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Triathlife: Call Me The Comeback Kid

Jesse Thomas writes about returning to training after a hiatus, and discovers it’s not as easy as it seems.

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For those of you who don’t watch SportsCenter, I’ll sum up 2013 by saying that Lance went on Oprah, Manti Te’o’s girlfriend was fake, and I broke my foot at Wildflower. It clearly was a bewildering and disappointing year for all of us. Given what’s happened, I think we can all join hands and collectively say, “Bring on 2014! Booyah!”

OK, breaking my foot wasn’t all bad. Just like Kate and Will, and Kimye, my wife and I had our first kid. And unlike Kate and Will, and Kimye, we had to take care of him ourselves. So while the injury was a bummer, in the grand scheme of things, it was probably for the best. It allowed me to spend the final month of pregnancy and the first three months of “Hello I’m your baby and I have lots of needs” with my wife. Outside of Picky Bars work, it felt like my own little paternity leave, but a bit longer and with no pay.

Despite the excitement of having an awesome human squat counterweight, the recovery was a long and difficult process. All in all, it took me about twice as long to return to running as originally planned. But as of writing this article, I’m swimming and biking at full capacity and starting to run again. And like anyone who’s had a major injury or taken a long break for a kid, a work project or just a year off to spend more time on life, I’m pretty excited to get back to the sport (and job) I love.

Structurally, I’ve already planned my season. Similar to what I wrote about last January, I have six to seven races leading toward one shiny “A” goal at the end of the year — the 70.3 world championship in Mont-Tremblant. Winning a 70.3 world championship has been my ultimate goal for the last three and a half years, one my coach and I have been steadily building toward since 2010. The announcement that the location shifted to a course that suits my strengths has made me even more excited and motivated to return.

But for better and for worse, I’ve been injured a lot in my athletic career, and I know that extra motivation channeled inappropriately can make the return to racing just as tough as the recovery from the injury itself. So I’ve outlined the key things I need to focus on during my comeback year.

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Slow Progression

Of course, every comeback starts with physically getting the body back to training and eventually racing shape. The key to this process has been slowly progressing back into training, making sure that I’m not aggravating my weak foot in the process of reintroducing all three disciplines. Like I’ve said before, you can’t race fast if you can’t race, so maintaining health over fitness is the right way to look at it.

Strength Is Not The Ugly Stepchild

I’ve also started on a strength routine targeting not only my right foot but also some other weak areas that have given me problems throughout the years — my shoulders, my lower back and my glutes. My wife says I have a tiny butt, so I’m hoping these exercises will also help that. In the past, I’ve made strength sessions the ugly stepchild of my training, giving them attention when I have extra time, energy, and I’m all caught up on “New Girl.” So this year, I’m making them as important as my key swim, bike and run sessions. If my time and energy are waning, I’ll cut my ride, swim or run short to make sure I get in those exercises. In extreme cases, I’ll even delay watching “New Girl” until Wednesday. It’s the sacrifices that make you great.

It Doesn’t All Come Back At Once

During my junior year at Stanford, after a great fall cross country season that promised big things for the spring track season, an injury set me back a couple of months. When I was finally healthy, I was so determined to come back “better than ever” that I delayed my first race because I didn’t feel like I was ready to “make a statement.” I wanted to jump straight back to where I was, and skip all the lead-up steps that I took to get there. I have similar thoughts now—like I want to show everyone (and myself) that I didn’t lose a step. I’m that same guy who ran toe-to-toe with Andy Potts at Oceanside and beat Joe Gambles and Leon Griffin at Wildflower. Watch out, here I come!

But what I have to remember is that those accomplishments didn’t happen overnight; they were the result of months — even years — of consistent training and racing. And while I don’t lose all those years of fitness and experience, it’s still going to take time to get back to that level. I have to look at my first race as exactly that — my first race. It’ll have been roughly eight months since Wildflower by the time I toe the line, and while I believe that I’m capable of being better than ever, I have to avoid the desire to prove it to myself and to others my first time out. My first race is a stepping stone, one of roughly eight that I’ll take before my ultimate goal. Sure, it’s great to be fit and confident early in the season, but it’s best to be fit and confident when it really counts.

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Get Excited About The Process

Furthermore, I have to be excited about more than my end goal. I have to be psyched about the process of getting there. When I finally did race after that college injury, I went out determined to run an 8:40 steeplechase—what I thought I was capable of based on my cross-country season—but as I fell off pace, I got frustrated and faded badly. After the race, my coach at the time told me, “Jesse, regardless of what happened this fall and winter, right now, your best steeple is 9:10. You are a 9:10 guy, not an 8:40 guy. Yes, you can be an 8:40 guy, but it’s going to take time, and you have to take the steps necessary to get there. You have to get excited about 9:05, then 9:00, then 8:55, etc.” Then he pointed at the Stanford football stadium and said, “If your goal was to get to the top of that stadium, which strategy do you think would work better—jumping the outer wall in a single bound, or taking the many small steps on the inside? Sure, jumping would be faster, but my guess is taking the steps would be more successful.” I took his advice to heart and ran 9:04 my next race. Then I ran 8:56, 8:49, 8:42, and finally, 8:35. He was a smart guy.

So instead of calling it a comeback, I think I’ll call it my commmmmmmmmebaaaaaaaack — a gradual, progressive return to racing where I’m excited about each step of the process. Bring it on, 2014. Booyah!

Jesse Thomas (@jessemthomas) is a three-time Wildflower Long Course champion and the CEO of Picky Bars (

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