Well, my crazy-ass, doing-bongo-drum-dance-circles-in-the-middle-of-the-street fans, hope you’re ready. We had a BIG ONE this weekend. Grab a seat, get some water and a Picky Bar. This is a long one, but it has a happy ending.
It’s impossible to describe what I feel right now. It’s a combination of excitement, exhaustion, euphoria, nostalgia, and overwhelming relief. I want to throw up, scream, cry, poop, and laugh all at the same time. Actually, that describes it pretty well.
Just like last year, Wildflower proved to be one of the most memorable days in my athletic career. But the 2012 version wasn’t the shock and surprise of victory in unbridled naivety. It was victory over pressure, fear, and relentless self-doubt.
Pre Race Mental Games
Wednesday and Thursday were super fun. I did a webinar with Matt. I drove down with Linsey and Chris Corbin. We stayed with super buddy (yep, I just said it) Matt Lieto, Jen Luebke, and legend Chris Legh back in Cabin 10, who told us all ridiculous and entertaining stories from his years of racing. I was in a good spot, excited, happy, enjoying it.
Thursday night things started to derail. I didn’t sleep more than a couple hours, and it had nothing to do with sleeping in the closet. I got nervous and worried. On Friday I had interviews, photo shoots, a magazine signing, Q&A panel, a stairway dedication, and I had to prep for the race. I tried to nap, but couldn’t. It was a non-stop day, mostly fun, but a lot of answering questions about the pressure to repeat, targets on my back, etc. I told everyone, and myself, that I really didn’t feel added pressure, I just wanted to enjoy it. No big deal. I was lying.
The morning of the race I saw Matt as I put on my wetsuit. “Hey,” I said with a solemn look on my face. “There’s a decent chance I’m sick. Felt like crap yesterday, my throat and nose is stuffed up. Not sure how this is going to go.” “Well,” he paused, “you’ll know when you get out there.”
The whole time I warmed up, I heard the announcers talking about Jesse Thomas this and Jesse Thomas that, what’s he going to do, the target is on his back, how’d his race strategy change, yada yada yada. I couldn’t escape it, this could be an ugly day. Honestly, the last thought I had just before the gun, “I can’t wait until this is all over.”
Swimming in a Mental Funk
To quote Gerry, I went out “quick, but not hasty,” – strong, but comfortable. A few hundred meters in, the pace slowed. I relaxed, but negative thoughts immediately clawed into my brain. How do I feel? Am I going slow? It feels hard. Am I sick? Oh man, maybe I’m out of it. Am I way behind? Who’s in front of/around/behind me? Eventually I decided that this is what I’ve got, so just stick with this group, even if you are way back. I came out of the water, didn’t see the clock, and ran toward the bike. Here goes.
Bike Ups & Downs
I got my first good sign when the announcer said, “And here he is, our defending champion, starting the bike in 7th place!” WTF? Did he say 7th place? No, 17th place? Then I rode by Matt, “7th Place. 2:30 down on lead. Group of 3 in front. Good spot.” Normally I’d be stoked with such an amazing swim. But honestly, the first thing I thought was, oh man, all the good guys are probably in a group in front of me. I’m screwed.
On the first uphill Jordan Rapp whipped by me. Oh crap. I tried to go with him, but he was climbing VERY HARD. Am I going to hard? Jordan’s one of the most intelligent racers out there, and I knew he wouldn’t make a pacing mistake. Nonetheless, I can’t keep this up. There he goes. I don’t have it today.
I got out to the main road, finally away from the crowd, the event, the announcers, the magazine cover. The solitude gave me a brief moment of clarity – I’m negative all over the place. Debbie Downer. Every thought was negative – I’m sick, my legs are tired, I’ve got a new pimple on my forehead. This is not me (except the pimple part)! Enjoy this dude! Find yourself.
Debbie Downer isn’t fun to be around.
Then I realized I don’t even have a damn song in my head! Sacrilege! So I tried out some stuff – the new Coldplay, Kishi Bashi, Now Now. Nothing stuck. So I thought…it worked last year, should I try it? Let’s do it. Invisible Touch it is. No joke, as soon as I started singing it (literally, singing it out-loud), I started feeling a better. There’s something about the beat…when it hits your ears! It matches my cadence, or heart rate, or breathing or something. It’s a resonant frequency dude (Nerd Alert!). Anyway, I’d kept Jordan in my sight and no joke, with Invisible Touch powering me through, the gap narrowed. 50 seconds, 40 seconds, 30 seconds. Phil Collins, you’re the man!
Brought me back into it, thanks Phil.
When I reached Jordan, I pulled back and relaxed, we were passing people and I was burnt. When we hit the infamous Nasty Grade, I saw Macca on his bike and asked him, “How far up are they?” “Maybe two minutes, but they’re putting some power down.” I thought it was Matthews and Cunnama, and wasn’t sure I could give up two minutes (or more) to either of them on the run. So even though my legs felt like doo doo, I made a move. I heard Macca yell, “Now’s when the race starts!”
I rode hard the rest of the way. Jordan must have reeled back in whatever gap I opened up, because I left transition behind him. I saw my buddy T-Bone, he said 4th place, 1:45 to the leaders. Here we go.
I started at an aggressive, but sustainable pace. With no out & backs in the first 10 miles, you’re blind on this course, and I wanted to see the leaders as soon as possible. I passed Jordan around 1.5 miles. I got splits from random people out on the course. 1:30, 1:10, 50 seconds. Finally, I passed 2nd place, and saw Matthews in first. At that point, I knew I would catch him and the hills were killing me, so I relaxed. As I did last year, I walked twice on the steepest parts of the hill before mile 6. I caught Matthews right at the top around 10k (the EXACT same place Matt gave me the clause “C” last year). I made a big move on the following steep decline and created a gap. Oh my god. I’m in the lead. 7 miles to go.
At this point, you might think I was celebrating, stoked, excited, practicing my Letterman interview. Nope. I was scared. What if I cramp? What if I bonk? I want this so bad. What if my foot hurts and I have to stop? What if Rapp catches me, or Cunnama? Honestly, my mind would not let me think positively.
I passed Matt about 2 minutes later. He said I had a huge gap, and was pulling away, relax, relax, relax. So I settled into what felt like a very comfortable pace. 6 miles to go. Still in fear. I ran through the campgrounds, heard people yell you got this, smoking it, can’t even see them. Even Macca yelled, “it’s time to go for records!” But I couldn’t enjoy it. I gave people hi-fives, I smiled and said thank you, but I couldn’t shake the fear.
When I hit the turnaround at mile 10 I got my own split, 1:40 up on 2nd place, Jordan. To confident Jesse, that would have been more than enough to relax and enjoy it. But I was hurting. The climb to mile 12 were the longest two miles of my life. What if I die. One step at a time. Is that a cramp? One step at a time. Is he gaining on me? One step at a time. Finally, I crest the hill. One downhill mile to go. I asked the lead biker, “Is he catching me?” “No man, you got it. Enjoy it.”
Into the long blue finish chute, I FINALLY knew I had it. The pressure lifted. It was honestly physical, palpable. I literally felt it release. I was flying, light as a feather. Time for celebration. With my Aviator glasses on tight, I “flew” arms spread wide through the chute giving everyone high 5s along the way. Grabbed the tape and yelled. Euphoria and relief.
Proving It To Myself
It wasn’t until the interviews afterward that I let my guard down, not only to everyone else, but to myself. If you were there, you may have noticed that the excitement was littered with small emotional moments.
I’ve honestly never felt so much pressure in my life. I don’t think I even realized it all until after the race was over. And honestly, the pressure wasn’t completely external. It wasn’t the magazine cover, the announcers, the signings, panels, interviews, etc. It was me. I WANTED this one. I wanted it so bad. I needed it for myself. I needed to prove to myself that I wasn’t a one hit wonder who’s career was solely defined by a win at Wildflower in a slow year. I wanted to prove that the media attention, hype, sponsor support, even the damn cover was deserved.
I don’t think I’ll ever feel that much pressure again. Next year won’t be the same. I’ve already defended. Other races won’t be the same, I’ve established myself. I wrote months ago about finally, for the first time in my life, feeling like a true pro athlete. Now I feel like a true champion. The third fastest time ever on a back to back win in one of the most historic races in the world. I’ll freaking take it. This win certainly won’t, in my mind, define my career, it’s another step in the journey I started 18 months ago. But I feel like I can now rest knowing I wasn’t just a flash in the pan.
Thanks Verdict Photography for another Amazing Video.
I have to say that, generally, it’s impossible to improve by almost 6 minutes without some significant support. Emotionally, physically, equipment and financially, the guys below are just as responsible as I am for this awesome break through. Thank you all so much!
- My coach Matt Dixon – I owe a very big piece of this to him. He not only had me physically prepared in the best shape of my life. He mentally kept me in check the entire week. As nervous, doubtful, worried as I was, it would have been substantially worse, and I honestly don’t know if I could have pushed through it without him. Huge thanks for the emotional/mental support man, great stuff.
- Mallory, Joe, Sandy and the rest of the team at Specialized – The Specialized team actually created and gave away a few hundred pairs of free aviators to people in the crowd! UNREAL! Seriously, you guys are awesome. Can’t say enough about it. They also had a full support truck there for Jordan, Dan Hugo and I and did a ton of work getting my Shiv dialed in before the race. Oh yeah, my bike split was 5 MINUTES faster than last year!
- My cousin/Picky Bars Marketing Director Loren, Jessica, James, Tbone, Neil, Kristen, and of course my mom, for driving down from all over the place just to come and watch me race. It was awesome having you guys there for emotional support. Thank you so much.
- My “wif” Lauren Fleshman – Lauren also played a huge role in keeping me mentally and psychologically prepared for this race, and for every race. She’s my true inspiration. Read her eloquently written account of my prep and race here.
- Terri, Dixie, and the rest of the crew at Tri-Cal. 30 Years of Greatness. You guys deserve every bit of success you receive. The way you support the pros in this industry is unparalleled. I’m truly grateful for the enormous impact you’ve had on my career. Thank you so much.
- Robert at First Endurance – Special shout out to FE. I did not cramp once this year, (check out my full race day nutrition plan here) and I struggled with cramps the entire race last year. Thanks a ton Robert for the amazing product, and the nutritional advice. On our way man!
- Goeff, & Kody at Pearl Izumi. 2nd fastest run on a day like that, I’ll take it! Thanks a ton for the support guys. Awesome to hear from you both before and after the race, see you in Quassy.
- The guys at Rolf Prima. Thanks for the gear and support guys. Like I said, 5 MINUTES faster on those TDF 60’s!
- Steve and the rest of the team at Cycleops – Couldn’t have prepped the ENTIRE LAST WEEK in the rain without that PowerBeam Pro. Like I said, it immediately became my favorite trainer ever. Thanks a ton for all the help and support guys.
- Gerry Rodrigues of Tower 26 – Gerry, again, thanks for the swimming instruction, both physical and mental. Almost a minute faster than last year, and more comfortable. Amazing man, owe a lot of it to you.
- All my competitors, but particularly Jordan, who really battled hard with me out there the whole way. I know he wanted this one just as bad, and we’ll have more duels down the road. Check out his recap here.
- My wife, my family, the rest of my support crew, my newsletter subscribers, twitter and facebook peeps. I have the best crazy ass fans in the sport. Seriously. I love your aviators, your comments, pictures, everything. It literally keeps me going through all the BS. Thanks you guys!