There is only one thing harder than winning a championship:

Defending it.

The past few months, while I’ve been climbing out of the IT Band Mosh Pit, Jesse (the huz) has been preparing to defend his Wildflower Triathlon Title.

Jesse Steepling at Stanford

Gettin after it, back when one sport was enough for J-Man.

As far as I know, this is the first time Jesse’s ever had to defend anything legit. He won his first state cross country and track titles his Senior Year of high school, and it turns out they don’t let you come back as a college kid and defend. He got to experience the same unbridled in-your-face-ness his senior year of college when he finally won his first Pac 10 Title. Good timing in both cases, in my opinion.

But Wildflower…

Jesse winning with a manhugWhen Jesse shocked the triathlon community last year by winning one of the most prestigious and historic triathlons in the world on a borrowed bike and race kit with Walgreens Aviators on, he did so at the very beginning of his Pro Triathlon Career.  The kid was green: Kermit the Frog Green. It was hilarious.

But unlike his hard-earned, dues paid, big man on campus victories that resulted in a school of fist bumps and a chorus of “You earned that man’s!” Jesse’s Wildflower win was met with a lot of WTF’s?! and an amused curiosity. As an unknown in the sport, such an unlikely victory was chalked up by many to be “the race of that kid’s life” or “a good story” or “a weak field,” all of which could very well have been true. One never knows until it comes time to defend.

Bye bye Mystery Man, hello Cover Boy

As the weeks closed in on Wildflower version 2.0, I watched Jesse squirm and try to remain calm as the gravity of the race pulled on him. On the one hand, he was fitter than ever, more experienced, wanted it badly, and had tons of support. On the other hand, the 30th anniversary of the event promised a much deeper field, his anonymity was vaporized, media and sponsor requests had to be factored in to the schedule, and worst of all, he had to face the demons of having done it before.

When I won NCAA’s my sophomore year for the first time, I had never felt such bliss. I de-throwned defending champ Kara Goucher and took Hayward Field by complete surprise. 12 years later I’m looking into botox treatments for the stretch marks from over-smiling that day [month]. That win changed my career, the way I thought of my potential, and the way others thought of me, but it also set me up for the most miserable and horrifying NCAA’s 12 months later when I went to defend my title. I still get sick remembering the gore involved in that mental battle.

Unlike last time, you know you can do it because you have done it before. You know how good it feels to win. You know you want that again soooo badly. But you also know that your previous win was partially due to lots of factors out of your control. Maybe I won because Kara had a bad day…or because so-and-so ran the 10k instead…or because I had no pressure as the underdog…it goes on and on ad infinitum.

The truth is, in every race, there is the very real possibility that even if you have the race of your life, some factor out of your control can cut you down. Bad luck. Flat tire. Someone else has the race of her life. And never is this more terrifying than when you feel you have something to lose for the first time. Defending a title requires getting comfortable with that and running your nuts off anyway.

Saturday, 30 minutes after the race, when the media finally pressed stop on their recorders, after family and friends in the finish area got their fill of hugs and high fives, Jesse walked away to a quiet place alone.

My phone rang.

“YAY OH MY GOSH YOU WON CONGRATS YOU ARE SO AWESOME YOU DID IT I’M SO HAPPY FOR YOU AND PROUD AND YOU WORKED SO HARD AND HAD ALL THAT PRESSURE AND MEDIA STUFF AND YOU DID IT ANYWAY AND AND AND…”

Jesse responded with a rare emotional thanks that brought tears to my eyes. I wished I was there. I knew I would wish I was there.

“Was any of it fun or were you scared shitless the whole time?!” I asked, remembering.

A laugh burst through a throat thick with emotion, “It was horrifying. The entire time. I was running scared the whole way. It was terrible!”

“But you didn’t let it beat you! You pulled it off!”

“I’m so relieved…I did it…”

As the hours pass, relief turns to happiness, and happiness to exhaustion. Only when the race is well over do you realize how difficult it was. Not just the race, but everything leading up to it.

It will never be that hard again.

jesse winning!To read Jesse’s account of the race, you should really check out his blog here. Seriously. For real.