The Challenge Family is one that I had the pleasure of joining in December when I competed in the inaugral Challenge Bahrain race, a fantastic event and where I posted my best half-iron distance time to date. It was with real excitement that I signed up almost immediately upon return to Dubai to the event to be held in my home city and where I had my sights set on beating my PB to break the 5 hour barrier.
Training has been going well, with a podium finish at Wadi Bih and a strong top ten finish at the Tri Yas sprint event, another testing day that you can read about in an earlier report. With the Challenge Dubai site built and the excitement really starting to mount, everyone was set for a great day of triathlon, especially given that the strong winds and turbulent, dusty conditions of the previous weekend seemed to have abated just in time. We looked set for Dubai to serve up a picture-perfect setting for what was to be the first race of the Sheikh Nasser Triple Crown, an incredible competition for the pro field seeing whichever athlete who wins all three of the next Middle East Challenge races awarded with $1 million!
A Busy Build-up
I guess one of the advantages of traveling for a race is that it effectively forms part of a holiday, meaning that you have plenty of time for pre-race preparation and, very importantly, relaxation. Not so it seems when racing at home and life continues as normal. The build-up was further complicated for me by the fact that I also had an exam scheduled the very day before, one that did not go to plan, meaning that the final few hours before bike check and transition closed were frantic. Note to self: those small but important tasks for race day that you could have done the week before….. do them the week before! I was pleased though to make it out for a practice swim, choosing to go earlier than the official start of 8am on account of having the aforementioned exam to get to. The waters were calm with the main point for race day being that there was a relatively strong current running parallel to shore, which did promise a tougher long back leg to the planned swim course. Otherwise, if conditions remained as they were on Thursday morning it was set to be a stunning swim.
I could hear some rustling outside my window as my alarm sounded at just after 4am but thought little of it as I set about with the usual race-morning routine, including donning my race tattoos, an experience I am yet to get tired of. There is something about wearing proper race stickers on one’s skin that helps it all just feel a little bigger and more professional than it might otherwise. Silly I know but true nonetheless.
And then it became apparent. As soon as I stepped outside it was clear that Mother Nature was feeling frisky – excited it seemed for race day – and had whipped up a very strong onshore wind. The scene at transition was a similarly blustery one, with bikes wobbling on the racks and the occasional cloud of dust being whipped up and across the beach. This was going to be interesting.
The sea, which only the day before had been serene and in line with what we normally enjoy here in Dubai, was playing host to a legion of white horses, forcing the organisers to change the swim course from a single 1.9km loop to a 2-loop course that saw swimmers start on the beach, head out perpendicular to the shore, turn at one of the large Challenge buoys, swim parallel to the shore and against the current to the next large buoy, before turning back to the swim exit on shore, where we had a very short run onto the beach to a turnaround before launching back in to swim diagonally for the original buoy and a repeat of the same course. Rolling was how I would describe the entire experience and in spite of the testing swim conditions I actually rather enjoyed it, paradoxically finding a rhythm from the start, breathing to the right every five strokes on the way out before switching to the left for the remaining legs. Aside from needing to correct course when it was clear the current had pushed most of us off course, I found the swim ok and exited the water feeling pretty good even if my time wasn’t stellar.
Transition 1 was, as in Bahrain, a relatively quick one, with a good level of support from the volunteers, who even managed to get my race belt on for me – very impressed. Swim done, now time for the real test of the day!
The cycle course took us straight up towards Meydan, through Nad Al Sheba, which is a lovely area of the city, before looping us back onto the Al Ain Road towards the city, and then towards Academic City where the majority of the bike course was set. The problem with wind is that it is often a blessing and curse all rolled into one, unless it does the unfortunate thing of swinging around and changing direction at pivotal moments, in which case it can either make your ride or break it. Friday’s wind was, it seemed, relatively consistent in terms of direction, meaning that the initial outward stretch was a pleasure, with a strong tailwind powering us all along. I recall telling myself to make the most of such times, and to “bank the time”, knowing full well that we would be contending with the opposite before long. I didn’t have to wait long before we turned right and “BAM!” was hit by it. Cue the next however many kilometers of painful stretches of strong gusts and what felt like a virtual crawl, interspersed with sections of reprieve as we once again enjoyed a tailwind and could feel as though progress was once again being made.
I personally always find the bike the tougher of the disciplines as I just don’t seem to be that fast, regardless of the training I do. As such, it is always a tad discouraging to be the one who seems to get passed repeatedly by other athletes. Add to that the miserable conditions of a strong, gusty headwind and the accompanying sand and dust, and you get some measure of the low place I found myself during parts of the cycle course. I must say, as well, that I appreciate the difficulties of managing road closures in a city like Dubai and that the course selected was probably done so in large part based on what was likely to cause the least traffic upset, but inspiring it certainly was not. Academic City, or large parts of it anyway, really seems to lack any real beauty and did nothing to showcase the many landmarks that Dubai boasts. As for the decision to take part of the course past, or certainly within olfactory distance of, the sewage works and waste management facility, I ask one thing: really?! Many of those racing would have been out-of-town international guests keen to experience the wonderful sights of this, our futuristic city. Taking them out to a building site and past a waste-treatment plant hardly seemed to meet those desires. Still, I am sure there were good reasons and maybe it is just the bitter memory of the conditions that brings these thoughts to the fore.
As I mentioned earlier, the wind, although strong and gathering strength as the day bore on, was very consistent with it’s direction. Which was a shame. The reason being that it meant the final 30km were almost entirely directly into a Kansas-style headwind. I have never sworn so much at a meteriological phenomenon as I did during that final push, with much of the frustration coming from the dawning realisation that there was no way I was going to beat or even meet my Bahrain time, even though earlier in the ride it had looked possible. Mother Nature and my legs were at odds with one another and no matter the training done she was always going to prevail.
(ps: to those very few cyclists who I saw drafting – and I so wish I could recall your numbers so I could name and shame you – poor form! Stop doing triathlon and stick to bike road races. Drafting is cheating and it has no place in our sport, especially when we are all told time and time again that this is the case. Your time on the bike is based on a lie and the efforts of others.)
A Run of Three Parts
Anyone who does triathlon knows that their legs are going to feel like a combination of rock and jelly for the first couple of kilometers of the run and so it was as I exited transition and headed out onto the Dubai boardwalk. I normally look forward to the run, with the usual sequence of events being that I find my legs during the first 5km before gradually cranking it up to storm up through the field to regain places lost during the cycle. Not so today. The first 5km were respectable, even with a quick piss stop and some ambling through the aid station. The turnaround for the return was when I started to feel very lacklustre and if truth be told I felt a serious ebbing of my mojo and gave in to the grueling conditions far too easily. Knowing what my race time was and thus knowing that I was not going to match Bahrain, as mentioned earlier, did have a big impact and I almost wish that I had been in the dark of what my overall time was. I believe that part of me, on realising that this race was more about getting to the end than finishing with a time to be really proud of, gave in early and it shames me to admit that. A huge part of our sport is the mental toughness that it fosters and the true champions are those who are able to dig deep and scrape out that gritty push when the going really gets tough. I sadly feel that I dropped the ball in that respect on race day and suspect that the disappointment from the poor exam result the day before had simply compounded these feelings of disillusionment that came to a head on the run. I wasn’t, however, going to quit. No way. Whatever happened, the race would be finished! It is at this point that huge kudos has to go out to the many and varied members of the Dubai triathlon scene, both running themselves and supporting from the sidelines – their words of encouragement and genuine displays of concern at those times when I found myself walking were the difference. Anyone getting into triathlon should remember how vitally important the support of others is in this sport. Although it is ultimately a solo event, the team spirit that is fostered among other athletes and teams is so strong and carries us past the point where we might otherwise fold. I especially wish to shout out Jan who did all he could to spur me on during the penultimate 5km, and who is looking in awesome shape for his upcoming Ironman in Melbourne, and Mike, who not only selflessly supports others through his TRX sessions, but swooped in with a salt tablet when I hadn’t even realised I might need one. In spite of being a duffus and chewing the tablet (mistake as they taste really gross!) it seemed to sort me out and I found a reserve of something to enable me to pull it out of the bag and push on for a strong final 5km. A run of three parts indeed. So much so that I have never been so pleased to see a finish line in the distance as I was that afternoon. Challenge Dubai. Challenge indeed.
Now that the race is over and I am the proud owner of what has to be the heaviest finishers medal ever (I am sure that construction in Dubai must be on hold as it seems all of the city’s steel must have gone into our medals) it is fun to think back on the day and feel some degree of entitled smugness at having come through. Everyone who took part is a legend and it is a day that will surely be remembered for a long time to come, especially given that the very next day was an entirely different one – calm waters, a light breeze and sunshine. Are you kidding me?!
The awards dinner was a great time to recognise the amazing achievements of the day, with Dubai-based athletes making us all incredibly proud with some stellar results. Local champions, from Lynette Warne to Merle Talviste, Henry Clarke, Luke Matthews, Lucy Woolacott, and many more besides, made it clear just how strong triathlon is here in Dubai and to celebrate such success on such a big stage locally was wonderful. Other stand out moments included seeing Nick Watson and Rio once again complete the race together, and to see Sheikh Nasser himself supporting a worthy young man with a triathlon passion but the inability to compete on his own. Getting round such a tough course on such a day solo was a challenge enough but to do so with someone else in tow was monumental and an inspiration to us all.
The pros were, as ever, inspiring, with incredible race times in spite of the conditions. I continue to look on in awe at their superhuman efforts! The winners’ speeches were similarly inspiring, with a standout performance by the mens’ champion, Terenzo Bozzone, and I feel privileged to have had a chance to speak with a number of the winning pros after the event. Yet again, it is testament to the sport that such unobstructed access to our sporting heroes is possible.
So, what do I take away from Challenge Dubai? Well, I would be lying if I said I enjoyed the actual race but I can certainly say that I am pleased I did it. The next test it seems is Challenge Oman, with the promise of a totally different race altogether, and then the big one in the form of my first Ironman. Watch this space…