Mountain Man Triathlon uses the tagline, “The Toughest Race You’ll Ever Love.” It takes place in Flagstaff, Arizona, elevation 7,000 feet. There is a 787 foot climb on the bike, and a 322 foot climb on the run. Mountain Man offers several distances; sprint, Olympic, and 70.3. On July 9th, I did the Olympic distance; 1500 meter swim, 24.8 mile bike, 10K run.
Mountain Man was my favorite race last year. Whenever I do a race I’ve done before, my goal is to beat my previous time. I’ve worked very hard with expert coaching from Renee Hodges at Foundation Physical Therapy. I believe I was capable of beating last year’s time. I’ve ridden much farther than that distance, including hill work, I have swum in open water about six weeks in a row leading up to the race. My running has been limited due to an injury. I knew I would run/walk, but didn’t expect to struggle with the swim or bike. Unfortunately, I had a panic attack in the water almost immediately. I couldn’t breathe the entire time. I know it’s 7,000 feet, but it was the same elevation last year, and I swam well. This swim was a disaster. Even in my state of panic, I could recognize the water was nice, perfect temperature, and not too choppy. I never felt I could get my heart rate or breathing under control the entire race.
It should be noted that panic attacks in open water have nothing to do with one’s ability to swim. I am not alone. Many proficient swimmers have had panic attacks in the open water. I was on swim team from ages 5-13. I am an American Red Cross certified lifeguard, swim instructor, and swim coach. I’ve taught hundreds of people to swim. Give me water I can see through with a black line at the bottom and I’ll swim all day long. I first began doing open water triathlons in 2015, and that is when I had my first OWS panic attack. I went to a sports psychologist. She helped me tremendously, by giving me skills to avoid the attack, and push it away if it occurs. I have been successfully swimming in open water for two-and-a-half years now. I did not expect this to happen again, but it did.
I had a problem with my chain dropping early on the bike. I resolved it, but couldn’t get back on my bike because I was stopped on an uphill. I had to walk my bike, making several attempts to get back on. Finally at the top of the hill I got back in the saddle. I never felt like I could get a full breath. I was no longer panicking, but my breathing was shallow and labored.
By the time I started the run, I was pretty much out of steam. Still not able to get my heart rate and breathing under control, I walked the majority of the run. In case my day wasn’t bad enough, I fell on the asphalt less than a mile from the finish.
Family and friends have reminded me to cut myself some slack. My family has been through a lot of hardship for at least half a year. The emotional drain of the past seven months has to take a physical toll on my body. I’m sure that’s true, but working out hard is a great stress relief for me. Doing activities I enjoy makes life seem normal, even in the midst of chaos and uncertainty. The two best things I did at Mountain Man were starting and finishing. Time to reflect, learn, and move on to the next race.