Jesse Thomas cruised to a no-drama 5th straight Wildflower long course victory. All the fireworks came with the women's race as fellow Bend, Oregon resident Heather Jackson fought her way into a late lead after a race-long duel with Rachel McBride only to have Liz Lyles make a pass with 200 meters from the finish to dash Jackson's quest for a Wildflower 4-peat.
Curiously, Cliff English coaches the three women who filled the podium at Wildflower after a race-long battle.
But he was not on scene at Wildflower - and thus avoided a nervous breakdown.
Emily Cocks led the swim in 24:46, followed 35 seconds later by a pack that included Rachel McBride, Carrie Lester, Laurel Wassner, and Jillian Petersen with Heather Jackson and Liz Lyles following 80 seconds later.
Killer runners Jackson and Lyles erased almost all that margin with sub 14 minute runs - but did not gain anything on McBride who took off out front on then bike leg. “On the bike I knew I had to bike hard with Heather to catch Rachel at the front,” said Lyles. “I covered my watts so I didn't know how hard I was going - I was afraid it might be a limiting factor.”
Riding just ahead of Lyles, Jackson caught McBride at Mile 10 and led to Mile 25. “At that point Rachel came by me,” said Jackson. “Then on every downhill she would pull away and I could not pull it back on the climbs. On the final hill after Nasty Grade, she surged and got a bit of a gap, maybe 45 seconds. I told myself this was OK - I had confidence in my run.”
Starting the run, McBride started strong but Jackson took back the lead in the second mile of the second run. “After I took the lead, I started cramping - the trails were all canted to the outside and provoked the cramping.”
At that moment, McBride ran back past Jackson and opened a good lead charging on a steep dirt downhill. By Mile 9 of the second run, Jackson spotted McBride ahead on a paved section. “I lost sight of her that whole last of road section she was so far ahead. All of a sudden I could see her and I could tell she was imploding. So for about 4 minutes I was thinking, ‘Oh my God! I'm going to be able to do it!’”
At that moment, things took a shocking turn for Jackson. “Then the lead bike guy who was with me said ‘Oh, she is coming back. It looks like she is closing on you.’ I thought he meant Rachel. I was wondering: ‘Did she get a second wind?’ I was panicked and pushing up that final hill. Then he said, ‘Oh she is really closing.’ As we started the steep downhill on the last mile to the finish, I was thinking, ‘Oh Rachel can’t be coming back.’ I was wondering, ‘Would I beat her in a sprint?’ I was not sure she is a pure runner. Then I looked back and it was Liz. She looked really fresh.”
Jackson held a 20 yard lead at the start of the big downhill and held the margin until she reached the flat with 400 meters to go.
“I didn’t gain anything on the downhill,” said Lyles. “When it flattened out. I closed my eye and told myself, ‘Liz, give it one little kick here.’ That brought me within 15 yards. When we hit the finish chute, we were shoulder to shoulder. At that first little left, I told myself, ‘Just do a 30 second pickup.’ I picked it up and she didn't respond. I picked it up on the little right turn and she didn't respond. Then I just tried to hold on down the straight. It was painful as hell.”
“It was weird,” said Jackson. “All of a sudden I had nothing left and she just took off.”
While the preliminary results showed Lyles with a 2 minutes lead on Jackson at the finish, the defending champion collapsed at the line not more than 15 yards back of the winner. “I wasn't disappointed because I didn't win a fourth title,” said Jackson. “You are going to win some and lose some. I was disappointed I didn’t do something about my nutrition and hydration. It was my own fault. Plus I was so concerned with Rachel, I just forgot about Liz. All of a sudden, wow!”
Jackson put on ice to reduce her core temperature and had three IV bags and was back to normal an hour later. “Once Liz took off, I have no memory about running the final chute,” said Jackson.
Thomas combined a 7th-fastest 24:32 swim, a race-best 12:26 split for the 2.2-mile connecting run, a close to race-best 2:19:18 bike split and 3rd-best 1:10:05 split for the final 10.9-mile run to finish in 4:10:02 with a 2:19 margin on close friend Matt Lieto and 2:56 over 3rd-place finisher Chris Leiferman.
The win was Thomas’s 5th in a row on this half Ironman-distance classic, putting him one win ahead of Chris McCormack and Cameron Widoff, neither of whom won four in a row.
“It is really cool to hear my name mentioned with some of the legends of the sport,”
said Thomas. “Admittedly that was a different time and there are more races now - and St. George today draws a lot of the top guys in the sport. But hey I beat everybody that showed up. And over the years I've beaten some guys that race real well - Joe Gambles, Jordan Rapp, Leon Griffin, Andrew Starykowicz and James Cunnama. So I'm happy with it.”
On a clear blue skies day with moderate winds and mild temperatures, Thomas' finish time was 11:03 slower than his 2012 winning time, which remains the third-fastest Wildflower men's long course time. Thomas laid the blame on the adaptation required by low water levels in Lake San Antonio, which required a move to the east end of the reservoir for the swim and a draining 2.2-mile connecting uphill run through soft sand to reach the transition area.
The race began with swift swims by recent swim-bike sensation Davide Giardini and Brian Fleischmann, who exited the swim with nearly identical 22:05 splits - 2:27 ahead of a pack that included Thomas, Lieto, Chris Leiferman, Derek Garcia, Matt Reed and Mark Bowstead. On the run through the dry reservoir, Thomas and Reed blazed past that crowd with sub-12:30 splits that brought them within 2 minutes of Giardini and Fleischmann. On the bike, Thomas left an off-form Reed behind, caught and passed Fleischmann at Mile 30 and arrived at Giardini’s wheel at the bottom of Nasty Grade at Mile 40. “I rode with him up the hill, just kind of kept pressure on the pedals a little bit,” said Thomas. “I was pretty stoked because I ran out of the swim real hard and I rode the first half of the bike pretty hard too. But I didn’t feel like I rode way outside myself to catch him.”
After climbing Nasty Grade, Thomas felt strong and rode away to lead the field into T2. “To have the luxury of the lead after the bike is something I've experienced in just one or two races,” said Thomas. “So I tried to relax on the run and keep myself from cramping.”
Thomas’ 1:10:05 split for the 10.9-mile final run was enough to hold off Lieto - who had nearly identical swim, bike and second run splits but lost the race grinding through the riverbed sand after the swim.
Lieto said this was the best race of his career. “This was the first race I did after losing a lot of weight and coming to understand what being a triathlete was all about,” said Lieto. “For me my goal was always to be on the podium here. Back in 2011 I convinced Jesse to come race here and he won and bumped me off the podium - I was 4th. So it was a dream come true for me to be second here. You want to win every race you enter, but Jesse is the man at this race.”
After a sub-par bike, Reed blazed to a race-best 1:04:10 second run which advanced him from 14th to 6th at the finish. Leiferman also blazed the second run with a second-best 1:05:56 split which advanced him to 3rd at the finish, 37 seconds behind Lieto.
Wildflower Long Course
Lake San Antonio, California
May 2, 2015
S 1.2. mi. / R 2.2 mi. / B 56 mi. / R 12.9 mi.
1. Elizabeth Lyles (USA) 4:32:07
2. Heather Jackson (USA) 4:32:10
3. Rachel McBride (CAN) 4:36:10
4. Carrie Lester (AUS) 4:44:09
5. Laurel Wassner (USA) 4:44:44
6. Jillian Petersen (USA) 4:47:14
7. Emily Cocks (USA) 4:51:29
8. Mackenzie Madison (USA) 4:54:26
9. Jen Annett (CAN) 4:55:01
10. Julie Patterson (USA) 4:56:00
1. Jesse Thomas (USA) 4:10:02
2. Matt Lieto (USA) 4:12:21
3. Chris Leiferman (USA) 4:12:58
4. Thomas Gerlach (USA) 4:14:01
5. Derek Garcia (USA) 4:14:31
6. Matt Reed (USA) 4:14:47
7. Mark Bowstead (NZL) 4:14:55
8. Nathan Killam (CAN) 4:16:10
9. Jordan Rapp (USA) 4:19:55
10. Brian Fleischmann (USA) 4:20:01