BRADLEY — At a few points during the race, two-time defending champion Jesse Thomas didn’t think it would happen.
Trailing for nearly all of the men’s elite Longcourse competition at the Wildflower Triathlon Festival on Saturday, there were moments where he thought he wasn’t going to be able to come out on top. And despite pushing his way to second on the final 13.1-mile run, there was still doubt.
“I wasn’t sitting there the whole time, like, ‘I got this.’ There was a lot of doubt for a long time,” Thomas said. “I kept asking, ‘How close is he? How close is he?’ “
But Thomas, 33, used a burst of speed over the final hill of the course and overtook Australia’s Leon Griffin to snag a victory in the Longcourse event, finishing in 4 hours, 2 minutes, 19 seconds and becoming the only man to win back-to-back-to-back elite titles.
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“To be honest, it’s amazing that I got the three-peat,” Thomas said. “But if I never hear the word three-peat in my life, I would not be mad.
“I want to win every race I start. And that’s motivation enough.”
But it was an uphill battle for Thomas. Through most of the race, Australia’s Clayton Fettell had a grip on the top spot. He came out of the mile swim in about 24:35 and held off Thomas through most of the 56-mile bike ride.
“Fettell is a fish, so he was two-and-a-half minutes ahead of us off the swim,” Thomas said. “We made a move around mile 35 (of the bike race), and three of us kind of rode away from the rest of the pack.”
That pitted Thomas against Griffin and Australia’s Joe Gambles down the final part of the course. Thomas and Griffin ran elbow to elbow, Thomas said, for about 81⁄2 miles. Then, he was able to maneuver into the lead.
“You have this long downhill and then you have this mile-and-a-half uphill at the end,” Thomas said “And I knew if I pushed it and crushed that, it was unlikely that anyone was going to pass me.”
No one did.
“He pushed me,” Griffin said. “But hats off to Jesse. He’s so strong, got that endurance, just that last couple of miles.”
Thomas returned the sentiment to Griffin. While he won the past two races in a row, including a come-from-behind victory where he passed Fettell in the final mile in 2011, he said this was the toughest competition he’s had to face in the event.
“The field was really strong up front,” Thomas said. “The three guys that finished behind me, super good résumés.”
On the women’s side, Oregon’s Heather Jackson, 29, made history herself. She became the first female in seven years to win back-to-back titles after she finished in 4:33:20, about seven minutes faster than the next closest finisher, Kat Baker, who finished in 4:40.01.
“I almost started crying. There was just so much pressure coming in, just wanting to defend so bad,” Jackson said. “It was just awesome.”
Jackson was in the same boat as Thomas for most of the race. She came out of the swim in about sixth, she said, and was able to move into second at mile 35 on the bike ride. But then she couldn’t gain any ground on first. And, she didn’t know who the leading competitor was.
“I started freaking out because I was riding really hard, and I didn’t know who was in the lead,” Jackson said. “It’s tough to hear that you’re losing and not know who it is that you have to chase down. I came in off the bike four down, and I just started going as hard as I could.”
She caught Baker on mile four of the run, the same place where she took the lead last year. From there, she cruised into the campsite en route to her historic win.
“It’s so much fun,” Jackson said. “I love this race.”
Jackson said a return to Wildflower is probable. After seeing Thomas complete his three-peat, she wants to do the same next year.
For Thomas, he couldn’t promise he’ll be back for a shot at a four-peat next year. He wants to weigh his options this time next year before he makes any decisions. But if he chooses not to, fans at Lake San Antonio will lose one of their favorites.
“I honestly think the reason I won was the people cheering for me throughout the campground,” Thomas said. “Leon even said, ‘Damn, you have a lot of fans out there.’ I told him it was in this race only.”