At Maryhill Locks, Glasgow, for a few days each year, a stretch of the Forth and Clyde canal is transformed into a swim obstacle course run by Red Bull, which intrigues athletes and spectators alike. This year was no exception, with 600 entrants and a 3000-strong crowd.
Chatting to some of the competitors, both before and after their races, it’s clear this event has struck the right balance between challenge, fun and uniqueness. It tests a mix of skills: speed at the start, strength to pull yourself up, flexibility to find footholds, and mental fortitude and resilience to deal with the onslaught of cold water cascading over the locks.
While the course remains the same each year, the conditions vary. In 2018, it was 2 degrees in the water, while this was a comparatively balmy 8.8 degrees and the locks had a lot less water pouring through them than previous years, which I was very grateful for.
It’s always lovely to meet people at sporting events, and Neptune Steps was no exception. There were people from lots of different backgrounds and swimming with different goals, and as a result I had some wonderful conversations over tea, coffee and, often, cans of Red Bull.
My plan of attack for the race was: swim fast for the first 190m, try to get ahead, and then conquer the obstacles, hopefully having got some space for the climbs between the swims.
We had to get in the water two minutes before the start to give our bodies a chance to adjust to the temperature and wait for any cold water shock to subside. During this time, and with the clarity that comes from getting into cool water, I reconsidered my strategy. The canal felt a lot narrower than it looked from outside, and the first obstacle looked a lot further away. It dawned on me that I’d forgotten the variation and vastness of different types of swimming, and I’d forgotten about mass start tactics. I’d practiced climbing, but not sprinting. As a distance swimmer, not a sprinter, and slightly competitive when I get going, I realised I couldn’t trust myself to pitch my speed right – i.e. fast enough to get ahead but leaving myself enough strength to get over the obstacles. I therefore abandoned my original plan, and decided to swim at my normal pace, take each bit as it came, and make sure I finished.
With lots of other people all trying to climb up the cargo net at the same time, space was limited, and the first foothold was nearly at water level! I was suddenly pleased that I hadn’t sprinted, as the simple action of hauling myself onto the net was knackering and I was grateful for the lack of lactic acid build-up from not sprinting to it.
In the videos I’d watched beforehand, scouring for tips and techniques, I had seen people whizz up them, getting up and over the obstacles in no time, but lacking such climbing prowess, I concentrated on moving one hand or foot at a time, slowly but surely climbing each obstacle, getting over the top, and diving in for the next swim.
Once over the first climb and with a bit more space on the next swim, I was able to stretch out and even catch up with a couple of swimmers who had dived slightly ahead of me. Still, I proceeded with caution on the subsequent climbs. My fatiguing arms, numbing hands from the cold, and the slippery ropes and handholds meant it took a lot more concentration to manoeuvre than it looked. But six climbs and seven swims later, I crawled out and crossed the finish line, was greeted with a medal and a can of Red Bull, and then hopped into the hot tub.
Back in the competitor area there were drinks and food to warm up with and before long it was time to watch the semi-finals and finals, which were fast and impressively swum. Dan Jones and Erin Jeffreys smashed their respective course records, with some fast swims and climbs from all in the final three races of the day.
With the next day set aside to explore Glasgow, on the Monday I flew home with a medal, a healthy collection of bruises on my arms and legs, some great pictures and fun memories.