Overcoming Panic in an Open Water Swim
Updated: Jul 5
The title of this post may be a bit misleading. I’m not going to directly explain how to avoid a panic attack in an open water swim. What I will do is share my experience.
Above Durango, Colorado there is an unlikely lake: Lake Nighthorse. It’s beautiful, but it doesn’t make sense. There is no river or stream that feeds into it so someone must have been thinking outside the box when it came time to put water behind the dam. Most lakes I know of are created by damming a stream or river and flooding the upstream low lying areas. Not this lake. Water is pumped out of the Animas River 500 feet below to create and maintain the lake in which I had my second ever swim induced panic attack. The pumping of water has nothing to do with the panic attack. But the 7000 foot elevation just might.
There is nothing unusual about a lake 7000 feet above sea level. I’m sure there are lakes at much higher altitudes. The problem is that I have only been at this altitude for a little more than a week. I’m used to slightly lower altitudes… around 20 feet above sea level. The air is so much thinner up here. I’m out of breath typing this blog. Air is good. People shouldn’t compete in triathlons so far away from oxygen.
Two days ago the Durango Triathlon Club held the inaugural Nighthorse Sprint race at beautiful Lake Nighthorse. First, let me say it was a blast. Just being at a race and around other athletes was fun. It was an intimate affair of about 60 athletes and the mood was relaxed. Unfortunately for me, the competition was not. I’m used to being well above average with a fourth place finish, but there’s no reason to be upset about being last in the age group. In fact, statistically speaking, my performance was not an outlier  Grubb’s Test For Outliers , which means I performed at an appropriate level for my age and gender in this race. Being familiar with statistics is a great way to stay positive (or in my case, pathologically optimistic).
Now let me just say that I’m a pretty good swimmer, in the pool and in the open. One of my better swims without a current was at IRONMAN Lake Placid, 2.4 miles in an hour, ten minutes and change. Last Saturday’s swim should have been 15 minutes or less for the 750 meters. Instead, the official results say that the swim was just shy of 22 minutes I panicked in the water which lead to actions not conducive to a fast swim.
At least T1, Bike and T2 were very fast given the hills of the course
The big question is, “Why did I panic?” Factors I know about that contribute to a mid swim freak-out include water temperature, swimming in a crowd, dark water, a tight wetsuit, and I’m sure there are others. For my particular case, I’m ruling out temperature, crowds, and dark water.
To gain an understanding of what happened, let’s look at the symptoms.
About 200 meters into the swim my heart rate shot up and I was having trouble getting enough air. Normally, breathing bilaterally every third stroke is sufficient for me until about 500 or 600 meters. However, by that 200 meter mark I was breathing every second stroke and still couldn’t get enough air. Two hundred meters ago I intentionally began the swim in an easy pace so I wouldn’t get out of breath. I knew the air was thin and wanted to swim accordingly. I’ve gotten into trouble before by starting out too strong.
After feeling the heart rate jump the only rational thing to do was slow down the pace a little. The inner talk was still positive, “You’re doing just fine. It’s only the thin air. Keep it easy and you’ll be ok.” The focus up to this point had been on swim form, high elbows, roll and stretch, activated core, etc. That changed when the wetsuit in which I was encased shrank two sizes.
Back on shore, the wetsuit felt fine. It’s a sleeveless little number with the neck split open for comfort. Of course, the suit didn’t really shrink, but it felt like it did after four minutes of swimming. Everything closed in on me. It wasn’t just my body. The face felt like it was wrapped in cellophane. Turning the head to breath gave slight relief, but facing the bottom of the lake became intolerable. Internal negative talk grew louder, “You can’t breath. You have to get out of this wetsuit.” I had tried calming my self by replaying the words of my friend, Mike, who use to say he felt comfortably cradled in his wetsuit. Thoughts like that used to work for me, but now I was falling apart. My arms slapped the water for several strokes. The legs sank. The core had deactivated. Mike’s voice faded into the void that lay beyond my tightly neoprene wrapped little world.
I did the only thing I could do… unzip the wetsuit and swim with the upper part dragging underneath me. As soon as the torso was out of the wet suit, the panic was gone and rational thought returned. I did have a few thoughts of taking off the whole suit and letting it go, but someone would find it and I’d get disqualified for abandonment of equipment.
As you can imagine, the drag of the wetsuit is the reason my swim was six minutes slower than expected. But, WOW! What a workout I got. My arms still hate me for forcing them through that situation. Rational thought began to leave again, because, at 500 meters, I was thinking to myself that I was doing quite well. I had visions of getting out of the water and hearing the spectators and volunteers and officials congratulating me for having such a good swim with such a huge handicap.
Did you see that guy? He swam the whole way with his wetsuit dragging under him. What a machine!
Obviously, no one knew what happened. Nor were there any comments about my swim. Once I stumbled out of the water, reality returned and the delusions of grandeur faded. It felt good to be on solid ground.
Even with the wetsuit dragging me at the waist, I was able to make forward movement. That red shoulder is mine. Photo credit: Chris Neal
Looking back, I think I can fix this panic thing. It’s going to take a lot of work. If qualifying for the IRONMAN World Championship is going to be my goal, then I’m likely going to have to swim about 4 kilometers in a wetsuit at some point. This panic thing has to be fixed.
Heck! I swam Lake Placid in a full sleeve wetsuit, so I know it can be fixed.
Practice more often in the wetsuit.
Try to recreate the panic attack in a controlled environment to better understand the causes.
Meditate for focus and awareness.
Hypnotherapy and tons of psychotic drugs (the legal ones, of course). Maybe not this one so much.
That’s about all I’ve got. If you know of anything else that might help, please share.
Oh. By the way. I did great on the bike. My transitions were fast as usual. The run was a leisurely stroll in the park. Not because it was easy or enjoyable, but because it took a long time. The photographer even got a shot of me at the finish line.
There’s photos of me at the finish line! I’m the one in the red, white and black tri suit eating a bagel. Photo credit: Chris Neal
If they have this race again next year, I’M DOING IT.
Until next time…