Exclusive: Jordan Rapp on his Leadman triumph

The full interview with the 2011 Leadman 250 winner, as featured in the latest issue of 220…

On 14 May 2011, Jordan Rapp completed the 5km-223km-22km Leadman 250 course. Covering more than 5,000 feet of climbing over the forbidding Nevada desert in the process, his 9:32:19 clocking was more than enough for the win. Here, the Princeton grad shares that experience and a whole lot more besides…
 
So just how difficult was the Leadman 250 compared with a normal Ironman?
The course itself was the most challenging I’ve done. Overall, it was a tiring as an Ironman, but not as punishing on the body. There was none of the post-Ironman-marathon hobbling; I never had that feeling where my legs felt stabbed full of knives. This ended up tricking me about how tired I actually was. My muscles weren’t sore, but I was totally exhausted.
 
Even over a week later, I’m still quite fatigued. It’s more like my fuel tank is totally empty as opposed to my car being broken down.
 
It was also quite different because Leadman had such a small field. In most Ironmans, there is a feeling of really racing, at least at times. This was really just a very long, lonely day. There were some benefits, since I can’t imagine really having to tackle both the course and another athlete, but it also made it a very different experience than an Ironman, where there are so many athletes (and spectators) around. This was almost a totally solitary event. I’m glad not every race is that way, but I certainly enjoyed the uniqueness of it.
 
You were the defending champion going into Ironman Arizona 2010. But given your horrific accident eight months earlier [Rapp suffered several broken bones and heavy blood loss after colliding with a car while out on a training ride], your fourth-place finish must have felt like another win?
I would say it felt more like a ‘victory’ than a ‘win’ if that makes sense. I really wanted to win the race, and I felt like everything had fallen into place in the last six to eight weeks before the race. Even though the previous eight months had been a roller coaster of ups and downs, the two months prior to the race were very stable and smooth.
 
And so I had very strong hopes, especially because I was so motivated to “get back”, that I definitely did feel somewhat of a sense of defeat of losing the race and my course record. But having a strong and complete race did also feel like a triumph over the trials and tribulations of the accident and the aftermath.
 
Do you still suffer from any injuries as a result of your accident?
There is nothing that affects me performance-wise. I still have some pins and needles from the nerves that are still in the process of repairing; the doctors say it will take 18-24 months for the nerves to fully regrow, and even then, there may be some residual damage.
 
But, thankfully, I am very lucky in that nothing seems to affect my ability to train or race. I’d like to say that it was some great dedication to rehabilitation and exercises, but I think largely I just got very, very, very lucky.
 
Talk us through how you came to triathlon…
I sort of fell into triathlon through what I describe as a series of failures. I went to college hoping to play lacrosse, but then when I didn’t make the team, I discovered rowing, which I did throughout college. After college, I was training to make the US National Team in rowing; over the previous three summers, I had been invited to trials for national boats, but I had failed to make one. I was quite foolish about how I trained, and I ended up injuring my ribs, which is a relatively common rowing injury.
 
Looking for something to do to stay active while taking a break from rowing for a while, I considered bike racing, but I was very intimidated by the idea of it, and so I took interest when the local fitness club offered an ‘Introduction to Triathlon Course’ in April of 2003. I did my first triathlon in June, and I was hooked.
 
That first summer was really an amazing discovery of this great new sport. I still expected to go back to rowing, but after my first season of racing, some folks encouraged me to pursue triathlon full-time, which was really an absurd decision, but I did, and somehow through dumb luck, a lot of help, and some good old fashioned stubbornness, here I am.
 
You’ve said that, “Ironman is, at the very highest level, maybe race-able by a handful of the very best athletes in the world”. Do you not class yourself in this league as yet? And if not, can you see yourself ever being able to ‘race’ an Ironman?
No, I do not think of myself yet as in that same league. I believe I still have some work to do on my swimming; it’s hard to put yourself in a position to race if you are behind out of the water.
 
Look at Macca in 2009, how he had to claw his way to fourth after an atypically sub-par swim. So I think in order to really race an Ironman, you need to exit the water at least at the back of that first big pack. I’m about a 50min swimmer (with a wetsuit), and I think I need to get to swim 48min (with a wetsuit).
 
And I also think the bar for running has been raised. Normann Stadler, who I admire a great deal, was a phenomenal biker, and he was twice able to win Kona running about 2:55. I’d like to think that I could be as good a biker as Stadler in a few more years, but I think the days of being able to win without running sub-2:50hrs are long gone.
 
A strong biker can win in Hawaii running 2:48 or so, I believe, but my best marathon is only about 2:55, which I’ve done twice. In both those races, I think I could have run faster if I had needed to, but I think not much more than about 2:52 or 2:53. So I think I need to take another 5-7min, and ideally about 10min, off of my marathon.
 
The race for the win in Kona happens at the very front of the race. If you haven’t been on the podium in Kona, I’d say you’ve probably never raced an Ironman. Or, at least, you’ve never raced one successfully.
 
To have a real race over something as long as an Ironman, you need to have the very best athletes at the very best fitness pushing each other. With the introduction of Abu Dhabi, especially with its shorter run, that’s another chance for a great long-course race. But if you want the sort of competition there is at half-Ironman and shorter, it’s very hard to get that at an Ironman, simply because there are so many events and really so few athletes who have the ability to really compete for eight-plus hours.
 
What have you got planned for the rest of 2011?
I will make a return to both Ironman Canada and also Ironman Arizona, and I will hopefully get a chance to represent the USA on home soil at the ITU Long Distance World Champs in Nevada.
 
The ITU always seems to pick very hard courses for Long Distance Worlds, and I think it’s a great format with 4km swim/120km bike/30km run; every leg is long enough to make things interesting but short enough that you can still go quite fast.
 
The Ironmans in Canada and Arizona are both special races to me, and personally I believe that gaining experience competing for the win is the most valuable thing you can do, so I think that both will serve me better than trying to chase the new points system with the hopes of going to Kona simply to take part in a race where I don’t yet feel that I can compete at the very highest level.
 
Racing to win teaches you more than anything else, and I will focus on both Canada and Arizona with the goal of winning, something which I do not yet think is realistic in Kona.
 
Rapp stats
Age: 30 (28 July 1980) 
Nationality: American 
Lives: Thousand Oaks, C; Penticton, BC, Canada (over the summer) 
Career highlights
1st, Ironman Arizona, 2009 (course record, bike course record)
1st, Ironman Canada, 2009 (fastest bike, fastest run, second fastest time in course history)
4th, Wildflower Long Course, 2009 (fastest bike split – this was my first big result against a truly world-class field, which I think makes this more of a top result than either of my third places in 2008 at Ironman Arizona (Apr and Nov).
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