Rise to the Challenge
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!
FINAL RACE RESULTS:
Swim 1.9km = 0:32’12
T1 = 0:03’58
Cycle 90km = 2:48’01
T2 = 0:02’21
Run 21.1km = 1:34’28
TOTAL TIME = 5:01’00
(174th out of 804 finishers
144th out of 622 men
24th out of 106 M30-34)