There’s no better place than at Lake San Antonio for 11- month-old Jude Thomas to see his daddy race for the first time. (Or me, for that matter.)
Make that Harris Creek, the revised swim start for the drought-plagued Wildflower Triathlon Festival on May 4 and 5.
Jude’s father, three-peat Wildflower long-course winner Jesse Thomas, will make his comeback on mostly familiar turf after recovering from a nagging foot injury he re-aggravated there during last year’s triumph. In that time, Jesse’s life has resembled this year’s Wildflower long course – improvised, challenging, breathtaking. He and his wife, renowned five-time NCAA champion runner Lauren Fleshman, gave birth to their first child and tried to maintain their respective racing careers while overseeing record growth of their nutrition bars business, Picky Bars. Oh, and they moved to Oregon, too.
“It’s been a very tough, extremely frustrating year athletically, and put that on top of having Jude, moving home, it’s been nuts,” Jesse said. “I think it’s almost perfect that my first race back will be at Wildflower. With all that’s happened, it feels like a new career, or at least Part Two. I’m a dad, I’m living back home in Bend, and I have a new foot.”
Part Two of the Thomas-Fleshman epoch has been a topsy-turvy affair at times. Jude was born three weeks after Jesse’s injury. Recovery requires rest, the one thing you’re not going to get with a newborn. While the collective patience of the Stanford-graduate sweethearts was certainly tested, it’s never crumbled. Jesse and Lauren sacrificed and compromised to make their busy lives work, transforming either into “Mr. Fleshman” or “Mrs. Thomas” when one needed more support than the other.
“You can do anything you want in life, but you can’t do it all at the same time!” Lauren observed. “We do our best to balance being parents, athletes, and support people for one another, but we don’t always totally nail it. There’s a lot of discussing and negotiating, but I think this is true for any couple with a lot of passions and time commitments.”
One of those passions has been Picky Bars, a business Jesse and Lauren started in 2010 as the organic, whole foods nutritional products movement gained momentum. This past year, Picky Bars landed on major retailer shelves such as REI while sales increased 225 percent from 2012 and staff doubled. Jesse proudly pointed out that outside of Jude’s birth, Picky Bars’ emergence was his highlight of 2013.
Picky Bars served as a vital diversion to channel Jesse’s energy while he was forced to sit out the Ironman 70.3 World Championships this past September and Ironman 70.3 California last month. Jesse thought he was on track to race in Las Vegas by last fall and then again in January to make his comeback in Oceanside, but the injury required more time. As a result, he’ll have run for four weeks total when the starting gun goes off at Wildflower, and his longest run to-date has been a session with five, 5-minute intervals. By Jesse’s estimation, he puts his chances for a four-peat at between 5 and 10 percent – “and I’m not sandbagging,” he added. Lauren said Jesse has maintained a level head through the turbulent year and while his confidence may have wavered at times, he’s never wallowed. How? “I’ve realized that all I can control is how I react to the situation, not the situation itself,” Jesse said. “If I keep reacting intelligently and purposefully, it will eventually work out…hopefully!”
Maintaining perspective will help Jesse and everyone else racing at Wildflower this year. Following the Harris Creek swim, race participants will run 2.2 miles over very hilly terrain to T1 “B” at the Lake San Antonio boat ramp parking lot. Jesse’s top tip is simple, “don’t freak out!” He added that he thinks the course will be a little easier because it’s broken up a bit. In other words, the upside is that we won’t have to run a hard, hilly 13 miles off the bike – and we won’t have to deal with the infamous “Pit” this time around.
Besides, with the year that Jesse and Lauren have had, is there anything more fitting than a wild and unpredictable Wildflower experience? “I look at triathlon as just a crazy-ass challenge that you try to get the most out of yourself, and so I’d prefer it be weird or different or hard or whatever than just going for a time on a super-standard course,” Jesse said.
No matter how Jesse’s comeback race fares, little Jude won’t care. Lauren will make sure he’s at the finish line to greet his daddy with a huge smile and hugs. And Jesse won’t care much either. His eyes are fixed on racing fast this September, perhaps for a shot at redemption at the Ironman 70.3 World Championships.
Part Two of the Jesse Thomas Story will begin when the sun rises at Harris Creek. No, the prologue probably won’t open with him breaking the tape at the finish line. But with a booming business, a growing boy, a healthy marriage and two racing careers on the upswing, it has all the makings of a grand adventure: drama, suspense, plot twists, action and romance.
I may even have a suggestion for the title: “Bend, But Don’t Break.”