A Desert Paradise

UAE, desert horse rideOne of the best ways to experience the UAE and the beauty of the desert is to partake in one of the nation’s passions: horseriding. That is exactly what two of my friends and colleagues from the clinic and I did on Friday, with each of us keen to find ourselves back in the saddle after variable periods of time away from horses. For me, the last time I was in the saddle was last year when my parents visited and mum and I went out on a ‘desert’ ride out of the Arabian Ranches Polo club, an experience which although fast and fun was also a little disappointing in as much as the ‘desert’ we experienced was effectively a large building site, with the city in clear view. Claire had ridden extensively in the desert whilst growing up in Saudi Arabia and Adri has also ridden a lot back in South Africa. Which was a good thing as our chosen venue of Al Maha resort, an hour’s drive out of Dubai towards Al Ain, stipulated that riders needed to have at least 3 years worth of experience in the saddle.

Oryx
Oryx feeding within the reserve

The drive up, despite being early, was worth it as we arrived at the gates to the reserve – all a little bit Jurassic Park on first impressions – as the sun was just starting to rise, revealing the true raw beauty of the dunes, with their varying shades of yellow owing to the recent rain, and the intermittently dotted trees and bushes. Many assume that the desert is empty and boring, with nothing but sand to see, but the truth is anything but. From the moment we arrived we appreciated abundant wildlife from small antelope to birds, to the majestic Oryx, a large group of which we were able to get very close to, including their rather foal-like cute little babies.

Al Maha ResortThe Al Maha resort itself is hidden away in the dunes about 9km from the main gate and just suddenly pops out of nowhere as you find yourself driving along the dirt road wondering whether in fact you have maybe made an incorrect turn. We drove past individual chalets skillfully hidden amongst the desert sands, up the pristine main drive to the reception lodge, with the tasteful vibes of a safari hunting lodge, except without the hunting trophies. The immediate impression of the place was one of calm and peace, and the view from the balcony was nothing short of breathtaking. Below us and extending as far as the eye could see was the desert, with a small oasis in the foreground and angular, undulating dunes meeting an expansive sky, with the sun casting the most fantastic shadows and creating a fascinating array of textures and subtle hues of light browns, yellows and greens as the Arabian desert was revealed to us.

The riding partyWe were met by our guide, a young English horseman by the name of Laurence, who had previously been employed as a guide in Namibia and who clearly had a passion for horses. Half-chaps donned it was into the resort 4WD we jumped for the short journey out to the stables, where we picked up hats before being introduced to our steeds. My horse was a lovely bay who was slow and steady on the walk but who clearly enjoyed competition when it came to the question of racing, as I discovered on more than one occasion.

Our ride took us in roughly a large loop, through desert paths and over dunes, and it wasn’t long before we were picking up speed for the first of our ‘extended canters.’ All of the horses we were riding had formerly been endurance athletes and were used to running at speed over the sand. My horse, as previously mentioned, was super competitive and when he quickly built up speed to nose in front of our guide’s stunning grey steed, you could almost feel the gear shift in both horses as an unspoken “right. You’re on!” was exchanged. It is not until you’re back in the saddle that you remember what incredibly exhilarating fun it is to move at speed powdered by literal horse power.

The second stretch of speed saw me, at one point, lose my right stirrup and it took some concentrated effort on my part to remain firmly saddled whilst attempting to place my foot back in, all whilst continuing to pick up speed. We eventually stopped near the top of a small hill and as Laurence arrived it became clear that they had been calling for me to stop earlier, a request that I had to confess I had not heard, explaining the stirrup issue. I was somewhat pleased, however, to be told that to external onlookers I had apparently appeared very much in control and it had been assumed that I was simply choosing to ignore the calls to stop on account of clearly enjoying things so much. How appearances can be deceiving!

We stopped – or rather attempted – to stop for a photo opportunity atop one of the dunes en route back to base and in spite of the horses clearly not being overly cool with the idea of standing still posing Laurence did manage to snap a half decent shot, all whilst being buffeted by his own horse.

Following our return to the stables and subsequently the main lodge, we availed ourselves of a fantastically relaxed breakfast out on the balcony, overlooking the desert, and reviewed the highlights of the ride. Although all of us agreed that we would have preferred for the trip to have lasted longer – an hour and a half felt too short – the stiff backs that we all experienced over the following days suggested that the time was, in fact, optimal!

Anyone looking for a fun, active way to really connect with the wildlife and true desert of the UAE, whilst still getting to enjoy a five star hospitality experience will certainly find a riding session at Al Maha right up their street. We all agreed that very morning that we wanted to return, perhaps even spending a whole day and taking advantage of the many other leisure activities on offer, including archery. Well recommended!

At the time of writing the 1.5 hour desert hack cost 200AED each, with all required equipment provided. Breakfast was 160AED, with the view being worth the price alone. More information can be found at Al Maha’s website.

Sand, Hooves & Speed from Chris Queen on Vimeo.

An International Triathlon Affair

Wow! What an incredible weekend I just had. A veritable feast of triathlon that was so jam packed that if I were to actually eat it then it would set my training back by at least a year!

The Abu Dhabi International Triathlon has been my main A-race of the season this year, in preparation for the biggie that is my first ever Ironman race in California this September. The decision to enter this race had been made last year after hearing such wonderful things about the event, with the decision made to sign up for the short (most misleading race description ever, incidentally) race being made on account of the fact that I am a) not mental (no offence to those super athletes who did sign up for the long) and b) the long would have been a significant step up in distance from what I have raced to date, a challenge that I very much doubted I would be ready for by the time of the event.

As part of my preparations for the Ironman I have enlisted the help of a coach (Trace Rogers of SuperTri) and have been getting stuck in since the beginning of the year. As such I approached race weekend feeling confident, strong and excited at what lay ahead. In fact I can honestly say that I did not feel any nerves in the lead up to the race, which is quite unusual as I normally would. I guess that is the benefit of focused training and meticulous preparation, including getting all my gear organised in good time and a full pre-race service on my bike.

On the advice of friends who had done Abu Dhabi in previous years I booked a hotel close to the start months in advance and took time off work such that I was able to head down on Thursday, register before the rush on Friday, attend the elite athletes signing session, and then kick back and relax after the race, affording me the chance to join friends at Yas Waterworld the day after.

The weather in the lead up to race day was anything but optimal and concerns about high winds and possibly the threat of rain were certainly felt right up until race morning when it seemed as though prayers had been heard and heeded, with clear, still skies, and an almost millpond-like sea for the swim. In other words: perfect!

Elite-rich

Ali & Jonny Brownlee, plus me. In the presence of champions.
Ali & Jonny Brownlee, plus me. In the presence of champions.

One of the exciting features of the Abu Dhabi Triathlon is the fact that it attracts a field of high profile elite athletes, with the beauty of triathlon being that we get to race alongside, meet, greet and enjoy the event with our sporting heroes. As a Brit the chance to even see, let alone meet, the Olympic Gold medalist, Alistair Brownlee, and his brother, Bronze medalist, Jonny, was incredible. Surreal but awesome nonetheless. But it was even better than that! There were legends of our sport at every turn and by the end of the weekend it felt like a completely normal thing to just, you know, hang out with people like Jodie Swallow, James Cunnama, and other tri big-wigs. One of the first things I did upon arriving at registration was purchase two official race shirts: one to wear and one to ask pros to sign; quite a cool keepsake from the event. One of the pleasures of conversing with the elite athletes is that you quickly realise that they too have to deal with many of the same challenges and set-backs that us age-groupers do, a realisation that can only ever help to allay any last minute nerves that might be hanging around. The buzz associated from their presence at the event also just added a real sense of electricity to the entire weekend and heightened the excitement felt by all.

Laurence Fannous, Jodie Swallow, James Cunnama & me at Abu Dhabi.
Laurence Fannous, Jodie Swallow, James Cunnama & me at Abu Dhabi.

Things got even more surreal when, on Sunday, some friends and I found ourselves at Yas Waterworld literally racing our heroes down many of the park’s slides! I even had a comical moment when on the lazy river, I swam to join some fiends, went to jump into an unattended ring only to see that there was someone submerged inside it. “Oops! There’s a small child in this one,” was my call to friends, before up popped said ‘child’ only for it to transpire that it was in fact Alistair Brownlee himself. Oops indeed!

Race Day

With bikes racked the day before and kit all safely stowed away in the official transition bags and placed in the changing tent, there was little left to do on race morning other than get some breakfast on board, apply the race number tattoos and start to get in the right frame of mind for a race. Being away from home and without the usual amenities of such, breakfast ended up being the best source of oats I could find – oat bars (the peanut ones, as I would normally have peanut butter on toast), a banana, orange juice and coffee. Having only ever raced at events where numbers are written on in pen, the ritual of applying official tattoos was actually quite a fun one and I certainly stepped away from the hotel, tri suit donned, feeling like a professional.

The atmosphere at the race village and start area was buzzing and by the time I had donned my wetsuit, sauntered down to the beach for a short swim warm up, watching both the elite long and short course athletes set off from the perfect vantage point in the water, the adrenaline was pumping and I was raring to go. To the start line I went and lined up in excited anticipation with the throng of fellow athletes in my wave, waiting for the signal to be given….

Swim

Listening to the expert advice of Crissy Harris I duly positioned myself to the far right of the swim start, owing to the fact that it afforded the closest straight-line sighting to the first buoy and got myself to the front of the pack, something that I would have been way too nervous to have done a year ago. Such has been the benefits of training with Hasan and Lynette during their Ibn Battuta pool sessions, the Tri Dubai sea swims, and the swim sessions run by my coach, Trace, that I feel so much more confident in the water and am now able to complete the entire Olympic distance swim without stopping to swim breaststroke or catch my breath. When the start signal was given I ran in to the water and sprinted as I had practiced, attempting to put some clear water around me. Granted this didn’t quite work and I found myself within the typical washing machine of a triathlon swim, but rather than get all freaked out by the melee around me I just stuck to my line, got my head down and swam. When push came to shove I felt confident in my own ability to stick to my line when I had to defend it, out sprint a fellow racer if necessary, and make the buoy turns confidently and smoothly. As such, I exited the water in a time of 25:56, a significant improvement to similar sea swims in previous races.

T1

The provision of a water trough to run through was, in my opinion, inspired as the worst thing about trying to transition from a sea swim is usually getting rid of all the wet sand on your feet – there is nothing worse on a long cycle, and before a run, than sand rubbing your toes to oblivion! Although a little wobbly, T1 was a relatively swift affair and with helmet and sunglasses donned it was off out to the bike and the main challenge of the day.

Cycle

Brownlee bikes in transitionAs I had only recently invested in a proper set of cycling shoes, complete with non-recessed cleats, I was somewhat apprehensive about my first real attempt at mounting my bike with the shoes already attached. No flying mounts though! Starting the cycle in a pile on the floor would not have been a good look. The mount was actually quite easy, especially if the shoes are opened really wide meaning you can slip straight into them and once the velcro straps had been swiftly tightened it was straight into the 100km of long road ahead of us. The temptation to sprint off was strong, given that up to this point it had felt like any other Olympic distance race, but I knew that with a significant increase in distance to my usual races, pacing was going to be important. The few ‘hills,’ in the form of bridges were, as I had been informed, longer and steeper than initially expected, especially the very first bridge that goes over the port on the exit from Abu Dhabi. That is one big bridge!

The key with the cycle for me was to take it easy on the hydration, avoiding the temptation to drain my two bottles too quickly and drink too much water. Fueling was also a key focus and my decision to take three gels, two of which I ended up using, plus a few dates to munch on, seemed to work well. As for the fluids, I was pretty good at not over drinking and used much of the water handed out at aid stations to pour over my head, neck and, well, all over really in order to keep as cool as possible.

The Yas Grand Prix circuit section was a rare treat and in spite of needing to have eyes in the back of your head and a much greater level of responsiveness to other athletes around, the ride around the circuit was brilliant – certainly one of the highlights of doing this particular race. Once the second lap had been completed, the excitement mounted again as the homeward leg of the ride began and the thoughts of the finish line started to realistically dance in my mind. Seeing the long course athletes making the turn back towards Yas, and knowing how my legs were feeling at that point, really made me feel thankful that I had chosen to sign up to the short. Having said that, I was also reminded of the fact that I will be cycling a similar distance in September, with a marathon to run afterwards, and that I have the Dubai summer during which to prepare. Fun.

The final stretch to transition along the corniche had to have been the longest bit of road I have ever been on – it just went on forever!!! Still, the bike was long but a fun challenge and no one can claim that they’re not warmed up for the run by the time they arrive back at transition!

T2 & Run

The run along to T2 is actually quite good as it is long enough that by the time the changing tent is reached, the legs already feel as though they’re ready for the run. The run was, for me, the toughest part of the day, which was a little disheartening given as it is normally my thing and the part of the race when I usually find myself passing many of those people who had previously whizzed past me on the bike. The main factor, and one which I understand was shared by most others, was simply the heat. It was so hot by the time of the run that keeping cool was the main challenge. The aid stations were perfectly spaced, with the cold water sponges quickly becoming my new favourite thing in the entire world.

One other, less welcome, new experience was cramping on the run. I was a short distance from the first turn to head up towards the Marina Mall when I felt the ominous twinge before the full blown pain of a leg cramp. A bit of grimaced stretching and the acceptance of the fact that I had indeed just had to stop on the run, which was a blow to my pride if anything, and it was back on my way, albeit at a significantly reduced pace. Another first was the ingestion of flat cola on the run, something I had never previously used, but which I must report was very gratefully received. The challenge was to avoid the temptation to consume too much and thus disadvantage myself further on the run by having a belly full of fluid sloshing around. I had been aiming for a 40 minute 10km pace but ended up significantly reducing my pace to finish in a little over 51 minutes, albeit with the final third being run at a much faster pace which actually saw me overtake a decent number of people and cross the line at a decent run rather belying the way I actually felt by that stage.

Overall….

Abu Dhabi 2014A great race! Tough, especially the run, which is just so hard to keep cool on. In terms of race preparation I feel that enough was done, my nutrition was adequate and in spite of a run which I know was well below what I am ultimately capable of, the final time of 4 hours 37 mins is a respectable one. I guess I shall just have to return next year and beat it! I am already mentally purchasing my first TT bike! One thing that the race did drive home with no apologies was just how tough a challenge the Ironman in September is going to be. Although the heat will not be a factor – in fact, keeping warm is likely to be more of an issue – the distances certainly have my respect much more now than they did before, and I know there is a lot of work still to do to get me to the start line in fighting fit form, let alone cross that finish.

As a triathlon indulgence, the weekend was literally the best. The combination of feeling like a holiday by actually staying down in Abu Dhabi, combined with the presence of pros, the heroes and legends of our sport, all of whom were just so incredibly approachable and, dare I say it, normal was fantastic. I never imagined that I would be able to say to someone that I got to race down a waterslide with Olympic medalists as though they were my mates from home. Try getting to do that with a premiership footballer! I challenge anyone, seasoned triathlete or newbie beginner, not to leave Abu Dhabi feeling energised and full of renewed enthusiasm for the sport. It’s ultimately a bit mental what we do – like most things to be honest – but as a lifestyle, a social scene and a way to challenge and develop oneself, it is hard to beat. Triathlon rules!