Doing Tahoe…Not Doing Tahoe…Doing Tahoe…

This morning I didn’t do Ironman Lake Tahoe 70.3 about ten times.

Here’s the swim map:

imlt swimThey are saying that the water will be down near 60 F by race day – two weeks and two days from now. The water at Sand Hollow Reservoir in Sts George was 67 F, and that sent me into cold shock, hyperventilating and panicking. I can’t imagine what 60 F water will do to me – probably make my eyebrow hair stand on end and change my gender.

I don’t WANT to find out what 60 F water will do to me. It terrifies me. I still remember that feeling of being unable to breathe – even though I was breathing, it didn’t feel like I was taking in enough air. I remember turning back towards shore and trying to swim in measured strokes, and then going crazily into a full-tilt sprint because I had to get to shore because I couldn’t breathe.

That was no fun.

Since then, I’ve swum quite a bit in open water, but it hasn’t been in that cold open water that sent me into shock and hyperventilation. Maybe I’ll be all right, but I don’t know anybody else who reacted as badly to St George’s water temperature as I did. I can climb rocks. I can ski off of (small) cliffs. I can jump out of airplanes. But I’m not sure that I can swim back into cold open water.

The internet tells me that the hyperventilation will be over shortly; that the shock will pass, and I will be able to calm down. Well, at St. George, I came back in to shore, and swam back out into that water three more times, and the hyperventilation never stopped. I couldn’t beat it. It beat me, and I came home with my tail between my legs.

I look at the map, above, and I imagine having to swim six-tenths of a mile out into a lake where the water is 60 F; feeling that terror grip me, and then I imagine living in that terror for most of an hour. I’m afraid of the fear; I’m terrified of the terror. FDR said “we have nothing to fear but fear itself”. But FDR was talking about fear as an abstract; of being afraid of something “out there”. Fear like that is where a threat is perceived, and the brain, having perceived a threat, generates adrenaline to deal with the threat, and the adrenals themselves cause the “flight or fight” reaction. This can be mitigated by perceiving the situation differently; by deciding that there is no threat, or that it can be dealt with without the fear.

The fear that I am afraid of is actually being generated by the body itself as a reaction to an environmental trigger, the cold water hitting the nerves on the face; there’s no consciousness involved. There is no place in the mind where the perception can be intercepted and overridden; it’s happening down at the reflex arch level, where consciousness has no power at all. It’s as though I were getting a shot of adrenaline while deciding to remain calm – too bad. Church is out. I’m going to be scared, and I’m going to stay scared, and there is nothing that I can do to stop it.

Prayer won’t help – prayer is powerful stuff, but prayer can only change my mind; it can’t directly affect what’s going on at a cellular level. I’m a big proponent of asking God to remove my fear, and directing my attention to what He would have me be, but I can’t see that helping in this situation.

So this morning, while swimming 200 yard repeats, I decided to do Tahoe, and to not do Tahoe, and to do Tahoe, and to not do Tahoe…I think I ended up deciding to do Tahoe, but when I look at this calmly and rationally, I can’t imagine doing Tahoe at all. I can wait until next year, and find some nice IM/2 where the water doesn’t cause hyperventilation.

If this were a character building thing, I think I’d be all over it; again, “jumping out of airplanes”. But this isn’t anything that my character can overcome; I do believe that my character could force me to do the swim. Even if I couldn’t breathe, I could find a way to swim from buoy to buoy, and then I could stop in the water, hold on to a buoy, and squeal like a girl for ten minutes, and then make it to the next buoy. And then, when I finished, I could tell myself that I’d done it.

But then I would still have to bike 56 miles of mountains and run a half marathon, after an ordeal that makes me exhausted just thinking about it.

I really need a smarter hobby. Or a warmer one.



  1. Dave C said:

    Practice swimming backstroke. When the cold grabs your chest and makes you hyperventilate when swimming freestyle, backstroke is a reasonable option IMHO.

  2. I might give that a shot – thanks. Backstroke is one more thing I’m not good at 🙂

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