BRADLEY — Professional triathlete Jesse Thomas ran into an elated, roaring group of spectators on the final stretch of the Wildflower Triathlon at Lake San Antonio on Saturday, and with every stride he took toward crossing the finish line first, the volume of the cheers elevated higher.
With tears rolling down his face, Thomas won the race in 4 hours, 6 minutes, 13 seconds to the sound of “Hey Jude” by The Beatles blaring over the speakers, and immediately grabbed his 11-month-old son Jude to celebrate becoming the first competitor to win four Wildflower Triathlon longcourse races in a row.
Thomas, 34, thought of Jude and his wife, Lauren Fleshman, the whole race as he triumphed past a tough year, plagued with setbacks and injuries, into the triathlon record books. After fracturing his foot in last year’s Wildflower, Thomas did not run more than nine miles at a time until suiting up Saturday.
“It was hard to let myself believe that it was going to happen all the way until 20 meters left because there was so much doubt going into the whole thing,” Thomas said. “Not even doubt about whether I could win this race, but doubt about whether my career was over two or three months ago.”
Thomas started the final run 2:15 behind strong cyclist Andrew Starykowicz and caught him five miles in. After passing Starykowicz for the lead, Thomas planted each foot with fear and doubt, but kept mixing in thoughts of his son and wife to keep inspired and moving.
“I just ran entirely my own race,” Thomas said. “I put on my training shoes, not my racing shoes. I’ve only been running for about two weeks and knew it was going to be a big ask to get my body to run 11 miles, much less after everything else. I just let myself treat it like a long run, and I just ran my own long run.”
Callum Millward cycled side-by-side with Thomas until mile 35, when Thomas made a move during a turn to break away from Millward, but Millward’s speed propelled him to pass Starykowicz and finish second in 4:08:20.
“We’re pretty similar in our strengths and weaknesses,” Millward said when asked about racing against Thomas. “He’s probably a little better runner than me, I’m a slightly better swimmer, and somewhere along the line we crossed paths. Jesse’s a great guy and he’s a friend of mine. I’ve trained with him.”
Just as the finish line was clearing out from Thomas’ celebration, Heather Jackson ran through the tape in 4:34.18, winning the women’s elite race for the third year in a row.
Jackson, 30, led at each transition, a very different experience than her last Wildflower victory, when she caught the triathlete ahead of her on mile four of the run.
With Lake San Antonio’s water level at 5 percent, the course changed drastically this year, and Jackson is one person who benefited from California’s drought.
In the 2-mile run added from the dock through the parched lakebed to the bicycles, Jackson passed four people and was the first to start her cycle.
“I’m never in the front until the run, so it was a whole different mindset,” Jackson said. “You can’t let up; you don’t know someone can totally be coming from behind on the bike, making the bike really hard and then the first five miles of the run, I felt horrible. I was just picturing people coming up from behind.”
Both Jackson and Thomas live in Bend, Ore., coincidentally, and occasionally see each other during training.
“I think Bend will be stoked,” Jackson said. “It’s a super small town, and there’s four or five triathletes there, so most people know about us. Jesse’s an awesome guy, and I knew he’s had a rough year with injuries.”
“I’m sure they’ll be a few parties,” Jackson added about how the community will welcome them home.