It’s gone midnight, it’s pitch black apart from the small slits of light emitted in front by our respective bike lights and the twinkling lights of the highway off in the distance, and we still have another two hours to go. Ordinarily I would be found out on the Al Qudra desert cycle track – all 50km of this tarmac loop stretching off into the desert before spinning back towards civilisation again – most Friday mornings, when it seems most of the cycling and triathlon community of Dubai drag themselves up early, don their lycra and venture out in pairs or packs (rarely solo) for one, two, maybe more loops of this wonderful training resource we have. Not this week though.
With the daytime temperatures now reaching the mid to high forties, and the humidity knocking on uncomfortable, training in the daylight is simply becoming a silly thing to attempt to do. The value derived from braving the fierce heat is, in my opinion, negligible whilst the risk of simply getting sunburnt and succumbing to heat exhaustion makes it not worth attempting. So….. training simply ceases, right? No. Training continues. In fact, training is increasing in volume and intensity as I find myself a mere 12 weeks away from standing at the start line of Ironman Lake Tahoe. What has to happen then is to either train indoors, which I find impossibly dull, or to become nocturnal. Hence why we find ourselves peddling around in the desert in the first hours of Friday morning.
My programme prescribed a 5 hour bike ride with a run off the back of it for this week and so I pitched the idea of a Thursday night cycle marathon to the triathlon community here in Dubai. A few people got back to me and so it was arranged that we would meet at 9pm at the start of the AQ loop. I would have preferred an earlier start to be honest, especially given that 5 hours would lead to a finish after 2am, but such is the nature of working as a vet that even getting away from the clinic at 7pm was a blessing. So a quick turnaround at home, including shoveling some food down, loading up the ice vest system which I had planned to test out (didn’t need to in the end as the temperatures experienced made it redundant), and water and nutrition for the bike, it was back in the car and heading straight out to the desert.
For anyone who doesn’t know where the AQ track is, one drives past Arabian Ranches, out towards Bab Al Shams desert resort and just keep going for what feels like a long, long time. The stick (an extension of the cycle track) runs alongside the road for the last 18km of this approach before reaching a roundabout and the main parking area with amenities such as a cafe (closed at that time of night sadly) and toilets which are mercifully open all the time.
Loop one saw four of us band together for the ride: good friend and fellow Dubai Tri Pirate, Jan; Ironman Zurich preparee, Stephen; another Ironman, Matt; and myself, yet to join the ranks of the men of metal. A fast first loop was had and we came home in good time and spirits, with Matt ending his session, which had started much earlier in the evening, and Jan, Stephen and I heading straight out for the second loop. By the end of the second legs were certainly starting to be felt and water refills were in order, as was a quick top up of the fuel tanks, although in hindsight the choice of chocolate and a can of Red Bull (I still don’t know why I touched it?!), was less than optimal, as I didn’t feel wonderful heading out on the third and final loop. Stephen spun back round at the 15km mark, as he was on track for a total distance that evening of 180km, having also started earlier, and so Jan and I forged on for the remaining 35km towards home and a total distance of 150km in a little over the target 5 hours.
One of the rather interesting features of cycling in the dead of night is that all that can be seen is what is immediately around you. As such, one cannot see the horizon, which means that the impression of it not getting any closer on those impossibly long stretches of track does not occur. Which is probably just as well given how uncomfortable I was finding the third loop. By now my legs were well and truly complaining and I unfortunately cramped up on at least two occasions, one such requiring a gritting of the teeth and some real willpower to move through. I am still in the process of figuring out my optimal nutrition plan for the bike, and suspect that it may have had a role to play. Although I had taken electrolyte in the bottles, I wonder whether I should have added additional at the water bottle refill after our second loop and looked at something more quick release, energy wise, than the nuts and dried fruit that I had with me. The process of experimentation continues therefore.
Wildlife experiences were a little closer than usual in the day, with at least two episodes when we nearly had impact with an Oryx, as they suddenly dart out across the track. Hitting one of them would not be fun and a few bruises and some road rash would, I daresay, be the best case scenario of such an accident. We also saw several smaller species on the track, all doing their best to try and get run over, thwarted in their efforts by some quick and deft swerving on our part. A desert rat was the coolest thing I remember seeing, with its long, kangaroo-esque back feet and lengthy tail that made it look like a Stretch Armstrong version of a gerbil.
However, even the interesting nocturnal activities of the desert wildlife could do little to distract me by the end of the third, and thankfully final, loop as my legs were screaming at me to stop. If I hadn’t fully appreciated the enormity of the challenge that I face in September before then I do so now, as I simply felt unable to even contemplate any further time on the bike. Unfortunately I found myself feeling a little dizzy (again, inadequate nutrition? Or maybe pure fatigue, as it was afterall gone 2am?). Anyway, it did mean that venturing out solo for my run felt like a poor idea and so I made the executive decision to forgo that element of the session and head home. The drive itself was a challenge as I had to stop at one point back towards Arabian Ranches to deal with a sudden onset of cramp in my driving leg, and then there was the very real risk of actually falling asleep at the wheel that I had to contend with. Scary stuff indeed and I was ecstatic at arriving back, dumping my stuff in the house, grabbing a much needed protein shake and a shower before collapsing into bed for what ended up being an epic and well deserved period of sleep. All in all, a big session but nothing compared to what is to come. Thank you sincerely to both Stephen and Jan for accompanying me out and if it were not for Jan and his encouragement that third and final loop would have been sheer and utter torture.
- Cycling at night is certainly much more comfortable in terms of the heat, with the temperatures a perfect mid to late twenties for most of the time, and at times even a little on the noticeably chilly side. This certainly translated into faster speeds at the same effort than would be possible at higher temperatures.
- The track was very, very quiet, as one would expect at those insane times. In fact, the only other people we saw were two cyclists going in the opposite direction on both of the first two loops. There were then a couple of crazy morning warriors clearly starting when we finished at gone 2am, otherwise the track and desert belonged solely to us.
- In spite of the challenges and discomfort associated with heading out overnight, the fact that I was able to simply sleep on through Friday morning did make it all worthwhile.
- Nutrition is still something I need to figure out. I should not have cramped up and I suspect that I need to examine my electrolyte intake more closely. I shall not be taking Red Bull out again and some more natural quick release energy sources, such as bananas, may have been of more use during the actual cycling.