Jesse Thomas used to think Kona was crazy. He still does. But this year he’ll join the crazy—on his own terms.
Pro Jesse Thomas will be joining the crazy on Oct. 8 by competing in his first Ironman World Championship
When I first started this sport in 2011 I was about 90 percent sure I’d never do an Ironman. If you don’t believe me, ask my wife, coach and family. No matter how intriguing, Ironman was just way too long. It beat the crap out of you, the training seemed ludicrous and you didn’t get to race that much. Why would I do that? It didn’t make any sense!
Later that year I was invited by some sponsors to go watch Kona. And after seeing my first ever live Ironman on that beautiful Hawaiian island, everything changed. I was now 100 percent sure I would never freaking do an Ironman. Oh my God, watching that race was maybe the most miserable day of my life. The heat! The humidity! The sticky T-shirt and unrelenting swass (Google it). It was agonizing. It felt like a perpetual, inescapable weight evenly distributed across my entire body. For hours upon exhausting hours, I watched as my friends competed, in between states of pure suffering and near blackout pain. I remember standing out there on the Queen K highway as the guys came into the finish, thinking, “Why the hell would anyone ever do this? It’s completely nuts.”
Triathlon’s infatuation with Kona, and Ironman in general, has always seemed “suspect” to me. For an event that lies so far on the crazy spectrum, its fanatical support feels almost cultish. People get tattoos, spend 1,000 bucks in 5 minutes before the race sells out, and agonize over Kona slots. I mean, it’s just a race, right? You’d think it was a Justin Bieber concert or something. In many ways, triathletes are to Kona what teenage girls are to Justin Bieber. The level of scream-crying excitement is scientifically unexplainable!
I wrote about this infatuation a couple of years ago in an article titled, “I’m NOT an Ironman, and that’s OK.” It always bugged me how I felt like any non-Ironman triathlon accomplishments I had were belittled when the first question I got from everyone was “Have you done an Ironman?” or “Have you done Kona?” to which my answer of course was always “no.”
But for some reason, my perspective has morphed over the last couple of years. I don’t know why exactly—maybe it was the need for a new challenge after years of focus on half-Ironman. Maybe it was the gentle prodding of my coach Matt Dixon: “I still think your best distance is Ironman …” Maybe it was seeing the last Ironman finishers before midnight and the sense of accomplishment on their faces. Maybe it was the resilience from years of training that led to more comfort and confidence in longer distances. Or maybe I just wanted to answer those two questions (“Have you done an Ironman?” and “Have you done Kona?”) with a simple “YES,” and maybe a “Thank you very much.”
In all likelihood, it was a combo of those reasons that led to my gentle, semi-reluctant dip into Ironman. And now, less than a year and two Ironmans later, I find myself entering the final prep for something I repeatedly told myself I would never do—Kona. And I feel partially excited, partially terrified, and partially … suspect, like I have always been.
I’m excited like you’d expect anyone doing their first Kona to be. It is, for better and for worse, the pinnacle—or the Super Bowl—of the sport. It’s high profile and carries with it more excitement, incessant analysis and expectation than any triathlon on the planet.
I’m terrified because I’ve witnessed firsthand, four times now, the physical and emotional pain that this race carries, not just during its execution on race day, but also during the preparatory months. All that high profile-ness, excitement, analysis and expectation makes people do crazy stuff before and during the race. I’ve seen it time and time again.
And because of that, I remain suspect. But I think (or hope, at least) it’s a healthy suspicion. Even though I’m excited and I know it’s obviously a big race, the athlete and industry infatuation still feels a little Justin Bieberish to me. And in the next couple of months, I need to make sure I am conscious of the fact that this obviously big race, when it comes down to it, is just another race. Even though Justin Bieber is a dude who can sing and dance super good, he’s still just a dude.
I’ve seen many of my friends and competitors, both pro and amateur, seemingly lose their way in the hype and build-up to Kona. Sometimes it’s simple or almost expected stuff like overtraining, or pushing their bodies too far. But I’ve also seen people change their plan, or do stuff entirely new just to try to gain a perceived edge. They commit to too much and don’t back off when they see or feel the signs because, by God, this is Kona! They psych themselves out about the competition or lose perspective on what it’s all about or what they are trying to accomplish. On race day, they get sucked into someone else’s race, or do things that don’t make sense because of the excitement of the moment. All of these things are natural psychological tendencies when readying yourself for a big day or important event, but that doesn’t make them right.
I am clearly anything but an expert on this race. I’m a rookie, and all my observations are secondhand. So what I write and think now could change dramatically after Oct. 8. But I’ve raced lots of “big” races over the years both in triathlon and on the track, and I think it’s super important to have a healthy amount of “suspicion” and consciously downplay those big races in your brain.
In the lead-up to Kona, I’ll do my best to remember why I’m here—because I want to experience this race, be able to say I raced Kona and check it off the bucket list of my career. That’s it. I’ll need to remember, and plan around the many other obligations I have with family and Picky Bars, which can’t just be dropped because of a race, no matter how big. And I’ll need to do my best to approach Kona in as similar a way as I can to my previous Ironman races—not asking my body, my family and my employees for too much just because it’s a world championship.
Ultimately, I want to make sure I make this Kona my Kona—approach it and experience it in a way that makes the most sense for me. I’ll try not to get caught up in the hype and expectation of what other people think it does or doesn’t mean, or how others think I should or shouldn’t prepare. I used to think Kona was crazy. I still do. But this year I’ll join the crazy—on my own terms.