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Triathlife With Jesse Thomas: The Not So Perfect Season

When things don’t go to plan, remember that you can only do what you can do.

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When things don’t go to plan, remember that you can only do what you can do.

Back in January, I stood on the peak of the highest mountain in my Triathlife column world and declared, “This, the year 2014, will be known as my comeback season!” And my dozens of readers simultaneously threw their aviators in the air and scream-cried in celebration. You see, I was injured most of last year, super motivated, focused and excited to get going. Everything was built around one big shiny goal: to win the Ironman 70.3 World Championship in Mont-Tremblant.

I knew winning would be a long shot—my best finish at 70.3 worlds was 20th in 2012. But I’ve improved a lot since then, won a number of races, and beaten guys who’ve podiumed at worlds. So while I—and even my craziest of fans—had doubts, somewhere in the back of my mind, we believed it could happen.

In order to win a world championship, I’d have to do a few things:
Get healthy and fit.
Qualify for worlds.
Race well against world-class fields.
Be rested and ready come September.

So my coach and I sat down and set out the perfect roadmap for my season, a shimmering yellow brick road all the way to Mont-Tremblant: Race off base fitness to get some early-season points at Ironman 70.3 Panama; be semi-sharp and get a good result at 70.3 Oceanside against a solid field; win Wildflower No. 4; podium at 70.3 Mont-Tremblant on the world champs course; compete for the win against a stacked field at Vineman 70.3, my final race before worlds.

Only five races, each with about 4–6 weeks between them for proper recovery and training. One for qualifying points, one for course experience, two to face world-class fields, and one because I just plain love it. Then a nice eight-week build-up into worlds in September. I’d be experienced, tested, fit and rested. It was perfect.

The problem is, it didn’t turn out that way. In February I discovered I needed another surgery to remove the pin that was originally put in my foot—no Panama or Oceanside. Somehow, just eight weeks later, I surprised myself by squeezing out a win at Wildflower on two weeks of running. I was stoked to be finally on a roll. Then the following Monday, I injured my shoulder and couldn’t swim for two weeks. By the time I was ready to race, I had eight weeks to qualify for Worlds and zero points. I missed a turn on the bike at Eagleman 70.3 and rode an extra 11 miles. Despite crowning myself the Eagleman 81.3 champion, I was awarded no points and lost two more weeks of qualifying time. Then I won 70.3 Mont-Tremblant in a course record! I was again stoked and finally got on the points board.

Just seven days later, I squeezed in another 70.3 and got third place at Buffalo Springs, but smoked myself doing so. Literally. It was 197 degrees. Celsius. Running on fumes, I managed a sixth place just two weeks later in an uninspired effort against a stacked Vineman 70.3 field. I struggled to keep my eyes open as I crossed the finish line.

Between the extra surgery, the shoulder injury and the personal tour of Eagleman, this season became less about the perfect prep for worlds and more about scrambling just to qualify.

But … it worked. Or I guess, in spite of surgeries, bike crashes and missed turns, I made it work. I got the points I needed and got my worlds slot. So why don’t I sound more stoked?

RELATED: The Worst Triathlon Advice

Because qualifying for worlds wasn’t the goal; winning worlds was. And the points scramble had its consequences. I raced four half-Ironmans in five weeks, and not surprisingly, I’m more than a little beat up. I’ve got foot soreness, hamstring tightness and a nerve problem. More than that, I’m just flat-out tired, both physically and emotionally. The past few weeks was the first time that professional triathlon felt like a job. I was tired, knew I wouldn’t be ready to race my best, wasn’t excited about the trips, and missed my family immensely. But I had to go out there and get the points. And because of all this, I underperformed my last couple of key races leading into worlds.

So now I face arguably my most important training block before worlds, and I’ve got physical problems and confidence issues. This isn’t what I signed up for when I laid out my master comeback plan. And now I feel myself making excuses about how my perfect prep has been screwed and doubting that I can still accomplish my goal.

But no season goes according to plan. There are too many factors outside our control that influence it, like sickness, injury, family or work obligations, and missing one damn turn at Eagleman. I think it’s natural tendency for triathletes to believe they can, or at least subconsciously try to, control more than they’re actually capable of controlling. It’s the natural response to a sport that demands incredible efficiency and discipline. Furthermore, as the pressure increases throughout the season, and even more so as we near our primary goal, that perceived need to tighten, to clamp down and control, increases.

It’s also natural to have mounting doubt leading into the pursuit of a goal. If you didn’t have doubt about whether you could achieve it, it would be too easy of a goal, and not feel as important or valuable. In the final lead-up, our minds manufacture excuses to help us deal with the possibility of not accomplishing it. I can feel myself thinking, “Oh, I injured my shoulder, raced too much, had an unexpected surgery, ate too much ice cream; therefore, I can’t win worlds.”

The fact is that none of that is true. Some of your best performances come in spite of your biggest doubts and when preparation didn’t go according to plan. A small example is what happened to me at Wildflower this year. A big example is Sebastian Kienle, who won 70.3 worlds last year after a string of injuries and subpar performances in the months leading into the race. In his post-race interview, he was truly amazed that it happened. (He said he even ate quite a bit of ice cream in the lead-up as well.)

So when the pressure mounts and your season feels derailed, it’s important to remember that you can only do what you can do. You can’t control all the things that will happen or have happened. But you can determine how you react to those things, and the work and preparation you put in going forward. I’m going to rest, train and do lots of PT the next five weeks leading into worlds because that’s what I can control. I’m going to focus on the things that went right this season, the good things that happened—Wildflower and Mont-Tremblant—and how those things could have a positive impact on my ability to achieve my goal. Lastly, I’m going to believe that you never know where your body and mind will take you, so you have to be open to the possibility of success. If I do all those things as best I can, I’ll have to be happy with the result.

Good luck everyone in the pursuit of your year-end goal. Stay positive and see it through!

RELATED: Getting Over A Bad Season

Jesse Thomas (@jessemthomas) is a four-time Wildflower Long Course champion, the CEO of Picky Bars (Pickybars.com) and finished 12th at the 2014 Ironman 70.3 World Championship.