Joel Thompson, 33, of Sonora took third place in his age group and set a personal best in an Olympic-distance triathlon event Sunday at Rancho Seco Recreational Park, about 70 miles northwest of Sonora in Sacramento County.

In Olympic-distance triathlons, competitors swim 1.5 kilometers (0.93 mile), ride bikes 40 kilometers (24.8 miles), and run 10 kilometers (6.2 miles).

Thompson grew up in Sonora, attended Columbia Elementary and graduated from Sonora High School in May 2003. He drives trucks for Mozingo Construction and he started running and bicycling six years ago, when he says he was overweight at more than 300 pounds.

He’s since picked up triathlons and he’s lost more than one-third of his body weight.

“I saw an infomercial on Facebook about doing an Ironman,” Thompson said, referring to a full-length triathlon with a 2.4-mile swim, 112 miles on the bike, and a 26.2-mile, marathon-distance run.

He started with a sprint-length triathlon with a 500-yard swim, 14 miles on the bike, and a 3.1-mile run in June 2017. He just did his first full Ironman on May 11, 2019, and he’s planning to do a half-Ironman Sept. 9 in Santa Cruz.

“I used to be 314 pounds, now I’m right at 200 pounds,” Thompson said Monday in a phone interview. “I hope to inspire other people with it.”

Thompson said he’s part of the Fun Sport Bikes triathlon team, which has more than 30 members from Sonora, Modesto, Oakdale and Manteca.

Thompson says this time of year he prefers to swim-train at Pinecrest Reservoir because New Melones is already really hot, and the water is too warm. He also swims the masters program in an Olympic-sized pool at Sonora Sports & Fitness out by The Junction.

He rides Sonora Pass and Wards Ferry Canyon to train on his bicycle. The Sonora Pass ride starts at Pinecrest and it takes him about three hours cranking east one-way to get to the 9,624-foot top of Sonora Pass. It’s 34 miles one-way and it takes about five hours roundtrip.

The Wards Ferry Canyon ride starts at his place out on Campo Seco, follows some back roads to Wards Ferry Road, down to the graffiti bridge over the Tuolumne River, and up to the Groveland area for a Gatorade at Miner’s Mart in Big Oak Flat. He sometimes goes down New Priest Grade to Jacksonville Road for the return. He said the Wards Ferry Canyon ride is about 42 miles roundtrip and it takes 3.5 hours.

Thompson said he hasn’t tried to climb Old Priest Grade on his bicycle yet but he’s working his way up to it.

“That one makes me a little nervous,” Thompson said of the former wagon road that’s now paved and retains steep, narrow switchbacks better suited to horse-drawn vehicles. “It’s in the works. I’m planning to go some time after Labor Day, to find the least traffic possible, early one morning.”

Thompson also likes to train locally by running trails out in the Red Hills by Chinese Camp, and he likes to run the track at Sonora High School.

When Thompson isn’t working, working out, or competing, he still likes to carve out time for a special treat when he believes he’s earned it.

“I really enjoy cheese danishes,” Thompson said. “I treat myself every once in a while. After a hard workout on the bike, I’ll indulge and treat myself.”

Contact Guy McCarthy at gmccarthy@uniondemocrat.com or 588-4585. Follow him on Twitter at @GuyMcCarthy.

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