The rise and rise of James Hodge
Tim Bradley | Photography: Tim Bradley
There was a time when athletes would ply their trade in the fast-paced world of ITU racing before moving up in distance. Aussie triathlete James Hodge decided to buck this trend and launch straight into racing for himself on the non-drafting circuit. Recently, firstoffthebike.com’s Tim Bradley asked the 21-year-old a few questions about his dramatic rise to fame over the past two seasons.
T: James, it is great to finally have you on firstoffthebike.com. We’ve admired the way you go about your business on the racetrack over the past two seasons, particularly with the aggression you’ve shown in the water and on two wheels. Are you starting to feel more established in the sport now? Or do you still see yourself as a bit of an up-and-comer?
J: I definitely see myself as an up-and-comer still, mainly because I’ve only done a handful of 70.3 races (six to be exact). I have noticed that I do feel more relaxed on the start line with each race I do, which I think is due to how much I learn from each race. That is, in regards to where I can keep on improving and look at all the one-percenters, which will make the world of difference in the long run. To begin with I was too nervous to even talk to the guys I was racing against, but now that I have matured a bit more, I’ve found that all these guys are normal and very down to earth, so talking with competitors pre- and post-race is much easier. If you ever see me at a race, please come and say hello, I’d love to have a chat – I don’t bite!
Growing up in Tasmania, what led you away from the popular sports such as football and cricket and towards triathlon? Did you play any other sports before giving triathlon ago?
Well, to be honest, I’m a real softy when it comes to ball sports. With cricket I am too terrified of getting hit by the ball and with AFL I don’t find it fun being tackled. I do really enjoy going and watching my mates play when I am back in Tasmania. I dabbled in a lot and mastered none, but out of athletics, basketball, ping pong, gymnastics, soccer, karate, x-box and swimming, I decided to choose swimming before later moving into triathlon.
You are known as a bit of character on the long course circuit here in Australia. Why is it important to you not to take yourself too seriously?
Serious people never have fun mate. I believe that you have to relax in life to enjoy it and not worry about what other people think. As long as I am enjoying what I do, I’ll keep doing it. For example, at the moment I have started doing short (corny) videos called ‘The Hodge Files’, where I talk about my training and outside life, which I then upload to You Tube. This is so that my entire mind isn’t continually buried in study and training. It’s a great way to break things up by finding a hobby.
How important was the first time you raced elite at the Noosa Triathlon in 2011? It must have given you a lot of confidence to be mixing it up with guys such as David Dellow, James Seear, Paul Matthews, etc.
It was very important; I used it as a measuring stick to see where my ability was and if I could mix it with the big guns. I had just come [to Noosa] off the back of winning my junior age group [16-to-19 years] at the Olympic-Distance World Championships in Beijing two months prior. But I also knew that competing alongside these guys was going to be another kettle of fish. After finishing the bike in a lead group of five, including Dellow (eventual winner), Matthews (second), Seear (third) and Fettell (fourth) I was over the moon. I then crumbled on the run, doing a 39-minute 10K, but still finished in 11th just behind ‘The Boss’ – Chris ‘Macca’ McCormack. It gave me a massive boost of confidence and even more motivation to train and improve. I can’t wait to be back in Noosa for this year’s race.
Your aggression in the swim and on the bike has turned more than a few heads, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region. How do you feel you are progressing in the sport and what are you focusing on in training at the moment?
I am progressing well above my own expectations, which I can’t complain about. My too strongest legs are by far my swim and ride, but I am working consistently on my run, not trying to rush it because I know I have time up my sleeve and that is really paying dividends. I have noticed my half-marathon time drop with each race I’ve done, which is very pleasing. Currently, I’m training for the Metaman Half, which is on August 31. I’m very excited about this trip, mainly because I get to travel with the most-knowledgeable man around when it comes to nutrition and race-day tactics, the owner of Shotz Nutrition, Darryl Griffiths.
You had a little dabble in the draft-legal form of the sport. We followed your race down at the Oceania Triathlon Championships in Devonport at the start of last season. Did you enjoy ITU racing and do you see yourself ever pursuing this side of the sport?
I enjoy every race I am in, but not when I’m getting abused, especially when it is coming from the three mouths of the Australian ITU High Performance coaches. I was only trying to do my best, like my mum and dad had always taught me: ‘as long as you do your best, James, we will always be proud of you’. Obviously not everyone was taught that! The only elite ITU race I have done is the one you mentioned, but after what I had to experience on that day I’ll never return to that side of the sport. I’ve got all my eggs in the one basket now.
Over the past 12-to-24 months we’ve seen a real push from some of the ITU guys into the longer distances such as Ironman 70.3, and particularly in Australia it’s had a massive impact on the way races are contested. How have you seen the influx of ITU guys into 70.3 racing and would you like to see more come across?
I’ve noticed the influx since the Olympics finished last year, a lot of the ITU guys can now spread their wings a little more as they dot have to worry about selection races so much. They now have a chance at competing in the less-political side of triathlon. It’s great to see them move across, as they are all extremely fast, which makes for some healthy competition, forcing everyone to work harder in different areas of the sport if they want to stay competitive. The swim in the 70.3 has dramatically changed now; it can be the difference between winning and losing if you don’t make the lead group, which never used to be the case. The run is also getting faster and faster, which is making for some very handy times. It is fantastic seeing more athletes make the switch, the more the better.
Do you think you have a pretty similar style of racing to those that come across from ITU in that you have the ability to take it out hard in the swim and then continue to push a high intensity?
Not at all, most ITU athletes have the run as their strong-point and generally don’t like to push too hard on the bike. Even if I know an athlete can run a million miles an hour faster than me, I still don’t want to let them have an easy win. I want to make them hurt for it, so I’ll try every way I can to do this. It makes for more enjoyable and entertaining racing also.
Instead of chasing the triathlon circuit around North America over Australia’s winter months, you’ve decided to focus on your studies in Wagga Wagga and train there before attacking the domestic season later this year. Was it a difficult decision to put your studies before your athletic ambitions and do the two ever conflict?
Great question! After I won Busso last year on debut, all I wanted to do was chase the triathlon dream. I had convinced myself that I was quitting University and going to the States to race and train. Just before I was about to quit, I got a stress fracture in my foot, which hit me for a home run and back into reality. I then realised that anything can happen in the wide world of sport and I really needed a backup for when I finished triathlon. This is why I have decided to hack it out, I’m now half-way through the course – only two and a half years to go and I’ll be a qualified radiographer. They do conflict sometimes, but I have to deal with that the best I can. Declining my spot for the upcoming Ironman 70.3 World Championships in Las Vegas the other day was a very-hard decision for a 21-year-old, but it will all be worth it one day.
It can’t be easy being a young guy at a regional University and have to say no to the Friday night parties etc. so you can be fresh for training the next morning. Have you found it hard to find that balance between your social and training worlds?
Not at all. I have made so many friends since moving up to Wagga, both on and off University campus. I’m a non-drinker but none of my friends have a problem with that; I still enjoy myself when I have time and everyone is so supportive of what I do. I never crumble underneath the cloud of ‘peer pressure’. They have actually become really interested in the world of triathlon and are always asking what training I’ve just done, where I’m racing next and other interesting stuff they have questions about.
You made a bit of a last-minute decision to go and race Ironman 70.3 Japan, but, as history shows, it was a pretty good one. What was the reasoning behind choosing this event and how was the experience of racing in the land of the rising sun?
It had been on the cards for a while; I had talked about it with my manager, Evan, as he believed it was a good race for me. So once I found out my Universtiy exam timetable, I noticed that I wouldn’t be back in time for my first two exams, so I entered. I also wanted to test myself in the heat before racing MetaMan, so Darryl helped me develop a new nutrition plan for this hotter climate, which worked perfectly. I loved Japan, the people were so nice and helpful, I really enjoyed the challenge of trying to communicate – Google translate did come in handy on many occasions. It was a very clean place; I can’t wait to race there again next year.
No doubt you have set yourself for a pretty big summer of racing, particularly with all the new events on the calendar. Where can we expect to see ‘Hodge-mate’ line up before the end of the year? Is there a race in particular you would like to win?
I’ll be racing MetaMan Half, as I previously mentioned. I’ll then be looking at racing Nepean and then off to Noosa. Canberra is penciled in again this year so I can go back there to redeem myself. I haven’t yet planned any races after the New Year.
Without the support of your friends, family and sponsors, I guess it would not be possible for you to chase down your athletic dreams and also complete your education in Wagga. Is there anyone in particular you would like to say a thank you to?
My mum and dad are the ones who have supported me through thick and thin and have always stood by me and my decisions. My manager Evan Gallagher from BPM-Sport for taking a punt on me and helping me out with races and fabulous sponsors, which you can check out at hodgemate.com. Thanks heaps to everyone who supports me, it wouldn’t be as rewarding without the great support you provide. Also a sneaky little thanks to my GURU.
Well, thank you so much James for taking the time to answer our questions and best of luck for the rest of 2013.
Not a problem at all. Really appreciate the opportunity to answer some fantastic questions for such a well-renowned triathlon website. Cheers.