That Time I Basically Doggie-Paddled Across a Lake

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Yesterday I swam half a mile in a lake.

Well, sort of. More like panicked way across and back.

I’m doing the Franklin Lakes/Wyckoff Triathlon next weekend for the second time. I had trouble with the open water swim last year, so I thought that Jen (college roomie) and I would get an open water swim in this year before the race as practice.

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This looks so nice and peaceful, right?

I was sort of nervous, so I tried to do some deep breathing exercises before getting in the water.

There were three different races: a 2.4-mile, 1.2 and .5 mile option. The 2.4-milers went first and then the 1.2-milers were off. Both of those groups were doing 1.2 mile loops; the crazies were doing two 1.2 mile loops. The group doing the .5 mile swim swam in a much smaller area.

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Just a nice, calm lake, right?

The race dude counted us down – 2 minutes to go, 1 minute to go, 30 seconds to go, 10 seconds to go…and GO!

Uh oh.

I started off running into the water with everyone, but I was already freaking out inside. As people started putting their heads in and swimming, I started freaking out. OMG. WHAT am I doing!? I had no specific fears – it wasn’t that I was afraid of drowning, or not being able to see, or not being able to make the distance. Nope, I was just terrified.

I watched as everyone swam off, and I stood there, frozen. I saw someone else who hadn’t yet started either, and was thrilled to see someone else who was afraid like me.


I contemplated bailing. Maybe I couldn’t really do this. But then this quote popped into my head. If I think I can’t do it, I’m only going to psyche myself out. So, I need to psyche myself into doing this. I tried to change my perspective and tell myself I could do it, and it gave me some power to start swimming.

But the second I put my face in the water, I freaked again, but I made myself just keep going. I tried to ignore my fear and just push forward, but I succumbed again and flipped over to my back to do the backstroke and hopefully let my shallow breathing and high heart rate calm down. Once I felt a bit calmer and flipped over, I saw a rescue boat.

“Ma’am, are you okay?” some fresh-faced little lifeguard asked. While I was tempted to yell back “don’t call me ma’am!” I told him I was okay…although this was the second point in the race I contemplated bailing.

I inched forward, doing some freestyle, some doggie paddle and some backstroke. FINALLY, I reached the buoys. I had a hard time hearing the directions as we began, so I’d thought that we were swimming to the buoy and just turning around. Nope, like last year, we were swimming out, across to another buoy and then back in. Once again, as I reached the first buoy, I started panicking again. It felt SO far. I saw another rescue boat, and again contemplated bailing. My breathing was still shallow despite my best efforts to swim slowly and breathe evenly.

FINALLY I reached the second buoy and headed back for land. THANK GOD. I knew I was going to make it, and I knew I was going to finish, and the swimming became much easier, though my breathing was still shallow. I tried to speed up to make up for lost time, but then realized I really just wanted to finish and I didn’t need to be putting any more pressure on myself. I finally was able to touch the bottom, stood up and ran in and across the timing mat.


We finished! And goggles are hot. I finished in a tortoiselike 26:21, which also put me 13/13 for my age group, 86/93 for the whole race, and 38/43 for all women. But hey, I wasn’t last!

So…swimmers/triathletes. Please please please tell me your best don’t-freak-out-on-the-swim secrets. Speaking of swimming, Victoria swam across the freaking Chesapeake Bay today. NBD. That sounds so absolutely terrifying.

33 comments on “That Time I Basically Doggie-Paddled Across a Lake

  1. Victoria

    It did occur to me at about mile 2 that the bottom was really, really far away. And then I started singing Muppet songs to myself and forgot about it.

    Maybe that’s the secret? Singing Muppet songs?

    If you don’t want to do that, I think familiarity with the water is a big help – my boyfriend is new to tris and swimming, but did a lot of scuba diving, so he’s cool with just chilling out in the water. Maybe get in a few extra swim workouts, even if they are short. Try spending some time on some drills that help teach you to relax your stroke and control your breathing rather than fighting the water. Email me if you want some ideas.

  2. Amy

    Good job! I had my first sprint tri today with an open water swim and it was SCARY. Those buoys looked so far away…

  3. Carli

    Not only were you not last you were among a small group of people even willing to tackle this. You won’t see me doing a trip! 🙂

  4. Kim

    I’m impressed that you did it!! I would love to do a triathlon except the swim scares me to death – I hate to put my face in the water (any water!!).
    Good job!!

  5. Sierra

    I totally know that feeling! When I did my first tri last month, I thought I was going to cry before getting into the water. It was down in Florida, in a salt water river near Kennedy Space Center. I have never wanted to cry and leave something so bad. Okay, I remember feeling this a few times when juries would come up as a music major in college, but this feeling was something new to experience doing something athletic. I was definitely most proud of the swim portion of my first tri, after it was all said and done.

    1. Theodora

      @Sierra: Congrats to you for finishing! It’s so weird to me that while I definitely freaked at my first open water swim, I freaked even more at this one.

  6. Niamhy

    The first practice swim across a lake I did, I totally panicked halfway across when I swam into some weeds or plants or something (thought they were hands coming up from the depths to grab me!!!!).

    When I actually did the swim in the tri, I was scared before – my friend Susan and I held hands when we were about to start. Anyway, I decided I didn’t give a shit, took my own sweet time and it was fine.

    1. Theodora

      @Niamhy: That’s finally what I decided on the way back. Yes, it was technically a race, but I wasn’t racing it myself. At that point, I honestly didn’t care if I was last. That’s really sweet that you and your friend held hands 🙂

  7. Kimra

    I recommend getting in the water ahead of time to splash around and get comfortable with the temperature, put your face in, blow bubbles, do a few practice strokes, etc. — but I know not all races will let you do that. Something that can be almost as good is doing some little exercises to get your heart rate up before you go in the water (jumping jacks, situps, running in place, etc). It looks a little funny, but it weirdly keeps my heart from racing if it’s already working a little harder when I start swimming.

  8. Jennifer O

    Repetition, just going out and getting some open water swim practice. I have competed in many triathlons and seen many people freak and those are the ones who don’t get the open water swims in. I’ve pulled many also at the first buoy of triathlon’s too.

  9. meghan @ little girl in the big world

    It’s nervewracking. I have always been a swimmer and still get nervous going into an open water swim too. I had on my HRM for my last open water swim and my HR was over 100 just standing there looking at the ocean to swim in. I went snorkeling on our trip to the Keys this past week, and that was even more nervewracking because we were out a lot deeper and the visibility was terrible. I guess as we keep doing it we get better at it…at least that’s what I’m hoping.

  10. Katie

    The first 5ish triathlons I did, I panicked. Massive panic. The cold water catches your breath and I always feel unable to get control and catch my breath.

    The last one I did seemed far more manageable and I think it simply is because I had gotten more comfortable (all these years later!!) Now, in preparation for races, I just get out and swim in open water more. It becomes less of a daunting task when you are used to it.

    I NEVER will get used to people swimming over me though. Just. Shoot. Me.

    And most importantly, I sing Just Keep Swimming by Dory from Finding Nemo. Not quite the Muppets but equally effective.

    Good luck this weekend!

  11. Cathryn

    I just admire you enormously for doing this, especially when you were so scared. I know I wouldn’t even attempt such a thing. You should be very proud of yourself.

  12. Maggie

    Your timing is impeccable, as yesterday was my second-ever sprint tri. My first was last year, and my swim was difficult as well. Early panic! I ended up hugging the rope almost the entire half mile.

    Yesterday was different. A woman in my wave was more panic-stricken than I, so I was able to share my story from last year (in the last few minutes of waiting to get into the cold water). I gave her my best advice (“breath; believe you will finish; always know where the ropes are”) and we were off.

    She was really struggling, so I made it my mission to make sure she finished. The simple act of getting out of my head and making the swim about something other than me meant that I didn’t think – not even once – about my own fear. I even found myself treading water, letting her catch up! I know this cost me a bit of precious time, but I believe part of being an athlete is helping others succeed, so what I gained was so much more than I lost.

    So while I wouldn’t wish an anxious fellow swimmer on you, I would say to just let yourself get over yourself. Just get out there an have a swim. Don’t go out in race mode; swim a half mile and let your thoughts go elsewhere. It sure helped me!

  13. Katie

    I haven’t done a tri before, but I’m not sure if its the swimming or the biking that scares me more. The swimming its the idea of people kicking and punching me that I’m afraid of. I’m glad you were able to do, even if it was a slow pace, keep up the good work!!

  14. Chelsea @ Chelsea Eats Treats

    I would LOVE to do a triathlon but I am absolutely terrified of the swim as well. I don’t know what it is but it seems so scary! I totally would have been frozen in the water like you were. Good for you for sticking it out!!!!! You should feel so proud!!

  15. Michele @ NYCRunningMama

    Dude, you did it! The fact that you were so freaked out and still kept pushing, makes you that much more amazing.
    I just focused on counting my strokes during my first tri. One-two breathe. One-two breathe. And I kept to the back and side of the large gaggle. In not fast nor am I hoping to win the triathlon so there is no need for me to be up with all the fast people.

  16. Rachel

    Goggles are hot! I usually don’t make eye contact with anyone while dressed in my swim get up. However men seem to want to strike up conversation while in the pool. I’m always like “forget it!”

    Congrats on being smart this time and practicing before race day!

  17. Annie @ Annie Get Your Run

    I think you did great!! The accomplishment is in the finish and you finished strong.

    I did my first triathlon a few weeks ago and I also felt anxious before the swim, but it was mostly because I was thinking too far ahead. I told myself “All you have to do is enjoy the swim.” I repeated the same thing before the bike and the run. Finishing is what mattered, not finishing first.

    You’ll rock your tri!

  18. Paris

    Open water swimming is hard/ triathlons in general are because of the swimming for me, personally.
    But I love that you went out and practiced in the open water before the race – I should have thought of that before my race last year. I practiced only in a pool, quite different from the Atlantic Ocean lol.
    Love the quote (it is so true!) and good luck this next weekend!

    x Paris

  19. Nicole

    You made it! Congrats.
    Try to regulate your breathing/stick to consistent stroke pattern. Easier said than done, but I think that helps.

  20. Angie

    I think the way to get over the fear is a lot of exposure to open water. I grew up spending every summer weekend swimming like a fiend at my grandparents’ lake house. The water was/is very brown and you can see almost nothing in front of you. When I first signed up for an open-water triathlon, I sought out open-water swim practice to be sure I would feel OK. It was like going back to my childhood – I absolutely LOVE swimming in lakes, rivers, etc! The swim leg of a tri is truly my happy place, and I think my ease is from my hours upon hours of swimming in a mucky lake.

    By the way, I think the Chesapeake Bay swim would be awesome…

  21. Axel (@apkussma)

    Try to remember that you know how to swim the distance in front of you… you’ve already done it in the pool. Then, try to make the experience as similar as possible. Start your swim away from the crowd (pick a side that will put you on the outside of the turns, you may have to swim a little further but it’s worth it for the peace). Breathe to the side that has the least waves/chop… either away from the crowd or towards shore, usually. If something happens to throw you off, just stop, tread water for a second and let the moment pass.

  22. Tori @ In Love and Peanut Butter

    Um, I totally doggie paddled my first 2 triathlons. I always felt like I was getting better at swimming and then by the time I got into the water for the race I was freaking out and hyperventilating. Spending more time in open water is definitely what’s made me more comfortable. I also found that 8-counting (like in dance class) my strokes and breath helps distract me and gets me into a good rhythm.

    Congrats on pushing through it! And good luck this weekend.

  23. Megan

    I did my first triathlon last weekend and had an OWS freakout – and my swim was only 1/4 mile. Even though your swim was twice as long, our experiences were similar. I considered bailing and wanted to cry, but I forced myself to keep going. I’ve been doing a lot of research on OWS panic since then and I’ve learned a few things.

    1) It’s common
    2) Cold water makes it worse (the cold water can make your lungs seize up a bit)
    3) It’s good to get into the water and get your whole body wet, especially your face, before you officially swim. Splash around, do a few strokes.
    4) Practice, practice, practice.
    5) A wetsuit would have helped me since my water was only 71 degrees. Didn’t seem that cold, but… yeah.

  24. Melissa @ Faster in Water

    Hey you did great! Not giving up was a great accomplishment (although if that lifeguard would have been an age appropriate hotty, a little fake drowning may have been in order!). I am a swimmer and am doing a tri this summer and also did an open water swim a couple of weeks ago (I’m a pool based kind of girl). I did an out and back and for the first half, I couldn’t catch my breath or get in a rythym. I almost felt like I was short of breath. Sighting is not fun! And yeah, you can’t see the bottom and there are random floating plants touching you. Gross. We rested for a min at our halfway point and I just told myself to calm down and the second half was much better. My inhale of air was good and I kept my exhale steady. I’m looking forward to more open water swims in the future. Congratualtions on this and your tri!

  25. Nikki

    I doggy paddled my first triathlon in a lake and swore that my second one in ocean water (which I had already paid for by the time I started my first triathlon) will be cake. Nope! Not even close! I managed to calm down better however every time I put my face in the water, my body was like “oh like HELL NO!” Several times I was closed to raising my hands and as I got closer to the last bouy, I was imagining one of the lifeguards coming to me to bring me the worse news “Ma’am, were going to have to bring you in; sorry but you’re ass is taking way too long to finish” You see I only had 40 min to finish the whole thing and seeing that it took me roughly 40 minutes to do the 800m in a lake doggy paddling, I had asked to get bumped to the first wave reserved for the Men 44 and younger, giving me 5 more minutes I thought may be just enough cushion to finish.

    Glad to say no one pulled me out and I got to go on to the rest of my bike and run! I look at the clock and it says 43:40, WWWOOOhooo! I then go on to pass 7 on the bike and 8 on the run.

    There’s definitely room for improvements. Thank you for sharing, I thought I was hopeless.


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