Jesse Thomas surprised quite a few folks with his recent win at the 2011 Avia Wildflower triathlon and to some degree he most likely also surprised himself. Slowtwitch had a few words with the fast running triathlete from Oregon.
Slowtwitch: Congrats again on a great performance at Wildflower.
Jesse: Thank you so much. Crazy days, wow. Just a completely surreal and humbling experience.
ST: How much longer do you think you'll be on cloud nine?
Jesse: It's been a few days, so I’m safely off cloud nine. A friend found a video of my immediate post race interview with Tri-California that is the definition of cloud nine - I’m freaking out, rambling about how my wife’s going to freak out, I even give the interviewer an impromptu and slightly awkward hug at the end. Don’t get me wrong, I’m definitely still floating, but I’d say I’m closer to cloud 7 or 6 now. The surprise and unexpectedness of this result was a truly unique and amazing experience that I’ll probably never be able to re-create, so I’ll soak it up as much as I can. But from here, I’m back on my plan, thinking about the next races, and hope to continue to improve and perform.
ST: It appears it all fell in place for you. Talk about the race itself.
Jesse: I wouldn’t say it all fell into place, there were at least a few times I thought this one might be a stinker! But I executed my plan, and on the day, it ended up being enough to win. My goal was literally to finish, I DNF’ed my last half, which was the reason I signed up for the race so late.
I approached each section with a simple mantra "respect the course, but don’t fear the course." So I eased into the first half of the bike, which at the time felt like I was moving backward because guys were passing me, but ended up being a smart move that allowed me to move up in the second half.
The run was the same, I just relaxed, ran my own pace with the goal of getting to 10 miles still feeling strong. There were a number of times I cramped on the uphills and had to stop and walk, but I kept my cool, pushed the flats and downhills, and just stayed relaxed. At mile 11, the leaders came into my sights, competitive mode set in, and I went for it. I think the strategy allowed me to race free and allowed my body to do what it was capable of on the day.
ST: Well, we heard that you raced Wildflower on the bike of a friend because yours broke the weekend prior. So maybe not everything fell completely in place.
Jesse: Ha! Yes, leading into the race, nothing fell into place. My bike broke, so I borrowed a bike (thanks to Nick Alden for the generosity). I flatted twice in torrential rain on my last two rides. My coach (Matt Dixon of purplepatch fitness) pummeled me the 10-14 days leading into the race, leaving me feeling terrible through my last workout Friday afternoon. Hats off to Matt though, he predicted that I’d feel terrible up till Friday, but that I’d positively respond and have a "clean slate" on Saturday. He was right.
ST: At what part of the run did you realize that the podium was within reach?
Jesse: Well, I kind of floated into third place without really thinking about it, I was just focused on being relaxed. I passed two guys at about the same time, so I don’t think it set in that I was in third for at least a mile or two. Then people started telling me that 1st and 2nd were getting closer. At that point, I did my best to not get too excited, the last thing I wanted to do was open up to catch them and pay the price by not being able to finish, which I thought was a real possibility. Once I had them in my sight at mile 11, it was impossible to stop that competitive drive from increasing my turnover and picking up the pace. When you view yourself as a runner, and you’ve got guys in your sight on the run at the end of the race, oh man, you’re going to do everything you can to get that win.
ST: Do you think Matt Lieto will ever invite you to another race? After all, you pretty much bumped him off the podium.
Jesse: Ha! I’m scared of how Matt will collect my debt. He gave me a ride down in his van, let me stay in his cabin, and let me borrow his old aero helmet (I’m really into borrowing stuff). In exchange, we had an agreement called "Clause C" which simply stated, I wasn’t allowed to pass him on the run.
When I came up behind him at mile 5, he held up his arm and made a "C" with his hand, seriously. So I pulled up next to him and asked, "Can I get an exemption?" He paused for a few seconds to contemplate and replied with a smirk, "Ok. Just this once."
Seriously though, I’m in huge debt to Matt, he’s shown me the ropes as a rookie pro and helped me develop immensely. He’s been a great friend, and it was awesome to celebrate with him after such a great performance for both of us. He’s a class act and one of the best personalities I’ve known in any sport.
ST: About a month ago at the Kemah race you finished 5th, not too far behind Chris Lieto and Brian Fleischmann. Were you happy with your effort there?
Jesse: For the most part, yes. It was my season opener, so I didn’t know what to expect. I finished where I’d hoped to, achieved my goal of the fastest run, but I had a pretty terrible swim. I’d made such huge gains in the pool, I was hoping they’d translate to open water a little quicker, but it’s taken more time than anticipated. Overall though, to finish that close to such high quality guys was a huge rush and a very encouraging start to the season.
ST: We heard quite a bit about you being a former steeple chaser, so that begs the question when and how you came to triathlon.
Jesse: It’s a long story so I’ll use a timeline to condense and explain if that’s cool:
• 1998-2002 – Stanford Track Team, Pac-10 Champ, NCAA All-American, School Record Holder, all in the Steeple. I was a big runner, the strength and athleticism required in the steeple was a good fit.
• 2003 – Bad bad stress fracture in foot, running career is over, start cycling.
• 2004 – Quickly race my way up to CAT 3. Break my neck (C1-C2) in a freak crash (very long story), out 10 months minimum.
• 2004 – 2007 Co-Found a venture-backed tech company in San Francisco (mechanical engineering & product marketing), ridiculous amount of work, ridiculously little physical activity.
• 2007 – Get engaged, transition out of startup, spend one summer in triathlon as an age-grouper with some decent success.
• 2007-2009 – MBA at Oregon, realize there’s no way I’m training AND going to business school, learn stuff, drink beer, get out of shape again.
• Late 2009 – Lots of introspection, decide NOT to start another company, want to give triathlon one legitimate shot before I call it a wrap on athletic career.
• 2010 – Get back in shape, race primarily as an age grouper, earn pro card, start consulting to cover costs.
• Late 2010 – Join Matt Dixon at purplepatch fitness, commit to 2-3 year plan to see what’s possible for me in the sport.
ST: How long have you known coach Matt Dixon and how did you meet?
Jesse: I was introduced to him at the end of last year by Linsey Corbin and Matt Lieto. Linsey was a cross country and track teammate of mine in high school, and has had such huge success in the sport. She gave (and continues to give) me advice and connected me to Matt. We started working together basically about that time and mapping out the plan. It has been great to not only get on a progression with Matt, but also have some support and camaraderie with the other athletes in his stable. They are all much more than great athletes, they’re kind, humble, and real role models for me in the sport.
ST: So what is next?
Jesse: Oh you know, Leno, Letterman, the Today Show, guest star on Entourage. Honestly, nothing changes much. For a moment there, I was so happy I felt like the world might stop, but it didn’t. This was a very welcome and unexpected surprise, but it’s basically back to the plan from here. I’m back training, and going to an open water swim camp hosted by purplepatch and Gerry Rodrigues at Tower 26 (who’s also been very influential in my gains in the water). I still have a lot of improvement to make on my swim, and also on my bike.
I’ll race Escape from Alcatraz and Boise 70.3 in a few weeks, where I hope to improve on my performances from last year as an age grouper. I know from my running days, and even my limited triathlon experience that great days come and go, so my expectations haven’t changed because of this one race. Don’t get me wrong, I’m definitely celebrating and enjoying this performance to the fullest, but I’m excited to follow the plan, work hard on my weaknesses, and see what else I can achieve over the next few years.
ST: You really do not have too many sponsors yet. Do you think that will change now?
Jesse: I have one equipment sponsor, my boys in Eugene at Rolf Prima Wheels, awesome guys, and I thank them so much! Otherwise, I work as an independent product and marketing consultant and I run a gluten & dairy free energy bar company, Picky Bars (pickybars.com), with my wife (Lauren Fleshman, US 5k Champ) to help cover the crazy costs of being a completely unknown dude trying to make it in the sport. So I go as cheap as possible and literally race and train in stuff that is donated to me by friends and family – bikes, shoes, kits, etc. If I can’t get it free, then I spend the minimum, like the aviators I raced in that are now apparently "my thing," $11.99 at Walgreens, tough to beat!
I’m having initial conversations with some companies, and it’s been totally exciting to have some interest. But I’m taking my time and trying not to fixate on it too much, the primary goal is to continue to improve and perform. I would love some more support but I’ve got to just be patient and just let it happen.
ST: Any specific area where you really could use some assistance?
Jesse: Well since you’re asking, I’ll list them all! I need a bike before my next race, because the buddy that I borrowed from is also racing, so that’s not going to work. I would love an aero helmet, so I don’t have to borrow Matt Lieto’s anymore and deal with the crap he gives me about being a mooch. My swimsuit ripped on the butt, my wetsuit has a couple small tears, and my goggles leak slightly. My cycling shoes and racing shoes are wrecked, my wife won’t let me keep them in the house. My kit is stringing apart. You think I’m kidding about all this stuff, but I’m not, I’m the guy that patches all my tubes. Travel, airfare, oh my goodness that’s expensive, if anyone wants to hook me up with some travel budget, stipend, bonuses, I’ll tattoo their logo to my forehead (just kidding, but we can talk). If anyone makes some nice aviators, it’s a match made in heaven!
ST: Is there anything else we should know about you?
Jesse: I think that’s quite enough about me, but I’d like you to know that my wife, family, friends, coach, and the rest of my "support crew" at leapdaysports.com are the reason I’ve done anything in this sport and any other athletic endeavor. I thank them all so much for the encouragement, inspiration, and making small sacrifices to deal with my craziness while I pursue my dream. This has been a truly amazing part of the journey, and there’s no way this would have happened without them.
Find out more about Jesse Thomas at leapdaysports.com