The tale of Jesse Thomas — because certainly, by now, it’s become a certified tale — can be boiled down to a sweet reduction.
Previously unknown newcomer rides the strength of borrowed equipment and drug store sunglasses to beat an all-star field at one of his sport’s most celebrated venues, vaulting him to magazine coverboy and aviator heartthrob in the process.
Thomas took the Wildflower Triathlon Festival by storm in 2011, winning the long course distance in 4 hours, 4 minutes, 45 seconds and ahead of former champ and Gatorade pitchman Chris Legh, himself (and his dead large intestine) the subject of a notarized yarn or two. No one, including race announcers, had a clue what to say when Thomas broke the tape.
“The crazy part about it is it’s all true,” said Thomas, who returns for Saturday’s 30th annual running of Wildflower to defend his title after a whirlwind year.
“I wasn’t originally registered for the race. I came with a friend of mine, Matt Lieto, who was competing, and I came down for the company. I was a first-year pro. I had a couple of decent results that showed I could be competitive at some point. But I was virtually unsponsored.”
Thomas was a former NCAA All-American and school record-holder in the steeplechase at Stanford. A few years spent in the business world and away from sports helped the 32-year-old become anonymous again, but the surprise victory at Wildflower has helped him find an audience for the droll sense of humor on display at his website, leapday sports.com.
“It reminds me to not take anything around the sport, especially including myself, too seriously, and that’s what I like about it,” Thomas said. “It’s just fun to be able to poke some fun about yourself.”
Those Walgreens aviator sunglasses, the ones he originally bought for cheap in case of accidental crushing, have become his trademark.
The sunglasses have gone viral for Thomas’s Twitter followers and blog subscribers. Few likely know the cheap shades are also remnants of a devastating bicycle crash, one that by all rights should have ended Thomas’s days walking upright, perhaps even his life, let alone his athletic career.
Legh’s story is similar in its life-threatening nature. He was sick and dehydrated in a 1997 Hawaii Ironman race and eventually had surgery to remove his appendix and 12 centimeters of his large intestine after collapsing on the course.
Recovering fully to take the Wildflower crown in 2000, Legh has been a consistent returner, placing fifth in 4:09:49 last year.
Legh and Thomas aren’t the only former champions returning to race in Saturday’s 1.2-mile swim, 56-mile bike and 13.1-mile run that starts at 8 a.m. at Lake San Antonio. For the 30th anniversary of the event, organizers have put a premium on inviting every former winner back to compete.
Four-time winners and triathlon legends Cameron Widoff and Chris McCormack are scheduled to compete, according to a Wildflower spokesperson — though McCormack is due to race in the shorter, metric-centric Olympic distance, which features a 1.5K swim, 40K bike and 10K run.
On the women’s side, three-time winner and former course record-holder Samantha McGlone is back, as are defending champion Leanda Cave and 2003 winner Heather Gollnick.
Inaugural male winner Dean Harper, who took the first race in 1983 and won again in 1986, is signed up for the Olympic distance at age 59.
Harper won the first Wildflower Triathlon, which was then 100K in total distance and served only as an ancillary event to a bluegrass music festival, after he and fellow competitor Mark Montgomery crossed the finish line running in opposite directions.
The organization of the race, which got rid of the bands and stopped losing money in its third year, according to organizers, has improved tremendously since its rainy first run, ballooning from 86 participants then to 7,500 now.
“I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that Wildflower is one of the most legendary, most historic races in the world for triathlon,” said Thomas, who also raced the Olympic distance once as an amateur, “and I’m in awe every time I come down here.”
Few embody the grass-roots feel of the event — once crowned “the Woodstock of triathlon” by former four-time women’s champion Paula Newby Fraser — more than Thomas.
He appeared out of nowhere with a quirky personality spearheaded by his half-mocked, half-adored eyewear. He’s pictured wearing the off-brand aviators on the cover of Triathlete magazine this month.
From the photo, it would be impossible to know they were the only style of sunglasses that didn’t obstruct his cycling view after more than 25 months of recovery following his broken neck.
A broken foot forced Thomas out of running when he was still at Stanford, so he started cycling. Out for a training ride, he wasn’t paying close enough attention to notice an upcoming speed bump, and the unexpected jostle threw him over the handle bars and to the pavement.
Thomas was able to walk away from the accident. A friend drove him to the emergency room, where he expected to be treated for a muscle strain.
Instead, precautionary X-rays showed he had broken two vertebrae and doctors wondered how Thomas was up and around with his spinal column exposed by breaks referred to as a pairing of “Jefferson” and “Hangman” fractures.
After emergency surgery and the recovery, Thomas spent close to four years away from competition. He really did emerge from obscurity to become a name triathlete, and he’s spent the past year enjoying the ride.
“It’s definitely been a totally different experience than coming here last year, in every way, shape and form,” Thomas said. “The buildup last year, nobody except a few people I’d been training with knew who I was.
“It’s kind of like the exact opposite as the defending champ. I’m on the cover of a magazine. It’s nuts. It’s crazy to think about all that’s happened throughout the year. I’ve just been soaking it up, just enjoying it.”