Medal: no, though if you get a podium spot you can walk away with a snazzy trident.
Eyeballing a computer screen, manically hitting ‘refresh’ is not how I typically choose to spend my morning break, but that’s what I found myself doing on the morning entries for the second Neptune Steps race went live, knowing that chums Roz and Eilidh were doing the exact same thing. Spaces were limited to 200 (150 for the boys and only 50 for the girls), so there was no time to waste. Within minutes, all of us had a confirmed entry, within the hour, all places had been taken, and within the day, we’d all managed to push the event to the back of our minds. Until last week.
Slightly concerned about the water temperature’s ability to affect my general survival, I was keen to take up Roz’s offer to join her and a mutual friend, Jennie, for a dip in Knockburn loch last week. Dressed very modestly in wetsuit, neoprene boots, neoprene gloves, and neoprene hat – and having tested the hot water in the showers before even leaving the changing room – we cautiously submersed ourselves into the water, much to the amusement of onlookers. Although body and feet were warm enough, both Roz and I were disappointed with our ‘thermal’ gloves. In fact, my hands were so cold they were burning, and the only relief I could get was if I held them out of the water, which isn’t particularly conducive to swimming. Jennie recommended hers, and I ordered a pair online as soon as I got home.
Fast forward to race day: Roz picked me up at 7:45, then we swung by for Ny – race supporter extraordinaire and baker of delicious raspberry brownies. Although we left Aberdeen in a cloud of fog and drizzle, we arrived in Glasgow to glorious sunshine and blue skies. There was no doubting where the event was taking place when we arrived at Glasgow’s number 1 tourist hotspot, Maryhill locks:
Guided by the Red Bull tents, we parked up on a curb and hauled our gear to registration, where a queue of nervous looking people surveyed what they could of the course from where they were standing. Not long after, our friend Eilidh emerged from the marquee looking about as terrified as the rest of us felt. There were a lot of serious looking swimmers there sporting dry robes from last year’s event (SPOILER: we did not get dry robes this year, much to our dismay), open water club hoodies and the like. Having scoped out the course already, Eilidh had some further boner-killer news, chiefly that one of the obstacles involved a leap from an uncomfortably high platform back into the freezing water.
Perhaps this is a good time to give a brief overview of the event. Touted as the world’s only uphill swimming race, competitors had to swim 420 metres and climb 10.5 metres over 8 lock gates along the way. What could be easier, right?
After the race briefing, held in the men’s changing room of all places, we changed into our wetsuits (in the female changing room) before heading to the start to watch the first couple of men’s heats. The fact that there were non-finishers was not encouraging, and the anxiety starting setting in. Thankfully, we didn’t have long to wait before all the women from Heat 1 were being gathered up and counted.
Once the register was taken, we were walked down the course, eventually watching the final men’s heat start, knowing that it was only about 15 minutes before we had to set off.
We were given a chance to get into the water to acclimatize, but we opted to dip in quickly and then get the hell out until the last possible moment. Thankfully, the guy with the walkie talkie kept us updates on how long we had left to wait, so once we were given the 1 minute call, we got back into the bracing water and awaited the claxon.
3-2-1-Go! The ladies were off! I tried to stick my head underwater to swim, but it was just too cold and I couldn’t find my breath, so I stuck with the less than graceful head-above-water technique, spotting Roz on my right getting stuck in like a pro.
If When we do this again next year, I will definitely just suck it up and get used to the cold water sooner to avoid the wobbly panic of not being able to breathe, because I feel like it wasn’t until the last 2 obstacles that I felt normal. You live and learn.
Anyway, the course starts with a lengthy swim to the first obstacle, a rope cargo net. As we were still relatively clumped together at this point, there was a bit of treading water as I waited for a space to open up, and when one did, it involved swimming against the current, grabbing hold of anything you could, and then fighting the gushing water hitting against you to get a leg up. At this point I remember thinking that this was a lot harder than I was anticipating.
Once over the first obstacle, I was feeling a bit loopy, and had to take a moment to get my balance. I ignored Ny’s enthusiastic shouts to get moving, and butt-shuffled into the water on the other side instead of diving to avoid the shock of the cold, making it not long after to obstacle number 2 – a rope climb. This mainly involved trying to land your foot on a metal bar just above water height, and then hauling yourself up onto the platform above. And then? Back into the water!
Obstacle number 3 was a wooden ladder. I had hoped that it would extend underneath the surface of the water to make it easier to use a bit of leg-power, but no such luck. Here is me (and Roz) fighting against the current to hold on:
Following the ladder was another short swim to another rope climb, and then a rope ladder, and a penultimate rope climb, at which point the obstacle I had most been dreading rose into view: the “boat”. Eilidh and I had both expressed concern at the height of the jump, and we had decided that the best way of approaching the situation was to not think, just jump. I saw Roz reach the top and disappear immediately, obviously going with our discussed tactic, however by the time I was looking down it took a bit of coaxing from the marshal to finally just throw myself off. Considering I thought it would be the obstacle that could end my race, it wasn’t too bad.
What remained between me and the finish line at this point was a final rope climb preceded by a 3 metre climbing wall, which is where I found Roz struggling. After a moment to catch my breath (again, avoiding the spray that was aggressively hitting us in the face), I hoisted myself up and climbed to the top. One short swim and the final obstacle down, I was on the home stretch (though looking ahead, I could see that I had definitely missed out on a top 10 finisher’s spot in the finals). Happy just to finish, I swam the final 33 metres, finally managing to get my face in the water for a few strokes.
I waited for Eilidh and Roz to finish, having a couple of sips of the Red Bull I was handed at the finish to kill off anything sinister that I might have swallowed along with some of the water, and then we found Ny who took a victory photo:
We didn’t hang around too long, opting to get showered (in the weakest showers known to man, though the option of using them was appreciated) and into warm clothes, catching some of the men’s semi-finals as we left.
Roz, Ny, and myself got back into the party bus and headed back to Aberdeen, opting for a now traditional McDonald’s stop in Dundee along the way. Because we are athletes.
Thankfully, the following day I had a few tender spots on my legs were bruises were beginning to show, but other than that it would appear that I got through Red Bull’s second Neptune Steps event relatively trauma-free. I even managed my scheduled cycle on Sunday (though indoors, because rain), averaging my fastest speed for an endurance ride on the watt bike to date! Sadly, that doesn’t exactly translate to speed on the road, but whatever – progress is progress.
Next up, a somewhat unplanned event next weekend – Turriff sprint triathlon – where I’ll be battling it out with Eilidh and Ny, while Roz enjoys a spa weekend like the delicate flower she is (not that I am at all jealous). This time next week, barring catastrophe, I will no longer have to explain to people that I am a member of a triathlon having never actually done a triathlon. Hopefully the endorphins will dull the shock of going back to work the following Monday.