Triathlete Jesse Thomas On Beating the Odds

A Q&A with an Outside in Aspen participant

Jesse Thomas

Jesse Thomas at the finish line.     Photo: Courtesy of Specialized

Jesse Thomas is a professional triathlete and CEO of Picky Bars, as well as a board member of the Professional Triathlon Association. He burst onto the triathlon scene with his first pro win at the Wildflower Triathlon in 2011 and successfully defended the win at Wildflower this year. Thomas will participate in various events at Outside in Aspen this year.

How did you make the progression from runner to entrepreneur to accomplished triathlete?
I was a runner in college and had the majority of my success in senior year. My plan at the time was to stay around at Stanford and do a master’s degree in mechanical engineering and compete. I figured I had two years to pass eight or nine more guys in the U.S. to try to make the Olympic team. I felt pretty good about where I was sitting. I was young and new to the Steeplechase.

That summer I got a stress fracture in my right foot. I put running to the side to finish my master’s degree. I was cycling at the time, finishing my master’s degree, and flirting with the idea of becoming a professional cyclist. Then I broke my neck in late April 2004. It destroyed any athleticism I had.

I had started working on a project with a guy in the business program who wanted to start a company. I threw myself into the startup. We worked in San Francisco for 3.5 years. We raised money. We were venture funded and rode the wave thinking we were going to be millionaires one week, then not getting paid for months at a time.

In 2007, I started dabbling in triathlon without the intention of pursuing it professionally. At the end of 2009 the economy was crumbling. MBAs were losing their jobs left and right. I figured if I’m not going to be making money for a while, I might as well not make any money doing something that I love. So I dove into triathlon and did consulting on the side. Since then it’s been a slow rise up to being a legitimately competitive pro athlete.

Had you always done cycling and swimming, or did you jump into it in order to do triathlon?
I started cycling as a means for cross training during my running injury and discovered a talent for it. After I broke my neck it took almost two years to feel comfortable riding in a group again. It was too much of a risk to be racing full-tilt with 80 other guys in a peloton. That was the cycling background. I thought if I learned how to swim a little bit I might be able to do this triathlon thing, so I just jumped into a pool and started teaching myself how to swim.

How did you break your neck?
In a bike accident. I wish it was a cooler one to describe. I was on an easy ride with my buddy. We were cutting through a parking lot to a street we were going to ride on, and I rode over a speed bump that I didn’t see. My hands were up on the top of the hoods, and they just bumped off the front.  I went over the front of the bike and landed on my head. It was really bad news. It’s been a long road back.

You burst onto the scene with a win in last year’s Wildflower Triathlon in drugstore Aviators and a borrowed bike. Did you expect big results?
I certainly did not expect to win. I’d been training with my coach at the time for five or six months, so I knew I was fit, and I always anticipated that I would be capable of competing at that level. But I went into that race hoping for a top eight. Winning was a shock to me and everybody else. They literally did not know my name when I crossed the finish line. I’m still wearing the drugstore Aviators, which have, for better or for worse, become my trademark. I’ve got a much better bike.

How did it feel to successfully defend your Wildflower win this year?
It was amazing. I was so excited. I realized afterward how relieved I was. I don’t think I fully understood how much pressure I had put on myself and how much that win meant to me. I battled a lot of stuff after that shocking win last year. There was a lot of, “Who’s this Jesse Thomas guy? Okay, he had a good day at Wildflower.” Like a one-hit wonder kind of thing. And it erased all those criticisms not only externally, but internally for myself. Proving it to myself was important. It’s probably the proudest I’ve been of any performance athletically. I’m really psyched about it.

Tell me about your company Picky Bars.
Right when I started training again, late 2009 and early 2010, my wife, Lauren Fleshman (who’s a much more accomplished athlete than I am—she’s a 5k runner, won the U.S. Championships a couple of times, been 7th in the world) helped design an energy bar for me to help me deal with my gluten and dairy sensitivities so my stomach wouldn’t get messed up.

They made this bar for me, and I was eating them like crazy. Our friends really liked them and wanted to start buying them, so we started selling them to a running group. Eventually we realized there was some real potential. We got a commercial kitchen license and trademarked Picky Bars and started really small, just selling them direct online. The thing has grown like gangbusters over the last 15 months. It’s become a legitimate company now. It’s still very small. I’m the CEO and work on it 20-40 hours a week depending on my racing and training schedule. Lauren and co-founder Steph Rothstein, who’s a super accomplished marathoner, also work on it.

Has your training evolved now that you’re in your second pro year?
We’ve focused on different areas. Originally my swim was just so bad that I really couldn’t be competitive regardless of how fast I biked and ran. So we worked a lot on my swimming last year. This year has also included a big focus on my biking. The combination of those two has enabled me to be competitive now. I still have a long way to go, but we’ll continue to work on those weaknesses until they’re adequate and then probably come back to my run to improve that. Ultimately, we hope I can be competitive with anybody in the world at that half-ironman distance. It’s still another year or year-and-a-half away.

What are your goals for this year and beyond?
I’ll be gearing up for the Half Ironman World Championship in September in Vegas. That will be my main focus for this year. Beyond that, the Ironman is definitely an option. Depending on how the next year goes, we’ll decide if and how to play with that.

Outside in Aspen, June 8-10, is a weekend filled with outfitter-led adventure, including mountain and road biking, kayaking, rafting, trail running, fly-fishing, hiking, stand-up river paddling, and rock climbing for all skill levels. The weekend also includes parties, a base camp featuring Outside's Gear of the Year, a symposium with professional adventure athletes and Outside personalities.

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