Thomas at the crowded finish/Photo by Jay Prasuhn
Every month, we track down a pro and subject them to a round of 10 questions. This month is Wildflower surprise, Jesse Thomas.
It wasn’t that long ago that Jesse Thomas pulled off one of the most surprising and inspiring wins of the 2011 season. Competing in essentially his first full year as a pro, the Oregonian’s Wildflower victory of 4:04:45 was a breakout story that seemed straight out of Hollywood.
Thomas’s strength stems from an impressive running background. He was a standout in track at both Oregon State and Stanford, where he was an All-American in the 3,000m steeplechase. His road to the pro ranks however was filled with a few pit stops along the way. He left athletics after graduating to start a high-tech company. A few years later, the lure of competition proved too strong and Thomas embarked on a one-year foray into the sport in 2007 as an age grouper.
Then, an opportunity to get his MBA at Oregon led to another break from the sport, this time for two years. After graduation that time around, Thomas decided to give the sport and his athletic career one more shot. And the rest, as they say, is history.
What other surprises does Thomas have in store this season? We’ll just have to wait and see. But regardless of what lies ahead, this young athlete, who works part-time as a business consultant, tackles sport and life with a balanced approach and outlook. Next up for the athlete? Rev 3 Portland on July 10.
1. When did you realize you’d been bitten by the triathlon bug?
I never really got bit. My path to triathlon was the result of years of injuries, road blocks, detours, and circumstances. I spent years away from athletics and competition after college, and always felt like I was missing something. I think the consistent thing that eventually brought it together was the enjoyment of being active and pushing myself. When you like to exercise, triathlon is a good way to justify doing it a lot without looking nutso. Actually, I guess you still look a little nutso.
2. What’s your favorite racing memory?
Wow, its tough to beat Wildflower this year. If I combine the circumstances surrounding the race (late entry, rode a borrowed bike, literally unknown in the field, road tripped down with my buddy Matt Lieto), with the unexpected surprise of my first major win, it’s an experience and a feeling I’ll never be able to re-create. There’s an interview on YouTube that was shot immediately after the race. I’m literally delirious with joy, hugging the interviewer and stuff, it was a thrill to say the least.
3. What’s one unique thing we might see if we peeked inside your training bag?
I literally just looked in my bag to answer this question. Easily the most unique item: the bottom half of a swim cap. No, it’s not a swim headband (though there might be an idea there … I got dibs)! I get bored easily, and swimming is the worst, so I listen to podcasts, even audiobooks while I do my solo workouts. I use these waterproof headphones that don’t stay on past about 2k, so the swim headband was a necessary addition. At first I was worried it made me look nerdy, then I remembered I swim in a tiny speedo with a hairy chest, so looks were never really part of the picture anyway.
4. What’s your favorite pre-race or mid-race fuel?
Thanks for the layup question, I’ll answer with a big old … Picky Bars! They are gluten and dairy-free energy bars that my wife (Lauren Fleshman, two-time US 5K champ) and her friend Steph Rothstein (2:29 marathoner) invented because my stomach literally erupts if I eat gluten and/or dairy. Pizza is a nuclear explosion. We started selling them online about a year ago and the response has been fantastic. They’re natural, balanced for exercise, taste really good and don’t make me poop my pants in the middle of a race. If that’s not something, I don’t know what is.
5. Do you have any rituals or good luck routines you do before a race?
When I am completely finished setting up my transition, I put on my aero helmet, tap the top of my head five times, spin around counter-clockwise, scratch the back of my knee and say rama-lama-ding-dong. Just kidding, I don’t have any rituals. But … during races I use positive affirmations, like Stuart Smalley (“gosh darn it, people like me”). I’ve heard that if you say positive things out loud and smile that your body actually releases a chemical or something that makes you go faster and feel better. Who knows if its true, but it can’t hurt. Plus it’s fun to be that guy on the course who yells, “I’m doing great, keep it up!” and then smiles as he rides by.
6. What’s your favorite triathlon discipline and distance to compete at?
I don’t really have a favorite distance, but I do have a dream triathlon. It would be a 750m downriver swim, through Big Eddy rapids on the Deschutes River, a 50-mile ride up and over Sonora Pass in Yosemite, then a 15-mile trail run through Big Basin near Santa Cruz. Somehow everyone would finish at about the same time back in Bend (Oregon), where we’d have a huge party with drinks and food for everyone. Let’s call it JDT (Jesse’s Dream Triathlon). Booyah!
7. What music keeps you motivated during training?
When I’m not listening to podcasts or audiobooks, I listen to Pandora stations like crazy during workouts. The Strokes station is always good, also Phoenix, Ben Folds, Broken Bells, and Metric. I’m not afraid to say I’ll throw some Justin Timberlake in there every once in a while. It might sound nuts, but my secret weapon for the super tough intervals is some 80s pop. For some reason that stuff gets me rollin! Don’t knock it ’till you try it.
8. What’s something people might be surprised to find out about you?
I broke my neck in five places in a bicycle crash after college. Basically I should be dead right now. I broke the odontoid process of C2 and shattered C1 into four pieces. The doctor’s called it a Jefferson’s fracture, combined with a Hangman’s fracture (you can guess why they called it that). It’s a crazy story. I stood up right after it happened and told my buddy James that I thought I’d pulled some muscles in my neck. Then he rode home, picked me up in his car and drove me to the hospital while I literally held my head in place with my hands. When the doctor’s saw my X-ray they freaked. It would take another page or two to tell the whole story but it’s important because it kept me inactive for a year, which ultimately led to four years away from competition. It forced me to develop a life and an identity outside of athletics and I think that perspective helps me approach competition with a sense of balance, enjoy the process of improvement (not just the end result), and not make triathlon a bigger deal than it is.
9. When you are not training or competing, people can find you:
Working at home. In addition to Picky Bars, I do product development and marketing consulting for a number of startups and small businesses, and enjoy writing for my blog. I like to stay busy and it’s all part of that balance thing too. If I’ve got other stuff on my plate I can’t focus too much on my workouts, and vice versa. Each activity provides a nice break from the other. If I’m not working at home, I’m hopefully at a movie with my wife, eating lots of popcorn. And hopefully that movie is either about people with super powers, or the future. If it’s about people with super powers IN the future, boomshakalaka!
10. What’s one race you haven’t done yet that you like to do someday?
I have long-term goals for the 70.3 World Championships, so that comes to mind immediately. But honestly, I don’t know, I feel like I’m not familiar enough with the sport yet to know what’s out there. My criteria are: fun course, mountains/lakes/rivers, cool people and place to stay/visit, access to friends and family, and a giant party afterward. Starting to sound a lot like JDT. Sign me up!