Leap Day Sports - The Triathlife of Jesse Thomas

Challenge Roth Race Story

What a race. What a day. A career day.

I approached this year knowing I don’t have too many big races left. I’m 38, two kids, and my responsibilities with Picky Bars continue to grow with the business. I created my year’s theme – “Cool Races in Cool Places” – knowing that I wanted to experienced as many of great experiences in the sport as possible while I still can.

Challenge Roth was the hallmark of that plan. Not only because it is the bucket list experience outside of Kona, but because I honestly thought it might be one of my last chances to be competitive at such a big race. Maybe even podium. Maybe even run under 2:45. And maybe, if everything went great, break 8 hours in an Ironman distance race.

Podium, check. Run under 2:45, check. IM distance under 8hrs, check!

Well, long story short, I did that. I checked every single box. And I am so stoked, and so thankful to my many supporters. Challenge Roth delivered. And it wasn’t just because I did well (although that certainly helped!) – the event stands alone. I legitimately enjoyed the race, even though I was in a WHOLE BUNCH of pain for most of it. I had high expectations, and somehow it exceeded them. Here’s what went down.

Stoked! Photo Ingo Kutsch

Swim – FRONT MF PACK (GPS / Strava File)

I’m pretty much late to every start line. Not late in that I miss it, but late in that I always plan to warm up for about 20 minutes in the water and always get there about 6-8 minutes before the gun. Shockingly, I was on it at Challenge Roth and got to the start line, in my wetsuit, 30 minutes prior to the gun! Bam! Except I didn’t read that we didn’t get access to the water until 10 minutes to go! So I went for a jog, barefoot, in my ROKA Maverick X wetsuit around transition like a weirdo. I don’t know if it was because of the wetsuit run or a well timed taper, but when I finally got in the water, I felt amazing!

I had enough time to insta story from my wetsuit!

As soon as the gun went off, my hopes were confirmed. I felt suprisingly strong and smooth. I always go out thinking “fast, not hard” as I try to get out quickly without skyrocketing my heart rate, which makes me blow up around 300-400 meters. This race, I did that but felt more speed than normal off the line, and quickly established myself in…wait for it…the FRONT PACK ALL CAPS. For the first few minutes, I expected the pace to drop rapidly as it usually does, but it never came. There were a few surges here and there, but I covered them with hard, but manageable bursts. I doubted I was still with the leaders but at the first buoy about 1500 in, we rounded the corner and there I was, right with the front ass group (I was saying “front ass” because that’s how stoked I was). The rest of the swim had some surges, some physical battles, etc, but I just stayed relaxed and covered moves, keeping myself second or third in line so I didn’t get dropped if someone in front of me did. It certainly wasn’t easy, and I was pretty much on the rivet the last 400 meters, but I managed to hang on the whole way for one of my only front pack swims ever. Bam!

Bike – Uber Biker “Opportunity” (Power / GPS / Strava File)

As we emerged from the water, I heard most of my competitors names – Keinle, Dreitz, Cunnama, Wurf, Reiderer, so I figured we were all in the group together. I knew the pace on the bike would be super fast with three of the best cyclists in the sport (Wurf, Keinle, Dreitz), so I hustled through transition as quick as I could and got out fast, pedaling hard for about 3 minutes before even slipping my feet into my shoes at the first downhill. As a result, I was about 2nd or 3rd wheel a few ks into the race. The pace felt manageable but I knew the fast guys were coming soon.

And sure enough, Cam went by about 5k in. I debated for a brief second going right behind him, but I was worried that the pace would be too quick. Then just 30 seconds later, Sebastian came by as well and I could tell he was going to bridge up to Cam. Prior the race, Matt and I talked about the potential that I’d have an “opportunity” the ride with the uber bikers early in the race, and that if that “opportunity” arose, I should give it a go while it “made sense,” re-assessing every 10-15 minutes. After having a long solo rides at Wildflower and Heilbronn (both of which weren’t up to par), I knew that me having that “carrot” out there, riding with other guys, even if out of my comfort zone, make a huge difference in how much I’d be able to push myself.

So when I saw Sebastian go by, I got out and accelerated. Hard. Like super duper hard. Like way harder than you should probably ever go in an Ironman distance race. But I bridged up to him right as he bridged up to Cam, just as we crested the first small hill.

Pushing hard to stay with the uber bikers! – Photo That Camera Man

The next two hours I can say was some of the hardest, (and most fun, in hindsight), riding I’ve ever done in my career. I stayed behind Sebi who stayed behind Cam as we cruised through the first lap. There were probably half a dozen points where I would get dropped a bit, go completely on the rivet to catch back up, and barely make it back on to keep going another few miles. I knew I was digging DEEP into my reserves, but the fun and speed of it felt worth it. It was a HUGE gamble, but I also knew, averaging over 27 mph, that we had to be putting serious time into the rest of the field. Sebi told me after the race (imagine German accent) “I kept looking back and saying, ‘What is Jesse still doing here!?’ Man, you’re an animal!”

About 80k we reached the famous Solar Berg (hill), where literally thousands of spectators cheer you on, in your face, Tour de France style. Even though I was completely, entirely wasted, and honestly pretty worried about how the rest of my ride/race was going to go, I looked up, took myself out of the moment, I smiled and realized that, you know what, this is F’ing awesome. I’m riding with two of the best cyclists ever in the sport, in one of it’s biggest events, at the front, through the most famous crowd in all of triathlon. Regardless of where I finished, I honestly felt at that point, that the pain, time, training, etc, was all worth it. It’s a moment I’ll never forget.

You might not be able to tell, but that’s a smile, and considering how much pain I was in, it clearly was a cool moment! Photo – can’t find where I got this one from, let me know!

Bike – Paying for the “Opportunity”

Of course, then we crested Solar Berg, and my legs were DUNZO! I held on for another 10k because of a mostly downhill/tailwindy section. We went through 90k (halfway) in 2:04! I think my 2nd fastest half IM time ever, including my half IM races! My power was about 10 watts higher than what I averaged at both Wildflower and Heilbronn – and I still had 90k to go!

Long solo days, legs falling off! Photo That Camera Man

Needless to say, about 3k later, a gap formed. I tried my best to cover, but man, I’d basically just raced a half Ironman as hard as I could so I was fully cooked. Things got pretty ugly. I knew I’d ridden way too hard for the first half, about 30 watts higher than what I thought I could average! So at first I tried to settle back to my goal average, then about 5 minutes later I knew that wasn’t going to happen, so I tried a little bit lower, and lower, and lower, and lower. The wind picked up and my speed slowed a lot. Then I just said ok, I can’t look at the power meter any more because it’s too depressing. I just need to concentrate on being “efficient” – meaning, staying aero, riding clean lines, and not surging too much. It felt terrible, but I had to just keep going, I was still in 3rd place!

About 120k in, Andreas Dreitz went by me. I made a whole hearted but mostly embarassing attempt to stay with him. He later told me after the race (again, German accent) “When I saw you, I felt very bad for you, I thought maybe you would not finish the race.” Yep, I was thinking the same thing.

About 150k (~80% done) in I really really really wanted to be done riding my bike, and another guy passed me the same way, like I was standing still. On the second lap up Solar Berg I was decidedly less excited, even with the thousands of spectators, I just wanted it to be over. “Tell these people to go home, I’m done!” My left leg was completely numb from sciatic pain, and my calf and hamstring felt strained. But I took confidence in knowing that I was in likely the best run shape of my life, and still in 5th place, so even though I’d completely demolished my legs the way I rode, I just needed to get them to the marathon and see what was there.

❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️

Posted by Challenge Roth on Sunday, July 1, 2018

You can see me go by here at ~2:00 on the second lap, crazy!

I ended up riding the second loop about 11 minutes slower than the first, about 60 watts lower – which means I actually ended up averaging about what I thought I could average power-wise and I rode just under 4:20, which was what I’d hoped for – I just did it the very hard way. Now I just had to see if there was anything left for the run.

Run – Family Tunes – GPS / Strava File

When I signed up for this race, I did it for three reasons. 1) I wanted to do the biggest bucket list race in the world outside of Kona – 2) I wanted to see if I could place well in that race, and 3) I wanted one crack at a fast course where I thought, if all went well, I’d have a shot at breaking 8 hours for an Ironman distance race – the semi equivalent to the 4 min mile in running. Prior to the race, I thought that I would have to run near or under 2:40 in the marathon to do those things, and after some great training, and running a ~1:10 half two weeks ago, I thought I had a shot at it if things went right. But because of a better than expected swim, and a slightly better than expected bike, I started my marathon already in a place I would have been stoked about (5th) and “just” needed to run under 2:50 to break 8 hours. Having ridden as hard as I had, and in the way I did, I knew this would still be a tough ask, but damn, I was going to give it a try!

The first 10 minutes didn’t do anything to boost my confidence. Oh man, my stomach was messed up, my legs hurt, my left foot was numb, and my calf was legitimately strained. I got one shot of positive emotional feedback when I saw Lauren, and Jude – who handed me my nutrition – at about mile 2.5. Through the pain I forced a smile and told him, “Thanks buddy, I love you!” and off I kept going. It definitely gave me strength to see them. It put the race in perspective as I headed out to the long path along the canal.

Thanks buddy! Photo, Lauren!

At Challenge Roth they let you listen to music on the run. I know this is a controversial option for a lot of people, and honestly, I have never raced with music, because I’ve never been in a race where it is allowed. I also believe there’s something to be said about being “in the moment” and aware of your surroundings, etc. But having scoped the course and knowing that most of the first 25k was a long out and back along a straight canal path without many spectators, I decided ot bring my Jaybirds RUNs and a small Spotify player with me in T2. And when I hit the canal, I turned them on, loaded the marathon playlist I made, and got after it.

In hindsight, I’m glad I had it. I train with music all the time and it was a nice way to break up the run, keep me relaxed for the first half, and crank out some mindless, though painful, miles. Each song I chose either was a good pump up song (e,g, Macklemore 10,000 hours), or had some sentimental value (like Kenny Loggins “Danger Zone”, which is Jude’s favorite song, but also a pretty damn good pump up song). For the next 20k, I just listened to music and tried to find a rhythm. My hopes of my calf loosening died about 4 miles in when it only got worse. I realized it was going to be a very long and painful run, but I was in 5th place and still running. So I started repeating my mantra to myself – “career day” – and kept going.

Getting into the groove on the trail with some tunes. Photo Ingo Kutsch

At 6.5 miles I checked my watch – 40 minutes on the dot! ~2:40 marathon pace. Even though I hurt a lot, I was running well and putting time into all the guys in front of me, and at least holding time on some of the fast runners behind – Joe Skipper, James Cunamma, and Ivan Rana. About mile 10, I caught 4th place, and I still felt what I would call, “Ironman decent” – lots of pain, but it still mostly felt like running, and mostly in a positive head space.

Run – Whole Bunch of Pain

Around mile 12, the real Ironman pain came. My stomach started to growl and I had flashbacks of some epic collapses on the marathon at IM Lanzarote in 2017 and Kona 2017. I forced myself to eat and drink as much as possible – chalking those crashes up to mostly nutritional problems. While I was definitely slowing, I still felt like I was “running” and went through 13 miles in 1:21 – about 2:42 pace. I got another split and was now just about 4.5 minutes from Cam and catching him fast. All of a sudden, a podium was possible! Part of me was stoked, but a bigger part of me just wanted this run to be over.

I got two really positive pieces of feedback at mile 17 – I was less than two minutes down on Cam, and still about 4:40 up on a hard charging Joe. If I could hold my pace to the next turn around at mile 22, I would likely be in 3rd place and be able to hold off Joe for the final stretch.

Once more, I saw Lauren and Jude. This time, (Lauren later told me), the kids had just had simultaneous meltdowns and she was scrambling last minute to find my nutrition and had literally just put her hand out in time to hand it off and say “great job!” Way to go, Wife!

At mile 20, I caught Cam, who told me to “run em down.” While I appreciated the camaraderie, I was basically thinking that my legs and calf were going to fall off at that point, and really worried about Joe gaining on me and/or finishing. I went through 18.5 miles in 2:03 – about 2:45 pace, clearly slowing. 3rd place, man if I can just hold on!

Into 3rd place – 8 miles to go. Photo James Mitchell, Activimages

Finish – Turning Fear to Trust

It’s funny how when you’re so close to something that you really want, fear of loosing it becomes the dominant feeling. And that’s what I felt at that point – lots of pain and fear. I don’t remember exactly where it was, but to make it a nice, clean, sentimental story, I’m going to say it was going under the tunnel on the way to Buchenbach, where the Red Bull truck was playing music requests they’d asked from the Pros prior to the race. I told them to play “Danger Zone” because like I said, it’s Jude’s favorite, it’s from Top Gun (aviators), it puts a smile on my face, and it’s an awesome ass song. When I heard that song, I smiled, and the fear faded. Not to what I’d call confidence, because it wasn’t confidence. I’d call it “trust.” Trust in myself and my team – for the many many hours of training and sacrifice we’ve made along the way to get me to this point – 6 miles from a 3rd place and sub 8 hour Challenge Roth. My legs hurt like shit, my stomach was out of wack, my body felt like crumpling, but I knew I could handle it. I’d worked for it, they’d worked for it. All the big training days, the weight lifting, the massage, the healthy meals, the sleeping alone, the time away, all of it. I trusted I could do it, and in a way, I felt like I, we, deserved it. “Career Day.” Career Day.

Even though I felt like balls, I muscled up the final hill to Buchenbach, did my best to smile as I rounded the small pond with hundreds cheering me on – got a split to Joe, still just over 4 minutes with less than 4 miles to go – “just get there.” On the way back everything was done, my legs, my arms, my stomach, my mind. It was all done. But not only did I keep going, I pushed, I pushed as hard as I could, to get it ALL out. Every last drop of the training, prep, and sacrifices. I wanted to be completely done.

At the chute to the stadium, I knew I had it. I’d kept my pace up, there was no one in sight behind me. I was going to get 3rd place, and I would break 8 hours comfortably. I may have started to tear up a bit. I saw Lauren, Jude and Zadie on the edge of the stadium and they waved and Lauren blew me a kiss. I entered the stadium and ran a scream crying lap in front of thousands of people cheering me on as I crossed the finish line, 3rd place, 7 hours 54 minutes. Another moment I’ll never forget. I was greated by Sebi (1st), Andreas (2nd), the CEO of Challenge Roth – Felix, and the CEO of Challenge organization, Zibi. Andreas and I poured huge beers on each other. I found Lauren, Jude, and Zadie in the stands and hugged and kissed them. I stood on the podium and accepted an award. I, shockingly, won the podium champagne spraying battle. About 20 minutes later I left the stadium, limping, so so sore, so tired, so hungy….but so happy. Don’t know if I’ll ever have a day like that again, and if not, that’s ok. Because, man, what a day. A career day.

That’s a happy Jesse! Photo Ingo Kutsche

Thanks:

  • Massive thanks to the Challenge Roth organization – Felix and family. You guys really do put on the most amazing triathlon I’ve ever experienced. What a show, second to none, and you can feel the passion behind it with the entire organization. See the post race fireworks below! And if you want to register, it starts a 9am Monday July,9 CET time here! 
  • My homestay Susanne and Sjiaak Heemstrek for the amazing hospitality, making me and my family feel at home halfway around the world.
  • My wife, son, and daughter for not only allowing but supporting this crazy life that takes so much of my time and energy. You guys are my center.
  • My Picky Bars employees who’ve kept the ship right while I’m away this entire month, and keep it right the many weeks I’m training so much I’m pretty much just eating at the office.
  • My coach Matt Dixon and wife Kelli for the plan, the years, the career. It’s been a ride, and what an awesome milestone in the journey.
  • My amazing sponsors who supported this “cool races in cool places” plan from the minute I mentioned it last year. It’s rare in this sport to be supported at this level without a clear goal of the World Championships. But these sponsors know the value these other experiences have on me and my followers. For that, I am incredibly greatful.
    • Descente Global
    • Red Bull
    • ROKA
    • Jaybird
    • Dimond Bikes
    • Knight Composites
    • Tririg
    • Zealios

@challengeroth live stream in bio Sunday 6:30a local, 9:30p Sat PST! Been a bit of a circus getting ready for a full distance race with the family in town but I wouldn’t have it any other way. Stoked to experience one of the best races on the planet tomorrow and give it everything I’ve got! Thanks so much for the support from my superwife @fleshmanflyer and #superadvanced Bean and Bug. Thanks family and coach @purplepatchfitness. Thanks sponsors @descente_global @rokasports @redbull @jaybirdsport @pickybars @dimondbikes @knightcomposites @tririg for the support to do #coolracesincoolplaces! Thanks as always to the crazy ass fans who make the crazy adventures and stories worth telling. Good luck to everyone racing and see you guys on the other side! #flatbruce #challengeroth

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  • My family and friends who also support and sacrifice my time and energy away.
  • My craziest ass fans in the whole world. You guys make it possible and worthwhile to chase goals and tell stories like this one. Thank you so much for cheering and reading. Until next time!

After. #lifepoints

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