BRADLEY — Not every elite triathlete has a life-threatening chronicle about a gruesome neck injury. Not every one has made the unconventional transition from women’s hockey either.
With such sensational storylines, the long course of Saturday’s 30th annual Wildflower Triathlon Festival could’ve been in the running for a daytime Emmy.
Defending champion Jesse Thomas, who exploded from obscurity to take last year’s title on borrowed equipment and low-priced gear, repeated by lowering his time to the second best in the history of the event at Lake San Antonio.
Thomas, 32, survived a broken neck in a bike training crash that nearly ended his life shortly after the former Stanford All-America steeplechaser switched to cycling after college. The man he outpaced Saturday, 31-year-old Thousand Oaks resident Jordan Rapp, smashed through a glass window in a 2010 bike-vs.-car collision that sent him to the hospital with separate punctures of his jugular vein.
The only thing saving Rapp that day in Camarillo was a passing commuter from a nearby military base who was trained in combat first aid.
“He said it basically looked like a battle wound in my neck,” Rapp said. “He just stuck his hand in there, felt for something pulsing and pushed down. They reckoned I had about 2 1⁄2 more minutes before I would have bled out and died. ... I lost about 31⁄2 liters of blood onto the pavement. ”
Rapp’s improbable comeback is almost enough to make female winner Heather Jackson’s path from NCAA women’s hockey player at Princeton to course record-breaker at Wildflower seem mundane.
Jackson, 28, passed defending champion Leanda Cave near the end of the race’s 56-mile bike ride and leapfrogged the rest of the field by the fifth mile on the 13.1-mile run.
Cave held the lead after the 1.2-mile swim to open the race. Jackson was just inside the top 10 at that point. But the cycling portion is the strength of the lifelong hockey player from New Hampshire.
“When I first got into the sport, the bike was good for me because I had the leg muscles,” Jackson said. “But I couldn’t run as well, so it’s been a matter of losing some of that muscle weight to even out the bike and the run, and then the swim is just an ongoing process.”
Jackson’s overall time of 4 hours, 26 minutes, 29 seconds made her the first woman to break the 4:27:00 mark and smashed the 4:27:53 that former teammate Julie Dibens ran in 2010. It was the third time since 2006 that the women’s course record was broken.
Cave, who was looking to join Thomas and become the first male-female combo to repeat since Cameron Widoff and Heather Fuhr in 1999, fell to fourth in 4:36:24. Jackson’s nearest competitior, Linsey Corbin, finished 4:20 back in second.
But the day belonged to Thomas, who sported his trademark drug store aviator sunglasses, a remnant of both his broken neck and humble triathlon beginnings, and also leveraged a solid showing on the bike to finish in 3:58:59.
He’s only the fifth man to finish Wildflower’s long course in less than 4 hours, though his time was still more than 5 minutes off 2006 winner Terenzo Bozzone’s 3:53:43.
Coming out of the swim seventh, Thomas made up ground on the bike, coming into the transition to his strongest portion of the event — the run — in fourth place. About a mile into the run, he passed Rapp, never allowing any of the competitors he passed to even gain ground on him by the finish.
“When I passed into the lead, it was kind of dramatic,” Thomas said, “but I knew I had so long to go. I was never 100 percent confident I was going to win until I came into the finish shute.
“This course just eats people alive, and if I’d started cramping or something, you can go backward really quick.”
Rapp was second in 4:00:22. James Cunnama (4:02:01), Paul Matthews (4:03:20) and 2000 champion Chris Legh (4:04:56) rounded out the top five men.
Thomas was the first man to repeat since four-time winner Chris McCormack in 2002. Only Widoff and four-time female champion Paula Newby Fraser have won three in a row.
Thomas hopes to qualify for his first Ironman 70.3 World Championships in Las Vegas in September, and he’s also already planning to return for a chance at his third straight title at Wildflower, which has been organized every year since its inception by Terry Davis of Tri-California Events.
“I’ll always come back here,” Thomas said. “I love it here, this was the birthplace of my triathlon career. It’s a great course for me personally as an athlete, and, really, the Tri-Cal team is incredible. I want to always pay them back for the support they’ve given me.”