Good things come in threes

It’s been a busy few months.

First, my wife and I kicked off a big home remodel project in June. We had never done an extensive remodel before – by “extensive,” I mean both expensive and disruptive – and I don’t know many people who actually keep living in their houses when they’re having the type of work done that we were: not only full kitchen remodel, but knocking down the wall between the kitchen and the living room/dining room, new floor throughout the house, revamping the 1955 electrical system, new roof, skylights, moving the front door 18 feet forward and pushing the wall of the living room out 6 feet, adding a half bath, all new entrance doors, garage doors and interior doors, and that’s just what I can remember offhand.

I’m an endurance athlete, and despite that my hand got tired from writing all of those checks. But more than that, there were a lot of unknowns at the beginning of the project, so we ended up having to make a lot of decisions as it progressed and having to recalibrate timelines as we realized we needed to order things (like carriage doors for the Garage of Pain) that have a lead time of up to 9 weeks. But the results so far have been worth it – here’s a before-and-after view of the same corner of the kitchen:





(The cat still does her “freaky drinking,” just not on ugly linoleum. 🙂 )

Anyway, while all this was going on, I was trying to prepare for “the Big Dance,” as many in the triathlon community call the Ironman World Championship in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii. Most, though, just call it “Kona.” Kona is indelibly linked with the sport of triathlon, much like the Boston Marathon is with running.

I’ve been fortunate enough to do Kona four times, though I should put “fortunate” in quotes, as it’s a very difficult race. The NBC television broadcast of the race doesn’t really do it justice; there is no dramatic music, no deep-voiced commentator delivering punchy metaphors that glorify your endeavor, and no powerful slow-motion pedaling and running through the lava fields. Well, I take that back – it can be slow motion if you walk. Having qualified last November at Ironman Arizona, I had 11 months to prepare for this race, and I’m not sure that’s a good thing – it kind of sneaked up on me. Physically I was pretty ready, but my head was occupied with several other things that were going on even as I boarded the flight to Kona eight days before the race.

It’s always exciting to come to the Big Island; you never really know what the elements are going to throw at you. This trip it seemed to be heat, humidity, wind and rougher-than-normal water, all at the same time. My first heat acclimatization ride involved some of the wildest crosswinds I have ever experienced between Kawaihae and the beach at Mahukona; I was glad that I had packed a shallower alternative to my Zipp 808 front wheel. I did a few swims either at Hapuna or the Mauna Lani and experienced swells, chops and current the likes of which I had never seen on my many Big Island trips. And my short training runs were just sweltering. This was going to be interesting.

Race day turned calmer wind-wise, but the oven was definitely still on. This was my first Kona with the separation of starts for age group men and age group women, and it was a definite improvement. I started at the far left, waited about 30 seconds after the start to swim, and I swam basically unmolested the entire way, other than a few slaps of my toes every so often by someone drafting just a little too closely. I was also quite slow, exiting on the steps at 1:21 (vs 1:16 in my 2013 race, but faster than my 1:25s in my first two Konas). It turns out pretty much everyone had a slower-than-normal swim, so I’m not too bothered about it.

What did concern me was getting on the bike and not having any oomph at all. My normal Ironman normalized power is anywhere from 190-195W, yet I found myself riding 175W with the perceived effort I get at 195W. Not good, but I tried not to be negative, since that can have a snowball effect as the day wears on. Focusing instead on making sure I stayed plenty hydrated, I took fluids at every aid station and calories in the form of gels or banana halves where I could.

In the "hot corner" after a steep descent, 2 miles into the bike

In the “hot corner” after a steep descent, 2 miles into the bike

Going back up Palani from the hot corner, not to be seen again for 100+ miles

Going back up Palani from the hot corner, not to be seen again for 100+ miles

It took until Kawaihae before I saw the first pros coming back (they did have a 30-minute headstart on me 🙂 ), so my ride wasn’t going that badly. In fact, I was on pace for about a 5:20 ride, which should have been pretty conservative. I did finally get some headwind on the climb to the turnaround in Hawi, and even got rained on for a few minutes, which was pretty pleasant except for making it very challenging to see through my sunglasses. The ensuing descent can often be quite the white-knuckle affair if you get heavy crosswinds, but race day seemed to be mostly tailwind, so it was pretty easy to stay down in the aerobars and just cruise this section.

The climb back up to the Queen K marks the final 30 miles or so, and this is where you get to take stock of how your day is going. You might think you’re close to the end, but you’d be wrong – you often get headwind on parts of this section, and there’s a decent amount of climbing still to be done. At around 85 miles I passed the Mauna Lani resort, where my rental house was, and briefly had a vision of how nice it would be to just turn down into the resort and head to the air conditioning, a relaxing shower and a beer – I knew the front door code, after all. A brief vision, of course, because above all you need to respect Kona – it’s a race that so many people want to do and never get to do that I feel I should never squander an opportunity to finish here. And besides, Mums didn’t raise a quitter.

The day started getting a lot less fun by mile 90, and the astute reader will recall that it hadn’t been that much fun all day. My best guess was that I was running low on calories – “bonking,” as we say (this word apparently means something quite different in the UK) – so I grabbed whatever food I could get my hands on at the next aid station and soldiered on. A female friend of mine who had started 15 minutes behind me passed me with a couple of miles to go in the ride; she had a leg issue so wouldn’t even be starting the run, and all I could think right then was that I envied her. Not doing the run was just not an option – I mean of course it was, but it really wasn’t.

Off the bike with a 5:48 split, I felt about as crappy as I’ve ever felt entering T2. But I just noted it; I didn’t dwell on it. The key question was “what do I need right now?” and what I needed was to get my ass on the run course and take some calories in pronto. The picture at mile 2 tells you exactly how I was feeling:

My body and I are not amused

My body and I are not amused

There’s an old adage, though, that goes, “It doesn’t always get worse.” I ran along as best I could, walking the aid stations and getting as many fluids in as I could, as well as ice down the shirt, ice down the shorts, ice in the hat, cool sponges – anything to keep my core temperature down. I chatted with other competitors who were having a tough day as well. I was not alone in my suffering.

The first turnaround is just past 5 miles, and on the return leg my body started to show some signs of life. Here’s a picture of me in happier times, around mile 8:

There's that smile - this is fun, after all!

There’s that smile – this is fun, after all!

The fun was short lived, and I was soon back to a run/walk. The key from here on out was to keep the walks as short as possible while maintaining my ability to just get to the finish line. I saw my family on the steep climb up Palani (just past 10 miles), who were probably dismayed to see me walk up it, but I needed to save my energy.

Once on the Queen K, my main issue became not calories, but sloshing in my stomach, which likely meant I was low on electrolytes. Luckily I had a lot of Succeed S-Caps on me, so I started taking those along with some of the Base salts that you put right on your tongue to ward off cramping. It took a number of minutes each time for the sloshing to subside, at which point I could start running again.

As best I could calculate, if I continued to have to walk I would be looking at a PW – “personal worst” – Ironman finish of around 12:30. All other goals besides finishing now out the window, I made beating that my new secondary goal. As I got out of the Energy Lab and back on the Queen K for the final 10K, a breeze had kicked up, and I suddenly felt much, much cooler.

So I ran.

And I kept running.

And I kept telling myself there was no reason I needed to walk again.

Just. Keep. Running.

So I did. And all of a sudden, I realized I didn’t need to get a PW. In fact, I could still break 12 hours. If I could just…keep…running.

By mile 24, I knew I was going to do this thing. As I got to the top of the final hill and then turned down Palani for the final mile, I saw my brother Paka and sister-in-law Shelton on their way back to their car – they had to make a red-eye flight back, and I was way behind schedule 🙂 – but we had a quick hug and I continued down the hill, hoping just not to cramp before the line.

The finish on Ali’i Drive was electric, and I don’t think I’ve ever been happier to see a finish line. I was high-fiving every hand I could see. This had been a hard one, a well-earned finish.

finish 1

“Ian Hersey, you are an Ironman!”

11:50:22 was my official time, which turned out not to be even my slowest Kona (though my 4:29 run split was my only run here over 4 hours).

The effort had cost me, though. After volunteers led me into the finisher area and removed my timing chip, I realized I was about to pass out. A couple of volunteers walked me over to the medical tent, and the next thing I knew I was in a wheelchair and cramping up like I had never cramped up before: hands like claws, elbows bent, various muscles in both legs forcing me to straighten them, my jaw tingling.

I needed IV fluids badly, but the volunteers said they had to weigh me first to make sure that I was dehydrated and that it wasn’t something else. This seemed incredulous to me – I knew I was severely dehydrated and electrolyte depleted (after 16 Ironmans and countless other races I know my body really well – but they insisted and had to lift me out of the chair and onto the scale. Down 7 lbs, and that was with shoes on (they’d weighed us in morning without shoes), so they finally agreed with what I’d been telling them for 10 minutes. 10 minutes of absolute agony.

The vein burst with their first attempt, so they went to the other arm but had trouble locating the correct gauge needle. I could barely contain myself; I felt as though I was going to die right there while someone figured out how to get an IV in me on a day when you could have easily forecast a higher-than-normal rate of severe dehydration.

Finally they got one in me and pumped me full of fluids (two bags) and magnesium, and this took effect quite quickly. The claws started releasing, and my elbows straightened. The volunteer doctor was very nice; he himself was a triathlete who was hoping to qualify for Kona someday. I joked that I wasn’t sure I would recommend it based on today. After about two hours, they released me to my wife Jeanne and our friends Mike and Luree, who had already conveniently retrieved my bike and gear bags from transition. I made quite the slow hobble back to my room, which was fortunately in the race hotel right by the finish.

They say that how you deal with the challenging times says a lot more about you than how you deal with the good times – on days in which you’re physically on fire and you’re setting personal bests, finishing comes a lot easier – so I’m happy with my race in that regard. Not satisfied, but happy. As luck would have it, that same “finish what you started” ethos was being tested almost simultaneously in my work life.

As many people saw announced today, my employer Saffron was acquired by Intel. Yes, the Intel.

It’s a great outcome for all concerned. For me personally, though, the decision of whether or not to join Intel as part of the acquisition prompted a fair bit of soul searching. Not because there’s anything wrong with Intel or Saffron, but more because of both my stage in life and my long experience in small companies vs. large ones. Large ones scare me.

In the end, though, I realized it’s just like the anxiety you feel five minutes before the start in an Ironman. You know you’ve trained for this. You know you can do it.

But you also know that you don’t know exactly how it’s going to unfold. There will be hurdles. There will be things you hadn’t anticipated. But the combination of all of those things and of how you respond to them and how you decide to act…well, that becomes the story you write.

So here, like in Kona, I didn’t hop off the course at mile 85 of 140.6 to go home and drink a beer. There’s just too much more fun to be had before the finish line.

And I’m pretty sure I won’t need the med tent after this one. 🙂

Ian, Kona is wondering where you are…

So goes the title of the second such email I’ve received this year from United.

I'm right here, Kona

The thing is, I have a trip booked to Kona already…on United even.

Last time I got an email with this subject line, I had two trips booked to Kona on United (one for the Hawaii 70.3 race back in May, and one for Kona in October), and they were in fact the only upcoming trips I had at the time.

Somewhere at United, the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing.

As ridiculous as this scenario seems, it happens all the time, and the problem isn’t unique to United Airlines. Marketing automation systems attempt to do personalized campaigns in order to get a better response rate. But they lack two central ingredients:

  1. Current situational awareness from other transactional systems. United’s reservation system and all ancillary systems, such as checkin systems, frequent flier account, etc, aren’t one monolithic database, but rather a series of systems that need to update one another. This doesn’t happen instantaneously (this is why your frequent flier account doesn’t have your most recent flight on it as soon as you land); if every system updated every other system instantly, everything would bog down and grind to a halt – at least in the IT infrastructure on which a lot of these systems are currently built. Everyone wants “real time,” but most often the cross-system updates are still scheduled in large offline batch operations. (A good lesson on the IT complexity of airlines is talked about here and other places with respect to the merger of United and Continental.)
  2. Intelligent, adaptive systems that take as much current customer context into account as possible. This is the holy grail of personalized marketing, but more often than not, campaign management systems are rule or model driven, and they only look at a few factors, such as when I made trips in the past and to where. The timing of my Kona emails is no surprise when you think about my past history: I’ve done the Hawaii 70.3 race in May a grand total of seven times since 2006, and this is my fourth Hawaii Ironman in October. The fact that I’ve already got reservations is a comical illustration of point 1 above, but anyone who knows me, either personally or through my various social networks, would know which races involving travel I’ve already signed up for, and combining that intelligence with my current transactional status would prevent emails like this that make it seem like the airline doesn’t know me, when in fact I’ve flown well over 2 million miles on United. They should know me very well by now!

In fact, if they were smart, they’d be making me offers for business class fare to Klagenfurt, Austria next summer, seeing as (a) I’ve signed up for Ironman Austria, and (b) I likey my business class as long as you give me a reasonable deal. True personalization like this is something we’ve worked very hard on a Saffron with our autonomous learning platform, and we have some very good proof points in accuracy of individualized product prediction. We co-presented on this with our customer USAA at Wharton back in April. “Cluster of one” personalization is just in its infancy, but with the IT industry on its way to adopting technologies that solve the two challenges above – low-latency updates from transactional systems and intelligent systems that can treat all of us like the individuals we are – we shouldn’t be surprised to see the marketing of the future become “scary good.”

Meanwhile, back in the present, two days after I booked my trip to Phoenix for this November’s Ironman Arizona race, I got this:

Phoenix, I'm right here!

<sigh> Really, United?

You Won’t Believe What I Did Next…

For a guy who’s been in the business of analyzing human language via computer for almost 30 years, you’d think I’d be happy that the language of the Internet and of social media is becoming more and more predictable. The same conventions everyone uses to be found and to be heard – hashtags, @mentions, clickbait phrases, unimaginative headlines aimed at search engine optimization (SEO) – play right into the hands of those working in the field of natural language processing and text analytics. After all, whether their purpose is social engineering or algorithmic engineering, they’re formulaic and therefore amenable to pattern recognition.

However, I’m married to a journalist, who happens to be one of the wittiest writers I’ve ever known. She’s worked at big-name newspapers – the Washington Post, the Boston Globe and the San Francisco Chronicle, to name the most notable ones – and what I think has kept us together over 30+ years is our similar sense of humor, a lot of which revolves around language (of course, she has many other charms as well 🙂 ). Non-straightforward, novel use of language is part of what makes for great writing, and for great humor, but it’s exactly these sorts of literary devices – metaphor, puns, intentional malapropisms, etc. – that confound computerized language analysis. We in the business like to call them “corner cases.”

Headline writing, when done well, is one of the supreme literary art forms of the pre-SEO days. Back in the day, when writing for print only, headline writing genius often emerged under very tight print deadlines, with fixed page real estate dictating the constraints of one’s expressive canvas. One of Jeanne’s Boston Globe headlines actually made the Tonight Show, where Jay Leno had a regular bit on funny headlines. Hers was for a movie review about a well-intended-but-poorly-executed period piece about a castrato singer, and her headline was “Beautiful Castrato Movie Missing Something.” I’m afraid the 2015 version would be something like “Singer loses his ‘nads, and you won’t believe what happens next.”

Of course, the best headlines often never made actual print – they remain forever locked in newspaper publishing systems, fueled by late night deadline fatigue, gallows humor, and the almost certainty that upper management would never see them. Case in point: this Washington Post review of “The Hunt for Red October.” Unbeknownst to all but a few, the original, never-published headline took the submarine theme, together with the reviewer’s critique of the film’s ponderous and difficult nature, and wrapped it up neatly in a bow worthy of junior high stardom: “Long, Hard and Full of Seamen.”

I'll take "Anal Bum Cover" for $7000

I’ll take “Anal Bum Cover” for $7000

Come to think of it, that headline would probably get a lot of clickthroughs today.

Life Imitates Triathlon

Jess Smith, you are an Ironman!“You can learn a lot about life…” announces the familiar deep voice of Al Trautwig on the NBC broadcast of the Ironman, “…on the Big Island of Hawaii.” I look forward to that broadcast every year – it’s so beautifully produced that you could swear that the course is lined with dramatic music and athletes moving in detail-rich slow motion. Having done the race several times, I can tell you it’s not like that, but it is challenging, and, like life, no matter how well you’ve planned things, no matter how fit you are, the race will throw you curve balls, and you will either overcome them or let them end your race.

I’ve learned a lot of life lessons in the 14 Ironman races I’ve done, and a lot of them translate well to the business world. I was reminded of this by the recent breakthrough performance of my friend and coachee Jess Smith, a professional triathlete I have the pleasure (and sometimes pain) to train with and also help coach. Jess came into the professional ranks relatively late in life, and unlike most professionals didn’t have an extensive background in short course before moving up to the Ironman distance.

After becoming amateur World Champion at the 70.3 (half Ironman) distance and top amateur at the very tough Ironman St. George race in 2011, Jess turned pro and had a good first pro race that year at Ironman Arizona, finishing 12th in 9:34, a personal best by a significant margin. After that, though, things started going downhill. Disappointing races, illness and DNFs followed, which were mysteries to those of us who had trained many miles with her and knew how talented she is. Long story short, my two partners Tim and Mike and I formed a new coaching Hydra to see if we could help Jess revive her career and, more important, her joy in being a triathlete. Project Jess was on!

We changed a lot of things, and I’ve come to realize that a lot of what we did translates really well into our everyday professional lives – certainly into mine, where I’ve had very positive outcomes but also very disappointing ones. Since social media audiences seem to like lists, here are my Project Jess Business Life Lessons:

  1. It Takes a Great Team. Tim, Mike and I complement one another. Tim is the experienced former pro, the guy who’s been there and done that, who has been able to maintain a high level for a very long time – while having fun and adventures doing it. Mike is the organized one, the extrovert, the one who keeps us to a schedule and maintains consistent dialog with Jess. I am the analytical one, the numbers guy who has stuff like power meters and heart-rate monitors and knows how to use them, making the most of my meager talent. And of course there’s Jess herself, the biggest part of the team. We can design all the programs and analyze all the data we want, but Jess has to execute the training. And she has to give us feedback when things aren’t working, which is often hard to do.
  2. You Plan, Then Stuff Happens. Adapt. We sometimes stressed Jess enough that she couldn’t complete the planned sessions. We looked on that not as failure, but as a data point that we could learn from. Being a professional triathlete requires a level of volume and intensity that can bring the athlete right to the breaking point – fatigue is a signal that you’re right there, and so you need to make adaptations in the training plan. The same holds true in the business world: not every tactic or strategy you put down in a plan is going to be successful. You need to be willing and able to adapt.
  3. Monitor and Communicate Regularly. We had meetings either every week or two weeks depending on schedules to discuss how the training had gone, outline the next few weeks’ objectives, go over metrics (hours per week, power numbers on the bike for different durations, pacing on the run), effects of dietary changes and also the mental aspects – confidence and will to win, to name a couple. But the key was regular, consistent measurement of both objective and subjective data – it was the only way other than hope to know that we were on the right track.
  4. Mix Things Up. Triathlon seems simple: swim, bike and run. But if you do the same things all the time, you get stale and the body ceases to improve. So we changed up the program in little ways every few weeks, giving Jess different challenges within her already considerable weekly training volume. One example of this was a cycling challenge in which she had to do increasing amounts of out-of-the-saddle climbing on every ride – I remember doing one of these with her where we were up to 90 minutes of standing for the ride. That hurt! But it was also fun and different, and it served a strength-building purpose.
  5. Keep Your Eyes on the Prize. Not everything went smoothly – Jess had two disappointing (compared to her expectations) races at the half Ironman distance. But because we had lots of data and experience, we knew (a) that we hadn’t specifically trained her for the higher-intensity shorter race distance, and (b) hadn’t rested her for those races. And we had specific positive things we were looking to get out of those races that we did get, plus we got important power and heart rate data from a race situation that we could not have replicated in normal training. Anyway, the goal was a solid result in Ironman Coeur d’Alene, which is exactly what we got. The lesson is that when you have a strategy you believe in, you stick to that strategy, even if some interim steps along the way make the outside world question whether things are working.

In the end, we got the biggest prize we could have hoped for: the return of Jess’ confidence in herself and her joy in training and competing. As in the business world, success breeds success, so watch this space – there’s more to come.