Open Water Swim

in Swim workout, Triathlons

All summer, I tried to get my butt in a lake. There are quite a few organized open water swims in Charlotte, but they always fell on a Saturday that we were out of town, entertaining guests, or I was sick.  I wish I had tried harder to do more open water swims, but to be honest, the pressing need I felt to get into a lake was seriously dampened by my fear of open water.

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Hi, I’m a 12-or-so-time triathlete who is terrified of open water (OW). I have a long and storied history with OW swims that is quite well-documented in the blog archives. It started with my first triathlon, back in 2009 or so. I ended up being marked as Did Not Finish because I panicked during the swim and cut it short (I did finish the bike and run, though). My second tri was even worse in terms of freak out, although I did finish the swim. Oh, and when I say “panic,” I mean hyperventilating, chest-constricting, oh-my-God-what-am-I-doing-in-this-lake-of-creepy-crawlies?!  I mean, my OW panic attacks could certainly be worse (and I’m not trying to minimize the legit land-you-in-the-hospital-panic-attacks), but freaking out in a large body of water is something special, to say the least.


But with time, commitment, and deep breathing, I managed to somewhat conquer my fears. I still think it’s scary, and I still get really, really nervous, but I’ve had a few panic-free races where I actually enjoyed the swim overall.  My nerves are very closely related to: distance, current, and temperature.  Cold water really scares me.


Okay, anyway, a few days ago, DadHTP asked me if I wanted to do an OW swim.  He kayaks regularly and said he’d accompany me for safety purposes.  I KNEW that I really needed to do this at least once before next Sunday’s race.  No more room for excuses.  I had to do this today.

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I followed Dad’s car down to the lake. While waiting for him to unload his kayak, I Googled “are there alligators in North Carolina?” and read stories like this:

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Dad knew I was starting to freak out on the shore… It was cold (60 degrees), and I was shivering in my trisuit… pacing on the dock… talking about how much I hate OW swimming.  He started to urge me to get into the water.  Finally I said, “Coach Marni wouldn’t yell at me like this!”  And he replied, “Coach Marni would be beating you with this paddle by now. GET IN.”

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The moment my face hit the ice cold water, all those old panicky thoughts washed over me. All I could think was…

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Ugh.  Total and complete FREAK OUT.  Everything was working against me – it was freezing, I didn’t have a wetsuit, the current was ridiculously strong.


It took me a good five minutes to put my face into the face (that’s the worst thing of all for me), and then I did a few yards of breaststroke before crying uncle.  I crawled back to the dock and sat on the shore.  I gave it a few minutes, did a really long internal pep talk about kicking ass and taking names, and then I got back in.


Attempt number two was a lot better… I was warming up, I put my face in, and I swam probably 10 minutes straight. I managed to calm down, too, which was really all that I was after from this workout.  A calm and peaceful moment in the water… not a real workout.


I left with these takeaways:


  • I got my panic attack out of the water today so I don’t need to do it next weekend, right?
  • If the race is wetsuit legal, I am definitely going to wear one (I’m going to borrow Coach Marni’s).  Miami is obviously really warm, but I would appreciate the extra buoyancy.
  • The morning of my race, I am 100% getting into the water to do a warm-up. I don’t normally do this because I hate OW so much that I want to minimize my time in the water, but today’s swim taught me that maybe I just need to get my nerves out of the way and acclimate.
  • Should’ve… would’ve… could’ve done more open water swims.  Craaaaaaaaaaaaaaap.


Here’s to a panic-free race next Sunday….



  • Jaye October 20, 2013, 12:20 pm

    Ok. You can do this Caitlin. You know you can! You’ve worked SO hard. Mind over matter g/f. 🙂 AND you’ll be on home turf… er… water! Just take it one stroke at a time and pretend you are in a really big pool. 😀 Looking forward to tracking your results next week! Stay strong.

  • Joy October 20, 2013, 12:34 pm

    You can TOTALLY do the open water swim! You’ve got it completely. You’ve done it before, and now that you’ve practiced a bit, you really did get your freak out out of the way. 🙂

    Just don’t psyche yourself out and remember what you tell everyone about Operation Beautiful and negative talk…it applies to all aspects of life. If you tell yourself that you CAN do it, and do it really well, then you will.

  • Mary October 20, 2013, 12:51 pm

    I LOVE open water swimming so I always feel bad when someone struggles with it. I swim once a week with a group all summer and I am always so sad when the last day rolls around at the end of the season. That being said, even I have limits. I was a bit intimidated by the 3 foot waves on Lake Michigan for my half this past summer. I just told myself to keep something in view at all times like a buoy, another swimmer, or a kayak. It helped that the buoys were numbered so I could count them down too. Before I knew it I was at the last one. I would say just pretend it is a really big pool and you can save yourself a lot of time by not having to turn around. I am wishing you calm waters and a current in your favor. Best of luck on your race!

  • Andrea October 20, 2013, 1:00 pm

    You can do the open water swim. Take comfort in the fact that there are lifeguards watching you, and have your in-case-i-panic plan in place – you know what to do when those panicky thoughts start washing over you – do some easy breaststroke, catch your breath, or flip on to your back. You’ve done lots of open water swims and have conquered the panic attack before – you’ll be great!

  • Kyla October 20, 2013, 1:28 pm

    You can do the swim!!! Mind over matter, you’ve worked so hard for this day!!!!
    Also you could totally pretend you’re racing away from zombies, might put a little extra kick in your step 🙂

  • Marie-Santé October 20, 2013, 2:03 pm

    Go Caitlin! I owe you running my first half marathon, and now I’m a 2 times full marathoner. You definitely lift up a spark in me that is itching for triathlons! You are always such an inspiration and we will be there rooting for you.

  • Sara @ LovingOnTheRun October 20, 2013, 2:10 pm

    You can do this!! Everyone has something that scares them, but I know that you can over come this and be AWESOME!!! I have faith in you girl!! You are going to rock this half ironman!

  • Amber @ Busy, Bold, Blessed October 20, 2013, 2:26 pm

    Well… one open water practice swim is better than none, right?! You got this Caitlin!!!!

  • Anna October 20, 2013, 2:40 pm

    I have done 10k open water swims before, starting when I was a wee child….the most important thing for me was (and always has been, even in pool swims) warm-up. Warm-up, warm-up, warm-up. Water is a different element, and your body needs to get used to that!
    You’re going to do fantastic!! I’m so glad you’ve let us follow your Half-Ironman journey, you’ve really inspired me to try a triathlon in the spring!

  • Katie October 20, 2013, 3:10 pm

    You can do it Caitlin! I really appreciate you keeping it real on the blog about your struggles (and successes!) and I can totally relate about the freak out/panic attack moments (for me it’s flying). Facing your fears is so brave and the fact that you’re going to complete a 1/2 iron man makes you a rockstar, no matter what your time/performance is!

  • Michelle @ A Healthy Mrs October 20, 2013, 3:46 pm

    You can do it! I bet the fact that your only OW swim was so close to the race will help more than if you had done just one earlier — your body won’t forget it in just a week, so maybe your nerves won’t be too bad?

    Either way, we’ll be cheering for you through the internet 🙂

  • Christine @ BookishlyB October 20, 2013, 4:19 pm

    Just take a Xanax first 😉 OR write down how much money you’ve invested into the race and training on your hand with a Sharpie- I don’t know about you, but the idea of wasting money pisses me off and would serve as an excellent motivator.

  • Laura October 20, 2013, 4:27 pm

    What’s your main worry about the swim? Drowning, being hit/kicked, gator/shark? My first ever triathlon back in 2009 was a lake swim in GA and I guess it never occurred to me to be scared-not sure why! I’d be scared to do an ocean swim though for fear of sharks for sure!!

  • Rebecca October 20, 2013, 5:17 pm

    Aw, you’ll do great! Each time you do it, you get more used to it. After this one, you’ll be more okay. Maybe even completely okay the next time you do an OW swim.
    I don’t suppose it’s possible to trick yourself into believing that the lake is just a giant outdoor pool, is it? 😉

    I read “60 degrees cold” and kind of scoffed. Heh. It was probably 40 degrees or below last night when I left work and there was only a little bit of frost on my windshield, for which I was glad. Soon, though… It’s currently about 40 and rainy, but I didn’t bother putting my coat on when I left lunch with friends. Too short a walk to matter, haha. Location, I tell ya.
    I had a woman call the hotel I work for the other day and ask what the weather was like so she knew what to pack on a trip from California. It’ll be an interesting trip for her!

  • Janelle October 20, 2013, 5:52 pm

    I definitely think that it was good that you did this in advance. It’s a reminder of how it feels when the panic starts to take over… but, even if that happens on race day, you have conquered the panic before and you can do it again. Deep breaths, positive thoughts, imagine that you are swimming in a pool, think about how great you’ll feel crossing the finish line, picture Henry cheering you on, remember how your amazing body endured childbirth – whatever works for you! You can do it!!! (Also, the “well that escalated quickly” picture made me laugh out loud).

  • K October 20, 2013, 7:06 pm

    I know you haven’t competed yet but I’d love to hear your thoughts on whether or not you regret not being able to stick to your training plan that Coach Marni wrote up for you? (or put another way, would you do it differently if you could go back?) I know life gets in the way and you’re super busy running round after Henry and managing your businesses but I guess I kind of subscribe to the whole idea that while you’re not training, your competitors are!

    • Caitlin October 20, 2013, 9:38 pm

      Not at all. I am SO glad I have Marni. Without her, I couldnt have gotten through this. Marni has made my training such an awesome experience.

      When she gave me the plan, she said, “you don’t have to follow this 100%. Think of it like a guideline.” Basically, all good plans build in room for error. I mean, I imagine it I did follow it perfectly, I would be training at the level of someone in the top of their age group! But I know by using it as a guide, I can finish with a strong smile on my face. That’s my ultimate goal.

      In a perfect world, I’d bike outside more and do more open water swims. But I think most people feel like they could’ve done one of twofer epic workouts before a race. 🙂

      Does that make sense? I plan to write a whole post about our experience <3

  • Cecilia @MommiesRun October 20, 2013, 7:24 pm

    You can do it! I thought I saw you in Target today here in Memphis. This girl looked exactly like you and I seriously almost asked her if she was HTP. But then I realized there was no way it was you and I decided to take the crazy one step back.

  • Julia October 20, 2013, 7:43 pm

    It’ll be okay! You can do it!

  • Marissa October 20, 2013, 9:33 pm

    You can do it! I totally believe that you got the freak-out out of the way and that it will be smooth sailing from here on out. And, my experience is that when I do freak out in the OW (which I have done on every single tri), it happens right at the beginning. So I’ve learned to just keep breathing, go super slow (and let all the people who might have kicked me get a good lead), and then focus on the strokes which generally calms me down.

    The biggest freak out I had was at the NYC tri two summers ago — the other ones I had done were a beach start, where you run into the water. But the NYC tri you have to jump off the dock into the totally disgusting hudson river. Even worse, you have like 10 seconds to do it. I was psyching myself up to jump, and a giant dead bluefish floated by. I just about turned around and went home. BUT, something (pride? insanity?) motivated me to jump basically onto the dead fish and just go. Good thing the water is so murky and it was impossible to see a foot infront of me, or I’m sure I would have seen a hundred more revolting things in various stages of decomposition. Hilariously, it was the fastest swim I’ve ever done because I was so skeeved and wanted to get out of the water asap.

  • Sarahf October 21, 2013, 3:48 am

    You can do this! You know you’re going to feel panicky, which makes it easier to plan for, if that doesn’t sound odd. I always get a bit panicky when I swim in the sea (I know, of all things! We don’t even go anywhere where the water’s deep, irrational fear is a, well, irrational thing) and just remind myself that it’s a temporary thing, and I can get out any time I want to. I rarely end up getting back out, but planning to freak out and what to do when I do, helps calm me down. It will be easier than that first time, because you’re expecting it. Go get ’em!

  • Kristen October 21, 2013, 7:04 am

    You can do it next weekend! Love your blog, your so inspiring for people to overcome their fears . We’re all behind you!

  • brenda October 21, 2013, 8:36 am

    NO REGRETS! You are AWESOME and like everything…you will ROCK THIS! Seriously! You know you can do this. Thank you for always being such an extraordinary inspiration!!! Go girl – so many of us are cheering you on – here us all ROAR!!!

  • Marni October 21, 2013, 8:37 am

    Part of life is overcoming obstacles and sports provides a great venue for doing so. No one said it will be easy, but it will be worth it. Just think one mile at a time and remind yourself you are not alone. The moment you get overwhelmed or scared, just know there are hundreds of people thinking the same thoughts. What would you say to them if they were worried? Use your rational thinking as if you were motivating others to calm the voices in your head and you will have nothing to worry about with the swim 🙂
    Can’t wait to see you Fri!
    Coach Marni 🙂

  • Christina October 21, 2013, 11:15 pm

    This was always the hardest thing for me in tris- I was an awful swimmer when I started doing them, but even when I could freestyle to kingdom come in the pool, tris with OWS would get to me and I would wind up back-stroking the whole way.
    The last few tris I did, I’ve been able to go for a decent swim in the lake where the race is held the day before. That has helped so much.
    On race day, I’ve found I’m much better off staying right behind someone and just following their feet/ bubbles. I suck at swimming straight/ sighting, and I found that even if I was following a person who was going slightly slower than I could go, I wound up being faster than I would be swimming all over the lake on my own.
    And, if you will use a wetsuit, practice in it! Mine is kind of constricting, and I need to get used to it. I think if you’re not completely curveless most wetsuits fit find of weird. It’s OK but it take some getting used to.
    good luck! I think doing a HIM is an awesome accomplishment and I can’t wait to read your race report.

  • Heather October 22, 2013, 6:57 am

    “Courage is being scared to death and saddling up anyway.”-John Wayne
    You were so brave! You went in anyway! As someone who struggles with anxiety, I know how hard it is to do something that really scares you and then you told the world about it. Congratulations and good luck next week!

  • Sara @ Zero to Sixty October 22, 2013, 12:46 pm

    You will be great! I would be so nervous too with OW swim. BUT they wouldn’t have the race there if there were something dangerous in the water! 🙂 GOOD LUCK!!! 🙂

  • Amy @ Healthy and Fit for Real October 22, 2013, 1:32 pm

    More power to you for doing something that scares the poop out of you!! You know you can do it, it’s just about overcoming that initial fear and negative thoughts. A warm-up in the water will hopefully help you feel much more confident! You will kick some ass and even if you come in dead last in the swim, at least you’ll have accomplished it!! 🙂

  • Shanin October 23, 2013, 12:54 pm

    So, that race is this weekend, right? Good luck! And I don’t know how much ocean swimming you have done but I prefer it to the lake any day. WAAAAAY more boyancy in salt water so you will have that going for you. For some reason I don’t find the ocean as creepy. Granted I wouldn’t swim out that far in it if I weren’t with a couple hundred other swimmers, but I feel safe in numbers and you will be fighting more waves than usual but you can ride them on the way in! Weeeeeeeee!

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