Today, just a few minutes into a triathlon, i literally turned around to quit. Seriously. No kidding. It started when, for absolutely no reason, i panicked on the swim.
Now, I’ve done probably two dozen triathlons. Today was going to be my seventh half ironman, and my fifth time on this exact course. Water conditions were excellent and the weather was practically perfect. I was in the same wetsuit i had worn several times before, including last year. I wasn’t caught in a pack of aggressive swimmers. Nonetheless, i absolutely freaked out when it came time to actually go full-on into the water and actually swim. My heart rate was through the roof. I felt like i couldn’t control my breathing. I couldn’t get into a rhythm.
I was less than a quarter mile in when i actually stopped and started treading water, alternately looking back at the starting line and ahead at how far i had to go (over a mile). A nearby floating lifeguard asked how i was doing. I swam over to get a pool noodle from her – i swear that at that moment i had 100% decided to drop out and go home. I told her flat out that i was, inexplicably, panicking in spite of my level of experience. “I was a lifeguard for years,” i said, “and a lifeguard instructor! I shouldn’t be freaking out about this!” At that point she offered to get a boat there to take me back. I was so confused! I really, really wanted to get out of that water, but didn’t think i of all people should have to. “I shouldn’t be this freaked out – I’m a firefighter!” Then, at that moment, something clicked.
I remembered a conversation I’d had recently with a fellow firefighter – one who has way more experience than I’ll ever have. This firefighter told me about a standard department training exercise where he had been in a house with fake theatre smoke. Despite his experience, though he intellectually knew that there was no fire and it was fake smoke, though he knew he could take off his mask and breathe normally at any time, he inexplicably panicked. For no reason at all, he felt the need to get out of there.
The memory of that conversation helped bring me back around, mentally. If that guy had an inexplicable panic attack and was able to regroup and rally, then i should be able to face this stupid episode head on and get through it. So I thanked the guard and started moving again with the intent of taking that swim one guard station at a time. My heart rate was back to normal, i felt like i could breathe again, and i found my rhythm. I was out of the water and into transition in about 46 minutes, which is much longer than my usual (35-37 mins), but i did it.
You never know whom your story can inspire, so I’m sharing this experience because I’m hoping that my story will inspire someone else – maybe you – to take action in spite of fear, rather than surrendering to it and giving up. To that firefighter who shared his story (you know who you are), I want to say THANK YOU. Ultimately, i finished my race in 6:07 – longer than my goal of 6:00, but I’m more proud of this result than of any other tri I’ve ever done. I would have for sure come in under my goal time if i hadn’t panicked, but i didn’t quit. And, ultimately, that’s what courage really is. The brave might not live long, but the timid don’t live at all.