Applying his analytical skills from engineering to his sport, fiercely persistent training, the lessons of two great coaches, Jordan Rapp reached a very high plateau with a win at Ironman Canada. A race record victory at Ironman Arizona proved it was no fluke. But what made the whole picture complete was finding the love of his life, a great partnership and his marriage with ITU World Cup star Jill Savege.
Ironically, Jordan was struck by ill fortune after this interview. After an encouraging 7th overall with a second-best run at the 2010 Abu Dhabi International Triathlon, he was the victim of a hit and run driver while training for Ironman California 70.3 and suffered multiple broken bones and a concussion. Some of his reflections on his wife’s 2004 career-altering injury at the Athens Olympic Games show he has the proper gratefulness and respect for the large role luck plays in life and in his chosen sport.
“Injury can strike at any moment and forever alter your career. She crashed in Athens because of an improperly machined braking surface on her wheel…. And it really changed her sporting career….But as with Torbjorn [Sindballe’s career-ending heart condition], her experiences also remind that me luck is a huge part of things - a crash can turn your world upside down. You can be one of the best and seconds later you are fighting your body to do something that was once so easy and natural.”
So just as Jordan could envision the improvements he needs to reach an even higher level, to contend for the win at Ironman Hawaii, he must first meet the challenge of recovery. And on the way, seize the day and savor every moment, every opportunity that presents itself.
Slowtwitch: Upon reflection, what did you learn when you heard that Torbjorn Sindballe experienced a career-ending heart condition at Wildflower?
Jordan Rapp: I learned that every race we get to do is a wonderful opportunity. But I also learned that sometimes things that you never, ever planned on can totally turn your life upside down. I am glad I got to race besides Torbjorn once. That was special. But I'm reminded that - like with Marc Herremans - life is fickle. So it's good to have a Plan B.
ST: What was the most important thing about your win at the 2009 Vancouver International half Ironman?
JR: It was the first race that I expected to win and then did. At Wildflower, I did not expect to beat Andy Potts. He is just a better half-ironman racer than I am. At least right now. But at Vancouver, I felt that I should win. It was a chance to show what I felt I was capable of. But there is also a burden that comes with that because, if you expect to win and then don't, it is much harder to deal with losing. At Wildflower, I thought I could be in the top eight, and then I was top four, which was great. But at Vancouver, if I didn't win, I was going to feel like I had failed. So I had that pressure upon myself. But I was able to use that to my advantage by swimming well, getting to the lead early on the bike, and then hammering the bike. I was able to say to myself, "You can do this. You will do this." And I did. That was really big mentally. To set a goal that really had opportunity for failure and to meet it.
ST: Why did you DNF at Boise 70.3 and follow that up with a breakthrough win at Ironman Canada?
JR: I DNF'd Boise 70.3, which was before Vancouver. I raced Boise for all the wrong reasons. I raced it because I flatted at Rev3, but still finished, but was left disappointed. I wasn't training well at all after Wildflower. The race took a LOT out of me. More than I realized. But I went to do the races because of the prize money. Only for that reason. It was a bad decision. But Vancouver turned that around and showed me I was ready for Canada. I DNF'd Boise because I double flatted in the rain. But I was sort of relieved. I really did not want to be out there racing. I was tired and sore and the weather sucked and I just wanted it to be over. I'm sure this influenced how careful I was changing the first flat, and it wouldn't surprise me if I wasn't careful about my line which is why I got the first flat.
ST: How did winning Canada make you feel?
JR: Pure and absolute bliss. I could have stood in that chute for hours, days, years. I didn't want it to end. It was probably the happiest I'd ever been. [Jordan’s fiancé] Jill [Savege] and I made all sorts of plans to get married before we actually got engaged, so I knew she'd say yes. But Canada was that same sense of amazing -- but without knowing it was going to happen.
ST: It seems that your Ironman performance improvement to this point was steady and came in small increments. What was it about your training that led to this?
JR: I was finally able to combine all of the lessons I learned into one race. I learned the strategy and planning and adaptability and ability to race at times and be patient at times from Wildflower with the ability to set a lofty goal and use that as motivation from Vancouver. Wildflower was huge in terms of being a culmination of previous race experiences. But then it was great at Vancouver to take those same lessons and apply them not just to racing well but to winning. Once I had those tools, it was just a matter of using them to leverage continued improvements in training that come from the day-in and day-out routine of swim, bike, and run.
ST: What did your new Danish coach bring to the table? Why are you a good fit?
JR: Michael Kruger is a problem solver as well. He looked at what he felt were my limiters and set about fixing them. His training is clearly geared towards addressing what he feels my weaknesses are and continuing to build on my strengths. I appreciate and respect that and agree with that, which is why we are a good fit. It's very pragmatic and logical. He's a first class coach, with a great understanding of the sport. He and Joel [Filliol, Jordan’s previous coach] have different methodologies built on similar core principles, and that's good. You have to stimulate change to make your body adapt.
ST: What was Joel’s biggest contribution to your breakthrough year?
JR: Joel had been my coach for four years. I was very sad to part ways with him, but I was very excited for his opportunity with British Triathlon [where he serves as National Elite coach]. I tried to look at the positive aspects of change, even though I didn't want a new coach. I had to find a new coach. I sent out several emails, narrowed it down to a few coaches, and ultimately chose Michael. His contribution was a fresh set of eyes. His way of doing things is different than Joel's. They each have nuances to how they coach. He took what Joel had built in four years, and he started to work on some other areas. But really a lot of it is just the change of doing something in a different way that stimulates the body. He planned my training very well. I just worried about waking up and doing what was on the schedule. He made me feel very prepared. Or rather, he made me understand that I was very prepared.
ST: You broke the bike and the course records at Ironman Arizona and set fastest bike at Ironman Canada. What led to this dominance?
JR: Luck, lots of hard work for the past five years, and attention to detail. Everything matters. You need good conditions to break a course record. And you need good equipment. And you need good fitness. The first one is totally luck. The second is about paying attention to the little things - wheels, tires, helmets, bike, wetsuit, shoes, etc. And the last thing to realize is that there is no shortcut. It's just day after day after day.
ST: While you might say that Normann Stadler at his best and Chris Lieto now are better than you are on the bike, is there anyone else you fear you cannot match now on the Ironman bike leg?
JR: For Ironman, no. But there are also guys who don't always show their cards on the bike. Craig Alexander, for example, is a much better cyclist than people realize. Same with Macca. These guys can ride. But why ride five minutes faster and run six minutes slower? They have figured out how to race the fastest. And that's really what I care about. I still don't think I've figured out how to have my fastest race. It may mean riding faster. But I also may need to learn to ride slower in order to run faster.
ST: I read you plan to focus on Rev3 Iron-distance this year and skip Hawaii if Rev3 goes well. Matt Reed is also trying to get the bonus for winning all three Rev3 races his year. Can you comment on your strategy on this front?
JR: Ironman exists - and can exist - without pro athletes. Rev3 cannot. So in that sense, Rev3 is a fantastic opportunity to be a part of building something that can really change the sport for pros for the better long term. There is no current competitor to Ironman, unlike in the old days of Nice. But Rev3 could be that in the US, just as Challenge is starting to be that abroad. So that is really appealing to me. Ironman Arizona sells out whether I show up again or not. But I can really make an impact at the Rev3 series, especially in Ohio, since it is so close to Kona that fewer pros will do it than the half in Connecticut in June. So I'm a bigger part of that race. That's the practical answer.
The other part, which I have to admit to, is that I am absolutely intimidated by racing Hawaii. It's an extraordinarily demanding race with very little margin for error. First through 10th was decided by about 7 minutes in 2009. That's tight. Come 11th and nobody cares. And you are out big time - both financially and emotionally. And that scares the crap out of me.
ST: When will it be a good circumstance to go to Ironman Hawaii?
JR: When I can accept the intimidation as necessary and good and natural. When I can set foot on the line, knowing that I've prepared, and know that if I have a great race I can still fail and be okay with that but that I can also have a great race and be on the podium. I need to know that they are both real options, and that I need to be able to accept either one. I'm not there right now.
ST: So far you have improved your Ironman run to 2:55. That is the best that Normann Stadler has been able to muster and he won IMH twice. How much better can your marathon get? Will that be enough to have a chance to win at Germany or at Kona?
JR: I think I am capable of running 2:46. I think I could have run 2:52 or 2:53 if I had really had to this past year. I am confident that I can run sub-2:50 this year. I think that a 2:46 is enough to win Kona or any other race. You just need to make sure to make the bike ride hard enough that no one else can run 2:46. Lieto was able to take five minutes out of Craig's run (2:43 in 2008 vs. 2:48 in 2009). Normann did the same to Macca when he won in 2006 (2:43 for Macca in 2007 vs. 2:46 in 2006). But I think Normann was able to run a 2:45 or 2:46. He just never wanted to risk needing to. I prefer to race the same way. But I know that I need to be capable of doing so. I think if you are going to try to take five minutes out of the best runners, you need to be able to take 10 minutes out of your own best run in order to do so. You can't take away a run with a good bike ride. You need to take a risk and have a great ride, and one that is harder than it ought to be, even for you. So I might not ever run much more than 2:55. But I need to be able to run a lot faster than that, which I am not right now.
ST: Some folks like Erin Baker trained to win, not for the sheer joy of it. While some others, like Erin’s husband Scott Molina, keep on doing it for the love of it. Can you describe one of those joyous moments in running or biking that are peak life moments in themselves?
JR: I train because I love to train. I actually think I need to learn to enjoy racing - and winning - more. Before Ironman Canada, I did a 20 minute time trial. I felt like I had unlimited power. It was the best bike ride of the year. In that moment, despite enormous suffering, I felt totally at peace. I was basically at one with my body. No thoughts. Just pedal. None of the decisions to be made during a race. No thoughts about eating, drinking, etc. Just ride. And suffer. I live for those moments. That's what I train for. I chase those moments. Those singular periods of very brief but intense suffering where everything moves very fast and very slowly simultaneously. I find them most often on the bike, though they are very rare. It's like swing in rowing. Elusive. And unsustainable. But truly addictive.
HIS BETTER HALF
ST: OK. I have to confess I think your wife is one of the most beautiful women in the sport. So I am a fan. Back in 2001-2002, she was one of the few women in the world who actually beat Siri Lindley during Lindley’s peak while she was winning 12 World Cups. At Athens, I saw Jill suffer a painful shoulder/collarbone injury. Since then she has had some excellent performances but has been plagued by injuries. What has her experience in the sport taught you?
JR: Injury can strike at any moment and forever alter your career. She crashed in Athens because of an improperly machined braking surface on her wheel. The weld seam had not been properly machined down, and her brake pads hit that seam and BAM, her race was over. And it really changed her sporting career. It caused some problems, but it also left her with a sense of wanting to race to "right that wrong," as opposed to racing because she enjoyed it. Now I realize that the moment I don't enjoy it, I am done. If I told her tomorrow that I don't want to train anymore and race anymore, she would support that because of what she has been through. That's truly wonderful. I can't ask for anything more. But as with Torbjorn, her experiences also remind that me luck is a huge part of things - a crash can turn your world upside down. You can be one of the best and seconds later you are fighting your body to do something that was once so easy and natural. And it's also reminded not to not leave things to chance - she should have ridden the wheels more before the race. But she had a huge amount of success by listening to her instincts. Her sense of her body is much better than mine. She reminds me that sometimes you need to rest, even though I don't like to hear it.
ST: How did you meet?
JR: We met at a Triathlon Canada training camp in Flagstaff, Arizona in January of 2007. Joel was my coach, so I was sort of adopted by the Canadian team, so I trained with them all the time. I had packed up my car with the essentials, moved out of my parent's house, and headed to Flagstaff. And that's where I met Jill.
ST: What qualities drew you together?
JR: I thought she looked really good in a bathing suit, and I was impressed by how fast she was, especially in the pool. She is a beautiful swimmer. She just glides. So I was attracted to her physically and also attracted to her athleticism. She knew who I was because I had lived with Simon Whitfield for six weeks in the summer of 2006. Jill stayed with Simon for four weeks right after. So Simon and his wife Jenny would apparently tell stories about me. I guess she was intrigued. When we went on our first date, I took her for breakfast to a cafe and recommended the french toast with strawberries and this crème sauce. She has since told me that she liked that I was willing to take the risk to recommend something without really knowing what she was like or what she liked. I just said "this is good, and I think you'll like it." That appealed to her. I really enjoyed her personality as well, but of course, like any man, the first few dates were driven mostly by "she's very attractive and very fast." The part of my man brain that senses good potential mates was clearly in full control.
ST: Tell us about your wedding?
JR: We had a very small wedding with just our families and a few family friends on my side that have known me since about when I was born. It was in New York so some of Jill's close family friends were not able to make the trip from Canada. We got married at my parents’ house on the sun porch where my mother keeps her plants. The reception was at a fantastic restaurant that is part of a working farm. The restaurant is a satellite location of Daniel Barber's Blue Hill. The farm is the Stone Barns farm, on the old Rockefeller property (which is where the gravel carriage trails that I used to run on snake through). They raise 80% of the food they serve at the farm. So almost everything we had was literally grown right outside the door of where we ate. Food is really central to Jill and my lifestyle. You are - quite literally - what you eat. So the meal really represented that. Locally grown, sustainably and humanely raised organic food really is the most important thing to us. And yes, there was bacon. The main course was Berkshire pig pork bellies.
ST: I hear you got a great formal outfit from a brother in law?
The suit was a beautiful Italian suit - handmade in Italy by a little tailor the old fashioned way. My brother in law (Jill's sister's husband) and I are of almost identical build. I just need a few small alterations to the suit, and it fit beautifully. It is easily the nicest piece of clothing I own. Lorenzo gets bored with clothing, the same way I get bored with tires and bike tools, so I was the lucky beneficiary. Unfortunately, he doesn't want my old bike jerseys or race suits. But I offer.