The DNF, or Mooloolaba Ocean Swim Race Report

Course Map

1km Ocean Swim Course Map

If you read my post from the morning of the 1km Ocean Swim race, you already know I was resigned to a fairly poor performance.  I’d been battling the lure of pulling out of the event entirely, but the voices in my head told me not to.

Yep, that’s when you know you’re a real triathlete – when you have voices in your head telling you to go do a 1km swim with sharks, for fun.

Oh, and in case you missed the point of the blog – you should totally do a triathlon, too!  Honestly it is the best.  I mean, who doesn’t want voices in their head?  Especially voices that tell you to go swim with sharks!  If this sounds irresistible to you, there’s no need for a doctor, just go here to read some pointers about having a go yourself.

Seriously, the best.  I would not lie to you.

So back to the dreaded, god-awful, terrifying race.  My spirits were lifted slightly when I saw the course map – two 500 metre swims with a turnaround on the beach (as per the map above) rather than a straight-up, flat-out 1km.  This seemed like an immeasurably good thing because I’d know when I got to the half-way point (there is nothing worse than thinking you’re half way and then realising you’re actually only a quarter) and I would also be able to see my mum and get some support in the middle of the race.

You may also remember that we actually practiced almost this exact course in last Sunday’s Grimsey’s Adult Swimfit Clinic.  Honestly Grimsey Brothers, where would I be without you.

So the Triathlon Gods seemed to be shining down upon me, and I even started to feel less terrified.

I arrived at Mooloolaba nice and early, as is my habit.  I walked to the registration point, congratulating myself as I did so for incorporating a nice steady warm-up to get my blood moving and my joints loosened.  Everything I had control of, was in control.

As I approached the bit of ocean that we would be swimming in, I spotted that the lifeguards were busy putting out the buoys we would be swimming around.  And they looked like little ants putting out tiny bath toys because they were so far away.  I stopped to take a picture and I swear I thought I was smiling, but clearly I was not.

instagram pic

I was sure I was smiling!

There is a very good reason for the disappearance of my smile: I’d seen the waves.  And I was in disbelief that the race would actually go ahead.  I had never seen people swimming in such ferocious waves.  Surfers maybe yes, but not swimmers.

Remember a few weeks ago when the Grimsey’s Adult Swimfit was cancelled because of the danger of ex-Tropical Cylcone Winston hitting the shores of Queensland?  Well you may also recall that I cycled to Redcliffe (where Grimsey’s clinics are usually held) that very Sunday and looked at the waves with my own eyes.  And I can confirm they were barely a quarter of what I witnessed at Mooloolaba.

there is a surfer there somewhere

A picture of the waves. Click on it.  You can barely see the surfer out there, but hopefully that shows how big the waves were in comparison to a person.

So, after I registered, collected my cap and had my race number drawn on my arm, I sat on the beach for about half an hour, watching the waves.  I told myself over and over again that the waves looked worse than they really were.  I observed the antics of the surfers as they caught a good one and I tried my best to steal that feeling of joy, exhilaration and excitement.

Just as I was about to have my warm-up swim at 9.20am my mum arrived.  So she took a couple of pictures of me standing in front of the water and we both exclaimed that the waves looked pretty serious.  I had convinced myself by this point that I would be able to swim through them no problem, so I’ll be honest and say that I was ready to make my mum seriously proud.

I walked a little bit into the water, then did my very professional legs-out-to-the-side run through the shallows that Grimsey had taught us.  Not too shabby, I thought.

The first wave to hit me was jumpable, which means I was able to jump over it if you’re not yet used to my made-up words.  So I hopped over and took a couple more steps.

The next wave was too big to jump, so I had to dive under it.  It seemed ‘thicker’ than I had expected – I couldn’t just dive under then pop up, it was more a process of dive under, fight the drag, push up with all my might and hope to make it to the other side.  But indeed I made it.

The third wave was a real wave, not just the tail end of a wave that had already crashed.  And boy, was I in for a wake-up call.  I dived under.  But it was like I dived straight into it.  Under the wave was a swirling mess of water and seaweed.  It was dark – black like the apocalypse.  And it was stronger than I had ever imagined – I was dragged back and under and my head was pushed down towards the bottom like the whole sea had just landed on top of me.

I forced my way to the surface and grabbed a breath, only to see a massive wall of water moving towards me with the tell-tale white bubbles on top that meant it was about to curl over and turn into a crashing wave.

Nothing had prepared me for the force of a wave like that.  Again I dived under, knowing no other trick to fight with.  It was the stuff of nightmares – truly, I think I have had nightmares exactly like it.  I tried to push my hands through the water to make a breaststroke movement, to pull myself up to the surface.  But I couldn’t move my hands.  My shoulders, my head, my hands, everything was being pushed downwards by a force that I couldn’t fight.

When the wave released me, I fought to the surface and swam on.  It seemed incredible to me that I didn’t panic – it is a matter of weeks since I would have panicked just from being in the sea.  Realistically these waves should have sent me into the electrocuted starfish position instantaneously.  I was pleased with my progress.

I survived two more waves, then did a bit of breaststroke as I surveyed my surroundings and realised I had made it to the other side of the crashing waves – I was in the open sea.  Probably about half way to the first buoy.  And being past the waves, it was pleasant.  Still big waves, but smooth and swimmable (yep there I go again with the non-words)

The water was crystal-clear blue and beautiful to swim in, although it tasted just as bad as the Redcliffe water.  I floated around and tried to relax a bit.

Then I decided that was enough of a warm-up, and I turned around to head back to my mum – who I couldn’t see at all as she was just a little ant on the shoreline.  In fact, I couldn’t see anything to sight off.  All along the beach there were flags peppered – but the same flags had been used for the start, the turnaround and the finish, so I had no clue which were which.  There were even flags further to my right, as I looked at the shore, which I later discovered were to mark the area for the start of the ITU triathlon.

So with no idea where I was going, I put my head down and started swimming.

Before too long, I was back in the waves’ territory.  And who knew that swimming with the waves is actually worse than swimming against them?  You can’t dive under the buggers!  They sneak up on you out of nowhere and crash down on your head, pulling your forward (giving you hope that you’ll magically end up back on the beach) and then draggoing you down and backwards again.  I found it much worse to be swimming back to the shore with the waves slamming down upon me than swimming out against them.

Eventually I made it back to the shallows and I was able to walk the rest of the way in.  I walked sideways for a minute, kicking at the water and pumping myself up.  Often when I am struggling I find that giving myself a pep-talk works well.

This is half an hour of your life, Lauren.  This is nothing. This will be easy.  In an hour’s time you will be on your way home and you will be wondering what all the fuss was about.  You will make it through this.  You can blitz this.  Come on, give it everything, just for 30 minutes. 

I made it back to mum, who watched me intently.

‘It’s worse than it looks’ I told her.  And she looked into my eyes and I could see what she was thinking.  Because the waves looked freaking awful.  And I was telling her they were worse than that.


The start line at the Mooloolaba Ocean Swim. Lifeboat at the ready.

We wandered up the beach to where we’d left our bags and I had some gulps of water to take the horrid seawater taste out of my mouth.  We chatted a bit about my friend who was going to take part in the triathlon the next day but didn’t have a bike.  We discussed my running and cycling training and how well that had been going in the last few days.  Any topic that was available to us and was nothing to do with the swim we discussed, basically.

The race briefing was at 9.45, which really just entailed a few rundowns of the course route (exactly as per the map above) and the requisite technical issues where the announcers swapped between three different microphones, a loud-speaker mic and then a fourth microphone that they really should just have used in the first place.

Mum and I stood on the beach to watch the first couple of race waves set off – the pro men and women, then the under 29 year-olds.  They were all amazing, but you could see they were making slow progress for such competent swimmers.  Mum quietly lamented ‘they are being slaughtered’ and I looked away.

At 10.10am it was time for those in the pink swimming caps to set off.  My cap was pink.  I stood behind the start line dragged in the sand and felt nervous but accepting of the task in front of me.  I looked at the other ladies in my group and tried to spot someone who was as nervous as me, but they all looked serious and pumped and ready for action.

The buzzer went and I have no recollection of the first few metres.  I know the waves were super hard but I was ready for them and I made it through.  As I emerged on the other side, I was thrilled to discover there were other ladies with pink caps swimming all around me – I wasn’t even last!  I swam my little heart out, keeping a great line to the first buoy and feeling good.

After the first buoy I got a little off-course, but only by a couple of metres.  I soon corrected it and made a beeline for the second buoy, where it was time to head back to shore to complete the first 500 metres.

This is really where it all went wrong for me.  I swam drastically off-course – I was so far off to the right-hand side that the men in one of the waves that set off after me were swimming directly towards me on my left.  Take another look at the course map at the top of this post.  See where the letter S is?  I was coming in to shore just above that.  I don’t know how many extra metres this entailed, but it was far too many.  It seemed to take forever.

Eventually, finally, I found myself back in the crashing waves.  I knew I was there because I felt my feet lift high up above me and I was pointing straight down – I swear I was vertical, with my feet to the sun and my head to the sand.  I knew of no other option but to keep winding my arms around like a windmill, so that’s what I did. And I survived it.

As I took a breath, I peeked behind me and saw another mammoth wave about to crash on my head.  I closed my mouth tight and braced myself, but it was absolutely unbearable.  My goggles were ripped from my head, I was flipped around in a weird splayed-out somersault and I thought I had lost my swimming cap, although I hadn’t.  I struggled to the surface and looked around for my goggles, but they were gone.

I am sure there are many millions of people out there much braver and tougher than I am, but I cannot swim freestyle without my goggles on.  Salt water stings and I can’t even swim without my earplugs in, for goodness’ sake.  So I knew I would be breaststroking the rest of the way in.  I pulled as hard and as strong as I could.  It was futile.  I found myself in the middle of a rip and all I could do was watch the water suck itself in around me like a blocked drain trying to empty itself.  I pulled and pulled through the water, and moved approximately 1mm – backwards.

I know enough about rips to know that if you find yourself in one you must stop swimming, let yourself be taken by the rip and re-start swimming once you find yourself released at the end of it.  Fighting a rip is not recommended because you will tire yourself out and drown.  But I was in a bloody swimming race, I couldn’t very well relent to a rip and let myself float backwards!  So I continued to swim and eventually one of the awful crashing waves that was trying to drown me pushed me out, so that I could find my way back to the beach.

I frantically searched for my mum, and spotted her as I had about 100 metres to go.  I was able to stand up and start running through the water, where I tried to signal to her to get back from the water, undo my bag and get out my spare goggles.

Unfortunately my poor mum had zero clue of what the hell I was trying to say or signal.  I hadn’t even advised her that I had spare goggles in my bag – because I really hadn’t figured that I would lose the original pair.  She saw me pointing behind her and thought I was saying ‘I’m coming out’.  I pointed to my goggle-less face and she didn’t notice I was goggle-less.  I pointed to my back and she she thought there was something wrong with my back.

So eventually I got close enough to see her poor confused expression and I yelled ‘I need my spare goggles out of my bag’ and she scrambled to undo the bag as I dripped all over her.  Then she chucked everything out of the bag and a big wave washed over all of her belongings, including her camera and phone.

I cared not one iota, but simply grabbed the spare goggles and started running up the beach to where I was supposed to have exited the first leg of the swim.  I stuffed my goggles over my face as I ran back into the water, then slowed to a walk as I realised I needed to steady my breathing, ready to tackle the next round of fighting with the walls of water.

I walked into the sea, pumping myself up and preparing for the next hard push.  I dived under a few dying waves and then swam a few metres, before the first big wave hit me.  And it hit me so hard I thought I had ended up back on the beach.  I did a bit of breaststroke and looked around – a bewildered-looking lady was floating next to me and we looked at each other, seeking confirmation that this was absolutely f*cked.

The next wave was bearing over me and I’ll be honest, I just ducked under and took it.  I didn’t fight, I had nothing to fight with.  I made it back to the surface and looked at my new friend, who had ended up still only a couple of metres away from me.

Why are we doing this?  I yelled to her.  I wish I had said something more motivational but I didn’t.  That was all I could come up with.  But it kind of worked – I told myself that if I didn’t fight, I was giving up.  So fight I did.

The next wave was a beauty, and I got tossed around in another somersault.  I actually gasped for air when I surfaced and the next wave was already coming.

We had a slight reprieve, with the following wave which didn’t break or crash.  I swam over it, and dared to think I’d made it through, and I swam and pulled to get myself even just two metres closer to the buoy and out of the waves.

It was in vain.  The next wave was more monstrous and more terrifying than any of those that had been sent my way previously.  I was dragged under and held there, and I realised that I barely had the fight in me to get back out.  I was too close to drowning.  I no longer knew that I had the energy to keep clawing back to the surface.

I looked at my new friend.  ‘I just got dumped on 6 times: I’m out’ she said.

I swum towards her and we both ducked for the next wave.  As we emerged, I said ‘Give me a high five, we are monsters’ and we high-fived then swam back to shore.

I don’t know why I said monsters.  I am not sure I even want to be a monster.  But that is what came out of my mouth.  We swam back to shore together and I must say, the waves on the way back very nearly killed me.  I had no coping mechanisms to activate – the waves kept coming, kept dragging me under, kept pulling me down… And I had to keep relenting, keep suffering.

OK, so giving up.  That was a hard pill to swallow.  I battled the waves on the way in, I saw my life flash before my eyes (I  saw my sister and I pretending to be the Spice Girls, of all things) and I knew I would have to go home and blog that I let you all down.

I didn’t cry at first; I knew I’d made the right decision.  I felt a bit shocked or traumatised or something that it had been so much worse than I expected, but I knew I’d made the right decision.  When I arrived back on the beach, mum didn’t say anything at all but just gave me a hug.  One of the organisers came to see if I was alright and I said yes, but the waves beat me and he said ‘yes, there will be a few like that today.’

But I did cry on the way home in the car.  Because it was a stupid ocean swim and I should have managed it.  I should have learnt the tricks to swimming in waves.  I should have known to have to learn those things.

My first DNF hurt. I know I spoke about DNF and DNS before the race…  It seems like a joke when I read back over those posts now. I believed I might not finish if I took too long and I went over some kind of cut-off. I thought I might not finish if I panicked. I never ever considered that I really would give up.

I haven’t got any regrets about the decision to pull out – I think if I had pushed on I would have needed rescuing. I got dumped on about six times in the same spot and I couldn’t move forward.

I don’t regret entering the race either, really. I learned that I need to find out how to swim in waves. I need to learn how to race in rips. I survived my first rip! I survived some massive waves, on the way out AND on the way in. I kept up with some of the pack through big waves. I didn’t panic. I didn’t need rescuing.

It could have been worse… Not much worse, but still worse.

Onwards and upwards. Sorry if I let you down, friends. It is all I had today. Next time!

15 thoughts on “The DNF, or Mooloolaba Ocean Swim Race Report

  1. Lauren -I just can’t find the words that I want to use in order to make you feel better- I am so disappointed for you, but more than that I am relieved that you didn’t die out there today! As good as your writing is, I am sure that you didn’t do justice to the danger that you faced, and survived!
    You absolutely made the right decision, the only decision- you chose to live to swim/tri another day!
    I expect I am almost as proud of you as your Mum is!
    Ps Dawn I hope your phone recovered!

    • Ah Angie you are too kind! Mum claims all her equipment (including her very expensive camera) is fine. I hope she is right. As for making the right decision, I am satisfied that yes it was the only choice, like you said. I just wish that wasn’t the case ? but I am so glad didn’t pull out beforehand and that I gave it a go! I have a lot to learn about swimming. I told the organiser that came to check on me that I will be back next year to conquer it… So watch this space ? thank you for your support xxxx

  2. I don’t think I’ve ever not wanted you to do something as much as I didn’t want you to go into that water. And when you ran off with the second pair of goggles to do it again I wanted to cry. It seemed so impossible. You are very brave. Xxxx

    • The goggle situation was so weird – when my first pair got taken off me I thought (for a split second) it was all over because I had briefly told you that before I set off. And then I remembered I had the spares in my bag, although I hadn’t used them for months and hadn’t told you they were there. But it was the right thing to do, it made me feel pumped that I had been organised enough to bring a spare pair! Obviously it didn’t work out, but I would rather pull out because I have given it my all, rather than an equipment loss. And yes, for me it was impossible. Today anyway. Love you x

  3. I am sure none of your supporters feel in any way let down by you. Amazed, horrified and immensely inspired maybe! As Angie says, we would have felt far more annoyed if you’d gone and bloody drowned! I am really upping the ante with my fitness and at every moment I feel I can give it no more, you will be at the forefront of my mind, and I will push myself through the crashing waves!

    • Thank you Lesley, oh what an experience! Maybe after a few more days I will feel less like a let-down. I keep telling myself that it is important to share the failures and things that don’t go to plan on this blog! I am so proud that you are upping the ante with your fitness, although really that has nothing to do with me and is purely a result of you being amazing. But I love your support and kind words, especially at this 3 o’clock in the morning moment when I can’t sleep but sit here feeling awful about myself. Thank you ♥

  4. This was a difficult read for me, not just because I’m her sister and I wouldn’t have hesitated to tell her she wasn’t f*cking swimming in those waves, but because it’s been a few years since me and water were friends. I couldn’t have watched, I could barely read.
    But, I’m proud of you Lauren, not for trying so hard to get through it, but for walking away (albeit eventually)- this was not about not giving up, it’s about making the right decision, knowing your body, keeping safe and staying alive. This is not a DNF this is a DWDT (didn’t want to die today); and living a million miles away, I have to know you’re capable of making that decision.

    • I absolutely love DWDT – like, maybe tomorrow, but not today thanks! You raise the point of whether I should have risked it at all and I guess I hadn’t stopped to consider how many people had a DNS. Probably a few, especially if they had done a warm-up like I did. I am glad I tried it, purely because I worry I am too soft for this sport anyway and it would have stressed me out to think I am such a chicken. But then again it would be nice to not have to deal with this aftermath of realising how close I was to danger today. I definitely feel a bit traumatised.
      I am so glad you are proud of me. Of all the things to think in those final waves, I had a vision of us on the pergola at Burton Drive stomping around being Spice Girls. I love you lots and I promise to stay safe x x

  5. Reading that last comment reminded me of how I felt when I almost drowned when we were white water rafting n France and I got caught under the raft between rocks. I almost gave up. So now I’m nearly crying again to think of you out there and me standing on the beach. Good job you’ve done all that training and you are tough. Xxx

    • It seems silly now to think of it as a near-death experience! But it shakes you up doesn’t it. No need to cry though, it turned out alright! Still not convinced I am tough but I am not as much of a chicken as I thought ?

  6. An amazing account of courage, you went to the very brink and faced disaster, made the right decision and came back to us. All those wonderful comments above show how much we all appreciate your blog and help us lesser mortals understand what getting to be a Champion is all about. Truly you have more grit than Noosa Beach.xxxx
    I should also mention that as soon as Laurel got home she came straight down to me and told me the whole story. Reading it in print this morning made me realise just how dangerous and life threatening this had really been and that it was as well I was not there, I’m sure I would have panicked and pushed Dawn into the sea to save her.
    Being the sort of grand daughter that she is, to my amazement and delight, she stopped on the way home and bought me fish and chips.

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