LAKE SAN ANTONIO, California -- Jesse Thomas, a 2002 Stanford steeplechaser who is in his first year as a triathlon professional, shocked the men's field with a come-from-behind victory at the 29th Wildflower long course triathlon Saturday. After two second place Wildflower finishes, two-time ITU world champion Leanda Cave held off a strong charge by Mary Beth Ellis by 7 seconds to claim the women's crown at the challenging, classic half Ironman distance test in Monterey County, California.
"I can't quite believe it yet," said an exuberant Thomas after finishing in 4:04:45 with a 26-seconds margin over runner-up Clayton Fettell and 1:14 over third-place James Cunnama. "It's like a dream!"
Cave, who took second to Samantha McGlone in 2008 and second to Virginia Berasategui in 2009, held off a race-long push by Mary Beth Ellis by a razor-slim 7 seconds margin to win her first Wildflower title.
"I've won other big titles, but I love this race and always wanted to win here," said Cave. "I've had close races with Mary Beth many times and she really got the best out of me today." In fact, Cave came just five seconds short of Julie Dibens' 2010 race record -- an excellent accomplishment on a day where the bike course was beset by strong head- and side-winds.
Thomas, who quit the Texas Ironman 70.3 at Galveston with cramps a few weeks ago, came out of the water 17th, surged to 8th place, 6:30 back of the leaders by the end of the bike, then blitzed past 7 men with a race-best 1:13:53 run.
Thomas made quick work of the first 4 men on the run, but was still out of sight of leader Clayton Fettell of Australia and hard charging chaser James Cunnama of South Africa with 3 miles to go. Once the three men hit the 10-mile run turnaround, Fettell noted that the previously unknown Thomas ("that guy in black") was moving well, but his attention was focused on holding off Cunnama, who had two Ironman 70.3 runner-up finishes this year.
"I was focusing on catching Clayton, but then this guy passed me like I was standing still," said Cunnama after surrendering 2nd place at Mile 11.5. Fettell said he hadn't looked back and was focusing on his stride when Thomas approached from behind as they neared the top of the steep declivity of Beach Hill at Mile 12.
"He came by me so fast there was nothing I could do," said Fettell, whose previous best competitive performance was a 5th at the Ishigaki World Cup in 2009.
"I knew from my running days when you pass someone you crush it," said Thomas. "You don't want to leave them any hope they can stay with you."
Still, there were bad memories of his hamstring malady in Texas, so Thomas comforted himself with one idea: "I knew if my legs stayed attached to my body, nobody could outrun with in a sprint finish," said the man with an 8:35 PR in the steeplechase and a low 14-minute 5k PR.
Matt Lieto, who was rooming with Thomas at Wildflower, had a well-balanced day with a 9th- best 24:15 swim, 6th-best 2:20:58 bike and 8th best 1:20:47 run to take 4th place in 4:09:05.
Chris Legh, the 2000 Wildflower champion, combined a 24:58 swim, a 2:24:19 bike and a 4th-best 1:17:40 run to finish 5th in 4:09:49. Jordan Rapp had the 2nd best bike in 2:19:15 but faded to 6th with a 1:23:17 run to finish in 4:10:54. Nicholas Thompson surged to 7th with a 2nd best 1:16:54 run, while Tim DeBoom took 8th in 4:12:08.
Current Ironman 70.3 World Champion Jodie Swallow of Great Britain emerged from the water first with a 23:53 swim, followed by Mary Beth Ellis (24:42) Leanda Cave and Tenille Hoogland (both 24:44), Annie Warner (24:46) Samantha Warriner (25:59), Emily Cocks (26:00), Magali Tisseyre (26:01), and 2009 Wildflower champion Virginia Berasategui (26:04).
On the bike, much honored stars Berasategui and Swallow both got position fouls via the stagger rule in effect in Wildflower. Both failed to see the justice in the calls, which nonetheless cost them both 2 minutes and lost momentum which threw them both out of contention.
Cave and Ellis survived the bike unscathed by penalties and they posted the fastest (2:34:20 by Cave) and second best bike splits (2:35:19 by Ellis) and took off well ahead on the run. When the duel was over, Cave won it on the bike. Her third-best women's run of 1:25:37 held off Ellis's second-best 1:24:42 run by those sliver-thin 7 seconds, leaving them plenty of room to withstand third-place finisher Magali Tisseyre's women's best 1:23:59 run by 4 minutes.
In a personal landmark finish, Canadian Tenille Hoogland, who won the Tri-California Treasure Island Triathlon and San Francisco Triathlon at Alcatraz last year, combined a 24:45 swim, 2:37:54 bike and a 1:30:33 run to finish 4th, ahead of famed competitors Virginia Berasategui (5th) Samantha Warriner (6th), Jodie Swallow (7th) and Desiree Ficker (8th).
Avia Wildflower Long Course Triathlon
Lake San Antonio, California
April 30, 2011
S 1.2 mi/ / B 56 mi. / R 13.1 mi.
1. Jesse Thomas (USA) 4:04:45
2. Clayton Fettell (AUS) 4:05:11
3. James Cunnama (RSA) 4:05:59
4. Matt Lieto (USA) 4:09:05
5. Chris Legh (AUS) 4:09:49
6. Jordan Rapp (USA) 4:10:54
7. Nicholas Thompson (USA) 4:11:07
8. Timothy DeBoom (USA) 4:12:08
9. Bjorn Andersson (SWE) 4:14:36
10. Dan Hugo (RSA) 4:15:41
1. Leanda Cave (GBR) 4:27:58
2. Mary Beth Ellis (USA) 4:28:05
3. Magali Tisseyre (CAN) 4:32:06
4. Tenille Hoogland (CAN) 4:36:26
5. Virginia Berasategui (ESP) 4:37:16
6. Samantha Warriner (NZL) 4:39:07
7. Jodie Swallow (GBR) 4:43:50
8. Desiree Ficker (USA) 4:46:03
9. Annie Warner (USA) 4:48:09
10. Julia Grant (NZL) 4:51:15