What’s it like to race Red Bull Neptune Steps?

Writer Ellie Ross on what it's like to compete in Scotland's super-tough open-water swimming race.
By Ellie Ross

I’m standing on the edge of a canal boat. Beneath me is a ridiculously long drop into water. I don’t want to jump.

To reach this point, I’ve already swum hundreds of metres up a canal and hauled myself over lock gates – and there’s more of that ahead. My legs wobble (I’m not sure if it’s caused by vertigo or physical exertion) as the cheering crowd wills me to go against my natural instinct for self-preservation and leap from my perch. I close my eyes and step into thin air. My piercing scream is silenced as I body-slap the water and go under, then resurface, take a breath and swim towards the next obstacle.

Welcome to Red Bull Neptune Steps, the super-tough open-water assault course held at Glasgow’s Maryhill Locks.

The event is a 420m sprint swim through five locks of the Forth and Clyde canal. As well as speeding through the freezing water, 200 competitors have to scale eight lock gates and a boat with the help of some cargo nets and climbing walls. As I'm about to find out, it's very hard work.

As someone who never made the cut for the school swim club after failing to master front crawl, a waterborne competition isn’t my natural choice. But the sheer lunacy of an “uphill swimming race” entices me and, after some swimming lessons, a few cold water dips and a couple of trips to the local climbing wall, I’m standing in my wetsuit ready for the big day in Glasgow.

Women's class swimmers wait for the start of Red Bull Neptune Steps 2016 swimming assault course race in the canals of Glasgow, Scotland
Nervous swimmers at the Neptune Steps start line © Ellie Ross

I begin to wonder what I'm letting myself in for as I wait for my heat, surrounded by 20 athletic-looking women looking focused and fearless beneath their swimming caps. A couple discuss the pros and cons of bilateral breathing. Another looks dead ahead, clearly in “the zone”. I gulp, and fiddle with my goggles.

 

Competitors swim hard from the stat line at Red Bull Neptune Steps 2016 swimming assault course race in the canals of Glasgow, Scotland
Competitors set off in a blur © Leo Francis/Red Bull Content Pool

In our race briefing, we are told that the first ten to cross the finish line must grab a tag in order to qualify for the final. With zero swimming races under my belt, my aim is simply to complete the course. Five minutes before our race starts, we get into the canal to acclimatise to the cold water. Most of the women dive in beautifully (another skill I’m yet to master). Instead, I just bob about, thankful for my neoprene gloves and boots. The only parts of my body pinched by cold are my face and neck and I tell myself that I can deal with that.

Women competitors swimming hard during Red Bull Neptune Steps 2016 swimming assault course race in the canals of Glasgow, Scotland
The women’s heat gets underway © Ellie Ross

The first obstacle – a cargo net – looks worryingly far away, but before I can dwell on the 165 metres separating me from it, the klaxon blares and we’re off. I launch into my newly-acquired front crawl, reaching arm over arm, and breathing to my right (no bilateral breathing here), keeping my eyes on the canal wall to stay in a straight line. For a few magnificent seconds, I’m in there with the pack, a blur of high elbows, kicks and splashes. But they’re too quick and soon leave me trailing in their wake. I tire, and switch to breaststroke, the gap between me and them getting increasingly bigger.

Competitors tackle a cargo net up a canal lock during Red Bull Neptune Steps 2016 swimming assault course race in Glasgow, Scotland
A gruelling climb up the cargo net © Olaf Pignataro/Red Bull Content Pool

My heart's already pounding as I approach the cargo net, white water spitting angrily into my face. A couple of women are grappling at the foot of the net, and somehow I clamber onto the rope, yank myself up and pass them. Heartened by the fact there’s now one less obstacle to climb, I hurl myself into the next stretch of water and make for the upcoming rope climb. Clutching the rope, I find strength I didn’t know I had, and heave myself up and over the gate, blinking away the water that’s found its way inside my goggles.

At one particularly punishing ladder, a woman swims away from the fast-flowing water and towards me. “I can’t get to it, it’s too hard,” she tells me, before waving to a race marshall to scoop her out of the competition. The force of the water pushes me back, and it takes every joule of energy to inch towards it until – finally – my fingers grip the rope and I can pull myself forwards.

A competitor makes the final leap to the line during Red Bull Neptune Steps 2016 swimming assault course race in Glasgow, Scotland
A final leap to the line © Leo Francis/Red Bull Content Pool

With each climb, my body becomes increasingly tired, my biceps burn as I cling to the ropes; my wetsuit leg is ballooning from all my feet-first leaps into the drink. After the dreaded jump from the top of the canal boat – a new addition to this year’s course – the finish line is in sight.

As I make the final push through the water, I feel my pace quicken, my breath rasping with the effort of each stroke. My mind is spinning so quickly as I crawl over the finish line that, for a moment, I don’t notice the tag hanging over my head. “Well done, you’ve made the final,” a marshall tells me with a smile. After 16 minutes and 51 seconds of pushing myself to the absolute limit, I have to do it all over again. And bizarrely, I’m quite excited about it...

Ellie Ross placed 18th out of the 51 women who entered.

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