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Red Bull delivers a challenging (418 metre) event with a difference

by Paul Hayward
Wednesday 1st April 2015
Tags  Paul Hayward   |   Red Bull Neptune Steps   |   Red Bull   |   Neptune Steps

Race report: Obstacle racing columnist Paul Hayward puts his swim training and new kit to good use at the Red Bull Neptune Steps

Whenever Red Bull hold an event, it has become the norm to expect a shot of adrenaline, coupled with a fantastic challenge that pushes boundaries and creates a well deserved fanfare of excitement.

Regular readers may recall the “Steeplechase” held in the Peak District last year (HERE) that would have to go down as one of my, and a number of people's, favourite running events in 2014. So when the news broke that Red Bull was going to hold an Obstacle Course Race that involved swimming through the Maryhill Locks in Scotland, half of me was filled with hysteria and the other half wondered just how this feat was possible.

Fast forward a few weeks and I found myself mesmerised by one of the most unique and innovative obstacle course races I had ever seen, the Red Bull 'Neptune Steps'.  The idea was simple: A 420 metre swim through four locks, requiring competitors to surmount seven gates, through a variety of obstacles, and race to the finish. Or at least it sounded simple! When I walked the course, each gate presented a number of man-made climbing obstacles, from cargo nets to a climbing wall.

Obstacle racing columnist Paul Hayward puts his swim training and new kit to good use at the Red Bull Neptune Steps

Each of the obstacles began on the surface of the canal water, so unlike traditional obstacle racing where you can jump or crawl onto an obstacle, you were not afforded such a luxury and were swimming up to it, before being required to use your strength to climb up onto it out of the water. As I stared at the single ropes floating in the canal, wondering just how I was going to climb up a rope from a front crawl position, a safety marshal came and spoke to me.

The marshal confirmed that when the test run had taken place the day before, 50% of the participants had failed to make it to the finish within the 15 minute time frame and that was even before the climbing wall had been built. In addition the temperature had dropped to around 9 degrees and the cold was likely to hit me within the first 180 metres to the first lock.

Luckily I had prepared for this and in addition to my fantastic Zone 3 Wetsuit (HERE), I had taken the step of buying some water socks and a neoprene hat. The Triathlon Shop in Bristol had advised me that with my head in water for just five minutes, without a neoprene hat I was likely to be very, very cold very quickly. I did not realise just how thankful I would be for this advice until five minutes into the race.

On lining up with me fellow competitors on the pontoon and looking towards the first lock, 165 metres of canal water away, it seemed an awful long way. The idea was that the first eight to the finish line could grab a piece of tape from the trident, securing a place in the semi final. With five waves of 20; the stage was set for two semi finals and then a grand final.

Luckily I was not given a lot of time to dwell on whether I would make it into the first eight as I, along with my 19 fellow competitors, was released into the jaws of Maryhill Lock and the race was on. The water was freezing and for the first few metres I struggled to keep my head under water, let alone breathe.

Obstacle racing columnist Paul Hayward puts his swim training and new kit to good use at the Red Bull Neptune Steps

My concern of not being able to see into the canal, having only swam front crawl in a swimming pool to the date of this event, was instantly replaced with the cold striking me like daggers. I struggled to breathe easily and, through panic, drank far too much canal water. Fortunately I was able to gain some rhythm and momentum, which pushed me to the first obstacle, the cargo net.

The first rung of the cargo net was slightly submerged and I essentially had to grab a rung and swing my legs to the side to pull myself on to the obstacle. After using my arms so much to get on to the obstacle, the change of pace hit me and sapped a great deal of energy out of me. However, I was then able to pull myself up to a standing position and negotiate the obstacle as if it had been on the ground. A competitor on the obstacle reached the top just before me and proceeded to pull himself over and then fluidly dive back into the canal.

Sadly I did not follow him as gracefully and jumped back into the canal before proceeding to front crawl to the next obstacle, a 60cm rope climb up the lock. The cold quickly returned and the momentary reprieve provided by the cargo net actually did more damage than good, as I was struggling to put my head back under water.

I was relieved to enter into the second lock, where the rope was floating in the water, teasing me as I approached the obstacle. I realised that I could hook my leg on the bottom of it and pull myself up. Had it just been a rope hanging from the gate, I would have struggled to get up and I was pleased to be able to scale the second gate so quickly.

The following two gates provided a further rope climb and a wooden wall made out of poles. Each of these obstacles hit me like punches and when jumping back into the freezing water, the cold took its toll and I was seriously struggling. The race had been so engaging that I had, at this juncture, no idea what position I was in or if I was even in the top eight.

On reaching the fifth gate, a row of three metre rope ladders present themselves with the bottom rung barely touching the surface of the water. I thought, naively, that if I could climb the first two or so rungs with my hands, I would then be able to pull myself up. On attempting this I went flying and found myself submerged in the canal.

Obstacle racing columnist Paul Hayward puts his swim training and new kit to good use at the Red Bull Neptune Steps

I had to resort to hooking my feet on the adjacent ladder and trying to pull myself up in a peculiar fashion. On reaching the top I was being clapped by the spectators and I realised that I had made far too much work of this obstacle. By now I had been overtaken by two competitors and I realised that qualification may now be out of sight. 

The three metre climbing wall guarding gate seven, in all its splendor, looked daunting and I had real concerns if I could get onto it, let alone climb up. Fortunately these concerns were misplaced and the obstacle had a platform for competitors to use to begin their climb. All of notches were large enough to ensure that you did not slip and I merely had one last gate, a further rope climb, before staggering to the finish, climbing on the pontoon and into the warm arms of a Red Bull Dryrobe.

I often come away from a Obstacle Course Race thinking that an event had been brutal or I had really been pushed hard. However Red Bull had had managed to produce an absolutely unique experience that combined a brutal challenge with a huge shot of adrenaline, that left competitors feeling broken yet euphoric at the same time.

I can not put into words how good it had felt to finish this event At the time of writing this, I am still struggling to come to terms with how cold it had been and just how hard some of the obstacles were, despite looking fairly simple. At 418 metres the distance had been pitched perfectly and had it been any longer, then it may well have prevented a number of competitors from completing it.

The NeptuneSteps have provided Obstacle Course Racing on a whole new level and have shown that there can be real innovation in our sport, outside of the size of an obstacle. Red Bull had, once again, provided a hugely exciting event that will have people laughing (or maybe still crying) about just how hard but brilliant it had been.

Obstacle racing columnist Paul Hayward puts his swim training and new kit to good use at the Red Bull Neptune Steps

A special mention should be made of both Ross Macdonald and Run247 OCR blogger Thomas Blanc from inov-8 OCR, who both performed well to make the final where Ross made the top three. To take this event on once had been ridiculous but to attempt it three times and at such a pace is simply outstanding.

The Neptune Steps will return next year and more information (along with details of all of Red Bull’s events) can be found here: www.Red Bull.com/uk/en/events/1331668145513/red-bull-neptune-steps/sign-up

Obstacle racing columnist Paul Hayward puts his swim training and new kit to good use at the Red Bull Neptune Steps


About The Author

Paul Hayward

I am 33 years old and spend the majority of my life within an office environment. Whilst I played football, I never really took an interest in sport let alone athletics. In 2011 I joined a gym as I was slightly concerned about my weight. However I was, like an awful lot of my colleagues, coasting and I considered spinning three times a week a workout.
This changed when I took up a circuits class and found myself entering Men’s Health Survival of the Fittest London in November 2011. I was assured by my friends that this was a good idea and would be a “challenge”.
I had never entered any form of competitive event before and training for this run changed me. I listened to my personal trainer, who assured me that if I quit drink I could be dangerous, and sorted out my diet, stopped drinking so much and focussed my training. I completed the race in just over an hour and I was instantly bitten by the racing bug, I loved the challenge the event offered. 
Nearly two years on I have completed a half marathon in 1hour 49 minutes, came 6th in the Rat Race Horseplay 5k event and usually come within the top 30% at Obstacle Course races. I am also a part time triathlete and I am lucky to find myself in a running club where we have a great coach and the focus is on members. If I am honest - I came to running through these events and I am not alone.
My aim through Run 247 is to promote, discuss and publicise Obstacle Course racing. It is becoming huge and over the coming months we will cover all of the major races and the new competitors entering the scene. 

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