Just when you think the triathlon scene here in the UAE couldn’t get any bigger, a race comes along that reminds you that it can. And it did. In impressive style.
The inaugural Dubai International Triathlon, the brainchild and labour of love of some very forward thinking local triathletes and RaceME, finally arrived on Friday the 7th November, starting and finishing at The Atlantis Hotel, Palm Jumeirah, about as grand a setting as one can get. Every one of us training, racing and generally immersing ourselves in the tri scene here has been eagerly awaiting this race for many months, and you could certainly feel the buzz of excitement as the final days of waiting approached. From chatter about the potential bike route to concerns about the threat from jellies, the digital lines were humming with everyone talking about just one race.
Personally this race took on a greater level of importance in my calendar on account of the disappointment in Tahoe. The two halves that I had already scheduled (Dubai and Bahrain next month) have became very much my short term focus and with a nice new TT bike, some decent kit (and a non-coincidental hole in my bank account) and feeling fit and strong off the back of some great coaching I was really feeling pumped for this race. I opted to collect my race pack and rack my bike on the Thursday evening before the race, although the option to collect packs was also available on Wednesday evening, and with a very clear and actually quite comical and entertaining race brief we all went away willing the next few hours of sleep (for those of us who could actually muster any) to pass swiftly so that we could get this thing underway. A few (if that) hours of fragmented sleep later, and with my kit all packed since the day before, the only thing to do on race morning, which started at an insanely early 3.30am (unless it’s summer in which case it is late), was prepare drinks and nutrition, suit up and head off to the Palm. Not wanting to give any margin to potential stress beforehand I chose to arrive very early, which afforded plenty of time to set up transition calmly before a relaxed spot of breakfast, a leisurely coffee and time to go through all the usual pre-race rituals. Our new Super Tri suits had arrived the week before and the relatively large number of us representing the team were, in my opinion, looking slick 🙂
The 1.9km swim took place in the beautifully calm, sheltered waters of the Palm, just off the beach where Sandance usually takes place. With the stunning backdrop of Atlantis to one side, the Burj al Arab and Burj Khalifa off in the distance on another, and the lights of Dubai Marina in front, the scene was idyllic, with even a spit of rain and cloud cover that made for a comfortable starting temperature that persisted into the bike.
The first wave to head off from the deep water start included the pros, with a 10 second lead, and were swiftly up on the first of the buoys, one of only two left hand turns on the flattened mushroom-shaped swim course. This may have been the only thing I would have personally suggested changing as there was unfortunately insufficient distance between the start and buoy one to get good separation between athletes. As such, there was some serious congestion at turn 1, the only point where there was any kind of issue. I too found myself caught up in the pause and scramble around the buoy, quickly recovering to find my stride and ultimately have a really great, smooth, comfortable swim. Sighting still remains a bit of an area for improvement and with the back straight of the swim being a fairly long stretch, I know that I swam a deviated course and emerged from the water having covered more than the prescribed race distance. Still, all things told, a good swim and a vast improvement from where I was even a year ago.
A short run up the beach and around the back of the Athletes’ Village, all the while being spurred on by the amazing support, which was electric and enthusiastic from the very start, took us from the gently sloping beach exit of the swim to transition, where I quickly found my bike but then spent a little longer than I’d liked to have (always the case) getting kitted up for the ride. Considering the bike was to be 90km I decided that I wished to be comfortable, especially as there was a half marathon to run afterwards. Rinsing off and drying my feet before donning my shoes was therefore something that I chose to do properly as I figure one surefire way to ruin a perfectly good run is to develop a blister. Some may mark me out as being a bit of a wimp for stating such a thing but my retort would be that I had a comfortable ride and a storming run. So there.
After turning left onto the Crescent and quickly followed by having to re-educate someone on the “Stay Left; Pass Right” rule that we’d learn’t only a few hours before and that was signposted at very regular intervals in very BIG lettering, the cycle route took us down into the Palm tunnel, where picking up some great speed was somewhat tempered by the numerous rumble strips and significant risk of bottle and fluid loss. I think I probably involuntarily jettisoned about a third of my drink reservoir contents during this opening stage of the race, whilst then choosing to try and bunny hop the rest of the speed bumps down the trunk. The road leading out of Atlantis and the Palm did resemble a water bottle graveyard, with scores of bottles of various shapes, sizes and expense levels littered all over the road. We had, to be fair, been warned multiple times by the race organisers to secure our drinks yet for many this clearly went unheeded.
Once off the Palm, a short stretch along Beach Road took us onto the start of Hessa Street and the first of the aid stations, which were perfectly organised, well stocked and expertly administered. With stations spread out sensibly, our options as we cycled past were, in this order (as far as I can recall): water, Aqualyte (electrolytes), Mule bars (energy), Gu (also energy), and then water again. A loo at the very end was also provided, and I must confess that I availed myself of its services at the start of loop 3 and was glad to have done so. The route then took us all the way up Hessa Street, with a little climbing to do at points, before a fast whip round the Motor City roundabout to start the return, taking a short detour into South Barsha before turning back to Hessa Street to continue back to Dubai College for a total of three complete laps.
Friday was a pretty windy day and so we were graced with a lovely degree of assistance from Mother Nature on the outward leg only to repay this gesture by cycling straight into the wind from Motor City onwards. There was a noticeable strengthening of the gusts as each loop was ticked off, such that by the third it felt as though we were at very real risk of stopping immediately should we have stopped peddling. As I am sure most people find with longer races, the first out and back was spent getting into a good comfortable rhythm and settling onto the bike after the efforts of the swim; the second just good solid fun as we find ourselves in full flow; and the third and final just a tad on the “OK, I’m sort of over this now” level as legs start to groan a little. I personally could feel my lower back starting to tense up a bit by the time I reached the tunnel leading back towards the Palm, more due a twinge I had developed swimming a couple of days before than the fit of the bike, which was spot on (thanks Barbara Ihrig, TRIPod), and so was keen to see the cycle leg close and get the run underway.
After attempting to set the Palm Tunnel speed camera off – what an AWESOME photo that would be! – there was one final climb of the day before turning back onto the crescent and into T2.
Run…. And Sweet Victory!
By the time I arrived back at T2 the sun was high in the sky and the heat very noticeable. As expected earlier in the week, the run was going to be a hot affair and so it proved. The two lap loop, each one 11km, took us out of the Atlantis car park, right onto the crescent and out along to the end where the Rixos hotel is situated, before heading back to turn just before the main Atlantis Hotel roundabout and back towards the car park to either do the second loop or turn into the finishing chute. My initial lap was slow, as in almost painfully so, and I definitely walked at the aid stations, which were thankfully spread apart at ideal distances to take full advantage of the ice sponges on hand and which I pretty much kept under the shoulder straps of my tri top for the entire race, refreshing them at each station whilst also slurping down flat coke on more than one occasion. I also started grabbing handfuls of ice from the sponge buckets to suck on as I ran, although called time on the practice near the second turnaround once I saw how filthy the water was becoming in the buckets on account of the sponges being collected off the road and then naturally put back in the bucket. Still, ignorance was bliss and I didn’t end up ill. In fact, thanks to ice sucking and sponges used as shoulder pads, I kept my heart rate sufficiently low to permit a really decent pace on the second lap. If my first lap was slow then my second was lightning, as I literally turned the corner onto lap two and felt something within just roar and energy suddenly surge to my legs. I am not certain of my pace for the second lap as I kept my Suunto on the HR screen, keeping my rate at no more than 165 beats per minute (bpm) for lap 1 and then between 170 and 180 bpm for lap two, permitting it to go to max as I ended the run and basically sprinted. What I am certain of is that I felt awesome on the second loop – it would appear that I have become a slow burner: start sluggish but then finish on fire. One of the most satisfying bits of the second lap was when I ran past some guy who simply uttered, “Shit!” as I stormed by. That was sweet and always makes up for the feeling of slight inadequacy that comes on the bike as people pass me, although I am getting less bothered by this as I know I have a plan and that if I stick to it then I will invariably catch and pass them on the run. Why oh why the energy surge can’t come earlier is a mystery as it would be great to tap into it for the bike, but there you go. My body does what my body does!
A looped course does offer the opportunity to see various friends out on the run, although being across a road, it was difficult to be able to engage too closely with runners heading in the opposite direction. There were a few people I was looking out for but didn’t see, although plenty I did. Stand out examples included Hasan Itani, a real figurehead of triathlon in Dubai, who was looking so strong on the run; Lynette Warne, of Skydive Dubai, always an impressive athlete and once again on the podium; Merle Talviste, who stormed in to win her age group in an awesome time. So many examples of impressive athletes to be inspired by that it is almost inevitable that one improves as a triathlete by simply being in the same airspace as them! Other memorable racers include the guy who I saw running very impressively whilst wearing a cycle helmet. I had initially thought that he might have simply forgotten to remove it in T2 and was just so in the zone that he wasn’t fussed, but later learned that he had apparently had recent brain surgery so was wearing the helmet for essential protection – hardcore indeed! There was also Nick Watson and his son Rio (Team Angel Wolf), who looked to be having as much fun on the day as his dad – a lovely story and, again, an inspiration to us all. Within Super Tri we had heroes, with Rafat Shobaki and Edna Coetser both completing their first ever half iron distance races and doing so in impressive style, being relatively new converts to the great sport of triathlon.
It was fantastic to see so many teams and groups represented in the various suits being worn, from Tri Dubai, a force in the sport here in Dubai, Super Tri, coached by the incredible Trace Rogers, and many others, including Skydive Dubai, whose kit I would love to get my hands on! It was a day of digging deep, overcoming challenges, smashing targets and having fun with friends. Triathlon condensed down to it’s purest ethos.
Given that this was the first event of it’s kind staged in Dubai, and the first organised by the company behind it, RaceME, they would certainly have been forgiven for some slip ups. However, the race was, in my humble opinion, planned, organised and executed to absolute perfection. No stone seemed to be left uncovered, from clear pre-race instructions, to humorous but unambiguous and unmissable signposting, to well located, stocked and managed aid stations, to the medal (OMG, the medal! HUGE is the only way to describe it. I love it!). I sincerely hope the organising team gave themselves a massive collective pat on the back because they deserve it and I for one eagerly look forward to their next event.
It seems now is a particularly great time to be a triathlete in this region and with Challenge Dubai announced the day before (mind you, rather odd timing I must say) and Challenge Bahrain fast approaching, and which I look forward to racing as well, the scene is set for some really classic races and great experiences. Ultimately, however, kudos needs to go to Dubai International Triathlon for lighting the fuse on this exciting movement.