by Dr. Devin Shoquist

I recently participated in (and finished) my first triathlon a few weeks ago. It was only a “sprint” as they call it – 400 meter swim, 15-mile bike ride, and 3-mile run – but a challenge none-the-less. Yes I’m proud of my accomplishment, but I’m not trying to brag.

To be quite honest, I was pretty nervous about it. Well scared really. I had many fears, but my biggest one was not surviving the swim in the frigid lake which it would take place. Literally, I thought there was a chance I could die - and that is not my style. I imagined the possibility of my muscles locking up, not being able to breath, and slipping out of sight before being noticed.

More rationally I feared the embarrassment and disappointment of having to be dragged out of the water by a safety swimmer. Many a rookie triathlete has panicked and met that fate. Panic is a powerful thing, and it’s the brain’s most powerful tool to get a person to immediately stop doing what they are doing.

How did I respond? Well obviously I didn’t bow out. I did not feel that was an option after months of hard work to get in shape. No, instead I tapped into my knowledge of the brain’s yang to the yin of panic: exposure and desensitization. In other words, head out and face the fear in a controlled environment before the big event.

So the weekend before the race, I made the hour-plus drive to the race sight. The weather was overcast and cool. I donned my short-sleeved wet suit, dipped my toe, and then proceeded to stare at the lake for 30 minutes thinking how cold it was going to be. You see, this was powerful therapy work in action. Finally I took the plunge. I didn’t get more than 50 feet off shore before I started thinking how I could barely keep my face in the water, how my breathing was getting out of control, and wondering if I was going to make it back to shore. Panic was setting in!

Luckily the reality of panic is that it is a survival mechanism. Despite my fears, my brain told me I wanted to survive and my muscles were going to get me back to shore. Once back, I caught my breath. Within a few minutes I was already convincing myself to get back in the water. I spent some time swimming closer to the shore, and was in a much more relaxed state.

Over the next week I strategized and reassured myself. I would use my long-sleeved wetsuit. I reminded myself that my brain would accommodate to the cold water if I just spent a few minutes in it before the race. There would be safety swimmers if anything went “sideways.” Most importantly I planned to enjoy the experience. Good gravy, after all that hard work just enjoy the experience!

On race day, I actually did great in the water and finished the swim faster than I had expected. After the race I talked to a competitor who finished as well, and we talked about the cold water. He admitted that he could “barely catch his breath” and struggled to finish the swim. He had the same reaction I had the week before. In that moment, I knew that my effort to prepare and overcome my fears had paid off because I had no such reaction.

Now I’m excited to face the challenge of my next triathlon. By the way, I may owe a fellow columnist $5 for the title… I agree; not worth it. She will likely have to prepare for the disappointment of never seeing that money.

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