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Panic. Bike. Walk.


Forty-three degrees outside this morning.  Sixty-two degrees in the lake. The Expert and I head out early.  We stop at the gate to Lake Lanier’s Mary Alice Park.  Time for the Inaugural Swim Bike Mom’s Swim Bike Run Event (a/k/a two weeks to race day).

The old guy waiting at the guard stand says, “You swimming today?”  And I say, “Yep.  Where’s the beach?”

He whistles and shakes his head, “Oh, you’re the one he was talking about.”

Oh. Coach Monster.  Coach Monster beat us to the park and had already warned the guard stand and the Coast Guard about me.

“This will be the hardest thing you’ve ever done.  If you can survive this water, this cold, you can survive anything,” he says.

I’m so geared up.  I know the open swim is going to be hard.  I know it’s going to be cold.  We pull up to the park, and see Coach Monster and others.  “Oh no, I’m thinking.  Others.  More real triathletes. And me.  And the Expert. No. No no no.”

The Expert and I get our wetsuits out of the car, and Coach Monster spots us.  We all chit chat while putting on the suits, and CM helps the Expert into his.

After awhile, we are all suited up and ready to go.  And looking mighty Orca-y.   Well, I guess you all can figure out which ones we are. And who the coach is.  Don’t you like the fact that the Expert and I have matching suits?  How endearing.  Two little love whales.

Oh, I must rewind….

Before this picture, as I am suiting up, Coach Monster pulls the Expert up and into his suit.  As many of you know, the goal is (much like pantyhose) to have the thing as “high” up as possible.  This reduces the pressure on the shoulders/chest and makes for better fit.  I will get to this later.

The Expert, in turn, helps yank me into mine.  Yank!

Rip!  I gasp. “Did you just rip my wetsuit?!”

“No,” he says.

“Did you rip my wetsuit?!”

“Yes. Oh no. I’m sorry!!” he pleads.

Oh for the love.  I’m not mad. I’m horror stricken, thinking of tales I have heard of wetsuits being filled with water, followed by sinking.  Fortunately, my suit fits like a spray-on tan, so I am not too worried about it. (Panic #1).

Walking towards the beach, I am nervous, but I am okay.  Toes in the water.  Yes, that’s cold.  Okay.  I’ve been cold before.  Legs, torso in the water.  Lawd.  That’s cold.  I am remembering weightlifting days and ice baths.

Face in the water.

The instant my face hits the water, I inhale the entire lake into my lungs.  The shock of sixty degree water on my face floored me.  I immediately panic.  I put my face back into the water.  More water in my lungs.  My body is fighting me.  I try not to inhale the water, but the reaction is automatic.  Crap crap crap, I am thinking.

Coach Monster is saying, “We’re going to swim out to that first buoy and then take a left and swim past the four bouys and circle back.”  I can’t breathe.

What shocks me most is the pressure on my shoulders and chest from the wetsuit.  I heard it would be heavy.  But the weight is huge.  Here is where the pulling up the wetsuit fully in the crotch would have come in handy.  The suit was already weighted at the shoulders from my faulty put-on. And now?  I can’t believe it.  (Panic #2).

I am severely claustrophobic.  With my face in the dark water, I suddenly have the distinct feeling that I am burying myself alive. (Panic #3).

I can’t seem to freestyle.  I can’t seem to breastroke, sidestroke, float.  I am paralyzed.  I see Coach Monster about 100 meters away, saying “Just come to the buoy.”  I’m thinking, “If only.”   I make it to the buoy, and I tell him, “I can’t breathe.”  I can’t imagine how much surface pollen scum I swallowed. (Panic #4 = anaphylaxtic shock).

I flash to that scene from “Sex and the City” where Carrie tries on the wedding gown and immediately breaks out into hives and rips the wedding gown from her body, deciding that she can’t possibly get married.  I am deciding that I can’t possibly do triathlon, and I want to rip the freaking wetsuit from my body. (Panic #5).  The pressure on my chest.  The allergic/asthma that was triggered from either panic/pollen/fear in general.

Coach Monster makes me stop. “Lay on your back,” he says.  I float on my back, but the pressure is almost worse that way. (Panic #6).  So I just float, upright, bob around.  I am nodding at CM, looking at the Expert, and not breathing.  We swim to the next bouy.  And the next. And the next.  I am panicking less… and then, wham… back to total meltdown of fear.  I am wheezing. And breathing shallow. (Panic #s 6-11).

At the end of thirty minutes, I have made one complete circle of the bouys.  Thirty minutes.  Because I am down in the water for about 50 meters, and then popping up, stopping, wheezing and freaking out for the next 50 meters. Finally, I breaststroke back to the beach, just praying I can make it back to the sand.

I am deflated.  Scared.  Sad.

I really thought the swim was going to be my game.  The blasted wetsuit.  The cold water.  The compression coupled with some sort of crazy allergic reaction.  I am blown away by the ridiculousness of myself.

Onward and upward.  Time to bike.


I experienced some sort of histamine reaction during the swim.  I am wheezing like a seventy-five year old smoker.  After a fifteen minute T1 time (yeah, I’m breaking records over here)… Three’s Company is heading out on the bike.  I still can’t breathe, even though my heartrate is floating around in Zone 2.  I am sucking wind like I am pounding out a maximum heartrate ride.  I start to see spots across my eyes, and I am slowing down Coach Monster and the Expert.   We go out a total of ten miles.  It’s no fun riding with a three-hundred pound, old emphysema-ridden man (me).

So much for the planned 20 miles.


A ten minute T2 time, and we take off on the run.  Coach Monster asks, “Do you think you can handle the run? Are you still breathing through a straw?”  I nod, affirmatively to both questions. “I can do it.”

I run 100 yards.  I can’t do it.  I am back in a wheezing state.  I look at my Garmin.  My heartrate is 118.  Low, low, low.  Clearly, if I can’t breathe when I am pressing a high Zone 1 heartrate, I am done.  I tell the Expert to take off, go, run.

Coach Monster says, “We’ll walk.”  And we do.  He is the most compassionate, patient person.  I am embarrassed.  He won’t let me be shamed.  We work through some facts, some details.  He tells me stories. I pick the Expert up forty-five minutes later.  He successfully completed a 3-4 mile run.   I walked 1.7 miles.

I feel about six inches tall.  And six feet wide.


As we drove home, I was (for the lack of a better word) devastated.  The day was beautiful.  I was prepared.  Everything was set up for a great day.  I have put in the work.  And I totally crashed.  I crashed from the water, the cold, the pollen, the panic.  I’m not sure what exactly happened.  But I know it did. Today happened, and it was not good.

And two weeks before the race.

I told the Expert that this is the first time in my life I have experienced this feeling of sheer-I-can’t-get-out-of-this panic.  I birthed two babies, and I never felt this sense of panic, fear and death.  Death, maybe.  But not the fear. I couldn’t breathe and the weight of the wetsuit…

As Coach Monster and I walked, we talked about what I learned.  He sent me home with the task of figuring out what I learned from this experience.

1)  Always bring my inhaler.  And use it. 
At this moment, I feel like I have calmed down and turned my fear around. I know I need to consider my allergic/asthmatic tendencies and take it seriously.  My dumbass should have had my inhaler. That’s lesson number one.  With the inhaler, I could have at least had a shot or two before the swim.  Might have stopped that reaction.  The panic… maybe not.  But I believe the panic stemmed from the histamine reaction.  Most likely caused from me inhaling the pond scum on my first-face-in-the-water moment.  With my inhaler, I could have continued the ride.  And made the run.

2) Turn the fear factor into something positive. 
Anyone who has read my blog knows of my innate tendency to mentally defeat myself.  I am working through this big-time with triathlon.  Even though this swim experience was like a slice and dice to my heart, something in me has changed.   Five years ago, I would have declared this experience something I “can’t do” and scream “F it” and quit.  “Guess I’ll never be able to do an open water triathlon.  Guess I’m a loser. Guess that’s it.”  While I was panicking in the water, I was batting around these thoughts.

But now, all that is truly running through my head is: I can’t wait to get back out to that lake and figure this out. 

And I think of the individuals who have beat (serious) odds.  Real physical challenges. Tragic accidents. Missing limbs. Cancer. Serious adversity.

Not asthma, wetsuit and cold water.  Therefore, “I can, I will, and kiss my ass.

Two weeks from today, I intend to finish the swim at St. Anthony’s.  And that’s that.  I may be wearing my wetsuit to the pool every night for the next two weeks.  Floating around in my big bathtub, wearing said wetsuit, and filling the water with ice.  But yes, I can.

3) Calm Down. 
Enough said.  My chicken little-ness is a little less each workout, each time.  So I need to calm down.

4) Give Myself a Break.
Similar to “calm down,” this is self-explanatory.  Today was a big bump in my mental road.  But my legs were strong.  My arms were strong.  My mind was actually pretty strong too.  Just my lungs failed me.  And that could have been avoided with a little forethought.  So I’m giving myself a break.

Today was a big wake up call.  I know triathlon is difficult.  I had no idea of the perils of an open water, wetsuit swim for myself.  The Expert struggled with the swim as well, but didn’t seem to experience the same reaction.  So it’s a personal issue I have to grab by the horns and wrestle down.

There’s one thing about me.   I like to wrestle.  So here we go… Have a great week, friends.

“I promise you, I will learn from my mistakes…” 
– Coldplay


    • Nick

      July 1, 2015 at 6:23 pm

      I also found this post by searching for “triathlon swim panic”! And since so many have responded to encourage others, I will too. And thank you so much for your site, and this post!

      This just happened to me, during my first (sprint) Triathlon; total panic that lasted/recurred most of the swim.
      This can happen in warm water too. When people say “don’t do anything new for your race” this is why. I had not trained in the wetsuit before hand. Huge mistake.
      I was actually happy and comfortable floating around, chatting with other before the start. I feel that things went wrong for me because:
      1. New to being in a wet suit (fits good)
      2. Adrenaline shot from just being in a race! (normal)
      3. Because of #2 you go TOO FAST then “exceed your breath”; and you can never seem to catch it again
      4. Since you can’t catch your breath you want to rip off your wet suit (unwise to try)
      5. Negative thoughts (help with nothing!)

      I actually think that your lower brain takes overs when it sees the symptoms of increased heart-rate, high blood pressure, and lack of breath and it says: You’re Terrified! I’ll get you out of here! Head to the shore!
      Rolling to my back was not super helpful for me because of the buoyancy of the wetsuit mad it feel awkward. I was even aware that I was having a panic attack, which helped but only a tiny bit.
      I ended up breast stroking most of it (hey if you are going to tread water, you might as well make a little forward progress!). I just said “get to the the buoy and then re-evaluate!”

      So, how to overcome or avoid the PIAWS (Panic in a wet suit)?
      1. Practise being in the wet suit! It’s different! Swim a lot in it!
      2. Practise rolling onto your back and “calming” yourself by doing breathing exercises (IN your wetsuit!)
      3. Practise the self talk that will get you through the attack. Fight back! “Even though I’m short of breath, I can still actually swim”; “There are safety marshals here that can help if I really need it”;
      4. Practise getting your heart racing (swim in wetsuit) then roll on your back, BREATH and get your heart rate down. Use your positive self talk during this time!

      Knowing you can do the above will get you through the next race.

  • ray nesbitt

    April 17, 2011 at 11:56 pm

    Someone I love very much once told me that greatness is not randomly given but that it is in the blood. Greatness is many things but mostly giving the best effort you are capable of and being able to know where that line is for yourself and being happy that you took it to where you did. I know you, you are not done, the line has not been reached. The demons in your mind will only destroy you if you allow them to do so. Give em hell girl.

  • Sara

    April 18, 2011 at 4:30 am

    Great job willing yourself through that water. I can totally relate, not to the asthma but the panic and shallow breathing in the water. Swimming is my sport, I'm a great swimmer, but (as it turns out) only in a pool. I need that little black line on the bottom. I freak out in open water if I open my eyes and look down. I can't do it. So I close the eyes. Never open them underwater, only when I'm coming up to breathe. I also think "relax" to myself a LOT and try to have nice long smooth strokes, since when I panic I flail my arms and try to do too much. One thing I have learned, in a race when they count down and everyone starts, I count to 10 before I go. The adrenaline and all the other people jockeying for position and the splashing makes the panic that much worse. So I wait, let everyone go, and then I go. I pass a lot of people, but generally then nobody is crawling up my legs. I also stay a little to the outside.

    I hope you get another chance in open water before your race. Each time you are in there should be a little better. We are in both 2 week countdown, exciting!

  • caitwaas

    April 18, 2011 at 1:15 pm

    Mere – I totally echo the other comments here. The first open water swim IS terrifying! Swimming is my strongest sport, and the first time I ever put on a wetsuit and went out into a freezing, dark lake, I totally panicked and doggy-paddled for the first 100 meters! The good news is your attitude is totally in the right place. And now you learned a few things, including hiking that damn wetsuit up (it really does help that crazy pressure on your shoulders!). Whenever I'm in an open water swim I always think of that scene in Finding Nemo where Dory sings "Just keep swimming, just keep swimming." Ridiculous, I know, but it totally helps!

  • Mere

    April 18, 2011 at 3:03 pm

    Thank you all, so much! I am going to try to "just keep swimming, just keep swimming" and keep going. True, Marci – I am so glad it wasn't race Day. Sara and Cait – you are so right… I am going to keep going and work through this. Go to a happy place… 🙂

  • Juan

    April 19, 2011 at 4:44 am

    Open water swimming is scary… but once you get out there a couple of times it gets a little easier. I still panic sometimes but then I try to trust in all the training I put in and push through the fear. You're going to do great on race day!

  • Colleen

    April 19, 2011 at 3:32 pm

    I was to give you a big hug! The first open water swim is a panic zone for so many people – heck, I've been racing for 6 years and I STILL completely panic (full out floating on my back wondering what the heck I'm doing) every single first swim of the year. And it kills you for the rest of the day if you aren't careful.

    I love your attitude – you realized where you might have mad mistakes (no inhaler) and that you have to not beat yourself up. I guarantee, you're next experience in the wetsuit and open water will be 100 times better!

  • Mere

    April 19, 2011 at 3:42 pm

    Thanks you guys! I so appreciate the encouragement…. you have no idea how much!! Elizabeth – that's a great post -thanks for referencing it! Juan – I appreciate it!!! Colleen – it's good to know I am not alone in the fear… but it's scary to know that the panic doesn't necessarily go away (!)…I need tools to figure out how to manage the panic, I guess, and work towards "managed" panic." You guys are great. Hugs!

  • Stephanie

    April 19, 2011 at 5:19 pm

    Occasionally I will sing "Row, row, row your boat" while swimming – open or in the pool. It helps get you into a rhythm, especially when you have been thrown off by inhalation of lake scum! 🙂 It is so inspiring to see the comments above – and to know there are others out there going through the same fears!

  • Jennifer

    April 19, 2011 at 9:51 pm

    I have about 10 open water swims in races and practices, but never with a wetsuit in cold water until Sunday. I felt calm, mentally and physically prepared (except for not having been able to practice with the rented wetsuit). Water was just above 65. Cold but bearable. I started out okay, but with about 200 meters (of just a 500 meter swim — should have been cake) left to go, I could not catch my breath. Period. Pressure of the wetsuit, the added effort of lifting my arms with the thing on, lack of rest? Don't know what happened. Tried several times to restart freestyle, but came up sputtering every time, so I ended up breastroking/dog paddling back in to shore. And I felt so out of breath and defeated, I really didn't feel like I could regulate my breathing until almost the end of the first 6 mile loop of a measly 12 mile bike ride. Then I noticed in T2 that both feet from the ankle down had gone totally and completely numb. That finally wore off about a mile into the run. I finished the race, but was very disappointed because I had been expecting to shatter my PR in a Sprint Tri. Here's the thing though. When I actually went back and compared my best overall race, in which I won the Athena division and was a 300 meter pool swim, my swim time was, incredibly, a little faster per 100M (10 seconds). My average bike speed was .6 mph faster, and my run was 17 seconds faster per mile. So, instead of feeling completely defeated and like my own attempt at Oly distance on June 5 will be a disaster, I am going to choose to see this as (1) a step in the right direction, and (2) an opportunity to practice in open water in a wetsuit several times before the big day.

  • jenn.doran

    June 2, 2011 at 10:37 pm

    Hi there,

    I totally enjoyed reading your blog. I too (just today) experienced these horrific, panicky, out of breath feelings you write of. I am training for my second sprint triathlon (my first one this year) and found the cold water SO difficult to overcome today. It was like that awful brain freeze you experience as a kid when you take too big of a bite from your ice lolly. My tip is this; breast stroke for 5 minutes or so before the race begins (put your face under too). Also, clench your fists and release (really fast movements) to increase blood circulation to your hands. It totally helps. Lastly, take long slow breaths. I know this is easier said than done, when you're dipping your head into ice cold water, but trust me after a few strokes you will feel the benefits.
    Remember to enjoy it. It shouldn't feel so torturous.
    Best of luck,
    Jen x

  • Anonymous

    October 8, 2011 at 2:12 am

    You described my swim today. My open water swim went well last week but was a complete disaster today. Thanks for the inspiration to get back out there.

  • Swim Bike Mom

    October 13, 2011 at 12:52 am

    The good news? It does get better… here I am six months later.. and I'm surviving open water regularly! 🙂 🙂 Keep moving everyone, and thanks for the encouragement along the way!

  • That Pink Girl

    March 20, 2012 at 11:48 pm

    I found your blog by googling "open water swim panic" just so you know whe you check analytical, that's me. Hai!
    Um, great post! I had a similar situation this weekend and like you, my race is just two weeks away. You offered up GREAT tips and I'm delighted to see that 70.3 finisher photo on your sidebar.
    It makes me feel better to know that others have experienced this and overcome the fear! Thank you sharing your experience so honestly!

  • Audra

    December 5, 2013 at 8:46 pm

    Fantastic reading while I prepare mentally for my first sprint tri in August 2014. I was going to do one last August and had a nasty accident resulting in a nasty broken leg… therapy now while I am getting ansy to get back to running and biking… and panicing… oh I mean.. Swimming!! Thanks for this!! I can relate on every single level!!

  • Erik

    July 19, 2015 at 10:54 pm

    I just finished my first sprint triathlon. I thought I was ready. Had a couple of swims in the wetsuit in a couple of different lakes. I was nervous but not excessively. Took off into the water…I hung back and did OK…water was 68 degrees. 100 meters out I had passed a few the have no idea what happened. Same feelings though…can’t breathe…need to quit….rip this wetsuit off…wtf. Stopped to rest on the boat…and somehow calmed down…I finished the swim doing a practically back kick staring at the sky thing…but I was determined not to quit. I finally made it to shore completely last…but I made it. Slow transition and got on the bike. It was here that I caught my groove. 6 percent uphill grade then back down. Then a ridiculous run uphill on a loose rock shale trail…wtf? I was shocked to find at the presentation I had finished 3rd in may age group…totally shocked! That was 3 days ago. I am determined to figure out what the hell went wrong…how to move beyond the wheezing (not asthmatic) freaking out fest I had. Not finishing is not an option…not overcoming this is also not an option!


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