Did you know, when the time comes for the wild Scottish salmon to breed, it returns to the stream of its birth to lay eggs in the same spot where it was born? To accomplish this, it swims upstream against the current.
As a lover of all-things Scottish including the Scottish wild salmon and the exotic Scottish accent (Aye!) I sign up for a real Scottish experience: the Red Bull Neptune Steps race. The event includes swimming upstream inside Maryhills’ locks and climbing 18m over seven canal lock gates. An obstacle race in its most brutal form- Last year’s entries sold out in just 8 minutes so I am delighted to be successful in entering this years’ race.
With only 2 weeks left to prepare, there isn’t much time to learn how to climb a rope. Joined by Athina, I visit my local cross fitness centre and say to her: ‘Love, go have some fun and sprinkle plenty of magic powder on your hands’ (aka: chalk). She needs no encouragement and wastes no time in hanging herself from the rings and bars. Given the time, children enjoy the freedom of discovering things they love doing.
To me, being dyslexic means being dependant on visual imagery, action and living through my senses. With help from a cross-fitness instructor and after 2 days of endless attempts I finally work out how to do the drill.
Late on Friday night, I arrive at my Air B&B in Glasgow and in the morning I meet Popeye, the Labrador rescue dog. He’s up for a game of fetch and his owner tells me he feels so grateful about life he spends his Sundays with Dementia patients. She explains: ‘During his visit we often see people transition from emotionless to joyful, Popeye must trigger happy memories and make people feel good.’ But Labradors are well known for their permanent state of ‘extreme hunger’ and not wanting to offend his friends, he politely accepts all the food they save him; including nibbles hidden inside wrapped napkins! Understandably Mondays are Popeye’s ‘Diet day’.
My friend Nicolas has travelled from Belgium for the race and joins us for breakfast. ‘What made you want to join this race?’ I ask. ‘After years of competing as a professional athlete, I recently discovered adventure racing and now I enjoy doing both. I am confident in whom I am and what I’m capable of. Adventure racing offers me variety and also to try out different disciplines and create happy memories of course!' he replies.
(Did I mention he’s a visually impaired athlete???)
The water temperature is a delightful 7 degrees and of a suspicious looking colour. The clouds are heavy and the rain comes down on us. Yet, what we often miss in life is that even in the dirtiest and most apparently gloomy locations there are some wonderful challenges and opportunities to grow from. Such I feel is the case of the Red Bull Neptune Steps. Having spent a large part of my childhood in rural Thailand swimming in rivers with ‘slung’ children taught me life lessons about true happiness and hopefully, helped build a resilient immune system!
At the registration a notice says the water is cold and there is ‘danger of colder water shock, but not to panic’. The next paragraph explains how the water quality cannot be guaranteed as its origin is uncertain. However 'If there are any secondary effects in the next 19 days please see your doctor immediately.' I sign the document confirming I understand the risks and who they should contact in case of an emergency. It looks like this race requires determination and the willingness to do something crazy; how very exciting!
Nicolas’ wave is first. His guide Sarah is not allowed to physically assist him and she can only give verbal directions while she completes the challenge by his side. The crowds love them and one can hear both Sarah’s voice shout: ‘Left. Left. Right’ (etc.) as well as the enthusiastic crowds cheer them on. They get through all the gruesome obstacles until they reach the finish line. These two represent the essence of craziness, sports, freedom and team work. Sarah is an experienced guide and she said afterwards: ‘I never had any concerns about becoming a guide for Nicolas. I loved the atmosphere and the race itself. Getting myself on the obstacles first and then directing Nicolas on how to get on them, was the toughest part but I would 100% do it again!’
My turn to swim- Back in the changing room, surrounded by robust looking women the conversation flows around the best strategic moves to climb the obstacles. Next to me, a lady is using black tape to secure her neoprene socks onto her skin and another is counting press-ups. No pressure-
My swim coach, Rob (a real Scotsman!) surprises me at the start line; he’s come to say ‘Good Luck’; what a nice gesture. We enter the canal 2 minutes before the race to better acclimatise. 24 hours of fever and the canal water feels rather ‘fresh’, until the claxon sounds. My head hits the surface, I swallow a good mouthful of water and suddenly I remember the cold water shock. Swimming against the current is consuming tremendous amounts of upper body strength.
If the wild Scottish salmon could speak it would for sure say its journey is disorienting and full of ‘obstacles’.
The dark clouds and being enclosed between narrow canal walls make visibility through my mirrored goggles difficult. At times, I must remove them and swim ‘doggy paddle’ just to see where I’m going. The distance with the other athletes is increasing by the minute and I won’t make it to the final but that’s OK, I accept what I can do today. The advantage of this is I can still smile up at my friends and the nice strangers who are cheering me one. ‘You’ve got this Addi!’ I hear them say (do I really?!?) I feel like laughing, realising now how absurd this situation is!
Minutes later I'm at the dreaded obstacle where earlier I watched an athlete ‘stuck’, unable to climb, leading to his removal from the race. When my chance to shine comes I discover how exhausting swimming on the spot against strong currents can be. In the meanwhile I’m working out in my head the best climbing angle. I may not be physically the strongest, but my mental ability while struggling to ‘not lose the plot’ comes handy. I re-invent my strategy and the overall lesson is that to survive we need to try, try and try again, in as many different ways until something works. Finally I work out that pushing my body from against the wall helps me get onto the slippery base. I also learn that locking my body with knees and arms while climbing is the best method to remain on the nets and ropes. Whilst climbing I hold my breath for as long as possible followed by desperate gasps for air and realise I will drink more canal water than I thought; it’s all part of the 'deal'. The crowds continue to shout out excitedly and follow us on the side of the canal, getting muddy and wet.
Glasgow sure knows how to have a party; nothing will hold these enthusiastic crowds back!
Countless new bruises later for my knackered body and I am crawling (in style of course!) out the water. So glad it’s over; I will never look at a canal the same way again!!! The 25 year old Scottish water polo champ is the female Queen of the Neptune Steps 2017 after she’s completed the race not once, but twice within an hour to earn the title. What a hero!
When Nicolas and I discuss our top moments he says: 'During the race my biggest challenge was managing to get onto the obstacles. The continuous water pouring down from the locks and the strong currents made breathing extremely hard. For Sarah and I, trying to lift our heads up meant being ‘blinded’ by the water; which of course in my case didn’t make much difference :)
What a memorable race! We hop back into my car for an evening out in Glasgow. 15mins later we are lost, driving somewhere across the Scottish fields, my phone has run out of battery and our only hope to return to civilisation is following a partially-blind man who’s guiding me. ‘Tournez à gauche’ says a lady (his GPS). ‘She says turn left…’ he repeats in English with his strong Belgique accent. Aw, the gods are fond of a joke, aren’t they?
Nicolas shares a verse from one of his favourite poems that sum the day up nicely!
“…. reinvent your life because you must;
It is your life and its history
and the present belongs only to you… “
‘No leaders please’ by Charles Bukowski