Jesse Thomas’ Kona Race Report: That Was Hard

CRAZY ASS FANS. That was hard.

If you haven’t seen yet, I posted a (semi-emotional) video recap of the race just after I regained my strength and wits. Looking back on it, it was pretty raw, but it tells the basic story, and how I honestly felt during and immediately after. If you’d like to watch, see below.

Even though I wrote before the race, given the recent family and Picky Bars awesomeness, that I felt like I had “won” regardless of how it went, I was and am still pretty disappointed at my finish. Obviously, I’ll get over it. And, believe me, I understand I’m a super lucky guy in the grand scheme of things. I’m healthy, happy, have a great family and pursue passions that bring me joy in life. This is clearly first world probs.

But I also worked my freaking butt off for this race. For a year. And for it to blow up like it did is pretty brutal. As I described in detail in my blog series leading up to the race, I started planning for this race weeks after it ended last year, with the real belief that if I changed a few things about my schedule, training plan, nutrition, hydration, and equipment, I had a legit chance at a top 10, which would have been a career bucket list goal.

To qualify, I flew myself to races in Pucon, China, Peru, and Lanzarote. I literally didn’t race in the U.S., trying to maximize points. My coach and I changed my training plan, I took a much bigger break after Lanzarote, felt fresher and fitter going into Kona. I worked meticulously with professional aid on my hydration and nutrition strategy, practiced/simulated it probably 100 times. I spent my own money to go to the wind tunnel twice to optimize my equipment and position. I took time out of work. Maybe most importantly, I missed (with my wife’s support, obviously) the first week of my new daughter’s life.

So yeah, to do all those things and miss the goal, it hurts. It hurts a lot.

Here’s How The Race Played Out:

Swim: Solid. Salty.
I had a solid swim. I lined up next to Sebastian, and Lionel was right next to us as well. I started smooth and was right in their pack. I had one freak out where I almost got dropped about 1 km in, but managed to hang on with a full gas surge for a few minutes. Then the rest of the swim was honestly pretty chill. I felt “good,” as good as you can feel swimming 4k in the open salt water with a bunch of other dudes anticipating a long ass ride and run coming. I drank a LOT of salt water. It was very salty. But I swam well and was in the position I wanted to be.

Ride: Solid. Scary.
I also rode well. I was with Sebastian, Lionel, and Cameron Wurf (who ended up setting a bike course record) for the first 20 miles or so. Things started to get pretty spicy, and remembering the mistake I made last year—staying with the Uber biker group to 60 miles and blowing up as a result—I pulled back and “let” them go. I settled into my own pace and rode with a small group for about 15 more miles, then at Kawaihae, I put in a surge and dropped that group. I started passing people and felt pretty good about my pacing and energy. I rode mostly solo for the next 30-40 miles.

Then, as you likely heard, Matt Russel caught me. He came by and said something to the tune of, “alright, let’s work together and get going!” I said, “Yep, let’s do it!” Matt and I rode together most of Augusta just a few weeks ago, so I was stoked to have some great company after a lot of hard solo riding.

About 5-10 minutes later, just after the Mauna Lani in a fast tailwind section which Matt was hammering, a van tried to cross the intersection in front of us and didn’t leave nearly enough time. In the split second I saw it coming I yelled, “oh F$ck!” Matt had an instant to slam on his breaks but there was no way to avoid a collision. According to my Strava, he probably hit the van at well over 30 mph. It was absolutely terrible. I saw bike and car parts explode as he flung to the side of the van, I swerved left and only missed it by a few feet, and briefly saw Matt crumpled on the ground motionless. It was absolutely awful and a series of moments/images that will forever be burned into my memory.

(As a brief but obviously important aside, while I haven’t talked to Matt or his wife personally, I know he sustained serious concussive and vascular injuries that may have a long term effect on his ability to compete. He and his wife just had their first child, a son, and needless to say this accident is absolutely tragic. Matt is a great guy that I’ve known and have raced for a very long time. If you are so inclined, please consider supporting his mounting medical and recovery costs, as set up by a close friend of his wife.)

After I swerved behind the van, I sat up and debated in shock what I should do. There were probably 50 or more spectators/witnesses, and a few policeman in the intersection, and medical staff on course. So after a bit of debate, I decided there was little I could do to help him, and I tried to resettle and continued racing. In all honesty, it probably took me about an hour to stop thinking of Matt—how terrible it was, and of course (selfishly) how lucky I was to have been just behind him at the time. Given that we both just had kids, raced and talked to each other at length in Augusta three weeks prior, it really shook me.

I don’t know if some of it was adrenaline or just better pacing, but I rode fairly well the last 30 miles, especially compared to last year. I started hurting and cramping a bit, but I at least thought I felt better, more prepared for a good run, by the time I rolled into T2. I averaged 8 more watts, which was great, and was a few minutes faster. So overall, a really solid ride.

Run: Solid, Until it Wasn’t. The Hardest Thing Ever.
My plan for this whole race was: time trial the course. Use people when it’s to my benefit, and don’t when it’s not. My coach and I believed that if I swam with my normal group, rode a solid ride, even by myself, that I could get off the bike and run under 2:50. We believed that was my best shot, and a legitimate shot, at getting a top 10.

When I started the run, I knew I was tired, but I still believed I had it in me. I felt smooth, better than last year, and my run training leading into it was the best it’s ever been. I was ~12 minutes down from 10th, but a sub 2:50 could honestly get me there, there were always guys that dropped out and blew up.

On the way out, I held myself back, running what felt conservative, and still ran under 2:50 pace for the first 9-10 miles or so. Then after the long climb up Palani, my heart rate/exertion started to rise. I expected to gain some energy back on the long downhill, but didn’t recover the way I hoped. I still felt ok though, I’d anticipated a slow down, because everyone slows down in that race on that section. I started having a bit of stomach trouble, but kept on my eating/drinking plan. While I slowed a bit, I still went through 13 miles at just over 2:50 pace.

Then, as happens in almost all my races, and particularly in the hot races, I cramped, and cramped bad. I tried to run through it—sometimes I can—but this one like many others was no way no how. I stopped to stretch and walk it out. That mile was slow obviously. The heat set in, and as I went by mile 14 I cramped again and it became pretty clear my body was shutting down big time. My stomach started lurching a bit and energy dropped as well.

It didn’t take long to conclude my hopes of top 10 were fading quickly. But I still felt like I could and wanted to finish well. But man, the body just shut down. Good night. This is where it became really really really hard. I was cramping, exhausted, overheated, had stomach trouble, and was getting crushed mentally. Then I passed 15 miles and realized I still had ELEVEN MILES to go in oppressive heat with a body that wanted nothing more than to stop. I tried everything—extra salt, Red Bull, bananas, whatever, but I think at that point the damage was done and it was impossible to recover. I tried to break it up mentally by running to the next aid station and allowing myself to walk to get hydration/nutrition/ice. But many times I literally could not physically run, or even jog, or even walk, because of the cramps. Of the dozen or so I had, a few were those ridiculously annoying ones that force you to stop, and then as you try to stretch it, the opposite muscle cramps! It was a freaking nightmare.

But in the midst of my nightmare, I did experience one very cool phenomenon. Nearly every pro that ran by me (maybe 6-8 guys or so) stopped and jogged with me for a while, encouraged me, etc. It was honestly awesome, and by far the coolest thing that happened to me in this race. Something I will never forget. This sport is so hard, this race in particular, that it breeds camaraderie because it’s not really you against the competition, it’s you against the environment. You get the best out of your body and some days you have a good day like I did in Augusta and some days you have a tough day like a lot of us did out there in Kona. I felt pride in the belief that, if anything, over the course of my career I have earned the respect of my competitors at the highest level. That’s a cool feeling. It also explains some of the heartbreak you feel when a competitor goes down like Matt did.

But even with the pickups of encouragement, it was still, easily, the longest, hardest run of my life. Physically, mentally, emotionally. I don’t know if I ever can or will be able to do something that hard again. I feel like it took a couple years off my life!

Final Thoughts: Despite the Pain and Failure, The Pursuit is Still Worth it. Thanks for That.
So clearly, despite the result, I’m proud of finishing. I thought A LOT about dropping out. I mean A LOT, like basically every 5 minutes for about 80 minutes straight. The pain was overwhelming and coming to terms with the “failure” emotionally after all the work and sacrifices I listed above was also brutal. There was definitely some crying. But as I mentioned in my video, the reason I didn’t quit (which I guess is both my blessing and sometimes my curse!) is the community that supports me. Like I wrote in my pre race blog the need to “honor” that support outweighed the physical and emotional pain. I like to consider myself a pretty tough dude, but believe me, if it was just me out there doing my own thing that nobody cared about or helped me with, I’d DEFINITELY have bailed at mile 16 or so. 100%. No doubt. Bailed!

So I guess in spite of it all, I’ll end like I normally do—even after a “good” race—with a huge thank you. Honestly, thank you all for your support. My wife, son, daughter, family, friends, coach, employees, sponsors, readers and DOZENS of crazy ass fans. While a failure after all that work is a tough pill to swallow, I’m a firm believer that the value of a goal is in the pursuit itself, the lessons you learn along the way, the experiences you have, and the relationships you develop. So I guess I’ve come full circle back to what I wrote before the race, which is that overall, because I’m lucky enough to have experienced all those things over the last year, while the pain of the result is tough, it’s still well worth the journey. While I’d preferably skip that last 12 miles, I’d do it all over again because of you guys.

Before you all say, “you can get em next year!” which I really truthfully appreciate—I want to let you know that there’s a real possibility I won’t race Kona next year. I’ll obviously let myself take some time off and time away before coming to any conclusions, but just the logistics of me racing it next year would require likely two Ironmans just to qualify. That’s a level of “depth” into the sport that my work/family/life, Triathlifebalance just can’t support—not to mention my body likely wouldn’t support it as well. I’m not bitter at all, I’m proud of both of my finishes here in different ways, and man, being 16th and 27th in the world is pretty dang good considering everything. I’m proud of that. It’s honestly better than I would have ever though when I started this crazy journey on a whim eight years ago. So anyway, we’ll see what happens and how I feel after a break. Thanks again guys, and I’ll check back in after some much needed R&R with family!