Leap Day Sports - The Triathlife of Jesse Thomas

2016 Ironman Kona World Champs Race Story (Epic)

Oh. My. God. That. Was. Hard.

In my preview & Triathlete Magazine article I said that when I first watched Ironman Kona from the sideline, my gut reaction was, “This looks miserable! Why on earth would anyone do this?” Well, turns out most of the time, your first instinct is right. But…of course, in the end I’m still glad I did it.

The “Executive Summary”

Below, I’m going to break one of my cardinal rules for race “stories” and make it longer than it should be, mostly for myself, but also for those who are crazy ass enough to want every detail, movie quote, and engineering analogy. For those of you who want the quick hits, here you go!


Main Takeaways:

That was, without a doubt, the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I remember Lauren saying after labor that it was clearly a level of pain and mental strain beyond anything she’d ever experienced in a race, workout, or training block. I am NOT saying this was hard like labor, but that’s basically the way I felt about Kona – physically, mentally, psychologically – so much harder than anything I’ve ever done.

Am I happy with it? Hell yes I am. I had no idea what to expect going into this race. Based on my training, I thought I could go about 8:30. And I said top 15-20 would likely be a good performance depending on how well I raced. Well, even though I made it harder on myself by abandoning my race plan early and suffering the consequences later (see below), I pushed every ounce of effort I had out of my body for the next FIVE FREAKING HOURS when all I wanted to do was stop. And not only did I finish, I still passed a bunch of people, climbed as high as 12th with 8 miles to go and kept running as hard as I could through cramps and fatigue every agonizing step home.

Is it a “dream” performance? No, but it was THE MOST I could have gotten out of myself, probably the most I’ve ever gotten out of myself, and I am supremely proud of that. I also think as a rookie, it was super solid – but that doesn’t mean I’ve committed to coming back again…gonna take at least a few weeks before making that decision!

A hard earned finish line. Supremely proud...and tired!

A hard earned finish line. Supremely proud…and tired! Pic Saltstick.


Swim – Hold on to Your Sea Horses

No way to hide it – the race went out really fast, and the deepwater start didn’t give me my usual short beach run + dolphin dives to gain a body length or two early. Matt and I talked about it being “worth it” to swim as hard as I could to stay with the group, which I did for about 500-600 meters. Not sure if I slowed or they put in surge, but around that point I got popped and there was nothing I could do about it. Having no idea where I was I began my usual “I’m screwed, this is going to be the worst race ever” swim crying. But within a minute or two, I saw Sebastian come by me and knew I was likely swimming on par with my normal group.

The rest of the swim wasn’t too bad to be honest. There were parts of it that were a little surge-y and physical, but there were also parts that felt too easy. Mostly though, it just felt looooong (you’ll see this is a theme of the day). The other Ironmans I’ve done with two laps broke up the swim nicely, but man, this was a mental game. I tried counting strokes, counting the buoys, singing 80s hits, whatever. It just felt like forever. Eventually though, we closed in on the beach and I geared up for what I knew would be a massive bike and run.

Bike First Half – I’d Say It Was “Strong” to…“Quite Strong”

I came out of the swim in a big group, and rode agressively the first 5-10 miles to establish a position at or near the front, mostly with Jordan, Sebastian, and David Plese. The pace was stiff but felt manageable, so I eventually just relaxed and settled in. But it wasn’t too long before two other super strong riders, Boris Stein and Michi Weiss, joined the front of our group, and the pace quickened noticeably. It was at this point, about 30 minutes in, that I had my first decision to make – stay conservative and “ride my own pace” or use the horsepower surrounding me as a carrot/motivator/push to help bridge up to the main group. In the (literal) heat of the moment, the competitive/racer brain won out and I decided to stick with it.

Matt and I talked about having 60 minutes of “hard riding” (above or significantly above Ironman pace) that would be OK and not too damaging if it made strategic sense, so even though it was early, I decided this was the time to go for it. While the pace was certainly hard, I kept a check on my power meter and it didn’t seem crazy, (at or even a little below most of my Lanzarote efforts). But looking back on it, I think I underestimated the impact of the heat, and was working a lot harder than I realized.

Over the next 40 minutes I doubled down on my “go with them” bet another four to five times with bigger and bigger efforts to stick with that group. Some of those surges into a super stiff head and cross wind felt ridiculously hard, particularly as I bridged around other guys who got dropped. But by just 40 miles into the race, the effort showed as the six of us caught the lead group!


Taking a big bet – head down chasing into the wind on the way out. Caught the front group…then paid for it! Photo TriMax Magazine.

With some adrenaline and still reeling from the effort, I climbed into the group and situated myself near the front around some of the guys I knew – Ben, TO, Luke, and Terenzo. Compared to the effort to get there, and with the excitement of being in the FREAKING LEAD GROUP IN KONA, the pace felt fairly easy. But I knew I’d put in some serious efforts already, so I just tried to relax.

Bike Second Half – “I saw everyone…and you looked the worst.”

I had my first sign of “uh ohs” when my left quad started cramping as we neared the long gradual climb to Hawi (only mile 50 or so). And as the grade increased, so did the pace. Not like a hammer dropping, but like a wrench slowly tightening every few minutes. I started to realize that maybe I’d used more matches than I thought on the way there. Half way up the climb, I just couldn’t hang, I came off, shelled, popped, dropped, whatever you want to call it. It wasn’t super fast or hard, looking at my power meter it was actually fairly manageable, but my legs just couldn’t go. Uh oh!!

Nobody over-shifted my gears or through a pump in my spoke, but I faded just the same.

A couple of minutes later a small group – Terenzo, Tim Don, and Marko Albert passed me, and I couldn’t stay with them either! Oh boy. I was full on hurting. My legs were toast! The severity of my situation started to sink in. Like every single person had told me before, “the conditions of this race sneak up on you. And before you know it, you’re F’ed!” And they had. And yep, I was F’ed!

I hit the turnaround at Hawi solo, and as my buddy Chris Corbin put it “looked by far the worst of anyone I saw.” He was right. I remember looking at my bike computer thinking, “I could stop right here and this would be a really hard race effort. But I still have 50 MILES TO GO….and then I have TO RUN A MARATHON.” For the next few minutes, I was maybe the most depressed I’ve ever been in a race.

But as I stared blankly through sweat and wind down the road I made a realization – this is actually, exactly, what I trained for. I did every single super long hard ride with no company, no music, no distractions, no selfie sticks even (Ok, not every time without a selfie stick). Just plugging along staring ahead by myself. This is what it’s about. I had to make those count for something. I’d made my move, placed my bet and it cost me, but that didn’t mean I had to throw in the towel. So I made a commitment – that I wouldn’t look at my pace, power, speed, or anything, and I would just go an appropriate effort to get me home and “potentially” run. (I honestly couldn’t commit to running at that point, it just seemed to awful to imagine).

If you think I look tired, you're right.

If you think I look tired, you’re right. Photo Richard Melik.

It was a REALLY really really really long long long long solo ride back. There were a number of times that I was passed and I tried to stay, but my legs were jello. I passed a couple of others who had blown up also. I did my best not to project how terrible I was going to finish. I just kept pushing, watching the markers go by every 5 miles. By the time I rolled into T2, I felt like I was barely pushing the pedals. Man, I was happy to be done with that ride.

Run Start – Just. Keep. Running.

When I got into T2, I wasn’t thinking AT ALL about “running down” a bunch of guys. I was thinking – how the hell am I going to RUN 26 miles? I took a very long transition, (ironically, the next two guys in front of me were within our time differences in T2, so transitions do matter, people, even for Ironman!). But I needed time to relax, collect my stuff and thoughts, and I asked and waited for a couple of HOTSHOTs to maybe subdue the cramping I’d had for the last 40 miles!

I started my run at what felt like a really painful jog, and to add insult to injury, I dropped one of the HOTSHOT bottles running up the first little hill right out of T2, so I stopped, turned around, and ran backwards to get it as it rolled down the hill! I literally heard the “Go Jesse!” cheers turning to “Oh, noooooo….” I did my best not to get discouraged – this wasn’t a race anymore, it was just a long run. Just go do a long run.

Heading out, hoping to finish. Pic ROKA Sports

Heading out, hoping to finish. Pic ROKA Sports

Within a mile or two of the run, any hope of “something magical” happening faded as I realized, there was no way around it, I was cooked. This was just going to be a really long, ridiculously hot day. I was somewhere between 25th-30th place, and had to find SOMETHING to get excited about, something that I cared enough about to MAKE ME FINISH this damn race.

And like most of my hardest workouts, or deepest, scariest, saddest moments, my thoughts drifted to my family. First to Lauren and Jude, then to my mom, dad, step dad & mom, brothers, sisters, friends, coach, sponsors, and even you guys. As I mentioned before the race, more than anything I wanted to honor the support I’d received from all of them and from you guys. It would have been devastating to me otherwise. So even though every ounce of my body said quit, I said one more mile, every mile.

I didn’t let myself look at my watch at all. I didn’t want to get discouraged. I ran a pace that felt “too easy” because I knew it would eventually feel too hard. And over the next 14 miles, I not only didn’t get passed, but I actually passed people. I knew I wasn’t having a run anywhere close to what I’d had in Lanzarote or Wales, but I was running and that’s all the mattered.

Run Finish – Discovering a New Universe of Pain

It was around mile 15 that things entered a new universe (my “labor”) level of pain and fatigue. Damn it, my quads hurt so bad! The one that cramped all ride was shooting pain with every single step. It was hard to think of much else. My right hamstring started cramping, and for some reason my HANDS, Oh my God my HANDS felt like they were on FIRE! I don’t know if I was going delirious or what, and I was too tired to even think about it. It was the weirdest/hardest/worst thing ever.

This is what my hands felt like, and how I reacted, from mile 15 onwards.

This is what my hands felt like, and how I reacted, from mile 15 onwards.

As I FINALLY came to the last turnaround in the energy lab around mile 18, I counted my place – 12th! As excited as that should have made me, I honestly was too wrecked to get stoked about it, and I knew that 8 more miles of running was going to take everything I could give.

On the way up the climb out of the energy lab my hamstring seized, I had to stop and was passed. After a minute or so I was able to jog again, but the next four miles I was passed by 2 other guys and couldn’t do anything to stay with them. Then Ronnie passed me with just a few miles to go and Lauren said there was another group just 20-30 seconds behind me!

Grimacing through the last 3 miles!

Grimacing through the last 3 miles! Pic Jaybird / BreedFreak Photo.

Thinking I maybe had a chance at top 15, and not wanting to slip any farther, I ran the last 2 miles as hard as I’ve ever run or exercised or done anything in my life. If I had run my other Ironmans that hard, I honestly would have finished 5 minutes faster. It was full depth, 100% everything I could possibly give. I know this because with about 500 meters left, the gas ran out completely. I got dizzy, I had trouble keeping my eyes open. My hands and feet were tingling and the numbness was moving up my extremities – my body was protecting its vital organs! I was fully lactic and felt like the T2000 in Terminator 2 when he’s being frozen. It was brutal. I couldn’t even High 5! It was everything I could do to take those last few steps.

When I half collapsed across the line, I was caught by a staffer and carried to the med tent where I spent the next 30 minutes under medical supervision before I could stand on my own. When I finally saw Lauren, I just hugged her and all I could do was cry. I felt like I’d been in battle, like I’d seen and done things I never wanted to see and do again.

Epilogue – So Hard, But Really Proud (and maybe, more there later…)

After finally regaining some strength to stand and walk on my own, the pride of accomplishment set in and I came to the conclusions I wrote above – I’m pushed my limits to new levels, I didn’t give up, and man, I finished 16th in the freaking Ironman World Championships! When Chris Corbin saw me finish, he called it, “The greatest comeback in the history of sports.” Hahaha.

Honestly, in a race that exposes many of my weaknesses, on a day that in some ways didn’t go my way, I accomplished something that I never thought I’d ever accomplish up until maybe a year ago. If you had told me that I’d have that result on that day doing what I did a couple of years ago, I honestly wouldn’t have believed you. I achieved a lifelong dream of a solid performance at a World Championships at the highest level of professional competition. That’s pretty freaking awesome.

And of course the obsessive compulsive in me asks…is there more there? Sure. I think so. I haven’t let myself evaluate too much too soon, but it definitely wasn’t my best day. I think I could race and even approach the race differently with more success. But, I’m also not sure I’ll want to come back. It was an amazing, bucketlist experience, but there are many more in triathlon I’d like to check off, so we’ll just have to see how it goes. If that’s my one and done, I’m happy with it.

Massive Massive Massive Thank You

Even though this race “story” breaks my rule for brevity, I’m going to say a lot of thank yous to the people who helped me the most and are maybe even still reading this sentence.

Lauren and Jude – No way I could have done any of this without you guys. I love you. Tears are filling my keyboard right now thinking about it. You guys are the best.

Family – Mom, Dad, Jeff, Janna, Joyce, Joel, Liz, Waylon, Darren, Lindsay, James, Elia, Nicki, Theo, Isla, Grey, Terri, Jim – thank you, so much, for your lifelong support. All of this extends from you. All those F’ing workouts on every single day every single weekend every single vacation. They add up. Wouldn’t have been here without you.

Coach Matt & Kelli & Baxter – What a journey. You told me I could do this race successfully years before I ever believed you, and we made it happen. Thank you so much for the guidance, mentorship, and friendship. Thank you Paul and Gerry for your invaluable technical expertise as well!


The things you do for the World Championships!

Friends & Bend Peeps – Ellie & Jay at Rebound and Austin at Recharge – thank you so much for keeping me healthy all year long. Boone, Matt, Ben, Jamie, Hardy, Brett, Jason, Richard, and other off and on “training buddies” thanks for keeping me company on lots of hard miles/yards. And of course, Matt Lieto, you won’t read this but you know I love you buddy.

Sponsors, You are Awesome

Descente – Johnny, Catherine, and the many design team members who supported me this year, allowing me to race less than I ever have and focus on this event. It was incredibly valuable and I’m so stoked for the next couple of years with you guys.

Jaybird – Jason, Jeff, Craig, Rene, Judd and many others. You guys have been on this journey for 4 years now, crazy! Thank you so much for helping make it possible.

ROKA – Rob, Kurt, Ryan, Tbone, and the rest of the gang. Crazy how far we’ve come. You guys are a massive piece of my career and I’m so proud to play a small part in yours also. Thanks so much.

Picky Bars – Matt, Nadine, Sarah, Liz, Braden, Ben, Mike, Collier, Mel, and others along the way! You guys took some serious load off my shoulders the last 8 weeks. Thank you so much for giving me the space needed to do this full gas. Beers on me!

Red Bull – Ashley, Josh, Per, Sky and the rest of the team! Thank you so much for all you’ve done over the last 3 years to make this possible. I sincerely appreciate your support and encouragement!


Dimond – TJ, Brad, Matt, Reed, and the rest of the team. 2 Years ago I met you guys in Kona and was inspired by what you were doing. Pretty stoked to bring it around full circle and race a great, handmade bike in the US in Kona. The “Space Lava” Dimond Marquise really was an all-you-need tri bike, carried all my nutrition, flat stuff, handled the cross winds amazingly, and was fast! Can’t believe I still rode a 4:34 on smoked legs! Haha. Thanks guys.

ReFuel – Maurice, Mark, and the rest of the digipower team. Thanks so much for you support all year long! The Intrepid was invaluable over the trip and in Kona – especially for Lauren live tweeting my progress on her phone for almost 9 hours! Thanks so much for all your help, you guys are awesome and I’m stoked to be part of your team!

PowerTap – Justin and team – as always, the Pedals and Joule were incredible, and your support for jeez, almost 5 years now has played a big part in me getting here. Really appreciate it guys!

Knight Composites – Bev, Scott, Kevin, Mike, and the rest of the team. Those wheels were HOT! AMAZING! Seriously, the coolest looking and of course the fastest wheels I’ve ever had. Thank you so much for your help, stoked to be part of this Bend company!

Others – I owe a ton of thanks as well to supporters – Nick from TriRig who provided me with the awesome Alpha X bars I use, Michael from IceFriction for the friction free chainrings, chains, and cassettes, Ben & team from Ceramic Speed for the bearings, bottom bracket, and crazy oversized pulley and help with the bike on race week.


I write the story in my head while I’m experiencing the journey. Ultimately, it’s hoping for a happy ending to that story that keeps me going. Thank you so so so so so much for your many emails, texts, messages, comments, kudos, likes, hearts, whatever. It makes it all worth it. You guys are the best, I love each and every dozen of you.

Until next time!


74 comments to 2016 Ironman Kona World Champs Race Story (Epic)

  • Javier Romero

    Very well done Jesse! What an inspiration. Very proud of you for being such a great father/husband/entrepeneur/athlete. Will continue following you, looking forward to meeting you one day somewhere. God bless you and your family!

  • Andy Gesellmann

    Such an inspiring read Jesse. At the same time freaking scary too hearing what you have been through in that race and how you pushed through these dark moments. Looking forward to continue following your journey. Proud to be part of the same coaching team as you! Cheers, AndyG

  • David Putterman (DPutts)

    You’re the man! Thanks for all of the detail…thoroughly enjoyed the long race report. Especially love the fact that you don’t hide anything. You share all of the darkest points and how you got through them. Lots of people don’t realize that everyone hurts during races, pros included….you just hurt at a much faster pace. Haha. Keep on doin’ your thing man…excited to see what it next.

  • Thanks for an amazing race report. Nothing like leaving everything out there on the course.

  • Yo JT…saw you in Juniper locker room this morning and was going to ask some technical questions about Kona, but you looked like you hadn’t had coffee yet…anyhow, courageous race, ranks second only to the w5000m semi at the 2012 Trials.

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