“How’d Jesse do???”
The long course finishers are moseying over to our tent, their sweat-soaked finisher towels dripping on the baking pavement below them. They’ve just finished a 70.3ish mile tour around Central California’s Lake San Antonio, and haven’t yet heard that the Jesse Thomas Reign of Wildflower has finally come to an end. They look up expectantly while munching on samples of bars and oatmeal.
“He got second," a look of shock (and maybe sympathy?) appears between bites, "Rudy won!”
Working an event where we have people competing is fun because it gives us something to chat about with booth visitors other than just the product. It adds an excitement, another way to connect, and a more engaging atmosphere rather than just doling out toothpicked samples like a Costco employee on a busy Saturday morning. I’ve worked the Olympic Trials (Lawrence sisters, Picky Team, and Feed the Dream athletes), Lake Sonoma the year Alex Varner won, Cyclocross Worlds cheering on the Squid Bikes crew, a whitewater kayak race, and Jesse's 140.6 and 70.3 World Champs last year.
Sure, there’s the Jesse Effect. He’s a big deal there, having won the last six consecutive years, but it’s also a really big deal to him. This is the race that launched his career back in 2011 when he won as a literal unknown (the announcer called him out by bib number as he crossed the finish because he didn't know his name) and that’s seen him grow as a professional triathlete, as well as the family and business man he is today. That first year there were no kids, he rode a borrowed bike, and infant-stage Picky Bars were still being made in Jesse and Lauren's home kitchen, packaged in little hand-stickered ziplock baggies.
I knew those storylines going in, but was still caught off guard by the magnitude of the whole experience anyhow. (Pardon the dramatization.)
Wildflower is one of the biggest and most prestigious triathlons in the world that is still privately owned. It’s a family run business in its 35th year, having weathered ups, downs, and downs because of uncontrollable things like weather. (Umm, relatable...) The atmosphere of the weekend isn’t the stuffy, serious vibe you typically get from an event that collects thousands of very Type A, focused personalities chasing down a goal they’ve been working towards for months. It’s laid back, it’s friendly, it smells like bug spray and campfire more than sweat and neoprene. And when people ask how someone’s race went, or describe their own, it’s not just times or finish places that they talk about.
We heard about people’s very first races, about one man’s 20th time racing, about someone who decided to jump in and register the day before. Collegiates who had to go home to finals and people who were going home to ill family members. A woman told us about the three flats she got during the ride with more joy on her face than I’ve seen from someone who’d just set a new personal best. Around a campfire Saturday night over the sound of a band playing in the distance, someone reminded the group he still had to race the next morning. They handed him a beer. He cracked it with a smile.
It’s more festival than race weekend, more comrades than competitors, but when it comes time for that gun to go off, everyone’s game face is on.
Embodying the fun, interpersonal, and still competitive aspect of sport. Work hard, play hard, if we can be so cliche. When you’re too focused on the bottom line or some arbitrary number it becomes harder and harder to look around and appreciate where you are, to keep hold of the play part of the process. So while the unstable footing of the singletrack trail might slow your pace and toss a few extra obstacles your way, it’s worth it for the peaceful, fresh air, the quick reprieve from the sun when you duck into the trees, and the view you get when you finally reach the summit.
Plus, reaching out for a few high fives along the way always adds more than it takes away.
(That's freaking science, dude.)
Running a race you’re proud of, giving it everything you had, and finishing with a smile - that’s something that deserves celebrating, no matter your place on the podium.
And how fitting is that for not just triathlon, but for business and life as well. It’s no wonder Jesse loves this race so much.
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