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2018 Challenge Wanaka Race Story

Heya Crazy Ass Fans!

As I posted last week – this year’s theme is Cool Races in Cool Places – and I kicked it off in style at Challenge Wanaka. As I wrote, I had relatively low expectations coming off the winter in Bend, with my energy mostly spent on family, business, and beer. But I managed to surprise myself and finish with a podium spot behind two of the best 70.3 guys on the planet! Heyo!

Let me tell you that Challenge Wanaka, as an event, environment, town, experience, lived up to, no actually exceeded, my expectations. What an amazing place. An awesome little town, incredible scenery, tough course, great people / volunteers / atmosphere – I couldn’t have asked for anything more. It’s billed as the “most scenic triathlon on the planet,” and they may be right. Well worth the trip. More about that later, but first let’s recap the race.

Swim – So Buoyant!

After finishing last year with three non-wetsuits swims, it was nice to gear up in my ROKA Maverick X for a cold, crisp, clear, freshwater lake swim. I hadn’t put that wetsuit on since Lanzarote, and I’ll be honest it definitely felt smaller than last time! But the extra “buoyancy” I was carrying must have done me well because I had a solid swim. I started next to Luke Bell, who asked me after why I didn’t swim with him and the answer to that is because I tried and failed instantly. But I got out decently, felt controlled, and managed to swim behind another Luke (McKenzie) for the first half or so. After the turnaround, I put in an effort and moved to the front of our group. I felt super smooth and fluid, just counting the strokes like normal, I didn’t feel anyone on my feet, and I could see myself slowly gaining on someone in front of us. So naturally I thought I was dropping everyone in my group. But of course, that didn’t happen and most of them passed me at the end, but I did come out with the guys I wanted to, so yeah! Just 2.5 minutes behind Javi and the front pack.

Bike – Battle Royale in Biblical Rain

I had a good transition and was the first of our group onto the bike course. The first thing I noticed was that it was raining – like raining for real awesomely nasty. It was a little annoying and worrisome, but after awhile it kind of made me feel bad ass, just hammering away on this hilly course next to a lake in a downpour! Sweet! After about 10 or 15 minutes Luke McKenzie came by me, and we soon passed Luke Bell and Jan Van Berkel and continued to push into the field.

At the first turnaround, we were just over 2 minutes down on the front group. Then I saw super strong cycling bruhs Joe Skipper and Dougal Allan less than a minute behind us and moving quickly. Knowing things were going to get extra spicy soon, I relaxed and tried to save some energy. And sure enough, when Dougal and Joe came by it was game on.

For the next hour or so, it felt a bit like a road race, with lots surges ranging from of 30 second to 5 minutes. On again off again in and around again as Dr. Suess would say. My legs felt a bit flat, so it was full gas over climbs and through crazy crosswindy/crossrainy flats, but with just enough time to relax on downhills or when the group bunched up to make it sustainable. I rode 2nd or 3rd wheel most of the time, covering gaps and surges by Joe, Dougal, and Luke. I was more or less on the rivet most of the way. With the rain and the toughness of the course, it was hard as balls, but also felt kind of awesome. I honestly was enjoying myself out there, suffering through the craziness of it all.

This pic of Braden shows best how nutty the roads and rain were, awesome! – from Triathlete Mag / Neil Kerr

We caught Javi, Braden, and Dylan with about 15k to go. Dougal and Joe broke away in that last 15k and the rest of us stayed together into the finish.


I honestly felt I’d used all my matches on the bike, and any remaining were sopping wet (dad joke), so I was expecting my legs to feel smoked on the run. I had a relatively poor transition and was out second to last of the group, with only Javier behind me, que the Jaws music. There was a lot of excitement around transition through the town, and I heard the announcer yell something like “And here comes American Jesse Thomas, with his iconic aviator sunnies!” (I may have inserted “iconic” into my memory). Needless to say I got a little excited and started out pretty fast, passing Joe, Luke Bell and eventually Dylan. It took about a mile to catch Luke McKenzie, and around two miles, Javier went by me. I figured if it took Jaws that long to catch me, I must have been having a decent run. I kept Javier in sight all the way to see him pass Dougal, who was now in 3rd, about 40 seconds in front of me around mile 5.

I love trails like Brick Tamland Loves Lamp

The run course was ridiculously awesome windy, mostly singletrack trail for the first 8 miles or so, so it was hard to see whether I was catching Dougal or not. I knew that Javier (and likely Braden Curry, also ahead and a super strong runner) were likely out of reach, so 3rd was my best bet. As we exited the first trail section we took a sharp right corner onto our first paved road, which instantly revealed a straight up a ALL CAPS HUGE ASS hill. I’m sorry if I offended any spectators by my reaction to seeing that hill, which was visceral and resulted in adult language louder than anticipated.

Grinding in on trails next to lakes next to mountains you know. Pic from Triathlete Mag / Kai Schwoerer

With Dougal in sight, I could tell he was still running strong but hurting a bit. I kept my pace up, closing the last 15 seconds pretty quickly just as we crested the top of the hill. I pressed for another mile to make sure he didn’t try to hang on, then at the only turnaround at mile 10 or so, I saw I had a minute plus on him. All I needed to do was not F it up and I’d finish in 3rd! Stoked!

I shockingly felt pretty strong the whole way in, and kept my pace – about 5:35 miles or so, to the finish. It’s amazing how much better I feel in cool weather and on trails. I honestly felt more at home on that course than almost any race I’ve ever done. It reminded me of Oregon, and I’m sure that played into how good I felt and how well I performed. While obviously hard, the race was enjoyable. Cool races in cool places for the win! Or at least for the 3rd.

Turns out February Shape is better than I thought. Maybe I need to incorporate more beer year round? Honored to share the podium today behind @jgomeznoya and @braden_currie. Did not expect to swim ride and definitely not run that well. Swipe for some great pics via @bethgmckenzie, and for a quick video recap from my insta story. Overall, this race lived up to its billing as an epic, must do event. The course was challenging, the weather was biblical, and the competition fierce. I felt like I was in my element all day regardless of place and pace, just enjoying the suffering in a beautiful part of the world. Thanks to my sponsors for the support and @challengewanaka for having me! And of course thanks to the DOZENS of crazy ass fans, I heard some of you out there today!

A post shared by Jesse Thomas (@jessemthomas) on

Overall – Life Balance for the Win? Or 3rd?

I’m honestly pretty surprised I raced so well given the travel, time of year, and feeling very underprepared. I’m about 10 pounds heavier than I was in Kona, have been training about 60% of the volume I did before Kona, and honestly haven’t thought too seriously about triathlon with family and business. But there’s something to be said there, right? For sure the course and conditions maximized my strengths and limited of my weaknesses (cold wetsuit swim, slow/hilly bike, cold/rainy weather, tough trail run), but it isn’t lost on me that I performed well by seemingly doing “less” and definitely having a more overall life-balanced approach, mentally and physically going into this race than the end of last season. It’s only one race, but I’m taking it to heart and going to keep it up, (or I guess maybe keep doing less?) and see how it goes.

Wanaka You’re Bad Ass

I will say that Wanaka stole a tiny piece of my heart. It reminded me in a lot of ways of Bend, maybe even Bend like 15 or 20 years ago. The original plan was to come over for a few weeks with family, but cost, time and a last minute vacation nixed that plan. So the trip was quick, but I did get basically two days to hang out after the race and enjoy another swim, bike, and run and some time in town. Shockingly, I didn’t feel too bad either, so I managed to get in some scenic excursions, just around the lake. It was pretty epic and beautiful, definitely my type of place, and a race and town I’d strongly recommend experiencing if you value the same. I hope to come back with family in tow and stay for a few weeks and really explore and enjoy. Maybe 2019….


Huge thanks to the organizers of Challenge Wanaka for the experience and hospitality – Bill, Belinda, Vics, Catherine, and others! Also very special thanks to my hosts Chris and Sue for the awesome place to stay and even awesomer food! You guys were a fantastic homestay and I hope to do it again down the road.

Big old thanks to my sponsors for all the gear, love, and support. I’m super lucky to have sponsors that aren’t only focused on world championship racing and results, and allow me the flexibility to structure a season like this one.

  • Descente Global – Super fast race kit, amazing apparel, gear, shoes, and support. Thanks guys!
  • ROKA – wetsuits, swim, goggles, and of course, performance aviators. You guys rock!
  • Jaybird – dopest headphones out there, thanks dudes!
  • Red Bull – wings, energy, support to do crazy ass stuff. Thanks a ton!
  • Picky Bars – real food (oatmeal for breakfast, bars for riding), and awesome employees.
  • Dimond – Fast ass bike!
  • Knight Composites – Fast ass wheels!
  • Also thanks to TriRig for the aero bars, Giro for shoes and helmets, and my boys at Zealios for sunscreen!

My family, friends, coach as well. You guys are the best! Stoked to get home and enjoy some time with the kiddos. Last but not least the DOZENS of crazy ass fans who read this stuff all over the world, I see you!

Lastly – check out this awesome video from Picky Bars today featuring buddy and Olympian Andrew Wheating, who just retired from racing.

2 comments to 2018 Challenge Wanaka Race Story

  • sandra sharma

    Well done Jesse.New Zealand is a beautiful place to visit.I hope you have a chance to compete in an Aussie triathlon.Cheers,

  • Roo

    Awesome write up! Congrats on an early season podium finish! 10 lbs gained since Kona and still finished top 3? I’ll have what you’re having please…..

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