I am swimming in the sea with curious grey seals watching me from a distance. I float above white sands and starfish, seabirds fly overhead to a backdrop of grey moody skies and snow-capped mountains. The salt water carries my tingling body and my heart and face sing with the exhilaration and freedom the cold water brings! My mind still and body totally at ease…
Fast forward to Saturday 23rd March and I am racing 420 metres in the murky waters of the Maryhill canal, climbing 18 metres over eight canal lock gates with cold water crashing down on me to 3000 raucous spectators in central Glasgow.
This is not my normal wild swimming experience.
Last month a friend Facebooked me an advert from Outdoor Swimming Society to enter a competition to win a male and female place in the RedBull Neptune Steps. I replied saying I would enter my husband and I, but no way was I swimming in Canal! Two weeks later, Erin Jeffry from OSS is emailing me to congratulate me on my place in the race. Turns out I should really read what I am entering into! It was not a competition to win a male and female entry, but to enter to win either a male or a female entry! Also, turns out the race is not held at the ACTAUL Neptune Steps near my home, but in central Glasgow! A bit more reading and I realise what I have really signed up for, OH MY! However, to the glee of my family and friends I decided I would take on this challenge, I would attempt the RedBull Neptune Steps. The race is billed as ‘the world’s only uphill swim race’ and it is a coldwater swim race with giant obstacles along the route. With 2 weeks to ‘train’ I dig out my wetsuit and check I can actually swim 400m. Each night I try remember to do a 30second plank and 5 push ups, but resign to the fact I do not have time to get swim fit and will just give it my best shot, at least the cold will not be a problem for me.
My cousin accompanies me as my well needed support crew and we head to the start. Do not for a moment think the women’s race would be less competitive or less serious than the men’s. These women were out to get those 5 places into the semi-final. I watch women tape their gloves and booties on with electrical tape and start doing sprints of front crawl to warm up. I have snatched some Haribo from the registration area and am downing sweets as a last attempt to get an edge. After acclimatising in the water (for me a pretty pleasant 8.5degrees) we are asked to simultaneously dunk our heads and then exit the water and wait on the pontoon. Getting back onto the pontoon unassisted proved impossible and I had to be helped out. I am now feeling very doubtful about the upcoming obstacles and try not to look at the 12ft high rope ladder 200m ahead of us.
We hop back into the water and the women start jostling to get a good spot. I head right to the back not wanting to be kicked or caught in the scrum to get onto the rope ladder. Suddenly we are off and I try front crawl to keep up, but it is useless, I am not a swimmer. The front women are off closing in on the rope ladder. Myself and about 4 other women breast stroke heads up staring into the depths of the first lock. With the dark metal and concrete canal walls towering over us, the waterway narrows into a manmade gorge. I mentally chant to myself as the walls block out the sky ‘you are not trapped, eyes forward, don’t look at the wall!’. The first 5 women are battling each other for space on the rope ladder with 4 more on their heels, it is absolute carnage.
As I approach the towering lock gate the force of the water poring over pushes me away and I have to swim harder to get a purchase. Using my already tired arms I pull myself out of the water enough to get a foot up onto the first wrung. The water pummels my face and arms weighing me down even more. Once on the ladder thoughts the cold, the fear, feelings of aching arms are drowned out in an instant, my thoughts completely on getting off this ladder a soon as possible. The water fills my mouth and I struggle to find the air, I cannot see where I am are climbing and instinct takes over. One step at a time I slowly make my way up. Feeling each knot in the rope until finally the water is out of my face and I am at the top. My thoughts now turn to not falling off! I did not dare look down and I hug the top of the lock and haul my body over. I want to rest, but know I only have 15 minutes before they time me out. With that thought I leap into the water.
I clamber over the next few locks and use the swim to catch my breath. The wooden ladders looked easy from the bank, but the waterfall is so strong and I do not know how I will climb up. The only choice was to just have to get on with it, there was no way to avoid the watery onslaught. Out of breath I gasp for air and find only water. My goggles fill up with the canal and I am forced feel my way up the climb blindly. At the top I empty my googles and acknowledge that I have made it so far. I stop worrying and start to enjoy the race. I am now utterly determined not to be timed out. Filled with confidence from getting this far I leap as far as I can into the water.
The climbing wall is suddenly looming above me. A vertical wall with handholds the only means to scale it. However, I found this obstacle easy without a waterfall hampering the ascent. With my confidence brimming I dive head first into the canal, only one more obstacle go and then a short swim the finish! I can hear the commentator now ‘after this obstacle the final swimmers will get their first glimpse of the finish line!’ I haul myself over the lock, dive straight in without a moment to pause and commit to swimming front crawl all the way to the line. Onto the pontoon and I am over the finishing mats and a medal placed round my neck and a RedBull in my hand. I did it!!!
I went into this race dreading it. Friday night I lay awake trying not to think about what was to come, reminding myself that the temperature is the hardest part and I am cold water acclimatised and that I loved obstacle courses as a child. I ended the race buzzing. This race has given me a lot more confidence in my swimming ability and has helped me with a fear of deep water and an aversion to submerging my face (I am scared of what I could see if the water was clear – I know it makes no sense!). I feel ready to push myself a bit more in my everyday open water swimming, to swim a bit further, to try jump off the rocks when my friends do and maybe even put my face in and open my eyes.
Thank you so much to OSS for my competition place and to Erin for organising it all for for mentioning me in the newsletter. A huge congratulations to Erin also who went and won the whole thing!!