I’m on a climbing wall, but I’m fully clad in neoprene. I swam to the bottom of the wall in bracing 7°c water that took my breath away, but I’m still struggling to catch my breath because there’s water pouring down on me from above. Although I can’t feel my numb hands I’m trying to ascend the wall, but the competitor below me has her hand where I want to put my foot. I know that when I reach the top of the wall I’ll have to dive into the cold water on the other side. Is this some crazy cheese-fuelled nightmare? If not, how on earth did I get here?
Ah, it’s all coming back to me now: I got here by entering the Red Bull Neptune Steps race (18 March 2017). I’d been seduced by the snazzy video from last year’s race, and the uniqueness of the challenge. A mere 420 m swim upstream along the Maryhill Locks, Glasgow, punctuated by 18 m of climbing over 7 lock gates. Add in water cascading down over the lock gates and you have what the organisers describe as ‘uphill swimming’, and ‘a true test of speed, strength and resolve’. Righto, sign me up!
Alas, I’d unfortunately misplaced my speed, strength and resolve by the time I arrived at the race on this cold Saturday morning in March. My goggles and asthma inhaler were also nowhere to be found. Things did not bode well. Why was I going to willingly jump into the bitterly cold water and thrash it out down the narrow channel to get to the lock gates? Surely there were better (i.e., warmer) things I could be doing?
Ten minutes before my heat was due to start we were offered the chance of a ‘warm up’. I’d have been tempted to decline this kind offer had I not read advice from a previous competitor about the importance of this acclimatisation. So I went for immediate full submersion. Even my teeth hurt it was so cold. I tried to keep moving, and willed for the race to start. But time goes very slowly when you’re treading water in a Scottish canal.
Finally we were off. My swim speed was not up to much, but at the first lock gate, after battling through the force of the oncoming torrent, I found my strength and resolve. I was thoroughly enjoying this bizarre activity! Turns out I was better at the vertical bits than the horizontal bits. On each obstacle I could hear friends in the crowd yelling my name, which gave me such a boost. They told me afterwards that I was grinning from ear to ear throughout, which I can believe.
With each obstacle my hands became more numb, and my borrowed goggles more water-filled, but I became more determined to finish in the top 10, to secure a place in the final. So I was delighted with 4th place. With a sub-10 minute time this was the shortest race I’d ever done: I’m more of a diesel engine than a speed demon, and my triathlons of choice typically take me around 5 hours to complete. But it turns out that a surprising amount of endurance is required for this short effort. In the final I came 14th, behind my squad mates Keira Murray in 13th, and Fiona Gibson in 3rd. In a super-strong male field the guys from the squad – Joel Enoch, Dan McFeely and Martin Gore – failed to qualify despite strong performances.
So, all in all this was a great day out, rather than the stuff of nightmares. The race is totally unique, verging on the ridiculous, and should be on any adventure sports enthusiast’s bucket list.
Many thanks to my wetsuit sponsor, Aqua Sphere UK, for keeping me as toasty as possible, and my nutrition sponsor Clif Bar (I was fuelled by their delicious Double Espresso gel shot, and rejuvenated by their Chocolate Builder’s Protein bar).