Click here to see a gallery of images from the race.

The Walgreens aviators said it all.

Eugene, Oregon’s Jesse Thomas was as unassuming as any athlete in transition prepping for the Wildflower Triathlon. A quintessential yeoman rookie pro going on a wing and a prayer, his bike was smashed by baggage handlers last week, so he rode a friend’s loaner in a pinch for race day, and hoped for the best. Actually, he hoped for a top eight, maybe a top five, to save face after dropping out of Ironman 70.3 Texas in Galveston a few weeks ago.

Instead, he joined names including Chris McCormack, Cameron Widoff, Scott Molina, Simon Lessing, Paul Huddle, Eneko Llanos and Thomas’ campsite trailer roommate, Chris Legh, by crossing the finish in 4:04:45 as the stunning winner of the prized Wildflower long course triathlon.

And crossing wearing no big sponsor logos, just a pair of drugstore sunnies. Thomas’ win hearkened to the day of when Wildflower came to be, when this sport grew legends like Widoff in a refreshing, grass-roots way.

Welcome to the big leagues, kid.

“It’s humbling, absolutely humbling, and completely surreal,” Thomas said shaking his head. “This very well could be my greatest tri achievement—and if it is, I’m totally find with that. I just can’t believe it. I have so much respect for all those guys, but to win this….unbelievable.”

The women’s race was action-packed, as Great Britain’s Leanda Cave staved off a late race surge by American Mary Beth Ellis to finally claim her first Wildflower title by seven seconds over Ellis in 4:27:58

“After taking second twice, I’m so, so happy to finally win this race,” Cave said.

In the men’s race, Thomas was the definition of unknown. The 31-year-old has a solid running pedigree, having run the steeplechase at Stanford from 1998 to 2002, and whose wife, Lauren Fleshman is a two-time U.S. 5k champ and a three-time NCAA 5k champ. And being from Eugene, he’s in one of running’s nerve centers. But he enjoyed a solid 24:52 swim, exiting just ahead of favorites Jordan Rapp and James Cunnama, setting him up to be in proximity of the major players from the get-go of the bike.

Jesse Thomas

Oregon’s Jesse Thomas looks on in astonishment after taking Saturday’s Wildflower Long Course title

But Clayton Fettell wouldn’t know it. The Aussie enjoyed a significant tow by swim specialist Dustin McLarty to come out of the water in 21:15, nearly two minutes ahead of the next group of swimmers that included Bjorn Andersson, and four minutes up on favorites Jordan Rapp (USA), Chris Legh (AUS) and South African James Cunnama.

Fettell careened over the hilly and blustery 56-mile bike, holding off bike powerhouse Andersson until the final 15 miles before the big Swede motored by and entered T2 with a three-minute buffer on Fettell and a 2:15:54 split.

Running a minute per mile faster than Andersson, Fettell, quickly reclaimed the lead just five kilometers into the torturous trail half marathon. At that point, all arrows pointed to a Fettell win, but nobody knew the kid in the aviators who came off the bike in eight place and began mowing down men with authority.

Launching into a torrid 5:38 pace, Thomas passed former American ITU pro Joe Umphenour. Then South African XTERRA pro Dan Hugo. Former Wildflower champ and two-time Hawaii Ironman World Champ Tim DeBoom was next. Then Rapp. Legh. Cunnama. Suddenly, he was getting splits that he was minutes from the leader: Fettell.

Cunnama said quite succinctly: “I couldn’t believe it. He came by me like I was looking for a place to park.”

The pass for the lead was solid, and there would be no counter. “The crowd was great, but I tried to just focus on my pace, not picking people off,” Thomas said. “Still, I know from my running days that when you pass someone, there’s about five seconds when someone has a chance to stay on, and I was making sure I was passing with authority.”

Thomas crossed, raised his hands to his head, mouth agape in disbelief. He’d taken one of triathlon’s most prized crown jewels.

“I’ll cherish this forever,” he said.

Cunnama closed out the podium to take third. At the finish, Thomas’ Oregon buddy and confidant Matt Lieto was approaching the finish to take fourth place and saw Thomas giving the winner’s interview at the finish, veered off course and leapt into Thomas, as the two bounced celebrating the win.

“I give a ton of credit to my coach Matt Dixon and Jerry Rodriguez for transforming me, because that really did it for me today,” Thomas said, “but I honestly give all the credit to that guy,” Thomas said, pointing to Lieto.“He’s helped me so, so much, helping a guy who doesn’t know. And, he drove me all the way down here from Oregon”

The women’s event started as a three-horse race, which was eventually whittled to two. Reigning Ironman 70.3 World Champion Jodie Swallow exited Lake San Antonio solo in 23:53, with Cave and Ellis out together just a minute back. By the 10-mile mark of the bike, the three were together, keying off one another while contenders Magali Tisseyre of Canada,

Swallow, who will be racing at Ironman St. George next weekend, received a stagger penalty and was forced to execute a two-minute standdown. “It was rubbish,” Swallow said. “I was leading the group of us, and the official must have decided to key us on a pro guy who was way up the road.”

WildflowerThreeGirls

Cave leads Swallow and Ellis early before Swallow was assessed a stagger penalty

Cave agreed that the penalty was an unfair one, but continued up the road with Ellis to contest the win. The two were a fair match for one another until the flat, gusty backside of the course. “She really got away from me on the flats, but I just tried to keep her in view, so I’m glad I was able to do that.”

Another favorite, Spaniard Virginia Berasategui also had a stand-down for a drafting penalty. “I wasn’t happy about it,” she said. “I mean, we were going up a hill, going so slow, and I’m going to get a penalty for this?”

Cave entered T2 with a two-minute lead on Ellis, and having broken her rib last month while at training camp in Borrego Springs, she didn’t have the run volume in her legs she would have hoped. It would be a test.

“I had no idea how it would go,” Cave said, but it was working out.”

Ellis, however, was slowly eating into Cave’s lead. With just a mile left, Ellis was just 15 seconds in arrears of Cave. Given the coming Lynch Hill, the shorter Ellis was a prohibitive favorite over the tall, lanky Cave to power the steep descent and run into the finish.

Instead, it was Cave who stretched out her stride and bombed the descent. “I really had no answer,” Ellis said. “It took everything I had to get to her, and by the time we reached the hill, I was cramping a bit, and just had to control myself to get to the bottom.”

LeandaFinish

With Ellis just seconds offer her left shoulder, Cave strode in to take her first Wildflower win.

Cave strode in for the win, with Ellis taking second just seven seconds back. Tisseyre ran up into third position, while Hoogland held off Berasategui for fourth. Recent Ironman New Zealand winner Samantha Warriner was looking as though she would ride close to the front late in the ride, but faded on the run to take sixth.

Click here to see a gallery of images from the race.

Avia Wildflower Long Course Triathlon

April 30, 2011, Lake San Antonio, Calif.

1.2-mile swim, 56-mile bike, 13.1-mile run

 

Men

1. Jesse Thomas (USA) 4:04:45

2. Clayton Fettell (AUS) 4:05:11

3. James Cunnama (SAF) 4:05:59

4. Matt Lieto (USA) 4:09:05

5. Chris Legh (AUS) 4:09:49

6. Jordan Rapp (USA) 4:10:54

7. Nicholas Thompson (USA) 4:11:07

8. Tim DeBoom (USA) 4:12;08

9. Bjorn Andersson (SWE) 4;14:36

10. Dan Hugo (SAF) 4:15:41

 

Women

1. Leanda Cave (GBR) 4:27:58

2. Mary Beth Ellis (USA) 4:28:05

3. Magali Tisseyre (CAN) 4:32:06

4. Tenile Hoogland (CAN) 4: 36:26

5. Virginia Berasategui (ESP) 4:37:16

6. Samantha Warriner (NZL) 4:39:07

7. Jodie Swallow (GBR) 4:43:50

8. Desiree Ficker (USA) 4:46:03

9. Annie Warner (USA) 4:48:09

10. Julia Grant (USA) 4:51:15