When You Really Might Fail on Race Day


Last year I started learning to swim in February and attempted my first two triathlons that summer. When I set out for those 1/3 mile open water swims, I expected to complete most of the course on my back. I’d only managed 75 continuous yards in the pool and was a serious beginner. Sure enough, during both races one kick in the face was enough for me to flip over and backstroke the entire race in zig-zags. 

So this year I got serious. More serious, anyway.

In October I started personal training in the pool two hours a week all fall, and an hour a week all spring.

I’m up to 200 continuous yards in the pool, and I’ve swum over a mile in one workout if you add up all the yardage and disregard the breaks.

And yet… I still might fail. 200 continuous yards is about 1/3 the distance I actually need.

I still panic and feel out of breath when swimming more than 100 yards at a time.

And the triathlon is in 2 months.

Part of me wants to smile, pat myself on the back, and say of course those hours of swim lessons weren’t wasted because I can now accomplish a wonderful swim workout at the pool. The means ARE the end! Congratulations, you’ve logged hours and hours in the pool and that’s its own reward! Go you.

Another part of me feels like crying because I don’t trust myself not to give up on the swim course. I am worried that the first time I flip to my back to take a breath, I’ll never put my face back in that water. 

So what do you do when you want something, you work hard for it, and you realize it might not happen?

1. Don’t give up before you’ve even started

There is no need for me to panic right now about whether or not I’ll panic during the race. I know my next logical steps: upping my continuous yardage in the pool, and strengthening my kick so swimming with the kick is as relaxing as with the pull buoy. Worrying about the outcome doesn’t help; believing success is possible and preparing for success does.

2. Have a contingency plan

If I panic, I can flip onto my back at any time. I can take deep breaths for 6 strokes, and then do at least 10 strokes of front crawl. If I get really disheartened, the kayaks are there. I can take a break at any time and resume according to Tri for a Cure policy. I have several possible plans of action if I’m feeling overwhelmed.

3. Prepare for your weaknesses

I can practice some backstroke just in case. I can practice flipping from front crawl to backstroke and the reverse so I feel more comfortable switching between the two. I can learn some breaststroke technique in case that’d help me catch my breath and site the buoy while moving forward better than treading water. I can go into the ocean in my wetsuit and practice adjusting my goggles in water over my head.

Bottom Line

Nervous about a race? Make a list of things you’re worried about and find ways to prepare for them. Even if it’s not foolproof, the feeling that you’re prepared, the calmness of knowing you’ve done something before, can help.

Practice running in the heat, or after a different breakfast than normal, or running when you haven’t slept well the night before, or clipping in and out of your bike.

And remember that there will be another race or another challenge. No event is your last chance to prepare your best for something and see how far it takes you.

 I’m three times the swimmer I was a year ago. If that’s not enough, it wasn’t a realistic goal.

Making peace with that will curb a lot of the pre-race jitters and post-race disappointment. 




  1. It’s all about getting out of our comfort zone and continuing to challenge ourselves. How will we ever figure out what we are capable of if we don’t keep challenging ourselves?

    1. Agree – it’s also how we become capable of more!

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