Just how nutty do you have to be to get up at the crack of dawn, don a high-tech wetsuit and then try to swim your way through 420 metres of ice cold water and climb 18 metres over seven canal lock gates in the middle of Glasgow? Quite nutty we’d say, but around 600 athletes did that at the weekend as part of Red Bull’s Neptune Steps event, held in the Maryhill Locks area of Scotland’s largest city. The gruelling challenge is already in its fourth year and there’s no shortage of competitors, with twice as many people taking part this year compared to the 2017 event.
Dealing with the waters of the Forth & Clyde Canal is one thing, but getting over those enormous lock gates is another. Red Bull makes it even more interesting by challenging competitors to battle their way over a succession of obstacles grafted on to each one. There are cargo nets, ropes and ladders too, all designed to sap the strength of even the most fittest entrant. Then there’s the fast flowing water, which creates an effect that strongman swimmer Ross Edgley likens to waterboarding. In fact, even a party-sized barrel of Red Bull itself is probably not enough to get you up and over these monolithic wooden hurdles.
People seem to love the punishment though. “I raced here last year,” says Olympic triathlete Gordon Benson from Leeds. "But it's much colder this year. The most extreme feature of the race is the temperature and the cold is the worst I've been in by far. In triathlon, the coldest water I've swum in has been 10 degrees, whereas this is 3.5.”
Preparing for Red Bull’s Neptune Steps is a hard one to call, with some attempting to acclimatise their bodies to the extreme cold by taking regular dips in the bitter lakes and rivers around the country. “I think if you can get some exposure to these sort of temperatures in the weeks before the race then that would probably help,” says Gordon. “But, in terms of the race itself, I don't think it matters how much you warm up beforehand though because it's so cold. I didn't wear gloves in the earlier heat either, so I found it really hard to get my hands around the ladders."
The event itself kicks off at 9-ish and there’s a series of heats throughout the day, which culminates in semi-finals and then the late afternoon grand finals. So, if you’re any good then you’re faced with hitting the dark waters not once but several times during the course of this one-day event. And, although it appears to be a day of racing that relies on adrenaline and muscle, quite a lot of it revolves around state-of-the-art gear.
The main item is the wetsuit, but choosing the right one is tricky. Ideally you want a neoprene suit that gives some form of insulation, and some buoyancy too, but you don't want anything too bulky. The same goes for wearing gloves, because on the one hand they help keep your hands insulated, but they make swimming a chore. Edgley started the day with a sleeveless number, which might have given him more freedom, but was less good at keeping out the cold as he later admitted.
One of the best-in-the-business wetsuits for cold water swimming is the Blueseventy Reaction, but the New Zealand-based company has an even beefier addition to its range in the shape of the mighty Thermal Helix. This 600 quid wetsuit fits well and has a lining of polypropolene. These suits are made up of a whole collection of different panels of varying flexibility depending on which part of your body they’re covering. Buoyancy levels vary too, with the overall design objective allowing a competitor freedom to swim, but also offering insulation against the elements. Oh, and you’ll most certainly need a decent pair of goggles if you want to get further than a couple of metres from the start line.
Having the right gear when you emerge from the water is also central to surviving this extreme sport. The smart folks quickly put on a DryRobe, which is like an insulated poncho that fends off the torrential rain while also providing much needed warmth. DryRobe has developed into a burgeoning business that uses the latest high-tech materials to improve what was originally, in essence, a changing robe when it was first thought up by South West surfer Gideon Bright.
"A wetsuit you'd use for surfing would be considerably warmer," says Gordon. "But the massive contrast is that you can't swim so well. My suit means you can swim quicker in a straight line, but it's not so good for when you're in water that’s just 3 degrees. Neoprene gloves are obviously recommended, but they're not great for swimming. You need them though for the climbing that's involved."
Even the prospect of plunging into a hot tub at the end of the race isn't that much of an incentive to get to the end of the course. "You're so cold and the water's not boiling or anything," adds Gordon. "So my hands were actually in agony when I got in there, because they were so cold."
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Considering the event is a competition it's interesting to see how it becomes more of a team effort as people work together to get to the finishing line. Just finishing is the main part of the deal with the Neptune Steps challenge. "It's a great event," adds Gordon, "and there's a lot more competitors this year, 600 is twice as many as the year before and it was sold out right away. For me, as a triathlete, it's a little bit of a novelty, so I've just been enjoying my time here. In terms of contrast it's just at the other end of the spectrum. It's great that there are competitors with all kinds of abilities and everyone is helping each other along."
Race finishers quickly head for something hot like a mug of beefy Bovril in a bid to thaw out, but at least they only have rain to contend with rather than the snow a week earlier. Welsh international swimmer Dan Jones and last year’s women’s champion Jennifer Davis ended up taking first place in the men and women’s finals respectively. Jones did it in 7 minutes, 19 seconds while Davis recorded a time of 8 minutes and 17 seconds with everyone agreeing that the cold was the thing that really took its toll over the course of the day.
Bizarrely, Jones hadn’t even prepped for the event. “I hadn’t done any training for this at all. Considering I only do pool swimming and the temperature in there is normally about 26 degrees, to drop to 3 is quite a jump. I do have the bug now – hopefully not literally though!" he told Redbull.com.
All images: Rob Clymo