Mudstacle aren't short of enthusiastic, adrenaline craving adventurers, so when we offered up a review of Red Bull's Infamous Neptune Steps, Paddy and Jennifer thought it would make the perfect date...
Paddy: Holding your sobbing, shivering, but successful partner's head whilst she tries to warm up from a quarter hour in two-degree canal water isn't how most people would choose to finish a race. It is, however, all part of the experience of Neptune Steps.
Neptune Steps is now in its fourth year, and once again Glasgow was ready to batter brave competitors. It's a simple concept - swim 450m of canals, climbing over seven lock gates in the process by means of rope ladders, climbing walls, and cargo nets. That's it. Sounds so easy, doesn’t it? Now consider that it was held in March, the week after horrific snow, and add in two-degree water temperature, a punishing current, and a highly competitive field of open water swimmers (including Welsh international swimmer Dan Jones). With no exaggeration, simply completing this event is a worthy achievement.
Neither Jennifer nor I are "real" open water swimmers. We both train regularly in the week, but it's been a while since either of us donned goggles competitively. I've personally also had the (questionable) joy of completing Winter Nuts and Tough Guy, so am no stranger to being cold on events. We were nervous setting out, and the late, but thankfully light, snow that fell on the final drive didn't help matters. On arrival we were reassured by a busy event village - the locals and supporters weren't letting any weather get in the way of a good day's racing. Registration was quick and painless, with some simple yet effective thought put into the race process, for example; each competitor is given a clear bin liner to store whatever they are keeping warm in at the very last minute before starting, and this is taken to the finish for you (yes, lots of Dryrobes!). There was, of course, unlimited Red Bull, heated changing rooms, free tea and coffee, and a token for a hot meal showing that Red Bull Events were looking after competitors generously. [Jennifer: don't forget the Millionaire's shortbread!]
We took the opportunity to walk the course, like so many others enjoying the later heats, and watching for ideas on technique or where the water flowed slowest. We did notice that whilst the lead swimmers managed to keep up a front crawl, the majority switched to breast or back pretty quickly - a sign of just how energy sapping this was going to be. Conditions on the day also saw a 15 minute time limit in the water imposed, which meant the slow but stubborn demographic (that's me) were making great achievements, but not the finish line.
When the time came for our respective waves, there was a short safety briefing [Jennifer: Safety is key], followed by an acclimatisation spell in the water. This was mandatory - if you couldn't stay in, you didn't get to swim! A few nervous jokes passed between competitors as we caught our breath, tried various techniques, and generally splashed around at the start line- then we were off! Here is where the nerves really hit, and the "short" opening swim to the first lock seems to stretch out for miles. However cold you think it will be, you are underestimating it. Before we'd even gone 20 metres the first racer was doggy paddling for the canal side, beyond their limit. Sheer cold locks your limbs, and steals your breath (tip for brave souls next year: breathe out *hard*, it makes things easier), and even with a poor personal performance I managed to beat a few in my wave by simply refusing to give in. Completing the whole course was a no-go however; the current was just too strong for my exhausted body.
Jennifer: I thought that being in the final wave would be great as I could learn from all the other people's mistakes, but as the day went on, the crowds got thinner and the rain got heavier. I shouldn't have expected any different from the rain, after all it was Glasgow in March. All I could think while waiting to get into the water was that no one else was hopping up and down like a loon, but into the water I got! As a newbie to the world of adventure racing, Paddy is my go-to source of wisdom, and after watching him struggle to get past the first obstacle, I knew this was going to be no mean feat...
My hands and feet went numb in what felt like a matter of seconds [Paddy: and you lost my neoprene socks…] but I ploughed on. Tunnel vision set in; all I could see was the next obstacle, the next 40m swim. Shouts from the crowd kept me going to the end; Paddy's shouts, my dad, and Rick Astley to sing along to. [Paddy: I never want to hear "Never gonna give you up" again, for the record].
Paddy: And she absolutely smashed it. I am so proud of her. My favourite little moment of the event was as time ran out and the competitors still on the course withdrawn, there was still time amongst the pain and cold for helping hands and sportsmanship between the competitors still in the water.
Defrosting after your dip was a huge priority. The crucial lesson learned the hard way by muggins - get into the hot tubs [Jennifer: I love hot tubs] as fast as you can, and get your gloves and socks off! It also helps if your mum is there to feed you while you shiver. [Jennifer: Or wonderful, doting partner in crime. I wouldn't have made it as far as I did if you hadn't been there to cheer me throughout!] [Oh, stahp, you’re too cute – Ed]
So by now you're probably wondering why anyone would sign up for such an event once, never mind consider going back for more. It's really because Neptune Steps typifies one of the best parts of sport - pushing yourself and finding your limits, then working on surpassing them.
Jennifer: All I want to do now is finish the course.
Paddy: Among equally driven individuals, the crowd follows you across the course, sometimes being more intent on watching a struggling racer battle through and succeed than an elite athlete fight for victory.
If you're up for a hard but satisfying challenge, we can't recommend Neptune Steps enough. It may sound tough, but this event openly calls itself extreme, and does not disappoint in delivering that in spades. Get some specialist open water training in, at a venue such as Cliff Lakes, and thoroughly test a good quality wetsuit and accessories - for range of motion as well as warmth. We loved it.
She's already on about getting further next year. I just want my socks back.