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After a couple of tough years filled with on-and-off injuries, Australian Joe Gambles is feeling healthy and has already had a big year. The 35-year-old coached American Heather Jackson to a 2016 Ironman World Championship podium finish, welcomed a baby boy, Arlo, with his wife in early 2017 and then finished second at the 2017 Ironman Asia-Pacific Championships in Cairns. Here, Gambles talks about overcoming injuries, finding success at Ironman, returning to the Big Island and coaching a Kona contender.
Triathlete.com: You had a tough couple of years. Talk about some of the injury struggles and the path to getting healthy.
Gambles: In 2015 my wife and I went to Europe for the year, and I based myself in Girona, which is famous because Jan and Emma Frodeno base themselves there, as well as a number of others. I had finished 2014 with a bit of an injury and we went there for most of 2015. I probably bit off more than I could chew in terms of racing. I had raced Kona that year  and didn’t have a great race and then tried to do another Ironman at the end of the year, which I DNF’ed. And then I tried to start and race the triple crown. I did the race in Dubai. Finishing my season in December and then starting it again eight weeks later was not right. I couldn’t get on top of a plantar fasciitis issue and then an Achilles issue. I was able to train, but never could never really string more than a couple of weeks together before it would start to flare up, and I’d have to back off, so it was a vicious cycle I got myself to. We ended up going back to Boulder at the end of 2015 and I still wasn’t healthy.
I guess everything just fell into place when I went up to Bend, Ore., in January of 2016 and obviously Wattie [Sean Watkins] and Heather [Jackson] live in Bend. I was catching up with them, but the main reason I was there was to work with a physio out there, Jay Dicharry, who is renowned for dealing with running-type injuries. I spent three days with Jay, and in there I spent some time with Heather and Wattie, and that ultimately led to coaching her. So I started injured, but I left Bend with something great, which was getting myself healthy but also getting to coach an amazing athlete in Heather, so it worked out in the end. It was a long road, but now I’m back to my best racing and feeling healthy and strong. Now I’m looking to race for another five or six years, whereas if you asked me that this time last year, I would have maybe thought another year or so. It’s amazing how things can change.
Triathlete.com: How did it feel to put together a strong race and get second place at the Ironman Asia-Pacific Championships?
Gambles: Oh amazing. That’s the race I’ve been focusing on since I started racing earlier this season, so it’s been about six months of preparation. And in that prep, my wife and I had our first baby, so I wasn’t sure how that would affect the whole preparation, but obviously the sleepless nights didn’t have an effect because I put together my best Ironman by a long way. I feel like I finally worked out how to run off the bike in an Ironman. It wouldn’t be possible without Jay and Jarrod Vos [his running coach], who got me on the right path in terms of getting strong. My shoe choice has also made a difference. I was in the most cushioned shoes with orthotics and now I’m running in the [Hoka One One] Tracers. They are neutral and lightweight with a 4mm drop, and that’s all I run in for training and racing. I’m running better than I ever have.
Triathlete.com: You ran a 2:44 marathon in Cairns. Is there anything else you’ve specifically done in your run training?
Gambles: In addition to working with my new run coach, getting back in the gym and just being consistent with that has made a big difference. I’ve definitely had more structure in my strength program than I’ve had in the past couple of years, and that really has allowed my body to not get beaten down by the amount of running you need to do to get ready for an Ironman.
Triathlete.com: Why did you choose the Cairns race for your Ironman?
Gambles: I guess the timing of it worked very well. I was able to do my favorite 70.3s leading into it. So I was able to race Oceanside, St. George and then Santa Rosa, formerly Vineman. I needed the points because I didn’t race Kona last year, so that put me behind the eight ball. It was also great to go home and race in Australia. I definitely want to go back and race there more now that I’m toward the later part of my career. I had some amazing support while I was there. That race was very well run. The course is fantastic, and the support on the run is second to none.
Triathlete.com: How important was that to come out of Cairns with a big chunk of points toward Kona qualification?
Gambles: It was my one and only shot to try to race Kona this year. I wasn’t going to try to chase points, and it worked well that I really needed to finish in about the top five. Second bumped me up to the top 25, and that was a big relief. Everyone wants to race Kona. You only get so many shots to do well there. It means a lot to go back and race.
Triathlete.com: How was it training with a little baby at home?
Gambles: It brings everything into perspective. I haven’t had the quality of sleep I used to, but it also gives you added motivation. I was sort of wondering how I was doing the training I was doing with limited sleep. It just makes you realize that over the years, you become maybe a bit too worried about things when really as long as you’re doing the right training and eating healthy you’ll be fine. That’s all I did. Four days before the race I traveled from Boulder and slept well for three nights, and I actually felt better than I had in a long time because I got eight hours of sleep every night. Maybe there’s something to that.
Triathlete.com: What have you taken away from Kona from your years of experience?
Gambles: This will be my fourth time racing Kona… You’ve got decisive points in the race you need to be ready for. You need to be in that lead pack in the swim so you don’t have to overdo it in the beginning of the bike. At about the 45-mile mark, as you do the climb up to the turnaround, that’s where all of the big hitters put pressure on. And then you need to be with the right people in those last 25 miles of the bike. That’s the really important part, and that will put you in a position where, if you have good running legs, you can be in the top 10. There are a couple of people like Jan Frodeno and Sebastian Kienle who were running sub-6-minute miles in the beginning—and you can’t really say anything bad about their performances because they held on—but some people tried to go with them and paid for it in the second half of the run. You have to get off of the bike in a good position and then run your own race; if you can run the last six to seven miles well, you’re going to do a lot of damage.
Triathlete.com: How did it feel to have Heather Jackson approach you about coaching? Was coaching in your plan?
Gambles: It was the plan post-racing, but when a long-time friend and amazing athlete such as Heather asks you to coach her, you’re not going to turn that down. Coaching is my plan once I stop racing Kona-type races in the next three to four years; the plan is to start taking on some more athletes. I’m going to join forces with my run coach, and we’re going to try to put together an athlete squad and coach mainly out of Boulder but also out of Australia and try to get together a good group and take on some age-group athletes as well. I thought that was going to be sooner rather than later, but now I’m starting to race well again, so it might be three years or so. It’s definitely something I’m excited to do. I love it; it’s not work to me.
Coaching Heather has been an absolute pleasure. It’s more about reining her in than motivating her. It’s more about trying to have her do the right training rather than actually motivating her—which is the type of athlete that I will probably look to work with. To me, it’s a little bit more monitoring and looking at the structure than actually motivating. This sport is tough. If you need someone to motivate you, then it’s going to be tough. It’s really that you need someone to make sure that you’re doing the right thing and recovering enough.