But with a history of dogged determination as a junior and continued plugging away to the top, James won’t be afraid to give it a shot. His PB and world-leading run (since bettered) in Sheffield on the opening weekend of 2017 has helped put him in the mix for possible GB selection for the European Indoor Championships in March.
The 21-year-old’s performance wasn’t without its air miles and time spent on the road either. After handing the baton over to Laura Muir in the shadow of Arthur’s Seat, a flight back down to his home county of Kent was followed by a five-hour car journey to Sheffield the next morning.
This less-than glamorous behind-the-scenes tale may have slipped under the radar on a weekend dominated by Muir, Mo Farah and Callum Hawkins, but its significance is no less noteworthy.
‘It was huge step up for me to compete at an event like the Edinburgh XCountry – but also a great opportunity to show that I can begin to compete with athletes at that level,’ says James.
‘Handing over the baton to Laura Muir was a surreal moment, especially after her fantastic year last year. I didn’t expect to be in a position like that but it all added to a great day and steep learning curve.’
His indoor outing in Sheffield – where he pipped Andy Heyes to the line at the BMC Classic – came as a surprise. With no previous form on the boards and indoor racing thrown in as ‘a bit of fun’ this winter, a laissez-faire approach and lack of pressure is having the desired effect.
‘I definitely didn’t expect to be in better shape in January than my outdoor shape last year, mainly because of the little track work I’ve done and because we said we’d use indoors more as a motivating factor. It’s certainly achieved that effect!
‘I don’t feel any added pressure from my recent performances. If anything, I feel the pressure has been reduced as I feel more confident going into races, which I know will only help my performance.’
With the European Indoor Championships on the horizon, James admits his plans have changed this winter as a result of his early-year form. He is riding the wave and taking things very much as they come so far in 2017.
If he manages to add the European indoor 1500m qualifying time to his list of January achievements in Vienna this month, then James will head to the British Indoor Championships as an outside bet for Belgrade.
‘It’s been a perfect spring board for my track season,’ says James. ‘It just gives me the confidence that things are working and going in the right direction to run quickly this summer.
‘The big outdoor goal for me this year is to compete for GB at the European U23s and to get as close as possible to that London 2017 1500m World Champs time.’
It’s going to be a big summer for James. His recent success comes as he enters the final six months of his degree studies at Loughborough University. Happy and settled in a house share with five other middle distance runners– including two from his club, Tonbridge AC – wrenching himself from the Loughborough bubble will be tough.
With several offers on the table to go Stateside, plus potential support in the UK once his university studies cease in the summer, James has a big decision to make on where and how he wishes to pursue his running further. That’s without even contemplating the small matter of trying to qualify for a global championship event.
The economics undergraduate has been a consistent member of the Loughborough set up over the last three years and has thrived under a similar progressive training programme to the one enjoyed beforehand under Tonbridge coach, Mark Hookway.
‘Mark has had a significant impact on my progression over the years. I came to him as a very small 15-year-old, way behind many in terms of natural development,’ says James.
‘Being small taught me how to respond well to setbacks and that losing was a part of the process. I believe it stood me in good stead. I was well coached and my desire to get to the top quicker was well managed.
‘Mark has always placed great emphasis on a slow and careful progression, staying illness and injury-free and, ultimately, to perform at a top senior level. It is that consistency that has got me to where I am today.’
This consistency has been allowed to mature further in the Midlands. The former English Schools 1500m finalist and national junior track medallist has benefitted from the wisdom espoused by the experienced George Gandy.
But despite mainly being coached by George while in Loughborough, James is still in regular contact with his original running mentor, Mark.
By not ripping up the rulebook and falling into the trap of ignoring everything that came before, James has continued his development at university on his own terms – and the proof has been very much in the pudding.
‘I am always in contact with Mark for advice on sessions and race plans as I value his input a lot. Both Mark and George are very similar in that they are both patient with progression, looking for strong consistency and whatever level you are at, they look for gradual improvements year on year.’
The tight bond that Mark has fostered among his training group at Tonbridge over the last decade has seen many go on to achieve GB honours.
James is the latest to follow the likes of Chris Olley and Henry Pearce into the international fold. The 2015 National 6-Stage Road Relay champions will be a force to be reckoned with when team members return from their various travails in the States and from universities around the UK in the near future.
Whichever path James decides to follow this summer, sticking to the same long term plan that has served him well so far would seem to be the best bet to future success.
Words by Chris Rainsford
Image from Andrew Peat
This article originally appeared in the seventh edition of Left Spike from February 2017