with JESSE THOMAS
IRONMAN Champion, 6x Wildflower Triathlon Winner & Zealios Athlete
“A six-peat. You can’t even find information on a six-peat on Google or Wikipedia. So... that explains just how hard six-peats are.”
Photo from Lavamagazine.com
We Skyped with Zealios athlete and Ironman champ Jesse Thomas to chat about the upcoming and highly anticipated Wildflower Triathlon race on May 5th and his six-peat record at the event.
Here's a quick sound bite from our interview and Jesse’s thoughts on his Wildflower history and six-peat.
But first… what is Wildflower?
Wildflower triathlon is an iconic race started back in 1983 and became known as the “Woodstock” of triathlons. Held at Lake San Antonio, CA and known for a particularly hilly and grueling course, it is one of the largest triathlon events in the world, with 7,500 athletes and 30,000 spectators attending each year at its peak. And the event is not just a race, it's a full weekend festival with live entertainment, beer and wine drinking, vendor expo and a massive tent and RV campground.
Last year (2017) the race was canceled due to prolonged drought, the economic climate, and a decrease in triathlon participation. The brief hiatus has all of us stoked for this year’s return and Jesse Thomas’ attempt to capture a possible 7-time consecutive win.
Zealios: Your Wildflower Triathlon debut was back in 2011 debut. And we heard that debut included aviators and a pair of borrowed daisy dukes. Can you confirm?
Jesse Thomas: Ha, yep. It was a real iconic look for me really.
I also rode a unicycle and swam with one hand.
Z: Wow, yeah I wasn’t sure what your bike performance was like that year…
Z: So, what makes Wildflower such a special race for everyone and for you?
JT: I think for most everybody and myself, we love Wildflower because it’s the essence of the sport. Triathlon now a days has grown a lot and, in most ways good and some others not in the essence of the sport way. It’s become more corporatized and monetized.
While Wildflower is still a huge event and costs money to go do it, the fact that everyone is sitting in campgrounds in the dirt, competing in and around each other in a festival-style event for an entire weekend makes the entire event feel more like a legitimate community experience than any other triathlon I’ve ever been a part of it.
It makes it feel small and personal because of that experience and that’s what differentiates Wildflower for me. Thousands and thousands of people, crazy competitive world class athletes, but feels kind of like a hometown Saturday race which is really cool. I like that vibe and think that’s what attracts people to it.
Z: You nailed it. Wildflower is a really special event and that’s actually where the Zealios team met you. It was 2015 and our first Triathlon event as a company. The event is really special to us as well.
This year is going to be exciting after the brief hiatus last year and it’s Wildflower’s 35th anniversary. What are you most looking forward to in this year’s race?
JT: Weirdly to me, it feels like Wildflower has come full circle and in a way that makes me feel like this could be my last Wildflower. And not in that I’m going to retire or never race Wildflower again.
I think about the first time I did it, which will now be 7 years ago and that time in my career triathlon was such an unknown and trying to race professionally was such an unknown. I didn’t know what was going to happen to me in that race much less in my career. I didn’t even know what it meant to have a triathlon career. I’ve been a legitimate professional athlete for 6 years now and making a living doing it - more of a living than I ever dreamt of.
This year my whole family will be down there including my almost 5 year old son (Jude) and 7 month old daughter (Zadi). It’s going to be a complete circus. It’s going to be weirdly less about me than Wildflower has been for a really long time. Basically like the first time I did Wildflower when no one knew who I was.
It’s a weird thing where I’ve gone through this whole cycle in my career and now I’m back to the start and going back to where it started and it will be nice to experience it with my kids. I have no expectations for the race. Knowing all of this, I’ll be soaking it up under the guise of if it isn’t my last one, there are only so many left.
Z: Sounds like a really good mental place to be before the race. Congrats man.
Z: Repeats are hard and six-peats are so hard in fact that Wikipedia doesn’t have a web page covering six-peats!
JT: In all fairness, there have been bigger, better, longer streaks. Dave Scott has 6 Konas titles. That’s just ridiculous and not even on the same universe. When I won the sixth Wildflower, Herbert at Slowtwitch.com wrote about some other streaks like Cameron Brown’s 10 Ironman New Zealand wins, just totally insane, Mark Allen did the same thing with Ironman France. There are some bigger, better events out there. Ha, and by no means am I trying to equate myself to Dave Scott or Mark Allen or Cameron Brown in any way.
Outside of those guys, my Wildflower streak is unique and even for me personally to have raced the same event for 6 years in a row without injury or something else popping up. And while any year wasn’t particularly stacked with a super deep competitor field, each year I beat some really good guys. Terenzo Bozzone, Joe Gambles, Andrew Starykowicz, Jordan Rapp. There’s some good competition out there.
Z: Why do you think you’ve had good success at Wildflower?
JT: Flat out, it’s a good course for me. Because it’s almost always a wetsuit swim so it makes my shitty swimming less of a big deal. A really hard bike ride, so my strong cycling is more of a big deal. Actually it’s a really long ride. I think my fastest time on the bike is 2:15 which is really slow.
Same with the run, it’s like 75-80 minutes of running if you’re running well so you have more time to catch up. The run just eats people up and I’ve been able to run well there. The last two years to be honest, were even more to my advantage when you had the swim, run, bike, run because there was more running and harder running. I had this 2.5 hard run to catch everyone after the swim. This year will go back to the normal swim, bike, run which is actually harder for me.
Also, in early May my body seems to be firing. It’s been summer-ish in Bend for 5-6 weeks now and just enough for me to be outdoors training. My body seems to be in good shape and not burnt out from training too hard.
Z: Wildflower is definitely known as a demanding course with lots of hills. Do you have a favorite part of the race course?
JT: On the bike it’s turning right off Jolon road.
The bike starts climbing out of the park which is a steep, long climb. Then you’re on rolling hills for the next 15 miles followed by a dead flat spot that usually has a tail crosswind for like 15 miles and it’s pretty boring to be honest and it’s a grind where you can see 2 miles down the road. Then you take a right and at that point you’re tired and 30-35 miles into the race and you need a change of scenery. Then it turns into a farm road with smooth pavement that winds through orchards, goes across a bridge and I just love that section. It’s a road that I’d love to just go on a bike ride on. I feel re-energized at that point. Which is 5 miles before the ‘Nasty Grade’ climb so I start riding hard here.
The run is so epic and my favorite is coming down through the campgrounds around mile 8 or 9. You come off a super lonely-ish single track brutal climb and coming off the dirt road and all of a sudden you see people again and it’s pretty energizing. I love that section.
Photo from Triathlete.com Photographer: Aaron Hersh
Z: Is that where all of the Cal Poly guys jump out at the naked aid station?
JT: Ha! Yep, the naked aid station is somewhere in that range. I can’t remember exactly where it is. When I’m running there I know exactly where it is.
Photo from lovethehurt.blogspot.com
Z: Ah, your visual memory kicks in....there are going to be naked dudes chasing me any minute now.
JT: Ha, yeah it’s somewhere in that area. They don’t do it in the actual campground obviously they don’t want to be running around naked in the campground.
Z: So this year’s pro field - do you have any thoughts or predictions?
JT: I have no idea. I haven’t looked at it yet. But I should as it’s my next race.
I’d imagine it’ll be similar to what it has been with 3-4 really good established guys and a few up-and-coming early pros. But I have no idea. It could attract a bigger field as there’s more momentum this year.
Z: We’re stoked for Wildflower and can’t wait to cheer you on out there.
Z: Switching gears… We’re all jealous you started your own podcast, Work Play Love with your wife Lauren. Actually I just listened to the first episode and dig the Dear Abby format style.
JT: Thank you. I really appreciate that.
Lauren and I have both been writers for a long time. Lauren had a Runner’s World column, I had a Triathlete Magazine column for a long time and we’ve both been blogging for awhile. We still like writing, but it’s hard to make time to write and we wanted to find something we could do together.
And we know the last thing the world needs is another Podcast, but we don’t see a podcast in our space that tackles the issue of balancing work, sport and family.
For better and for worse, Lauren and I have become spokespeople for these three things in our small communities by virtue of being a family, having kids, owning a business and competing at a high level.
Z: How did the Dear Abby style come about?
JT: We didn’t want to go on and just tell stories or read through a column and we wanted to make it as informational as possible.
We get questions on social media all the time and we don’t have time to write everyone back. We try to respond to as many as we can, so why not use these questions on the podcast. I think listeners will find it interesting to get a female and male perspective and some humor mixed in.
So far the response has been positive and episode #2 just went up. We’ve already recorded a couple more episodes and plan to release one a week.
Z: We’re always trying to mooch good podcasts. What are some of your favorites?
JT: I spend so much time with headphones on exercising that I churn through a lot of stuff.
My favorite and more recent podcast that I’m totally into is How I Built This, which interviews founders of various companies talking through their story of how they started a company. Also, The Purple Patch by Matt Dixon, my coach is a good one. It has more technical heavy information for triathletes.
Z: Nice man, those are some good things for people to take away with them. As always, it was a pleasure to catch up. It’s going to be an epic year at Wildflower and we’re pumped to be part of your Wildflower journey.