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Triathlife With Jesse Thomas: The Unexpected Journey Of Sport

Or, how to rebound after a major bummer.

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Or, how to rebound after a major bummer.

Shortly after I started racing professionally in 2011, I made a three-year commitment to 70.3 worlds, which extended to four years after breaking my foot in 2013. It was the No. 1 focus of my entire career. But due to bad luck, injuries and many, many mistakes, I still hadn’t had the breakout performance I knew I was capable of.

But in August of 2015, the stars aligned. The Ironman 70.3 World Championship course in Austria was perfectly suited to my strengths—there was a wetsuit swim, a super hilly bike and a two-lap run to Pacman people down. Most importantly, I was in the shape of my life, healthy, confident and perfectly positioned to have the race of my career.

I did all the work and made all the sacrifices. I trained my ass off, ate healthy, hit the gym and was lean and strong. I raced only four times that season, sacrificing income opportunities and sponsor exposure to be fresh and ready to go on Aug. 30. I spent extra money and time away from my family to fly over to Europe 10 days in advance. I asked for, and was given, a lot of time and support from my wife, son, family, Picky Bars employees and friends to help me do the things I needed to do.

You could say all my eggs were in one basket. This was my shot. Here we go.

Then, after a great swim and while having the ride of my life, I got a penalty. One which, to make a long story short, was later apologized for by officials. I was shocked, furious and destroyed. At the tent before T2, I stood breathing, sweating and crying for five minutes as I watched myself slide from fifth to 21st place.

Deflated, I finished with the little energy and motivation I had in 18th place, first American and five minutes out of the top 10. At the very least, I was proud of completing the race and proving to myself that I was capable of a great day.

But this is a sport where world championship opportunities are hard to come by, and devastation set in. I felt robbed of a career performance—one that could have elevated my profile, provided great value to my sponsors, and potentially afforded me with new support and opportunities. Most importantly, it would have validated all the work and sacrifice to myself, my family and my supporters.

I hit my low point while updating the results page on my website. I looked back at the years and saw all the results, all building toward worlds, and I started crying. My whole year, my whole career really, was keyed around this race, and I had nothing to show for it.

But somewhat by chance, just before worlds, my coach, Matt Dixon, and I decided I should sign up for my first Ironman. I’d never done one and figured if I did, it was best to try one at the end of the season. I’d be in Europe anyway and found a super tough course just two weeks later—Ironman Wales. I thought, “If I’m healthy and not too beat up after worlds, why not? Maybe I’ll give it a try?” And about eight days before the Ironman, after the soreness subsided, I decided I was in.

I arrived in Wales defeated and bummed. But the new challenge gave me something different to focus on. There was no pressure, no expectation, no specific training, no master plan. I’d just go out there, see what it was like, gather whatever information I could, and do my best to enjoy the day. Play triathlon for about nine hours. Let go of the bummer season, one long discipline at a time.

And to my surprise (and maybe not surprise) I had quite a day. I had a crazy but great swim, a strong bike (even though I died a bit the last hour), and wow, ran my first marathon in a way I never would have expected. I finished first in one of the most memorable days of my career.

And suddenly, just days after being in the gutter, I was on cloud nine. My whole perspective had changed. I looked back at my season calendar and the sting of worlds had subsided. I was super proud and psyched about what I’d accomplished. I had a whole new outlook on the season, the off-season and the year ahead. It wasn’t what I imagined or planned or expected, but it was beautiful and brilliant in its own way. And I’d certainly take it.

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I’m not saying the next time you fail to achieve your big goal you should go race an Ironman two weeks later. But there are some things that I did—some knowingly and some not—that apply to anyone looking to rebound from a major bummer:

Accept the outcome. It’s certainly OK to be sad, angry, disappointed, gassy. I was all of those things! It’s a natural part of dealing with any “loss.” You need to let yourself process it and learn from it. Then let it go.

Get “back on the horse” quickly. It’s OK to sulk for a bit, but if you can, don’t end your season. When I played basketball, I always left the court on a make. Sometimes that took a lot of shots. Sometimes I caved and did a lay-up. But I always left on a make. It’s best to end on some kind of positive note before taking your off-season.

Do something fresh, new or different. Most likely any race outside of your bummer goal race will be one of these things, but the best rebound races are something that you haven’t specifically trained for, carry less pressure and expectation, and sound like a fun challenge regardless of the outcome.

Acknowledge the fear and doubt, but also acknowledge the opportunity. As sports psychologist Mitchell Greene once told me, “courage over confidence.” It’s OK to have a healthy fear of a new challenge or coming back because it helps you respect it, but you can couple that fear with the courage to try to overcome.

Have fun, and if you have a family, get them involved. We all know that triathlon at its most crazy is a strain on family. If possible, bring them into this one, enjoy their company and make them a part of the process/outcome. It helps you keep it fun, and balance it back to even for you and for them.

No matter what your goals are in this sport, no matter how hard you work or how well you plan, there are lots of things beyond your control. And sometimes, crappy stuff happens, and the journey you start won’t go where you wanted. But I think the beauty of sport is that if you work hard, keep your head up and your mind open to possibilities in spite of fear and doubt, you may end up in a place you never expected. And that place may be more amazing and rewarding than where you originally wanted to go.

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

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