Glasgow’s industrial history was once again reborn at this year’s Red Bull Neptune Steps race. The thrilling event saw competitors swim 420m in 6.5 degree water across a flight of five canal locks on the Forth and Clyde Canal – ascending 10.5 metres on the way. Three of the OSS Team took part – and OSS Assistant Erin Jeffery won!
Who knows what the engineers and workers who carved the Maryhill Locks out of the landscape in the late 1700s would make of Red Bull Neptune Steps. Where once boats traversed Scotland from West to East, more than 600 wetsuited swimmers line up to jump into its cold water and race “uphill” by launching themselves to the top of seven lock gates via ropes, a climbing wall, and nets.
It’s a bright day in late March. There’s a chilly breeze but little threat of the brutal conditions of last year’s event, which saw torrential rain and a water temperature of 3 degrees. Still, the audacity of this endeavour is etched onto the faces of every spectator and passer-by as the heats get underway. Dog walkers double-take. Cyclists – no doubt trying to maintain their cadence along the canal – stop. It is, to paraphrase the classic description of its host city, no mean swim.
Though billed as an elite endurance event – that’s why OSS Ambassador and former competitor Ross Edgley is here, with Colin Hill and Hannah Miley commentating – in fact it attracts a wide field. For every long-stroked freestyler powering out into the first 190m stretch of swimming, there’s another clearly struggling with the cold and opting for head-up breaststroke. Others float along in backstroke to keep their faces out of the water. Some give cause to eye the rescue teams patrolling the canal edge, wondering when they’ll offer a tow-in (one woman is offered help during the first stretch and yells back smiling: “No, I’m fine thanks!”).
This year’s event attracted a record 128 female participants
This year’s event saw a record 128 entries in the women’s field. One of them was Stacey Holloway, who won her place in the OSS competition. “Do not for a moment think the women’s race would be less competitive or less serious than the men’s,” she writes on her blog. “These women were out to get those five 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.
“Myself and about four other women breaststroke with our heads up, staring into the depths of the first lock. With the dark canal walls towering over us, the waterway narrows. I chant to myself as the walls block out the sky: ‘you are not trapped, eyes forward, don’t look at the wall!’ The first five women are battling each other for space on the rope ladder with four more on their heels; it is absolute carnage.
“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 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.”
And what of those competitive, serious types of women out to get the five places? One of them was OSS Executive Assistant Erin Jeffery, who won her heat by a very comfortable margin and went on to become the female Neptune Steps Champion 2019 with a record time of 7m 5s. Last year’s winner Jennifer Davis took second place with 7m 24s and 16-year-old Nicole Reynold finished third with 7m 38s. Erin also came 11th overall with only 10 men beating her time.
“I didn’t really know what to expect from this event but my main worry was the water temperature as I’m not used to it at all – I only did one cold water acclimatisation swim before the event with Kate so it’s fair to say I felt unprepared!
“I used to swim competitively and now do triathlon, but only just started open water swimming seriously in the last year. I knew my swimming background would work in my favour but I had very little experience with climbing which didn’t fill me with confidence. As I watched the men’s heats, I began to feel more excited to compete – I knew it would be tough but I love a challenge and I am naturally very competitive!”
“The water wasn’t as cold as I expected in the end which was a relief so I could just focus on the swimming and obstacles. The obstacles were so much fun, although it took all my strength to haul myself up some of them”
“In the heat my aim was to get out early to avoid the ‘washing machine’ at the start. The water wasn’t as cold as I expected in the end which was a relief so I could just focus on the swimming and obstacles. The obstacles were so much fun, although it took all my strength to haul myself up some of them.
“In the final, I was very aware that I wasn’t far ahead and one slip on an obstacle could mean being overtaken. Pulling myself out of the water at the finish line felt amazing, I was so happy to win!”
Taking the men’s prize was defending champion Dan Jones, who also finished with a record time of 6:05. He admitted he hadn’t done any open water swimming since last year’s event.
“It was good to win again. I was still as nervous as I was last year, as the rookie, but the last time I wore a wetsuit was when I was here 12 months ago,” he said. “My background in swimming gave me an advantage, especially with the 190m sprint at the beginning, so I always felt confident that I could get that win.”
“It’s a fantastic event,” he said, after his swim. “A big mix of abilities, but great to see everyone give it a go! Personally I found it exciting rather than daunting, and the temperature of the water was definitely “decent” – surprisingly so.
“If anything the event just felt too short…it was physically very hard as you have to really go just about all-out from the start, seeing as it is so short. But I felt like I’d recovered within a few minutes and wanted to race again!”
With special thanks to ALPKIT and Dryrobe