Interview with Jordan Rapp: Zoot Sports Athlete and Four-Time Ironman Champion

Jordan Rapp is highly skilled in the art of perseverance.  After a breakout year in the world of triathlons in 2009, Jordan nearly died after slamming into a car during a prep interval in early 2010.  Since then, Jordan has competed in numerous events and recently took home this year’s Ironman Texas Championship. Now a four-time Ironman Champion, Jordan Rapp also boasts several other achievements including the overall course record in the 2009 Ironman Arizona race.  We caught up with Jordan to learn more about his experiences and inspirations.

Q.        Let’s start with the most recent headlines. You’re coming off a course-record win at Ironman Texas.  Can you talk about that experience and how things came together on race day?

A.        “Well, it wasn’t actually a course record. It was a win with a run-course record. Not being a front-pack swimmer, I’ve got to outride and outrun folks by a pretty significant margin to nab an overall course record. I should probably give the typical answer and say that it was hotter and windier this year, but the truth is that Eneko Llanos still has at least another 12 months to claim the course record in Texas. It’ll certainly be in my sights in 2013 though.

As for the race itself, it went pretty smoothly as far as Ironmans go. I came out of the water about where I expected in terms of placing, though I was hoping the gap to the leaders might have been closer to 2-3 minutes as opposed to over 5. But ultimately, that was out of my control – by choice, of course, since I could have swam on my own instead of letting someone else lead the group; that’s typically a bad gamble, though, in my experience. 

Out on the bike, I felt strong and after a somewhat controlled but still exuberant first 15 minutes (it’s a rare feeling to be really tapered and fit for an Ironman), I think I did a good job of settling into the power/pace I had planned for the bike. I caught four of the six guys who had come out ahead by just past halfway on the bike (around 60 miles in), but it took me almost until the end of the bike ride to catch Rasmus Henning, who I came into transition right with. But we still had Mattias Hecht, who put in a monster ride – bike course record, up the road. But I knew I’d had a good ride, and I still liked my chances. It’s always a bit demoralizing to come in and hear that you are twelve and a half minutes down, but Ironman has a long history of humbling folks who roll the dice on the bike.

On the run, Rasmus Henning punched out an early lead, but I was able to keep him in sight. And with the back half of the run (and bike) generally being my stronger segments – not because I speed up, but because I seem to slow down less – I thought if I could maintain visual contact for the first half, that I’d still have a chance to win. When I started to hold the gap steady and then slowly close it down at around five miles in, I thought I had a very good chance to win, especially since we had already almost halved Mattias’s lead. Ultimately, I passed Rasmus around the end of the first of three laps (around 8 miles in), and then continued to close in on Mattias. I wanted to catch him before Mile 15, as Timex has the second of two $1250 primes there, and while I think I maybe paid a physical price for pushing the pace a bit more in order to do so, I didn’t have to dig so deep that I worried I’d blow up in the last six miles, which is where an Ironman marathon really starts to get hard. Once I moved into the lead, I thought that it was my race to lose, and that the only way that someone would catch me was if I was stupid about pacing or nutrition, so I just focused on staying steady and made sure to hit the nutrition and sponges and ice at every aid station, including the very last one.”

Q.        IM TX was a huge victory; how would you say this ranks with some of your other highlights (IM AZ, 2009, IM Canada 2009) and was there anything different or significant about the experience?

A.        “I felt great leading into the race, but there’s always some relief when you actually can translate that into a solid performance on race day. It was really special to win this race because this was my first time racing somewhere other than Canada or Arizona, and also my first time winning on a new course. I had driven the whole bike course prior to the race, but I obviously didn’t have the experience that I have on the Arizona or especially the Canada course, which I’ve ridden too many times to count. So it was nice to know that even without the advantage of experience, I could still get it done. Also, in all my previous victories, I had come off the bike in the lead, and I had forced everyone else to play a gave of “catch me if you can.” So I put the burden on other guys to run me down. But in Texas, I came into T2 12:30 down to the lead and tied with a great runner in Rasmus Henning. So to win this race on the run – and with my first sub-2:50 marathon – was also really important for me as an athlete and competitor. It proved to me – and maybe to some other folks as well – that I’m not just a one trick pony, who wins by riding hard and then hanging on.”

Q.        Can you describe your athletic background and how you got into triathlons?

A.        “In high school, I abhorred endurance sports. I ran because I had to for other sports that I did. I played soccer, which I didn’t like at all, for three years because my parents would not let me play football. Finally, my senior year, they let me play football, mostly because they knew I wouldn’t play much – which I didn’t. But that season was one of the highlights of high school. I played four years of squash, which I was reasonably good at, earning MVP honors my senior year, though ironically I became a much better squash player because I would outlast guys and win a lot of 5 game matches. I had never been motivated to get in shape for soccer, because I didn’t actually want to play, but I was very motivated to get in shape for football, to prove that I was taking it seriously despite playing for only one year. And that fitness served me incredibly well on the squash court. My spring sport was lacrosse, which was for a long time the sport I was most passionate about. I was a goal tender, though, so about as far away from triathlon as you can get. Guys would throw a hard rubber ball really hard at me, and I would try to either catch it or put some part of my body in front of it. I probably ran less than 100m in an entire game. I would say that the run from the water to T1 at most triathlons is probably more running than a typical lacrosse game for a goalie.

I went to Princeton hoping to make the lacrosse team – at that point the three-time consecutive NCAA Div. 1 national champion – as a walk on. When that didn’t happen, I played one season of a rather bizarre sport – lightweight football (every player must weigh 165lbs or less the day before the game) which still exists at Princeton, Cornell, Army, Navy, and I think one or two other schools. But given that I wasn’t a very good football player and that Princeton itself wasn’t a great team and that the sport itself isn’t taken very seriously, I wouldn’t say that was a resounding success. But I knew I wanted to play a sport. I’d always played sports. So through a confluence of circumstances, I discovered rowing, which is basically the only sport in the collegiate world that welcomes rookies even at the highest level. Of course, I had no idea if I had any talent at all as an endurance athlete, having never really done any sort of racing sport or endurance training before. But luckily, I turned out to have a knack for suffering, and rowing became my life. Almost literally. People ask me what I majored in, and I say, “well, I have a degree in mechanical and aerospace engineering, but I really majored in rowing.” 

In the summers after my sophomore, junior, and senior years, I was invited to do some US national team training camps, though I wasn’t ultimately good enough to be selected for a boat for international competition. But given that I was such a novice, I thought I had a real chance of continuing to improve and – hopefully – making the Olympics. But after graduating – and taking a job to stay in Princeton, where the US team is based – I was foolish and failed to ask for continued guidance from my coach and others to help me on that quest, and I thought I could do it myself. Of course, I got injured, straining my intercostal muscles (the muscles between your ribs, which makes it hard to even breathe, let alone pull on an oar), and then re-injured (same injury), as I really had no idea how to structure my own training. So when I was finally able to row again, it was at at time when I needed to be in my best shape, but instead I was just getting going. So I thought I’d take the summer off from rowing, and come back to it in the fall. I thought about bike racing, but not knowing anything about drafting or pack riding (I only ever rode my road bike on my own, as cross training for rowing), I thought it would be too fast. So my mother saw a flyer for an “introduction to triathlon” at the health club near my parent’s house, about 1:15 drive from Princeton, so I contacted the person running it, and would drive up to Briarcliff, where my parents live, to train on the weekends. Of course, I fully expected to return to rowing in the fall. Maybe next fall. I never said what year!”

Q.        A triathlon presents three distinct challenges in three distinct disciplines.  Can you speak to how you mentally and physically prepare for competition?

A.        “I think this is maybe one of the most common misconceptions about triathlon. Triathlon is one sport. It’s just made up of three parts. Of four parts if you count transitions. And maybe even five parts if you think that T1 and T2 are rather distinct. I think of it as being like swimming. There’s the start off the blocks. The turns. The section, now, where you are underwater off of the wall. The section above the water. Etc. But no one thinks of swimming as being made up of all those parts. They just think of it as swimming. Of course, when you are training, you can focus on one part or another, just as in training, you focus on the bike – by cycling – or the run – by running – or the swim – by swimming. But on race day, I think it helps to think of it as one single event. And then you can break it up even further. Like, for me, I break up the swim into the start, then chunks to each turn buoy, and then I take the end of the swim to T1 to the beginning of the bike together. So I think you can really parse it up into more effective chunks if you don’t necessarily look at it the obvious way – swim/bike/run. Because it’s really just triathlon. So then, what’s the best way to break up a triathlon. The training itself is pretty simple. You swim, you bike, and you run. But being aware that you are doing one sport – triathlon – is important because that influences how you prepare. Sometimes, my focus in swimming has nothing to do with getting faster. It just has to do with getting less tired during the swim. It’s good to swim faster, obviously, but it also can be just as valuable or even more valuable to be less tired starting the bike. The swim-to-bike transition gets shortchanged a lot, whereas everyone knows to train for running off the bike. If you really look at triathlon as a single sport, I think that helps with both the physical and mental preparation, because it provides a real framework and direction for you.”

Q.        As a Zoot Sports athlete, you’re deeply involved in wear-testing product and offering feedback.  Can you describe how that collaborative process works?

A.        It can go a couple different ways. Sometimes, it’s me suggesting things to them – “I’d like product X that does this.” And sometimes it’s them saying, “we’re thinking of making product Y that does this. What do you think?” But regardless of who initiates the idea, there’s then a lot of back and forth. There are some design sketches/ideas that go back and forth. Then, maybe, a prototype ABC gets made. And I use that and say, “can we change this? Maybe change it to BCD.” And then they might say, “Yes, we can change that. But how about changing it to DEF instead.” And that’s how it goes. There are a bunch of iterations. So, to give an example with the Kiawe, the new racing flat, that shoe started as, me saying, “I want a version of the Speed – your lightest/lowest profile shoe – with laces. What if you put the Kalani upper on the Speed sole?” So then they made the first prototype, which was that. And I raced that in Oceanside, Wildflower, and Leadman 2011. Then Zoot designed an entirely new upper, which you saw on my feet at Portland Rev3, Calgary 70.3, and Ironman Canada. Then they took that upper and put it on a new sole, which I wore at the ITU Long Distance World Champs in Las Vegas in November. And then based on those iterations, they designed a new sole and a new upper, which is the Kiawe as you see it now, which already has a ton of wins. And that’s, roughly, how the process works. And we’ve done that with some other products too, though nothing that is yet as finalized as the Kiawe.”

Q.        What advice can you offer both novice and competitive triathletes looking to up their game and get to the next level?

A.        Have a plan. And have a way to objectively evaluate your plan. That’s true for everything – racing, training, nutrition, etc. My first coach, Joel Filliol, likes to say, “hope is not a strategy.” What you do on race day should be defined by what you do in training. And what you do in training should be defined in order to perform on race day. Don’t go for a six hour ride with your friends where you cruise around on the brake hoods and expect to be able to do anything different on race day. If you can’t comfortably swim 4220yds continuously in the pool, you aren’t going to do it in an Ironman. Likewise riding 112 miles at a solid effort. The only thing where that isn’t true is that I don’t think you need to run a marathon to do an Ironman. After about two hours of running, you can just do the rest on guts. A marathon by itself is just so hard that it’s not productive – remember, triathlon is one sport. But biking and swimming, there’s no excuse for not preparing yourself with a simulation of race day. So have a plan that gets you to where you need to be in training. And then make a plan based off of what you actually did – not what you wanted to do or “could have” done or “should have” done – but what you did. And then stick to that plan. 

The other piece fo advice that seems to get undervalued is the value of just doing something. I like to say that if you have 20 minutes to swim, 30 minutes to bike and 40 minutes to swim (mostly because since getting to the pool, getting changed, getting “un-changed,” and getting home takes so much time that if you have less, that doesn’t actually give you any time in the water), you can get a huge benefit from that. I know a lot of folks that do nothing because they can’t do their “long run.” It’s amazing to see how much training those short workouts add up to over the course of the year. Furthermore, especially with swimming and running, how often you do them is maybe even more important than how much you do. Biking is pretty much all about how much. 3x1hr on the bike is pretty much the same as 2x90min. But with swimming and running, there’s a ton of value to 3x20min as opposed to an 1x60min. I’d rather see someone make sure they are running and swimming 5-6 times per week than doing one or two monster workouts, even if they were actually doing less volume. Like, I think 3x20min of running is better for you than 1x90min, even though the latter is “more running.”

So that loosely translates to “just get out there.” Just get out the door and swim, bike, and run. I think training more often – even if the volume stays the same (or even decreases) is a much better way to improve than to try to add in even more volume.”

Q.        A win at IM Texas was a great start to 2012.  What’s on the immediate horizon for you this year?

A.        The immediate horizon is actually rest. Some folks like to take a big break at the end of the season. But for me, I struggle with that. I don’t like to get so out of shape at the end of the season that I feel like I spend a ton of timing just getting back to “normal.” I like to finish my season at the end of the calendar year with a short break and then take another break at the beginning of summer. I think it helps me both mentally and physically to recharge and stay healthy and also happy. Alberto Salazar gave a great interview where he talks about training his marathoners the same way, so it was nice to get see some other folks at the elite level doing the same thing. I have a great relationship with own coach after being together for three years now, and together we try and come up with a good plan based around how I feel but also sometimes having him overrule that because an endurance athlete is often a pretty poor judge of themselves. My recovery from Texas has been quite good and quick, and I was actually tempted to race again. But thankfully I have him to steer the ship, since you often don’t pay the price for bad decisions about your body until much further down the road. So I’m glad I can rely on someone else besides just my own – often questionably – judgment about myself.”

Jordan Rapp will be at the City Sports Rockefeller Center store in NYC on Thursday, June 7th to offer up training and race-day tips!  This free event includes special shopping offers, raffles and refreshments.  Learn more and RSVP by clicking here!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *