Kona Diary 2016 Part 7. Race Week. Kaizen.

Is there something special about 51? I’ll find out!


Part 7: Kona 2016 Diary presented by Matchsports
Race Week. Kaizen.

The Japanese concept of kaizen – “improvement” – is integral to endurance sport. Kaizen, for a variety of reasons, has come to be interpreted as a reference to continuous improvement, though this is not necessarily contained within the original Japanese. I was reminded again of this idea when I saw the announcement by Dimond of the new Marquise iteration of their frameset here in Kona. My use of the word “iteration” here is deliberate. When I think of kaizen, I think of an iterative process, though again, that is not necessarily contained within the Japanese. One of the things that, in late 2014, drew me to Dimond was also a sense that this was a company committed to kaizen. Every iteration of Dimond that I have owned – I will race on my third frame from them in Kona – has been better than the last. The improvements have not been dramatic. And that continues with the Marquise. They are not, as with certain recently announced bikes, a wholesale reimagining of the Dimond design from the ground up. But they are improvements. The frame is better than it was. Dimond is committed to kaizen. And, as I struggled to come up with something meaningful to say in this last diary before race day, I realized that – at least when I am at my best – I am also committed to kaizen. And when I have a clear vision for what I want to achieve on race day, it revolves around improvement. Improvement of placing, certainly, but especially of execution.

When I think about the companies I am proud to work with, this idea runs throughout. I’ve seen it with the evolution of products from Zipp – from my first 808s to my current 808 NSWs; SRAM – from the original RED to my current Force1; and Quarq – from the very early Cinqo to the latest DZero. From Kiwami and their original Amphibian that drew me to the brand in 2008 to the LD Spider Aero I will race in on Saturday. From Matchsports and the first ideas of the Matchrider and how it continues to evolve. From NormaTec and their original “orange lunchbox” in 2009 to the tiny and incredibly portable Pulse. From Rōka who may be the one company whose frenetic pace of innovation challenges the rate of consumer electronics; I don’t know of any product they make that is unchanged from inception, and the company is only about four years old. From Oakley where the glasses keep getting lighter, clearer, and just better. From First Endurance, where I have been part of the constant improvements to products that don’t come with a change to the name (the removal of artificial sweeteners in both Ultragen and EFS) and those that do birth a new product – EFS and MultiV PRO. From Josh, who brought the attitude that made me love working with him at Zipp to a reimagining of pumps and tools at Silca. Even from Chipotle – no GMOs – and the people I rely on at Raymond James. I did not intend to have the last entry in this diary be about the companies that I work with, but as I started writing this – inspired by what has been a great year of kaizen in the triathlon industry and – I believe – within my own career, I started to think about this as the defining factor of what I enjoy about pursuing this sport. Improvement. Change for the better.

Certainly I would not be here, about to start this race, without the support of these companies, so it seems appropriate to thank them all for allowing me to do this and for supporting me in my own pursuit of kaizen. I talked earlier about feeling especially optimistic about my fourth Kona because of the “cycle of four” that is my own manifestation of improvement-as-an-idea, even if – at times – it seems to involve taking steps back before I take steps forward. This was fundamental to the incredible four years I spent working with Joel and Simon Whitfield from 2005 to 2009, and which, after some miscalibrations in 2014, is how I think Joel and I have progressed over the past two years and – especially – over the past year since Kona 2015. It was what was best about how I worked with Michael Krueger during the incredible years from 2009 through 2012 and, ultimately, what I think we lost in 2013, when I (we) lost sight of the word I typically use to represent kaizen, which is Joel’s word of choice – Process.

When I think of the goals that I’ve had over the past week plus that I’ve been in Kona, it’s been simple. Adapt to the humidity (the heat I largely took care of at home). And approach with deliberateness the parts of the course that I felt were especially critical. On the bike, my goal is to ride the descent from Hawi effectively. I think that simple and singular goal reflects a larger strategy about the approach to the race that is larger than it might appear. On the run, I want to run well in the Energy Lab, and have done multiple sessions there with the intent of learning the flow of that stretch of road. I have come to Kona this year not just with a goal to do well, but to improve. There are specific things that I want to do better than I did last year, or 2013, or 2012.

Much of this starts with the swim, where I’ve worked to swim in Kailua Bay more often. To plan how and where I will start. On the swim, I want to execute well from 400m to 800m. Overall, the swim is always the part of the race where, because it is – relatively – so short and because interaction with other athletes in a beneficial way is allowed, I feel like I want to execute the entire thing well and to be fully focused for the entire swim, but even here, I feel like I have a specific intermediate goal that nevertheless colors my approach to this part of the race as a whole. In order to swim well from 400m to 800m, that requires that I do things in advance of that and, so I don’t waste that effort, it requires focus afterwards as well. Likewise on the bike, descending powerfully from Hawi requires a metering of effort in advance, and then also a commitment afterwards so as to not have wasted that effort. Same thing with running strong in the Energy Lab. These incremental goals are my cues, but they are not the entirety of my focus. These are, however, areas where I know I can improve. If I can be better here, I know I can be better overall.

My friend Jon Schafer sent me a message this week with some positive thoughts for race day. He had been watching ESPN’s 30 for 30 about the Orlando Magic. In 1995, the Magic and the Houston Rockets met in the NBA Finals. Anchored by a then very young Shaquille O’Neal and Penny Hardaway, the Magic were the consensus “more talented” team. But the Rockets swept the Magic to win – and defend – the championship. It was a landmark victory in many ways. Wikipedia gives a nice summary (emphasis added by me to the key points):

The Rockets became the first team in NBA history to win the championship as a sixth seed. In addition, they became the first team in NBA history to beat four 50-win teams in a single postseason en route to the championship. The Rockets would win a playoff-record nine road games in the 1995 playoffs. In addition, the Rockets’ sweep of the Magic was unique, in the fact that it was a “reverse sweep”, where Houston won Games 1 and 2 on the road and 3 and 4 at home. It was also the second NBA Finals sweep in the 2-3-2 Finals format (after the Detroit Pistons did so against the Los Angeles Lakers in 1989). The Rockets also became the first repeat NBA Champion in history to keep the title with a sweep. In addition, the Rockets became the first team in NBA history to win the title without having home-court advantage in any of the four playoff rounds since the playoffs was expanded to a 16 team format in 1984. Coincidentally, this feat would also be achieved by the New Jersey Devils that same year, when they won the Stanley Cup over the Detroit Red Wings.

Reading through the list of feats the Rockets pulled off, it’s a remarkable testament to the character of that team. They had to overcome a lot of obstacles. One of the commentators on the ESPN broadcast had this to say in explanation of the Rockets success, and it was this that Jon sent to me in advance of Saturday’s race.

When you’re young, it’s easy to think that you’ll be back to another Finals, but when you’re older, you understand that nothing in life is guaranteed and that this may be your best shot, so you had better take advantage of it. Houston won that series because they had experience, wisdom and focus. Orlando may have had more talent on paper, but ultimately Houston had what wins championships.

The real value of a championship – of Kona – is that this is what it reveals in you and about you. The depth of your experience, of your wisdom, and of your focus. And it’s also what makes these attributes even better. Kona tests you, and it improves you. Mark Allen, who I believe unquestionably to be the greatest triathlete and one of the greatest endurance athletes of all time had this to say after he finally broke through to win in Kona.

In my failures, I saw the darkest part of myself, where I was weak, where expectations did not meet reality. Until you face your fears, you don’t move to the other side, where you find the power.

In this idea, I find one of the truest expressions of kaizen; it’s hard to imagine a greater improvement than a move to “the other side,” away from fear. The best part – and the hardest part – of racing is that you are truly accountable. You are accountable to your process. To your decisions. And to your outcome. That’s why it’s so easy to be afraid. But real opportunity is a rare and special thing. It is scary. But I am not afraid. See you on the other side.

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