Getting a DNF is horrible. Most triathletes will be more than willing to tell their story of ‘bonking out’ on the run, or crashing out on the bike. But one nightmare that happens a lot but is rarely talked about is when a swimmer loses it and panics at the very start of the race. Within seconds it can all be over. This is a first person account of what that feels like (spoiler – it has a happy ending!)

Frank Madone writes…

I got pulled out of the water…

250 meters in and I raised my hand…

I was asked to just relax and carry on, but my brain wasn’t in it… I gave up…

I made up excuses as to why I gave up, I swallowed water, the water stank, my goggles got kicked off… but at the end of the day… I gave up.

Cholmondeley swim startI trained pretty hard for Cholmondeley castle triathlon. Not over the top crazy, but I felt it really good shape. I’d just done one the previous year in Ireland – the Lough Cutra Castle Tri (that being my first) and didn’t have a problem.

I set a goal for myself this time, to shave off 30 minutes overall and I have a feeling that psychologically this may have put too much pressure on me to push hard, so what did I do? I was the third one in the water and got right up in the front, 100+ people crowded around me, the claxon went and I just couldn’t get through the melee of feet, hands and bodies swarming around me and over me…

So, like I said, I put my hand up, I’ll never forget that feeling.

I felt gutted with myself, and as soon as I was back on dry land immediately wanted to go back in…

The organisers were really nice about it, told me to chalk it down as practice and to just carry on with the bike and run. I did so, but reluctantly… my mind was in a mess and all I could really think of was that I was going to have to tell people that I failed.


I got home, sat at my computer really annoyed with myself, and vowed I’d find the closest open water comp and get back in the water as soon as possible – I found one immediately, which happened to be that Wednesday at Ardingly reservoir, a 40 min drive from my house… I signed up instantly.

But I was taking no chances. On Monday (day after the DNF) I went to my local pond and swam 2km, then cycled 20 and ran 3.5… I had to prove to myself that I could do it, that it was a fluke… that  I had just panicked on the day.

On Wednesday, I nervously went to Ardingly with my brother in law Joe, who got me into Tri’s. He reassured me I could do it. I was very nervous… I got in the water to warm up and all of a sudden all my nerves just went… I felt great and i did it – see the last pic!


I think mentally I needed to fail in order to get better. I think failure teaches you so much about yourself, and now I know what it feels like to panic in the water. I also know that I can calm my body down and just take it one stroke at a time.

If I could give any advice for the inexperienced triathlete, or little tri experience (as that is what I am) I’d say this:

  • I thought way too much about getting a good time and also about the three events as a whole… I should have broke it up into stages like I did during my previous one… just concentrate on what you’re doing now (ie the swim) not what you have to do (bike or run).
  • Sit in the back of the swim, don’t worry about being in the front, you’ll most likely catch people up anyway if you front crawl – its really hectic and not worth the hassle, give yourself some room to get into your rhythm.
  • Don’t rush, if you trained at a certain pace, go with that pace.
  • Nothing bad is going to happen, there are way too many safety measures in place, kayakers and speed boats are everywhere to help you out should you need it, so be reassured.
  • Open water swim as much as possible, and if you’re in a swimming pool, close your eyes and swim blind if you can.

I’m excited to compete in the next one, they’re really challenging and fun and the sense of achievement at the end of putting your body through one is worth it! I’m never going to win one, but I just really like the preparation you go through and the benefits of all the exercise. Lastly, they are 90% mental challenges. I learned that and am glad I did. I needed it.

frank madone

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