Since bursting on the scene as a complete unknown three years ago, pro triathlete Jesse Thomas has run through the Wildflower Triathlon Festival long course like a buzz saw, winning three straight times.
He’s fashioned an identity out of the drug store aviator shades he donned in that first victory and his affable nature and comedic flair have won him a legion of fans.
But attempting to make history on a course dramatically altered by drought conditions, Thomas may face the longest odds of his Wildflower career Saturday when he makes a run at a fourth consecutive victory at Lake San Antonio.
“A lot of people would think I’d have more pressure coming into the race because I’ve won the last few years,” Thomas said, “but it almost feels like my home course. I can go out there and a lot of people know who I am, and a lot of the people cheering for me will know the story of what’s happened the past year and will just be excited that I’m back racing.”
It’s been a trying, yet rewarding year for Thomas.
He hasn’t raced since finishing the 1.2-mile swim, 56-mile bike ride and 13.1-mile run first at Wildflower last year in 4 hours, 2 minutes, 19 seconds, during which he ran with a stress fracture requiring surgery in his foot.
Rehab was arduous and riddled with setbacks, and just as he was about ready to return in February, the surgery had not healed as hoped and his comeback was delayed another 10 weeks as Thomas went back under the knife.
The delay forced him to pull out of a planned event in March, and he comes into Saturday’s race “in by far the worst running shape I’ve ever been in,” Thomas said.
Wildflower is “going to be a little bit of a ‘Gong Show’ for me,” he added, “but it’s rare that you get a race — whether you’re a pro or an age-grouper — where you’re at the peak of your form. There is always something that happens.”
Struggling through injury has made the past year feel like an eternity. In other ways, however, it’s sped by.
Thomas and wife Lauren Fleshman, herself a two-time U.S. champion in the women’s 5,000 meters beset by injury, welcomed son Jude, who turns one in early June.
And the couple’s gluten-free and dairy-free snack brand, Picky Bars, has also taken off, providing Thomas and Fleshman with a distraction from their frustrating injuries.
So, while Thomas has been doing outdoor running training for less than two weeks and hasn’t run more than nine miles in a single session, his sights are set more on finishing than winning.
But the fact remains, if he somehow finds a way to win again, he will become the first person in the 33-year history of the event to win four in a row and will have an argument to be considered the best male winner in Wildflower history.
“I have heard that,” Thomas said, “and I definitely know that, and I guess I’ve thought about it, but the reality of my situation is that while I would never write myself off in any contest, the win is definitely the biggest longshot it’s been.
“I just will be really happy regardless of what finish if I finish the race healthy. That will be a big win.”
Cameron Widoff is the only other man to win three straight at Wildflower. He took four out of five from 1995-99. Chris McCormack has won four titles, winning consecutively in 2001-02. On the women’s side, Paula Newby-Fraser won three in a row from 1995-97 and owns a record five titles. Newby-Fraser is an eight-time winner at the Ironman World Championships in Hawaii and is considered the most remarkable Wildflower champion of all time.
Thomas is “definitely in the top two or three,” said Tri-California CEO Terry Davis, the festival founder. “And if he pulls this off, as far as Wildflower goes, he won’t have the course record, but he’ll be the best winner that we’ve had.”
The course record belongs to Terrenzo Bozzone, who smashed the previous mark by nearly six minutes when he finished in 3:53:43 in 2006. Thomas’s best time came in 3:58:59 in 2012. But this course will change significantly in the face of worsening drought conditions with the run being broken up into two portions.
Because lake levels are the lowest they’ve been in the history of the event, Davis said, the swim start will move from its customary position on the Lynch launch ramp adjacent to the bike transition area.
This year, the longcourse will start at the Harris Creek ramp, where swimmers will exit the lake and don running shoes for a 2.2-mile run to Lynch.
The bike course remains unchanged, and the final run has been shortened to compensate for the earlier run.
Thomas is not the only racer looking to keep a streak alive. Heather Jackson is going for her third straight Wildflower title. She has teamed with Thomas to form the longest streak of American dominance at Wildflower since Widoff and Heather Fuhr swept consecutive races in 1998-99.
Also, Arroyo Grande’s Joe Thorne is competing at Wildflower for the first time as a professional. The Georgia native and former All-America cross country runner at Texas finished in 4:28:05 as an age-grouper last year, and that mark would have been good enough for 16th in a pro race with payouts to the top 12 finishers.
The course changes are encouraging for Thomas. Though the half marathon suits his steeplechase background more than triathletes better suited to swim or bike, the run being split up is less intimidating for someone coming off a foot injury.
Thomas said he probably would not have entered the race had the original 13.1-mile running course been kept.
Will that comfort be enough to help him to compete? It hardly matters to him. Winning might improve his legacy at Wildflower, but losing won’t change how he feels about the event.
“I’ve never even thought about the word legacy and me at Wildflower,” Thomas said, “but regardless of what I do or do not do the rest of my year, Wildflower will always be a super important piece of my career.
“I certainly want to accomplish more than what I have in my career, but if people remember me as the guy that won Wildflower three times, as the Wildflower guy, I’m OK with that. That would be totally fine with me.”