On the meaning of resilience

Jordan Rapp, famous for his fierce will to overcome near-fatal injuries and return to even greater triathlon victories the next two years, was contemplating retirement this May. After a sub-par swim and a listless bike split, he pulled out of Ironman Texas two years after his dominating victory there. He was dispirited after a string of bitter disappointments during the 2013 and 2014 seasons marked by few ups and many downs. He feared that he had lost the mojo that propelled him to wins at Ironman Canada and ITU Long Distance Worlds in 2011 and dominating wins in 2012 at Ironman Texas and the Ironman U.S. Championship in New York City.

Somehow Rapp, one of the most talented and intelligent practitioners in the sport, was beating himself at the mental game and suffocating his own spirit. After Texas, he gave himself the rest of the season to see if he could put it all together. On August 16, he did it, winning Ironman Mt. Tremblant by 18:35 with a 4th-best 51:33 swim, a dominating 4:25:01 bike split and a race-best 2:55:53 run. The victory gave Rapp a reborn belief in himself and the points needed to qualify for Kona, a race he once vowed never to tackle again.

Slowtwitch: How and why, after two and a half years of suffering through disappointments in racing, did you come up with a perfect race at Ironman Mt. Tremblant? For someone who roared back after a terrible 2010 accident with great success, your 2013-2014 struggles were a mystery. How much of your drop in performance was due to physical matters and how much was due to mental and emotional issues?

Jordan Rapp: I think the key is that there is no difference between mental and physical. It’s common to see people talk about the physical pain of depression. Conversely, chronic pain is also a clear cause of depression. In many ways, I view the race in Mt. Tremblant as a greater triumph than my fourth place at Ironman Arizona in 2010. And not just because of the placing. From both a mental and physical standpoint, many things about coming back from my near-fatal accident in 2010 were easier. I had something to fight against. I was angry at someone and something that took away what I had worked so hard to build. That gave me a sense of purpose.

Over the past two to three years, I was fighting with myself. I didn’t have anything or anyone external to blame. There were plenty of mistakes that I made coming back in 2010, but I could always put them on the accident. Through this recent period I had no one to blame but myself.

The term scapegoat has its roots in old Judaism. The chief priest for a town or village would lay the sins of the people on a goat - a literal goat - that would be cast out into the desert on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. In 2010, I had my scapegoat. And I think I carried that attitude through 2011 and 2012. Nobody expected anything of me; expectations got carried off by the scapegoat of the accident. And that was hugely empowering. But after 2012, that changed. Suddenly there was expectation, external and internal. I had proven I could come back, so I couldn’t just lay disappointment on my accident.

I did a podcast with Travis McKenzie, a prominent age-group triathlete who also had a recent bad accident. Travis asked me to record an episode of “Triathlon Unplugged” with him and I told him I wanted to talk about the idea of “resilience.” My friend Paulo Sousa introduced this idea to me about a year ago. Resilience is caring enough that you are willing to bounce back and try again if you fail. But you also need to not care so much that you get crushed by failure and by setbacks. It’s a tricky balance and also an idea that changes. Being resilient as a father of three means the same thing as being resilient coming back from being hit by a car. But it also means something different.

ST: What was stopping you from your highest level of performance?

Jordan: I think it was an exclusive focus on objective goals - winning or hitting certain numbers in training. I stopped caring about having a good race or having fun. Some of this was the result of having a family. I can’t buy diapers with a feel-good race. Still, it wasn’t all about prize money. I have amazing sponsors that supported me through this period and that kept my kids fed and clothed and housed and insured. I worried that some of them would leave if I stopped being successful. And some of them did. But others supported me more than ever. Especially First Endurance who, along with the SRAM family (Zipp/SRAM/Quarq), has been with me since 2008. Robert and Mike at First Endurance offered incredible and unwavering support, financially and also personally, whether it was a year of big wins or big disappointments.

Most of my success came when I didn’t put that pressure on myself. I wanted to win because I’m competitive, but I didn’t need it. But it’s a lot easier to be laissez faire when you’ve got one kid and no mortgage. It’s way easier to become successful than it is to stay successful. You build a family and a life around a level of success, but then maintaining that level of success becomes the expectation. All of a sudden I felt if I didn’t maintain that level of success, everything would fall apart. Of course, that was precisely why everything did fall apart. I was ready to walk away from the sport. I hit bottom and was able to bounce back because expectations were removed. So how do I avoid repeating those mistakes? Both my wife Jill and my coach Joel Filliol are committed to keeping me from, as Joel says, “chopping my own head off.”

ST: What were some of the wrong things you were caring about?

Jordan: When I was at my peak, I won all of my races in pretty much the same way - swim well enough, hammer the bike, run well enough when everyone’s legs were tired. I had some great wins off fast runs – in 2011, I won Ironman Texas running 2:46 and I won ITU Long Distance Worlds with a good run. They were great runs because the bike was hard first. But after Kona 2012, [swim 59:07 bike 4:40:02 run 2:59:27 Total 8:42:49 - 13th place] where I had an atypically bad swim that was really the direct result of racing the Leadman 250 three weeks prior, I panicked and decided there was no way to win Kona swimming in the second pack. Of course, Sebastian Kienle proved the exact opposite - swimming well enough, hammering the bike, and running well enough because everyone’s legs were tired to go 4th, 3rd, and 1st in his first three years in Kona.

ST: If Kienle matches your Ironman race profile, how do you compare to him?

Jordan: I think Sebastian is a stronger rider than me partly because he is shorter and has an aerodynamic advantage. But I think I can be a better runner because that same lanky build that punishes me a bit on the bike is good for running a fast Ironman marathon. But what Sebastian really has is confidence. He knows how he wins races, and he trains for and then executes that race. Sebastian is happy being Sebastian. For a long time, I was happy being Jordan Rapp and winning races my way. But after Kona 2012, I decided I wanted to be more like Pete Jacobs or Crowie - swim in the first pack, ride well enough, and then run away with it. This has traditionally been the most successful strategy in Kona. But you can’t be who you aren’t. For Tremblant, I got back to basics. I’m happy with who I am as an athlete and how I race.

ST: You wrote that some of your greatest strengths were also your greatest weaknesses.

Jordan: A willingness to work hard is a certainly a strength, but it was also a weakness in that I basically was unable to turn that off or tone it down. I struggled to moderate intensity - I was either full stop or full speed ahead. The irony is that this belies an overly simplistic mind. But then I think my other great weakness has been a tendency to overthink.

ST: How did you turn one of your greatest weaknesses into a strength?

Jordan: Instead of wishing things were different, I finally tried to figure out how to make the best of the way things are. Dan [Empfield] loves this quote from the movie Platoon - “There's the way things oughta be, and the way things are.” I finally accepted the way things are, and set about trying to make a good plan with Joel grounded in that reality. I relied on Occam’s Razor - the simplest solution is correct. We set up some simple rules for training: first, reduce intensity. If needed, reduce volume. If still needed, reduce frequency. But I never got past needing to reduce intensity. With a solid and simple framework, it was easy to make good decisions.

ST: Socrates said “the unexamined life isn't worth living.” What is the line between thinking too much and thinking too little?

Jordan: It’s really just a riff on the classic Greek aphorism, “Know thyself.” It’s basically a function of productivity. Is there anything good coming out of your thinking? I sent Joel thousands of words of “ideas” after Texas. Most of it was useless. He just weathered that storm and then said, simply, “No.” I sometimes think that Joel’s primary job is to simply say, “That's BS.”

ST: At Ironman Texas this year, you were hit by a jet ski but felt good enough to carry on. Ultimately, things went bad and you decided to quit. You write that you were proud of that decision.

Jordan: The jet ski thing was a non-factor. My DNF was a very likely outcome based on how things were leading into the race. I’d had two years of races I wasn't thrilled with. When I felt so bad so early in the bike, I had no desire to slog through another lackluster performance. If I’d finished in Texas, I am sure that I would not have had the race I did in Tremblant. I am also sure it would have made doing well in Kona an even bigger challenge than it already is. Your body will only put up with so much abuse. If I’d been able to make that decision before, say, at St. George (33rd) or in Kona (DNF) in 2013, I might be a lot better off. I didn’t make the right decision then, but I made the right decision this May. Brandon Marsh and I love to quote Albert Einstein: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”

ST: You wrote that a key to overcoming your difficult years was subtracting things that didn’t matter from your life.

Jordan: There's a saying, “work expands to fill the time available.” I think that's true. So I became more regimented. A huge part of that was swimming with the local club swim team – CSSC – in the summer. It takes away a lot of thinking. I just show up, and I work hard. The kids I swim with bust their asses. They're high school kids, but I have more in common with them than most people my age because of how hard they train. Being with them always helps me strip away the excess. And it makes me happy. And so it's easier to just trim the nonsense.

There's a lot of research coming out on how the internet and social media plays into our need for a dopamine hit. And I think I wasted a lot of time seeking that. I also stopped feeling that NEED to reply to an email immediately. I get a whole bunch of, "Hey, did you get my email" emails. I made a very short list of people who deserved quick replies. Everyone else, if you want my time, you can wait until I'm prepared to give it. The really important stuff in our lives easily gets drowned out by nonsense if you let it happen.

ST: You wrote that after Ironman Texas you felt you were at a crossroads – wondering if you should quit triathlon, wondering if you didn’t have “it” anymore. Why did you continue?

Jordan: The work I did leading into Texas was outstanding. Too outstanding, perhaps. Or just too much for too long. Jill said I should have raced Brazil 70.3, and she was right. I bet had I tapered into that and recovered, I would have been just fine. But I just kept training. And the training was great - until it wasn't.

Right after Texas, getting ready for Eagleman, I was really down. I just didn't care. I didn't want to be out there. What kept me going was a sense that I owed it to the people who'd invested in me to be a professional and do my job. I felt that I signed a contract with these companies, and I intend to see that through. You don't not show up for work just because you're unhappy. A sense of duty got me going. But duty morphed into enjoyment pretty quickly once I started training for IMMT.

ST: Your 2nd place finish at Eagleman this year must have aroused mixed feelings because you were 10 minutes behind Cody Beals.

Jordan: Honestly, I got good points and a good paycheck, and that was all I cared about. I had a great trip with my son Quentin out east, and he got to see me race for the first time in a long time. I got really lucky, but I also felt like it made up for some races where I'd had really good performances and I'd had bad luck. The one unequivocally bright side was that Eagleman was brutally hot and humid, the worst conditions I'd ever raced in. Peak dew point was 76F, which is about 6 degrees hotter than Kona. Some think that after an athlete suffers from heat exhaustion or heat stroke, as I did in Kona in 2013 when I didn't properly acclimatize, your body never really recovers. The brain's "fear" of overheating is so high that it never lets you go back there. Until Kona 2013, I had always raced well in the heat. Since then, I'd struggled. But at Eagleman, I regained my ability to race well in hot weather.

ST: After so many great races from late 2010 through 2012, when did your troubles start?

Jordan: After my overall stellar year in 2012, and actually quite respectable 13th at Kona in 2012, it was a downward spiral. If I had just taken that 13th place, rested up with a healthy offseason and displayed any intelligence at all, 2013 could have been a great year. Instead I just kept digging myself deeper and deeper into a hole. And yes, it all started with Kona 2012. But not because I finished 13th. It was much deeper than that.

It began as strictly a physical thing. The worst decision I have made as an athlete was to race at Ironman Melbourne in 2013. Not so much the race, but my approach to training. I planned to race Arizona at the end of 2012 - which might have been worse, except that I didn't have enough time to really bury myself. I ended up crashing my mountain bike and separating my AC joint before the race. So I took just enough time to heal and then got right to work training for Melbourne. I still have a very good relationship with my coach from 2009-2014, Michael Krueger, but I do put some blame for this on him. But it was mostly my fault because I didn’t tell him how tired I was. I also think that it was unreasonable for me to know the depth of my fatigue. I'm still shocked he didn't say, "I'm not sure this is a good idea." I also wonder why we started preparing for Melbourne four months before the race. I was on Christmas break with my family doing 10hrs of running in the snow in New York. It was just stupid.

There's one instance where I look back and think, "Oh wow, I was totally lost..." Jill and I wanted to have a second child after my great 2012. Jill was pregnant in early 2013, but we lost the baby. I went for a run in the morning, took Jill to have a procedure, and then took her home. When we got home, I left her on the couch watching TV with our one-and-a-half year old son while I went out for a second run that evening. That seemed totally normal to me at the time. Then I got sick two weeks before Melbourne but flew out anyway. I had zero perspective.

Somehow I managed to pull out a 4th place in Melbourne. When I got back, I took a week off (albeit with a 16 hour trans-Pacific flight as part of it) and got right back into training for St. George [33rd pro male, 1:38 run]. My Kona slot was secure. I should have taken two months off. And that's where it started to get really mental.

I got hit by a car six weeks before Kona during the most critical period of training. Jill was pregnant with twins and we were buying a house. We found out we were losing our health insurance; I was filling out paperwork to register for a HIPAA plan so that, if the twins came early - as they did - we wouldn't go bankrupt. But I never thought to say, "Okay, I should just step back for a bit.” Nobody told me to step back either, though I don't know if I would have listened anyway.

DNFing Kona in 2013 was the low point. In 2014, I finally got healthy, and that’s why I raced so much over that summer. I just wanted to race and not think and I did manage to dig myself out of the physical hole. But mentally, I still had no rhythm.

ST: Was your 3rd place finish and 4:14:03 bike split at 2014 Ironman Arizona a sign that you still have “it?”

Jordan: IMAZ 2014 was a mixed bag. I expected to break 8 hours. At the same time, I didn’t do a single week on the bike longer than about 9.5hrs because Joel and I wanted to make sure we didn’t repeat IMTX 2014, where I was just buried. There’s some irony in that we did it again for IMTX 2015. I’ve raced Texas three times, and when I won in 2012 was the only time I didn’t plan to race it. As with Melbourne, I tend to overestimate how long it takes to get fit and started preparing way too early.

At IMAZ 2014, I had a good race. But it wasn’t much better than the year before when I came in 2nd. Brent McMahon beat me by a lot. At the same time, I didn’t go in tired, I wasn’t hurt, and I knew I was likely a bit underprepared on the bike. So I came away from that race thinking, “I know I can be better than that.” Contrast that with IMAZ 2013, when I thought, “I just want to sleep for a long time...” I looked at Arizona 2014 as evidence that I still had upside left.

ST: What led you to believe you could be a factor at Kona before your win at Mt. Tremblant?

Jordan: Tremblant was do or die for me. But I was happy with that. If, somehow, I had fluked into a Kona spot via roll-down, I don’t think I could have taken it. Before Tremblant - or, really, the meat of training block before Tremblant, I had absolutely no belief that I could be a factor in Kona.

ST: What would be a satisfying day for you at Kona?

Jordan: Anywhere in the top-10. To me, being a professional means you earn a living at this sport. In Kona, the top-10 get paid. If I leave Kona in the black, that's a good day. That's a professional day.