Once injuries halted his quest for Olympic and international rowing success, Jordan Rapp turned to triathlon and found that the technical and physical challenges of swim, bike and run fit his hunger for problem solving and his competitive drive. While his rise was not swift, his improvement was consistent and rewarded his analytical approach and appetite for hard work.
Still, the Princeton engineer admits his race day responses to close racing for a win at Ironman Arizona in 2008 and 2009 were agonizingly just off the mark. In Part 3 of 4 in this series, Rapp explains the process whereby he found a balance between having a strategy and remaining adaptable to the fast shifting competitive terrain in an Ironman.
Slowtwitch: What happened in your first triathlon?
Jordan Rapp: It was a bike-heavy sprint -- ½ mile swim – 17 miles of VERY hilly riding - 3.1mile run. So perfect for me. I was 5th off the bike and I finished 6th overall, winning my age group. I was hooked, in large part, because it seemed like I was good. I liked to do well. Triathlon seemed like it really was what rowing pretended to be - a sport where hard work was all you needed.
ST: Which discipline was at first you best, your worst and why?
Jordan: Cycling was my best, because it crosses over so well from rowing. I was bad at swimming and running, just because I'd never really put my time into either of them. I think was probably a bit better at running, just because basic fitness helps you a lot more in running that it does in swimming.
ST: When was your breakthrough performance that led you to believe you could reach the top in triathlon?
Jordan: I decided to give it a go to try and become a pro without a real breakthrough performance. The guy who was coaching me just said he thought I could. It was absolutely a case of ignorance is bliss - on both our parts. The first race where I actually felt like I justified that decision was [the] American Zofingen [duathlon] in 2005. I crushed the bike there. I had about a 25 or 30 minute lead off the bike - with quite good power numbers. It was a small field, but I know that the race I executed (it was 40 degrees [Fahrenheit] and raining for big chunks of it) on a truly punishing course meant that I had a chance to be good. I knew that what I'd achieved mentally was the most significant. I felt like I had set a goal, and I executed my performance. The first really great race I had was at the Clear Lake Tri 101 in June 2007, where I came 2nd to David Thompson, but outrode him by about five minutes or so. I'd had a bunch of good results here and there, but nothing really stellar. That race really made me feel like I was competitive, in large part because it paid me $6000, which was the first really significant prize money that I won. But the race that actually made me believe that I could really, truly reach the top was Ironman Arizona in November of 2008 [3rd]. I outrode Chris Lieto. I led the race until mile 18 of the run against a quality field. At the end of that race, which was obviously somewhat disappointing, I felt like, ok, I can win one of these. I can do this. I can make it. So there wasn't really one mark. It was really like hitting checkpoints along the way. It was about matching my expectations with reality. I didn't expect to have an "aha!" moment. I just needed to know that I was improving and that I was getting a return on what I was investing in the sport. Wildflower 2009 [4th] and Vancouver International 2009 [1st] were like that. They were rungs on the progress ladder.
ST: I am presuming you have a science background and an analytical approach to your sport. Which discipline does that help the most?
Jordan: Cycling. There is just a lot of low hanging fruit in cycling that you can take advantage of if you are analytical. Like disc wheels. They are ALWAYS faster. But I see plenty of people who don't use them because of things they've heard. Silly rumors.
Tires are another one. There is good data out there on tires. If tire A tests faster than tire B, it will be faster on the road. There are a lot of things like that. And all of those things add up.
With running, once you realize that it's faster to run in lighter shoes, that's about as much as scientific analysis is going to help you out.
ST: Some triathletes are good in one or two disciplines, but remain relatively hapless in one. Prime examples are Lori Bowden, Heather Fuhr in swimming, Petr Vabrousek in cycling, and Sara McLarty and the amazing Bjorn Andersson in running. What led you to be so well balanced in all three disciplines? Which did you have to work hardest at in technique?
Jordan: Dan Empfield postulates that I might be a natural runner who just never discovered running. So I am sure there is a lot of luck involved. I think human beings often make the mistake of assuming that when good things happen it's because of hard work, but bad things are because of bad luck. So I think I am very fortunate to have some natural ability in all three sports. But I've also gotten lucky with good advice. I'd never really run before, but my first triathlon coach was a believer in the Pose Method. So he had me run in racing flats from day one. So I've never worn orthotics. I've never worn motion control shoes. And I think that's a big part of what's allowed me to develop well as a runner. I was also lucky to have very, very good access to running trails when I lived with my parents and when I lived in Princeton. So I never really ran on the road. I almost always ran on dirt. And that is much easier on your body. In terms of swimming, Joel Filliol, my first real coach and the person who really formed me as a triathlete, is a huge believer in swimming. He had me swim like I was getting ready for an ITU race. Always. 25-30km week was normal. So Joel just always had me swim a lot. Way more than most coaches would have if they'd known that I didn't really have promise as a short course athlete. That makes a big difference. If you swim a lot, you will get better at swimming. No secret there. Joel really focused on a very balanced approach to training, and I am sure that is why I am a balanced athlete. If you look at Simon Whitfield, you'll see the same thing. He's always been a great runner, but Joel's program brought him from being like 35th or something out of the water in Sydney to leading the 2008 World Champs out of the water. Same with cycling. Simon went off the front on the bike at Lifetime Fitness in 2008 on his way to breaking the course record. Joel just believes in balance. And he believes in training your weaknesses. In December 2006, I did three weeks of swimming focus. Just swimming. I didn't run more than about 30 minutes once or twice a week. I didn't bike at all. I just swam. The culmination was Joel’s famous workout, "The Set," which is 15 x (400 IM off the blocks, 400 pull paddles, 100 back, 100 kick). Long course meters. I swam for five hours. That put a cap on about 150,000 meters of swimming in three weeks. That makes you a better swimmer. Joel let me put away my bike a lot. I think I'm balanced because of how often Joel would encourage me to not ride my bike and to focus my energies into swimming, or running, or swimming and running. You must do the things you aren't good at. You must focus your energies there. The best thing Joel ever did was let me decide to not ride my bike for long periods of time.
ST: What did coach Joel Filliol give to your development? How much did you learn from training with his other stars like Simon Whitfield?
Jordan: Joel really made me who I am as a triathlete. He took the only thing I had - the work ethic and aerobic capacity from rowing - and turned me into a triathlete. I learned everything from him and from Simon Whitfield. It would fill a book. I learned what it means to be a professional. Everything about that from them. How to train, to race. Everything. The only thing I brought to the table was, "I will go as hard as I can in the direction you point me." Joel and Simon did the rest. They gave me direction. I finally knew to ask for help, and I was lucky enough to have great people to ask.
ST: Dan Empfield told me something very interesting about you. He said that in contrast to many triathletes whose value to sponsors was solely their performance, you were the total package. He meant that you had a great analytical mind and chose products like bikes because they worked the best for you. Like some race car drivers, you could communicate to bike fitters and mechanics and fellow athletes what worked and why. And thus you could serve as an invaluable spokesman for the products. Please elaborate on your affinity for technical matters and how you use them to improve and achieve.
Jordan: I had a very profound conversation with my friend Mikkel Bondesen, whom I met through Slowtwitch recently. He made me realize what - at my core - I love to do. And that is solve problems. More than anything else, I love to solve problems. And that is really why I got started with sports. Because school wasn't challenging. And then rowing was the solution to my subjective/objective problem. And then triathlon was my solution to the nuanced nature of rowing. So I tend to view the world as problems to be solved. If there isn't a problem, I'm not interested. This obviously has negative ramifications, especially in my personal life, but in my professional life, it is wonderful. Companies in a capitalist economy necessarily thrive or die based off their abilities to solve problems. So if you are able to help someone solve a problem, you are automatically useful.
I am very lucky to have the educational background - critical thinking instilled by engineering and expository writing skills drilled into me by a very disciplined high school writing program - that allows me to by effective at problem solving, because I have the tools to address a problem logically. And then I also have the tools to explain the process and solution to other people. But that's my parents’ doing. They gave me those tools. I simply brought a love of problems. My sister - interestingly enough - is a great puzzle solver. Always has been. I view puzzles and problems as being very different. I think there is a brute force aspect to problems that there isn't with puzzles. Sometimes, you just need to give'r -- and that solves a problem. That never solves a puzzle. Ultimately, I think it's why she's an ophthalmologist, and I'm an engineer. You can't just use more horsepower on someone's eyeball.
ST: Can you give us a case study in problem solving?
Jordan: To give you an anecdote, my relationship with Josh Poertner at Zipp was really defined when I told him all the ways I thought the Bontrager Aeolus disc was better than the Zipp 900 disc. It was just a better wheel all around. Everything about it was better. I can say this because Bontrager no longer makes that wheel, because it was too expensive; they actually lost money on every one they sold at $3000+. In my email to Josh, I broke down all of the areas where I thought the Aeolus was better and why. Thankfully, Zipp basically fixed every one of these problems with the resulting 900 Clincher and Sub-9 discs. But it was the foundation of a great friendship, because Josh loved to hear all of these problems - and the solutions. Zipp is really the perfect company for me to work with, because the whole company is full of people like me. I get most excited when I get something from Zipp, and I break it. Unfortunately, this doesn't happen very often. Which is good for consumers, but less fun for me.
I'm continually hunting for other companies like this. When I start discussions with a new company, I say, "My goal is to tell you all the ways that I think your products stink." That's what I want to know. Because I think that's what companies want to know. At least, that's what good companies want to know. I started reading an article in Wired about Google and their search algorithm. They have a weekly meeting to go over the algorithm and all the things it is doing wrong. For example, an early version thought that "hot dogs" and "boiling puppies" were similar. But they fortunately fixed that. But what they cared about was not so much the right results as the wrong ones. Because that is how they make it better. That's what I get really excited about. Once something is fixed or built or solved, I'm pretty much bored with it.
ST: What about macro problems, solving the big picture?
Jordan: So now I've started tackling bigger problems. Like how to win a world championship as a racer. And how to make pro triathlon a viable existence as a member of the Pro Triathlon Association Board. And how to make the best sporting participant website in the world as Slowtwitch CTO. These are problems I may never solve. But at least I won't be done with my to-do list tomorrow...
ST: Tell me why the power meter is the most valuable tool for the triathlete’s bike performance.
Jordan: Because it is the only totally objective tool that exists for cycling. Everything else is subjective - heart rate is subjective to environment and fatigue and caffeine and emotion; speed is subjective to winds and air density and altitude and grade. But power is pure. It is an absolute measure of the energy being applied to the system. And because it tells you exactly what you are putting into the system, you can make much better judgments about the output - speed. But power is also an output - from your body. So you can be very objective about how you feel - if you feel great and your power is low, it's because it always feels good to go easy. But if you feel crap and your power is low, then that can be a sign that you aren't recovered or that your seat is too low or too high. So you can really be very objective about your training and your performance and your equipment. Everything. It's the equivalent of a pace clock in the pool. Power doesn't lie, either on the input from your body or the output from the bike.
ST: Please discuss your incredibly close duel with three other contenders at Ironman Arizona in 2008 and some of the nuances of your strategy. Basically, you lost 5 minutes to TJ Tollakson and gained 3 minutes on Jozsef Major on the swim. You gained 4 minutes back on TJ and 9 more minutes on Major with a race-best 4:32 bike. Then Major ran a 2:50, you ran 3:02, and Tollakson ran 3:04 and you finished third -- 45 seconds back of Major and 28 seconds back of TJ.
Jordan: I really had no strategy. And that was the problem. My strategy was "I'm slowly catching them. Everyone is dying. I will walk over the bodies on the way to the finish." It's why I lost that race. That and a really crappy swim. But my strategy was to let the race come to me, and then Jozsef Major decided he was going to take the race. So he did, and he won. But that race - where I found myself in contention and without a plan - is what led me to realize that you need to have a plan.
ST: Talk about why you had a better performance but no better placing at the early season 2009 IM AZ?
Jordan: In November 2008, where I also came third, I made the opposite mistake. In 2009, I swung too hard the other way. I decided I need to be strategic at all times. I needed to get in the lead and establish a lead that would set a tone and blahblahblah. It was stupid. I tried to control 100% of the race, because in April I had been willing to control 0%. I had a better result because I had superior fitness and better conditions. Mild winds and low-80F tends to yield a better performance than 30+mph gusts and a high of 95 Fahrenheit. That's it. I was equally stupid, but just stupid in faster conditions and with more training under my belt.
ST: What did you learn with your 4th place finish at 2009 Wildflower against that all-star field?
Jordan: I learned how to control portions of the race. I learned the compromise of April 2008 IMAZ and November 2008 IMAZ. I needed to control my placing on the swim. And I needed to control Beach Hill and Nasty Grade. And I needed to control the back half of the run. So that was the strategy. And it paid off. I didn't try to control the whole race. I controlled the sections of the race that I planned ahead. And then I didn't try to control other sections that didn't matter. I learned how to have a strategy that was definite, but also malleable, which is what a real strategy is. You must be prepared, but also adaptable. In the gray area. So I just raced, which was liberating and awesome and the most fun I've ever had in a triathlon. It was like when I first found the sport and just went out and gave it hell.