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…
Everything great starts with a vision. The key then is turning that initial vision into reality and matching the power of the imagined. So it was that Challenge Bahrain, the first big internationally ‘branded’ triathlon in the Middle East came to be. Inspired by the vision and desire of Crown Prince Shaikh Nasser bin Hamad Al Khalifa, a gifted age-group triathlete himself, to bring a big triathlon to the shores of Bahrain, the promise of a world class event was realised as thousands arrived in the Kingdom to race, meet their heroes and celebrate a rip roaring success.
With a total prize purse of half a million US dollars, and each of the professional winners walking away with $100,000 as first prize, Challenge Bahrain was always going to attract the big names in our sport and the sight of such legends as Mirinda Carfrae standing on stage alongside the giants of triathlon during the race briefing offered a taste of what was to come.
I personally arrived in Bahrain on Thursday morning, meeting up with a friend who had flown over from freezing cold Britain in order to take part in only her second half distance race and the first overseas. With a warm welcome from the very start, confirming that which I had been told about the warm, friendly nature of the Bahraini people, the first task, after reassembling bikes in our upgraded suite at the Grand Mercure hotel, was to catch one of the many shuttle buses laid on throughout the weekend down to the Bahrain International Circuit, a hugely impressive Grand Priz stage, to register, collect our pre-race pack, soak up the atmosphere of the exhibition, partake in a little tri-related shopping, and enjoy the incredible reception and amazing fare on offer at what has to have been the best pasta party ever. As soon as we were handed our race bags it was clear that no expense had been spared in staging this race, with everyone receiving proper transition bags, complete with goodies. In fact, the bags alone made flying to Bahrain worth it!
A friend had, with a wry smile, informed me that I had been placed in the first age-group wave to start on race day, those athletes expected to finish in under 4 hours 40 minutes. A joke I had initially thought until I opened the race programme to see that I had indeed been placed in the ‘speedy’ cohort. Quite how that had happened remains a mystery because even with pre-registration there is no way I would have been so cocky as to predict a time for myself of that level – I hadn’t even raced a half iron distance event before at the time of signing up. Still, the chance to start the swim with the likes of the Crown Prince himself meant that I was in no rush to correct the organisers and so it remained that I found myself lining up on race morning with the true speedsters of the sport, contemplating a few what-ifs as I vowed to go significantly faster than my Dubai race the month before.
Practice Dip & Racking
Friday started early, with a short shuttle bus trip over to Bahrain Bay, with the impressive Four Seasons hotel and Bahrain Trade Centre framing either side of T1 and the venue for Saturday’s swim. The course couldn’t have been simpler, taking swimmers out in a straight line to one of the bridges spanning the bay, before a right hand turn to return to the swim ramp and on into T1 and the bikes. The practice swim offered us all the chance to get our bearings in the cool, refreshing waters, even swimming over to the Four Seasons pontoon for a spot of coffee and dates, an inspired addition and one of many examples of the fine attention to detail that had been applied to this event. They had even put on a decent spot of breakfast for athletes in the morning, something that they would have been advised to publicise a little more before the practice swim. Still, another classy little touch.
Bike racking took place back at the bay and so following a leisurely bite to eat in our new favourite eatery, Loomi, we hopped on another shuttle bus, this time with bikes in tow, for the short journey back to the bay and one of the most professional transitions that I have had the pleasure to see. It even made IM Lake Tahoe’s seem a tad grubby. It was encouraging to see just how seriously the officials took features of the event like pre-rack bike checking, with even the pros not immune to the bark of “helmet on!”
With the bike and helmet in place and our run bags, which were due to be taken over to T2 at the Grand Prix circuit, handed in – it always feels wrong handing over important race kit in a bag to a stranger, even though you know it will be seen again – we hopped back on the bus, returned to the hotel and started getting psyched for the big day itself, including the ritual of applying race number tattoos. Based on previous experience of tattoos on leg hair, I opted this time to commit to the cause by creating a couple of ‘runways’ on my legs and arms down which my tats could run unimpeded. A good move even if it does now mean I have rectangular ‘bald patches’ which to a non-triathlete might look a little odd. I personally headed back out again in the evening, taxiing it over to the Sheraton where Nick Potter had organised a Tri Dubai get together for dinner. It was a great way to simultaneously get pumped for the race whilst also distracting from the same with some fun conversation with both familiar and new faces. Everyone had their own race in mind and it is always really exciting hearing how different people found themselves getting into triathlon in the first place, let alone getting into the longer distance races. Some good food – avoiding the temptation to get creative or spicy the night before the race – and it was time yet again to roll on back to the Mercure, turn in for the night, safe in the knowledge that I would probably sleep a fraction of what I wanted to but would still be up and raring to go come the small hours.
And so it was! Up before the alarm, kit donned and a decent pre-race breakfast, courtesy of the kind kitchen team at our hotel who set up before 5am for us. I love the buzz before a race and the excitement was palpable as we reached transition, finalised our bike set-up, including making new friends of the closest person with a track pump. I followed the lead of the athlete racked next to me by moving my bike to the very end of our rack as there was a decent 3 metre section that was unoccupied and thus unhindered in terms of easy view after the swim. We did check with the officials that such a move was ok and in the end it was a smart one, as my bike was one of the easiest to find in transition.
The final hour before the race start involved checking in with fellow Dubai-based athletes and supporters, topping up the 5am nutrition, braving the loos – it doesn’t seem to matter how ‘no expenses spared’ an event is; the loos are always gross – and then watching the pros kick off their races, complete with helicopters hovering overhead and the boom of the start cannon echoing out over Bahrain Bay. This was definitely going to be a big day!
There is a certain art to timing the final donning of a wetsuit and unfortunately I was a little premature with mine, as was everyone else. In spite of an initially cool morning, ten minutes of waiting in the pre-start pen fully neoprened-up was enough to invoke a decent sweat and so when the go-ahead was given to jump in the bay for our short warm-up and eventual start I suspect there was a collective sigh of relief. Seeing the pros exit the swim was the final treat before our start, as I ambled down the ramp penguin style with the rest of my sub-4:40 cohort 🙂 The benefit of the race having a relatively small total field (1000 triathletes) was that each wave was actually quite small, meaning plenty of space at the swim start and less of the ‘washing machine’ that is typical of many big races with mass starts.
The canon seemed to go off almost with no warning and before we knew it legs were kicking and arms cycling as our race began. My initial plan to get on the feet of the main pack and stick with them quickly gave way to ‘swim my own swim’, ensuring I did sight regularly in spite of the course being pretty straight. I was generally happy with the entire swim, veering off course slightly down the return leg, but exited up the ramp feeling as though I had done myself justice, in spite of swallowing a decent volume of the bay halfway through the swim, which simply made me look forward to getting a drink on the bike! Post-race showers and a run up the red carpet were more of the fine touches that made this race great, and after picking up my bike bag it was straight into the changing tent where helpers assisted with the removal of wetsuits and donning of shoes. As ever, my T1 could have been quicker but I did find myself feeling a little dizzy in T1, so took a few more moments to complete the change. Still, once the shoes were on I made the short run to my bike, clipped on the helmet and ran down the bike funnel feeling limber and eager to get peddling. Hearing shouts of support from Taka and Jo at the mount line gave me a good boost as I clipped in and rolled away to start the cycle leg.
The 90km bike route initially took us north-west, towards the airport and over the first of two big bridges to be traversed that day. Being out on the roads as a motorist that morning would not have been fun as long queues of traffic contrasted sharply with our wide, open and clear lanes as we enjoyed the long, smooth track that stretched out in front. My plan for the race was to keep my heart rate about about 165 bpm, although in reality it tended to sit a little higher at 170. This did mean that I wasn’t the fastest on the bike route and as usual, I was overtaken marginally more than I overtook, including seeing Merle Talviste rocket past on the climb up the second big bridge taking us back towards Manama. I knew by the way she was cycling that she mean’t business and was out to win her age group, a feat she duly achieved, confirming her status as an incredibly talented, dedicated and determined triathlete. The much anticipated tail winds that there had been much talk of never really materialised on the day, with a mixture of head and tailwinds being more prevalent. I wouldn’t have described the middle 50km as being a particularly inspiring cycle ride, with the majority of it basically being on the main King Faisal highway, but what it lacked in pure aesthetic enjoyment it made up for simply with the fact that we had an entire major highway closed off for our race, something that rarely happens and which allowed for a fast race. The final part of the cycling took us past some of the oil fields, the university and past the F1 track and Al Areen wildlife park, before doubling back and returning to enter the Grand Prix circuit for our single loop of the racetrack. Everyone commented that although the experience was incredible – after all, how often do you really get to cycle on a world class F1 circuit?! – there were steeper sections to the track than had been imagined. I think we all admitted to positioning ourselves to the right of the track as we approached the start line, imagining ourselves in pole position on our very own mean machines. With one final set of sweeping turns, T2 loomed into view and our bikes were swiftly taken from us as we ran into transition, our bags handed to us (another very slick touch), thus allowing for a rapid T2 and the start of the run.
Anyone who knows me will be aware that I love the run. Maybe not the immediate start, as with any triathlete, but by the time we hit kilometre five I normally find my second wind and really start to feel good. The aid stations were plentiful and spaced roughly every two kilometres meaning that there was a ready and steady supply of coke, water (which I tended to pour over myself more than drink, as aware as I was of not overhydrating or having a belly full of fluid sloshing around) and iced sponges, which I made a staple part of my run arsenal, sticking one under each shoulder strap thus cooling the blood heading up and down my neck and maintaining my heart rate at a steady 170bpm. This approach allowed me to pick up the pace steadily during the early stages, continuing the acceleration as we entered the wildlife park and allowing me to start doing some serial overtaking, which always helps boost confidence and energy levels even in the final stages of the race. The highlight of the run through the park for me was seeing an ostrich charging around, including across the running track in very close proximity to athletes, something that simply would never be allowed by the Health & Safety brigade back in the UK. I was genuinely expecting at least one runner to be taken out by Mr Ostrich and as much as I found it both intriguing and entertaining in equal measure, I was also sure to keep a cautious eye out for where exactly our feathered rampager might be, as keen as I was to avoid being the athlete to make the headlines for the wrong reason.
Avian dangers aside, the run was great and as I exited the wildlife park, feeling well into my stride by that point, the thoughts of the finish line started forming in my mind and the pace began to pick up as the home stretch beckoned. Compared to Dubai a month before, I found the run relatively cool, although I know that my friend from the UK, Claire, will probably kick me for saying so, given that she found the temperature stifling. Digging in for the last couple of kilometres is a bittersweet experience I find: your mind is almost already over the finish line and so it is key to keep it engaged in the present. The race is not finished yet and so it is imperative to keep pushing and to not relax too prematurely. That’s why I think the starting and finishing kilometres are the hardest. The middle is actually relatively straightforward: you know that you’ve got a lot of work still to do so you just put your head down and get on with it. The start involves a lot of readjusting to being in an upright position, and the discomfort that goes with getting into a good pace off the bike, whilst the end is, well, so close to the actual end!
One of the final sections of the run took us down an underpass at the F1 circuit, with the downhill being fine. The uphill, on the other hand….OUCH! Who thought it was kind to make us run up that gradient in the dying stretches of the race?! Lol! At least it was short. So, small but testing climb later and we came out onto the home stretch, or the start of the longest finishing chute ever. The carpet started just alongside the bike transition and I know I wasn’t the only one to get sucked into thinking that it was shorter than it was. Pace quickened for the finish, heart rate racing up, cheers from the assembled crowds. But wait…. where was the actual finish line? It seemed to me as though the initial carpeted chute ran on for a long way and by the time I came to the loop around, taking me on to the final final finish chute, with the line itself in view, I was a little concerned I’d overcooked it. Still, there is always a little extra to be dragged up from the depths for the finish and with the end now finally in sight I lapped up the experience, even ensuring a little cheeky pose for Taka and his camera as I ran past. A slowing before the line, arms up and it was done! Challenge Bahrain – or my one at least – was done. But the process of being impressed wasn’t.
The finish was suitably theatrical, with all the ceremony that you’d expect from a really big race, and as for the medal: it was HUGE! If the past two races are anything to go by, with the rate at which the medal sizes are going, the next race medal will be the size of a hubcap! Let’s just say the Challenge Bahrain medal was going to potentially put my hold luggage oversize and was definitely not going to be allowed on as hand luggage, given the intricate, angled lines of the design. An awesome puffer jacket, followed by some good sustenance and a few super-fan snaps with the pros, saw my race topped off in excellent fashion.
Claire came in a little later and after collecting up our bikes and sundries, joined the rest of the athletes in catching our buses back to a well earned shower and short rest, with a return to the Grand Prix circuit a little later on for the prize giving, dinner and the piece de la resistance of the weekend: a breathtaking firework display and live music from none other than Dire Straits!
The Dubai contingent did an epic job, claiming a healthy number of the age-group prizes, and it was fantastic to see so many friends in Bahrain both competing and supporting. The triathlon scene here in the Middle East just seems to be going from strength to strength and with dedicated patronage from supporters such as the Crown Prince and with big names such as Challenge on board, exciting is the word. The announcement of a Triple Crown event, with Challenge Bahrain, Dubai AND Oman making up a trio of top races for the region, with a top prize for the pros of $1,000,000, just confirmed that the Middle East is serious about being a top venue for top races. I feel very fortunate to be living, training and racing here at such a time and look forward to seeing the sport go from strength to strength, like so much over here.
So….. next on the Challenge calendar: Challenge Dubai. Let’s see if I can shave off that pesky minute and get under the 5 hour mark!
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.