IMAZ 2012 Swim: Don’t PANIC like I did (then again, I hope you do)

The story starts in Tempe Town Lake at the 2011 Ironman Arizona. Before the cannon shot off, I was under the bridge about 200 yards from the starting line in order to feel comfortable with so many people around. I was toward the middle to the back of the pack. I’m guessing it took me at least 20 minutes in the swim in 2011 to calm my breathing. I was moving in the water, but not necessarily swimming. Whenever someone got close to me, I’d let them pass, but eventually got into a groove and swam the rest of the way with no issues (except for a calf cramp with about 3/4 mile to go).

In 2012, I decided to start in the front of the pack. I was on the front line, right smack in the middle of the action (or the front of the action). Like the previous year, my breathing was short and heavy from when I entered the water till the cannon shot off. My breathing was so short and heavy, in fact, it was just shy of a panic feeling. As I’m waiting and wading for 7 am and the official start of the day, I kept telling myself to calm down….. It didn’t work.

My lack of confidence at that moment didn’t make me pull back from the front of the line (as I certainly should have done, so it seems in hindsight). In fact I couldn’t wait to start swimming,  thinking that would make me calm down as it would have taken my mind off of how many other people were around me (only about 2300 others). In the grand scheme of things 2,300 people really isn’t that many. For some reason, on that particular morning it seemed like the whole world. Since there is no clock that can be seen from the water, my anticipation for the start seemed prolonged and made my anxiety a little worse. There was a moment I wished time stood still so the canon wouldn’t go off and I wouldn’t have to go.  I usually don’t have any issues breathing and have a certain level of self confidence to feel like I can handle myself physically in any situation, but that morning there was nothing ‘physical’ I could do about it. My mind had control. It controlled my breathing and, soon my swimming ability.

BOOM, shot the cannon! Ohhhh crap! I got run over in a matter of seconds, I got kicked in the ear and got my right arm hung up on another swimmer’s body. Unfortunately, my breathing didn’t calm down. In fact, it got worse. I started to panic. A feeling I don’t remember feeling in my life. I was hyperventilating. I couldn’t even put my face in the water for one stroke.  As I tried to keep my head above water, I just wanted it to be over. I spied a kayak and contemplated heading over to it to grab the front and tell the volunteer “I quit”.  I had enough, but I had to keep moving forward to avoid getting run over more. Since I started in the (left to right) center, getting to that tiny kayak had more risk involved because I would have had to have gone cross traffic. Talk about a really difficult level of Frogger. What a crappy feeling that was.

With my ear throbbing, my right shoulder hurting, my legs now cramping up, and this hopeless feeling inside, I was just pulled (and pushed) inside the Tempe Town Washing Machine.

I had no concept of time. It may have been 2 minutes or 20 minutes later when I came to the realization that quitting really wasn’t an option. People flew all the way from Pennsylvania and everyone that cared about me was there (or tracking me online) just to see my try this. There was no way I was giving up. So, ultimately, I don’t know if it was my not wanting to fail with people watching or the reason I wanted to do this in the first place, to feel good about myself, that kept me from giving up.

Since we were heading toward the bright sunrise, and looking up to sight was futile, I tried something that blocked out all those ‘distractions’ (thousands of kicking legs and flailing arms in my personal space). I closed my eyes and pretended I was the only one in the lake, like the one in Allentown where I went by myself. It took only a few strokes, but there I was, all alone, in this giant lake. The sounds I heard were waves created by the wind, the things I felt touching my body were just curiously friendly fish that wanted to swim along. Suddenly my breathing became normal and I was …. swimming.  Occasionally I would open my eyes to make sure I was going semi-straight. I couldn’t help by see everyone still around me, but for some reason, none of the ‘friendly fish’ in wet-suits bothered me anymore. My breathing was restored, that silly thought of quitting was gone, my swimming technique was back and I just overcame a panic in the water. How freaking cool is that? I panicked, then overcame it, on my own, in the water, with people climbing all over me! Big smile, then and now.

I got out of the water an astonishing 2 minutes faster than last year! Weird. I must have had a really rough time this year because last year I was conscious of how bad I was doing.

There are some things that happen to you in life that you will never forget and in this race that is just one of them.

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