Overcoming the fear of the white plastic bag fish

14/01/2014 12:52

… and anything else that might possibly be lurking in the sea, whether I could see it or not.

Fear of putting my feet on the floor if I couldn’t see the bottom.

Panic if anything touched me in the water that I couldn’t see.

Complete freak out if I swam into a lump of seaweed.

During my life before triathlon (BT) nearly all of my open water swimming was done at a heart rate of about 190bpm… driven by massive adrenaline rushes and horrendous, irrational fear.

Many, many years ago, over 15 years BT, during a family holiday to Greece, my brother, my sister and I had hired a ‘pedalo’. We were taking it in turns to swim, as two of us pedalled. The water was beautifully clear, but there were patches of seaweed on the seabed, hiding the sand. None of us strayed too far from the boat, but while my brother was in the water, he suddenly changed from a relaxed-I’m-enjoying-this-chill-out-holiday pace to an AAARGH-I’m-being-chased-by-a-shark pace, pulled himself up onto the boat within a split second and then sat there looking like he’d just escaped the most terrifying thing he’d ever seen. “I saw something! There’s something really big down there”

We made him show us where, pedalling around with him peeking over the side of the boat until we found it.

It was a white plastic bag that had become trapped in one of the patches of seaweed and was ‘flapping’ with the movement of the water. Not even a fish, and certainly not a shark or anything that was going to chase or bite! We laughed at him, and poked fun, laughed some more, to this day we occasionally still mock him for it… but in truth, my sister and I both would have reacted the same way.

When I first ran into the murky sea water at the beach in Singapore for my swim test prior to my first triathlon, I was thinking about swimming as fast as I could and trying to breathe at the same time as looking for the buoy that marked the course. My mind was too focussed to think about what could be out there, or what might come and ‘get me’. I spent about 30 minutes in the water and only after I had got out, did I think about the fact that I couldn’t see anything in that water and I realised that I had not panicked at all, even when I got water in my mouth, and even when one of the other guys swimming with us had touched me. I had surprised myself, but I still wondered if I would be able to focus enough to keep my cool and just think about swimming fast, in the right direction on race day.

Race day came, and I didn’t need a plastic bag fish or any sea monsters in my imagination to get the adrenaline pumping. When the starting horn went we all sprinted across the sand into the sea and dived straight in, elbows, hands and feet flailing everywhere. I felt like I was thrashing around, getting nowhere, then suddenly we were at the first buoy – I had followed the crowd (maybe I had even accidently drafted someone) and been carried 200 metres into the sea! There were still a few people around me, but it was now much calmer. I remembered that I had been told to swim close to someone’s hip, so I did just that and swam steadily for the 1300 metres remaining until the end of the race. Keeping close to that person, looking up to check that we were indeed going in the right direction and thinking about what I needed to do once we got out of the water was enough to occupy my brain for the whole of the swim – no space left for fear or panic.

Every now and then, during a training swim in the sea, my mind goes into overdrive. A few months ago, I swam into a tiny, tiny, tiny piece of seaweed. I went nuts. I panicked, my heart rate rocketed and I sprinted 150 metres to the nearest piece of shore. I didn’t stop until I was completely out of the water.

Another time there was something (probably another piece of seaweed) that touched my arm and then my leg when I was swimming in water with very limited visibility… same thing happened, I completely freaked out, almost hyper ventilated and sprinted in to the nearest part of the beach.

As I have got older, I have learned how to stop myself doing this go-nuts/ freak-out/ panic-at-nothing-thing. Most of the time I can keep it under control, especially if I am in a competitive situation and I have something to focus on. I think my sister was the worst of all of us, and even she has managed to control her mind so well that she now holds one of the highest PADI certificates available as a qualified Rescue Diver, and ended up marrying her diving instructor!

My brother has also done some SCUBA diving (gained his Advanced Open Water certification) and other open water swimming, including a swim in a murky lake in England as part of his first triathlon.

Imagine how Diana Nyad must have felt swimming 110 miles from Cuba to Florida where there really are sharks that bite and deadly jelly fish. Apparently she practises dissociation. Deliberate dissociation is a process that distracts you from your surroundings, your current situation, from discomfort and fatigue. It could be thinking what you need to buy at the supermarket, planning the rest of weekend, or singing a song to yourself while you’re swimming. You are mentally detaching yourself from what you are doing. I think this is similar to what I do – Diana just takes it to a whole new level.

Another mechanism for coping whilst swimming (or any endurance sport) is association – the opposite of dissociation. It involves focussing on the moment, how you feel and things like breathing, muscular fatigue, heart rate, or perceived exertion.

It is possible. You just need to find your own way to stop yourself panicking. Perhaps focus on the competition, on swimming in the right direction, think about something else, meditate, sing a song in your head or whatever keeps your imagination from frightening you!