in my opinion, than going out for a run and try and clear my head. I think it all works, at least for me, I think it makes me a better parent and husband and probably makes me a better employee. At the end of the day as long as I can balance and manage everything then it works.
BRAD BROWN: As far as what you’re working on now. What’s your biggest struggle when it comes to triathlon? What are you trying to improve or get better at?
JAMES BURKE: I think I still can improve on the bike. I’d put an emphasis around that and I would tell you the biggest thing I focus on is staying healthy with the run. I’ve had some lower leg injuries. Probably overuse injuries. So, being more diligent about foam rolling and stretching.
And my wife is begging me to try yoga, so I might try that in the future. I think increasing flexibility so I can stay healthy is going to be important as I continue.
BRAD BROWN: What’s been the biggest lesson that Ironman has taught you?
Perseverance keeps you coming back to Ironman
JAMES BURKE: The biggest lesson I would say is perseverance. There have been a lot of times when I’ve questioned whether or not I wanted to keep doing it. Or been in races questioning whether or not I wanted to continue doing it. As I’m sure a lot of your listeners can equate to. The sense of accomplishment, at least that I feel when I complete one, kind of keeps me coming back.
When I entered Wisconsin Ironman in 2013 I thought it was going to be a check the box and say that I did it. Maybe even get the tattoo and move on. I’ve been surprised at how big an integral part of my life, and my family’s life, in embracing the sport, and that the lifestyle has been important. It’s been really helpful that I’ve had a wife that’s very supportive. And a lot of trust to be on this journey together.
BRAD BROWN: Absolutely. As far as that first one and that was going to be my next question so I’m glad you brought it back to that. If you could go back and talk to James Burke back then in the build up to your first Ironman, knowing what you know now, what would you tell yourself? Is there anything you would do differently?
JAMES BURKE: I’d tell him to slow down on the bike.
BRAD BROWN: I want to hear that story.
JAMES BURKE: It was one of those races where the pros went off 10 minutes before the amateurs. It was a mass start. Because I was a pretty strong swimmer I got out and ended up catching several pros and passing them. And then watching them at about mile 80, pass me as I was going backwards.
I’ll never forget the feeling of complete despair as I got off the bike and started thinking about how I had 26 miles to run. And I wasn’t going to be able to finish.
You learn something on every Ironman
I learned some valuable lessons and it wasn’t because I didn’t study. I had read as many books, and listened to as many podcasts about how to pace right. The gun went off and I got too competitive and I kind of threw that out the door.
BRAD BROWN: It’s probably a blessing in disguise. You learnt that early on.
JAMES BURKE: Yes and I also learnt that, I’ll never forget. The Coca-Cola that they serve on the course. As I was starting the run I was thinking that I can’t believe that people actually drink that. And I think by mile 5 I was chugging it at each aid station, and I was like, have another. So, the things you learn.
BRAD BROWN: It’s amazing. You think of things like that. We’ve got a spread that you put on sandwiches here, and the Australians know what I’m talking about. In Australia it’s called Vegemite and we call it Marmite, and I think the Brits call it Marmite as well.
If you had to hold a gun to my head and say at any time of the year, eat a marmite sandwich, I’d tell you to pull the trigger because there’s no way I’m eating it.
But it is the best thing during an Ironman run that I’ve ever eaten in my life. So I know exactly what you’re talking about.
James, what’s left for you to achieve? What are some of the long term goals and aspirations, not just in Ironman but on the Big Island too? You mentioned to me before we started recording that you’ve got a plan in place. Hopefully you head back there next year. But what do you want to achieve in the sport?
Get a plan in place for your Ironman goals
JAMES BURKE: I would love to go to Ironman 70.3 Worlds in Chattanooga this year and have a good showing. And maybe get on the podium there. That’s probably my near term goal. Then certainly, Ironman Florida this year. And hopefully get back to Kona the following year, 2018.
It’s hard for me to say that I want to win my age group or I want to go under 9. Every year is so dependent on the training and staying healthy and what the conditions are. I do believe that I can get faster. I would say that my goal for the Big Island is to go down and get faster. That’s breaking 9 hours or dropping a minute. It all depends on what happens on the day. I really don’t think that I put my best day together on that island.
I’ve had 2 really solid races and I’ve been pleased with both of them. But I always walk away with the things that could go different and could go better. So I’ve got that list and it’s just working towards trying to tick those boxes.
BRAD BROWN: By the sounds of it the plan is to be around the sport for a long, long time still.
JAMES BURKE: Yes, it’s hard for me to say how long I want to do it. I don’t view the training as a sacrifice, I view it as a part of my lifestyle. I’ve been able to weave it into our everyday life. Continue to volunteer and to be coaching my kid’s soccer team and baseball team and continuing to work in my career. I can see it certainly being a part for a very long time.
Enjoy your Ironman experience and learn from it
Certainly, injuries and life changes can derail that but I’m enjoying it right now. Only 5 years into it I still feel like a rookie. I’m still learning.
BRAD BROWN: I get the feeling that you’re one of the guys that I’m going to have to outlive if I ever want to get t Kona.
JAMES BURKE: Maybe, maybe.
BRAD BROWN: James it’s been amazing catching up. I look forward to talking about the individual disciplines with you. But we’ll save that for another time. Thanks for your time today on The Kona Edge.
JAMES BURKE: I appreciate it. Thanks.
Brad Brown is a 40 something age grouper that dreams of one day qualifying for and racing on the big island (He may have to outlive everyone in his age group though).
Morbidly obese in 2009, Brad clocked in at 165kgs (363lbs) at his heaviest.
He's subsequently lost a third of his body weight on the way to a half Ironman pb of 5:06 and a full Ironman pb of 12:21.
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