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History of Triathlons

History of Triathlon: How it Grew into a Worldwide Sport

The history of triathlons is vast and extensive, despite it being perceived as a relatively new sporting event its origins can be traced 100 years into the past. If you’ve clicked on this article hoping to learn more about the origins of the sport then you’re in the right place!When researching any kind of historical background things can sometimes get overwhelming. 

Here at OriGym, we have compiled the history of triathlons into smaller subsections to make things easier to understand, so whether you’re here for the complete history of the triathlon or a more specific topic, such as the history of Ironman triathlons, all will be covered within this article.

Contents: 

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What is a Triathlon?

Before we even begin to discuss the history of triathlons, we will first break down what a triathlon is. 

In the simplest of terms, a triathlon is a multisport race that traditionally consists of three events: swimming, cycling and running. These events are held consecutively, with participants doing each activity in succession after the other.

When looking at the history of the triathlon it may be of interest to note that they all traditionally follow the same structure. Typically the events will be laid out with swimming first for safety reasons, as athletes are more likely to become fatigued as the event continues. 

It’s important to be comfortable at all stages of the event, so make sure you dress appropriately with triathlon suits. For more information about these suits, feel free to check out the following posts:

After this you’ll then transition into cycling, before finally completing the final leg of the race which is running. It should be worth noting that this running can happen on any kind of terrain, be it traditional road running, running through woodland areas or mountainous terrain. 

Triathlon Stages image

As we discuss the history of triathlons, it is worth noting that when we say that triathlons ‘traditionally’ consist of the aforementioned sports, that is not always the case as some triathlon events adapt their races slightly. 

The event that is most commonly changed is the swimming section of the race, which is substituted for the likes of kayaking or skiing during winter triathlons. Just because the origins of the triathlon are rooted in this structure, does not mean that every event adheres to tradition!

Additionally, unlike other races such as marathons, triathlons don’t have a specific distance that is required of you to complete. If you’re interested in marathons, why not check out this article on the 19 Best Running Challenges by OriGym.

Differing variations of the triathlon will require you to complete alternative distances. For example: 

Sprint Triathlons will require you to complete:

  • 0.5 miles of swimming
  • 12.4 miles of cycling 
  • 3.1 miles of running

Whereas full Ironman triathlons will require you to complete:

  • 2.4 miles of swimming
  • 112 miles of cycling 
  • 26.2 miles of running. 

Ironman triathlons are considered to be the most popular iteration of this type of event. As we move throughout this article we’ll pay specific attention to the history of the Ironman triathlon, whilst also covering the history of triathlons as an event.

Where Did The Triathlon Start And Who Invented It?

French Origins of Triathlons

As we look closely at the history of the triathlon timeline, it is somewhat difficult to trace the event's exact history.

However, the generally agreed upon origin of triathlons can be traced back to France, where the declaration of ‘Les Trois Sports’ was reported in 1901. The reason the origins of triathlons are so difficult to trace is because, during this time within the early twentieth century, France began to host multiple three-element multisport events all with differing names. 

For this reason, when discussing the history of the triathlon, we can offer no sole originator of the practice.

The previously mentioned event held back in 1901 was held in Joinville-le-Point. Triathlon historians have reported that the event was hailed as the event for ‘the sportsman of the time’ and consisted of running, cycling and canoeing. 

When looking at the triathlon timeline, by June 19th 1921 the event in Joinville-le-Point had become a regularly occurring event and would be covered in a local newspaper L’Auto

However, at some undocumented time, the canoeing event was changed in favour of swimming across the river Marne. In addition to swimming across the river Marne, the participants would have to run 3km and cycle for 12km, making this the first structured event in the history of triathlons.

The history of the triathlon shows that throughout the 1920s there were other bikes, run and swimming events that had appeared throughout France, such as the ‘Course des Trois Sports’ in Marseille and ‘La Course des Débrouillards’ in Poissy. 

Perhaps the most popular event in the early triathlons timeline was founded in 1934, dubbed ‘Les Trois Sports’ in the city of La Rochelle. It consisted of a 200m swim across the channel, a 10km cycle around the harbour and finally a 1.2km run around the André-Barbeau stadium. 

When it comes to discussing the origins of triathlons, it is important to note that despite the many events held in France the practice never had set rules or regulations. This only transpired when the practice rose in popularity within America.

How Did Triathlons Come to Be What They Are Today?

Triathlon History First American Event

Triathlon history as we know it today steams from its popularisation in 1970s America. Within this period, America was in the midst of what is now described as the 1970s jogging craze, largely inspired by the 1972 Olympic gold medalist Frank Shorters. 

Jack Johnstone, a member of the San Diego Track Club, was noting how he considered himself to have mediocre fitness levels despite participating in multiple collegiate races, whilst also being on his college’s All-American Swim Team. In 1973, Johnstone soon discovered an event called the Dave Pain Birthday Biathlon, an event that was set up to honour the legacy of the San Diego hero. 

In the 1960s, Pain was arrested for jogging whilst not paying his green fee. He was labelled as a trouble maker by police but hailed as a hero within the running community. To show his love for the sport, Pain hosted a biathlon event on his birthday every single year. 

Now, considering this event was biathlon, consisting of a 4.5-mile jog followed by a 0.25-mile swim, it may seem somewhat irrelevant to triathlons. However, we cannot ignore Dave Pain’s significance within the full triathlon timeline, as he is the person who inspired the event’s American inception. 

After completing Dave Pain’s Birthday Biathlon twice and placing within the top ten athletes on both occasions, Jack Johnson began to crave something more challenging. 

He wanted a similar style race with equal emphasis on running and swimming. He petitioned this idea to the San Diego Track Club’s Chairman, who informed him that the race would be added to the club’s calendar but it was up to Johnstone to plan the entire thing.

Johnstone joined forces with his friend Don Shanahan, who personally wanted to incorporate a biking leg into the event. Johnstone was initially hesitant about this idea, however, he finally agreed to the addition. 

Both men were now backing the event as a three-staged race, consisting of swimming, cycling and running. 

Triathlon history image

In terms of triathlon history, it may be of interest to you to learn where the name came from. When it came to naming the event, the pair of Johnstone and Shanahan agreed to the naming system that most other multisport events such as pentathlons, heptathlons and decathlons adhered to. 

This meant using the Greek prefix number to describe the number of events that would take place: in this instance trais (meaning 3). The suffix, aka ‘athalons’, is the Greek word for competition.

Additionally, in terms of the exact origins of triathlons, it's worth noting that in the book Triathlon: A Personal History both Johnstone and Shanahan stated they did not know about the previously existing French events, but rather thought their idea was wholly original. 

This does complicate the triathlon timeline a little, but just keep in mind that the French events were not completely regulated, or even acknowledged by the rest of the world. Rather it was the Americanised inception that launched the type of triathlons that we know today.

Triathlon history was made when the first event itself finally took place on Wednesday 25th September 1974. It consisted of:

  • 3 Mile run
  • 5 Mile biking around Fiesta Island 
  • 500 Yard swimming event back to shore.

Out of the 46 participants, many were not strong swimmers and struggled to complete the final section of the race. Many may have been experiencing fatigue, making it harder and even more painful to swim. This is why most modern triathlons have the swimming section first: this is done to ensure the safety of the participants, who won’t get tired and potentially drown in the water. 

Fun Fact: Night fell before everyone completed this section, with Johnstone and Shanahan having to turn car lights on to offer their racers some form of light to guide them to the finish line.

The history of triathlons was forever shaped by this event, not only was it the first of its kind but two of its participants were Judy and John Collins, who in 1978 would host the first-ever Ironman triathlon.

The Ironman triathlon is by far the most popular iteration of the triathlon. When discussing the history of triathlons in relation to how they came to be what they are today, we cannot ignore the impact that the Ironman triathlon has had on the exercising world.

It is for this reason that we here at OriGym also feel the need to shed some light on the history of the Ironman triathlons.

Need some gear for your training? Check out the following articles: 

How Did the Ironman Triathlon Come to Be?

History of The Ironman Triathlon Image

When looking at the detailed history of the Ironman triathlon, the original idea can be traced back to the awards ceremony for the 1988 O’ahu Perimeter Relay. Among the participants were representatives of both the Mid-Pacific Road Runners, as well as the Waikiki Swim Club. The members of said teams had been engaged in a debate about whether swimmers or runners were ‘more fit’.

The U.S Navy Commander John Collins was in attendance for this debate, who pointed out to both groups that an article in Sports Illustrated named Belgian cyclist Eddy Merckx the healthiest man alive. 

This was measured through oxygen intake, an area in which Merckx was recorded to outperform other athletes. This led Collins to theorise that cyclists were fitter than both swimmers and runners combined. 

As previously mentioned when discussing the history of triathlons, Collins and his wife Judy regularly took part in triathlons in the years of 1974 and 1975. These events were often hosted by the San Diego Track Club in the area of Mission Bay, California. The couple also participated in the 1975 Optimist Sports Fiesta Triathlon in Coronado, California.

When looking at the history of the Ironman triathlon, it could be argued that the previously mentioned debate, combined with his newfound love for triathlons, inspired Collins to form his own race. He formed the idea that the swimmers and runners should put their debate to the test and have a race against each other. 

Collins’ race would combine both long-distance running and swimming with cycling, to see who truly was the fittest athlete. The proposed race would consist of:

  • A 2.4 Mile Waikiki Roughwater Swim
  • A 115 Mile Around-Oahu Bike Race
  • A 26.2 Mile Honolulu Marathon

The history of the Ironman triathlon began here: before this proposed race none of the athletes who engaged in the debate had ever participated in a bike race before. 

Looking at the history of ironman triathlons, it is clear that Collins planned the event meticulously. 

Collins calculated that by shaving off 3 miles of the originally planned bike ride and by having the racers cycle counter-clockwise around the Hawian island, the bike leg could start at the very finish of the swimming event. The cycling event would then end at the end of the Aloha Tower, which was the traditional starting point for the Honolulu Marathon. 

origins of triathlon

Before the race, every athlete received a handwritten letter that detailed the event’s lengths and distance. The registered tagline for the event was cited in this letter, telling the athletes ‘Swim 2.4 miles, Bike 112 miles! Run 26.2 miles! Brag for the rest of your life’. 

Additionally, before the race, each racer was informed that they could bring their support crew to supply water, food and encouragement at any point within the event. 

In terms of the history of the Ironman triathlon's title, the name of the event is rather simplistic. Collins said in passing to a local runner, who was notorious for his demanding workouts, ‘Whoever finishes first, we’ll call him the Iron Man’. This quickly caught on and before too long, Collins was advertising his event as the ‘The Ironman Triathlon’. 

For the Ironman triathlon timeline, the day of February 18th 1978 would go down in triathlon history as the first-ever Ironman triathlon was held. 

Twelve competitors joined Collins' race, with Gordon Haller, a US Navy Communications Specialist, being the first person to ever earn the title of Ironman. Haller completed the course with a time of 11 hours, 46 minutes and 58 seconds. 

Fun Fact: Haller was trailing second for most of the race as the initial front runner John Dunbar, a US Navy Seal, only lost his front runners position during the final running stages of the event. Dunbar’s team ran out of water during the marathon and resorted to giving him a beer as a substitute. 

In the next year, the race’s popularity grew significantly. 

In 1979, over 50 athletes joined Collins for the second-ever Ironman triathlon. However, tragedy struck when the race was postponed to the following day due to poor weather conditions. When the race finally began only 15 participants remained, with the winner being Tom Warren of San Diego, whose final time stood at 11 hours, 15 minutes and 58 seconds. 

The second race in 1979 also saw the first-ever ironwoman in triathlon history. This title belonged to Lyn Lemaire, a championship cyclist from Boston. 

Disappointed by the lack of participants, Collins planned to turn the event into a relay, to appeal to more people. However, Barry McDermott, a journalist for Sports Illustrated, was in the area to cover a golf tournament and discovered the race by pure chance. After offering a ten-page account of what the event entailed, the following year Collins saw a significant increase in interest in the event when hundreds of people began to contact him wanting to take part in the event. 

When discussing the history of the triathlon and how it came to be what we know it as today, the impact of the Ironman challenge cannot be ignored. The history of the Ironman triathlon is just as relevant as the history of triathlon itself, for the event is arguably the reason that triathlons remain relevant today.

Looking for gear to help you in training for the cycling section of your triathlon? Check out OriGym's list of the best cycling jackets for men & women

How did Triathlons Grow in Relation to Governing Bodies and Organisations?

Triathlon organisations Image

Now that we have discussed the history of triathlons as well as the history of Ironman triathlons, we feel it is important to give you some information on how the sport grew and became regulated, in terms of awards and organisations.

In 1989 the International Triathlon Union (ITU) was founded to act as the governing body for the entire sport. The main order of business that ITU was focusing on during the early days of the organisation, was getting triathlons onto the Olympic program. 

The formation of the ITU was a pivotal moment in the history of the triathlon. The organisation began to sanction and organise the World Triathlon Series, as well as the Triathlon World Cup. These events crowned world champions every year, for elite pro-triathletes, junior pro-triathletes and age-group athletes. 

In terms of looking at the triathlon timeline, other organisations began to spring up during this period. In 1991, the World Triathlon Corporation (WTC), a private organisation, was founded; this company sanctioned and organised events such as the Ironman triathlon when founder John Collins stepped down. 

When looking at the history of triathlons as a whole, Collins stepping down is a crucial moment within the triathlon timeline, for this one decision arguably grew Ironman triathlons into the events that they are today. 

This decision was made in 1979 when Collins no longer wanted to direct the race. He approached Nautilus Fitness Centre owners Hank Grundman and Valerie Silk, in regards to their centre taking control of the race.

Grundman had previously extended his facilities to train the triathlons competitors, and both Grundman and Silk took control of the Ironman triathlon. However, when the couple divorced Silk retained the rights to the race.

Fun Fact: It was during this period that the race grew significantly in popularity again In the 1982 race Julie Moss was leading the women's race and collapsed just yards away from the finish line. Although she was passed by Kathleen McCartney, Moss crawled to the finish, with her performance being broadcast on television. After seeing Moss’ performance next year's race instantly maxed out at 1,000 participants.

Concerning the history of Ironman triathlons, the year 1990 is also an important year within the triathlon timeline. With the help of Lew Friedland, Dr James P. Gills acquired the rights to the Ironman triathlon after purchasing it from Silk for $3million. 

With the Ironman brand now under his belt, Gills formed the WTC, with the sole intention of furthering the sport’s mainstream appeal, as well as increasing the prize money for triathlete champions.

history of ironman triathlon image

In the history of the Ironman triathlon, it should be noted that the race along with the newly created Ironman 70.3, also now acted as qualifying events for the WTC’s own World Championship, an event that was different from the world championships that the ITU founded. 

Often dubbed ‘The Ironman World Championship’, the event is annually held in Kailua-Kona in October, whereas the World Champions for Ironman 70.3 event is held in September and changes location every year. 

It's important to note that the WTC and ITU are not the sole organisations that specialise in triathlons. Many other small organisations exist in the form of local clubs. Many of these events hold triathlons for an average of 100 entrants a year. This includes the likes of the Challenge Family brand which produces events such as the Challenge Roth. 

The Ironman brand is the sole property of the WTC, therefore the ITU cannot sanction long-distance multi-sport events that resemble it in any way. Issues between the two governing bodies began to arise in the 2000s when overlaps in rules and authority began to sprout up.

This all culminated in 2005 when the ITU asked all national triathlon federations to refuse to sanction any WTC events. The reasoning behind this sentiment stemmed from the WTC refusing to recognise the ITU as a sports governing body. The WTC was attempting to completely avoid the ITU altogether by setting up their own federation.

Furthermore, the ITU didn’t wish to be associated with the WTC because they were a profit-driven organisation that was directly competing with the ITU titles, such as the long standardising distance for World Championships. Eventually, both companies settled out of court and began working together in 2012.

The first result in this process was ensuring that the 2014 Ironman race was standardised towards the ITU rules on long-distance racing, with specific importance placed on age grouping and penalty ruling. 

Whilst these details may seem somewhat pedantic and boring, they are important parts of the history of triathlons. Each event within the triathlon timeline has shaped the sport as we know it today. 

So whilst rules and regulations may not seem like the most interesting aspect of triathlon history, they were just as important as the general popularity of the event when it came to growing the practice.

How Did Triathlons Emigrate to Other Countries?

Triathlon Timeline

Now that we have discussed the humble origins of the triathlon, we must now move on to discuss how it became a global fascination. With the sport's ever-growing popularity in the US, the spread towards the outside world seemed pretty much inevitable. 

By 1980, triathlons had finally made their way back across the pond to Northern Europe, with the first European triathlon being held on the 30th August 1980 in Pilsen, Czechoslovakia. With countries such as The Netherlands, Belgium and West Germany following closely behind, hosting their events within the 1981 calendar year. 

When presenting the history of triathlons, the year 1982 is so important when discussing the sports European migration. 

In this year the event organisers IMG who worked in partnership with the American broadcast network CBS wanted to create a new triathlon event that would be televised from Europe. It’s worth noting that CBS is a direct competitor of the ABC network, which had the rights to show the Ironman challenge.  

The aim of this was to establish a premier European event for triathletes across the continent whilst also acting in direct competition with the Ironman Triathlon. The event was originally scheduled to take place in Monaco, however, the sudden death of Princess Grace in September 1982 prompted agreements to fall through. 

However, the event itself was not cancelled but rather moved to Nice, France instead. The date November 20th 1982 would go down in the history of triathlons, as being the first-ever Nice triathlon. The event consisted of:

  • 1,500 Meters Swimming 
  • 62.1 Miles in Cycling
  • 26.2 Miles in Running 

The broadcast of this event went down in French television history. Dubbed the ‘Voyage au bout de la souffrance’, aka Journey to the End of Suffering, the broadcast was met by many shocked viewers who were witnessing the event for the first time. 

Many viewers criticised the event, calling it unsafe when seven of the entrants were hospitalised during the swimming section within the Mediterranean.

Despite the backlash, IMG planned to continue the event throughout the 1980s, and so the event went down in triathlon history as being one of the biggest events outside America to offer both prize money and media attention. 

Within the history of the triathlon the year 1985 saw the creation of the first international triathlon structure. Dubbed the European Triathlon Union (ETU) the objectives of the group was to federate the triathlons structures in each European country. It was also set up to act in balance with other triathlon organisations in the world, such as the ones operating within America. 

The 11 European nations met for the first time in triathlon history: in 1986 a meeting in Brussels was held, with France leading the discussions as they were at the time the only nation in the world who had triathlons recognised by their Olympic committee.

Triathlons are for Everyone image

The history of triathlons is a complex and interesting story and we have covered a lot about the technical side of history. We have yet to talk about the longevity of the sport, which is due to its immense popularity. But why exactly are triathlons so popular?

#1 - It’s Accessible For Beginners 

Let’s face it, starting anything new, be it a new sport or a new job, can be very intimidating. 

From an outsider's perspective, triathlons may seem very scary and doing three sports consecutively may seem impossible right now. However, triathlons are very beginner-friendly, particularly if you have a background in any one of the three activities. 

There is a plethora of material out there to help you get started on your journey, so make sure you use it. Take on board any guidance and support you receive and you truly can’t go wrong.

Also, the great thing about triathlons is that they vary in size, it's not a one distance mandatory event like marathons. If you think you’re not ready to tackle something as challenging as the Ironman, start small and take on a sprint triathlon first. 

#2 - It's A Sociable Experience 

triathlon timeline

An aspect that many racers seem to enjoy is the social aspect of triathlons. Every event within the triathlon timeline is an enjoyable experience, be it the training or the event itself. 

If you want to train, there are hundreds of triathlon clubs all over the world for you to join that will allow you to meet like-minded people, all of whom will share your end goal. 

Whilst triathlons are accessible to newer racers, they aren’t exactly a walk in the park. Having this sociable aspect benefits many racers as they feel as if they have a support network of people who are going through the same motions. 

Having other triathletes in your life will keep you motivated to push on through, especially on those days where you just want to sit on the couch and give up. 

#3 - Everyone Can Race!

Another popular aspect of triathlons is that literally, anybody can race. 

Very few triathlon events out there will have age restrictions, with many triathlon events even being designed for children in recent years. 

Many triathlons will split the participants into age groups to ensure that you’re competing against contestants of a similar age to you, ensuring that the competition stays fierce and friendly. A lot of other sports events will prohibit the inclusion of elderly racers, however, triathlons encourage anyone of appropriate fitness levels to participate in the event because old age should not instantly equate to being unfit. 

Additionally, many racers will also be open to professional athletes too. Many amateur athletes have shared how they felt it was beneficial to see pros struggle with the same challenges they faced, as it made the comradery of the event even more special. 

Plus, if you have a triathlon athlete that you idolise, who knows, they may be at one of your local races!

#4 - They’re Challenging And Force You To Grow! 

history of the ironman triathlon image

Make no mistake: triathlons are very hard. They will push you to your very limit and will challenge you like no other sport. 

Regardless of whether you’re doing a sprint or Ironman triathlon, at some point within the triathlon, you’re going to struggle. In the entire history of triathlons, many of the athletes never cross the finish line. For this reason, the work you will put into training and participating in the event is something you should take great pride in.

Additionally, these events will force you to face your fears and push through them. Athletes may start training with a fear of open water or having never cycled on an open road before. These can be daunting tasks, but once you overcome them you’ll be filled with an immense sense of pride. Triathlons are one of the only events in history that can prompt you to grow in such a close space of time.  If you want some help with your training, check out OriGym's article on the 15 Best Swimming Trackers to help track your data.

#5 - ‘Anything is Possible’ 

One of the key phrases that are often used to advertise any kind of triathlon, is the phrase ‘anything is possible’. Whilst it may be a marketing tool, the words could not be truer. 

Once you participate in a triathlon you can achieve things you never thought you would have. Think of your current fitness level, if you’re someone who doesn’t think they’d ever be able to complete a full triathlon then you’re wrong, because you can! With the right training, anything is possible. Whenever you begin to doubt yourself or feel as if your goals are just too far to reach, think of how good you’ll feel crossing that finish line on race day.

Remember, triathlons aren’t impossible, because anything is possible. 

So when looking at the entire history of triathlons, it's easy to see why the events are so popular. Every year, thousands of athletes all across the globe partake in events such as the Ironman challenge, all to pursue their goals. 

This list featured above contains just a fraction of the reasons why the sport is so popular. Many of you will have your reasons for loving the sport, and we here at OriGym commend every triathletes’ dedication to their craft.

FAQ

What is the difference between Triathlon and Duathlon?

History of Duathlons

When we discussed the origins of triathlons we discussed how the name triathlon was the greek word for three competitions. 

Naturally, duathlons take the Greek prefix for the number two along with the suffix for competitions, to create the phrase which refers to an event that consists of two competitions. 

However, something that can confuse people is that sometimes duathlons will have three legs to the race. Most duathlons will consist of a running portion, followed by cycling and finally back to running. 

Just because the event consists of three legs does not make it a triathlon. What separates the triathlons and duathlons is the number of activities within the events. Duathlons will consist of two events such as running and cycling, and regardless of how many times they are done in succession, it will never change the fact that the event is a duathlon. 

When were triathlons recognised by the Olympics? 

Olympic Triathlon History

As have discussed the complete history of triathlons, many often question when the event reached the goal of its many organisations and was recognised by the Olympic committee. This occurred in the year 1994, at the 103rd annual International Olympic Committee Session in Paris. 

The event was finally introduced in the 2000 summer Olympic Games that were held in Sydney. It consists of a men’s and women’s event spanning:

  • 1.5km Swim

  • 40km Bike Ride

  • 10km Run.

Before You Go: 

From the humble origins of triathlons in France to the Olympic stage the practice has come such a long way. The sport has continued to grow and change over time, and presumably always will, there is simply no stopping the global force that is triathlons. 

Whether you’re a seasoned triathlete or just someone interested in sports history, we here at OriGym hope that you have found our detailed dive into the history of triathlons to be useful and informative. 

Before you go, take a look at our Personal Training Diploma here, or download our FREE course prospectus for more information on how you can turn your passion for fitness into a lucrative career. 

References: 

  • Tinley, S. (1998) Triathlon; A Personal History: A Visual History. VeloPress
  • L’Auto (1921) La Vile Sportive. L’Auto Newspaper 
  • McDermott B. (1979) Ironman. Sports Illustrated

Written by James Bickerstaff

Content Writer & Fitness Enthusiast

James holds a BA (Hons) in Creative Writing and Film Studies and has recently gained a MA degree in Film, both of which he attained from Liverpool John Moores University. After taking up the couch to 5K challenge on a whim, James found a new passion for running, which he combines with his love for healthy cooking and writing. All of this led him to becoming a copywriter for OriGym.  

When he is not writing content for the site, James can be found researching new recipes, writing music reviews, reading and watching latest film releases.   

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