What is it like to race the Red Bull Neptune Steps?
Alan Mackie is a member of my triathlon club. He discovered triathlon in his late 40s and is now a very keen amateur triathlete, open water swimmer and takes part in swim-run events.
This weekend he raced among 300 others in the Red Bull Neptune Steps swim in Glasgow.
The event comprises a swim in the Forth & Clyde Canal at Maryhill Locks. The total distance of swimming is 420m, with the lock gates used as obstacles. The athletes climb cargo nets, ropes, ladders and a climbing wall before diving back into the chilly canal.
Mark Deans, of Glasgow, was the winner (again!) in 05.48, while Jennifer Davis, of Dalgetty Bay, triumphed for the women.
Alan races Neptune Steps for the first time
Alan says he can remember watching the race last year. He says: “I peered over the canal lock at the freezing water pouring down on the exhausted competitors and I heard my partner, Lesley, saying to me: ‘Who on earth would want to do that?’ Then she looked at me and said: ‘You do don’t you? Nutter!’ ”
A year later, Alan was one of the entrants alongside fellow GTCer Paul Gallagher but he didn’t feel quite so confident. He says: “Last year’s sun had vanished and this year was cold and showery. The announcer said the water temperature was 7 degrees.”
Prior to the event, Alan and Paul had decided they needed to find out what it was like to swim in winter cold water. They took a dip in a local loch. Alan recalls: “The cold was like ice needles on any exposed skin. We just about managed 300 metres.”
As they lined up they suddenly realised what they were facing. In addition, Paul had been suffering with a stomach bug for the previous three days and wasn’t on good form.
Alan says: “And the water was as cold as you can imagine. We were given about five minutes to ‘acclimatise’ before our heat.”
There were 30 swimmers in their heat and the mass start was frantic. The first obstacle was just 100m later. This included a climb on to a floating pontoon and crawl under a net.
Alan says: “I remember breathing very heavily and my face felt totally numb.”
Another 100m of swimming led to obstacle two. But this one almost stopped Alan’s race.
He says: “It was a cargo net climb up the first lock gate. With nowhere for your feet to grip and the water pouring over you it requires a lot of upper body strength to get started. I hauled as hard as I could but only just managing to get on the first rung. I managed it somehow though.”
Alan described the rest of the race. He says: “You swim hard against the current to get to the gate, grasp something, haul hard, climb, then dive in and swim again.”
Alan said he was very grateful for the cheering crowds. He says: “I could hear the people who know me and Paul shouting encouragement. Go Alan, go Paul. There was a great turn out of GTCers supporting.
“But only on the last few obstacles did I realise Paul was right beside me. We both finished exhausted and together. I think we were in about 10th place in our heat.”
As they sat in the finishers’ hot tub rewarming their hands they both agreed it was an incredibly tough race. Alan says: “We were glad we hadn’t qualified for the semi-final although we are definitely doing it again next year.”
What Alan learned racing Red Bull Neptune Steps
My gloves (Zone3 neoprene heat tech swim gloves) are great for keeping hands warm but you do lose feel in the water. One guy’s hands were so cold he couldn’t bear the pain of dipping them in the hot tub but having said that all the fast swimmers went without gloves.
You need to get used to swimming in that cold.
Go to the gym and work on upper body strength.
These events are mad and about all challenging yourself and having fun.