Wildflower, fatherhood, and more: An interview with Jesse Thomas
We recently had an opportunity to catch up with pro triathlete, and four-time Wildflower winner, Jesse Thomas. He called us from the airport en route to Ironman 70.3 Eagleman to give us this report:
Q: Last year you broke your foot 3-peating at Wildflower and hadn't raced until toeing the line at Wildflower 2014. What was running through your head going into the race?
I was feeling really nervous, doubtful, and unconfident. My foot had taken so many different detours and had so many unanticipated problems. I had no idea where I was at from a fitness standpoint, particularly with the running. Up to that point, the longest I had run was 8.5 miles and had only been running for about two and a half weeks. Basically, I was unsure I'd be able to make it through the run—much less really race at a high level.
Q: Can you please tell us more about the race? Did you discover anything interesting your power file?
I had a real crappy swim. I basically battled around with one other guy, we both fell of pack, and exited the water out 30-45 seconds back from where I expected to be. Luckily I had a hard 2-mile run to make up the time, which I definitely over-ran. I had no sense of pacing and was freaked out over having a terrible swim, so I ran super, super hard. Basically it felt like a max effort for 2 miles over a really hilly, tough course.
After a good T1, I started the bike right with Leon Griffin and Andrew Starykowicz. At the time I had a decision to make: ride with Andrew or not. The reason being that Leon is a super good runner and I needed to put some distance between us if I was going to have a shot at beating him. After about a minute or so, I decided to let Andrew go because he was riding incredibly fast. I felt like I was clearly red-lining, particularly after that super hard two-mile run. Wildflower is a really hard course, and I know from experience that if you go too hard during the first half it catches up with you big time during the last 15 miles. I backed off and then had to feel like I was overworking myself to stay with Leon, who I caught a few miles in.
When I look at my power file, it's clear that I went out really hard the first 3-4 miles. Like, power out of the park. Around mile 10 things started to chill out a little bit as I think everyone was feeling the hard run and the first part of the bike. At that point Andrew was out of sight and out of mind, so we stopped actively chasing him.
Looking at my Strava segment history I can see that the next 20 miles (Mile 10 - 30) of riding was pretty easy as my watts were way low for what I'd normally ride for a 70.3. There's a long segment where you're on a long, flat-ish road where you aren't making any turns for about 30 minutes. I think I was about 3 minutes slower on that road than I have been in the past, which helped my legs recover. That allowed me to make the same hard move as I have historically, which is around mile 35/40, about 5 miles before the nasty grade that everybody talks about. From there on out I averaged well above my average watts for the last 15 miles. Historically, I was faster on the last 15 miles than I'd ever been on the Wildflower course. It definitely wasn't a pace-yourself-evenly-throughout-the-whole-course effort; it was a super gas on with recovery for 20+ miles and then super gas on again for the last 15 miles.
Run was the run. I tried not to think where I was in the race. I had no idea what to expect so every mile was a gift. I just ran it mile by mile by mile, pretending that I was out doing a long run, trying not to think of the race or the guys around me. Once I was in lead, I allowed myself to freak out about how awesome it would have been to win. And then I got nervous that I was going to lose it because I was cramping and passed the lead biker guy like 50 times during the last 4 miles. I was stoked when I got all the way down to the finish line and knew I was going to win.
I mean, [winning] was nuts. It was really nuts, honestly. It was really scary. That's the main thing I wrote about afterwards: the fear. I mean when you're in the lead; it's kind of like the worst. You're so close to accomplishing something that you're fearful that it's all going to go away. In the end, knowing the course definitely helped.
Q: So as far as your foot goes, you're good to go now right?
Yeah. Yep! I'm still slowly building up mileage and getting more active on it. But I'm pretty close to full training level now and have been for the last few weeks. I couldn't have bounced back without the support of my sponsors, including PowerTap, CycleOps, and Saris. My sponsors supported me through an injury and recovery that took longer than I'd initially thought. That was a tough time and the support that I received helped make everything possible this year.
Q: So when you had the broken foot, what adjustments did you do or what tools did you find helpful to help maintain fitness while letting your foot heal?
Tons of stuff. The first thing I used is something I call a "water condom", which is a gigantic bag type thing to put over boot to swim in pool. Then I could swim with a buoy with legs tied together and not push off the wall. I did a lot off work off the trainer when I couldn't put any weight on the foot. And then about 3-4 weeks after surgery my doctor let me get on the trainer, so I was definitely using the CycleOps PowerBeam a ton.
Honestly it was perfect because I could set it at the prescribed power without hurting my foot, and just spin on it as long as I wanted to. I did that for 4-5 weeks. At first I used the trainer with a boot on top of a flat pedal, and then clipped in 6-8 weeks post-op, once I could do some weight bearing exercise. Once 12-14 weeks post-op rolled around, I could finally ride outside.
All those trainer rides show up in Strava. I can look back and see all those trainer rides. That's when I really started using CycleOps Virtual Training. Because usually when I get on the trainer I'm in the heart of my training and I'm going to do specific intervals I want to hit. But because I wasn't doing that type of training and just doing whatever, I tried all sorts of routes with videos for a couple few weeks. It was a good tool to have.
Q: You train and race with PowerTap. How did having power help you get through the "non-traditional" training you had to do?
In the early stages of recovery it was about how much power and how much force I was allowed to do. My doctors gave me pretty good prescription levels of power. They'd be like "Hey, you can't ride above 150-200 watts" which for me is extremely low. I was also instructed to keep the cadence above 90.
Once I got back outside I was back on the PowerTap. My coach, Matt, had me do the same workout every about every 2 weeks, 3 or 4 times in a row. If I remember correctly it was a 5x5 warm-up, with 3 x14 minute interval. What was cool was seeing the first, second, and third intervals lined up side-by-side and seeing the progression of the workouts through the repetition of the interval. By the time I finished my average was way higher than it was weeks previously. For me, that's the coolest part about power. It's a great objective measurement on the bike and huge confidence builder for me.
Q: After the race, your wife Lauren, wrote a piece on her blog about watching you work back to Wildflower. She touched on how she's be able to watch you grow as an athlete and make smart decisions during recovery. Would you like to comment on her points?
She's always been his inspiration and my chief advisor. Whatever I did right is probably the result of her telling me to do it that way. Between her and Matt, I've really grown. Especially with Lauren because she's gone through this injury before and it was super valuable to have her perspective.
Q: What races are you targeting or looking forward to most this year?
I'm racing Eagleman on Sunday (read Jesse's race report here). And then I'm heading to Mount Tremblant for a 70.3 on June 22nd. Then I'll be at Vineman on July 13th. After that I'll have to see where I'm at. I'm hoping I'll do well enough to get into Worlds without having to race again. Of course there's a very real possibility that I won't get into Worlds at all. That'd be a super bummer, but I can only control what I can control. I just have to do the best that I can and walk the line of trying race well and not be fried by September. There's a chance I may do the Olympic distance at the NYC Triathlon on August 3rd. Maybe I'll do an Ironman by the end of the year — who knows. We won't be making any decisions until after Worlds.
Q: You and your wife Lauren welcomed an incredible little man into the world — what's it like being a dad and instantly adding a number 1 fan to the mix?
It's the coolest thing ever. Easily the coolest thing ever. You can't explain it until you go through it. I could never imagine the way I feel now about that little kid. It's definitely added to my motivation and professionalism for athletics, Picky Bars, everything else. Being a dad makes me feel a need to provide for my family. Jude provides me with a ton of happiness.
Q: Jude already completed his first triathlon. Has he become a regular training partner for you?
Yeah. He already has been. There's times when I'll hold him under his arms and do squats and sit-ups. He'll often come down to the workout room and hang out when I'm on the trainer. I also just got a little buggy for the back of my bike for him to sit in while I ride the trainer, so that'll be fun.
Q: What is it like living and training in Bend, OR?
Amazing. I grew up in Bend, so it's extra special for me there. We have lots of friends and family. And as a training environment, it's hard to top. I have incredible swimming, tons of trails, and great roads. The people of Bend are a super supportive community, and not only when it comes to training. They've also been super supportive as a business community for Picky Bars. There's tons of people in the community reach out and help us grow Picky Bars, which has been an unexpected and added bonus.
Q: Speaking of Picky Bars, can you tell us the story there?
The super brief story of it is that Lauren designed bars for me when I started pursuing professional triathlon. In return, I helped support her with my business and MBA background. We built the business around the vibe of going after your dreams. It's added this amazing value to us as athletes and allows us to give back to the community. It's just been super cool and we love it. It helps provide balance to my life as well, so I'm not an athlete 100% of the time, every day.
Q: How many Picky Bars do you eat on average?
I eat a lot of them. I eat two-ish for each 60-90 minutes on bike, for all hours on bike. So if I'm riding 10-15 hours that week, then I'm eating 20-30 Picky Bars. That's for biking alone. Training. Racing. It doesn't matter. I'll also have one for snack a few times a day, or after run or swim.
When it's all said and done, I probably eat at least 40 Picky Bars a week, which is pretty nuts. Basically, the whole company is based around my Picky Bar eating, so if we're profitable enough to do that — that's good enough for me.
Q: Do you have a favorite flavor?
I like the "Smooth Caffeinator", which is our coffee one. I also like our "Need for Seed", which is our sunflower seed one, and it goes down extra well during exercise. I mean they all go down well, but that ones my favorite for bike rides.
Q: Any exciting news on the Picky Bar front?
We got into REI eight months ago, so we're working on growing that. Our big focus is our Picky Club subscription service and our goal is to grow that. The Picky Club provides us with the best connection to our customers and allows us to provide them with super fresh product. Since we started Picky Bars we've built a really cool community with community runs and just a general sense of support. We'd like to build on that and continue with our "Dream. Support. Have Fun." cycle. It's by far the coolest part.
Jesse Thomas lives, trains and grew up in Bend, Oregon. He's an NCAA All American and school record holder for the Stanford track team. He's married to 2x US 5K champ, Lauren Fleshman, and is the proud dad of Jude. Before becoming a pro triathlete, he started a fuel cell company and is now the CEO of Picky Bars. Check him out on Strava, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and his blog Leap Day Sports.