Sure, Jesse Thomas has won more acclaimed races than the SELCO Pole Pedal Paddle during his career as a professional triathlete. But there is something special about the PPP for the 38-year-old who grew up in Bend and still calls Central Oregon home.
So shortly after crossing the finish line Saturday in Bend’s sun-splashed Les Schwab Amphitheater to win the 42nd annual PPP, Thomas called the victory a “top-five athletic achievement.”
Thomas has won two Ironman-distance triathlons and has won the prestigious Wildflower Triathlon in California six times. But winning the PPP in his hometown, he said, ranks right with those accomplishments.
Saturday marked his second PPP win, though his victory in 2015 came on a course without a nordic ski stage due to lack of snow. This win came without an asterisk, and he did it in dominating triathlete fashion by outbiking and outrunning the competition.
Thomas passed defending elite men’s champion and seven-time winner Marshall Greene about halfway through the 5-mile running stage, then hung on during the paddle and sprint legs to win in a time of 1 hour and 43 minutes flat. His time tied Greene’s 2007 record for the fastest elite man since the PPP’s finish was moved from Drake Park to the amphitheater in 2004.
“Honestly, it feels awesome,” Thomas said. “Growing up here … I’ve done a lot of other races that you would call bigger than this race. But this is right up there for me, a top-five athletic achievement I think. Just being a local kid, it just means a lot. This town means a lot to me and this event means a lot to me, and it’s just cool to be able to do it and put my name up there for real, and not have it be the guy who won when there was no nordic ski. It’s cool to do it legit.”
Greene, also of Bend, finished second in 1:46:37, and Andrew Boone, likewise from Bend, was third in 1:47:17.
Thomas overcame a fall on the 6.2-kilometer nordic ski stage — which bloodied a knee — and learned from his support crew that he was behind Greene by 2:45 on the ski-to-bike transition.
“The nordic was so hard,” Thomas said. “I’m not used to my heart rate ever being that high in a race … just the high altitude, and not being very technically efficient. So I got on the bike and felt really tired. But I think I had a good bike (ride). I ended up passing Boone on the bike and must have made up a minute or so on Marshall.”
By the time he reached the bike-to-run transition at the Athletic Club of Bend, Thomas was only 1:30 behind Greene. The race, barring any crash or injury, was pretty much over at that point. Thomas is simply too fast of a runner to not easily make up that time over the course of 5 miles.
Thomas pounded out sub-5:30 miles to finish the run in 27:12, while Greene needed 30:43. Thomas passed him about 2½ miles in, near the South Canyon footbridge on the Deschutes River Trail.
“I knew I could catch him on the run but I knew I had to make a gap on the paddle, because last time those guys (Greene and Boone) were faster than me on the paddle,” Thomas said. “When I passed Marshall at about 2½ miles, I was like, ‘OK, I’m in a pretty good spot. I’ll probably get at least a minute.’ I ran the rest of the run as hard as I could because I didn’t want them to think that they had a chance at catching me. Because if they did, it’s like blood in the water.”
Greene never came close to catching him on the paddle stage, but afterward the deposed champ said he was satisfied with his race, adding that it played out much like he thought it would.
“Jesse just ran fast,” the 36-year-old Greene said. “I knew he was going to go by me, it was just a matter of when, and whether I’d have enough on the boat to gain some of that back. As it turned out he rocked the paddle, and I didn’t gain anything.”
Thomas completed the 1.2-mile paddle in 16:51, and Greene finished it in 18:16.
Greene said he plans to continue racing the PPP as an individual — he is one shy of tying Justin Wadsworth’s record of eight victories — but added, “it seems like my future against Jesse is not looking good.”
Thomas has a busy triathlon schedule each year, but he knows he does not have many years left in the sport. He said he plans to work the PPP into his schedule in years to come.
“For sure, I live half a mile that way,” Thomas said at the finish area. “And now that I’ve got a feel for the race … the main reason I never did it before was because I never skied. But now that I have (nordic skiing) as a legitimate offseason training thing, it totally makes sense for me to try to do it.”
— Reporter: 541-383-0318,