Jesse Thomas just wants to be happy. He thinks you should be happy, too.
He’ll be lining up in Kona, Hawaii, to race in his second Ironman World Championship on Oct. 14. Last year he showed up at the start line burned out, with a fatigue that had crept up on him in the last few weeks of training. He finished No. 16, 23 minutes behind winner Jan Frodeno. This year, he took almost two weeks off training in June. He kicked back a little, drank the occasional beer. A foot injury even helped by slowing down his ramp back up to full workouts.
Thomas juggles being a pro athlete with running the energy bar company he co-founded called Picky Bars, and raising his family—he and his wife, Lauren Fleshman, have a four-year-old son, Jude, and Fleshman gave birth to their daughter, Zadie, on Monday. In August, he hosted two aspiring amateur triathletes over separate weekends in his hometown of Bend, Ore., giving them a window into both his workouts and his life. Luis Iturralde, 32, a structural engineer from New Orleans, and Kyle Klinger, 36, a sales and marketing executive from Austin got to train with Thomas as their prize for winning competitions run by Red Bull and Strava. Listen to yourself, he told them.
In triathlon, Thomas says, “The line is so much more blurred than it is in conventional sports.” When he tells people he’s a pro triathlete, their response is usually OK, yeah, cool. So what do you do for your job?
Almost everyone starts out swimming, biking, and running with the goal of getting in shape, although Thomas, who raced the 3,000-meter steeplechase as a student at Stanford, had always dreamed of going pro in something. The biggest step up towards pro status, he says, came when he hired his coach, Matt Dixon, in 2010.
“If you want to be a better triathlete, hire a good coach and don’t be doing it on your own," Thomas says. "I think it’s really hard to separate ego from smart decision making in the training environment.” (Fleshman is also a two-time national champion 5,000-meter runner, so Thomas can lean on her athletic experience, too.)
According to Thomas, triathletes also often lose sight of what really matters, chasing numbers collected by all sorts of wearable devices—heart rate, power, speed, etc.—instead. “[Data] matters to me,” he says, “but it’s not the be all end all.” Thomas pays attention to his mind and body to inform how he needs to moderate his training or nutrition. “The more sophisticated an athlete you become,” he says, “the better you are at understanding what those feelings mean and placing value on them.”
“When I start to get over trained, I get angry,” he says. “If I’m heading out for a ride and I can’t find my shoes or something, I’ll throw a temper tantrum like I’m a three year old.”
The solution is always to back off. Maybe he needs to ride shorter or easier, doesn’t need to set a new fastest time. Maybe he needs to skip that training session entirely. Perhaps he should find a quiet space and meditate instead. In contrast, amateurs often don’t feel they have the luxury to do that. There already don’t seem to be enough hours in the day to catch up with all of the demands of life. “When I’m not working I’m training,” Klinger says, “and when I’m not training I’m working.”
In six years as a pro, Thomas has learned to take his easy days easier and that rest means rest. The second morning Iturralde was in Bend, he woke up early to go running with Thomas. As he sipped his second cup of coffee, Iturralde wondered where his host was. Thomas was still fast asleep. He often doesn’t set an alarm. Instead he wakes up when his body is ready. “Sleeping and eating well, those are just as important as putting the work in,” Iturralde says he realized in Bend.
Thomas won his final warm-up race ahead of Kona, Ironman 70.3 Augusta on Sep. 24. Three weeks of rest and recovery later he’ll be aiming for a top 10 finish in Hawaii. Maybe more than any numbers, the difference that elevates the six-time Wildflower Triathlon champion and two-time father to his goal will be happiness.