2008 has been a coming out party of sorts for 26 year-old Australian, Joe Gambles. The British born and Tasmanian raised triathlete got his engine running with a 9th place at Wildflower in May, but has since placed 3rd at 70.3 Boise, 1st at Battle at Midway, 2nd at Spirit of Racine and 2nd at Lake Stevens 70.3. He was also crowned the European Long Distance champion competing for Great Britain, and most recently finished 2nd place at Longhorn 70.3. Slowtwitch sat down with Gambles to see if he has what it takes to climb onto the podium at the Ironman 70.3 World Championships in Clearwater next weekend.
ST: When did you get started in triathlon?
Joe: I did my first triathlon when I was 13. Before that I was a runner and have been running since I was five or six years old in local clubs. I started doing triathlon seriously when I was 15 and came through the Australian junior development program. I always had some weaknesses with my swim so I was always playing catch-up on the bike and the run. I started racing Junior Elite in about 2000 and that got me into racing all the big names in the sport and the people I looked up to like Miles Stewart, Greg Bennett and Brad Bevan. It was called the Accenture Series then and where I started on the road from being an age-grouper and an up and coming junior to racing as an Elite. I wasn’t really a professional because I wasn’t making any money, but I was an Elite.
ST: Was it a yearlong season in Australia?
Joe: It went from November through the end of April and finished with National Championships at Mooloolaba.
ST: Did you compete in the action-packed Formula One races?
Joe: We had five or six races plus the Formula One races which were the shorter type races which may have been a 300-meter swim, an 8k bike, and a 2k run but you’d race it three times through. Or, there was the Enduro format so it was exciting. It was televised so there was live coverage. This was six or seven years ago. You had to qualify to race it since they only allowed thirty people into the races. It was good racing in Australia then, but there really isn’t a big racing scene there now. Back then everyone used to come to Australia for his or her racing season. You’d get all the big names from the UK, Simon Whitfield did all of his racing leading up to him winning the Sydney Olympics, and there would be Americans and New Zealanders there too. At the time it was Hamish Carter, the Reeds, so it was really competitive. Now to race Elite in Australia doesn’t mean as much. I don’t take much notice from racing in Australia any more. Now, if you’re going to make a living at the sport you have to race over here in the US or in Europe. But racing in America you get more non-drafting formats, which really suits my strengths as an athlete, which is why I’m coming over here.
ST: Did you know when you were racing drafting-style races that you were better suited to be a non-drafting triathlete?
Joe: I knew I would eventually go towards half-Ironman and non-draft racing but all the advice I was getting from the people I looked up to said you need that high end speed and that is the first thing to go. Keep racing even if you don’t enjoy the racing as much. It will help when you make the jump up to the half-Ironman distance. When I did make that jump, I noticed it was slow. It wasn’t the fast-and-furious kind of racing. It was more about pacing yourself and eking out your energy over longer periods opposed to just surge after surge.
ST: Where there times before you started racing non-drafting races when you thought about quitting?
Joe: At the time I was trying to do well at those races because I was at university, had no chance to travel, and had no money so those were the races on offer to me at the time. It was frustrating and I can remember one season where I only raced five times but only finished two of the races because I think I crashed on the bike. In one race, on a criterium-style bike course on a 4 or 5 kilometer circuit, Craig Walton was out in front on the swim by two minutes, and only needed to put another minute into me that first lap and I was caught and lapped early on the bike. I got lapped twice in that season and at the end of the season I reassessed what I should do. I was 20 at the time and during that off-season I decided to train to race my first half-Ironman. I did a race in Victoria called the Shepperton Half-Ironman which is a pancake flat course all around. I struggled a bit on the bike and was dropped from the field of contenders with around 20k to go and ran from 7th off the bike and two minutes down into 2nd place just behind the winner. I loved it and it was a fantastic feeling to find a distance that clicked.
ST: Now the cycling is one of your strengths. Did you have to work extra hard on your cycling?
Joe: I think it was a natural progression. I’m more about being patient and consistent in training and gradually you just get stronger and stronger. I’m 26 now and meant to peak - strength and endurance wise - when I’m about 30 so I still have another few years of development.
ST: Is that something you were taught in the Australian development system, to be patient, and not jump directly into longer distance racing?
Joe: A lot of people are very keen to jump straight into Ironman. I nearly made that mistake wanting to race my first one next year but I’ve spoken to a few people like Craig Alexander and he questioned why I would want to do that right when I’m starting to race well over the half-Ironman distance. Between the ages of 26-30, that’s the best time to keep and develop that speed. Craig didn’t do his first Ironman until he turned 32 and now he’s the Hawaii Ironman champion, so...
ST: Do you think we’ll see more people take Craig’s progression towards Ironman racing in the future?
Joe: Craig is such a role model for not only Australian athletes coming through but he’s very willing to give advice and doesn’t hold anything back. He’ll tell you what he does for training and all he’s thinking is, ‘I’ll tell you, but if you can do it that’s another thing altogether’. I caught glimpses of what he put himself through before Hawaii, so it was no surprise to see why he was the best athlete on race day.
ST: Do you still want to jump into Ironman now knowing what the training calls for if you want to win?
Joe: The thing is with Craig is he has his plan and he doesn’t let anyone else influence what he needs to do to get to the top. We did a 140-mile ride this summer with Chris Legh, Simon Thompson, TJ Tollakson and myself and Craig was quite happy to do it at his pace. It was his long and steady ride and while a few of us got excited and got away from him, he was still there at the end. He doesn’t let his ego get in the way because he knew the next day he had to get up for his long run up at 8,500-feet at the Switzerland Trail. He’s very confident and knows exactly what he needs to do and that separates him from other athletes. A lot of younger athletes would start racing each other during training but he’s always been able to maintain his own pace and that is something I look up to.
ST: Is it difficult to live here in Boulder around so many great athletes and not get caught up in racing day in and day out?
Joe: You have to take your own plan but you use other athletes to push yourself and get the most out of your training. In the last few months I’ve teamed up with Simon Thompson. We’re both swimming out of Flatirons but what has worked well is he has very fast 10k foot speed and he pushes me when we run together. On the other hand, I have a little more power and speed and push him on the bike. It’s worked well in that respect and it’s good to find another athlete who has the same kind of training ideas and plan. We each have to compromise a little bit on the training but being able to push one another has worked well these past two months and hopefully it pays off (in Clearwater).
ST: Was there an athlete that you looked up to when you were younger?
Joe: I’ve respected different athletes for different things. I liked Craig Walton and loved the way he raced - not caring what anyone thought but pushing it from the gun. And he’s from Tasmania, which is where I grew up. Then there is someone like Courtney Atkinson who I try to emulate on the run because he is so fluent and you can never tell if he is even struggling out there. We weren’t exposed to much non-drafting when I was young in Australia so I never had the non-drafting athletes to look up to, but I did take notice of Chris McCormack who was a great role model having done everything from the short stuff to Ironman. I used to see him winning Wildflower way back and I knew I always wanted to do that race.
ST: Do the Australian triathletes training in town share training and racing secrets with each other?
Joe: The reason I came to Boulder was Leon Griffin (2006 Duathlon World Champion and 2008 70.3 Buffalo Springs Lake winner). He trained here the previous few seasons and I had been doing a little bit of training in Santa Monica and San Diego and it was okay, but Griffo said I should come out here, that I would love it. We did a lot of training together before he had to go back to Australia this summer. He introduced me to a lot of people around town and at Flatirons. Everyone is very open about their training and is more than happy to train together, especially the Australians. There are more Australians than Americans here in town it seems, but they’re all going home now that it’s getting cold out.
ST: What’s coming up for you the rest of the season?
Joe: Clearwater is just over a week away. I have one more week in Boulder where I’m trying to stay healthy and not overdue it. It’s so easy to get carried away and do more than you have to. At this point, I can’t get any fitter, I can only do too much and throw it all away and get burnt out. I’ll spend a few days in St. Petersburg training with Simon (Thompson), Richie Cunningham and Mirinda Carfrae just going over the course and hunkering down the last few days. After the race I’ll come back to Boulder and enjoy the mountains. If there is snow, I’d like to get up and go skiing and snowshoeing. I usually follow the summers and haven’t seen a winter in a few years.
ST: You were in Denmark last year?
Joe: I was racing for a German team. The main racing was draft legal but in Germany they put a main emphasis on the bike and run, so I was still coming out of the swim with the lead group. It was only a second league and a way to get a steady income and travel paid for.
ST: How do they structure their racing leagues?
Joe: It was the Bundesliga where you’ve got the top league and the second league. The second one is a mix where you’ve got three drafting and three non-drafting races in the season. They are always Olympic distance with maybe one sprint. Most teams have both first and second division teams. Sometimes the guys who race in the first division will also come and race in the second division if it doesn’t clash with their racing schedule. Daniel Unger raced and was probably the biggest name in Bundesliga racing and won ITU World Championships last year in Hamburg.
ST: Was last year the first time you came over to the US to race?
Joe: I’ve come over for Wildflower three years in a row. Last year started out really well. I came over and finished 4th place at Wildflower and had the fastest run. I also did Oceanside 70.3 in March and was sixth which was an improvement for me against some good competition. Then I did Florida 70.3 against a strong field with Craig and (Simon) Lessing. Then I went over to Europe for the rest of the season. I didn’t keep my iron levels in check and ran into some problems towards the end of the year.
ST: How do you eat to optimize your performance?
Joe: I’ve been a vegetarian my whole life - never eaten meat. 70% of my extended family eats that way so I’ve been checking the labels on packages to make sure there are no animal fats for a long time. It’s very easy in Boulder where people are vegetarian friendly. It’s been one of the main reasons I like this town so much.
ST: Do you see being vegetarian as a competitive edge for your racing diet?
Joe: It’s not holding me back at all. My body has never had meat so it doesn’t even know what it is. I thought I ate really well until the beginning of this year when I had my diet analyzed by a naturopath and they picked it apart. I changed a lot of things back in February and upped my protein intake by about 30-40%. I also got a protein sponsor - Ascend - to come on board which is milk based whey protein that I take after every session. Up here at altitude I’ve been persistent about taking my iron supplements and I don’t eat much junk food. I also take a Vitamin C supplement towards the end of the season to boost the immune system. There are no secrets; I really eat anything that wasn’t alive at one time or another.
ST: You’ve had a coming out party of sorts this year. What has been the difference in your training or racing to make the jump from fourth and fifth place finishes to seconds in these half-Ironman races?
Joe: In the back of my mind I knew I had the ability to match the best guys on the circuit. I can match anyone in training, but a lot of guys can train with the best. Making the jump to race with the best guys was a helluva jump. It takes years. I think a lot of younger guys expect to get there very quick, but I think you have to do your apprenticeship. You look back ten years ago and Craig had just had his first breakthrough races. Unless you're a Terrenzo Bozzone, you have to do your apprenticeship, do the hard yards, and go to Europe and race, live off no money and ring home and tell your mom you have no money.
ST: Are you talking from experience?
Joe: I had three years like that where I went overseas and had to call home and borrow money from my parents so I could eat. I had a maxed out credit card. The following year I was doing better when I came home with only $2,000 in debt. The next year was even better because I came home flat broke even. This year I’m doing a lot better. I’ve been patient and have held onto a certain belief in myself as an athlete. I’m surrounded by some of the greatest triathletes in the world here in town. You’ve got Greg and Laura Bennett, Chris Legh, Craig Alexander, Simon Lessing all swimming and being coached in practice by Dave Scott. Those are successful athletes with a positive outlook on their racing careers. Last year I had no one of that standard around. I’ve made a lot of great friends here to the point where when I fly back into Denver after a race it feels like I’m coming home, and I’ve only been living here now for six months. If I had the money, I’d buy a place here, it’s amazing. I like surrounding myself with top athletes because if you’re around them you tend to jump up to their level. That’s what I feel as though I’ve done. I don’t even check the starting list any more when I go to races. Before I used to look and say, ‘maybe I can beat that person or if that person has a bad race maybe I can win some money’. Now I know there are only a couple of guys who I can’t beat - guys like Craig and Andy Potts, those kinds of guys. We’ll see at Clearwater though.
ST: What is your racing strategy on game-day?
Joe: The swim is my weakest, but I’ve been training really well lately. I’ve nailed it a few times this year. I came out with Luke Bell at Spirit of Racine and stayed at the front and was quite surprised by how nice it felt not to have to chase hard to get to the front. I’m going to have to grit my teeth and get in there with the lead pack. Going in mentally fresh is important. I haven’t raced since Longhorn so I can be really fresh for Clearwater. I tend to ride hard from T1 for the first few miles and I’ll be doing that at Clearwater. I’ll probably have to do that for the first ten miles and get into good position. In a half-Ironman, it’s nice to have options. The dynamics of racing (a half-Ironman) have changed so I’ll have to decide if I want to stay with the group and back my run. If I’m feeling good on the bike, I’m sure I’ll be seeing the likes of guys like (Oscar) Galindez and Chris Legh and David Thompson getting ready to make their move and you can bet I won’t be waiting around with runners like Simon Thompson to have a running race with them.
ST: How do you feel about Clearwater as the venue for the World Championships? Joe: I haven’t actually been to Clearwater yet but I hear it’s flat and open and very hard to get away on the bike with all the long straight-aways. Places I’ve ridden well this year I’ve been able to get out of sight. People tend to forget about you when you get out of their sight. It would be nice if they would take the championship course elsewhere every four or five years, somewhere in Europe. Monaco would be nice!
ST: What’s the most pressing issues facing professional triathletes today?
Joe: I’ve only now started to do better with sponsorship but I’ve noticed that everyone undercuts each other. The sport is getting bigger every year with companies like Toyota fully committing to the Lifetime Fitness Series and putting more money into it. The athletes are still racing for the same money in Ironman racing though. I don’t think that has changed for a long time. People are also too willing to take on sponsorship deals no matter how small they might be. It would be nice to up the ante a little bit so we don’t have to scrounge for pennies. There are a lot of unbelievable athletes out there who can’t make a living from the sport and can’t make ends meet. This is the first year that I’ll be able to go home to Australia and not have to work. Typically in the off-season when I’m back home, I would have to work 30-35 hours/week while I trained 30 hours/week, just so I could pay off my debt and save enough to go back overseas. It’s not tennis or golf but I think as professional athletes we’re selling ourselves a bit short.
ST: At what point this season did your current sponsors take note of your performances?
Joe: I came to America thinking I was going to be racing for a team that didn’t get off the ground so I didn’t have a sponsor. At Boise 70.3 I ran into the sponsorship coordinator for Team Timex and told him I was interested in racing for them next year and that the team I was meant to race for had fallen apart. He gave me his card but after I finished the race in third I decided to ring him up. He got back to me right away and got me sorted out with equipment for the season. Team Timex has been fantastic. I had still been on a bike that my former shop in Melbourne, CBD Cycles, had let me borrow, so getting on the new Trek TTX was great. I met Erik Vervloet from K-Swiss at Wildflower after I guided Aaron Scheidies on the Olympic distance course on Sunday. I offered to race with him (Scheidies) if he could find a tandem - which he did - and he is a very good athlete so it was challenging. I met Erik through Aaron and he said they would look after me. Aaron is a K-Swiss athlete and they like to have other K-Swiss athletes guiding Aaron out on the racecourse. I also met Paul and Phil from Sable Water Optics at Wildflower and they’re fantastic with by far the most clear and best goggles I’ve been in.
ST: Since you have an international perspective, where does the US fall in terms of our organization(s) and the races we produce?
Joe: I think the US is leading the way. The organization here is far superior to anywhere else. There are certain races I’ve done elsewhere that are really well done, but as a whole the US has got so much more backing and is willing to put more money behind the backing of events. The demographic and market for triathlon are people with high incomes, at least in the age group sector, and that is great for sponsors outside of the sport to see and market their products towards.
ST: How do you switch off your racing mindset to take a break?
Joe: I’ll finish my season at Clearwater and have two weeks off. My body will be back to 90% recovered as long as I don’t go out drinking every night. It takes longer for the mind to recover and refresh itself and get the desire back to start doing the long weeks of training again. I always have two weeks completely off and when I feel like I’m ready to start training again, then I take another week off. It’s a long season and if you start coming back and training too soon, when the season comes back around and you start wishing you had spent more down time with your family and hanging out with friends, then that is no good. Come February and March, I’m always ready to knuckle down and start up with training again. I’ll have all of November off with a weekly yoga and massage to keep my body in good nick. In December, I’ll have no structure but will stay fairly fit, get in the gym at least twice a week, do some snowshoeing, a bit of mountain biking but nothing structured and then January 2nd I’ll start getting back into the routine.
ST: Are there little things you do that make a difference outside of the typical swim, bike, run training?
Joe: I think gym is really important. I know Craig (Alexander) is a fanatic about getting his gym session in three times each week. The older you get, the more you start to lose that strength. I’ve been doing gym since I was 16 but a few years ago I was qualified as a personal trainer to do strength and conditioning courses, so I do that. I understand the benefits of doing the proper core work, not necessarily going in and lifting the big weights, but focusing on the smaller refined movements like activating your glutes when you run and not rocking from side to side on the bike saddle. Those little things make the difference because you can save energy. I haven’t missed a training session for a long time - two years - due to injury.
ST: What triathlete do you look up to the most?
Joe: Craig Alexander.
ST: Who has the fullest personality in the sport?
ST: Triathlete who would never miss a training session no matter what?
Joe: Chris Legh
ST: Triathlete who never makes an excuse while racing or training?
Joe: Greg Bennett
ST: Who would never turn down a good time or a beer?
ST: What sport do you most enjoy to follow?
Joe: Golden League Track and Field
ST: If not for triathlon, what sport would you want to be a professional at?
ST: Who are the most well rounded athletes on the planet?
Joe: That’s tough...I should have answered by now (five seconds later)...
ST: Best word to describe yourself?
For more on Joe Gambles, visit his personal website: joe-gambles.com