Leap Day Sports - The Triathlife of Jesse Thomas

2018 Wildflower Race Story – Full Circle

All good things must come to an end. I mean, even MJ didn’t win seven! And I’m definitely no MJ! What was I thinking? Hahahaha.

Last weekend was nostalgic, emotionally, physically, and mentally demanding, but ultimately a rewarding, enjoyable, and I think, appropriate experience for what I said felt like my “full circle” seventh Wildflower with my family.. I am super proud of my effort and my performance. It wasn’t my best day, but it was a solid day. I’m also happy to pass the torch of Wildflower Champ to a very talented, young, and high potential athlete, Rudy Von Berg. Rudy is a 2-time Collegiate National Champion and placed 13th last year at 70.3 Worlds in a stacked field at the age of 24! While some of you might not know him yet, he’s on his way to being one of the best in the world!

A deserved congrats to Rudy on an awesome race! Photo cred Kaori Photo

Like I said prior to the race, going into this year, it always felt like this at least had the potential to be my last Wildflower. I’m 38, have two kids now and a growing, high potential business. I’m feeling more pull toward spending time (and not so-freaking-tired time) with my kids, and tackling the challenges Picky Bars faces to get to the next level, which in some ways are more intriguing and interesting to me than trying to win another big race.

Lauren and I launched a podcast where we answer your questions about all things sport, family, biz, and the balance between! It’s been an awesome way to discuss the craziness of trying to balance it all these last few years and as we progress to the next phase.

Of course, I am still racing this year full gas, with high expectations of performance. But all this still plays in my mind in the background, so I wanted to make sure I enjoyed this Wildflower regardless of result. And that I did. Here’s what went down:

Swim – I Won’t Spoil It With Intro Title (Strava / GPS link)

I got out well and – wait for it – actually felt good on the swim! Say what!?! I know I’ve almost never said this before, but I felt smooth and strong swimming out there! It was shocking. I was actually in 3rd place for 100 meters or so when a couple of guys came around me and pulled away, but I swam the rest of the swim in the lead of my pack, pretty focused, smooth, and working hard. It’s the first time I swam out of a draft for the whole race since I was so slow I couldn’t even draft on anyone. I knew that Rudy was the guy to beat since he’d beaten me at both Oceanside and 70.3 Worlds, and he’s a great swimmer, so I was trying to limit the damage. I came out of the water about 2 minutes back, which I was pretty happy with. I made up a few seconds in T1 and was off to the races.

Maybe I swam well because I was stoked at the start line! Good times with good dudes. Photo cred Kaori Photo

Bike – Flat Legs and Feeling Like an Old Man (Strava / GPS / Power File)

Rudy also out split me by about a minute on the bike at Oceanside a month ago, so I knew the race would come down to me staying close enough after the swim and bike to have a chance to catch him on the run. I got out hard, passed two guys and could see him and Davide Giardini up the first hill, about 1:45 up on me. I thought my best chance was to try and get as close as I could early so I could keep motivated by having him in sight every once in a while. So I rode pretty hard for the first 15 miles, checking each long stretch to see if I was keeping distance. My legs felt tight, but I tried to stay focused and keep pushing. I eventually caught and passed Davide, but still couldn’t see Rudy.

Digging in and trying to stay close. Photo cred Kaori Photo

I got a little demoralized as we rounded the corner onto Jolon road around mile 20, the one place on the course where you take a right turn in an open meadow and can usually see a couple of minutes up the road. I couldn’t see him, and knew he was likely pulling away from me based on how I felt. That Jolon stretch is always the most difficult for me mentally and physically. It’s a 15 mile flat, boring stretch on bumpy roads, usually with a cross wind. I always struggle on long flat stretches because of my neck and sciatic problems which limit my ability to stay aero while riding hard for long stretches (one of the main reasons I prefer, and do well on, hilly courses like Wildflower). The last year or two it’s gotten worse with age, and man my sciatic was PISSED on Saturday. My left leg was numb from the hammy down and aching for most of that stretch, forcing me to back off every 5-10 minutes to regain feeling. Knowing I was losing time obviously added to the frustration. It was definitely the low point of the race. I honestly felt….OLD. Ha! Seriously, at one point I thought – I’m chasing this talented kid like 15 years younger than me out on a road in the middle of nowhere by myself and my back is aching and my foot is going numb and I’m like, I’m too old for this $h!t! Obviously I don’t fully believe that, but there’s truth to every feeling, and those are the games your mind plays when you feel like ass.

Trying to “reset” and not feel too old for this $h!t! Hahaha. Photo cred Kaori Photo

As I exited Jolon road I knew I was losing time but had hope that Rudy might underestimate the course and go too hard too early. So I tried to reset – knowing the last 15 miles through the hills were always my specialty. I set a new lap on my cycling computer (a nice way to mentally reset as well) and focused on keeping a good effort all the way home. The long climb let me sit up and climb out of the saddle for about 10 minutes straight, which somewhat relieved my hamstring and sciatic, and once I got some feeling in my lower leg the power came back a bit. I finished actually pretty well I think, but I knew I’d given up more time.

T2 – I knew I had my work cut out for me, but still with hope for a big chase. Photo cred Kaori Photo

Run – Chase Chase Chase! (GPS / Strava File)

I came into T2 and heard the announcer say, “and here’s Jesse Thomas, he’s 5:10 down! It’s a big gap, but if there’s one guy that could do it, it’s him!” I’ve raced Rudy enough to know that it was unlikely I’d run 5 minutes into him unless he blew up. But I’ve raced this race enough to know that blowing up is a definite possibility, particularly if you ride or run too hard early. So I set out with a chase mindset, saying that if he did start to struggle, I wanted to at least be in position to take advantage of it.

I ran the first 3 miles hard and got a split – just under 4 minutes down. I’d pulled back a minute and the math in my head said it was possible, so I kept pushing, knowing that my pace might be unsustainable.

Getting out hard on the chase! Photo cred Kaori Photo

The course was as hard as ever and I suffered through the sandy single track and up the ridiculously steep hills. I don’t know if it’s mental, hydration, or because it’s a minute after a crazy steep downhill following the really long uphill, but I cramped at the EXACT spot I cramp every single time on this run, at 5.5 miles. I slowed for a couple of minutes as I tried to run/limp through it, and it eventually loosened up. It was clear my body was starting to give into the pace, but I still hoped I was gaining.

Pushing through the campground, but starting to feel the wheels come off. Photo cred Kaori Photo

I got into the campground and someone told me I was just 2.5 minutes down – but I only had about 5 miles to go. Technically possible, but unlikely unless Rudy had problems. I continued to push, getting as much out of myself as possible, even though the tank was starting to run empty. I finally saw Rudy at the turnaround at mile 10.5 and got my own split – 2 minutes on the dot. I’d made up a lot of ground, and Rudy looked tired, but he clearly wasn’t blowing up, and with just about 2 miles to go, my chances were slim to none. I charged back up the hill for about two minutes before my I ran out of steam. It was at that point, just after 11 miles, that I gave in.

Finish – Relax, Enjoy, Reflect

I spent the last mile and a half relaxing, reflecting, and enjoying the cheers from the volunteers, announcers, and spectators. I smiled and waved, remembering my many times down this final stretch, each with their own struggles, victories, and stories. I may or may not have teared up a bit remembering it all. I slowed down the long finish chute to give high fives to every person possible.

I’ve recounted many times that when I crossed the finish line in my first surprise win here in 2011 that the announcer didn’t know my name. I was as shocked as him and the crowd. I had to call Lauren and my coach hours later to tell them in disbelief what had happened.

When I crossed the finish line on Saturday, I heard my name loud and clear as the “Six-time Wildflower Champion!” I heard cheering as loud as ever. I gave Terry (owner of Tri-Cal) a hug, and congratulated him on the successful resurrection of his incredible event. I hugged Rudy and congratulated him on an impressive race and transfer of the title. Then in a moment that felt symbolic of my thoughts, mood and experience, I pivoted from my career at Wildflower to see my future, as Jude stood there with Lauren and Zadie, ready to put my finisher medal on me. We hugged, smiled, and celebrated…seven years well done.

Best moment of the day. Photo cred Kaori Photo

My crew! Photo cred Kaori Photo

Wildflower, Thanks From Me to You

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it here again – this race means a lot to me. It launched, and in many ways sustained, my career. It was a storybook platform to begin a chapter of my life that I never expected and couldn’t have written better myself. It will always mean more to me than any other event.

Proud and thankful for these seven years and all the memories, thanks guys!

But more importantly than what this race means to me – I think it means a lot to the sport. It’s obviously a famed event with a rich history of amazing performances by competitors much more accomplished than myself. But it also, to me, represents the heart and soul of triathlon. It’s one of the oldest, biggest, and most important races on the planet that’s still independently owned and operated. The experience you get at this race, I think because of the communal living and camping environment, creates a camaraderie among participants, competitors, volunteers and spectators that is unlike any race I’ve ever experienced in the many I’ve raced all around the world. It truly is one of a kind, and I hope that it continues to thrive, and I encourage all of you to experience it if you haven’t.

So happy for Terry and the Tri Cal crew to see this race thriving again, hope it does for many more years! Photo cred Kaori Photo

Thanks everyone for the awesome memories at this race. Thanks to my family, my sponsors, my coach and DOZENS of crazy ass fans for your support. I know this blog might feel like a swan song sign off from Wildflower – and I don’t overly intend it to feel that way, but it’s a reflection of how the weekend felt at this time. Never say never, but if it is my last one, at least at this level, I want to say how I feel about it and thanks for what it means to me. I could always pull a Brett Favre and come back and shit maybe win it again or something, who knows, but for now I’ll go with how I feel in the moment and tell you guys thanks, and that it’s honestly been a blast. Until next time!

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