Triathlife: What My Competitors Have Taught Me

Jesse Thomas shares some of the best things he's learned from the people he trains and races against.

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When I first met Craig “Crowie” Alexander, he was a two-time Kona champ and about to win his third Ironman Hawaii in a course record. I was a new pro with less than a year in triathlon, and I didn’t know what to expect when I was about to meet him at an industry event. Here was one of toughest, fastest, most competitive guys in the sport. A remarkable athlete at the top of his game, only days away from one of the biggest races of his life.

I expected anything from a quick “Hello,” maybe a “Nice to meet you,” to a simple half-hearted nod before he went on his way to greet the other people in attendance.

But as many people have attested, he was (is) a really nice dude. To me at the time, he was shockingly nice. We talked briefly about triathlon—he asked me about my season—then we chatted a bit about family, business and other random stuff. Believe it or not, the words “aero,” “compression,” and “watts” did not enter the conversation. He didn’t make fun of how many times I said “um.” He maintained eye contact and didn’t look around for someone cooler or more important to talk to. I’ve had similar experiences with other world champs—Leanda Cave and Sebastian Kienle, to name a couple—and countless other super, super, super fast people. Like, most of all the fastest people.

Crowie taught me one of my first lessons in the sport: You can be the best triathlete in the world and still be a really nice guy. It kind of makes you wonder why are there so many douchebags in our sport. Come on, guys. Stop that please. Clearly, being fast does not require being a jerk.

I’ve learned a number of other lessons from my competitors in my five years as a pro. One thing that might surprise you is, despite the fact that we’re all competing for the same glory and money, pro triathletes are mostly very helpful, honest and encouraging.

So this month, instead of me giving you some debatably worthwhile advice from my own perspective, I thought I’d share some of the best things I’ve learned from the people I train and race against.

RELATED: Lessons Learned From Crowie

Triathlon can inspire, and it’s never too late to start. —Matt Lieto

There’s this awesome picture of Matt standing next to his brother Chris at Kona in 2000-something. I can’t remember where Chris finished, but it was high in the pro field. He’s in his racing kit looking tired but stoked. Matt is standing next to him and looks like a tall, happy and semi-bewildered Jonah Hill. Not like Oscar-nominee Jonah Hill in skinny jeans, but like big Jonah Hill in a weird T-shirt from Superbad or Forgetting Sarah Marshall.

Matt was self-admittedly a large dude and out of shape. And I can attest that he had absolutely no athletic talent whatsoever. But he was inspired by his brother and others to make a positive change in his lifestyle. And with a few years and a lot of hard work (and pounds) later, he’d not only become a full-blown triathlete, he’d become a pro, and one of the best cyclists in the sport.

OK, clearly Matt does have some talent, but his story reflects the best of the sport—the inspiration it can give to people who are just a spark away from making a change in their lives for the better, regardless of their physical, mental or emotional state.

RELATED: Matt Lieto’s Weight-Loss Journey And Tips

It’s OK to have other stuff going on. —Jordan Rapp

When I first met Jordan, he was a multiple Ironman champion, the Chief Technology Officer at Slowtwitch, and married with a kid on the way. Struggling myself with the seemingly limitless amount of potential training in this sport, I was impressed by how Jordan managed to do so much outside the sport so well. Clearly, he wasn’t training ALL DAY EVERY DAY and was still one of the best out there.

One of the biggest misconceptions in triathlon is that more training is always better. As my career has progressed, I’ve found that having influence and obligations outside of sport is good, even if racing is your job! Family, work, gardening, bridge, etc., provide a balance to the natural ups and downs of training, racing, injuries, setbacks and the clear-cut monotony and selfishness of being a triathlete. Seeing Jordan successfully juggle all that he had going on in my early career influenced me to keep Picky Bars going and start a family with my wife Lauren, despite the time both take away from training.

Being a pro isn’t just about winning races; it’s about being a pro. —Tim DeBoom

I met Tim DeBoom my first year at Wildflower, and I chatted with him later that year in Kona. He introduced me to Pearl Izumi, my first major sponsor, and has since been a great resource on my professional career. Even though I only raced Tim a few times, I’ve seen his influence and relationship with sponsors, fans and people in the business. He was the first person I got to know who had made a career out of the sport, with big performances and big sponsors. You could see how he approached it professionally by building relationships with partners, race organizers and other stakeholders in the sport, doing the work necessary to maintain those relationships and deliver value to them beyond just a performance. I’ve realized through him and other early influencers such as Chris Lieto and Michael Lovato how the work for a pro in this sport doesn’t end when the race or training session is over.

RELATED: Tim DeBoom On Finding The Triathlon/Life Balance

Injuries happen, no matter what. —Everyone

I can’t think of a single professional triathlete in the last five years who hasn’t been injured at some point during that span. Think about that. Not one person out of probably a couple hundred. These are people with the best coaching, natural physiology and resources, and the most time for recovery and rehab. It’s simple—injuries happen. Sure, the best training programs, coaches and most self-aware athletes limit them, but it’s part of the risk you take when you enter our sport. So the lesson to you and me is that when it happens, don’t get too crazy bummed. It’s part of the process, so chill!

Great performances eventually come to those who TRI. —Ben Hoffman, Jeff Symonds, Heather Jackson

Don’t be distracted by my terrible tri pun! The flip side of injury is that lots of people have come back from setbacks to have career performances. Fortunately for us and all of you, MTV’s “Real World Pro Triathlon” does not exist, so you don’t see the daily, weekly and monthly struggles, ups and downs, and weeping confessionals that happen before a big performance. But let me tell you that they are definitely there. Ben (Kona), Jeff (Ironman Melbourne), and Heather (Ironman Coeur d’Alene) are great examples of people who recently came back from all kinds of stuff over the course of a year or more to have a great performance. Moral of the story: Stay with it through the downs; the ups come back around.

More “Triathlife” from Jesse Thomas

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

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