Escape to Flow: How to Have a Zen First Half-Ironman

How do you run 1,500 miles?
One step at a time.

The same rule applies whether we’re talking running your first 5K, starting your own company, graduating, or let’s say, overcoming depression or healing from trauma. The key is to divide your goal into tiny manageable tasks and do those tiny things with a big heart.

Whatever your 100% looks like at a given time, do that.

Btw. one quick note about percentages of oomph, sisu and adversity. Never compare your challenges or strength to that of someone else’s. It’s silly. We’re all different, have access to varying degrees of social support and are in a different place when it comes to energy and emotional antifragility (i.e. sometimes we feel badass and sometimes we feel fragile, and it’s ok. Just check in with yourself and move from that place). Same thing with self-selected goals: find what makes your heart beat hardest and move toward that goal with everything you have. It’s your journey.

That’s pretty much what I’ve been doing for the past 8 months while training to run the length of New Zealand: taking small steps every day. The run is part of a larger social action campaign called Sisu not Silence that celebrates the strength of overcomers of interpersonal violence and seeks to create safe spaces. One step on the road to Aotearoa is my first Ironman 70.3 competition on Sunday.

I was inspired to write this post after reading Coach Joe Friel’s wonderful write-up on preparing for a Half-Ironman. It’s great, check it out! I found it so helpful that I began writing my own, modified version of it. Finally, I decided to share what’s simply my diary entry edited.

Naturally, we all have different goals. Racing a triathlon looks very different to someone who is making a living out of it, or planning to and someone who is seeking to, let’s say, develop their sisu. I’ve completed one sprint distance triathlon I think 15 years ago. Since that, I’ve had an on/off -relationship with running. Picked up serious running in January this year and triathlon training in May. Nothing better than the beginner’s mind, right? I want to make the most of this journey and share what I discover along the way.

I wanted to show that I’m serious about making a social impact and I have therefore chosen to train for a goal that is way bigger than I am or what my skills were when I began. The magnitude of the run itself, however, pails in comparison to the social problem it seeks to address -and the pain of those exposed to abuse. For that same reason, my approach to training, including this half-Ironman is perhaps a bit different.

I view this process as a pilgrimage, not a race.


With that disclaimer out of the way, here is one first timer’s roadmap to having a Zen first Half-Ironman! Take what works for you and skip the rest.


Main Goals For the Race

• Above all, aim to finish STRONG and race your own race. Doing this means you can look back and say you honored your body, didn’t get carried away at the beginning of each leg and remained ‘centered’. Being immersed in a culture that continuously glorifies competition, achievement and all things no pain, no gain, being able to stay true to your own journey requires maturity and patience.

• Try to be present for the entire experience: the good and the bad moments. This skill will come handy in real life and your Ironman is but a mini-simulation. You don’t want to grind through life on autopilot, so why do it here?  The moment you’re too busy to smile and briefly thank the volunteers you meet along the way, you know you’ve drifted too far. Race hard but stay focused and within yourself. Note: You are excused during the last few km’s of the run if you enter the dark sisu zone. At that point, all bets are off. However, should this be the case, you also know something went wrong with nutrition, pacing, hydration, your mindset or all of the above : )

• Remember that self-imposed, voluntarily chosen discomfort is a privilege. Most of the time adversity enters our life uninvited and almost always poorly timed. Too many people are forced to endure adversity we can’t even imagine. This race offers a valuable chance to learn about the elusive and powerful strength that resides within your body and mind. Your task is to learn and then serve others through this knowledge.

• Swim/bike/run to the beat of your own drum i.e. don’t chase other people, the clock or seek validation for yourself. If you need to chase something, may it be the “better angels of your nature.” Don’t take yourself too seriously either. The human experience, life and your existence on this planet are way more than one little race. Having said that, respect the challenge because otherwise, it will humble you.

Keys For Success

• No switching to zombie autopilot: make eye contact with the lovely volunteers, be aware of the nature and other people around you, feel your body carrying your forward

• Approach the event as a valuable 6-7 hour training session

• Honor yourself: Stay within your aerobic zone, listen to the subtle messages your body will send you throughout the day. Check in with it every time you take in nutrition. What’s going on, how are your feet, gut and heart doing? Don’t abuse your body but have a caring dialogue with it.

Your main job is basically to remain centered, keep moving and not get in the way of your body doing what it knows best – to endure.

Take special care of your body during the week leading up to a race. Eat, think and drink clean. Begin hydrating well in advance. Chugging down water the morning of your race will not help if you’re already dehydrated. Image: A post 20-mile run glass of water with blueberries.

Race Week

• Get good sleep (well you should prioritize this always anyways).

• Think empowering thoughts, think about your race plan, mantras and visualize whatever a successful race looks like to you. Perhaps write down a list similar to this. I found writing this post incredibly helpful!

• Cut your toenails, perhaps get a massage (I didn’t get one but I wish I had)

• Eat and think clean: honor your body and mind. HYDRATE throughout the week.

• Get your bike tuned up, go through your gear (I didn’t figure out my aero bar hydration setup early enough and now it’s secured with a cute and definitely MacGyver-approved solution that includes a red, soft clown nose I found in the house). A checklist of what to bring to an IM70.3 event on my Instagram.

Day Prior

Don’t do this before your first Ironman: Yours truly putting a wetsuite for the first time the evening before a 1-mile open water race. Don’t do this.

• Check in, rack the bike, agree on a post-race meetup spot with the sweetheart.

• If there’s time, check out the bike course by car, check the swim area, check your stuff one last time and have it ready for the morning.

• Have a cute dinner (with the abovementioned sweetheart), get hugs, give love, sleep early, slap on ear plugs and an eye mask if in a hotel.

Race Morning (We’re staying right next to the transit area. You may want to wake up earlier depending on your commute.)

• 4:45AM: Wake up
• 5:00AM: Coffee and oatmeal with berries
• 5:20AM: Head to the race area (opens 5 am)
• 6:00AM: Get body marking
• 6:15AM: Warm up & stretch
• 6:50AM: Race start
• 7:xxAM: Apply body glide, check HR belt and watch, put on wetsuit
• 7:xxAM: My wave start! <3 Listen to your heart. Remember to press start on V800! : P

No, this is NOT how your open water Ironman swim will look like. Anticipate waves in your face, people swimming over, under and next to you, and to swallow piles of sea lion stache (with gallons of sea water you will also swallow). This is what pre-race visualization and mental prepping are for. Get on top of things that might push you off your center. Anticipate discomfort and you’ll be better off (I’m writing this to myself btw).

SWIM – 1.2 miles/1.9 km

• Focus on having a good experience, find flow, take outer ‘lane’ if starting in an earlier wave

Keys for Success
• Relax, say hi to the ocean in the morning, your Ironman journey starts from the moment you tip your toes in the water
• Find a relaxed, consistent rhythm, easy start -> very important
• Breathe often to stay relaxed, only on one side if it feels better
• You can think of this is as a ‘long pool swim’

• Escape to flow (heard this line from my beloved professor James Pawelski back in 2012)
• Keep your chest open, think streamlined, have a relaxed but extended body form
• Ocean is made of same stuff as you, you’re 60% water, nothing new here really

• Goal 5 minutes, please don’t be a rookie and get stuck in your wetsuit (body glide on your feet pre-swim!), move on, stay focused

• Unzip wetsuit after water exit
• Remove wetsuit at transition and clean feet from sand (you’ll thank yourself later)
• Bike shoes on
• Sunscreen on – not on your face though, NO. Tested, this does not end well
• Helmet & sunglasses
• Quick hydration (slurp some Tailwind from an extra transition bottle you brought)
•Wear race belt – now or after bike? Check this.

Make sure to get your bike tuned up in your local, friendly bike store ahead of time (don’t leave this to the day before the race – the IM technicians might be busy and you’ll end up blowing your zen waiting around at the transition area. Minimize hassle, keep it simple, nurture your zen. Image: My Winged Victory looking all spiffy – the photo is pre-tune-up however. Current set-up rocks a lower position: saddle was moved back and handlebars were lowered at Palo Alto Bicycles <3

BIKE – 56 miles/90km

Goal: ~3.5 hours (16 mph average, more importantly just see what feels good – remember: finish STRONG, keep it zen, save enough oomph for a solid run after)

Keys for Success
• Start easy, check-in with your body during the first 10 mins
• Remember to hydrate and take nutrition about every 45 mins
• Stay vigilant, don’t get hit and don’t wreck havoc
• Pay attention to high cadence toward the end of the bike leg

• High cadence – high spirits
• Unrelentless forward movement
• Keep it aero

• Goal 5 minutes (keep going, focus, zen, focus, smooth operator)

• Come off the bike controlled, rack Winged Victory (aka Trek Domane :))
• Bike shoes off, socks on, run shoes on, think zen
• Helmet off, visor and shades on
• Quick hydration (no food/gel at this point… give your body 20 mins to get used to running before fueling)

Running at its best is a pathway to deeper self-awareness and understanding of our body. Give it all you’ve got but practice finding attunement with your body to know what going on. Your mind and body aren’t only connected, they are one.

RUN – 13.1 miles/21.1 km

Goal 2h – 2h 10 min but again, find your zen pace

Keys for Success
• Take it really easy for the first 3 miles. When your heart settles, eat something. Below I’m adding the advice given to me by my Coach Frank Campo from Prana Endurancehere from Training Peak because it’s just perfect:

“It’s only a 13-mile run, you can do this in your sleep. Go the first 10 minutes at a very easy pace, settle in and hold back, fuel at 15 mins into the run with a gel. Increase your pace when you get to mile 4. Mile 6 is when I want you to increase your pace a little more, always within yourself. At mile 8 or 9 take a gel and increase the pace a bit more. From mile 11 to the finish you need to dig deep and push yourself as fast as you can sustain.

If you keep yourself in control you will be able to follow this plan. Don’t let the heat or anything else impact your day… this is your time to shine, so focus. You are stronger than this silly race. Give energy and use the energy of others around you to fuel your race.”

• Hydrate at every aid station, walk a few steps if needed
• Nutrition every 45 minutes (about 100-150 kcl/h)
•No energy leaks because of poor posture: slight lean forward, mid-foot strike, upright form
• Dedicate each mile to someone you know who’s been struggling. Don’t focus on yourself but extend outwards

• You were born to run
• Tight core, high cadence, zen mind, sisu in the heart

Planned overall time: 6.5-7 hours (or whatever : )

Post Race
• Find sweetheart, give sweaty hugs, take a photo with the red MacGyver clown nose on iif it’s not lost somewhere along Highway 1. : O )
• Grab Trek and stuff, remember to refuel
• Write in your diary what you learned and what went well. Digging through possible mistakes not allowed until Monday noon.
• Savor. Give yourself some love and abundant gratitude to those who’ve helped you along the way… including our sweet online Sisu not Silence family and Women of Sisu X!

W/sisu and smiles, Emilia

Ps. Join the ride as I prepare to run 1,500 miles across the length of New Zealand to celebrate the strength of women and men, girls and boys who are overcomers of interpersonal violence! Say hi on Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter. Also happy to answer any questions you might have related to training!

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2 thoughts on “Escape to Flow: How to Have a Zen First Half-Ironman

  1. Awesome!!! Love it! You’re going to have a great day! For me, counting my strokes during the swim has helped me keep calm and in the moment during the swim. I count to 100 and then start over, just something to keep my mind centered. I was going to interject when you were talking to Frank the other day but didn’t want to keep chiming in and interrupting. :) Have so much fun! We’ll be cheering from Tulum!


  2. Thanks, great article.. I just finished my first one, and this article pretty much describes how I run it.. 6;49 total, 16 mph bike ride..
    I felt ok all the time, kept an eye on my heart rate and finished in one piece .. really happy with the overall outcome!
    Yeah, it is hard to stay away from the peer pressure, from friends ‘s times and others’ success stories..

    I completely identified with it! Thanks!



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