There are certain things you wouldn’t expect to see at the starting line of an ultra-marathon. A man-sized Gorilla, decked out in a Camelbak and sweatband is high on that list. Marathons, however, especially international races, such as Dubai, are a different story.
Whilst I have lived in Dubai for the past 7 years and am a keen runner, having run far longer than marathon distance numerous times, the Dubai Marathon had never really appealed as a race to enter. This was for a couple of reasons. The first is the course, which in spite of Dubai being a fascinating, picturesque city with some very distinct districts, a course through which would, in my opinion, be exciting and really showcase the place, chooses instead to limit runners to a single stretch of the beach road and even has runners do laps. As it is a stretch of the city that I have already run umpteen times before in training the appeal of paying for the pleasure has never really been there. And the second? Well, it’s pretty pricey to enter. At US$150 its not a cheap day out and I simply preferred to spend that kind of money on more unique races and experiences. So why do it this year?
The answer is, partly, that I needed to. Well, to be more precise, I needed a qualifying time in an officially recognised marathon in order to be eligible to take part in my A-race of the year: the Comrades Marathon in South Africa. Whilst I have run marathons before, most recently in Islay, Scotland and in both Iron distance triathlons I have completed, none of those races were considered ‘official’ and so Dubai made the most sense given that I already live here and, well, it is my home race so there was always a small bit of me that kind of felt I had to do it just because it would have seemed odd to eventually leave having not. So, credit card swiped and I had myself an entry.
Going into race day I knew that I had the fitness to get round the straight, flat course in a reasonably decent time, easily meeting the cut-off for the Comrades qualification, but exactly what time I could expect was less clear. My initial thought was that a time of 3.5 hours would feel decent and so that was the number that sat in the back of my mind. However, there was also the nice, round, solitary ‘3’ that I couldn’t quite ignore. Was it plausible to be able to run a blinder and bring it home in 3 hours? It would be a stretch, especially as my average over the course of my training runs was about 12km per hour, but who knew: race conditions can sometimes lead to a step-up in overall performance and so if I found myself having a really strong day then maybe, just maybe, it was doable.
Marathon running, relative to ultras and especially triathlon, is a wonderfully simple undertaking in terms of the kit required to take along. Essentially all I really needed to rock up with was a pair of running shoes and a go-getter attitude. I had debated with myself whether or not to wear my trail hydration vest in order to be better able to carry nutrition and perhaps even my GoPro or 360-degree camera but ultimately decided against as it would add unnecessary weight and, well, was I really going to be filming or snapping pics during the race? I had vaguely assumed that there would be aid stations providing both fluids and some sort of nutrition but figured it always makes sense to rely as much on your own preparation as possible and so grabbed the final few energy gels I had at home just to be sure. I was glad I did as the official marathon aid stations had nothing but water, with a couple offering up Pocari Sweat (an electrolyte-containing sports drink) as well, but absolutely no real energy options. I am sure there will have been runners who might have assumed that a race as big as Dubai would provide a wide range of food and drink options at the aid stations, especially if they were used to taking part in something like an Ironman event, but who would have potentially found their race go to ground as they hit the wall. Running out of energy early on in the course of a marathon would certainly make for a miserable following few hours. Then again, maybe this is normal for marathons and I am unfairly judging the event based on my experience of triathlons and ultras.
Aware of the road closures and assuming that the parking situation was probably going to get a little snug close to the start line, I opted instead to park at work and walk the few kilometres. This had the distinct advantage, as well, of meaning I could make use of the familiar facilities at the clinic and thus avoid the usual bum-rush (literally) of race-venue loos pre-race. Plus, a 4km walk is a pretty decent pre-race warm-up.
It was clear as I neared Umm Suqeim Road and saw the spectator stands and start/ finish arches come into view that this was indeed a big sporting event, with all the media and commercial activity one would expect. The air had an excited hum about it, garnished with the jovial sounds of a large group of colourfully dressed Ethiopian supporters singing and dancing enthusiastically in the stands. Runners were all around, in various stages of pre-race preparation, from those doing short warm-up jogs, others looking like pros wrapped up in space blankets and high-tech external layers, ready to whip them off at the last moment, to groups just hanging around, chatting and taking it all in. I found myself sitting next to a gorilla, or to be precise a guy by the name of Angus MacKinnon who was decked out head to toe in a gorilla costume, complete with Camelbak, a piece of kit that he was absolutely going to need in that get-up! We got to chatting – because, well, how can you not strike up a conversation with someone dressed as a gorilla, right?! – and it transpired that he was running for charity, raising funds for mental health organisations, a worthy cause. After helping him out with his mask and headband placement, and having the obligatory selfie snapped, we both ambled towards the start line. I soon discovered what it was like to hang with a celebrity as Angus was inundated with requests for photos and was drawing a decent amount of attention and comments, the prize for which has to go to one genius who advised Angus that he was “going to be very hot in that.” Yah! Probably. Cheers. Needless to say Mr Gorilla and I were on very different race plans and so I bid him farewell and good luck just as the starter pistol sounded and we were off. I later learned that he came home in 4 hours 56 minutes and judging by the finish line pics I saw was looking remarkably animated. Kudos to him as that must have been a very sticky, uncomfortable five hours!
As I rounded the first corner of the route, onto King Salman Bin Abdulaziz Al Said Street, a stretch of road home to a number of impressively huge beachside palaces, and started to weave my way through the runners immediately ahead of me I was feeling great. Ever mindful of the trap that one can fall into during the early stages of a long race, that being to go out too hard and too fast on account of feeling fresh, I was initially watching my pace but then decided that I would simply run based on my perceived effort. The fact is that I was feeling comfortable with the pace I was going, which was decent and yet was not demanding much of me either. If I could sustain that kind of pace then who knew, maybe a 3 hour marathon was doable after all.
Returning back up towards the starting line I was able to see just how many runners I was ahead of and how large the field was today. I also slurped down the first of my gels for the day, eager to keep the energy levels high and to stave off, for as long as possible, the ‘wall-hitting’ that I knew was lurking out there somewhere. Running past Umm Suqeim Street and thus concluding the initial loop of the day, Souk Madinat was to be found to my left and the view of the Burl Al Arab immediately in front. It was at this point that a voice I recognised called out from the sidelines. “Don’t lean back Chris. Lean forward a bit.” Lee, ultra-running coach and all-things-running nerd (I am sure he’d agree), was out supporting one of his coached clients and gave me some very helpful advice. I hadn’t even realised that I was indeed leaning back a bit and so suddenly mindful of my posture and vowing to correct it I found myself actually gaining some free speed, which was superb. This additional speed saw me comfortably power up Jumeirah Beach Road, sailing through the kilometres, round the Sunset Mall turnabout and back towards home and the start of the final lap.
The halfway point (21km) came into view and as I crossed it, still feeling strong, I glanced at my watch to see that I had covered 21km in a little over 90 minutes. That was about what my half-marathon PB is and so, at that point in the race, I did seriously consider that were I able to pull a negative split out of the bag then a 3 hour marathon was possible.
I knew that most people report hitting the wall in marathons at about the 28km mark and so as I approached the aforementioned point I was sensitive to the tell-tale signs. I didn’t really feel a significant impact until about 30km, when the sensation was of somebody having suddenly let some metaphorical air out of my metaphorical tyres. Far from running a negative split on this race I realised that I was absolutely going to be slower over the second half and so I made peace with the whole ‘3-hour’ business and settled into just making it to the finish and not stopping. My main fear, other than well and truly running out of energy, was the dreaded spectre of muscle cramp. As I felt the unmistakable niggle and twinge of some mild cramping – almost like a warning shot across the bows – I wished that I had brought along some salt or, preferably, that the aid stations contained the option. It was at this point that I slowed down through the next aid station, picking up a couple of cups of Pocari Sweat on account of knowing that they had some salt content, and walked a few metres to actually ensure some of it went into my mouth and not just down my front. I can’t say the concern about impending cramp ever left me and I fully expected my legs to seize up at some point between kilometre 32 and the finish. Thankfully that never happened and as the 40km marker came and went I felt an uptick in my pace. I have never had a problem finishing strong in races as there always seems to be that little wellspring of reserve energy, mixed with a good dose of adrenaline and relief, that makes itself available when striking distance from a finish. Being able to veer left at the fork, towards the finish chute rather than right, onto another loop of the course, was wonderful and as the finish came into view – further away than I’d imagined and hoped, to be honest, I gritted my teeth and dug in for as strong and fast a finish as I could muster.
I’d done it. My first official ‘big’ marathon complete and in a time of just under 3 hours 15 minutes, splitting the difference between my ‘awesome day maybe-goal’ and the ‘what I would have expected to be able to run if everything went well’ time. Cannot really ask for a better result at the end of the day. With my well-earned medal strung around my neck and my legs now well and truly abandoning any attempt at normalcy, I hobbled through the snack station, plopped myself down on a bench with a few familiar faces and did what we all do at such times by quickly reviewing, for the benefit of our fellow pavement-botherers, how our individual race went. Sitting for too long immediately after finishing a race like that is usually a mistake and so after a short while I gathered up my stuff and made a much slower return walk back to the clinic and the start of an afternoon of very welcome rest and recuperation. Cue an hour and a half in the fine company of Norma-tec, followed by, well, not much moving, whilst binge watching a BBC sitcom. Gotta love that post-race R&R.
The best bit of the whole day was that I now had my qualifying time for Comrades and so it is now all about continuing my training and preparation for June. I am heading out with a team of at least 24 runners, under the banner of Tailor Made Africa, a UK travel company that specialises in, well, Africa, including the famed Comrades Marathon. All roads now, it would appear, lead to Pietermaritzburg and the start of a truly legendary event. Cannot wait!
FINAL MARATHON TIME = 3 hours, 14 minutes, 49 seconds