I'm sitting on an aeroplane making my way back from Glasgow, I'm tired, I'm hungry and I'm licking my wounds from a disastrous attempt at the Red Bull Neptune Steps.
As I sit back in my seat to reflect upon the weekend I glance over to my side to see a couple going through a load of pictures on their camera of the said event and I'm intrigued. I hold back from making a comment as I'm not feeling in a great place, however after a while and listening to their excited chatter I strike up a conversation; it's only when I do that the enormity of this event sinks in...
The Neptune Steps is a typically crazy event from the Red Bull team that combines an uphill swim with an obstacle race. How can you swim uphill? I hear you shout. Well you simply use the Maryhill lock system in Glasgow, throw in a bunch of obstacles to get up the lock gates and job done. This event, now in its second year had all the usual hype and razzmatazz that we have come to expect from Red Bull and it's advertised as 'The toughest open-water swimming race in the UK'. Well for me I didn't grasp that concept and simply saw this as another challenge, big mistake!
This event came up on my radar in 2015 when Mudstacle posted it up on one of the OCR Facebook pages. It instantly caught my imagination and although I'm no swimmer I just saw that as another obstacle and wanted in. The chatter started and obstacle folk were starting to get excited about this one, I was seeing posts about it and I just knew that I should get on it. Not even the fact that I couldn't swim for toffee was putting me off; however, those few days of procrastination cost me my place as the event was sold out by the time I went to register. I had missed the boat. The race came and went, it looked amazing and everyone who was there bagged a complimentary Dry Robe along with a paid bar at the after party ensuring that the awesome OCR fraternity made it a night to remember.
The season rolled on and I quickly forgot about this one until again in 2016 it popped up on my news feed and those excited feelings kicked in again! This time I was determined to get a place. I wanted to be part of this gig. I wanted to be a Red Bull competitor and I wanted one of those awesome Neptune Steps Dry Robes too, yep when it comes to race swag, I am that shallow. So without even discussing this with Mrs Sparta (and only narrowly avoiding a divorce) I got myself a place after some tense moments hovering over the laptop when the event went live. Good job too as it sold out mega quick. Now I needed a plan, did I mention earlier about my lack of ability to swim?
Just to be clear, for me I viewed the swimming as just another obstacle and one that would take me out of my comfort zone. I'm no slouch and I run my own fitness business. I do ok on the OCR scene so my thinking was 'I've got four weeks of solid training time. I can do this'. I wasn't looking to be a contender I just wanted to be confident in the water and comfortable knowing that I could do the distance. I bought an unlimited swim pass to my local pool and was pumped although also a little bit scared as during my childhood my experiences of swimming had been less than great. I didn't learn to tread water till I was 16... Yep I know this whole plan seems completely nuts as I couldn't even swim 400m in the pool yet alone in the icy waters of those formidable Glaswegian canals. But isn't this what the whole ethos of OCR is? Well at least in the beginning when as an OCR virgin I graced the soil of Spartan and ran, climbed, pulled stuff, crawled under barbed wire, chucked a spear, leapt over fire and was adorned with a shiny medal from a Spartan Princess at the end - I will never forget that day.
Since then I've come a long way, I race to compete and I love that too, however some of the mystique has gone from the sport as obstacles these days are seldom 'new' with the challenge for me nowadays is learning to run faster.
So this was the draw of the Neptune Steps and what a draw it was! For an event billed as a swimming race the OCR representation was significant. ORM were there, Mudstacle were there along with the Dry Robe Massive (I wasn't jealous at this point as I still had the assumption that we're getting one at the end)! It's fair to say that none of us were there as contenders, but instead, like me, this group was up for the challenge and we certainly added some flare to the day.
The event was well supported and the set up was spot on, easy registration, heated changing areas and plenty of toilets. There were also complimentary hot drinks and food for competitors along with enough Red Bull to sink a battle ship. Once through the registration process the safety briefings took place and the format was explained, for the men we had a qualifying heat followed by the semis, then a final. The ladies went from qualifying straight to finals and for some reason Red Bull split the available tickets down to 150 men, 50 women which I did find a bit odd as women can swim!
The nerves had already kicked in, the music was pumping and the prospect of my first open water swim could not have worried me more, the whole trip so far had dished out little reminders exposing weakness in my game plan. The final one being as we waited in the tent for our heat to be led out, one of the other competitors, who had up until this time been sat there in a pre race game faced trance looked up, pointed at me and went 'hey a vintage Snug wetsuit'.. My primary goal on this day was not to drown, however this last kick to my confidence actually had me crapping myself and for the first time I was now quite worried for my own safety and questioning my sanity. Hey you're all thinking 'Get a grip Papa Sparta you've had some solid training time behind you'.
Correct this was the plan, however during March my older brother passed away suddenly and without warning; this levelled me. My training was parked and all of a sudden I had some seriously important stuff to do, the logistics alone were a nightmare as he lived in Swindon and a 2 1/2 drive away from me. Deep down I knew that NS wasn't for me and that I shouldn't go and as the event drew nearer I grew more tired, I felt ill and a lingering chest infection came back to haunt me; but there was still something inside me that thought I could still conquer this, it's out of my comfort zone, but hey I can do this!
That walk from the tent to the start line was about as close to a final journey of a medieval convict facing a beheading that I will ever get and I was about to get served. As soon as I got in to that murky canal I felt my chest tighten and knew that there was nothing that I could do about it. I lacked the confidence, ability and I had no experience to fall back on. In a bizarre way this was the fix that I had kinda wanted when I signed up, I wanted to be out of my comfort zone, I wanted to try something new but the danger here being that I was so uncomfortable that I actually felt scared.
The countdown came and went with the front swimmers creating a wash as they powered away to charge down the 165m swim ahead of them, I stayed behind and my pace (or lack of it) kept me behind.
I then entered a place that I was familiar with, I was cold and I felt threatened and in turn I kicked in to survival mode. One swim I thought to myself, one swim that's it...! As I turned to my side the supportive crowds had raced ahead to see the action and I was left with a safety marshal walking along the side of the bank, I was only half way to the first obstacle at this point but it felt like I had been swimming for ages, I was going to come out. I then reminded myself why I was there in the first place, found my balls and started swimming again and although I was struggling to breathe I was determined to get to that first obstacle - the cargo net. As I drew closer the unwelcome force of the water flowing though the sluice gates had me at a stand still and working flat out at a point when I was already done, I then floundered to the side of the lock and grabbed the exit ladder while I gasped for breath. While I was hanging there compensating my life choices a safety marshal had come down the ladder, presumably to get me out. I didn't hear what he said to me and I replied with some mad waving that I was going for the net and before he said anything else I had launched myself straight back at the lock gates. My tale does not continue with ‘epicness’ of success nor completing the course to be greeted by yet another can of Red Bull, that net was as far as I got and after hanging there for what felt like forever with my face taking a constant battering from the canal water the next thing I know is that I'm going up the ladder and I'm out. It didn't take me long to get sorted once I was on dry land so I ran round to the finish line to catch the final swimmers coming in from my heat and to offer some support.
Make no mistake people this event is hard, off the chart difficult and one of the most ridiculous things that I have ever done but certainly one for those who can swim and who want a challenge there is nothing else like it out there. So what about that couple on the plane, the ones with the pictures from the race? Well it turns out that they went up for the day to cheer on their son, he came 4th in the men’s final and he's only a World Champion triathlete! It was then that I didn't feel so crap about my efforts and under the circumstances I felt that I gave it my all but I was still left thinking that I had been hanging out in the big boys playground.
Oh and we didn't get a complimentary Dry Robe plus the after party had a two drink token system which as a non drinker didn't phase me but I certainly wasn't in the spirit of things and on the plus side, I didn't drown.